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.

In these paintings, Mondrian sought an art that would give expression to a higher order of reality by transcending subjective experience and eliminating what he called the “tragic” from his painting. Such an art would be, by his own description, “far above anything human, yet most human in its depth and universality!” Mondrian’s mature paintings brought a radically new sense of space to painting. In them, Golding writes, “the totality of the picture surface has become the pictures’ very image: we are not looking at imagery within a picture, but rather viewing the entire picture surface itself as imagery.”

While the flat, frontal planes in Mondrian’s art eliminated what Golding calls “the distinction between figure and ground, between matter and non-matter,” Malevich, by contrast, always retained a strong distinction between image and background, even when his paintings had been reduced to squares and rectangles set on flat white grounds. He, too, wanted to represent the unrepresentable, but he did so in a more intellectually ambitious and formulaic way, and with a greater emphasis on mystical ideas. He was fascinated by the invisible, especially as embodied in the concept of the fourth dimension. This he conceived as a space that lay beyond sensory perception, and that reversed our common-sense understanding of what was real and unreal. Such common-sense understanding, he believed, is based on the illusory three-dimensional universe, in which we exist on a lower level of consciousness. One of the paradoxes that engaged him was that while the fourth dimension implied infinity, it could also be portrayed as flat.

Gradually, Malevich came to conceive of the rectangles and squares that floated against the white grounds of his canvases as being, in Golding’s words, “about man’s ascent into the ether, into that mysterious light-carrying medium believed by occultists and many early scientists to fill all empty space.” Golding notes that Malevich’s distilled geometric forms were conceived as cosmological in nature and that some of the tilted squares and rectangles in his work after 1913 may describe Uspensky’s ideas about “cubes of the fourth dimension passing through the screen of our familiar space.” Hence, in Malevich’s mature works, the picture plane may be conceived as the place of contact between the three-dimensional world in which we live our earthly existence and the infinitude of fourth-dimensional space that lies just beyond our conscious awareness.

Malevich’s single-minded distillation and reduction of form would be crucial to the later development of minimal and conceptual art. But it was also the prototype for what Golding describes as

the countless subsequent abstract artists who, having reached their goal…find themselves in the tragic position of wondering how to go further, how to avoid the endless repetition of the climax of their achievement, a repetition that might ultimately only drain their art of much of its original impact or meaning.

Whether Malevich would have been able to sustain the vitality of his art into the 1930s, as did Kandinsky and Mondrian, remains an open question. His career as an abstractionist was cut short by Stalin’s suppression of modernist art, and he ended his days as a realist painter (an aspect of Malevich’s career about which Golding is surprisingly silent). But this issue of the potential dead end of the reductive image was to prove especially challenging to the American abstractionists, who carried the distillation of a single kind of image even further.


While the European abstractionists were concerned with articulating a universal understanding of objective reality, the American abstractionists wanted to achieve universal meaning through deep subjectivity. The Europeans, as Golding notes, “had achieved their absolutes, had purified and purged art, by in a sense painting themselves out of their pictures, whereas the Americans were trying to achieve some of the same ends by painting themselves totally into their canvases, by stepping up and into them, even in an odd way by becoming art.” For the Americans, painting abstractly was synonymous with self-knowledge. “I paint only myself, not nature,” Clyfford Still asserted. And Pollock, when asked why he did not paint from nature, famously responded, “I am nature.” “Painting,” he flatly stated, “is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

Golding shows how each of the four American artists he considers gradually created a specific kind of imagery that was supposed to express an absolute but also belong exclusively to him. Pollock’s webs of dripped paint, Rothko’s pulsing fields of color, Newman’s broad planes punctuated by vertical stripes, and Still’s large-scale and jagged-edged curtains of pigment each came to stand for the artist himself. Each saw such imagery as a projection of his own being, a sovereign territory where no one else working in good faith would dare trespass. Such single-mindedness came at a price. If, as Golding suggests, each of these undertakings was meant to serve as a “path to the absolute,” then perhaps it was their sense of having come close to that goal and not being sure of how to go further without being caught in endless repetition that eventually helped drive Pollock to despair and Rothko to suicide.

While the Europeans had all been interested in scientific and mystical thought, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still were similarly united by their common interest in the unconscious, the mythic, and the sublime. They were also all deeply affected by their awareness of Surrealism and by their experience of so-called primitive art, especially American Indian art. Surrealism, with its emphasis on expressing the unconscious through psychic automatism, and such techniques as automatic gestures in painting, provided them with a creative principle, an instrument for generating form. Although they rejected Surrealist wordplay and the Surrealists’ preoccupation with sexuality and social criticism, they believed that the Surrealists’ technique of automatism could be “transformed into something plastic, mysterious, and sublime.”3 Primitivism provided them with another means of gaining access to primal feelings and to the kind of universality that was expressed in Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious, which had interested Pollock since the late 1930s. Since Indian art was aboriginally American, it also provided a source of freedom from the weight of the European tradition.

The American abstractionists felt that one of the shortcomings of European modernism had been its failure to confront the sublime. In their own efforts to do so, scale had an important part. While the European abstractionists had produced mostly easel-size paintings, the Americans began to work on very large canvases, which created a monumental effect and set up a new physical relationship between the work and the viewer. Newman put it succinctly: “Scale equals feeling.” As Golding points out, in Pollock’s case, the large scale corresponds to the human body:

It is notable that a high proportion of Pollock’s first fully resolved dripped or poured paintings of 1947—and these include some of the most exciting and successful of them—are upright in format and on a human scale (they average approximately 6 ft 6 in. x 3 ft 6 in.). It is in these pictures that we sense most strongly Pollock measuring himself up to a pictorial surface, his visceral identification with it. To this extent the canvas in turn confronts him with his own presence. Yet it also allows him to pass through it, as if through a mirror, into a realm where the self is transcended. Gesture, as translated into pictorial rhythm, now replaces—one might even say actually becomes—the hermetic symbol. The gesture was a grand one and to function at its most compelling it required a format as big as or bigger than the man who made it.

One of the paradoxes that arose from this kind of large-scale painting was that American abstraction became at once more public and more personal than the European version had been. Its aim was to embody a sense of both the tragic and the sublime, and to set forth the universal through expression of the deeply personal. The process of achieving it, as Golding observes, was based on metaphysical assumptions that “amount to an almost mystical view of painting as a rite or act of magic.”

Like their European predecessors, the Americans wanted to create abstract images retaining a strong sense of subject matter. Pollock flatly stated that “abstract painting is abstract.” But he also said, with equal conviction, “I’m very representational some of the time and a little all of the time.” Of the 1947 abstraction Full Fathom Five, for example, Golding writes that it

may well have been begun as a two-figure composition—and we know that many of Pollock’s abstract works were begun with legible imagery—but, as the title suggests, the imagery has been buried, drowned, by the dense skeins of paint that flow back and forth, meshing and tangling as they do so across the pictorial support. The work is executed in oils, although the surface also incorporates unorthodox materials, buttons, keys, combs, cigarettes and so forth, traces of human existence, of a life being lived through art.

Even the most resolutely non-figurative artists, such as Rothko and Newman, used fairly specific subjects as points of departure, wanting to ground their works in lived experience. Rothko wrote that although his forms had “no direct association with any particular visual experience…in them one recognizes the principles and passion of organisms.” Newman, who studied botany and geology and was fascinated by ornithology, came to feel that an abstract shape could be “a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of awesome feelings…and therefore real.” Newman also infused his work with Kabbalistic ideas, and used Judaic number symbolism in the dimensions and proportions of his canvases. Clearly, even if the buried subject matter might not be immediately apparent to the viewer, it was extremely important to the artists. It served as a guide that could help infuse the art with what Goldberg calls “a sense of grandeur and emotive purpose.”

The buried subjects associated with abstract paintings are a crucial element in how we understand them. For while such subjects cannot be used literally to decipher or “explain” the pictures that they animate, at the same time, once we know about them they cannot be ignored. Golding’s analysis of the artists’ writings makes it clear that although we might like to think our responses to abstract paintings are purely visual, a number of verbal elements are almost always in play. These are not to be found “within” the imagery, as in traditional narrative paintings, but hover somewhere outside it, in a large and varied body of often idiosyncratic writings. These include the ideas that were often used by the artists in the creation of their pictures, the texts that the artists wrote about their own works, the interpretations written by others—and of course the words used in the paintings’ titles.

How works were titled could vary greatly even within the work of individual artists. Pollock, for example, often simply numbered his canvases, following the practice of musical opus numbers. But he also sometimes gave them names, such as Autumn Rhythm, and these affect our visual experience, as does the phrase Full Fathom Five. In many cases, artists gave titles to works after they were finished, presumably to help shape the viewer’s response. Newman, Golding points out, almost always did this, stressing that his titles were “metaphors” meant to describe his feelings when he did the paintings.

The appreciation of the purely visual elements of abstract painting is also to a large degree determined by conventions that guide the process of looking. This is especially true in relation to the various ways in which painterly touch has come to be understood as an important part of a picture’s content. If we find particular marks and patterns on the canvas to be expressive, it is in large measure because we have been taught to read them in a certain way. In the works of Pollock, the threads of dripped paint are held to express spontaneity or randomness, and are often conceived as expressing what the artist himself called “energy and motion made visible.” But they are also understood to evoke associations with ideas and psychological states, such as the fury of an artist’s inner being, his visualization of the process of memory, or expression of the forces of nature.

In Newman’s paintings, the vertical stripes, or “zips,” that divide the large, calm areas of flat color are sometimes more painterly than the rest of the painting, so that the contrast between different kinds of touch becomes in itself suggestive and especially significant. In a subtle passage, Golding notes how the stripe in Newman’s works functions as “a two-edged line, pushing or splitting apart the areas on either side of it, yet simultaneously or conversely holding them together.” He then goes on to remark that if we read Newman’s pictures while looking upward, “the bands bond the adjacent areas together”; but when our eyes travel downward, “the bands divide them or push them apart.” Here, the implicit subjectivity of Golding’s reading (after all, the stripes actually do nothing) seems to me to be not only valid but necessary. So is his comment on the experience of looking at paintings by Clyfford Still:

…His vision had been formed by the vastness and loneliness of the American and Canadian West, and one of the things that sets him apart from both Newman and Rothko is the essentially anti-urban quality of his art…. His largest and most majestic canvases constitute the Grand Canyons of abstract painting. Certainly no other twentieth-century canvases can echo so dramatically the craving of earlier cen-turies for the sublime. Although as viewers we experience individual works by Still so physically, his idea of the sublime involves an ongoing, vertiginous sense of flux. When we stand in front of one of his works, our eyes are led so dizzyingly up the surface that we sometimes feel ourselves suspended over the top edge and about to fall off, only to begin the ascent once more—and, in contrast to Newman’s paintings, Still’s can never be read downwards as well.

The American abstractionists wanted to represent the ineffable, and the ineffable is notoriously difficult to describe, except in subjective ways. In order to explore the depths of such paintings, one has to become emotionally as well as intellectually engaged by them. This John Golding has done admirably, while making it clear that the contradictions within abstract painting do not nullify its capacity to convey meaning but are rather a part of its essential character.

This Issue

April 26, 2001