Abstractionists were at pains to say that they do not expect wide public acceptance at this stage. They have observed that the general public takes its art on terms of "lifelikeness" and of its resemblance to products with which the museums have familiarized it. Being also skilled in historical research, they probably recall that since the procession headed by Duccio's Madonna (a humanist conception of the Mother of God at the opening of a humanist age), there has never been immediate, general acceptance of an unfamiliar kind of art or of the art which was to reveal the spirit of its age to later cultures.
"Research at the beginning of the twentieth century taught that matter was in a state of evolution, that the atom--a Greek designation for something indivisible--was being broken up," Peter Thoene wrote in Modern German Art. "The theory of relativity has revolutionized ideas of space and time. Psychoanalysis has probed into hitherto unexplored psychological spheres and deciphered mythical memories. Radium and X-rays have given us a picture of decay and renewal in the elements, and their emanations penetrate matter and make it transparent."
It is something of these actualities, operating with a sense of wonder upon few or many individuals, which give the aesthetic point of departure upon which the new abstractionists insist. It is upon a new order of sensibility and not a new conception of design that they depend in making their appeal, the ones who are creative artists.
Among the members of the American Abstract Artists whose names are more or less familiar in other connections are Albert E. Gallatin, founder and director of the Museum of Living Art at New York University; Josef Albers, formerly a director of the Bauhaus at Dessau, and the director of a pioneer art project at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; Werner Drewes, an instructor of art at Columbia University; Rudolph Weisenborn, a founder and former president of the Chicago No-Jury Society; Warren Wheelock, an American pioneer in near-abstract sculpture; and George L. K. Morris. Paul Kelpe and Byron Browne pursue worth-while experiments in abstract and geometrical painting. Hananiah Harrari's rhythmic essays often suggest Surrealism.
Some members of the loosely organized group follow Picasso, Gris, Braque, and the first Cubists; others, Arp, Hélion, Miró, Domela, or Mondrian. Gertrude Green's Constructions are sensitive studies in space relationships and sometimes suggest the work of Arp. Vaclav Vytlacil, also a Constructivist, with wide experience in the theory and practice of modern European art, and an educator, has turned to the design of bas-reliefs, machine-precise in form and constructed to express contrast in material and spatial relationship. His machine-age materials include cork, metal, linoleum.
Some of the constructions of contemporary abstractionists are studies in texture contrast. The marble-inlay murals by Florence A. Swift, of Berkeley, California, depend entirely upon the color and pattern of the material. Others carry on experiments in materials new in sculptural work. The mathematical severities of Piet Mondrian are the authority for new constructional organizations built with uncompromising fidelity to order and proportioning. The vibrant sculpture of the American, Alexander Calder (who works chiefly with the younger abstractionists in Paris) can be seen as another influence. Frederick Kann, of Kansas City, is producing work of distinction.
Josef Albers is continuing abstract constructions in glass, and also paintings in which he makes a striking use of transparent planes, continuing a field of exploration begun at Dessau a number of years ago. R. D. Turnbull is a versatile and prolific painter, as is Charles Shaw. These two artists, with George L. K. Morris, have been exhibitors at the Museum of Living Art for a number of years in the company of Hélion, Arp, Domela, Mondrian, and other of the younger European abstractionists, and they are also very well known among contemporary French experimentalists. Robert J. Wolff, of Chicago, produces free creations in color.
Lyonel Feininger was born in America in 1871, and is now painting in America, meantime having been a conspicuous figure in European international art. His parents were both musicians, and he studied music in Berlin for a number of years, turning only gradually to painting and arriving by stages of experiment at the form of Cubism which he introduced into Germany about 1913. The Side Wheeler (Phillips Memorial Gallery) is a representative example of the crystalplane organization so often suggested by his pictures. There is a suggestion in it, too, of Futurist influence, crossed with Cubism to induce the sensation of dynamic movement.
Many of the Feininger ships and streets and cities are static and about many of them there is a lyric character reminding us that Feininger conceives his pictures on the analogy of musical compositions and calls Bach the master of his form. Among his recent work is a street scene, developed through the use of oblique planes of light on architectural façades. There are no details; the appeal is made entirely through the laws of visual association; and yet the construction, which is Cubistic in character, is as firm as a steel-supported building, and the conception of a sheet at sunset is conveyed with distinction and clarity.
Feininger belonged to the Blaue Reiter group in Germany from 1913. In 1919 he went to the Bauhaus, where he worked with the founder, Walter Gropius, and was associated there first and last, as resident artist, with Kandinsky, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, and Albers until the end of the experiment in 1934.
The resurgence of interest in abstract experimentation in this country has come about while Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Albers, Feininger, and Amédée Ozenfant (the founder with Le Corbusier of the Purist movement) were working in America. There was simultaneously a new interest in nonrepresentative art, art without object, which most of its proponents distinguish from abstract art. It goes beyond the objective appearances of things, and attempts to present some subjective or psychological conception beneath or beyond physical appearances, in the direction suggested by the quotation from Peter Thoene.
Two national organizations have come into existence to promote such art in this country, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, in New York, and the American Transcendental Painting Group, with headquarters in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Guggenheim Foundation, formed in 1937, is educational in intention. Vasily Kandinsky, now working in Paris, is named as the master. This Russian-born artist was the first nonsubject painter of Germany and the first in Europe to advocate what he termed "free creation." His early, and metaphysical, philosophy was set forth in The Art of Spiritual Harmony, published before 1911. His painting of recent decades has gradually approached a more mathematical conception of form and, as represented in the Guggenheim collection, is an art of pure form and pure color, designed to communicate intuitions of a metaphysical order. Regardless of the philosophical implications, which are incomprehensible to most people, the Kandinsky paintings are representative of a very high degree of pure plastic creativeness.
The American Transcendental Painting Group was composed of artists "concerned with painting that finds its source in the creative imagination, and does not depend upon the objective approach." "At a time when Western civilization is dominated by the most extreme ideals of objectivity, concrete and economic materialism; when mass psychology, mass propaganda, and the theatrical show of dictatorships threaten the rights of individuals to live, feel, think, and create as individuals, it is indeed necessary for minorities of creative personalities to claim the historically fated task of embodying the polar attitude of life . . . thus acting to condition the reversal of civilization's ideals which is bound to come when the present tide has reached its limits," says Dane Rudhyar, vice-president of the group.
Raymond Jonson, chairman of this new educational and exhibition association, departed only gradually from subject painting. He made a long series of studies of the properties of expressive form, experimenting as a Cubist with surfaces and textures, with the interplay of volumes in space, and the rhythmic patterning of planes, as observed in nature. Synthesis Southwest, Cliff Dwellers, and Earth Forms are among the titles of his still more or less abstract paintings of this series, which are often strikingly beautiful in effect.
Chromatic Contrasts and Peace and Equipoise: Universe Series are examples of his contemporary work. In this now completely nonrepresentational expression, Jonson would suggest the processes of growth and change going on throughout nature, the vital flow implied by the conception that all matter is in movement and termed by him "the interplay of cohesion and integration with dispersion and dissolution through which new organic unities manifest."
"I wish to present my experience of life and my feelings in terms that are universal," he says. "I cannot but feel that our job is to present some aspect of inner meaning. In desiring an ideal the artist, perhaps, attempts to create one in the form of an organization where he can to a certain extent control the various elements so long as he adheres to the medium in which he is working. The world we live in is an amazing complexity and one effort is to ferret out of it the primary rhythms, and attempt to create an order that becomes a design of the elements such as line, color, form, and light.
"I believe in originality and innovation, variety and experimentation; that there is nothing new under the sun; that man is wonderfully made; and that God is in us and not some superior being outside us. I do not despise the exercise of physical wonders through art, but prefer the rhythms that flow into and through matter picking up essences and spiritual feelings. I believe that through the abstract and non-objective we will be able to state at least a portion of what life means. This does not imply that I think we have a new religion. Certainly not. What I am after is simply an extension of the great tradition of painting."
This artist is Scandinavian by birth, as is another contemporary, Henry Mattson. Mattson gives us evidences of his psychological awareness of overtones in nature, employing a plastic conception of color as instinctive as Ryder's own. Jonson seeks beyond familiar painting symbols to give an adumbration of processes going on interior to nature. Either might say, as did Franz Marc, with whom they are related in the matter of their North European racial temperament, "We are seeking and painting this spiritual life of ours in nature, not out of whim or for the joy of being different, but because we see this aspect, just as formerly the Impressionists suddenly 'saw' violet shadows and the atmosphere as an envelope of light. Nature glows through our pictures as through all art. Nature is everywhere, in us and outside us; there is only one thing that is not altogether nature, but is rather the overcoming and interpreting of nature: art. Art always has been and is in its very essence the boldest departure from nature and naturalness."
Both the abstractionists and the nonrepresentative artists are seeking to establish their own new language for the changed and changing psychological awareness of the objective world and of the nature of reality. The effort of the abstractionists, as voiced some time ago by Jean Hélion, is "to enlarge the elements, to multiply them as the cells multiply, lead them to the complexities of particular meanings, keeping them as long as possible in their character of simplicity." The nonrepresentative artists seek a language that is intuitional.
Both movements are experimental and are being furthered representatively by artists who have worked competently in more traditional practices. Jan Gordon, in Modern French Painters, gives a helpful definition of experimentation in art. "A scientific experiment," he says, "is one which elucidates and makes clear to everybody. Once the intelligence has grasped the intention and the method, anyone can judge whether the experiment has succeeded or not. Once understood, the experiment can be repeated. It is not necessary for the demonstrator to have the same genius as the discoverer. But in the experiments of art, the conditions are not paralleled. . . . no amount of intelligence will empower us to judge of the rightness or wrongness of a work of art. We may understand the principles employed, and yet our sensibilities may fail to react." The value of the work is not to be judged by the extent of its appeal, the author adds, but by the quality of emotion which it produces in its most responsive spectators.
All new movements in art have been fostered at their beginnings by individuals driven by the necessity to experiment, to discover, to create, and gradually to evolve new plastic symbols through which the artists shall gradually be able to communicate their experiences, a communication for which the established ways of art have failed them. The meaning of much experimental art at the present time has its analogy with the laboratory work of experimental science and-although less readily understood--should be accepted as advancing creative expression in its own more difficult field.