"Abstract form," Sheldon Cheney has written, "whether narrowed to a summary of the plastic elements, or expressive of the synthesis of instrumental and emotional values, is understood as the basic excellence and test."
Abstract artists especially have sought analogies for the elements and the principles of geometrical order, in the realm of aesthetic order. The reason that so much "geometrical art" is the subject of popular skepticism is that it is constructed to formula and remains a matter of arrangements and patterns, without the element of fresh creation and aesthetic significance entering in.
Discussion of abstract, non-representational art has generally led to controversy rather than to any real clarification of the subject. Fanatical opponents and supporters reach a deadlock, because it is as useless to deny the legitimacy of abstract art as to try and impose its principles as absolute dogma. No artistic formula can be justified or condemned in itself; it must be judged by reference to the quality of the works that exemplify it. After half a century of vicissitudes, and despite its present widespread acceptance, abstract art still presents difficulties of an historical and aesthetic nature which no article on the subject, no matter how brief and objective, can ignore. Architecture and music are naturally admitted to be abstract arts, not required to 'represent' something, and subject to their own laws, whereas poetry, painting and sculpture are considered arts of representation. Ought this traditional distinction to be maintained or, aesthetics being universal, can all arts claim the same inherent autonomy as music and architecture? It does seem that abstract art was born from the very desire to emulate music and architecture, with a freedom and discipline of its own. Kandinsky, with his suggestions of music, and Mondrian, with his ideal of architecture, demonstrate the limitations and, at the same time, the achievement of abstract art. In the general process of abstraction that characterizes modern art, is there a line of demarcation between the domains of representational and non-representational art? And if so, where should it be drawn? Can one speak of relative and absolute abstraction, and where does absolute abstraction begin? Finally, is abstract art in its various manifestations a truly original creation of the twentieth century, the outcome of historical conditions, or is it a cyclic phase whose equivalent is to be found in the arts of the past?
The term 'abstract' itself is equivocal and invites discussion. For one could easily claim that all art is abstract, just as one might follow Picasso in declaring that there is no abstract art. Attempts to substitute other terms for it have failed. One interpreter of the movement, Michel Seuphor, has said: 'I call abstract art all art that does not recall or evoke reality, regardless of whether that reality be the point from which the artist started, or not'. Abstract art falls into two historically defined periods: an initial period ( 1910-1916) when abstraction was the result of an antinaturalist process, and a second period that began in 1917 with the De Stijl movement and is still going on, in which abstraction for abstraction's sake is the absolute principle from which the artist starts. It might perhaps be clearer, as is becoming the accepted practice to do, to call the first 'abstract art' and the second 'non-representational art'.
Fauvism and Cubism certainly favoured the autonomous development of forms and colours, and every kind of artistic experiment was tried during the extraordinary outburst of activity that preceded the 1914-1918 war. The first deliberately abstract water-colour by Kandinsky (spots of colour in dynamic juxtaposition without any representational purpose) dates from 1910, the same year that he wrote his fundamental work Concerning the Spiritual in Art, one of the basic books on abstract art. What shocked him into this new technique was a brilliantly coloured dress and the sight of one of his pictures standing on its side. But it was in referring to music that he discovered his aesthetic principle. Significantly, he called his sketches 'Improvisations' and his finished works 'Compositions'. The value of his abstract imagination rests on his genius as a colourist and the quality of his lyricism (vide Kandinsky). In 1912 the Czech Kupka also exhibited some abstract canvases directly inspired by music: Fugue in Two Colours, Warm Chromatic, etc (vide Kupka). He was the forerunner of the Musicalists, who, about 1920, formed a group with Blanc-Gatti and Valensi. Picabia, whose Rubber ( 1909) was non-representational, joined the movement, while Delaunay, the founder of Orphism, exalted to abstraction the lyricism of pure colour, which, he said, was both 'form and subject' (vide Picabia, Delaunay). But it was in Russia that experimentation in abstract art was carried to its extreme limits, beginning in 1913: the Rayonism of Larionov and Nathalie Gontcharova, the Constructivism of Tatlin (revived in 1920 by the Pevsner brothers and Gabo), the Nonobjectivism of Rodchenko, and the Suprematism of Malevitch, which gave us the celebrated black square on a white ground. Most of the pioneers of abstract art are of Russian origin and the real precursor of it was the Lithuanian Tchurlianis, in 1906-1907. The Slav sensibility is haunted by the fascination of nonexistence, the anguished flight from reality (vide Larionov, Gontcharova, Malevitch).
Another country in which abstract art has thrived is Holland. There Mondrian and the De Stijl movement ( Van Doesburg, Van der Leck), in opposition to the lyrical tendencies which Kandinsky inherited from Fauvism and Expressionism, crystallized the intellectual and geometrical tendencies derived from Cubism and transformed abstraction into nonrepresentation. Before De Stijl Mondrian's method was to make successive abstractions of a given subject (a tree, or the façade of a cathedral), purging it bit by bit of all natural appearance until it became no more than a diagram. This experiment, conducted systematically with that austere and methodical application so characteristic of puritan Holland, reached the same impasse as did Malevitch's, although Mondrian's approach was from the opposite direction. With Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian started from abstraction, from absolute plastic relationships, in order to attain the purity and universality of mathematics. He has had an influence on modern contemporary architecture and, through the Bauhaus, has left his mark on the development of Kandinsky (vide Mondrian, Van Doesburg).
Between the two world wars, abstract art, opposed by Surrealism, went through a period of alternating eclipse and resurgence. Picabia and Delaunay went back to representational art. But new abstractionists kept appearing, among them (from 1920 on) the Germans Freundlich and Voremberge-Gildewart, the Hungarian Moholy-Nagy (vide this name), who taught at the Bauhaus, and the Dutchman Domela, who joined the De Stijl group. In 1930, some former Cubists, including Charchoune, Reth and Herbin, allied themselves with the movement and (in 1935) Magnelli (vide this name) and Hartung. The first international exhibition of abstract art was organized in Paris in 1930 by Seuphor and Torres-García (group and review called Circle and Square). From 1932 to 1936 the Abstraction-Creation group brought out an annual album, and counted some four hundred members.
From 1937 to 1945 the vogue of Expressionism in war conditions slowed down the growth of abstract art. With the spectacular return of Picabia, it sprang up again everywhere with even greater vigour than before. In 1946 the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris became its first official salon of world scope, exhibiting a thousand works. Many of them were merely intellectual or purely ornamental exercises, an academic vulgarization of abstraction; but some of them expressed the profound need to flee from a discredited reality to conquer a 'new reality'. a pure plastic realm ordered in accordance with the rhythm and structure of the cosmos. Despite its vitality, however, abstract art is continually threatened by formalism and decoration. 'The most important thing about form', Kandinsky warned, 'is to know whether or not it emerges from an inner necessity.'
The first American practitioners of abstract art were Stanton MacDonald Wright and Morgan Russell. Calling themselves 'synchromists', they made a stir in Paris and Munich in 1913. That same year they were represented in New York's Armory Show. Both, however, returned to a naturalistic style, MacDonald Wright about 1919, Russell in the early 'thirties. Russell died in 1953. Wright has just recently gone back to abstraction with a brilliantly lyrical style.
Miss Katherine Dreier was the first to introduce to America the work of the leading European abstract artists, in an exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926. A little later A. E. Gallatin followed her lead, in setting up his Gallery of Living Art (now at the Philadelphia Museum), and Baroness Hilla Rebay founded the Museum of Nonobjective Painting (now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). But these steps in themselves did not bring about a fullfledged abstract art movement in America. Such painters as Max Weber, Marin, Feininger, Stuart Davis and Marsden Hartley flirted with abstraction but never gave themselves over to it wholly. During that post-World War I period only Covert (Brass Band) and Miss Dreier herself ( Abstract Portrait of Marcel Duchamp) produced works which are completely abstract. It was not until 1935 that American artists threw themselves wholeheartedly into abstraction. The pioneers were Harry Holtzman and Burgoyne Diller, who widened the scope of Mondrian's influence. They were followed by Fritz Glarner, Charmion von Wiegand, and others.
With the Association of American, Abstract Artists, founded in 1936, abstract art entrenched itself in New York. Among the participants in the group's first annual exhibitions were: George L. K. Morris, Holtzman, Holty, Ferren, Albers, Cavallon, Gallatin, McNeil, Reinhardt, and Charles Shaw. After the Second World War many others joined the group, among them von Wicht, Bolotovsky, Sennhauser, Alcopley, Wolff, Xceron, Frelinghuysen, Slobodkina, Perle Fine; more recently still, Beate Hulbeck and Ado Fleischmann. But since 1950 the ranks of American abstract artists have swelled far beyond this group to cover the entire country. Pure abstraction, particularly in the manifestation termed Abstract Expressionism, which Jackson Pollock spearheaded, has its devotees in every state in the Union. In the 'official' exhibitions put on by the Metropolitan Museum, abstract works are as numerous as representational ones. One notes frequently an emphasis on calligraphy, in the Oriental sense of the word. This art of the sign goes from an extreme of finesse in the work of Mark Tobey to an extreme of power in that of Franz Kline, passing, meanwhile, through the tortured meanderings of Pollock. Another form of abstraction, built around the 'spot', and hence closer to Impressionism, is encountered in the work of such painters as Clifford Still and Mark Rothko. Arshile Gorky, who died in 1948, worked a very individual abstract vein stemming from Surrealism. Other abstract expressionists include Tworkow, Stamos, Donati, Hans Richter, Richard Poussette-Dart, Alfred Russell, Motherwell, Gottlieb, Congdon, Baziotes and Willem de Kooning. De Kooning, however, has veered away from abstraction in the past few years and gone over to a more pronounced expressionism. One of the stronger influences on the work of many of these painters has been Hans Hoffmann, whose school has helped to develop a number of remarkable artists.
In Great Britain pure abstraction, in the sense that Mondrian or Kandinsky, for example, gave it, has never had much of a vogue. Even Ben Nicholson, who, over the past twenty years, has been the standard-bearer of English abstract art, returns frequently to a figurative style of painting, and is even so unorthodox as occasionally to group within the bounds of one canvas a purely abstract motif and a recognizable landscape -and successfully.
The magazine Axis, founded by Myfanwy Evans in 1935, was the first British review to speak out on behalf of abstract art. It carried articles by Sir Herbert Read, Geoffrey Grigson, James Johnson Sweeney, George L. K. Morris, and Roland Penrose, and reproduced works by the leading Continental artists and, along with them, those of English abstractionists Ben Nicholson, Winifred Dacre, Ivon Hitchens, Arthur Jackson, Henry Moore, Edward Wadsworth and John Piper. Piper was at that period the great hope of the new English abstract art, but he later abandoned abstraction completely and returned to his personal landscape style.
About this time Paule Vezelay, an independent English artist, began painting abstract canvases. She has a very individual style, with crisply distinguished forms, sometimes close to Arp's, and a subtle palette. She has exhibited more often in Paris than in London. Toward the end of the 'twenties Miss Marlow Moss, working in Paris, was a fervent disciple of Mondrian.
In 1937 Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, and the architect J. L. Martin, brought out an important book, Circle, An International Survey of Constructivist Art, but it was not until 1951 that there was a real spurt of activity in the abstract domain. In that year a new convert, Victor Pasmore, had his first exhibition of purely abstract work -- a combination of parallel curved lines, Celtic in origin, with constructions of rectilinear planes. Other young abstract painters followed his example and their activity was summarized in a book by Lawrence Alloway, Nine Abstract Artists, their Work and Theory, published in 1954. These nine include, along with Pasmore, Robert Adams, Terry Frost, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Roger Hilton, Kenneth Martin, Mary Martin, and William Scott. In addition to these artists there are Stephen Gilbert, Vera Spencer, and William Gear, each of them pursuing a different path toward abstraction. The latter three are shown more frequently on the Continent than in England. But over all his countrymen the figure of Ben Nicholson looms, internationally, as by far the most important among British abstract painters.