Language of Abstraction

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Language of Abstraction Video

Full Language of Abstraction Audio Track:



The goal of this exhibition was to formally address the vocabulary of institutional critique through a small sound installation. The aim of the installation was to provoke visitors and artists to consider the language that surrounds abstract art and how it is valued by museum curators.  

Introductory wall text:

Language of Abstraction attempts to address the lexicon of critique that arose from the movement of abstract painting during the 20th century. To what extent have these terms become commonplace in describing and discussing abstract art? Do these critical terms aid or hinder the aesthetic resonance of the artworks?

Using the Museum of Modern Art as a measuring stick for institutional critique, Language of Abstraction addresses six famous abstract paintings from MoMA’s permanent collection. By eliminating the representation of these works, a closer examination of language can be made.

These commentaries, written and voiced by institutional curators, are taken directly from MoMA’s audio guide program that is made available to any museum visitor. 

In providing an environment purely focused on the academic language that surrounds abstract art, Language of Abstraction raises questions about language over aesthetics. How do we, as individual viewers, curators, or cultural institutions, evaluate art that is largely about process or theory over production?


The organization for this project began with finding a suitable place for display. Our requirements were a small space in a hallway or alcove that would foster an individualized interaction with the installation. After getting in contact with Daniel Stupar we decided to show the piece on the 5th floor of the List Art building in the space between the elevators. Once we had a space we then considered how best to arrange the installation in order to reach the widest audience. We decided against using headphones because we felt they would be limiting an already small audience. Rather than giving each track for each artwork their own headset, we opted to run the commentaries together on one track that would be looped and projected through speakers.


The installation itself consisted of wall text and the sound track played on speakers. The wall text was comprised of 3 parts, the show's title, the introductory text, and the 6 wall labels for the artworks. We decided to design the signage as if the viewer had mistakenly walked into the MoMA. Stephanie designed the wall text in as close a fashion to MoMA's font and text formatting as she could. We decided to arrange the wall text in a tight formation so that the viewer simply had to stand, read, and listen. 

The speakers were affixed onto a shelf that was hung close to the ceiling in the back right corner of the exhibition space. This provided a constant stream of soft commentaries in the elevator space which could attract visitors to the piece.


Most of our challenges were equipment related. When we first installed the piece, the audio track was running on an iPod and a set of small speakers. However these speakers were battery powered and had a tendency to die after about a day. After installing on Friday April 27th, we were unable to fix the situation with rented speakers until the following Monday. However once this was done, the issue was resolved. 

The other challenge was that the piece was occasionally unplugged. In asking around the department I found that the piece, after we installed the new speakers was a little bit louder than before and had been a distraction for the painting studio on the 5th floor. 


In talking with faculty and students in List, I received mostly positive reviews of the installation. On a whole they thought the piece was clever and an interesting exhibition with some mention of the speaker malfunctions. I think in reviewing our exhibition plan, we might have been able to limit the audio issues by installing the speakers on the wall with the wall text so that it could have been played much quieter instead of having to fill up the exhibition space. 

Division of Labor:

First, we all met and discussed the review of the original proposal. From there we each emailed different departments in order to investigate where our installation could be shown. Caroline got in contact with Daniel Stupar and from there we decided on an exhibition space in List. Following the approval from Wendy Edwards we began organizing the exhibition. Stephanie was in charge of design and wall text production. She designed the poster for the show and placed them around List. She also drafted all of the wall text and mounted it on museum board.  Caroline edited all of the commentary tracks into one mp3 file. She wrote the introductory statement for the wall text before sending it to Stephanie. She provided and installed the temporary speakers for the installation. Ora organized equipment needs. She acquired the iPod on which the soundtrack played. She installed the shelf for the speakers as well as organized and installed the permanent speaker system by renting from the VA department. She organized the renting of the equipment from MCM for documentation. Following these tasks we all met on Friday April 27th to install together. 

Stephanie was also in charge of documenting the show. She picked up equipment from MCM rentals and took photographs and short videos of the show. Caroline was responsible for de-installation, gallery clean up, and some equipment returns. She also wrote the text for the wiki documentation page. Ora was responsible for the editing of Stephanie's documentation, uploading them to the documentation page and creating the documentation video for the class critique. 

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