Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part Two

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The Abstract Expressionist artists translated “meaning” from subject matter to the broader and deeper intent of the word. For these artists, “meaning” had to be profound and transcendent so that art could rise above the rather minor role it played during the Thirties as handmaiden to politics. But first, this group of local New York artists had to go through the process of being schooled by the European masters. As mentioned in earlier posts on this website, what was interesting about this apprenticeship was not what was accepted by what was rejected by the New York School. As the critic Harold Rosenberg later explained it in 1972,

“The legacy that New York artists inherited from Paris consisted of the tradition of overthrow of unlimited formal experimentation and parody and fragments of radical ideas. It was on the basis of the consciousness of loss and renunciation of support by the past that a new creative principle was sought by the New York painters.”

The famous expatriate teacher from Germany, Hans Hofmann, presented a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and the works of Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. The abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and the Surrealist techniques of André Masson and Matta were promising but the American artists proceeded cautiously. In addition, they were also wary of abstract or decorative art as being empty.

The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning. The artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence. Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns. Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica (1937) was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion and was shown in the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War. Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. Picasso used the visual language of Cubism and the metaphorical approach of Surrealism and adapted fragmentation and dream to the nightmare of total war.

For each artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement, the journey towards a new, modern and universal meaning had to take them through a journey that cut a path through an American tradition of realism and a European tradition of post-Cubist and post-Expressionsit art. Jackson Pollock denied the folk ways of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton and traveled through a flirtation with Surrealist automatic writing married to vaguely understood Jungian theories. Lee Krasner, the most promising young artist in New York, moved away from her mentors Hoffmann and Mondrian towards a cautious abstraction of her own. Franz Kline shifted his attention from industrial landscapes to the possibilities of making a painting from brushstrokes alone. These, and other odysseys, were slow and sometimes painful and happened over a decade marked by the Second World War.

In order for the experience of a painting to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned. One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Piet Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was at the same time balanced and infinite. But to the American artists, seeking a way out of European modernism, Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked the kind of American spontaneity and improvisation expressed in jazz. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content when compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image, spread all over the surface, implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, as in the way Mondrian brought black lines and primary colors to the end of the canvas.

But the key break from European art was the departure from easel painting for an exploration of the possibilities of mural painting. On a mural scale, the viewer’s peripheral vision could be engaged, rendering a centered composition irrelevant. Part of this severance from old traditions was a paradoxical return to artistic elements that were primal or, as the favorite term of the times expressed it, “primitive.” It was the atavistic that allowed the New York artists to assert their American ways through Native American art. The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb came the closest to understanding the essence of Native American culture. During the Forties, the artist placed inscrutable symbolic forms within a grid with the conviction that symbolic language preceded written language. Unnatural culture was an interruption or an interference with a more universal language. In the same period, Pollock investigated the possibilities of Native American art in paintings such as She Wolf (1943). Art should be able to communicate on the Jungian level of the collective unconscious. As Gottlieb stated,

“If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for the niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”

By the Fifties, as American art took a leading role in international visual culture, Abstract Expressionist art and artists took up new positions in society and new roles in the making of culture. Mythically, the artist became a medium between the mute public and the expression of the need of ordinary people to express their fears and longings. The artist, as a human being, was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of self discovery. The writings of André Breton suggested that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event for the viewer rather than an intellectual act of perception. The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.” This ego-oriented art put the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves. The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As Robert Hobbs pointed out in Abstract Expressionism. The Formative Years, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The painters also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950) by Barnett Newman measured 96 x 216 inches, stretching out horizontally, creating a journey for the overwhelmed viewer who paused here and there at the “zips.” But for Newman, this transit was not simply an aesthetic one but a moral and ethical one as well.

“The self, ” he said, “terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting and sculpture…The artist emphatically does not create form. The artist expresses in a work of art an aesthetic idea which is innovate and eternal.”

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint, followed by the question of what to paint at the time of the end of painting. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The American artists had early training from Modernist masters in New York City that prepared the ground with the abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and with Surrealist ideas and techniques of André Masson and Matta. The famous expatriate teacher, Hans Hofmann, taught a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and through the works of Pablo Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. On the other hand, they were also wary of decorative art as being empty. The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning.

Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica, 1937 was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion of for the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War. Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. The Abstract Expressionist artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence. Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns.

With Abstract Expressionism, art and artists took up new positions and roles. The artist as a human being was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of discovery. The writings of André Breton were of help by suggesting that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event rather than an intellectual act of perception. The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.” This ego-oriented art puts the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves. The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As art historian, Robert Hobbs, pointed out, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The artists also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. The painting becomes the universe and universal. But in order for the experience to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned.

One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was also balanced. But Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked spontaneity. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content. Compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, just as the way in which Mondrian brought black lines and colors to the end of the canvas.

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Bauhaus: Internal Tensions

Das Staatliche Bauhaus

Contradictions within the Bauhaus

In the most recent scholarly work on the Bauhaus, Bauhaus. Workshops for Modernity. 1919-1933, Museum of Modern Art, 2009, for the Museum of Modern Art, Barry Bergdoll wrote about the contradictions that existed within the Bauhaus. In my view, these contradictions were deeply and unavoidably embedded in the school’s heritage and its intentions. The cultural inheritance that the Bauhaus was working with came from an old way of thinking that may or may not have been capable of being modified for the modern world. Take the grid, for example. The grid became the basic ruling concept of the Bauhaus. Obviously, despite the impact of De Stijl, the grid is far older than the paintings of Piet Mondrian and had long been the underlying structure of any composition. But with the Bauhaus the grid comes to the foreground and determines the module that was mobilized for advertising and for furniture and for architecture. Gropius proposed the Baukasten as a cubic element that could be deployed for pre-fab architecture. However, the architect was a visionary but Germany itself was still in the process of standardizing systems of measurement and it would take years for modular units in building to become an international norm.

Another case in point is the Bauhaus interest in redefining the “book,” a very old object that needed to be updated. For the Bauhaus, the urgency of this self-assigned task could not be clearer. The urban dweller of the twentieth century was inundated with visual images through film, illustrated magazines and newspapers, and advertising. One saw in a flash and read quickly in small graphic units. People were seeing and thinking in visuals as in no other time in history. The development of a “new vision” in typography and advertising was perhaps the most impactful contribution of the Bauhaus. László Moholy-Nagy took up the task of redesigning the format of books and the traditional gray page of blocks of print, breaking up the monotony of lines with graphic insertions.

In order to design the forms appropriate for mass communication and mass advertising everything had to be rethought. Herbert Bayer attempted to drag Germany into the twentieth century by bypassing the traditional Germanic medieval script in favor of a simplified and updated Roman font. In eliminating frakur, Bayer sought to eradicate culture and nationality for a more rational system. The German language is characterized by the capitalization of nouns, which, as with all capital letters, violated the basic tenets of language—to simply translate a sound into letters. Bayer proposed an all lower case form of print, imposing universal regularity with modern ruler and the French curve. This “universal script” became the familiar architects’ writing, still prevalent today.

However beautiful the productions of the Bauhausbücher, publishers who used mass production faced demands inherent in the proposals of Moholy-Nagy and Bayer, which depended upon handwork. For a conventional publisher, the old fashioned book was efficient and cost effective. Stopping the presses to insert some sort of graphically attractive addition or hand-setting hand-made lettering, no matter how “universal,” was simply not conducive to modern methods of manufacture. Despite the fact that it is clear to us today that the artists and architects of the Bauhaus could see into the future and guessed correctly the needs of future industry and accurately predicted the desires of future consumers, the Bauhaus was caught in a time lag. Much of the work done by the faculty and students were very dependent upon handwork and upon old-fashioned craft. Only in advertising did the technology exist to adapt itself to Herbert Bayer’s ideas, simply because there was a profit motive for the profession. Otherwise, it would take decades for technology to catch up with the Bauhaus vision.

The mission of the Bauhaus of a New Vision and a Standard Grammar collided directly with an old idea that simply refused to die: the role of the artist as creator. Faceless murals of Oskar Schlemmer and his mute and masked theatrical production, The Triadic Ballet, all insist upon the anonymity of “The Bauhaus.” But, for some, the nameless modernity of the Bauhaus was simply too challenging, as was the notion that the school “owned” anything the student designed. Inspired by the construction of a bicycle frame, Marcel Breuer invented the cantilevered chair, now known as the “Breuer chair” and introduced a new controversy over who “owned” “Bauhaus designs,” the Bauhaus, the home base of the students, or the students who came up with the design? Although Breuer fought to retain his rights to the famous chair, the art designed by the Bauhaus students was always labeled “The Bauhaus.” Regardless of who owned the lamps, ashtrays, teapots of Marianne Brandt or not, her work still stands for The Bauhaus.”

Other Bauhaus posts on this website include: Bauhaus, The Founding, Bauhaus: Modern Design, Bauhaus: Internal Tensions, Bauhaus the End, and Bauhaus: the Fate of the Bauhaus

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De Stijl Architecture

The Search for the Absolute: The Architecture of De Stijl

Beyond the paintings of Piet Mondrian, the other manifestation of De Stijl that has imprinted the memory of the art world is its distinctive architecture. Indeed, it was architecture that caused the most disagreement among the artists. From 1922 on Theo van Doesburg devoted himself to the cause of a modern architecture appropriate to modern times. With the primary painters, Bart Van Der Leek and Mondrian, drifting away, van Doesburg sought to promote De Stijl primarily in terms of the built environment. In fact it was through architecture that De Stilj finally became known in Europe through exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. Associated with the Bauhaus, van Doesburg made sure that his architects were presented as part of a wider effort in Germany and in Russia to revolutionize architecture. Sadly, the efforts of all of these architects would be halted by the Second World War. Still the De Stijl architects managed to build a few private homes and two notable attempts at small public buildings.

The absolutism inherent in De Stijl could be linked to the practical in architecture, that is, mass-produced elements allowed architecture to achieve a uniform, stripped-down reduced look. The idea of a modern architecture, or what we would call “modernist architecture,” was already in the wind. In his book, Art in Vienna, Peter Vergo stated, “Only in the buildings of Adolf Loos, with his disdain of elaborate ornament, does one find he beginnings of a wholly modern style in architecture…” Loos himself insisted in his famous 1908 manifesto, “Ornament and Crime,”

It is easy to reconcile ourselves to the great damage and depredations the revival of ornament had done to our aesthetic development, since no one and nothing, not even the power of the state, can hold up the evolution of mankind. It can only be slowed down. We can afford to wait. But in economic respects it is a crime, in that it leads to the waste of human labor, money, and materials. That is damage time cannot repair. The speed of cultural development is hampered by the stragglers. I am living, say, in 1912, my neighbor around 1900, and that man over there in 1880.

Loos, as Le Corbusier remarked, “…swept the path before us. It was a Homeric cleansing: precise, philosophical, logical. He has influenced the architectural destiny of us all.” From Vienna to Paris, Loos waged war on architectural eclecticism and the baroque assemblage of meaningless ornamentation torn from its original context and piled into a mass of decoration. Clearly, architecture in the nineteenth century was mired in the past and it was the task of modern architects to define modernist architecture. Van Doesburg had long been concerned with relationship between painting and architecture.

“When everything has been expressed on the present level of painting, new aesthetic potential will emerge therefrom for extending the scope of expressive possibilities,” he stated and continued, “…a monumental cooperative art is what the future holds. In this new form, various spiritual means of expression (architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature) will be universally realized…”

While Van Der Leek rejected any such connection between painting and architecture, the idea of applying absolutism to both art forms seems logical. In fact, although he insisted that painting had to be an independent medium, Mondrian could envision that with NeoPlasticism “…the abstract real…or picture will disappear as son as we transfer its plastic beauty to the space around us through the organization of the room into color areas…” Van der Leek made the distinction between the powers of NeoPlaticism in painting to dissolve the materiality of “naturalism” and architecture, which was characterized by “the space-restricting flatness…” Without debating whether or not the characteristics of the De Stijl style could be applied to architecture or not, it is more helpful to understand that the artists were trying to create a new form of architecture for a new world.

Like Adolf Loos, who had traveled to New York, the De Stijl architects were impacted by architecture in America, a new country that was erecting new kinds of buildings. Some of the architects associated with De Stijl were followers of Frank Lloyd Wright. Anti-monumental anti-ornamental architecture had to be in keeping with character of city streets and new building materials, both of which were geometric for the sake of efficiency. Architects such as Van’t Hoff were inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in America. In fact, Robert van’ t Hoff had worked for Wright and his Huis-ter-Heide, in its turn, inspired Gerrit Rietveld. Wright’s Prairie Style of flat roofs over long low structures seemed especially suitable for the flat landscapes of Holland. But, most importantly, Wright opened up the closed spaces of the Victorian structure into what is called today “the open plan.” He also made sure that his early work was responsive to the surroundings and this is where Wright and De Stijl would ultimately separate. De Stijl sought, not the local, but the absolute, and its buildings make no concession to their environment.

As architect J.P.P. Oud said, “Though the importance of a work of art can only be judged from an absolute point of view, the significance of an act can only be appreciated according to a relative standard.” For his part, Oud proposed use of mass production for limited number of standard types that would be a new urban architecture with a “form follows function” philosophy. However, the most famous De Stijl work of architecture was the well-known Schröder House by cabinetmaker Gerrit Rietveld, and this home was thoroughly individual. Still, the Schroder House uses certain elements of mass architecture to its advantage: reinforced concrete over steel. Rietveld collaborated with his client, Madame Truus Schöder-Schrader and completed her Utrecht home in 1924. Thanks to modern construction, this house could fulfill van Doesburg’s 1924 Manifesto on architecture, demanding the “elementary, economic, functional, formless, unmonumental, asymmetry, afrontality, and anti-decorative.” According to van Doesburg,

“The new architecture has broken through the wall and in so doing has completely eliminated the divorce of inside and out. The walls are non-load-bearing; they are reduced to points of support. And as a result there is generated a new open plan, totally different from the classic because inside and outside space interpenetrate.”

Therefore, architecture is anti-cubic, anti-symmetrical and anti-gravitational, the elements float and hover. Despite the connections between van Doesburg and the attempts in Russia and Germany to rebuild the world, De Stijl architecture is uniquely Dutch, ironically, because it translated Mondrian’s principles into architecture. In distinction to the uniformly whiteness of Weisenhofsiedlung, De Stijl buildings were white, with the floating exterior white planes augmented with red, yellow, blue and black trim. The weightlessness of the floating sections is countered by the grey stucco on other segments. The bold use of blocks of color is even clearer inside the Schröder House compared to the all-white interior of its contemporary, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusiner. Rietveld, the furniture maker, absorbed furniture into the house with built-ins and fashioned sliding panels to close off the open spaces into “rooms.” Walls, floors, furniture—all were dissolved into disconnected sections of red, blue, yellow, or black that mobilized the space. Daringly, in this cold climate, the walls were opened to expanses of glass, making the house seem even lighter weight.

In keeping with the idea of an interior space being a total work of art, Rietveld invented new furniture for his new design. Wright had seen the necessity of such control, if only because of the unsuitability of existing furniture for the modern interior. The most famous of Rietveld’s furniture for the Schröder House is the Red/blue Chair, which had yellow tips, like full stop periods, on the blunt wooden ends. Utterly without padding or comfort, countering Victorian upholstery, this chair is a pair of floating planes, red and blue, held together by black posts and lintels. Inspired by William Morris’s groundbreaking recliner, the bare wood design became the Red/blue Chair of 1918 and fit beautifully into its new home, where it became one of the most famous chairs of all time.

In his article, “The Furniture of Gerrit Rietveld. Manifestoes for a New Revolution,” Martin Filler showed a number of illustrations that showed the designer’s evolution and struggle to keep his furniture simple. His Beachwood Sideboard of 1919 anticipates Art Deco, but it is fussy compared to his Berlin Chair and his Side Table of 1923. Filler made the case that the Red/blue Chair was more sculpture than furniture and one could also add, more painting than chair. Indeed, other examples of De Stijl architecture indicate how tempting it is to devolve into decoration. As seen in Café de Unie of 1925 and Café Aubette of 1927, when the De Stijl colors are used in small planes, rather than for large architectural areas, then the interiors become irritating and betray a certain nostalgia for fin-de-siecle Art nouveau. Destroyed in the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam, Oud’s design (now restored) was far more successful than the collaborative work of van Doesburg and the Arps, Jean and Sophie-Taeuber. Although the Café is considered today (by some) to be a success, van Doesburg’s architectural statement and the artists’ interior was unpopular with the clients and was wiped out in 1928, perhaps because of the rather dizzying array of blocks of bright color. De Stijl architecture would come fully into its own after World War II as a kind of national style of Holland.

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Piet Mondrian

PIET MONDRIAN (1872-1944)

Although Mondrian’s painting and his artistic convictions evolved in France, his art is most closely identified with the Dutch movement, “De Stijl.” Mondrian spent most of his life in Paris where he lived and worked and developed his definitive style of abstract art and he died in New York. But these simple facts are lost when he is identified with the Dutch group with which he was reluctantly and loosely affiliated for only five years. Mondrian was caught in Holland, visiting his family, and when the Great War broke out, he was thrown together with a number of artists he would otherwise have never met. Despite the French origins of his style, much ink has been spilled trying to link Mondrian to the flat Dutch landscape because Mondrian’s paintings were “flat.” Such morphological formalism does little to elucidate what his art was really about.

An important indication of the underlying meaning of Mondrian’s art is one of his last representational paintings, the Evolution triptych of 1910, a symbolic evocation of a human journey to spiritualism. Mondrian had been an adherent of the pan-philosophy, Theosophy, since 1909, and embraced its idea that absolute laws rule the universe. Founded by Madame Hélène Blavatsky at the end of the nineteenth century, Theosophy attempted to explain why neither science nor religion could provide the answers to life’s mysteries. Theosophy was widespread and many early twentieth century artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich and Klee, were adherents of the philosophy. The Dutch artist, J.L.M. Lauwerkis stated that, “The concepts of Theosophy are preeminently suited to be expressed by art because of their magnitude and profundity.”

Lauwerkis was referring to abstraction. However, Mondrian’s triptych was too literal to express concepts that should not be illustrated. According to Blavatsky, “The interior world has not been hidden from all by impenetrable darkness. By that higher intuition acquired by Theosophia–or God-knowledge, which carried the mind from the world of form into that of formless spirit, man has been sometimes enabled in every age and every country to perceive things in the interior or invisible world.” In Holland, the local Theosophical Society was interested in visualizing their concepts through mathematics. Blavatsky’s prominent follower, Rudolph Steiner described Theosophy, not as a religion, but as a philosophy, which explained religion. As Steiner stated,

“Put shortly, and in the language of the man of the street, this means that God is good, that man is immortal, and that as we sow so we must reap. There is a definite scheme of things; it is under intelligent direction and works under immutable laws. Man has his place in this scheme and is living under these laws. If he understands them and co-operates with them, he will advance rapidly and will be happy; if he does not understand them–if, wittingly or unwittingly, he breaks them, he will delay his progress and be miserable. These are not theories, but proved facts. Let him who doubts read on, and he will see.”

When Mondrian saw Cubist art at an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1911, he moved to Paris to pursue the possibility of employing the new style to express his Theosophical ideas. By 1912, he was making “abstract” paintings of the sides of buildings in Paris, which had retained ghost traces of the structure built next to it and then torn down. Clearly Mondrian rejected Cubist content—the life of the artist—for a universalist content discussed by Theosophy, but he went through several years of “apprenticeship” to the analytic phase. He moved from his Cubist-inspired Still Life with Ginger Pot of 1912 to his Oval Composition of 1914, which is totally abstract. Composition VII of 1913, another Cubist abstraction, is painterly, but this working of the surface would change. Mondrian had abandoned a twenty year career as a Symbolist, and this decade would be one of struggle and transition and philosophical meditations as he moved from one perspective to another. By the time he was stranded in Holland, Mondrian was ready to develop his unique and individual style combining the tenets of the Parisian avant-garde and Theosophy.

It is in Holland in the town of Laren that Mondrian developed his characteristic approach to painting, the grid composition. The grid evolved out of his observation of the ocean and the way the piers jutted out into the water. His Piers and Ocean series of 1915, became Composition in Line of 1916-17 with “plus” and “minus” lines. The reduction of nature to horizontals and verticals and the monochromatic approach of Cubism marked a turning point of his work. Picasso and Braque had reduced their colors in order to explore the disintegration of form. But Mondrian was not interested in fragmentation of objects in the real world; he was interested in disclosing the unity underlying reality. The purification of his paintings continued, and, just before he returned to Paris, his approach began to cohere. Composition with Grid 8 (1919), like Composition in Line (1916-17) was inspired by nature, a walk Mondrian took along the seaside at night and was his “reconstruction of a starry night.” Unlike Vassily Kandinsky, Mondrian’s abstraction came from nature and from his desire to find the harmony of the universe through repetition and standardized elements.

Mondrian’s five years in Holland were necessary to the development of his art. It is important to understand that the artist had abruptly changed course from a late Symbolism to a radical avant-garde Cubism in his middle age. His output during these years of transition was relatively small while he slowly digested what he had learned and decided what he wanted to do with this new approach. The move to Holland and the isolation during the Great War was yet another jolt that disrupted his art. He lived in the small rural town of Laren where he worked with a new friend, the painter Bart Van Der Leek. In Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, Carel Blotkamp, noted that the two artists produced “a radicalization in the formal language of their paintings” and that they helped one another eliminate any traces of the “old” and to seek the “new.” A younger artist, Van Der Leek was already making abstract paintings that were completely unrelated to anything going on outside Holland.

In 1917 Mondrian and Van Der Leek were approached by Theo van Doesburg, who was forming a group of artists to represent De Stijl, “The Style” that would be the only possible style, the ultimate style of modern art. Both artists were reluctant to join with van Doesburg, but it is clear why he wanted to recruit them. Although their purposes were somewhat different from De Stijl, Mondrian and Van Der Leek were seeking a universal language that was modern, and both were working with abstraction, obviously the next step beyond Cubism. De Stijl sought to make the universal concrete, a project similar to what these artists were attempting. In addition, van Doesburg was publishing a journal, De Stijl, as a vehicle for discussing modernity in art. Both artists published in the journal and one suspects that they were more interested in circulating their ideas than in being part of a group. Under the influence of Van Der Leek, Mondrian reintroduced colors, temporarily eliminated line, and eventually he reduced the number of his colors to the primaries, red, yellow and blue. He also learned to paint without inflection and the areas of color were smoothed out.

These wartime paintings show that there were formal questions for the artists to debate. What colors should be used, should they be mixed or pure, should there be lines, should the lines extend to the edges or not, what shape was best to contain the painted manifestation of the absolute? Tiny decisions, maybe, but a major reworking of visual language for the artists was being developed. Mondrian attempted to combine his Theosophical beliefs that painting his art was an “outward sign” of the philosophy with his formal artistic journey to purity. The resulting essay, “Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plastic Equivalence” was published in De Stijl over a number of issues in 1920. Although the essay was long and obscure and difficult to read, it was published in French in 1920 and in German in 1925, the year Mondrian would finalize his break with De Stijl. The essay on new form seems to parallel his slow struggle to formulate a new language.

Mondrian’s opening paragraph appeared to be a re-statement of the goals of De Stijl, which was to free art from individual expression and to seek the universal. Rejecting the subjective, Mondrian wrote that art “must also be the direct expression of the universal in us—which is the direct expression of the universal outside us…” For Mondrian art was an expression of opposites: that of which we are “conscious” and that of which we are “not conscious.” We are aware of the reality of forms but what we are actually seeing is but a manifestation of the universal. Art has to express the universal through a “new plastic expression” that would reconcile these opposites in an “equiliberated relationship.” Mondrian stated that this equilibrium could not be achieved through nature; therefore “plasticity” expressed these relationships, not specific forms. He equated the “new spirit” with “pure plastic expression,” something he would achieve only years later. What Mondrian needed was a structure in which colored elements could be balanced harmoniously.

By 1918, the grid appeared in a spring series of paintings, but the grid was regular and the colors were still muted and mixed. One of the big issues facing the artists was whether or not to start with nature or with an aesthetic principle, and when he returned to Paris, Mondrian was able to get beyond any consideration of nature and arrive at complete abstraction. By 1920, he had arrived at his signature style of vertical and horizontal lines, the use of the right angle, the restriction to primary colors, red, yellow and blue, confined within a grid of black lines on a flat white plane. Gray, seen in Composition A: Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow and Blue (1920), was allowed but disappeared in the 1920s only to reappear in the 1940s. Mondrian evoked Aristotle in his utopian ideal of exact and equal relations of pictorial elements that signified the invisible but absolute harmonies that ruled the universe.

In Mondrian’s mature canonical style, the grids became irregular so that the colored units had to be formally balanced. The black lines of the grid became more assertive and the shapes are not equal, nor are the colors evenly distributed, nor are they of equal size. However, Mondrian learned how to balance the elements, turning asymmetry into symmetry, harmony and balance. The red, yellow and blue, the primary colors signified the unchanging and absolute elements of the universe; the vertical and horizontal, the eternal and unchanging laws of the absolute. Eventually the lines met the edges, implying a larger and wider field stretching beyond the painting itself. Mondrian carefully considered the demarcation of his surfaces and brought the frame forward, rather than allowing the canvas to be set into a surround, giving the impression of depth.

Mondrian’s studio in Paris was a place to paint, a place to live and think and a gallery where his art could be exhibited. 26, rue de Départ was sparsely furnished, resembling the plain Protestant interiors of a Dutch church. The visitor was met with an artificial tulip, painted white, rising out of a white vase. Unlike his old friend, Van Der Leek, Mondrian understood that there was an affinity between painting and architecture and the studio was a visual expression of De Stijl principles as much as it was a place of display and exhibition. Although Mondrian stayed true to these principles, as he understood them, Theo van Doesburg came under the influence of Dada and the art of the Russian Avant-Garde. By 1924, van Doesburg’s paintings began to display geometric forms tilted on a diagonal. The diagonal implied movement and dynamism and, above all, change. Mondrian’s art always revealed the changelessness of the universe and sought the absolute. He could no longer be associated with De Stijl or van Doesburg and wrote a letter explaining his withdrawal to his Dutch associate.

Although Mondrian could not abide the diagonal, his studio in Paris had a triangular, rather than a straight, set of walls at its far end. Ironically, as Nancy Troy’s sketch of the studio shows, the room itself, like van Gogh’s bedroom in the Yellow House, was an irregular shape, something that never appeared in his paintings. During the twenties, Mondrian’s grid opened and expanded and large blocks of color played off one another. However, Suzanne Deicher, in Mondrian, suggests that his art took a more decorative turn because the post-War style, Art Deco, had abandoned the utopian role for art. Her comment could explain why the rigid grid was elaborated by the addition of multiple lines painted close together in the 1930s. His work remained complex and the scale of the units was reduced but these paintings, bristling with lines, look less serene and more energetic.

Mondrian’s time in Paris was once again interrupted by another war. In 1938 he fled Paris and went to London, where the house next door was bombed. From London, Mondrian went to New York, a city he fell in love with. New York in 1940 was a city giddy from being on the edge of another great war. Mondrian, a lover of “jasband” and of modern dance, was in the capital of jazz. For him, jazz, like the color white, was the essence of modernity. Jazz dancing was made up of straight lines in contrast to the old fashioned round waltz. In Holland, he had long been known for his stylized dancing and his spiritual upward gaze, which won him the nickname “the dancing Madonna.” Wearing his neat round eyeglasses, Mondrian went dancing with the likes of Lee Krasner. He was surprisingly active in the New York art world, urging Peggy Guggenheim to support Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock.

One gets the feeling that the artist became a social being in his old age. In Paris he was alone and not much celebrated; in New York, he became a respected and sought-after artist. The abstract painter, Charmoin von Weingand, wrote eloquently of his pristine white studio and after his death the famous room was open to the public. Under the influence of the bright lights and the syncopated rhythms of the new city, Mondrian painted New York City of 1942. In Painting as Model, Yve-Alain Bois pointed out that Mondrian preferred the electric lighting of New York to the gaslights of Paris and he preferred to paint at night. After 1942, Mondrian eliminated the black line. He may have looked for the “truly modern man,” meaning the human who understood the essence of his or her time, but he was equally enchanted with jazz music and bright lights of Broadway, which may or may not be essential to modernity.

Mondrian honored the city of his exile with a series of three paintings that took advantage of a newly discovered material, the colored tapes seen in the New York City series. The artist had always worked intuitively and constantly adjusted the grid lines of his paintings. Suddenly, with tape, he had a easy way to make these adjustments. As one tape crossed over another, the two colors combined to make a third and the intersection became a three dimensional point. These tapes promoted him to tape and re-tape until he had canvases hanging on the stark white walls festooned with bits and pieces of color. This new approach to composition would give rise to the question of finality of these final works. His last great paintings were Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie. Gridded with colored lines, Victory Boogie-Woogie was in progress when Mondrian died of pneumonia in 1944.

With his life devoted to art, Mondrian had never married. His close friend, Harry Holtzman, was his sole heir and executor to his estate. Holtzman had been an admirer of the work of Mondrian from the 1930s and, as Gail Levin recounts in her biography of Lee Krasner, went to Paris in 1934 to meet the artist. The two artists became such close friends that, when the war broke out, Holtzman brought Mondrian to New York and helped him get settled in. After Mondrian’s death, Holtzman spent years collecting his old friend’s writings and finally getting them published. However, even the availability of Mondrian’s thinking, which showed that his art was a manifestation of Theosophy, could not prevent the elimination of his spirituality in favor of a more formal reading of his paintings. As late as the 1970s Holtzman wrote in protest about an art critic describing Mondrian’s work as “geometric.”

“Geometric” implied a particular style of painting: Cubist derived and opposed to Surrealism. This was New York thinking but not Mondrian’s purpose. His use of geometric forms was linked to the regularity of the rules that guided the universe. But under the spell of pragmatic American art criticism and art history, Mondrian became a exemplar of “flatness”—Clement Greenberg’s theories. Mondrian’s adherence to Theosophy, a philosophy unfamiliar to contemporary Americans, did not come to light again until the 1986 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, The Spiritual in Art; Abstract Painting. 1890-1985.

The next post deals with De Stijl Architecture.

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De Stijl

DE STIJL 1917-1931

Between 1914 and 1918 it became clear to any thinking person that an old world had died in an agonizing spasm and that a new world was desperately needed to take the place of a graveyard of discredited ideals. De Stijl or “The Style” was founded in Holland during the Great War, and the desire for harmony and balance expressed by the artists in this group certainly reflected their abhorrence of the chaos and conflict raging around them. De Stilj emerged at the same time as Dada and the Russian Avant-Garde movement—all dedicated to the rebuilding of a Brave New World out of the ruins of the old. Whether it was the nihilism of Dada or the missionary spirit of the Russians or the Utopian dreams of De Stijl, these groups were forged from the urgency of the time. Although the roots of the style of De Stijl can be traced back to Cubism from which it is derived, the dates of the movement itself are linked to the magazine, De Stijl. De Stijl the group and the journal, was founded in Leiden in 1917 by Theo van Doesburg, the organizer of the diverse group of artists and architects. Carrying on throughout philosophical disagreements and defections over doctrine, van Doesburg personified the group, carrying its ideas throughout Europe until he died in 1931. The journal ceased publication in 1932 with a commemorative issue edited by his wife. By then, the original artists had long since gone their separate ways.

It is useful to distinguish between the origins of De Stijl as a style, based on an abstraction of Cubism, and the impetus of the movement, which was founded in the consciousness of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. De Stijl evolved, as did many of the avant-garde movements during the early decades of the twentieth century, out of a realization that a new kind of society was coming into being and that this modern culture must be expressed by an entirely new art form. As van Doesburg stated in his Manifesto in 1918,

“1. There is an old and a new consciousness of time. The old is connected with the individual. The new is connected with the universal. The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world of was as well as in the art of the present day. 2. The war is destroying the old world and its contents: individual domination in every state. 3. The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual. 4. The new consciousness is prepared to realize the internal life as well as the external life. 5. Traditions, dogmas, and the domination of the individual are opposed to this realization. 6. The founders of the new plastic art, therefore, call upon all who believe in the reformation of art and culture to eradicate these obstacles to development, as in the new plastic art (by excluding natural form) they have eradicated that which blocks pure artistic expression, the ultimate consequence of all concepts of art. “

The Manifesto needs to be read as a refutation of Expressionism and its emphasis on the individual, upon emotions, and upon spontaneity. The rejection of pre-War Expressionism was common after the Great War. Romantic notions of glory in war and of individual heroic actions led to the first mechanized war and the post-war world sought refuge in the universal laws. Van Doesburg concluded,

“7. The artists of today have been driven the whole world over by the same consciousness, and therefore have taken part from an intellectual point of view in this war against domination of individual despotism. They therefore sympathize with all who work to establish international unity in life, art, culture, either intellectually or materially.”

This first manifesto was signed by the principle artists associated with the group at that time, including Robert van‘t Hoff and Jan Wills, architects, George Vantongerloo, sculptor, and Vilmos Huzar, Hungarian refugee, and Piet Mondrian, both painters. Notably absent was Bart Van Der Leek, a close associate to Mondrian, attesting to the conflicting ideas among this loose group of artists, scattered among Dutch cities. Van Der Leek and Mondrian were from Laren, a rural town and a popular artists’ colony, while van Doesburg and the others, including J. J. P. Oud, were from the Leiden-Hague area. Eventually, Van’t Hoff and Oud, left the group, attesting to the difficulty of trying to get individual artists with clashing perspectives to work within an artists’ collective. Van Der Leek disagreed strongly with van Doesburg, who liked to blur the distinction between painting and architecture, and broke contact with the rest of the artists by 1920. Although he and Mondrian both contributed to the journal, they did not want to be associated with De Stijl, except as contributors. Mondrian, himself, left Laren for Paris after the War ended in 1919, and his contacts with van Doesburg were limited until he formally dissociated himself with the group in 1925. Despite the strong differences and divergences among the artists, certain key concepts emerged from De Stijl.

First, the group wanted to join art and life, to make art reflect modern life. There was a “new sense of beauty” that coincided with the new age. “The Brown world had to be replaced by a White one.” “The Brown” referred to the Baroque era of seventeenth century Holland, the Holland of Rembrandt, and, most importantly, to the reliance of previous art upon nature. “The White” was a world derived, not from nature, but from the elementary construction of Cézanne and Cubism, which would replace the vagueness of the Baroque with the logic and rigor of geometry. Second, the idea of “the style” is an absolute concept, meaning that De Stijl is the best and most appropriate to modern culture. Art can never return to representation. Art must eliminate the “profanity” of the illusion in its search for the absolute truth. The “absolute” is the cornerstone of De Stijl, for the absolute can be expressed only through abstraction. Therefore, De Stijl art is always abstract. This third idea united the artists who rejected the curves of Art nouveau and its sensual connections to reality. They also eliminated mixed colors in favor of the three primary colors, red, yellow, and blue. Straight lines and right angles ruled and eliminated all traces of the artist’s personality. “I abhor all which is temperamental, inspiration, sacred fire and all the attributes of genius that conceal the untidiness of the mind,” van Doesburg said. And finally, De Stijl sought the precision and exactness of the machine and its clean and efficient forms.

Because De Stilj was exclusively a Dutch movement, there has been speculation that the art and architecture is uniquely Dutch. However, any resemblance between the flat, human-produced landscapes of Holland and the flat paintings of the artists is purely coincidental. A better connection would be to the philosophical tendency towards abstraction through mathematics that is part of the Dutch tradition. Mathematics is a way of expressing the realities of the world in numerical terms. Numbers immediately abstract and universalize the particular and subject the local to the universal logic of abstract though. Equally Dutch was the tendency to eliminate the incidental in favor of abstraction, as exhibited in the iconoclasm of the Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One can better understand De Stijl from viewing a painting of the bare and stripped interior of a Protestant church by Emmanuel De Witte. De Stijl removed iconoclasm from its religious origins, eliminated nature, and substituted a more universal and absolute quest for a utopian harmony. “The art of painting,” van Doesburg said, “can be explained only by the art of painting.”

Cubism suggested to the De Stijl painters that it was possible to move into abstraction. Bart van der Leek stated, “Modern painting transmutes physicality into flatness by reducing the natural to the terms and proportions of the flat plane; and through the understanding of space, painting achieves relationships.” The Dutch artists seemed to understand that Cubism, particularly that of Braque and Picasso, suggested that line and color and form could be used as signifiers instead of as describers. If that was the case, then Cubism had created a new visual language that substituted ideas or concepts for resemblances. The Cubist artists themselves were unwilling to take the final step into total abstraction and to relinquish their hold on reality, but the De Stijl artists were concerned with concepts that were abstract compared to the more mundane sources of Cubism. In addition, Cubism was a pre-War movement and De Stilj was a post-War movement with the goal of rethinking the world. But the impact of Cubism upon De Stijl would be a strong one, particularly the author of the 1920 series of articles on “Neo-Plasticsm,” Piet Mondrian, who used cubist ideas as a vehicle through which he made concepts concrete through painting.

Van Doesburg brought the Section d’Or exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants to Holland in 1920: the Section d’Or-Paris: Works by Cubists and Neo-Cubists. The “neo-Cubists” were the Dutch painters who were compared to the French Cubists by van Doesburg as those who realized the abstractions of the Cubists. It is apparent two years later in the anthology issue of De Stijl published in the journal in 1922 that Mondrian emerged as the leading painter in the movement…in the eyes of van Doesburg. He gave the artist credit for inspiring new artists “with the possibility of a new creative image” through his series of essays on Neoplasticism in De Stijl. However the year to come would lead to a rupture between the two artists over van Doesburg’s “Elementalism,” a form of painting which would allow the dynamism of the diagonal, borrowed from the Russian Avant-Garde painting of Malevich. Mondrian, whose belief system was wrapped up in the idea of balancing opposites into a harmony of equilibrium, broke from the leader on the issue of the dynamic line in 1925.

From 1922 on, van Doesburg understood architecture as the primary means of expressing the Neoplasticism or new forms of De Stijl. His third Manifesto was devoted entirely to architecture. By this time, he was without his primary painters and even his architects are breaking away to attain their own goals. The leader becomes a traveler and promoted his movement, which became more and more of a dream than an actuality, throughout Europe. Increasingly, his travels brought him under the influences of other movements, which fit uneasily with the De Stijl precepts. Dada was of great interest to Rosenberg and is linked to De Stijl in its insistence that art and life should be merged. Equally compelling was the Russian Avant-garde artists who shared to dreams of a new world and a new utopia. However, both movements, like the educational ideas of the Bauhaus, were firmly rooted in real world situations. De Stijl always sought universality and absoluteness. The aim of the movement was to make the abstract concrete and, through this materialization, it would change the world.

Under the influence of new acquaintances, Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius from Germany, van Doesburg began to think of architecture as the overarching and all-inclusive. The Bauhaus was founded on the principle of the medieval cathedral where all the arts were combined under the auspices of architecture. During the 1920s, De Stijl, outside of the Parisian studio of Piet Mondrian, was exemplified as architecture. In the exhibition of De Stijl art in Léonce Rosenberg’s Galerie l’Effort Moderne, the movement was introduced primarily through a series of architectural models, based upon the De Stijl designs for Rosenberg’s proposed home. Unfortunately, only two examples of De Stijl architecture remain today, one of them being the famous Schröder House of 1924, built in Utrecht by Gerritt Rietveld, a cabinetmaker turned architect, who transformed a Mondrian painting into a building.

From the beginnings of De Stijl there had been a clash between painters and architects. While both agreed that it was important for both art forms to move forward and to manifest the modernity of the actual world and above all to merge art and life, the collaborations between the artists were difficult. Who should control the space? What should determine the space, the structure of the architect or the paintings of the artist within the structure? The painter did not want his/her paintings to be subordinated to the will of the architect any more did the architect want to allow the painter to undermine his/her vision. Mondrian approved of the idea of his theories of Neoplasticism being manifested in architecture and used his studio as a site where he manipulated space through the dispersal and arrangement of cardboard planes of primary colors. For a brief moment there appeared to be the possibility of the merger of painting and architecture dreamed of by van Doesburg in the Schröder House, where Rietveld dematerialized the exterior walls of the home by painting the Mondrian white against which the red balcony railings drew sharp lines in the air. In the end, De Stijl dissolved on its own and died with Theo van Doesburg in 1931. None too soon, the age of utopia was about to come to an end.

The next posts will focus on Piet Mondrian and on De Stijl Architecture.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast 39 Painting 5: Art Between the Wars

Art Between the Wars

Although art history usually passes over this inter-war period quickly, pausing only for Dada and Surrealism, these decades were significant for the continued development of painting. After decades of avant-garde art, Europeans began to consolidate the innovations and inventions of the new century. While the art scene in Paris returned to conservative market-based art, the experimental mind-set shifted to Berlin, the new capital of art between the wars.

 

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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