What is Affective Abstraction?

Affective Abstraction explores the undisclosed nature of things. It immerses itself in the complexity, the contradictions and the chaos of our everyday lives. Rather than imposing a personal feeling onto the canvas, Affective Abstraction strives to draw something out of the canvas, some sort of broader mood or attitude, a collective felt experience. It describes the indescribable undercurrent that defines contemporary times. But before I go too much further, I’d like to give you a little background on non-consciousness, affect and Abstract Expressionism.

Our Hidden Non-conscious World

Our consciousness harbors that which we are aware of like the things we think about, the words we choose, and the activities we engage in. Generally, we can only do one thing at a time consciously, so it has a very narrow range of processing. For example, we can’t watch a good movie and immerse ourselves in a good book at the same time. Your subconscious would include those things that aren’t always the focus of our conscious awareness and are often operating in the background, but they can be made available to us when needed. For example, most of the time you breathe without thinking about it, but at any time you can bring your awareness to your breathing and even influence it to some extent by holding it or breathing deeper. Our subconscious then may act as a bridge between our non-conscious and our conscious mind. Our non-conscious processes operate outside of our awareness and we are unable to bring it into focus at any time. Our intuition may be a good example of a non-conscious psychological process we’re unaware of. I’m sure you’ve had a feeling that something good or bad is about to happen without any evidence or maybe you have an irrational fear of the dentist. We can’t explain the reason, but the feelings are very real. We may not be aware of the non-conscious processes leading up to the intuitive feeling or the irrational fear, but we can be aware of its effects often in the form of vague, gut feelings. Some (myself included) may interchange the word “unconscious” with “non-conscious” because there is some overlap in their definitions and usage. I’ve tried to stay away from using the word unconscious here because it also can refer to not being awake (for example, sleeping or being anesthetized) as well as it has limitations associated with Freud’s narrow definition of the unconscious. Finally, we process different amounts of information in our conscious and non-conscious minds. Neuroscientists know that our consciousness works slowly and estimate that it can only process about 50 bits of information per second. Our non-consciousness works much faster and can process about 11,000,000 bits of information per second (some estimate that number is closer to 1 billion). All that to say there’s a lot happening behind the scenes that we’re unaware of, most remarkably, it’s where our affective lives are processed.

Affect Drives Our Personal and Collective Emotions

But what is affect? In contrast to emotions and feelings, affect is the primary undercurrent of our non-conscious lives that influences all of our relationships to humans and non-humans alike. It is just outside of our awareness, outside of anything we can name or point to. The idea that feelings and emotions are the primary motives for human behavior, with people wanting more positive feelings and less negative ones, is only partially accurate.* The force that is driving our emotions is affect.

I see affect as prepersonal meaning that it operates outside of conscious awareness and is what gives rise to our feelings. Feelings are personal meaning we are aware of them and can label them. Feelings give rise to our emotions. Emotions are interpersonal meaning they are a social expression that can be read by others through the look on our face, the sound of our voice, or the words we choose.

Affect is the invisible state of things. It is a plenum constituting the space between all things. It is an invisible “in-between-ness” existing outside of our individual experience. It is ineffable and pre-linguistic, meaning that we can’t put words to it because it exists at a register prior to language. It is always available and always in flux, where bodies are always affecting and being affected.

Have you ever walked into a room and inexplicably felt the mood of the room? It’s nothing you can quite put your finger on, but you feel that there’s a tension there. Or maybe you’ve gone car shopping and on paper all the choices were exactly what you wanted, but when you test drove them, some cars indescribably felt more right than others. Think about doom scrolling on social media, you can feel the mood in your feed, often swinging radically. And if you dive into the comments that mood is turned up to 11. That unexplainable feeling that permeates a room or a decision or a social media feed is affect at work. It is considered to be innate and universal, rooted in biological nature, and at the same time, it is subject to social manipulation and causation, ebbing and flowing in a variety of intensities and moods.

On the low intensity side, think of sitting down for dinner with friends where you can feel something is off, like there’s an unfinished argument in the air. On the high intensity side, think of the January 6 insurrection where thousands of people were goaded into storming the U.S. Capitol. Affect underlies everything we think and do, it underpins our relationships to each other and the things around us.

Hopefully I’ve given you some insight into my definition of affect, what then is this Affective Abstraction? I’ll get into that but first, I need to give you a quick refresher on Abstract Expressionism.

Abstract Expressionism vs. Affective Abstraction

You no doubt know of it—Abstract Expressionism was an American art movement that started around the 1940s. Broadly, some of the recognizable figures are Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, among many others including Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler (likely the more talented of these names). The AbEx movement was generally divided into two camps: action painters (Pollock and De Kooning) and Color Field painters (Rothko and Newman). They all approached their work by relying on their subconscious to execute ideas, striving to convey the innate power of an individual’s expression and emotions through paint. Action painters attacked their canvas with gestured and improvised brush strokes. Color Field painters opted for simplistic compositions of limited color and shape.

Following the upheavel caused by the Great Depression and two World Wars, artists were grappling with the existential uncertainty and instability of their time. They retreated from a feeling of the world being torn apart into the relative stability of their inner world. Action painters sought stability in the individual reduced down to the relationship with the self. Color Field painters sought stability in the individual reduced upwards to the relationship with the spiritual. They used their automatistic, emotive expressions as a reprieve from a world that was in flux, attempting to transcend the limits/confines/judgement of the social and the political by finding refuge in the individual.

Affective Abstraction (AfAb) uses the same tools as Abstract Expressionism (gesture, improvisation, impulse) and both are born out of some kind of existential uncertainty. AbEx on the heels of financial ruin and war. AfAb in the midst of the twin towers, our longest war, the Great Recession, impending ecological disasters, domestic terrorism, accelerating economic disparity, chronic homelessness, eroding health, pervasive social injustice, George Floyd, school shootings, pandemic, insurrection, etc. However, the reason, the source, the impetus, the meaning in the art is different. AbEx finds meaning in the personal, the individual, the relationship to the self or to the sublime. AfAb finds meaning in the emergent moods and attitudes within a broader context, the undercurrents within clustered relationships and between masses. It simply leans into the flux of our everyday lived experience.

We’ve just looked at some of the similarities and differences between AbEx and AfAb, let’s now look at the context that Affective Abstraction draws from.

The Impetus of Affective Abstraction

The wars we wage today take place in the overlapping social, economic, political, and ecological battlefields. They are existential wars between “us” and “them,” between the haves and have-nots, between nationalism and globalism, between corporations and citizens, between the Anthropocene and a viable ecology. We sense we are lost between a past that is dying and a future that is not yet born. No matter one’s ideology, these multi-front wars fuel our shared experience of the anxiety and the uncertainty that plagues us today. These affects are powerful and they are malleable from outside interests with the resources to move large groups of people over vast psychological distances merely for profit and for power.

We live in post-normal times where the speed, scale, scope and simultaneity of the multiple existential crises we face is unprecedented. And the complexity and chaos and contradictions that result are increasing daily. This manifests as an undercurrent of constant uncertainty, fear and anger that is socially transmissible. It permeates our individual bodies and our body politic. We walk around, all day every day, with a smoldering feeling in our collective gut. Our moods and our attitudes are like a virus, infecting those around us, and like zombies, the infected infect others ad infinitum.

The social and political temperature is hitting a fever pitch across the globe. It’s happening in the U.S. not for any single reason but for many big reasons, all at the same time, from all directions, all on full blast. The political and social tension is churning a mix of anger, fear, paranoia, suspicion and exhaustion. Our twitter-fed inner lives “swing between anger and mirth”, oversharing and moodiness, conspiracy theories and apathetic activism. The collective mood permeates every aspect of our day and those feelings often run deep enough to be outside of our awareness of them.

It works in the other direction too, towards positivity, although it seems less frequent these days. Joy, happiness, love, compassion are also socially transmissible. We are a dinghy in the ocean. Affect is the current we can’t see but it influences our direction, our path. No matter how many boats are on the water, they’re all influenced by the current (as well as the disruptive wakes each boat itself creates). We can put our oars in and start rowing, that provides some temporary control, but the current is pervasive, it can fluctuate in direction and strength but it is always there. We can try to change direction, we can try to make our way from a heavy and tumultuous current, to a calm and smooth one. It may not always be easy, but it is always possible.

Rather than running away from our anxiety-fueled lived experience of the 21st century, Affective Abstraction anchors itself in this shared moment, a moment often composed of a mixed bag of contradictory feelings that keeps us constantly off balance (fueled and amplified by corporate- and media-sponsored interests of course). While at the same time AfAb tries to find a semblance of hope and optimism to build on.

Affective Abstraction Is Immersed in and Immanent to this Shared Moment

I’m noticing in my painting and other contemporary artists’ work across disciplines, as well as in the work of contemporary philosophers and scientists (both the social and physical sciences), that there has been a shift. Conversations are moving away from simple explanations, away from reduction, away from representation, away from critique for critique’s sake. Art and science are leaning into this age of anxiety, moving towards complexity, towards uncertainty, towards the ineffable, ultimately towards the underlying nature of experience that is affective. This is because affect is immersed in and is imminent to the complexity, the contradictions, the chaos we experience today and everyday. Therefore, I created this label, Affective Abstraction, to acknowledge what I’m seeing and hearing and to help distinguish it from other forms of abstraction.

Affective Abstraction employs a similar execution as AbEx action painters, using gestural, improvised marks and spontaneous compositions. Instead of focusing on the individual expression of emotions, either sourced from the relationship to oneself or the relationship to the spiritual, AfAb draws from an underlying affective source. AfAb may use a similar AbEx visual vernacular (as well visual language from other modern and contemporary abstract, non-representational movements) but instead of having a reductive outlook that attempts to access and present a simplified, essential, or universal truth, AfAb relies on an additive process/outlook that works towards an emergent idea or aesthetic amongst the complexity of the myriad layers and marks, hovering in a state of transition.

Yes, certainly, all art has affect, for example, an aesthetic is an affect (heck, all things have affect). But AfAb makes affect its subject. It explores the world of affect in a non-reductive, non-representational language. It can’t be reduced down to what it’s made of, nor can it be reduced up to it’s utility. It gives form to an ineffable mood, a collective attitude or a structure of feeling. It makes the invisible, visible.

Affective Abstraction is not modern in the sense that it isn’t looking for a simple answer or a universal truth. It accepts that life is complex and that there are myraid answers, some of which we may never have access to. AfAb is also not postmodern in the sense that it doesn’t critique or deconstruct everything and stop there. It understands that there is truth in the space between contradictions, in the parallax gap. AfAb tries to encourage and include ideas from both modernism and postmodernism (and beyond). Yes, some things are universal and others are absolutely perspectival. Some things need to be cooly critiqued, other times we need to read between the lines. Affective Abstraction embraces mistakes and keeps them in the work. It is self-conscious and socially-conscious, reflecting the lived present while withholding judgement. Not wanting to be paralyzed in the contradictions, it continues to press forward.

The Ebbs And Flows of the Space We Share

We need to hold the past accountable while also looking forward and working towards a future for all of us, that includes all of us. It’s a future where we are actively making a space that is not manipulated for the benefit of a very few but a space that is part of a larger ecosystem, a panarchy, where everything is interdependent on the various ebbs and flows, on the successes and thriving, and even on the failures and the withering away.

Born out of today’s existential uncertainty caused by the crossfire of social, economic, ecological and political unrest, Affective Abstraction finds inspiration in the overlap between the individual and collective non-conscious and in the acceptance that this new age of uncertainty is the new normal. It strives to embrace the post-normal complexity of our everyday lives without retreating. It does not solely express an individual’s identity per se, but immerses itself in the affective space we share. In Affective Abstraction, as in our lives, there is a sense of being lost and wandering and wondering. There’s a sense of being okay with not being okay. While still being able to put one foot in front of the other and take the next step forward.


Affective Abstraction is influenced by contemporary theories, disciplines, and topics including: Non-representational Theory, Affect Theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, Post-normal Theory, Improvisation, Social Ecology, Panarchy, Aesthetics, Structures of Feeling, Metamodernism, Agnotology, Panpsychism, Liminal Theory, Philosophy and the Ineffable, Posthumanism and the Neuroscience of Consciousness.