Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still
During its heyday in the late 1950s, abstract painting seemed to be at the center of modern art. Painting nonrepresentationally, which was then still considered a fairly radical practice, had become more or less synonymous with painting seriously—in fact, at the time many held that it was the only serious way to paint. Both the Abstract Expressionists and the early European abstractionists, such as Piet Mondrian and Vasily Kandinsky, were appreciated almost exclusively for the formal values in their work.
Under the watchful eye of the critic Clement Greenberg, artists and writers alike were encouraged to equate abstraction with emphasis on organization, flatness, and a rigorously imposed absence of recognizable subject matter. If, when you looked at Kandinsky’s paintings, you thought you saw stylized references to trees, mountains, or even figures, then it was assumed that there was something wrong with the way you looked at paintings, as if, like Polonius, you were willing to mistake a cloud for a camel. This exaggerated idea of purity had a strong pedagogical element. Keeping your attention firmly fixed on formal elements, so Greenberg and other critics supposed, would prevent you from making banal naturalistic associations, such as between Jackson Pollock’s skeins of paint and the tangled branches of trees.
This situation has changed considerably. Abstract painting is no longer considered especially radical and it is now merely one of a number ofcompeting avant-garde practices. Compared to video art, earth art, conceptual art, and various kinds of performance and installation art, it now seems quite traditional. Moreover, abstract painting itself is looked at, so to speak, less abstractly. Scholars have analyzed the veiled subject matter of Kandinsky’s paintings in detail and many now believe that we should discern references to mountains, trees, and figures. Recent studies suggest that Pollock’s drip paintings were sometimes begun as figure compositions; and a number of exhibitions and catalogs have given emphasis to the various non-formal sources of abstract painting, found in nature, in philosophical and scientific thought, and in mysticism.1
By now, sufficient time has passed for us to see abstract painting as a historical phenomenon that had two pioneering phases, the first European, the second American. But the question of how abstract paintings ought to be interpreted still remains subject to vigorous debate. In recent years, formalism has been regarded with a certain amount of distrust and there has been a tendency to see abstract painting as carrying out programmatic intentions, as if its practitioners had merely wanted to illustrate the ideas behind their art through a somewhat cryptic system of graphic signs. The curious idea has gained currency that the formal components of pictures are not especially important and that the complex subjective responses that result from looking carefully at paintings are in some way suspect. Perhaps because so much contemporary art is concerned with ideology, parody, and social criticism, moreover, the high seriousness associated with abstract painting and its aspiration toward some sort of spiritual absolute can now seem remote. In this…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.