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 …