You might as well get one thing straight. . .I’m not an abstractionist.
—Mark Rothko to Selden Rodman, 1957
It has long been one of the curiosities of abstract art that so many of its practitioners have denied that they were in fact abstract artists. To have created works of art that were seen to be “merely” a mode of abstraction has been, for these artists, a considerable vexation, and some have gone to great lengths to—in their view—set the record straight on this question. But whether they actually succeeded in this project of denial or only added further impediments to our understanding of abstract art—including their own—remains a matter of debate.
It is a debate, moreover, that is certain to acquire a renewed momentum now that abstract art has lost its radical status and has passed into the hands of the art historians as a subject for research and...