Playing Image Games

abstrakt? abstrakt! Abstraktion und Bildgeschichte reviewed by Cord Christian Casper

The existence of this book’s research topic is not a given. After all, comics-specific sequences of framed images are liable to be seen in proto-narrative terms. Conversely, abstraction in the visual arts elicits the opposite effect: we would be hard-pressed to bring narrative scripts and frames to Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square. What happens, however, if a black square is placed in a panel grid, supplied with a speech bubble, or turned into a character in a sequence?

At the very end of his wide-ranging monograph abstrakt? abstrakt!, Dietrich Grünewald sets his readers a final challenge. Confronting us with a six-panel grid by Nadine Redlich – parallel lines, intermittently thickened and intersected by diagonals (Fig. 1) – the author passes the interpretative baton: what, exactly, are we seeing here? These panels could present abstract shapes distributed with redundancy and variation; a minimal sequence; or else, once we bring to bear our visual memory and emotion (221), the lines may just coalesce into a window, its shutters mysteriously lowered. If we choose this final – avowedly representational – option, everything changes. Redlich’s lines undergo a perceptual event in which the image sequence, its implied temporality, and its meaning are subject to sudden insights and re-evaluations. For Grünewald’s readers, this tilt does not come as a surprise. In the preceding pages, the author has already primed his audience for just such a hermeneutic dynamism, for a reversible back-and-forth process in which abstract image sequences move in and out of frames of understanding. Somewhat unusually for an academic work, the effect of this crash course in abstract Bildgeschichten (›image stories‹) is one of profound encouragement. The book argues that we already have the tools we need to understand abstract art – all that is required is a willingness to engage with the ›image game‹ (219) on display.1

   Fig. 1: Feeling Lonely in a Crowd (Luna & Vaughn, 1.15).

The existence of the book’s research topic is not a given. After all, comics-specific sequences of framed images are liable to be seen in proto-narrative terms. Conversely, abstraction in the visual arts elicits the opposite effect: we would be hard-pressed to bring narrative scripts and frames to Kazimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square. What happens, however, if a black square is placed in a panel grid, supplied with a speech bubble, or turned into a character in a sequence? In its introductory pages, abstrakt? abstrakt! not only attempts to bridge the gap between story and abstraction conceptually but also claims that artists have always already done so in the image novels, picture books, pictorial broadsheets which (among many other art forms) fall under Grünewald’s expansive category of ›image stories‹. Comics are just one variation among many in this sweeping history. They are not, however, the obvious candidates to reconcile the opposing poles of abstraction and narration. After all, the book asks, how can a form conventionally organized around recognisable characters and their stories present the autonomous, self-referential world of lines and blots, dots and colour fields – images which do not appear to be signs at all (7)? For the author, the solution cannot solely lie in claiming a new genre of ›abstract comics‹ (16), recent attempts to establish the term notwithstanding (cf. particularly Molotiu 2009). A stable generic form would narrow the range of interactions between image stories and abstraction, whereas this book consistently attempts the opposite: to claim the productive tension of the abstract and the sequential as an undercurrent of artistic production since at least the early 20th century.

To make his case, Grünewald wisely sidesteps tired debates on the essence of the medium. Instead of expanding its extension, he integrates the category ›comic‹ in his overarching category of Bildgeschichte. In this way, the book can derive a broader principle of narration that makes use of a variety of different media (20). We recognize it once we see it: as the author has previously argued in greater detail (Grünewald 2010), whenever we encounter an ›autonomous narrative static sequence of images‹ (»autonome narrative statische Bildfolge«, 22), we infer a temporal development and are, from that moment on, well on our way towards the image story. The degree to which such an object can become subject to abstraction without thereby relinquishing its ›storiness‹ – or at least a basic sequential orientation – becomes a guiding theme for the remainder of the book, reiterated in a dazzling number of variations.

Just like the criteria for the overall artistic principle, the sufficient conditions to justify the ›story‹ in ›image story‹ are deliberately broad. Almost any perceived change of state prompts the viewer to count an arrangement of images in the ranks of Bildgeschichten. The advantage of this definitional openness is the range of media comparisons that it makes possible. As Grünewald turns to the relationship between image stories and writing, for instance, we are confronted with artworks that create analogies between the sequentiality of text on the one hand and sequences of images on the other (22). As a case in point, Max Ernst’s Maximiliana features a legible written story on the same page as a secret quasi-hieroglypic script and embedded images that, in turn, suggest a movement of swirling lines. Grünewald does not belabour these examples. Instead, he thrusts us in the middle of a liminal space in which image and text, icon and index, letter and figure transition into one another – and then moves on to the next instance of changeable forms. These brief spotlights, however, leave an afterimage: instead of text-image relations, we get used to a variable scale of text-ness and image-ness that puts paid to any essentialist distinction between immutable media.

Fig. 2: Seeing/Reading Max Ernst’s Maximiliana.

After showing similar elective affinities between Bildgeschichten, music, and movement in his first chapter, the subsequent section attends to the interplay of comics and abstraction in (broadly speaking) fine art. Despite all previous efforts to level the medial specificity of comics, here anthropomorphic cartoon figures take the lead. Comics critters like Donald Duck or the cat from Dupa’s comic strip Cubitus engage with, parody, or imitate abstract art, cartoonising its rarefied airs with canvas-punching irreverence. Conversely, as we move from the newsstand to the museum, nonfigurative artefacts are shown to ›cite‹ (cf. 74) comics and their mode of reception.

The third chapter turns away from the confrontation of two separate artistic domains of comics and abstraction, opting instead for art that is ›oriented‹ (110) towards comics-specific panel layouts. The works assembled here display abstraction as a process in the course of which figurative trappings are stripped away. They leave behind a feeling, a movement, or an impression of liveliness (cf. 89) once recognizable elements have been boiled down to a pictogrammatic series or ›expressively distorted‹ (108) signs. This process of Abstrahierung  (like the aforementioned cartoon figures) also suggests that comics are not just one form among others amidst Grünewald's ›image stories‹. Time and again, the ›dramaturgy‹ (110) of the example Bildgeschichten  revolves around the established conventions of comics reading and viewing (110). Not least, the observation that abstraction hones in on a salient feature of a given object recalls Understanding Comics: »the ability of cartoons to focus our attention on an idea is, I think, an important part of their special power, both in comics and in drawing generally« (McCloud 31). Grünewald’s examples in this chapter tend to invoke just such cartoon competence. They demand, in other words, to be read as comics in order to gage their status as Bildgeschichten in the first place, bringing to bear our well-worn reception protocols in order to turn pared-down lines into characters or rigid grids into unfolding sequences. While viewers are always likely to project some change-of-state onto The Dream and Life of Franco, for instance, Grünewald’s assurance that Picasso was well versed in the comics of his time affirms that this work, too, not only offers a sequence – but also sequential art in Will Eisner’s narrower sense of graphic storytelling, of comics.

Chapter 4, although comparatively short, stages a productive pivot in the argument. Whereas previously the author has shown how viewers make sense of abstract images, this section traces differences drawn within comics proper. His examples demonstrate how a panel sequence can unfold without a hitch, only to be abruptly interrupted by abstract images. In tracing such interludes, this chapter sets up a productive tension of its own: Grünewald presents the nonfigurative panels as context-free selections, as image quotations unmoored from their more conventionally legible environment. For instance, a series of white-on-black shapes in Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese may be ›irritating‹ (112) in the context of the comic – at this point in our reading process of abstract? abstract!, however, the reader takes them in their stride, discerning their internal changes even before we learn more about the narrative context in which they were originally embedded. These images can stand on their own, in other words, acquiring, in Grünewald’s terms, »graphisches Eigenleben« (116) – a graphic proper life. This value lingers even after, sometimes almost disappointingly, abstract panels turn out to have a function in an unfolding plot after all, representing an emotional state or standing in for a subsequently unveiled referent.

While the preceding section immerses us in the ›proper‹ value of abstract processes that coexists with its narrative (or rather: more narrative) function, chapter 5 investigates the possibility of ›abstract comics‹ in a narrower sense. These examples wear abstraction on their sleeves, sometimes not even allowing us to consistently tell apart figure and ground. Here as elsewhere, however, Grünewald proceeds from the assumption that juxtaposed panel-like structures are likely to yield a ›happening‹ (Geschehen): ›forms change and suggest the reception of a process of movement unfolding in time‹ (129). Once the precise nature of that movement has been pinpointed in a precise (if occasionally almost too meticulously descriptive) formal account, its subsequent ›transfer‹ is almost assured: in one instance, shifting shapes may denote microscopic animals, humans, or microscopic beings (135). While this movement towards possible interpretative conclusions is convincing, however, the chapter comes into its own whenever this process stalls. What happens, the author asks halfway through, when the viewer, faced with abstraction, fails to perform the interpretative transformation into proto-narrative subject matter? In engaging with these stumbling blocks, the author’s own readings appear more tentative, becoming productively alert to gaps and uncertainties.

This hesitation amends the offhand premise in the following chapter in which the author alleges that humans are ›programmed‹ to interpret. An understanding of colours and shapes, we are given to understand, once ensured the survival of thinly sketched hunter-gatherer ancestors. Such anthropological certainty comes up against the sheer difficulty of Grünewald's own examples, some of which deliberately impede understanding. In response to such intractable art, it comes almost as a relief that the author’s optimistic premise of built-in decipherability appears particularly unstable in this earlier chapter. The author reminds us that these remarkable abstract comics could also be read otherwise, that any putative sequence unfolds against the background of alternative forms, other ways of seeing. If, for example, movement can no longer be tracked from panel to panel, Grünewald offers the helpful notion of the »Superzeichen« (138). A ›supersign‹ of this kind offers a cross-panel perception of one object, in which case it is the ›movement‹ of the nonfigurative shapes that remains ›abstract‹ (ibid.).

Chapters 6 and 7 tend towards the eclectic, offering reception-oriented readings of fascinating abstract sequences. In curating this remarkable  book-form exhibition of non-figurative Bildgeschichten, Grünewald asks what, exactly, the viewer brings to the abstract table. It is the observer’s task, after all, to accept the material offer (155) of image stories, imbuing their nonrepresentational shapes with ›content-based or emotional attribution‹ (155). These sections assess the dependence of abstraction on the viewer’s (or rather participant’s) cooperation and the role of context, respectively. The strength of these concluding chapters (as of the book as a whole) lies in their combination of an expertly selected range of examples with a variety of interpretative options. That is to say that this monograph pays close attention to the process of seeing-as – seeing images as processes, seeing abstract forms as figures – and encourages observers to attend to the twists and turns of their own viewing process. Throughout, the author leads by example: in his readings, Grünewald attends to the interplay of several possible sequences and weighs choices of interpretation. Crucially, this foray into the forking paths of abstraction should be joyful. Dislodging abstraction from austere self-reference, abstrakt? abstrakt! makes sure to point out (and, in its accessible, lively style enact) the sheer aesthetic satisfaction of discerning an ›image story‹ amidst seeming stasis. As a result, the book doubles as an invitation to get involved in a game of interpretation in which the ›oscillation between indeterminacy and explanatory mooring‹ (220) is also an exercise of the imagination.

How do these hermeneutic  ›walkthroughs‹ proceed? In staging an encounter with Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, for instance, Grünewald opens with a precise description of formal detail (130). Specifically, he lays out the distribution of elements that allows the viewer to imbue a series of interacting blue shapes with a panel structure – even if drawn panels are in this instance replaced by the distance between the abstract elements (cf. Fig. 3 for another example). Thus having conjured up comic-specific expectations, the next step is the attribution of a process unfolding in time, a specification of the proto-characters involved, and a sketch of their relationship. These relations need no longer be formal: Grünewald suggests a whole host of interactions, affective resonances, and figurative projections that could claim plausibility. Maybe the blue shapes are dancing, maybe they are fighting – whichever option ›we‹ (Grünewald’s hypothetical observer) choose depends on a minimal agreement on seriality and sequentiality, on being alert to different degrees of change-in-time (130).  Also required is a willingness to treat the blue shapes as the ever-same entities undergoing metamorphoses. What they mean, however, is up to us. abstrakt? abstrakt! leaves the ultimate conceptual transfer (and the precise degree to which we accept the shapes as characters) to the ›interpreting imagination of the viewer‹ (135).

   Fig. 3: What happens in Trondheim’s Bleu?

As his account of Bleu shows, Grünewald demonstrates that discovering the potential meanings of abstract image stories – ›limitless‹ (132) as they may be – hinges on making explicit a series of observations which normally remain background assumptions. In going through this process, the book shows remarkable faith in a first step of formally alert close-viewing. This is not to say that titles, explanatory notes, historical circumstances, or background knowledge cannot enhance our appreciation. After all, Grünewald’s ›practical criticism‹ of abstract art is open to contextually enriched re-readings in which a series of barely iconic signs can turn into protesters in the GDR (215) or figures in a re-telling of Wilhelm Tell (191). Even without explicit textual anchors ensuring such historical resonance, however, meaningful narrative sequences are taken to emerge from within the work itself, as a result of ›looking closely, attending not only to the allocation of meaning but especially to the interplay of graphic elements‹ (191). The method of ›looking closely‹ is rarely stated with such explicitness in this book. Instead, the reader infers their approach to abstract image stories from the convincing and meticulous close readings themselves, all of which offer painstaking formal description before branching off into interpretative possibilities.

Grünewald’s close attention to typical types of distinction elicited by abstract art, paradoxically, makes the category ›abstract‹ itself appear somewhat schematic. Instead of reiterating an abstract/figurative axis, Grünewald distinguishes a two-dimensional ground from three-dimensional constructs (in a reading of El Lissitsky’s Die Geschichte von den zwei Quadraten, 200); or else, he assesses the degree to which illustrations can be granted semi-independence as ›image-stories‹ in their own right (201). In expanding the distinctions we draw as we look at abstract forms, the auhtor's broad definition of his research topic pays off. His readings of ›image stories‹ allow for a range of strategies to discern ›stories in the broadest sense of the term‹ (19).

There is one underlying distinction, however, which is occasionally elided. Specifically, the transition from seeing a process to projecting a narrative is presented as a matter of course, a necessary last step in the interpretative process. This default narrativity downplays potential differences between cartoon signs and Trondheim’s blue shapes, particularly the latter's potential to elude inclusion in stories. This sets Grünewald’s book apart from previous approaches to the topic; Jan Baetens, for one, has posited that the opposite of ›abstract‹ is »not only ›figurative‹ or ›representational‹«, but also, explicitly, »narrative« (95). From this angle, Trondheim’s swirling forms may just maintain a possibility not to be being story-bearing entities at all. From this non-narrative angle, they would represent a process without intentionality – and resist their inclusion in a Bildgeschichte in the first place. While Grünewald’s view from the ›image story‹ perch allows for hermeneutic leeway, it also involves a sweeping invocation of story where there may only be a change of state, and of narrative where we might be witnessing the interaction of nonhuman forms outside of narrative frames. In its orientation towards always-already story-shaped ›image stories‹, abstrakt? abstrakt! can be aligned with Paul Fisher David’s view that »abstract comics are capable of detailed and complex narrative effects« (272); after all, Grünewald presents the recovery of such effects as an almost necessary final step. As a trade-off, the possibility of non-narrative becomes distant once we imbue the blue shapes with the agency to meet, dance, or fight.

Overall, however, the concept of ›image stories‹ comes with clear advantages. Notably, since the Bildgeschichte is not a medium for Grünewald, but rather a ›principle of narration that can make use of different media‹ (20), he can discern the principle of sequential images across conventional distinctions. Case in point: chapter 3, which traces the representational thrust of abstract image-stories, includes Pablo Picasso’s The Bull; the artistic self-reflexivity in the wordless comic König Kohle by Max (Francec Capdevila); or the pictographic recap of Pulp Fiction in Matteo Civaschi and Gianmarco Milesi’s stripped-down diagrammatic film recap. These are just three examples from a wealth of quoted abstract sequences. For all their differences, their subsumption under the category of ›image stories‹ serves as a liberating reminder to cross conventional genre boundaries and discover cross-media commonalities. Whether they be comic or fine art, ostensible storytelling or design experiment – all of these images are placed on equal footing, since they all incite the viewer’s ›detective-like‹ (96) unlocking of possible sequences and shifting degrees of abstraction.

The abundance of (well-presented, full-colour) examples de-emphasises the specificity of medium-specific reading strategies. As a result, the vast term ›image stories‹ sometimes comes close to eliding the question of why, specifically, anyone would read a particular image as a comic, as a painting, or as a design experiment in the first place. For Grünewald, a particular panel configuration alone is reason enough to see ›different splashes of colour as a processual sequence‹ (102). This default sequentiality accords with Grünewald’s initial definition of a happening (Geschehen) as a ›process unfolding in time‹ (20). On this basis, image-stories can be found in so many places that comics appear as just one (specific) instance of a much wider principle. The examples Grünewald provides, however, raise the question whether there is not something specific about attributing »comicity« (Beineke) to a given medium after all. For instance, that a prototypical comic requires recognisable ›humans, anthropomorphic animals or fantastic beings‹ (7) – a norm from which abstract comics then diverge – circumvents the question what makes cartoon signs so recognisable and specific in the first place. To cite an instance of possible comics-specific reception chosen by Grünewald himself (26f.): in Ibn Al Rabin’s stop quibbling please, abstract shapes receive speech bubbles. Here, it seems that it is not least the addition of a conventional comics feature that increases the likelihood of seeing circles and squares as narrative actors, and to interpret them ›iconically, as acting beings‹ (26). An implicit engagement with such medium-specific reception protocols is interwoven throughout the book: in most of Grünewald’s comics-adjacent examples, we encounter a reduction of narrativity; conversely, regarding examples with less explicit comics provenance, the book has to expend quite some interpretative efforts in discerning any story at all. While, then, medium-specific reading conventions do come through in the individual examples, they are overshadowed by their inclusion in the expansive ›image-story‹ paradigm. abstrakt? abstrakt! discerns a recurring principle of abstraction across dissimilar media and suggests consistent, transmedial processes of interpretation – a broad remit which comes at the expense of a medium-specific ›inventory of effects‹ (McLuhan).

This caveat should not detract, however, from the achievement that is abstrakt? abstrakt! Grünewald’s rich and (despite its concision) immensely varied work serves as an accessible introduction to the range of abstraction effects in sequential art. By placing students’ work in productive proximity with experimental comics, or juxtaposing recent webcomics with fine art, this book replaces any unitary ›abstract art‹ with a wealth of artistic strategies – and concomitant ways of making sense of them. Such an approach is undergirded by a generous trust in the viewer’s ability to interpret shapes, colours, and forms in image series, to find sequences, metaphors, figuration and, quite simply, meaning where there appeared to be detached formal autonomy. In the process, Grünewald’s approach lays bare a tradition of abstract image stories going back to the 20th century avant-garde and beyond. Not only does he make a thoroughly convincing case that a range of works has always already been planned and designed in sequential terms; what is more, he shows the effortlessness with which abstraction – in comics and beyond – encourages interpretative exploration and interaction. The concluding examples of configurative art, which asks readers to create new narratives from a set of shapes (195), only literalise an ethos of active and cooperative viewing that this monograph analyses, yet also performs in engaging and productive fashion.


    • Baetens, Jan: Abstraction in Comics. SubStance 40 (124), p. 94-113.
    • Beineke, Colin: On Comicity. In: Inks 1 (2017), p. 226-253.
    • Davies, Paul Fisher: ›Animating‹ the Narrative in Abstract Comics. Studies in Comics 4 (2013), p. 251-276.
    • Ernst, Max: Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy (Maximiliana ou l'exercice illégal de l'astronomie). 1964. In: MoMA. <>. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.
    • Grünewald, Dietrich: Das Prinzip Bildgeschichte. In: Struktur und Geschichte der Comics. Beiträge zur Comicforschung. Hg. Dietrich Grünewald. Bochum: Bachmann, 2010, p. 11-31.
    • McCloud, Scott: Understanding Comics. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
    • McLuhan, Marshall: The Medium is the Massage. An Inventory of Effects. London: Penguin, 2008.
    • Molotiu, Andrei (ed.): Abstract Comics. The Anthology, 1958-2008. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics, 2009.
    • Redlich, Nadine: Ambient Comics. Kassel: Rotopol, 2917.
    • Trondheim, Lewis: Bleu. Image excerpt on <>. Accessed 18 Dec. 2021.


Table of Figures

      • Fig. 1: Nadine Redlich, Ambient Comics [17].
      • Fig. 2: Max Ernst, Maximiliana.
      • Fig. 3: Lewis Trondheim, Bleu?


abstrakt? abstrakt!
Abstraktion und Bildgeschichte
Dietrich Grünewald
Berlin: Christian Bachmann, 2021
240 p., 25,00 Euro
ISBN 978-3-96234-041-4




1]   My trans. In what follows, translations from abstrakt? abstrakt! are presented in single quotation marks.