In April 1957 the two principal speakers before the American Federation of Arts meeting in Houston were Marcel Duchamp, proto-Dada and practicing non-artist, then seventy years old, and Meyer Schapiro, a Columbia University art historian best known for his articles on Early Christian, Romanesque, and nineteenth-century French art. In an almost symmetrical reversal of roles, Duchamp read a sober (and probably ironic) assessment of the spectator’s considerable role in “the creative act” and cited Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Schapiro delivered an eloquent hortatory defense of contemporary abstract-impressionist painting emphasizing its spontaneity, randomness, automatism, and the self-sufficiency of its pure forms and colors.
Both talks appeared that summer in Art News. Duchamp’s was republished the following year in a collection of his writings; Schapiro’s, entitled “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,” was not republished in spite of the fact that it immediately became and has remained one of the most widely read and influential articles on abstract painting. Instead it began a vigorous underground existence, photocopied for critics’ and artists’ files and reproduced year after year for seminars on modern art. Because of Schapiro’s scruples about book publication and his resistance to writing in the conventional form of the book-length monograph, for forty years we have had to read his works largely in some samizdat form. Therefore it has been difficult to take his measure as a scholar-critic.
Now Braziller is bringing out Schapiro’s “Selected Papers” in four substantial volumes. Romanesque Art has already appeared and been received with respect at the highest critical and scholarly level. Early Christian and Byzantine Art and Theory and Philosophy of Art will follow. The present selection of fourteen articles and lectures on nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting (sculpture is barely mentioned) employs several different approaches to its varied subjects. It includes six articles—among them the Houston talk—in which scholarly considerations are in great part preempted by highly controversial questions about the nature and direction of contemporary art.1 This book really falls into two counterbalanced halves: a hundred pages at the start on major figures of nineteenth-century painting (Courbet, Van Gogh, Cézanne), and a slightly longer section at the end on the development and nature of abstract art. In between the editor has sandwiched three short pieces on Seurat, Picasso, and Chagall. Rather than recapitulating the arguments of so many articles, I shall address myself principally to the general cast of Schapiro’s treatment of modern paintings and touch on certain historical, philosophical, and aesthetic principles that guide his thinking as it moves between the two sections.
Schapiro writes an evenly paced prose that leans toward the florid yet never abandons a carefully conducted argument. He avoids dramatic effects and startling leaps; he finishes many of the essays by just coming to a stop, as if time or material ran out. But nothing seems missing. The intellectual excitement of attending his lectures is partially muted in this printed version; what one hears is the steady stride of a powerful mind surveying the scene. That mind is endowed eminently with three faculties: an eye alert to detail, form, color, and image; a capacious and available memory for paintings in every era of Western art; and a powerful capacity to discover relations between art, society, history, science, and ordinary experience. In the early essay on abstract art, one can practically hear the polemical rhythms of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire. Increasingly through the years Schapiro makes it clear that he believes that painting, more than any other art, has become a special record of human sensibility and the principal source of invention in the domains of the perceptual, the aesthetic, and the formal. In comparison to the painter, “…the writer is still absorbed by the representation of a world in which extra-artistic meanings have a considerable part.” This sophisticated intelligence yearns for the purest and most elemental forms of art.
Schapiro belongs to a small company of critics writing on modern art who were first distinguished as scholars of Medieval and Renaissance art. Their command of earlier work appears to augment their authority on contemporary art. Of this company, Kenneth Clark, E.H. Gombrich, and Edgar Wind withhold full endorsement from modern artists who sever themselves from the representation of nature and often from any social or institutional role for art (except economic). Civilisation, Art and Illusion, and Art and Anarchy end as gently admonitory books telling us, among other things, that contemporary painting expresses the chaos and sickness of our time far better than it opens any promising path into the future.
It is more difficult to locate the group with whom Schapiro keeps company. The great Medieval scholar Henri Focillon, who died thirty years ago, wrote sympathetically about twentieth-century painting. The Life of Forms in Art (1934) contains passages (e.g., “The chief characteristic of the mind is to be constantly describing itself“) that imply a deep insight into the processes of abstract art. However Focillon’s lyric statements about an autonomous world of pure forms lie at a great distance from much of Schapiro’s writing, which traces painting to the artist’s life and to social conditions. Adrian Stokes, the English critic who died in 1972 and wrote about practically all phases of art, never articulated a sustained response to abstract painting. Only Pierre Francastel seems close to Schapiro, in spite of the slenderness of his work on art after Cubism. Peinture et société (1965: not translated into English) undertakes the task that Schapiro’s Modern Art accomplishes in a series of powerful lunges.
What Francastel and Schapiro have in common is a deep sense of the continuity of abstract art with earlier art, in spite of the almost universal invocation of terms like “turning point,” “revolution,” and “revision of values” to describe what has happened to art in the twentieth century. When Roger Fry and others sponsored the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1910, if not the most typical at least the most symptomatic reaction came from Virginia Woolf: “…on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Schapiro’s mission in writing about modern art is to combat that kind of euphoria (or, conversely, catastrophism) in our thinking. He argues for an art-historical continuity between earlier and contemporary art, and for two other continuities as well—psychological and sociological.
I can best document Schapiro’s refusal to accept that there was a quantum jump in the history of modern art by quoting a fairly long passage from his 1937 essay “The Nature of Abstract Art.”2
All renderings of objects, no matter how exact they seem, even photographs, proceed from values, methods, and viewpoints which somehow shape the image and often determine its contents. On the other hand, there is no “pure art,” unconditioned by experience; all fantasy and formal construction, even the random scribbling of the hand, are shaped by experience and by nonaesthetic concerns.
This is clear enough from the example of the Impressionists mentioned above. They could be seen as both photographic and fantastic, according to the viewpoint of the observer. Even their motifs of nature were denounced as meaningless beside the evident content of romantic and classicist art.
In regarding representation as a facsimile of nature, the abstract artist has taken over the error of vulgar nineteenth-century criticism, which judged painting by an extremely narrow criterion of reality, inapplicable even to the realistic painting which it accepted. If an older taste said, how exactly like the object, how beautiful!—the modern abstractionist says, how exactly like the object, how ugly! The two are not completely opposed, however, in their premises, and will appear to be related if compared with the taste of religious arts with a supernatural content. Both realism and abstraction affirm the sovereignty of the artist’s mind, the first, in the capacity to recreate the world minutely in a narrow, intimate field by series of abstract calculations of perspective and gradation of color, the other in the capacity to impose new forms on nature, to manipulate the abstracted elements of line and color freely, or to create shapes corresponding to subtle states of mind. But as little as a work is guaranteed aesthetically by its resemblance to nature, so little is it guaranteed by its abstractness or “purity.” Nature and abstract forms are both materials for art, and the choice of one or the other flows from historically changing interests.
Schapiro’s argument is not arcane. After passing over the great watershed of Impressionism, modern art changed its loyalty among the available materials and espoused a different kind of abstraction devoted to forms and colors rather than to images represented in geometrical space. The artist’s mind remains sovereign (at least in this passage); the chain of aesthetic response has not been broken, only shifted. Fifteen years later in a superb article on the Armory Show, Schapiro supplies the historical documentation to support his reaffirmed thesis that abstract art is not merely decorative or arbitrary; though private, it has genuinely human content.3
“The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art” (1957) poses something of a problem for my argument.4 Here Schapiro seems to revert to a theory of discontinuity and he refers on the second page to “a unique revolutionary change” in the character of twentieth-century art. He even goes so far as to attribute to contemporary art a “special task” of mastering free forms, while leaving the representation of reality to “other means”—e.g., photography and its offspring. This position approaches heresy if compared with the full trajectory of Schapiro’s thought. I attribute the polemical, tendentious tone of the speech given in Houston to the circumstances in which it was given, to Schapiro’s awareness of the exciting position in which American abstract expressionist painters found themselves in 1957, and probably to certain ideological shifts in his thinking. It is as if suddenly Schapiro has forgotten his overall strategy of continuity in art for the shock tactics of touting abstraction as a new breakthrough.
The article on Mondrian, published for the first time in Modern Art and presented as the product of reflections and lectures covering forty years, reaffirms the briefly dropped strategy. Schapiro writes as if he were setting his house in order again. “I wish in this essay to explore closely several of [Mondrian’s] abstract works in order to bring into clearer sight the character of those ‘pure relations’ and to show their continuity with structures of representation in preceding art.” He produces the word “continuity” again a few pages later in reference to elements of design and field in Degas and Mondrian. Except in the Houston lecture, then, Schapiro generally tries to demonstrate that representational and abstract art are sailing on the same lake. If one or the other disappears around a point or a bend, the connection nevertheless remains demonstrable, navigable, and significant. A passage in his important essay on “Style” reinforces this approach to the point of paradox.
The experience of the art of the last fifty years suggests further that the degree of naturalism in art is not a sure indication of the technological or intellectual level of a culture. This does not mean that style is independent of that level but that other concepts than those of the naturalistic and the geometrical must be applied in considering such relationships. The essential opposition is not of the natural and the geometric but of certain modes of composition of natural and geometric motives. From this point of view, modern “abstract” art in its taste for open, asymmetrical, random, tangled, and incomplete forms is much closer to the compositional principles of realistic or Impressionist painting and sculpture than to any primitive art with geometrical elements.5
It takes a perceptive mind to grasp that style and composition will tell us more about the genealogy of art than subject matter or its apparent absence.
The other two continuities Schapiro is intent on establishing can also be derived from my first long quotation. Its second sentence refers to “experience” and “nonaesthetic concerns” that shape the final work of art. The essay on Cézanne warns us not to separate the apparently innocent objects of still-life, in this case apples, from the personal life and experience of the artist; for Cézanne mastered and redirected erotic obsessions only gradually and with great difficulty. The essay on Van Gogh speaks of catharsis, of painting as a “lightning conductor,” and of the artist’s personal failure as the key to his artistic success.6
These powerful relations between the artist’s life and his work—not a literal transference but a subtle transformation which the critic can discern—provide a basis for the stylistic, art-historical continuity between figurative and abstract art that Schapiro believes in. For, just as clearly as realism, he argues, non-objective painting maintains its connection with the artist’s inner experience and, in its fashion, expresses that experience. Only the vocabulary is different.
To make clear that distinction is the burden of Schapiro’s short piece, “On the Humanity of Abstract Painting.” Those six pages plead with us to see how “the subjective becomes tangible” even in the barest and coldest of abstract painting, and declare that our approach to it should be to “a problem of practical criticism and not of theory, of general laws of art.” I read the latter sentence as a summons to critics to reconcile the quality of an artist’s living experience with his art. The essays on Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso accomplish that task beautifully for earlier styles of painting. But the long article on Mondrian, outside of fleeting references to theosophical doctrine and New York skyscrapers, says almost nothing about the artist; it devotes its energies to analyzing the forms in Mondrian’s grid- and-ground compositions and showing their connection with earlier forms in Degas, Bonnard, and Monet. In a case where we sorely need evidence of humanity we do not find it—or at least Schapiro does not produce it.
Schapiro’s third continuity links art to the surrounding society and culture. The last sentence in the first long quotation states that the choice of natural or abstract forms “flows from historically changing interests.” Those interests reside in the cultural environment and impinge on “the sovereignty of the artist’s mind.” A partially overlapping set of essays study this reciprocal relation between art and society. Schapiro’s historical article on Courbet traces his use of popular imagery and children’s art as forms of naïveté that were welcome developments within realism. But Schapiro is equally concerned with Courbet’s responses to the political cross-currents of the era, whence his conclusion attributing the painting The Burial at Ornans (1849-1850) to extra-aesthetic forces: “Thus the consciousness of the community, awakened by the revolution of 1848, appears for the first time in a monumental painting, in all its richness of allusion, already retrospective and inert.”
In the long text on the 1913 Armory Show, Schapiro explores quite a different interconnection between painting and the environment. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth, the separation of the most creative art from public and institutional life led to professional solidarity among artists and a sense of “creative morale.” The new conditions of art that helped produce abstraction can, he argues, be seen as a “rejection of the environment.” Artists turned inward or began manipulating the medium itself. Schapiro’s essays on abstract art maintain a steady awareness of the complex social background of the new painting.
In Schapiro’s hands none of these three continuities sets up a determinism—historical, psychological, or social. His long-standing sympathy for Marxism reveals itself not in any rigid historical pattern but rather in a wonderfully tuned sense of dialectical opposites mediating between these extra-artistic forces. Their action leaves open a generous role for the artist’s consciousness, temperament, creativeness, and aesthetic response—even for chance. This vision of art imposes no exclusions and gives a feeling of richness and understanding to everything Schapiro writes.
I believe, however, that the first of his continuities, denying any radical break between representational and abstract art, is more an article of faith with Schapiro than a demonstrable fact. When the most expensive and critically acclaimed painting in our culture renounced the imitation of three-dimensional nature “out there,” a shift took place whose aesthetic and social causes and consequences we have not yet assimilated. Sixty years after Kandinsky’s conversion to abstraction and about thirty years after Jackson Pollock’s first one-man show, students and teachers and artists are growing up with a modified vision. They are willing to look at and respond to pure forms.
Yet they face enormous problems. Whereas for 500 years Western painting was able to refer to an area of common practice, almost an established code (linear perspective, rendering, chiaroscuro), abstract art has no such collection of conventions to work with or from. Even traditional principles of design are often recognized by being flouted. The gradual development of a common language or style is not a goal recognized by most abstract painters—except the imitators—in spite of anecdotes about the comradeship of the Russian futurists or the patrons of the Cedar Bar. Since Cubism at least, most major artists, like Greta Garbo, want to be alone. Most spectators feel the challenge of this shift very deeply. Schapiro’s demonstrations of historical continuity diminish but do not eliminate the gap between two modes of painting, one representing the visible world, the other discovering forms of inchoate meaning.
We still do not know whether abstract art will finally “take”—whether it will flourish alongside realist art (a condition devoutly to be desired if one believes in artistic free enterprise), eliminate the opposition, or wither away. I am apprehensive myself of abandoning the depiction of the everyday world of objects and people to the “other media.” Photography, film, TV, and whatever lies beyond will always have a very different texture and aura from an image that has been created directly by the human hand.
Schapiro’s thesis of continuity has the virtue of the long view. By adopting his gradualist perspective, we will have less tendency to cast ourselves as historical heroes leading Western culture around a big bend called modernity. However I would like to examine some debatable aspects of Schapiro’s outlook toward modern and modernist art. If abstract painting represents merely the exploitation of a possibility always latent within earlier painting—creating forms as opposed to representing nature—then one wonders why Schapiro attaches such major significance to the shift. For if his essays about modern art have one theme in common, it is the proclamation that the liberating virtues of abstract painting lead to self-realization.
What seemed to be a hopeless relativism in this eternal treadmill of stylistic invention…was surmounted, however, in the modernist’s vision of the art of the last few centuries, and even of older art, as a process pointing to a goal: the progressive emancipation of the individual from authority, and the increasing depth of self-knowledge and creativeness through art.
(“The Armory Show”)
The modern artist…is attracted to those possibilities of form which include a considerable randomness, variability and disorder…. That randomness corresponds in turn to a feeling of freedom, an unconstrained activity at every point….
No other art today exhibits to that degree in the final result the presence of the individual, his spontaneity and the concreteness of his procedure.
This art is deeply rooted, I believe, in the self and its relation to the surrounding world….
Painting by its impressive example of inner freedom and inventiveness and by its fidelity to artistic goals, which include the mastery of the formless and accidental, helps to maintain the critical spirit and the ideals of creativeness, sincerity and self-reliance, which are indispensable to the life of our culture.
(“The Liberating Quality of Avant-Grade Art”)
This widely respected historian of art, steeped in the traditions of Byzantine, Christian, and Judaic cultures, sometimes writes about abstract expressionism in the style of Herbert Marcuse heralding a culture of liberation. Schapiro employed the hortatory tone as early as the Thirties, even before he became well acquainted with artists like Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning. The gist of his message, repeated like a litany in all the essays about modern art, seems to be that abstraction, in proper hands, liberates the self from both nature and culture and lifts it into a higher realm of existence. Very early he amalgamated aspects of Marxism with ideas like Purism and Minimalism discussed in the Thirties among New York painters.
I find two problems in these high claims for abstract art as therapeutic. First, who is liberated? The question does not receive a direct answer. From most passages one infers that only the great creative artist can be sure of reaching freedom. Little is said about the sensitive art lover who might follow the artist vicariously across the great watershed of abstraction. Perhaps the discerning critic will pass muster. Schapiro nowhere considers the part these magnificent emancipating powers might have in education, or in visual media like television and film. Second, to what realm is the modernist artist liberated? The last sentence quoted above from the manifesto-like “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art” does stake a claim to “the critical spirit” and to an undefined form of culture. Both, however, are almost smuggled at the last minute into this lyrical celebration of freedom. Liberation for Schapiro remains liberation from something; he does not say into what better state of life we shall step. “Selfhood,” once achieved, would presumably distribute its own rewards. Only occasionally do we hear reservations to the effect that “modernity is problematic and includes conflicting irreconcilable elements.”
I remain skeptical about Schapiro’s now widely accepted hypothesis of the therapeutic value of abstract art, partially because one famous case seems to argue the other way: Van Gogh. The evidence, much of which Schapiro assembles in his short essay on the painter in Modern Art, points toward an attitude on Van Gogh’s part that let him find reassurance in an intense realism, in the perceived object, and not when he lost the object under the importuning of free-floating forms. In any case it is worth taking notice when an art historian and critic as powerful and as widely informed as Schapiro makes claims for abstract expressionist art that rival and often surpass those of Apollinaire on Orphism, Kandinsky on “the spiritual,” Malevich on “absolute values,” and Mondrian on “the universal.” He made them first in 1937 in the Marxist Quarterly article, before Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg had developed their own different but related positions on abstract art.
In spite of these claims—or perhaps because of them—it is difficult to say whether Schapiro is more at home in dealing with the representational art of Cézanne, Courbet, and Van Gogh, or with abstract expressionism of the past fifty years.7 He opens his 1947 article “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art” by refuting the allegation that modern art is “mere ornament”—and then has to call himself to order: “What concerns us here, however, is not the defense of modern art.” Yet increasingly Schapiro has accepted responsibility for that defense, and we must examine more closely just what he finds there. “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art” remains a key.
That sentiment of freedom and possibility, accompanied by a new faith in the self-sufficiency of forms and colors, became deeply rooted in our culture in the last fifty years. And since the basic change had come about through the rejection of the image function of painting and sculpture, the attitudes and feelings which are bound up with the acceptance or rejection of the environment entered into the attitude of the painter to the so-called abstract or near-abstract styles, affecting also the character of the new forms. His view of the external world, his affirmation of the self or certain parts of the self, against devalued social norms—these contributed to his confidence in the necessity of the new art.
It is wonderful to watch a master at work on the prevailing myth. Earlier artists and critics imagined the evolution toward nonrepresentative painting as a process akin to taking vows of poverty and chastity.8 Schapiro beholds a dream of untold opulence. Every word counts in this carefully phrased passage. “Freedom” I have already commented on. “Faith in self-sufficiency” seems to have a clear meaning: these marks on the flat surface are held to refer to nothing outside themselves, they image no content. The problem is whether the main clause of the second sentence slips something back in. The feelings the artist has about (in this case) rejecting his (natural and social) environment “affect the character” of the new forms. My rewording is designed to reveal how Schapiro has left his sentence “negative pregnant,” as our founding fathers would have said. The very absence of content expresses an attitude toward that rejected content. Thus the art we call abstract carries with it everywhere a kind of phantom meaning: the artist’s alienated attitude toward the world he lives in. Yet to my sensibility much abstract art (Arp and often Rothko, for example) radiates benignity and peacefulness.
We are probably confronting here an ancient phenomenon. “Nature abhors a vacuum” easily yields “Human nature abhors a semantic vacuum.” Critics, particularly, and some artists cannot tolerate meaninglessness for long. At the same time that he was eliminating natural appearances from his art, Kandinsky was searching out a new content: the spiritual. Schapiro makes various tentative gestures toward identifying more than just a negative or phantom content in modern abstract art. He refers to expressing “moods,” frequently to the artist’s unconscious, and once to “communion” and “religious life.” But he usually shies away from the spiritual, the metaphysical, and the archetypal. In the article on Mondrian, an exercise in the “practical criticism” he himself calls for, Schapiro tries out the undeveloped notions of the “virtual object” and “truth to vision.” They make us aware again of the degree to which he wants us to see abstraction as continuous with representation. Schapiro ultimately describes Mondrian’s revolutionary abstract art as unable to venture far from its host animal, the very body of Western mimetic art. In several respects, therefore, abstract art appears to fall short of “the self-sufficiency of forms and colors.”
Schapiro’s uneasy awareness of this dilemma comes out not only in his work elsewhere on the semiotics of art9 but in his use of the word “physiognomic” in this volume. He used it first I believe in a 1932 review of a book on ornament. There he paired it with its opposite, “constructive,” and gave it the sense of expressive in contrast to the merely formal—expressive primarily of human inventiveness. The term returns in the Fifties, linked now not to Romanesque sculpture but to abstract art.
Yet one may speak of certain relations of the geometric units in Mondrian’s paintings as “abstracted” or transposed from the previous art of representation, without assuming that the units themselves are reductions of complex natural forms to simple regular ones. These elements are indeed new, as concrete markings of pigments on the tangible canvas surface with distinctive qualities—straightness, smoothness, firmness—which may be called physiognomic and are grasped as such, rather than as illustrative presentations of the ideal concepts of mathematical or metaphysical thought, although we may use the terms of geometry in talking about them.
Physiognomy refers to the ancient art (repackaged by the eighteenth-century Swiss mystic Johann Lavater) of reading outward features or appearances as an index of inner character. It assumes a pervasive correspondence of unity in the cosmos. The above passage goes on to suggest that knowledge, freedom, and selfhood are as discernible in abstract art as in the art of representation. What has happened to the autonomy of these forms? Physiognomy, one suddenly realizes, is also the subject of the wonderful text on Cézanne’s apple-breast shapes, where Schapiro discerns “an implied human presence” and a “heraldry of a new way of life.” An even more revealing pronouncement turns up in the Van Gogh essay: “Personality is itself an object”—the object that, at the deepest level, Van Gogh was attempting to paint. All art, for Schapiro, depicts the character, the temperament of the artist at work. “The subjective becomes tangible,” he writes in “The Humanity of Abstract Art.” I would be happier if he tried harder to make his case for abstract art by staying longer with the visual, with self-sufficient forms, rather than tracking them so often to the elusive domain of the subjective. But the suction of the semantic vacuum may be most powerful in powerful minds.
In this volume studded with unexpected juxtapositions, one of the most revealing is that of Bonnard’s View from Window (1895) with Mondrian’s Composition (1936-1942). (Reproduced above on pages 9 and 12.) Bonnard presents a pattern of basically rectilinear forms half concealed in the appearances of window frame, casement, buildings, roofs, pipes, chimneys, and windows facing back from the wall opposite. The scene could be interpreted to represent all Paris, the form and charm of a modern city beholding itself at close quarters across a courtyard; and one could also subsume the clear formal elements of the composition in a few strong bands traversing a flat surface. Mondrian presents similar bands all by themselves, impeccably painted to imply a larger imaginary grid embedding them.
Many people would agree, I think, that next to Bonnard’s lithograph the Mondrian painting seems naked. He paints an armature of girders and columns related in appearance to the steel frame we see for a time in the construction of tall buildings before the cladding is added. Mondrian worked his way through a series of representational styles before reaching this geometrical manner for which he is known. He gradually and systematically simplified the complexities of his visual experience until he could distill a chaste diagram of the world of appearances. Consequently the compositions of his last twenty-five years have the effect of a visual short circuit: they give us an answer before we have solved or even grasped the aesthetic problem. Because he arrests the universe at this level of schematic simplicity, the only mystery in Mondrian is one of bareness, of “certain relationships of form.” In the case of Composition, as Schapiro points out, he retouched the 1935 original by adding two horizontal bars and two patches of color; but the final effect remains that of a skeleton, the bare bones of design.
Of these two works I find the Bonnard more satisfying because of the old principle of “la difficulté vaincue“: a gratification achieved through our own efforts can mean more to us than a gratification directly conveyed and received. The principle applies as much to the life of the mind and art as to physical desire and love. To reclothe abstract painting (as I would maintain most viewers do) by projecting our associations onto it holds great appeal, but is finally less rewarding (and more isolating because highly subjective) than disrobing representations of the natural world to find an underlying beauty of form. Mondrian is our Piranesi—in reverse.
I would agree with Schapiro that there is a profound reciprocity and even a continuity between these two aesthetic activities. Do freedom and selfhood and modernity lie more with one than with the other? I seriously doubt it and am troubled by the earlier sections of this book in which Schapiro argues with zeal for the superiority of abstract art. The rest of his writings here and elsewhere suggest a steadier vision.
Of course one can only admire Schapiro’s willingness to write as a partisan about the art of his own time. He is the only university figure who stands beside Clement Greenberg and the late Harold Rosenberg as a force on the American art scene of the past forty years. Writing in magazines, they campaigned mightily in favor of a new indigenous art soon to be known as abstract impressionism or the New York School. The Columbia professor wrote about the new art with a passion and dedication equal to theirs, but without having to enter the fray as often as they did. The solidity of his scholarship on early periods of art and his understanding of the exciting complexities of nineteenth-century painting give his voice a particular weight and richness compared to theirs. He has tamed and harnessed art history, psychoanalysis, and Marxist social criticism to his purpose of demonstrating the continuing significance of art in the modern world. Only Meyer Schapiro, in an article on Courbet, could turn gracefully to a two-page examination of Baudelaire’s paradoxical attitude toward the child’s sensibility and then, in a footnote, mention Taine’s article on the acquisition of language by children—an article whose translation in Mind (1877) inspired Darwin to turn his attention to child development.
There is no bottom to this book. It incorporates both a picture gallery and a library in presenting the achievements of a magisterial mind.
April 19, 1979
The loose chronological order of the essays is somewhat puzzling. Surely the Courbet essay should have preceded the three later Cézanne texts. Several interesting items have been omitted: “Fromentin as Critic” published in Partisan Review in 1949 (it may appear in the theoretical volume), the two high-pitched reviews attacking Surrealism in The Nation (1937), and “A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh,” in M. Simmel, The Reach of the Mind (Springer, New York, 1968). For some reason the source of “The Nature of Abstract Art” (Marxist Quarterly, 1937) is not mentioned. Over half the black-and-white and color reproductions are identified with no figures given for their dimensions. ↩
In his Prefatory Note Schapiro states that he now regards certain arguments in this early text as inadequate or mistaken. I shall risk the assumption that he stands by this passage. ↩
In this essay, and in one or two other places, Schapiro refers to Cubism as “abstract” and “imageless.” I cannot concur. Though Braque and Picasso took a giant step in this direction, one of the most significant art-historical facts about Cubism is that it refused to eliminate the real world, the image. Compared to Malevich’s Suprematism or to Delaunay’s Orphism, cubist paintings overflow with identifiable—though contorted—representations of tables, pipes, musical instruments, and people, and sometimes authentic paper objects glued in. Confident of its radical recasting of the perceptible world, Cubism precisely did not leap into abstraction, where others dared to tread. ↩
In the published book Schapiro’s original title is restored: “Recent Abstract Painting.” The perfectly appropriate title given to the lecture for publication in Art News has its advantages, for many readers will identify it by this label. ↩
In Anthropology Today, edited by A.L. Kroeber (University of Chicago Press, 1952), frequently reprinted. ↩
It remains a stunning essay after thirty years. However, in the painting Schapiro analyzes, Crows Over the Wheat Field (1890), I still cannot see “black crows which advance from the horizon toward the foreground.” To my eye those dark patches have a markedly ambiguous direction, and usually they seem to move away toward the horizon. Part of the conflict Schapiro finds in the painting may belong to his own imagination. ↩
To judge by his choice of subjects, he is either indifferent to contemporary art that represents natural objects, or impatient with it. His two 1937 reviews on Surrealism that appeared in The Nation take surrealist art to task precisely for containing, among other things, images. ↩
Constable: “When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.” Courbet: “The museums should be closed for twenty years, so that today’s painters may begin to see with their own eyes.” Monet: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field, or whatever.” ↩
See “Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art,” in Semiotica, No. 3 (1969). ↩