Gallery Highlights - Abstraction
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The Avampato Discovery Museum's permanent collection of abstract and non-objective art exemplifies many important movements within the American abstraction community and its European counterparts. These images span the twentieth century, and reveal many important trends in abstraction starting with artists like Marguerite Zorach and continuing with contemporary artists such as West Virginia native David Jeffrey.
Abstraction is a form of art which does not seek to represent the absolute truth of the physical world around us. In essence all art is abstract. No matter how realistically an image is depicted it is not an exact copy. Or looked at it another way, it is just that - a copy of reality but not reality itself. While music and architecture have always been recognized as abstract arts, the classical traditions of the visual arts and literature have been conceived of as "imitative arts." For the visual artist, linear and atmospheric perspective were a means for creating paintings that were "imitations of nature" - visual illusions that made the viewer think he was looking at a human figure, still life or a landscape rather than at a canvas covered with paint. Perhaps the greatest revolution of early modern art lay in the abandonment of this attitude and the perspective technique that made it possible. From the late nineteenth century artists were consciously or unconsciously moving toward a conception of painting as an entity in and of itself and not an imitation of anything else. It had its own laws and its own reason for existence. The earliest forms of abstraction were found in Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism.
In its purest sense abstraction applies to any art that does not represent recognizable objects, and refers particularly to forms of twentieth century art in which the idea of art imitating nature has been abandoned. This move toward abstraction or towards alternative forms of representation has been linked to the rapid technological changes and scientific discoveries of late nineteenth century - photography, electricity, rapid communication and new forms of transportation. A feeling of idealism and confidence was in the air. Artists were swept up by the belief that there was plenty of territory to explore and that the new art form called Modernism would provide the necessary metaphors to reflect the radically changing culture.
By the late nineteenth-century, the camera had proven its ability to faithfully capture the natural world. Visual artists were finally freed art from the image and, along with critics, asked the public to look at an artwork in a new way. The desire was to get past imagery instead creating a more intimate understanding of the materials used in making a work of art. In Europe, Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first to break through to a new non-objective language, influencing many European and American artists during the early twentieth century. His images were introduced to an American audience during the Armory Show of 1913. Kandinsky emphasized the symbolic qualities of color and used the non-objective approach in order to emphasize the formal interaction of color. His book On the Spiritual in Art (1912) was an important influence on many artists seeking to advance the symbolism of the basic elements of form. The contemporaneous movements of Surrealism and Dadaism were also important first steps toward questioning what art could be through alternative forms of representation. Artists including John Marin, Blanche Lazzell, Marguerite Zorach, Stuart Davis, Rolph Scarlett, Emil Bisttram, Joan Miró, Roberto Matta, Frank Stella, Jack Lembeck, Mark Perlman and David Jeffrey provide examples of various techniques and media within this movement in the arts.
One of the first American artists to abstract from nature to varying degrees was John Marin. Though faithful to the closely observed genre scene, John Marin made the experience of living in New York uniquely modern and American. Newer and bolder means were needed to convey the raw and vivid elements of such a diverse country. John Marin found the right expression in two concurrent European modern movements - Fauvism and Cubism - for the representation of the American landscape. In Fauvism, he found parallels for his deeply personal identification with his themes and in Cubism he used the devices of disintegrated and reconstituted planes, which enabled him to present the form and structure of his feelings with unrivaled economy. Marin was fascinated with the skyline of New York City. "I see great forces at work - great movements - the large buildings and the small buildings - the warring of the great and the small - influences of one mass on another . . ." Of his city scenes Marin wrote, ". . . the whole city is alive; buildings, people all are alive." Marin conveys his impression of this modern energetic city in the 1921 etching Downtown the El. There is a powerful sense of immediacy and vitality as the architecture overwhelms the observer with its stupendous heights. The exaggerated forms express the energy of the city through bold diagonal lines that cut across the composition. Forms are dictated by the need to depict motion. Representation reverts to symbols and abbreviated forms for economy and speed.
Another early American modernist who extracts the abstract elements of Cubism and Fauvism, transforming them into an American idiom is Marguerite Zorach in her painting Prohibition, 1920. The painting's trapezoid composition with two clothed men and a nude woman is reminiscent of Edouard Manet's notorious nineteenth-century painting, Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). Zorach painted this work during the first year of the Prohibition Era (1920-1933) when alcohol was illegal and bars and "speakeasies" were underground establishments. The Matisse-like female figure in the foreground appears bored by her surroundings while the two males, one in uniform and the other in a suit, seem oblivious to her presence. Zorach masterfully utilizes Cubist structural elements and Fauvist "wild" exaggerated colors in this painting.
The treatment of natural and manmade forms as abstract arrangements of planes and lines in space was a constant factor in the work of Stuart Davis. He had studied with Robert Henri (see the painting Consumer Coal) and like so many other American painters fascinated with modernism went abroad to study the newest movements. Like Marin and Zorach, Davis was attracted to the rhythm and excitement of modern urban life. The 1931 lithograph Theater on the Beach, Davis rejected traditional modeling and perspective using delineated shapes and patterns to emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. In creating the print, Davis combined images of Paris and Gloucester Beach in Massachusetts. He super imposed a Picasso-like dancing figure over scenes of Gloucester Beach (at left) and the ornate Parisian Theater de l'Atelier (at right). The complex patterning of the different elements in the picture conveys the confusion and bustle of modern life and the rhythmic composition evokes the beat of a new American art form, jazz. Although these three artists continued to paint the objective world - landscapes, figures, and objects from everyday life - they made these subjects abstract by violently detaching color and form from its descriptive function. All three works seem to say that abstraction is more than rhythmic arrangement of line and color on a flat plane - it is how far the image of nature can be pared down without destroying its basic properties and reducing it to mere surface ornament.
For Blanche Lazzell, Emil Bisttram and Rolph Scarlett abstraction was more than mere surface ornament. West Virginia born artist Blanche Lazzell produced some of the first non-objective paintings and prints in America. After studying in New York, Lazzell went abroad in 1912 and again in 1923 to explore advanced European concepts. While abroad in 1923 she observed the principles of Cubism during her studies with artists including Fernand Léger, Albert Gleizes, and André Lhote. Lazzell's mixed media collage Abstraction (1924) exhibits the influence of early European modernism. It is comprised of simple overlapping geometric shapes, superimposed as a series of planes, to create a balanced spatial interplay. To avoid any association with visual experience, Lazzell eschewed linear perspective and suggested only shallow space. Her aim was to create a pleasing sense of movement, rhythm, and equilibrium. Her abstracted objects seem to refer both to interiors and to exteriors, combining elements from architecture and everyday objects. Lazzell is probably best known for her role in the formulation of new printmaking techniques in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She helped to develop a cubist-inspired approach toward color-woodblock printing known as the Provincetown or White-Line print. The Provincetown Printers Group became the first established color-woodblock society.
The Hungarian born painter Emil Bisttram was a part of New Mexico's Transcendentalist movement in painting. He was particularly interested in theosophy and its application to the arts, an interest influenced by the writing and art of painters like Wassily Kandinsky. Theosophy was a spiritual philosophy founded by Madame Blavatsky in New York in 1875. The mysticism surrounding theosophy was a mixture of Eastern religions including Zen Buddhism, Taoism and other esoteric philosophies. New Mexico, known for its big skies, intense light and rich cultural history provided the perfect backdrop for artists to capture the ethereal qualities of color and light, and its mystical environment. These elements were what these painters, including Bisttram, were searching for in their own canvases. Through the use of highly abstract and non-objective forms of representation these artists freed their work from automatic associations with the recognizable world, asking the viewer instead to look beyond the everyday experience toward a more spiritual plane of existence. The light of New Mexico became the "spiritual light" Bisttram was searching for in his work. In the mixed media work Untitled - Three Bars in Umber, Blue, and Gold (1937)Bisttram used a strong complementary color scheme to create an image that appears to represent an abstracted Southwestern landscape. The entire picture plane is broken down into geometric shapes creating a sense of pattern, while weaving the three main colors together in a Native American inspired design. Pure color and its interaction with light appear to be important components within this image.
Rolph Scarlett's imagery also reflects the desire to imbue art with a sense of the spiritual. The Canadian émigré was greatly influenced by the non-objective work of European painters including Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky. Scarlett was one of the many non-objective painters in America to adopt Mondrian's ideas of "Neoplasticism" into a more polychromatic form of representation. Neoplasticism was considered by Mondrian to be a method of creating a "dynamic equilibrium" of form through the use of right angle geometric shapes and a palette restricted to the primary colors plus black and white. Mondrian's compositions used geometric shapes of red, yellow and blue to create a sense of harmony and movement within the picture plane. American artists embraced this idea, but did not accept the restricted palette proposed by the Dutch painter. Scarlett instead believed that art was the expression of man's spirituality. He used the term "non-objective" rather than "abstract" to describe his work because the circles, squares, rectangles and triangles in his art were not abstractions of physical objects. He believed an artist should create new forms to represent a cosmic order rather than reproducing forms that already existed in the physical world. Scarlett's Untitled-Abstraction T-20 (c.1940) provides an example of this adaptation of form popular during this period in America. Scarlett used an open palette juxtaposing biomorphic forms with geometric ones floating in a bluish celestial space. He layered his colors and shapes to create a sense of depth in an ambiguous space.
Reacting to the ills brought on by the industrial revolution and the havoc of World War I, a group of writers and artists tried to formulate an aesthetic stemming from the possibilities and processes of a new reality derived from dreams and the subconscious, most often pulling from the psychoanalytic discoveries of Sigmund Freud. Implicit in this new art form known as Surrealism, was the need for revolt - revolt against all institutions and philosophies that led the younger generation into the dreadful carnage of World War I. Spanish artist Joan Miró belonged to the wing of Surrealism which advocated "psychic automatism" as a way of producing imagery - creating in the manner of a doodle without conscious forethought. Miró's visual abstractions were obviously influenced by Breton's literary theory of automatism. For Breton this meant tapping into the unconscious by writing in a trance-like state. Miró admits to using this theory visually in his attempts to free his form from imagery and the influence of Cubism. In a letter to a friend Miró admitted to using sleep deprivation and a sparse diet to induce a hallucinatory state when creating his artwork. Miro's print Personnage (n.d.), a drypoint and aquatint on paper, provides an example of Surrealist inspired imagery. Like the other Surrealists, Miró used a somewhat arbitrary application of color in juxtaposition with distorted lines in this print. The print suggests joyful abandon - an immersion in sensual pleasure. The result is as decorative as it is expressive.
Chilean born Roberto Matta was another influential Surrealist artist whose work had a significant influence on Abstract Expressionist artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Matta's strange organic forms originated from his subconscious and were produced by a technique called "pure psychic automatism," whereby the artist produced spontaneous drawings directed by his inner being. Sitting before a piece of blank paper, a drawing instrument in hand, the artist allowed his/her thoughts and associations to flow without impediment onto the paper. Matta's mystical and disturbing paintings which he called "psychological morphologies," or "inscapes," suggest scenes of chaotic violence and terror. Organic, even extraterrestrial in nature, they are preoccupied with infinite cosmic space. Matta initially trained as an architect and worked as a draughtsman for Le Corbusier. In the painting Tentation sans Visage, a multitude of insect-like shapes fill the dream-like spaces bisected by floating architectural forms. In creating these mechanistic images, Matta spread transparent washes of color on the canvas, usually with a rag; he then developed forms from these beginnings which became more particularized and more illustrative as the work proceeded.
Jack Lembeck's abstract illusionism is a visual pun for abstract purists who rejected realism and illusionism. Lembeck attempts to combine the qualities of a non-objective painting with the art historical tradition of trompe l'oeil (to "fool the eye"). His early work was inspired by his research into the development of art during childhood. It was this intense interest in children's art, primitive art and the graffiti of New York City that led him toward abstract and non-objective forms of representation. The extreme three-dimensional illusion created in his painting Untitled #65 (1988) is indicative of Lembeck's work as a sculptor. The painted geometric forms appear to be floating above the ground of the image upon which their shadows are cast. By focusing on the process of making of real abstract marks or gestures, the work represents a kind of non-objective trompe l'oeil.
David Jeffrey's minimalist, non-objective paintings represent a trend that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s within modern art. Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg, two other artists within the collection, were some of the first to create works approaching this state of minimalism. Frank Stella's Black Paintings and Robert Rauschenberg's White Paintings caused a stir in the American modern art community in the 1950s. It was only one year after his graduation from Princeton that Stella exhibited his Black Paintings in New York. He reduced the literal character of the picture-support by echoing the shape of the canvas painting with a series of rhythmic black stripes. The results were monochrome paintings whose overall symmetry emphasized the flatness of the canvas and freed it from being an allusion to some external reality. Restricting the color to only black increased the painting's minimalist nature. It was during this time that the art critic Clement Greenberg espoused the idea of "painting for painting's sake" (the concept that a painting should be just what it is, not an attempt to copy some part of our reality). In this sense the form (e.g., color, space, and line) becomes the content and object. David Jeffrey carries on this minimalist tradition with his drawn and mixed media images 1-11-88 (1988) and UT-11 (1996). Like Stella, Jeffrey uses the basic elements of line and shape to unite the picture plane as a whole, creating a compositional gestalt. Instead of paint, Jeffrey layers crushed charcoal over the adhesive-backed square, enhancing its textural depth. The images were inspired by Jeffrey's time working in the coal fields of West Virginia. The title, referring to a specific date, conveys a harsher essence of the cold January weather experienced in this region. The image is also reminiscent of the dark colored rectangles of Abstract Expressionist chromatic painters such as Ad Reinhardt. Like Reinhardt, Jeffrey's large black rectangle appears to hover above the white background. The series of adjacent vertical stripes within the dark rectangle bring to mind the shaft of a coal mine as one enters the mountain.
Artists Sam Francis, Frank Stella and Mark Perlman work in highly abstract and non-objective forms of representation. Each approaches the concept of abstraction through an intuitive process but their content comes from a decidedly different vantage point. For Sam Francis the printmaking process of monoprinting allows the artist to create an image layered with color, creating a sense of space not unlike that found in a Jackson Pollock action painting. The monoprint process is an anomaly within the medium of printmaking, for it is the only kind of print that cannot be duplicated. This links the process very closely to painting. Monoprints are a more spontaneous form of printmaking as opposed to the more restrictive traditional techniques of etching and engraving. The effects created by this type of direct transfer of ink and paint from a plate to paper can be quite spontaneous and unexpected. The seemingly unplanned effects created by the monoprint appear to reflect the formal concerns found within Francis's painting as well. Francis is placed among a group of artists called the Post-Painterly Abstractionists, although the term "painterly" seems appropriate enough when describing Francis's form. His work focuses on the consistency and application of paint in relation to the surface upon which it is placed. His use of the drip and splatter techniques link him to artists such as Jackson Pollock. Francis's monoprint Untitled (1986) exhibits this long term interest in the spontaneous application of paint creating suspended forms against a white background.
Like Francis, Frank Stella holds an important position within the abstract movements of 1960s and 1970s American art. Stella's Black Paintings paved the way for the Minimalist movement of the late 1960s, where the repetition of clean, hard-edged forms stripped art to its basic elements. Later, Stella continued creating similar works, emphasizing color, using geometric forms (the protractor was a favorite) and working with shaped canvases. The shaped canvases led Stella quite naturally toward combining sculptural three-dimensional elements with painting's two dimensional elements. As the 1980s progressed, Stella's work took a decided turn away from the reduction of art to its most minimal form and began to incorporate a wider range of materials and techniques. He created complex almost baroque-like wall constructions and has recently found great interest in working with stainless steel and aluminum, as seen in Bekel (2002). The term "bekel" refers to an Indonesian children's game that is the equivalent of the western game of jacks. Bekel is played with a ball and objects called "biji bekel."These objects act as the jacks and have three distinct sides. The biji bekelare flat with a small bridge holding the two sides together. Stella's long time interest in spatial relationships and spiraling shapes is emphasized in this sculpture, represented by the large twisting parabolic aluminum sheets held together by the spiraling, grid-like trusses and tubes. The form appears to imitate the movement of the biji bekelwhen the player bounces the ball and attempts to capture it in a specific position. Stella's painting and sculpture, like the work of Francis and Perlman, is a product of an additive process with his chosen materials.
California artist, Mark Perlman layers abstract imagery to extract the rich cultural history of neglected structures. His aesthetic was formed by his childhood home in a Pennsylvania steel town near Pittsburgh. "I loved hanging around the steel mills, rust was everywhere, a patina that covered everything and changed colors. In that setting, the beauty was in the decay." As with Sam Francis, the additive nature of the monoprint process appeals to Mark Perlman. Using this process enables him to create the decaying stratums of his mixed media imagery. Untitled #15 began as four separate monotypes on sheets of Arches paper. Upon each sheet of paper Perlman began to randomly draw with graphite creating a rhythmic sense shared by the four sections. This under-drawing serves as a base for creating unity within the assemblage of parts. Perlman's continued the process adding layers of monoprint, drypoint, handwork and a coating of Dorland's Wax Medium. Perlman's style is often referred to as a style of decay. Within his process the building up and tearing down of the surface reflects his interest in the decomposition of the environments surrounding him. Perlman uses paint and other media to depict the passage of time, and the scars this movement leaves behind. Early in his career Perlman worked as a photographer for a historical society. The photos that he took of buildings falling into decay, while being overtaken by nature informed his later work. Untitled #15 reflects this observance of the decomposition imposed by time and man. Perlman's mark making is reminiscent of the graffiti and layers of neglect which adorn these decaying structures. His generic title reflects his interest in preserving the mystery of his subject matter, just as an abandoned building possesses the mystery of its past. For Perlman the additive nature of his process reflects the destructive nature of decay. Form and content merge within his imagery creating a complex investigation into the effects of time upon the world around us.Throughout the twentieth-century, abstraction has provided artists with the tools needed to explore their world in a new and different way. Abstraction celebrates the triumph of the present over the past; the victory of the industrial revolution; the quest for understanding the unconscious; and the exploration of the elements of art without the need to connect them to real imagery. While less revolutionary and radical, abstraction remains a durable art form in the twenty-first century. In each case the works represented in the Museum's collection demonstrate the varied perspectives of abstraction as the artist extracted his or her own idioms to expand or redefine the tradition of the visual arts.