Torkwase Dyson, Indeterminacy #1 (Black Compositional Thought), 2022 © Torkwase Dyson


Dyson’s Black Composition Contra Abstraction

By Jaleh Mansoor

Published on the Occasion of Torkwase Dyson: A Liquid Belonging at Pace Gallery in New York
Thursday, Nov 10, 2022

This essay will be included in a forthcoming catalogue, to be released by Pace Publishing on the occasion of Torkwase Dyson: A Liquid Belonging in New York.

Torkwase Dyson’s Indeterminacy #1 (Black Compositional Thought) from 2022 presents at architectural scale. Crossing architecture, sculpture, and painting, the piece could be said to present, under the a priori rubric established by the title of Indeterminacy, a “dynamic” rather than a “thing.” That dynamic, in turn, suggests both continuousness and rupture across the disjunct components comprising the unity of the work, even as it seems to multiply across medium, form, texture, support, and surface. This unity is irreducible to number: the work may be made up of two, three, four, or five panels, depending on how the sculptural pieces subsumed under the first encounter are counted. It isn’t clear where one panel component locks into another or if the whole is made of one single support.

At roughly half the height of the work, on the right-hand side, a scorched surface overlaps the conjuncture of multiple pieces. The piece’s planar register, which suggests painting, advances an elegant white line that traverses the two main planes abutting their common horizontal edge. Another thin, delicate white line crosses this at about three-quarters of its height. This intersection mimics and schematizes the way in which the two main panels join to generate corners and joints. On the upper main panel, a black line—which seems to begin as a one-dimensional, equally linear element to echo the white line—surges out into a sculptural form to join the lower main panel.

The one characteristic that secures the unity of the piece is its blackness. And yet the matter of joining across minimal gaps and maximal textures arises as a strong preoccupation. The plumb, absolutist physicality of the piece results from an incongruent ensemble of parts in relation to its spatial setting, which raises questions of scale, of the heterogeneity of texture and complexity of form, set in relation to a second piece of the same title (Indeterminacy #2 [Black Compositional Thought] [2022])—demands three questions: one of scale, one of seriality, and one of the quality of composition summoned by the title. And this ensemble of problems coalesces around one overarching concern: Black Compositional Thought.

First, the work’s size places it in conversation with what has been called the “art-architecture complex,” a term to describe the symbiosis that art after Minimalism has developed with architecture as a deal brokered to continue to assure abstract art of its sense of consequence in global cultural production. This feature already assures it its place in a “global style.”[1] In other words, its physical dimensions alone already demonstrate a kind of discursive self-reflexivity about the very relevance, or more, the urgent necessity of abstract composition at this historical juncture. And indeed, the artist has written extensively about the centrality of architecture as a question of infrastructure and abstraction.[2] In the brief essay to follow, I will demonstrate the relationship of this fundamental query, the linkage of architecture and abstraction, and problems of racialization that the artist’s work also addresses—albeit at the level of the artwork, far from the familiar terrain of political messaging and referential certainty. It is as though the work is challenging us to see the deeply political nature of form.


Torkwase Dyson, Indeterminacy #2 (Black Compositional Thought), 2022 © Torkwase Dyson

Next, the work is one of two. Indeterminacy #2 (Black Compositional Thought) enters into complex mimicry of its twin. Seriality, then, breaks the quality of the first as a unicum. As though rehearsing a long-learned but equally long-forgotten history of twentieth-century American painting, Indeterminacy #1 and Indeterminacy #2 reply to that fundamental concern of postmodern painting as signaled by the paradigmatically doubled painting by Robert Rauschenberg: Factum I and II from 1957. Redoubling there entailed an almost essay-like reflection on repetition and difference, or iterative form drawn from mass culture as well as the painter’s privileged gesture—in riposte to New York School painting’s fetish for the painterly mark. In that context, the grapheme had come to be understood as a gesture of the artist’s own personal singularity and as a vehicle for psychological depth. Factum I and II insinuate that difference emerges from repetition precisely insofar as authorship, and all the assumptions about subjective interiority that it once implied, is voided by forms of aleatory mark-making and chance operations taking place in and contingent on mass culture.

But while that work dealt a blow to the very notion of originality and, with it, the model of subjective interiority on which artistic originality once rested, Dyson’s putative indeterminacy sets the problem of just that—indeterminacy—into relation with that of composition.[3] If the kind of twinning to which her work nods, namely fifties painting in the U.S., hoped to cancel and vacate the notion of composition-as-struggle on which authorship found its essential, ultimate support, Dyson’s mobilization of seriality introduces a third term—beyond the privilege of centered subjectivity on the one hand and the acknowledgment of its evacuation on the other.

It poses, instead, the battle of consciousness under duress to arrive at a place of provisional aesthetic autonomy as a site of resistance, a modality of the subject struggling to find its last refuge in composition in order to forge a new model of the subject. If anything, Dyson’s gesture overturns Rauschenberg’s dictum, turning repetition into a place of contention through formal elaboration. Here, repeating the initial work doubles back to mark the first as precisely deliberate, purposive, anchored in an attempt at definitive articulation.[4] Further, the artist’s way of embellishing a plurality of iterative marks at a macro level over the totality of the work and on a micro level at the register of each detail—all of which are highly differentiated despite, not because of, repetition—expands the work’s modality of composition.

And yet, once that modality is differentiated as finely as it is in Dyson’s practice, it posits a situated articulation in a specific struggle with the constraints of that very position. In other words, the work’s mobilization of composition—as a direly contemporary problem rather than the transhistorical property of the artist—demonstrates the degree to which this is not an unmediated or easy return to forms of aesthetic expression as sites of “free” self-determination or affective utterance. Rather, it is shaped through struggle as such in the social-political field—to the point where the very capacity to “make a mark” becomes agonistic and contentious.

This brief essay explores an emergent dialectic precipitated by Dyson’s work, that of the highly mediated gesture under duress. This is formative of the way in which the mark operates in relation to external constraints, beginning with its architecture scale balanced between painting and sculpture as the function of a socially situated foreclosure. Seeming foreclosure, then, rather than marginality at the level of representation in “Black compositional thought,” becomes a generative matrix at the level of form. Dyson’s work elaborates the aesthetic support as a kind of counter-infrastructure, as I will argue, at the level of composition and the occluded question of racialization that subtends it.

Indeterminacy #2 (Black Compositional Thought) reconfigures each element of #1 purposively. This form of purposiveness does not disavow the degree to which chance and aleatory operations determine the work, nor does it reify intention. The very notion of deliberation central to composition itself is drawn front and center by the way in which line and relief operate across the surface of the whole of this second panel, which is otherwise “identical” to the first at the level of scale. The aforementioned white line takes on a striated path; its dense chromatic deposit stretched at one point into thickness rendering it diaphanous, almost transparent, before gathering again as a compressed white line.

The black element that parted from the surface to extend out into real space as a sculptural constituent hugs close to the facade on this second surface. A triangular, painterly form that had stretched vertically down the first work is expanded in the second and appears to rotate, suggestive of three-dimensional space. The latter, in turn, summons the memory of painting in its historical trajectory across modernity, where triangles and orthogonals break flatness into a window onto a virtual space. This history is cited and permuted deliberately, as demonstrated by the compositional differentiation.

The doubled work as a function of a dialectical struggle between iterability and purposive difference comes to assume a distinct significance across the exhibition, insofar as this tactic, too, is repeated throughout the show. Scalar #1 (Blue Belonging) and Scalar #2 (Blue Belonging) (both 2022) underscore this newly problematized question of seriality as a central problem set. Here, the relationship of another white line, another shiny black triangle against a matte black field, again sets flatness and volume into dissonant optical space, querying vision as a function of a perceptual position, which is itself wrestling with perception as a social constraint.


Torkwase Dyson, Scalar #1 (Blue Belonging), 2022 © Torkwase Dyson


Torkwase Dyson, Scalar #2 (Blue Belonging), 2022 © Torkwase Dyson

In Notes on Black Composition in the Field of Abstraction, Dyson offers a brief poetic sketch of the concerns that preoccupy the making of the work: “I take things apart because I feel taken / apart. Reconstruction is an invention. / Surviving abstraction with abstraction.”[5] It becomes clear that Dyson is interested in architecture, landscape, and the built environment as a set of given constraints, an infrastructure determining the very condition for the possibility of a mark at its most furtive, much less of composition as a space of creative “freedom.” If anything, any fleeting gesture of aesthetic freedom is a function of struggle with the constraint that threatens to dissolve “invention” in advance. Here, a set of questions around the constitution of an “I” come to be displaced, moving from the place of a figure or gesture that it traditionally occupied to that of the ground, the environment in which it locates itself and which is constitutive of it.

If the title tells us that composition itself is an operation of “blackness”—a fact empirically demonstrated by the work, in which, again, chromatic blackness, as such, unifies a plurality of material concerns—it also suggests that that compositional consciousness elaborates itself in a dynamic against crushing a priori constraints, beginning with architecture as totalizing infrastructure. But why should we understand this, an aesthetic problem, as political?

In his book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Darby English identifies a “problem that has long inhibited understandings of what we call ‘black art’ in the United States: A tendency to limit the significance of works assignable to black artists to what can be illuminated by reference to a work’s purportedly racial character.”[6] Here, English pushes against the grain of what he takes to be pressure from institutions and the market to satisfy the desires of a reified vision that expects to comfortably consume what it thinks it already knows about identity and alterity—both of which are codified to be made palatable in advance. The key term in his prognosis is “limit.”

While the work of art can, and often does, internalize the structures of the world in order to dismantle them, to “take them apart” in Dyson’s terms, from within in order to de-reify vision and offer however provisional a moment of consciousness dislodged from constraint, this very affordance historically structural to art is denied the Black artist who is expected to deliver “[availability] to knowledge in the form of metaphors, pictures, and persons.”[7] English courageously implies that the satisfaction of this impulse to reify identity along the lines of expected “metaphors, pictures, and persons” perpetuates a racist imaginary insofar as it enforces limits to the capaciousness of the artwork and to its makers’ projects. Darby, in sum, identifies the double constraint placed on Black artists to reify blackness in white representational terms.

Dyson’s work refuses this limit. Abstraction refuses the legibility of referential, representational illustration. At the same time, it inscribes into the work the very problem that English circumscribes—that of recognizing racialization beyond and underrepresentation as a set of social relations calcified into infrastructure. It stakes out a practice that is also a manifest refusal of that other constraint that threatens to crush every last remaining recess of creative capacity under capital: abstraction.

Once we take concrete or “real” abstraction to be the indomitable fact of contemporaneity—a totalizing baseline predicated on the dominance of a form of capital founded at its inception on the extraction of labor power and other resources from Black persons that historically enabled the capital accumulation, or fixed capital, and that made proletarianization and the exchange of labor for wages possible—we might finally accept the historical fact that abstraction, concrete abstraction and capital, and racialization are structurally imbricated. Once we locate the vanishing point from which racialization and abstraction conjointly issue, we recognize that no representational intersection can begin to probe the limits of a problem so foundational as to be part of the social infrastructure.[8] As the editors of Colonial Racial Capitalism argue, capitalism and the categories generated by colonialism are co-constitutive, mutually causal, and yet discursively separated as a way to naturalize and justify both. We “explore how colonization and imperialism partitioned the globe into racially differentiated lands and peoples, naturalizing and justifying the expropriation of some bodies and lands for the benefit of others.”[9]

Capital, in the form of the initial fixed principal necessary to lubricate cycles of accumulation through labor, would not have been available without the plunder and dispossession of peoples from the four corners of the globe and the unpaid labor of the enslaved at the same time that this incipient machinery racialized those with whom it came into contact. The categories of the other—in distinction to European identity—developed from the interests of accumulation and are not based on any preexisting essence. The extraction of value, from land and labor, is the common root of capital and racialization conjointly; the social-political relations that issue from the extraction of value are historical consequences. How better to signal this historicity than to acknowledge the degree to which the infrastructural matrix of modernity is itself racialized?

However, the epistemic categories that this historical process of racialized capital has produced come to operate as second nature, presented as causes in the imperial narrative of progress rather than as consequences of the barbarism masked as civilization. Without addressing racialization as such, theorists of abstraction as second nature, Theodor Adorno and Alfred Sohn-Rethel, have addressed the transformation of the subject within capitalist domination at the level of consciousness. They have understood it to be the function of the formation of a “second nature.”[10] This second nature is an abstraction that operates as though it were itself inevitable—“the way things are.”

It is not that consciousness is false, nor that “mankind,” a category that cannot, in any case, be universalized in the final instance, is “alienated.” Rather, this fully naturalized reality is also a product of the dominant means of value production and a metabolic mediating nature, however the latter is defined. Abstraction comes to saturate the field of the real and to be mistaken for it. As Sami Khatib, in his analysis of the value-from in relation to both aesthetics and a direly needed new theory of class, has noted, “Capitalism’s physis produces its own ‘naturally grown’ metaphysics.’’[11]

Dyson’s work takes this racialized “metaphysic” as embedded in the very infrastructure of everyday life, the built environment in which the history of real abstraction is congealed. The problem of racialized social relations cannot be delineated as “metaphors, pictures, and persons” insofar as it is the very framework of the world we now inhabit. If identity is a figure of this history that demands a politics that can come perilously close, as English argues, to perpetuating that which it hopes to overcome by meeting its expectations, the contemporary landscape is a matrix in which the conditions for its development are inscribed. But this inscription is not a matter of passive acceptance. “I take things apart because I feel taken / apart. Reconstruction is an invention. / Surviving abstraction with abstraction.”

Dyson’s practice doubly negates any understanding of identity as that which is reticulated to a referent, a known quotient that might be packaged to reiterate the known and knowable. On the other hand, it is also a negation of that which liquidates all identities and social relations, the value form that abstracts all experience in order to render it quantified and extractable. The qualities of form rendered through composition specific to Indeterminacy #1 (Black Compositional Thought) and Indeterminacy #2 (Black Compositional Thought), which offer a kind of map of the aesthetic economy of the show, demonstrate the degree to which the very field of the visible, sayable, and knowable is anything but transparent to identity—instead presenting it as a social matrix of embedded, racialized abstraction. A counter-abstraction, then, by which to wrest consciousness from abstraction appears, holding out the unthought in what we think we know about “blackness.”

There have been all too brief moments when the question of the relationship among abstract painting, “blackness,” and the politics of form has reared its furtive head in art-historical discourse. In “Painting as Diagram: Five Notes on Frank Stella’s Early Paintings, 1958–1959,” Benjamin Buchloh queries the possible, if discursively repressed, relationship between Stella’s infamous black paintings and their curiously provocative titles—such as Reichstag (1958) and Arbeit Macht Frei (1967). He considers them modalities through which to tackle the total prohibition of overt political content in abstract painting in the aftermath of figures such as Rauschenberg and Johns. “Thus, I would like to advance an admittedly speculative argument to complicate the matter and, if nothing else, to at least attempt to rupture the repressive silence around the titles of Stella’s Black Paintings.”[12]

Buchloh specifies the historical conjuncture in which Stella’s work operates in negative dialectical rejoinder as the bridge between mid-twentieth-century European Fascism and its forms of continuity in reconstruction culture internationally. “They quite accurately point to the historical affinity and continuity between totalitarian politics in the recent past and corporate culture in the present.”[13] However, the problem of abstraction as such—as concrete, capitalist second nature—is not explicitly broached. Neither is the proposal for ways in which the art object might defy and challenge this totalizing condition.

Through an encounter with Dyson’s striking work, this brief text has hoped to show that the artwork explores the racialized subject’s doubled position, set into negotiation with a contradictory situation. The subject’s position is split insofar as it is at once constitutive of the very fabric of the built environment of everyday life yet also marginalized by it, that in which it is historically inscribed. On the one hand, the labor of the collective in which the subject finds itself is petrified and preserved in every corner of infrastructure, set over and above the individual. Appropriated by capital, it becomes an external constraint. On the other hand, the subject seeks ways to inscribe itself under pressure. This racialized history sets the conditions within which the marked subject must locate its agency and its capacity for counter-composition, in resistance to the way its labour has been historically stolen. Dyson’s work is a demonstration of how interesting forms of aesthetic agency become newly possible only through an explicit recognition of real and racially derived abstraction; that recognition can be dialectically turned to new form.

  1. Hal Foster, “Global Styles” and “Mediums after Minimalism.” The Art-Architecture Complex (London: Verso, 2011), Pp. 19-67 and 113 – 214. Foster traces the relationship between modern art after minimalism and architecture over the duree of several decades, from the 1960s to the present.
  2. See Torkwase Dyson, “Black Interiority: Notes on Architecture, Infrastructure, Environmental Justice and Abstract Drawing,” Pelican Bomb, January 9, 2017.
  3. For the definitive account of Rauschenberg’s anti-compositional, anti-ordering principle, see Brandon Joseph, Random Order (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).
  4. On repetition as the anchor of purposive articulation, see Roman Jakobson, “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’?,” in Readings in Modern Linguistics, ed. Bertil Mamberg (Stockholm: Norstedt and Soner, 1972). Jakobson theorizes repetition in language formation as the primary signal of a deliberate drive to meaning.
  5. Torkwase Dyson. “Notes From the Studio.” Monastic Free Fall. A Black Geography.
  6. Darby English, How to See A Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 6.
  7. English, How to See A Work of Art in Total Darkness, 3.
  8. See Susan Koshy, Lisa Marie Cacho, Jodi A. Byrd, and Brian Jordan Jefferson, “Introduction,” in Colonial Racial Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022). For a theorized definition of “real abstraction,” initially found in Marx, see Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour (London: MacMillan, 1978), 188. See also Ray Brassier, “Wandering Abstraction,” Mute, February 13, 2014.
  9. Koshy et al., “Introduction,” 6.
  10. Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour, 188. See also Brassier, “Wandering Abstraction,” and Sohn-Rethel’s “The Formal Characteristics of Second Nature,” translated into English by Daniel Spaulding in the inaugural issue of Selva, July 20, 2019, and first published as “Die Formcharaktere der zweiten Nature,” in Das Unvermögen der Realität: Beiträge zu einer anderen materialistischen Ästhetik, ed. Christoph Bezzel (Berlin: Klaus Wiesenbach, 1974), 185–207.
  11. Sami Khatib, “‘Sensuous Supra-Sensuous:’ The Aesthetics of Real Abstraction,” in Aesthetic Marx, ed. Samir Gandesha and Johan Hartle (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2017), 57.
  12. Benjamin Buchloh, “Painting as Diagram: Five Notes on Frank Stella’s Early Paintings, 1958—1959,” October 143 (Winter 2013): 136.
  13. Buchloh, “Painting as Diagram,” 144.
  • Essays — Dyson’s Black Composition Contra Abstraction, By Jaleh Mansoor, Nov 10, 2022