Early Abstract and Modernist Painting
“Paid taxes. Made abstract painting.” Arthur Dove, diary entry, 1942. Arthur Dove. Diary, 1942. Arthur and Helen Torr Dove papers, 1905–1975, 1920–1946. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The telling of art’s history is often shaped by the subtle imperatives of narrative form. It is reasonable to expect that a new American art would emerge in response to the urban and technological experiences of the early twentieth century. But is it also reasonable to assume that this new art would be modeled on the existing achievements of European artists, and that American artists would be judged in terms of their adoption of those precedents?
The literature on early American abstraction speaks of artists traveling to Paris or Berlin “to absorb the lessons of European modernism,”Barbara Haskell, Marsden Hartley (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art/ New York University Press, 1980), 9. and of them managing the “anxieties” of navigating a period “presided over by the creative movements of Europe.”Hilton Kramer, “Hartley’s Abstract Interlude,” Arts Magazine 29, no. 7 (1955): 9. Art historians invoke a gold standard to be attained (“pure abstraction”), and a variety of subsidiary measures (“nonillusionistic,” “virtually nonobjective painting”) to be applied in order to distinguish “so-called” from “actual” abstraction. This ranking and winnowing obscures the many tentative, independent, and even idiosyncratic steps taken by American artists on the path toward abstraction.
While artists such as Patrick Henry Bruce (1881–1936), Arthur Dove (1880–1946), Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), Joseph Stella (1877–1946), and Max Weber (1881–1961) directly encountered the European avant-garde, they did not always affiliate wholeheartedly and consistently with the modernism of Paris, Berlin, and Milan. In the second decade of the twentieth century, these artists encountered the work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), as well as examples of fauvism, cubism, and futurism. They worked rapidly through these styles as if sounding out the vocabulary of the avant-garde. Ultimately, they forged hybrid and individual versions of emerging artistic languages in a dialogue between European innovations and entrenched American literary and philosophical traditions.
For American artists, the meaning of abstraction was shaped by the idealism espoused by the American transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). While their practices were diverse, their reflections on what they were doing often touched upon his distinction between materiality and concept, the division between intuition and formal intellection, and the connection between thinking the world and picturing it. In Weber’s view, artists possessed “ideal, perceptive or imaginative faculties.”Max Weber, “The Fourth Dimension From a Plastic Point of View,” Camera Work 31 (1910): 25. Shaped by what Weber termed the “hand-mind” (making), the “eye-mind”(reflection), and the “feeling-mind” (emotion),Max Weber, Essays on Art (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1916), 8. This volume consists of a series of essays Weber wrote in fall 1914 and self-published in 1916. an artwork modeled an experience of the world perceived, felt, and intuited. For Hartley, abstraction was an art engaged with “the spirit substance in all things,” propelled by “a new fire of affection for the living essence present everywhere.”Marsden Hartley, “[Statement],” Camera Work 45 (1914): 17. For Dove, abstraction was as direct as the very process of painting—“Starting with nothing and building thereon”—and as expansive as the thought of Buddha, which was “as near abstraction as the human mind has arrived.”Arthur Dove, Abstraction Essay, 19—. Arthur and Helen Torr Dove papers, Archives of American Art.
Because American artists consistently positioned abstraction at the nexus of the material, the formal, and the ineffable, abstraction traversed the world, studio practices, and the ideal. Stella’s Telegraph Poles with Buildings (Fig. 1) is grounded in the concrete landscape of American enterprise. But in his engagement with this environment, matters of structure and form were more important than naturalism. His abstraction commenced with the simplification of the motif onto a tightly patterned canvas.In a related study, Stella depicted a denser web of wires and greater detail in the insulators and relays, which were both stripped out of the final painting. See Telegraph Pole, 1917, gouache on paper, 25 × 19 3/4 in. 63.5 × 50.2 cm, in John Baur, Joseph Stella (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1963), 24. Silhouetted buildings establish a strong graphic foundation, while the poles make a structure of uprights anchored to the top of the canvas, and wires a swooping scaffold of lines connected to its left and right edges.
Shaped by the spirit, rather than the letter, of industrial modernity, Telegraph Poles dwells upon energy, manufacture, and communication. Rippling with iridescent waves of color and emanating an electric-blue aura, the large factory building is magical rather than material. Draping cables enfold the world below and reach beyond the limits of the canvas, suggesting networks and transmission. Stella claimed these material artifacts of modernity as poetic emblems of a technological sublime. Cables, he wrote, are “aerial guides leading to Immensity”;Joseph Moser, Visual Poetry: The Drawings of Joseph Stella (Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, 1990), 65. they “dart like needles through space, knitting together the far and the near in harmonious unity”; they are a “link between the spiritual and material worlds.”Ibid., 64.
Telegraph Poles was shaped by Stella’s encounter with Italian futurist art in Paris between 1911 and 1913. In futurism he found an ecstatic picturing of modern experience that matched the fervent vitality of the American poet Walt Whitman’s (1819–1892) odes to urban America. Earlier, Stella had been less positive about the industrial scene. In 1908, making illustrations for a pioneering sociological survey of industrial Pittsburgh, he depicted jumbled slums in a miasma of black smoke, with telegraph poles askew overhead.Stella’s drawing Painter's Row, Workers' Houses (1908) is reproduced along with photographs of worker housing. See Russell Sage Foundation, The Pittsburgh Survey, ed. Paul Underwood Kellog, vol. 1, The Pittsburgh District: Civic Frontage (New York: Survey Associates, 1914) between pages 132–133. He likened Pittsburgh to the “most stirring infernal regions sung by Dante,”Quoted in Stephen May, “Joseph Stella’s Pittsburgh,” Carnegie Magazine 58 (1991), accessed 11 July 2017. his preference for moody literary allusion over reportage signaling the emergence of an abstract consciousness. By 1917, Stella’s abstraction had become a more conscious dialogue with painterly options, as if he were testing the application of futurism’s graphic rhythms and resonances to an American motif.
This attention to the meaning of abstraction in the United States— its relationship to existing experiences, ideas, and motifs—was integral to American artists’ engagement with European modern art. Weber’s Construction (Fig. 2), an adept exercise in analytical cubism, is evidence of his firsthand involvement with Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) in Paris between 1905 and 1913. But Weber’s writings on abstraction reveal his determination to define it in terms relevant to an American consciousness. He celebrated the concreteness of things; through them, he wrote, “I feel tied to earth.”Weber, Essays, 34. In their everyday materiality, “objects of use, houses, clothing, food, implements, utensils and their functions”Ibid., 31. were the foundation of modern American life. While this might read as a demand for realism, Weber, like many of his American contemporaries, made an idealist’s distinction between visible reality and abstract thought: “Everything must be more than it is visibly.”Ibid., 26.
Idealism—or “mind sight,” to use Weber’s phrase—unearthed “the principles that underlie things.”Ibid., 35. But how would such immaterial concepts be communicated in a painting? Weber suggested the constructive analogy of a grand, universal mechanism; like the components of a machine, things—or the “units” of a painting—were “part of the whole spiritual, living, moving cosmos.”Ibid., 32. Construction openly displays the components of its painterly mechanism: planes are built in simple outline and given form with plank-like brushstrokes. They are knitted together with interpenetrating curves and vectors. Variations in tone and texture bluntly generate volume, shadow, and space.
In this display of components, structure, and process, Construction attends to what Weber called “the relationships of weight, measure, scale and direction and of the combination of planes, or of resistance when colored and exposed to light.”Ibid., 69. The painting is all density, mass, size, and vector, with only the faintest hints at represented objects. These material properties aren’t made to stand for things; instead, they are “abstract elements or potential qualities in matter-form.”Ibid. An abstract painting was not a blueprint of idealist principles, but it could show, in its making, how art could “suffer itself through materialism on to the beyond.”Ibid., 53. And the open, unresolved forms of the painting allowed viewers to “unmake and make [the painting] again with [their] eye-hands and mind-eyes.”Ibid., 39.
While Weber’s rhetoric verges on the mystical, it points to a central concept in early American abstraction: the possibility that a painting might enact an encompassing idealism. Many artists were familiar with Emerson’s writings and especially his division of humanity into “two sects: Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness.”Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Essays and other Writings, Brooks Atkinson (ed.), (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), 87. Weber’s painting acknowledges material experience but models its incorporation by thought: it stands as an embodiment of Emerson’s dictum that “Mind is the only reality.”Ibid., 89.
Patrick Henry Bruce was as reticent as Weber was effusive, as clinical as Weber was cosmic. Nevertheless, Peinture (Fig. 3) was, like Weber’s Construction, a declaration that abstract art was essentially ideational—the plotting of a world conceived by the mind, rather than the fixing of a corner of nature on canvas. Peinture was the first in a sustained series of abstracted still lifes microcosmic, table-top domains in which commonplace objects were components of complex spatial and geometric constructions. Everyday objects are recognizable—there is a book, a scroll of paper, a drinking straw, a ruler, furniture, and architectural templates—but they are presented as archetypes, as the plane, the cylinder, the pyramid, and the parallelogram.
In their different ways, Bruce’s and Weber’s exercises suggest that a principal task in abstract art was the development of convincing analogies for idealist concepts. Bruce’s world is Cartesian in spirit: forms are founded in geometry, delineated with a draftsman’s perspective, seemingly plotted in space against a set of coordinates. A diversity of forms is disposed in a coherent world and integrated by pastel hues and a delicate overlay of pencil lines. As a kind of painted oxymoron—a precisely cluttered table—Bruce’s Peinture suggests that he was perhaps the American artist most deeply connected with Parisian developments. Bruce resided in France for most of his career, and his pursuit of intimate and stable ensembles of objective form reflects the so-called rappel à l’ordre (return to order) of post–World War I France.
From tabletop to social metaphor, from canvas to “little visions of the great intangible,” as Hartley put it, American abstract artists hypothesized equivalences between the artwork and the universal. In their enthusiastic experimentation, they proposed that the artworks embodied, communicated, or even fostered a heightened apprehension of nature. It was one thing for Hartley to declare that his abstract works put him “on the verge of understanding which is beyond knowledge,”Letter from Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz, November 8, 1914, quoted in Haskell, Marsden Hartley, 44. however, and another to present that in a painting, much less communicate it to the unenlightened viewer.
Claims for the heightened perceptual capacity of the artist had to be ratified as well as asserted. Here, Emerson’s advocacy of intuition and of a defiantly independent consciousness established a useful foundation. To this was added, in the early twentieth century, the metaphysics of the popular French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941). In his widely circulated texts, the emerging American avant-garde could read that “utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities,” stood as a veil between mind and reality. Art’s “purity of perception” offered a “more direct vision of reality” and came closest to drawing aside that veil and inaugurating an experience in which “our soul would continually vibrate in perfect accord with nature.”Henri Bergson, “What is the Object of Art?” [Excerpts from his On Laughter], Camera Work 37 (1912): 24. According to Bergson, while idealism’s “disinterestedness of sense and consciousness” made for “a certain immateriality of life … it is only through ideality that we can resume contact with reality.”Ibid.
That final remark suggests the reflection on seeing and knowing that underpinned early abstraction. The veil to which Bergson referred was the realm of appearances, of empiricism’s insistence that knowledge is derived from observation or, for artists, the tradition of naturalistic representation. To embrace “a certain immateriality of life” was to favor less tangible, less directly observable experience. But Bergson was also pointing to a more complex distinction between intelligence and intuition as conflicting forms of knowledge. In scholar Elizabeth Grosz’s summation of Bergson’s position, “What the intellect provides is a relative knowledge, a knowledge of things from a distance … a knowledge mediated by symbols, representations, measurements, whereas intuition can provide an absolute analysis, which means one that is both simple and internal.” Intuition was not a kind of emotional response but a mode of thinking: “a process of seeking the precise forms of concept, method, and representation that suits what is intuited in its simple immediacy.” As such, “Intuition returns to the real the fullness and interconnectedness that intelligence subtracts from it.”Elizabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 237.
In his own passage toward abstraction, Arthur Dove wrestled with the same terms: the real, the intellectual, and the intuitive. It was a journey traced, hesitantly and on occasion skeptically, in letters and diaries, as well as artworks. “The first step,” wrote Dove in 1913, “was to choose from nature’s motif in color and with that motif to paint from nature, the form still being objective. The second step was to apply this same principle to form, the actual dependence on the object (representation) disappearing, and the means of expression becoming purely subjective.”Letter from Dove to Duncan Phillips, October 3, 1913, cited in Sasha M. Newman, Arthur Dove and Duncan Phillips: Artist and Patron (New York: George Braziller, 1981), 28. In pursuing these steps—in the passage from seeing “nature’s motif” to the business of putting together a picture—Dove’s obligation to the picture’s subject (“representation”) diminished as his interest in the painting itself (“form”) increased. As the presence of the painting superseded that of “nature’s motif,” Dove’s subjectivity itself became the new motif. To redeploy Grosz’s terms, his method commenced in representation but concluded in concept; knowledge, of both nature and the painting, would be intuited in its simple immediacy.
Dove’s A Walk: Poplars (Fig. 4) speaks of that process, embodying its own becoming abstract, so that the relationship of reality, intellection, and intuition is evident. The title bluntly declares that being in nature drove the work. On a walk, nature is encountered at close quarters. This tightly cropped pastel is about nature’s grain, not its mythic expanse. This looming, glowing tree trunk is, in Dove’s vision, “Actuality! At that point where mind and matter meet.”Newman, Arthur Dove and Duncan Phillips, 37.
In A Walk, the process of picturing nature—the medium, the color palette, the mark-making, and the structure of the composition—enact this meeting of mind and matter. Underpinning this is a rhetoric of abstraction, an understanding of how form and process become a scaffold for meaning. There are equivalences: chalky pastels that evoke the velvety texture of poplar bark. There are forms that work as analogies: ungrounded and irregular shapes that correspond to the shadowy variegation of undergrowth. There are metaphors: glowing layers of color, flecked with glimpses of underlying hues, suggest pulsing organic vitality.
It has been said of Dove that his art pivoted on the “interplay between direct observation of objects in the American landscape on one hand and the assimilation of European avant-garde ideas (often translated into an American idiom) on the other.”Ibid., 36. In fact, the interplay between Europe and America was more intricate than this. Hartley’s Painting No. 50 (Fig. 5) was one of a series shaped by romantic imaginings of Native American culture. Painted in Germany, and drawing on displays of Native American artifacts in a Berlin museum, the work is rooted in a European tradition: the literary figure of the noble savage romantic. Hartley was aware of the popular fascination with Wild West shows in Europe. So although he later proposed, in his own version of the noble savage myth, that Native American culture revealed “the poetic aspects of our original land,”Marsden Hartley, “The Red Man,” in his Adventures in Art (New York: Bone and Liveright, 1921), 14. his painting was shaped by and spoke to the European context.
The abstraction of Painting No. 50 likewise arises from a mix of European and American concerns. There is a determination to identify something essentially American; he painted hieratic symbols—some accurate, others concocted—incorporating sun, moon, water, and totemic figures that suggested a cosmological vision of North America. In common with emerging European theories of abstraction, Hartley saw totemic symbols as a powerfully simplified expression of collective belief, a model for the modern artist seeking to communicate essential spiritual values without recourse to utilitarian symbols. At the same time, he incorporated the intensely colored patterning of German folk art, as well as German military insignia. So Painting No. 50 was universalizing in its evocation of the American Indian, the “one truly indigenous religionist and esthete of America,”Ibid., 15. but diaristic in its assimilation of the art and military pageantry that Hartley encountered in Germany.
With hindsight, Hartley made the affirmation of his Americanness central to his identity as an artist. In his autobiography, he recalled his pivotal first encounter with the seascapes of the American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917) as a moment of intense realization:
When I learned he was from New England the same feeling came over me in the given degree as came out of Emerson’s essays when they were first given to me—I felt as if I had read a page of the Bible—in both cases. All my essential Yankee qualities were brought forth out of this picture and I needed to be stamped an American, this was the first picture that had done this—for it had in it everything that I knew and had experienced about my own New England, even though I had never lived by the sea. It had in it the stupendous solemnity of a Blake mystical picture and it had a sense of realism besides that bore such a force of nature itself as to leave me breathless.Marsden Hartley, Somehow a Past (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 67.
Embedded in Hartley’s ecstatic self-mythology is a remarkable condensation of the foundations of American abstraction. There is the anchoring of art in New England transcendentalism and the demand that its spirit be discovered in painting. There is the repeated assertion of a regional consciousness, one so innate that it was felt even when it hadn’t been fully lived. There is the fusion of the mystical and the real, of nature and the spirit, of art and faith. There is the stupendously solemn grasping after an experience that is both sublime and formal, somehow echoing Bergson’s intuitive knowledge. And finally, there is the invocation of a European model, in Blake, but only after the American spirit through which it is assessed was emphatically declared.
Becoming abstract, however powerful the influence of European art and thought, seems inseparable from asserting American identity. Dove’s Flour Mill II (Fig. 6) pictures a farming community in upstate New York. In the painting, the material elements of the scene—the columnar mill, the brick warehouses at its base, the surrounding lots—are reduced to swatches of color. To the eyes of a European modernist, the American flour mill was a new architectural monument. Le Corbusier had earlier dubbed grain elevators “the magnificent FIRST-FRUITS of the new age.” For Dove, however, there is no modernist celebration of geometric mass, just an insistent, central vertical: the mill is the spine of the painting.
At its base is a schematic assertion of sunlight and shadow, hue and tone—a blunt assertion of what a painter works with. In keeping with Dove’s earlier model, the motif retreats as the means of expressing it become more subjective. Dispersed across an open and ungrounded visual field, only barely (almost arbitrarily) attached to the task of representation, Dove’s forms point toward what was to become the dominant language of midcentury American abstraction.
Professor, Australian National University, Canberra