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Space Men

Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still

John Golding
Princeton University Press, 240 pp., $60.00


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 context, the restraint, subtlety, and intellectual rigor of John Golding’s Paths to the Absolute, which is based on the six A.W. Mellon lectures that he gave at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1997, are especially timely.

Although it is generally agreed that abstract painting was one of the most remarkable artistic innovations of the twentieth century, even many of the people who enjoy looking at it do not profess to understand it very well. Indeed, much abstract painting seems almost to defy the very notion of being understood. How is it possible to ascribe meaning, beyond whatever significance may inhere in the sensory pleasure taken by the eye, to canvases that contain no recognizable subject matter and are filled only with geometric forms or with apparently random shapes and brush strokes?

This is one of the main issues that Golding addresses. Right at the beginning, he states his belief that

at its best and most profound, abstract painting is heavily imbued with meaning, with content, and that, in order to make this content palpable, new formal pictorial innovations must be found to express it.

In order to make his case, Golding has chosen two groups of artists. The first is made up of the three pioneering European abstractionists—Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Kasimir Malevich—who more or less invented abstract painting in the years just before World War I. The second half of the book is devoted to the work of four great American abstract painters—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still—who helped revitalize and extend the vocabulary and ambitions of abstract painting in the decade or so following the Second World War.

Although this selection poses some questions, especially in the latter half of the book, where the absence of such artists as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell is noticeable, on the whole it works quite well. General books on abstract painting tend to be encyclopedic, attempting to cover a broad range of artists, styles, and movements, sometimes in a rather cursory way. Golding limits himself instead to a small number of artists who he feels have produced works of the very highest ambition, in order to get at the core of what abstract painting is and how it works. He is more interested in the quality of the art than he is in stylistic diversity for its own sake, and he concentrates his attention on artists who were inspired, as he says, by being “on the path to some new, ultimate pictorial truth or certainty, to a visual absolute.” Artists such as de Kooning and Motherwell, whose works are notable for their diversity rather than for their single focus, therefore do not fit into Golding’s frame.

Instead of relying on a single method of analysis, Golding works inductively and intuitively, mixing biographical and historical information with analysis of the artists’ writings and paintings. Golding is himself a painter as well as an art historian, and as a result he constantly keeps in mind the ways in which the physical activity of painting can generate its own ideas and may be regarded as a form of thinking. He pays close attention to visual details, and to mixing personal appreciation with cultural analysis.

What results from this eclectic and empirical approach is an illuminating, extended meditation on abstract painting, full of astute insights, and remarkably open to the complex responses that its subject demands. Golding’s is one of those rare books that cover the essentials of a subject so well that it will serve as an excellent introduction for those who are new to it, yet at the same time his book is rich and complex enough to be thought-provoking for those who know the subject well.

Golding is keenly aware of the numerous contradictions and tensions that have inspired and informed abstract painting since its inception, especially those between private and public utterance, and hidden and manifest subject matter. He is also especially sensitive to the ways in which our understanding of abstract paintings results from a sometimes paradoxical balance between contradictory kinds of knowledge and perception. All three of the European abstract artists, for example, wrote extensively about their art, and it is from these writings that we understand a good deal of the motivation and content that lie behind their paintings.

Although the works and specific goals of these three European pioneers were quite different, they all, Golding points out, drew inspiration from science and from various kinds of mystical thought. This combination may seem odd to us now, but at the time both science and the occult offered ways to connect with what was considered a deeper sense of reality by challenging the primacy of the material world and emphasizing forces and processes over things. Like many other aspects of abstract art, this can be seen as an outgrowth of nineteenth-century French painting. The Impressionists, for example, had often given primacy to the representation of energy over solid matter, and Cézanne in particular had drawn attention to the actual process of painting in such a way as to make it, in effect, part of his subject.

The European abstractionists took these concerns considerably further by giving priority to representing forces and processes without specific references to the material world at all, and by making such processes the manifest subject of their paintings. The profound effect of contemporary scientific thought on the early European abstractionists is dramatically evident in Kandinsky’s 1913 account of how the division of the atom propelled him further in the direction of abstraction:

The collapse of the atom was equated, in my soul, with the collapse of the whole world. Suddenly, the stoutest walls crumbled. Everything became uncertain, precarious and insubstantial. I would not have been surprised had a stone dissolved into thin air before my eyes and become invisible.2

Kandinsky and the other European artists were especially interested in ideas about the fourth dimension and in Theosophy, with its goal of transcendental knowledge and of seeing the natural world in terms of “the inner eye.” The apocalyptic thinking and color theories of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the German Theosophical Society, deeply affected Kandinsky from the time he first heard Steiner speak in 1909. Mondrian was particularly attracted to the Theosophists’ idea that all life is directed toward evolution and that progress toward the ultimate revelation of reality could be achieved through the balancing and reconciliation of opposing forces, a concept that informed his painting until the end of his life. Malevich, who was obsessed by the scientific and mystical properties of geometry, was devoted to the works of P.D. Uspensky, a follower of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society.

Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich, however, used these ideas in very different ways. Kandinsky was deeply influenced by Matisse’s Fauve works and gave primacy to color in both his paintings and his writings. He was especially passionate about the relationships between color and music and wanted to give his works a Wagnerian plenitude and orchestral complexity. Unlike Mondrian and Malevich, Kandinsky constructed his picture space in ways that preserved a sense of landscape, and often retained veiled references to imagery of identifiable objects and scenes. Golding acutely analyzes such elusive references. Discussing Kandinsky’s Compositions of around 1913, Golding writes:

The truth is that as he succeeded from time to time in divorcing himself from legible imagery, the literary sources upon which he had drawn to give his ever more abstract paintings substrata of meaning often forced themselves back irresistibly through his subconscious. In other words, there exists a continuous dialogue, a duality in these works between abstract forms, which he was increasingly courting, and the iconography that had originally invoked them.

Mondrian and Malevich, by contrast, were inspired by Picasso’s Cubism, and their mature styles were basically geometric and reductive. Mon- drian’s ideas about dynamic equilibrium as expressive of the true nature of reality eventually led him to the intense distillation of his mature works: severe networks of black lines set against white planes, punctuated by rectangles of primary color.

  1. 1

    See Pepe Karmel, “Pollock at Work: The Films and Photographs of Hans Namuth,” in Kirk Varnedoe, with Pepe Karmel, Jackson Pollock (Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 1998), pp. 87– 137. The most comprehensive study of mysticism is in Maurice Tuchman et al., The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Abbeville, 1986).

  2. 2

    Kandinsky, Reminiscences, 1913; in Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Virgo (G.K. Hall, 1982), Vol. 1, p. 364. Golding, in an unusual lapse, takes this to mean that “Kandinsky distrusted developments in contemporary science, and claimed that knowledge of splitting the atom had destroyed his own universe.”

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