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Those who have followed the course of abstract art over the past 70 or 80 years will have been struck by its persistence. When the Cercle et Carré exhibition was held in April 1930, the Parisian press informed us that such painting was “the mere ghost of an experiment which we thought had died long ago,” and that “all this has nothing new to offer.” In 1955 the same outbursts of weariness and boredom, if not anger, can be heard at any exhibition of abstract art: “about time the joke was buried. . . same old bag of tricks. . . poor old public.”
Maybe. But things become entirely different if we are patient enough to take a closer look. Then we see that abstract art has never stopped adding to its range and means of expression, never faltered in its search for greater depth. If the ABC of this language was firmly established in the ‘heroic’ phase by Kandinsky, Mondrian, Delaunay and Malevitch, this does not mean that everything has been said in the same language. The critics’ ignorance and the public’s sophisticated grumbling were unable to prevent it from branching out into the remotest corners of the western world, where it has won over intelligent collectors and gained a hold, even a considerable hold, in civic museums and galleries. Kandinsky and Mondrian, both of whom lived to a good age, thanks to their long working life were able to show their successors what a range of values can be drawn out of such simple elements; Kandinsky stressing inventiveness and Mondrian the importance of increasing depth.
To return to abstract expressionism as a whole, can we say where its new trend is leading? Obviously not, since the artist alone will determine this. But there are straws in the wind, and one of them is the attitude of the younger painters and sculptors toward abstraction. The word is no longer a challenge or banner of revolution. The earliest professional training of some of these artists was under leading abstract painters: Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell and others. Their students have accepted abstraction as naturally as an earlier generation of students accepted American scene painting.
This does not mean that they will necessarily abandon it to seek the formation of a new avant garde in representational art (although some have done exactly that). But abstract expressionism has a vitality that is not likely to be extinguished, even by the assurance with which it is now practised. Its younger members are finding their own challenges, and these lie not so much in the development of an abstract vocabulary, largely perfected already, but rather in the transformation. of art once more from end to means, and the use of the movement’s oblique approach to explore a larger realm of truth and human experience than has yet been attempted in such terms.