Abstract paintings are meta-paintings. A meta-painting is a painting about painting. A meta-painting may represent itself, the process of its creation, its materiality, the conventions of art, the gallery where it is hung, the artwork around it, and the place of art and artist in society. Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas does all these things and more, but Velasquez’s painting is a meta-painting because of its subject matter, rather than its form or style. Most other paintings by Velasquez are not meta, but are naturalistic representations. Abstract paintings, in contrast, are inherently meta. (You can see Velasquez’s painting below.)
Abstract paintings are meta because they are about themselves. The titles of many abstract paintings show that they are their own subject matter, for example Constructivist Painting No. 8 by Joaquin Torres-Garcia from 1938. The metapainting also emphasizes the process of its creation, namely its construction in the word “Constructivist.” Similarly, Jackson Pollock’s Square Painting refers to paint being poured into a square (the process being what matters most for Pollock). All abstract paintings are meta-paintings.
Let me clarify that I am using “abstract” here in the strict sense of a non-figurative painting, a painting that does not present an object outside itself. Although many call Picasso an abstract painter, this is inaccurate. He was a figurative painter — he presented images: guitars and coffee pots, bull fights,and rape. Of course, he challenged convention and drew attention to texture and shape, and these aspects are meta. While he employed meta-elements in all of his work, some of his paintings, for example, his Las Meninas series are meta-paintings, in fact meta-meta-paintings, but they are not abstract.)
A meta-painting often draws the viewer’s attention to the the canvas, the paint, the texture and the shapes. Robert Rauschenberg’s infamous White Paintings — basically three apparently blank pictures side by side — draw attention to their canvases. (Actually, instead of being blank, the canvases are painted white and must be repainted periodically to maintain their pristine whiteness. Read more about the White Paintings in my post, “The Lack of Blank Spaces.”) These paintings also questioning the basic assumption — one that seems too obvious to question — that a painting must have an image. A shocking idea even after all these years!
Many abstract paintings refer to the paint itself, as does Mark Rothko’s Orange and Yellow (painted in 1956). For Jay DeFeo’s Incision (shown on the right), the title does not refer to the texture, but the texture is so exaggerated, as to heighten a viewer’s awareness of it. Apparently, it took him four years to apply all that paint, because he worked on the painting from 1958 to 1961. The emphasis on shapes can be seen in Josef Albers’ Study for Homage to the Square (1972, below).
Although, I am straying a bit from painting, the sculpture “Model for Total Reflective Abstraction” by Josef McElheny (2003), not only emphasizes shape, but reflects itself, the gallery and the paintings around it. (Photo by Omar Rodriguez-Rodrigues. Read more about it on my post, Metaphotos of a Meta-Sculpture.)
Truly abstract paintings then are always meta-paintings, because they are about themselves, their materiality and the process of their production.
(All paintings mentioned here are in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. McElheny’s sculpture appeared in the De Young Museum. Check out my post “Abstract Art Reinterpreted in Photography.” Take a look at my abstract photos in the book #abstract.)