In Pulses of Abstraction: Episodes from a History of Animation, Andrew R. Johnston contends that animation has been ‘pulsing in fits and starts with the creation, distribution and experimentation of new technologies’ (Johnston: 2024, p. 3). He sets out to explore the impact that technology has had on animation, concentrating on a specific area – abstract animation, through examining works by leading animators whose aesthetics and underlying philosophies can be examined in comparison to their exploitation of the technologies at their disposal. Johnston’s chapters theme the investigations by a key element – ‘Line’, ‘Color’, ‘Interval’, ‘Projection’ and ‘Code’, but his discussions are not strictly limited by these concepts.

pulses of abstraction cover
Pulses of Abstraction cover

‘Line’ explores the 1950s work by Len Lye, such as Free Radicals (1958). Lye’s work is examined through the lens of contemporary critics such as Greenberg and Fried, with an extensive discussion about the tensions between materiality and aesthetics. Johnston notes that the discussion around aesthetics can become overshadowed by a wider discussion about materiality, therefore his aim is to achieve a balance between an acknowledgement of the effect of the means of production on one hand and the phenomenological experience of the aesthetics of the produced works on the other. There is a comparison to contemporary animators such as Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage, but Lye’s individuality is positioned in his ability to break free from restrictions. Johnston explores the philosophical and phenomenological concept of the line, discussing its importance in imparting a sense of vitality. Johnston’s discussion of Lye’s trajectory, placing this within a wider context of criticism, interpretation and art philosophy, is valuable in illustrating the inspirations behind Lye’s work.

‘Color’ takes at its heart the work by the less well-known artist Thomas Wilfrid. The central point of discussion is Wilfrid’s ‘Lumia,’ where he utilised patterns of abstract light as an emotional expression. Wilfrid and his associates were exploring the aesthetics of color, particularly in motion, through a phenomenological approach to abstraction and aesthetics. As with Lye, Johnston explores the philosophical context within which Wilfrid’s work and by relating color abstraction to perception and spatialisation. For example, he refers to Henri Bergson’s thoughts on how we build up an impression of the world through a series of snapshots. In effect, this inner cinematic experience, places objects and phenomenon within a context of our existing knowledge and application of intuition to build the structure of the world around us. The links that Johnston makes to the wider discussions of color in art, particularly the phenomenological approaches used by Wilfrid and others to understand the spiritual affect that color can have on the observer, illustrates Wilfrid’s importance as a key player in this field.

‘Interval’ centres on Robert Breer’s explorations into the limits of discontinuity between images, where the interval between frames can be varied or manipulated. Johnston contends that Breer’s films allow an exploration of perceptual thresholds as well as the relationships between rapidly changing historically charged images – Dada-esque montages of recognisable everyday items which define a historical moment. Given the difficulty that can be encountered in viewing Breer’s work, Johnston includes a much more detailed discussion of the processes employed in making the films than for the earlier examples.  Breer’s work is also contextualized through theories of montage, such as Walter Benjamin’s idea of meaning-creation through juxtaposition and contrast. In other words, the dramatic contrast of images enforces a new understanding and social awareness onto the viewer. The chapter is necessarily more concerned with the processes of Breer’s techniques and their effects on the resulting films, but focuses less on the philosophical implications of the former.

‘Projection’ dives even deeper into the technical approaches in abstract animation and discusses Mary Ellen Bute’s compositions produced by a cathode ray tube oscillator. Bute’s work can be seen as a continuing experimentation along the lines of Walter Ruttman, Viking Eggeling and others, looking at means to present and analyse senses and perception and wrestling with the underlying meaning embodied in the graphical forms. Given Bute’s collaborative research approach, Johnston spends some time discussing communication models, such as differences between the conveyed information and its underlying meaning. Johnston also draws parallels with other technological experimentation at the time for example, Bute’s oscilloscope animations Abstronic (1952) and Mood Contrasts (1953) can be compared to the Whitney Brothers’ use of a pendulum to direct the exposure of light to film in their Five Film Exercise (1943-1945). There is a substantial move from the discussion of phenomenology and underlying aesthetics in the earlier chapters to a much more technological focus. This chapter uses Bute’s films as a launching point to a wider discussion of the advent of computing technology and its impact on abstract animation.

‘Code’ then logically continues this discussion further. Looking at the early experimentation with computer animation by Whitney brothers, Charles Csuri and other experimental artists, Johnston delves into the technological considerations in the use of computing technology, noting the limitations of the form in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the lack of interchangeability in coding between platforms. The bulk of this chapter is dedicated to the development of digital animation and its contribution to wider aspects of digital media. Johnston does include some of the arguments that Whitney and others made in favour of this new animation medium, particularly the opportunity to explore the temporal nature of animation. The episodic development of the art form in this medium corresponds to Johnston’s overall idea of ‘pulses,’ where progress occurs in jumps rather than smoothly, as animators push at the limits of the platform in their experimental works.

Johnston concludes with a short chapter which pulls together his thoughts on abstraction, aesthetics, and the key influences of technology, using an analysis of Lewis Klahr’s animations to tie together the various concepts visited earlier in the book.

Overall, this is an insightful investigation into the impact that experimentation and pushing at the boundaries offered by new technologies has had on animation, particularly the abstract animation of the 1950s to 1970s. The animators that Johnston has chosen to investigate offer an insight into their philosophies, aesthetics, and the technical challenges they explored and exploited. For those looking to gain a better understanding of this key period in animation history, and the ‘pulses’ of inspiration and innovation Johnston has set out to explore, this is a rewarding and engrossing read.


Johnston, A. R. ‘Pulses of Abstraction’ (2020), University of Minnesota Press.

Dr. Andrew Connor, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh, UK, is the Programme Director for Design and Digital Media at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Dr. Connor’s teaching covers media and culture; game, interactive, and immersive design. His research interests are in digital design and creative practice, and his current research looks at how people engage with creative works in real and virtual environments. Dr. Connor have an interest in design as a discipline and practice in South Asia, working with institutions and creative practitioners in this region. His background includes radio, television, film and multimedia production, along with my current practice as a creative animator and sound designer.