PIET MONDRIAN Victory Boogie-Woogie, 1944
What is Abstract Art?
A painting is to be called abstract when it is impossible to recognize in it the slightest trace of that objective reality which makes up the normal background of our everyday existence: in other words, a painting is abstract when the absence of any other form of sensible reality compels us to regard it purely as painting and as nothing else, and to judge it according to values that have nothing to do with representation or with the imitation or reproduction of some other thing. It follows that a transposition of nature, even when it is very far-fetched, remains figurative and is figuration; but it also follows that a transposition taken to the point where nothing in the work suggests or evokes some basic naturalistic subject -- a transposition, therefore, which to the naked eye does not even imply the act of transposition itself -- will rightly be called abstract, abstraction.
Thus, even in cases when some representation or transposition of shapes has served as a point of departure, whether in the painter's mind or just on the canvas, the work is to be deemed abstract, providing that no aspect of that point of departure remains recognizable, and so long as the work, ipso facto, has nothing to convey to us except the pure elements of composition and colour.
Conversely, we shall say that any work of art which, though setting out from abstract principles or processes, either by accident or playfully embodies representational elements, however fantastic or extraordinary they appear, cannot be called abstract.
But even if a canvas is strictly abstract -- that is to say neither representing, interpreting or transposing any reality from the external world, this cannot prevent our imagination from discerning subjects in it -- such as those shapes that people fancy they see in the clouds -- that had nothing to do with the painter's own intentions. The abstract painter must do all he can to avoid such representational accidents, though of course he cannot be held responsible for the spectator's whims.
Long before it existed in actual fact, abstraction was "in the air" and painters intuitively tried to grasp it, like the 'frozen syllables' of Mandeville and Rabelais. They were not so lucky as Pantagruel; the words eluded them and the most notorious passwords and incantations failed to make them sing before they were fully matured. Those passwords, however, came as so many unmistakable forewarnings of a new age. We could trot out dozens of quotations from Baudelaire to Cézanne, from Van Gogh to Seurat and Maurice Denis, all centred on the same realisation, that painting is not a matter of subject but of colour, form, sensibility, composition. But they felt themselves under no obligation on this account to leave out the theme altogether, and perhaps they were not far wrong, since we all admire the masterpieces they left us. But now that we can look back on it all we cannot help noticing a certain contradiction between their often extreme pronouncements and their actual behaviour as painters. This was because the theory of the abstract in art could only gradually be translated into actual works, and it had to be by a process of evolution rather than revolution. Great discoveries are made slowly, and there is no eureka without a long and tedious preparation behind it.
It is true that in 1841 or thereabouts Turner came so close to abstract painting that his works have no parallel in his century. They can be explained only in terms of the 'long preparation' I have mentioned. By the time he was sixty Turner had reached the end of a long evolution in the course of which he had stated the problems of representation and expression on the canvas, with an ever-increasing frankness that enables us to trace the gradual development of his bold yet calm resolve to find a solution to the paradox.
The Impressionists took a long time to catch up with the great English painter. But there are many moments of abstract beauty in some of their works, all arising from the same premonition in the artist. Whether in works that were delicate and mild, or startlingly violent, Impressionism like Fauvism and Cubism later on was a pioneer in abstract painting, and many unpretentious canvases of the period still teem with marvellous lessons for our young abstract painters. I am not thinking only of Cézanne, but of works by Van Gogh(The wheat-field, the Landscape with rooks), Renoir (Women in a field), Claude Monet(The poppy-field). In the last of these paintings, in particular, the subtle proportions of red and blue show a craftsmanship fully aware of abstract composition. There is an exquisite delicacy in the parasol-étoile, its ultramarine bringing out the redness of the flowers and uttering a kind of gentle exclamation in response to the diffused, soft blue of the sky. But even that is not the finest discovery made in this canvas. To my mind it is to be seen in the discreet stretch of light green just above the line of the horizon, without which the darker green of the belt of trees would be flat or would need stressing, -- a solution which would have ruined the general effect which was meant to be calm and soothing. Thus everything in this work is quite simple, as is the case in every really beautiful work, yet there is nothing banal about it.
The History of Abstract Art:
Abstraction, singled out from other phases of "modernism," came to the fore in 1937 when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation drew plans for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, to be opened in 1939 under the direction of Hilla Rebay. Its exhibitions and publications have taken special notice of two painters, Wassily Kandinsky and Rudolf Bauer. In 1936 a group taking the name "American Abstract Artists" held the first of their annual exhibitions. Ten years later when they published a collection of articles with the same title, the editor, George L. K. Morris, noted a striking shift in attitude toward abstraction during the decade. Art formerly renounced as "foreign" had now become widely accepted. Paradoxically, this shift has been hastened by an influx of artists undeniably "foreign," artists who came to this country as the result of upheavals in Europe: László Moholy-Nagy, of Bauhaus fame, who became Director of the Chicago Bauhaus, later the Institute of Design, in 1937; Naum Gabo with his studio in Connecticut; Josef Albers, distinguished member of the faculty of Black Mountain College in North Carolina; Piet Mondrian, who arrived in New York at the age of sixty-eight in 1940, had his first one-man show two years later, and fell in love with the city, painting its Broadway Boogie Woogie.