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Bad Form

Abstract Painting

by Michel Seuphor
Abrams, 320 pp., $20.00

This is another of those luxury art books that should never have been published. It should have been clear from the start that any book whose aim was to discuss only the abstract painting of the past fifty years was necessarily doomed to give a shallow and misleading account of much of it—which is exactly what M. Seuphor, in perhaps forty pages of undistinguished prose, has done. Whatever controversy it may once have provoked, abstraction per se is by now no longer a live issue. By this I mean that one no longer expects to have to deal with categorical attacks upon it: On the contrary, abstract paintings and sculptures have become immensely fashionable, and it is one of the most pressing tasks facing the critic today to make distinctions of quality among them. More important, the chief concerns of the best painters of the past two decades, in this country at any rate, have not had to do with the question of figuration versus abstraction, but rather with certain formal problems that have arisen out of the recent history of painting itself. These painters have, most of the time, painted in an abstract manner, but the problems they faced often had nothing to do with abstraction per se: thus both Pollack and De Kooning could “return” to figuration after achieving masterpieces in their respective abstract styles without necessarily compromising thereby the advanced status of their work. The notion of the formal meaning of a work, seen and understood in the light of other works of the recent past, is fundamental to understanding much of this century’s finest painting. (For example, one cannot give an adequate account of a single Synthetic Cubist canvas by, say, Juan Gris, without at least taking into account the increasing, and increasingly self-aware, assertion of the two-dimensionality of the picture-surface which one finds in collages and paintings by both Braque and Picasso from 1912 on.) Without it, one too easily descends into mere subjectivity when one tries to elucidate meaning, and into mere journalism when one attempts to write history. And it is just this notion that one finds nowhere in M. Seuphor’s book.

The repercussions of its absence are as striking as they are crippling. It is one of the few merits of M. Seuphor’s text to focus attention upon such relatively unstudied early abstractionists as Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Franz Kupka, and the Americans Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright; but his discussion of Cubism is nothing more than cursory; and, except for one unimportant quotation by him early on, there is no mention made of the most consistently exploratory (and to my mind the greatest) painter of the century, Henri Matisse—presumably because Matisse never practiced what M. Seuphor is prepared to count as pure abstraction. This omission ignores entirely the fact that, in terms of the formal problems with which he chose to engage, Matisse throughout his exemplary career was often well in advance of what has proved to be, in retrospect, the otherwise most advanced painting of his time, whether representational or abstract. And in fact it is impossible to deal with such diverse phenomena as the late landscapes of Nicolas de Staël or American abstract painting since Barnett Newman without having at least some understanding of what Matisse accomplished with pure color. Similarly, one finds no mention in M. Seuphor’s text of Soutine, in whose ripest canvases the handling of paint looks forward significantly to such splendid Pollocks as his “Shimmering Substance” of 1946. The Spaniard Joan Miro receives no more mention than the following:

Around the year 1924 Miro abandoned the realistic style in which he had been painting, characterized by clearly outlined forms, and began a series of paintings that represented nothing more than the painter’s free fancy. Are they abstract? In any case, they invent a world—a new plastic world, the space of which had never been seen before. Here all is surprise: irony, futility, laughter, mischievousness, playfulness, shock. Insolence is combined with the most refined delicacy, the extremest purity with rank impurity. For the next few years Miro brought extraordinary freshness to modern art. Subsequently his painting became more ponderous, though—it is true—at the same time more forceful. He was never to recapture the childish freshness of these years when he turned out painting after painting that was effortlessly naive, unquestionably abstract, and eminently poetic.

This may be taken, I think, as a fair sample of M. Seuphor under full critical steam. It should be unnecessary to observe that Miro’s style up to 1924 could hardly be characterized as realistic, or to remark on the general vacuousness of what M. Seuphor has to say. It is, however, significant that the question posed by the second sentence is in the last answered affirmatively. The author has no interest at all in the precise nature of the formal problems raised and dealt with in Miro’s paintings, such as the use of two or three contiguous areas of intense, ungraded color to hold a different plane. Rather, it is only because certain paintings by Miro—no titles are given in the text—are “unquestionably” abstract that the painter has earned a place, however small, in M. Seuphor’s story.

This blindness to formal qualities means that M. Seuphor is unable to produce more than a string of anecdotes, often involving and glorifying himself, when he attempts to write history. Here is virtually the whole of what he has to say about the finest French painter of his generation, Nicolas de Staël:

Staël was a very tall, thin young man, straight as an arrow. I tended to avoid his studio, because of his scant respect for other painters. One day, at the entrance to the Musée d’Art Moderne, I had a somewhat more relaxed conversation than usual with him and made up my mind to see more of him soon. He s e e m e d lighthearted, almost gay. A few weeks later I read of his suicide at Antibes. Paradoxical creature that he was, in his last works—in which he he reverted to the figurative—he completely turned his back upon the bright colors of the preceding years. A transparent sadness hovered over the still lifes and the seascapes.

Nor is M. Seuphor’s blindness restricted to formal matters. So vital a movement as Surrealism is seen by him only as a retreat from abstraction, into “anecdotal, ‘literary’ painting”—a point of view that overlooks the fact that the Surrealist practice of automatic writing and painting later nourished the development of Abstract Expressionism in America. His general distaste for Surrealism goes so far as to exclude from his text all mention of the French painter André Masson, in spite of Masson’s considerable achievement and of the profound influence exerted by him upon advanced American painting during the crucial early 1940’s. One could go on and on cataloguing important omissions but it is hardly worth the bother; in the end one almost comes to be impressed by M. Seuphor’s unshakeable complacence.

I have said that the notion of the formal meaning of a work, seen and understood in the light of other works of the recent past, is fundamental to understanding much of this century’s finest painting. This is especially true of advanced American work since the end of World War II, and it is not surprising therefore that M. Seuphor’s text is perhaps most egregiously inadequate in its treatment of this painting. I do not mean to claim that the formal relations that obtain among the paintings of Pollack, De Kooning, and Newman, for example, exhaust their possible meanings; they are, almost always, more or less expressive as well. But it is by now clear—thanks mostly to the critical essays of Clement Greenberg—that any account of modern American painting that fails to take cognizance of its formal content misunderstands its nature so gravely as to be worthless. This is the case with M. Seuphor’s essay. His inability to understand and, consequently, to appreciate recent American painting is shown both in the selection of works illustrated—there are no reproductions of paintings by Newman, Louis, or Noland, while Gorky, De Kooning, Francis, Frankenthaler, Hofmann, and Kelly are given one each—and in passages such as the following:

Those who are guided solely by the evidence of their senses…destroy themselves in the end by their lack of restraints. The nonformal painters of the present day, for example, turn out works that can serve at most as material for psychiatric case histories. They cancel out or annul one another like the waves of sea, and like those waves seem unaware that the horizon is watching them closely. Indeed, the opposition continues to this day: we need only contrast Jackson Pollack and Piet Mondrian.

Elsewhere in his text M. Seuphor characterizes recent American painting as an art of “uncontrolled impulse” and “unreflective expression,” and in one irresponsible paragraph he maintains that “between the most advanced of the French painters today and such American painters who may properly be compared with them, there is a difference in climate very similar to that between the French Fauves and the German Expressionists prior to 1914.” I like to think that it is something more than chauvinism that leads me to condemn M. Seuphor’s characterization of American painting as false and misleading, and to dismiss his last contention as absurd.

Finally, it should be mentioned that the reproductions are uniformly of high quality and that the text is most nearly useful on the subject of Mondrian, for whom the author clearly has the strongest sympathies.

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