Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The world as non-objectivity

Olle Baertling (1911-1981)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1961

From the moment Kazimir Malevich, just before the Russian Revolution, revolutionised art itself with his painting Black Square, the story of art has been bound up with the search for ways in which to communicate human emotions, ideas, and beliefs, in terms of pure line, geometry, and colour planes. Malevich’s new abstract art was called by him Suprematism, though it is more usually known to us by a name Malevich himself introduced as a term of abuse, Constructivism. It is concerned with “The world as non-objectivity”, as the title of Malevich’s treatise of 1926 put it.

Victor Vasarely
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1956

Abstract art so quickly swallowed up critical attention that whole areas of figurative art still remain unexplored. Women artists, for instance, barely had time to get accepted before it was unacceptable for them to explore pictorially the female domestic world. Even an artist as devoted to the everyday beauties of the home as Winifred Nicholson found herself painting constructivist abstracts in the 1930s, under the influence of her friend Piet Mondrian and the artists of the group Abstraction-Création.

Hans Arp (1886-1966)
Placé selon les lois de hazard
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting (or collage?) of 1951

I’ve been tipped into thinking about the geometry of feeling by a new acquisition, the catalogue to an important group exhibition at the Galerie Denise René, Paris, in 1964. The title of both catalogue and exhibition is Hard-edge.

Richard Paul Lohse (1902-1988)
Farbenenergien in vier richtungen
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1950

As Josef Albers writes in his written contribution:

so far a suspected noun
of fashionable art terminology
but changing fast to an adjective
of decidedness
and thus on the way
to signal something more.

Josef Albers (1888-1976)
Homage to the square
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1963

The exhibition gathered work by nine artists: Albers, Hans (Jean) Arp, Olle Baertling, Auguste Herbin, Alexander Liberman, Richard Paul Lohse, Richard Mortensen, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Victor Vasarely.

Richard Mortensen (1910-1933)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1964

The catalogue contains statements by each of them (apart from Sophie Tauber-Arp, who died in 1943, who is given a heartfelt memorial by her widower, Hans). Hans Arp dates Sophie’s first pure abstract works to 1915 and 1916, subtly arguing for her as co-creator with Malevich and Kandinsky of the non-objective world. “Already in 1916 Sophie Taeuber was dividing the surface of her watercolours in squares and rectangles which she juxtaposed horizontally and vertically.”

Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943)
Silkscreen (by Hans Arp?) of 1964 after a painting of 1934
The catalogue also contains nine silkscreen prints (or serigraphs), one by each artist. The one by Taeuber-Arp is after a work from 1934; it was presumably supervised, or executed, by Hans Arp, though no details are given for this or the other works.

Looking at the sheer visual richness of these nine silkscreens got me thinking about the way that abstract art managed both to insist that everything that was happening on the picture plane only existed in two dimensions, and simultaneously that the picture plane was a window into a previously unrealised dimension (what Malevich himself called "the fourth dimension"). As Lawrence Alloway writes in his brief introduction to the cataloque, in hard-edge painting, “What you see is precisely what there is. Yet what you see is usually optically ambiguous. Positive and negative forms interact as shapes in hard-edge, united in a single plane.”

Auguste Herbin (1882-1960)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1960

I love this kind of work. Mondrian, Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sean Scully are among my favourite artists. But I haven’t gone out of my way to collect abstract prints, and within my abstract holdings there are more exuberantly expressionist works by artists such as Walasse Ting or Sam Francis than there are severely geometric ones. Yet the provocative simplicities of the hard-edge silkscreens remind me how potent such work can be. As Alexander Liberman writes in the catalogue, “In order for sensation to act upon us with the greatest intensity we have to cleanse our minds of the accumulated deposits of art memories. A painting should by its apparent simplicity act with such immediacy that the innermost centers of the mind can be reached without hesitation and time for reference to our memory or doubt centers.”

Alexander Liberman (1912-1999)
Silkscreen of 1964 after a painting of 1962

Much of my other work in this vein comes from a single source, the book Témoignages pour l’art abstrait (Testimonies for Abstract Art), published in 1952 in an edition of 1500 copies. In this, major artists of the day put forward their theories of abstraction, and each contributed an original pochoir plate, the pochoir colours being stencilled by Renson. Among the artists were Arp, Herbin, Mortensen, and Vasarely, overlapping with Hard-edge, but also Bloc, Dewasne, Deyrolles, Dias, Domela, Pillet, Reth, and many others. A few related images from this work follow, without any attempt at description.

André Bloc (1896-1966)
Témoignage III
Pochoir, 1952

Jean Dewasne (1921-1999)
Témoignage VIII
Pochoir, 1952

Cícero Dias (1908-2003)
Témoignage X
Pochoir, 1952

Auguste Herbin
Témoignage XXX
Pochoir, 1952

Auguste Herbin
Non (Témoignage XV)
Pochoir, 1952

Albert Magnelli (1888-1971)
Témoignage I
Pochoir, 1952

Edgard Pillet (1912-1996)
Témoignage XXIII
Pochoir, 1952

Alfred Reth (1884-1966)
Témoignage XXVI
Pochoir, 1952

Victor Vasarely
Témoignage XXVIII
Pochoir, 1952


Paul Pincus said...

truly terrific weblog.

“In order for sensation to act upon us with the greatest intensity we have to cleanse our minds of the accumulated deposits of art memories. A painting should by its apparent simplicity act with such immediacy that the innermost centers of the mind can be reached without hesitation and time for reference to our memory or doubt centers.”

- Alexander Liberman

i've always loved liberman's work as an artist. great quote. cheers.

Anonymous said...

Malevich remembered by a label he disliked (and invented!) has company in all those Impressionist painters and composers who chafed at their label, too. The folk singer Dave von Ronk once said that the purists are all in the audience, meaning that we like to pigeonhole things. Much as I like abstract art, the dogmatism that came with it decades ago is unfortunate. Interesting selections!

Neil said...

Thanks Paul. I didn't really know about Liberman until I acquired this print, I am very interested in the idea of someone having a parallel life as a publishing magnate and an abstract artist - and also as the stepfather-from-hell.

Neil said...

It's part of human nature, I think, Jane, to try to define and categorize things. In art, it gets ridiculous. So many isms, so few new ideas. I think you can see this with Picasso. Did he worry about which category this or that work was going to be put in? Did he hell. He just did what he wanted to do. An artist friend once told me PIcasso left something like six or seven works of art for every day he was alive, and I can believe it. On the other hand, I have now come across many artists who seized on an aspect of Picasso -something Picasso might have devoted a couple of weeks attention to - and then devoted a lifetime of creative energy to it. I won't mention Wifredo Lam. Oh damn, I just did. And honestly, I do like Wifredo's art. It's just a bit repetitive when you cpmpare it to the source. Actually, this is the complete opposite of Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, where the source is fairly static and the inspired person is endlessly creatively changing. I've compared Dylan to Picasso before (in a poem) but never quite seen this positive/negative, matter/anti-matter element so clearly.

designerman said...

neil what a fantastic group you 'curated' online. as i scrolled i was just amazed at the range - so dynamic. i love your blog and what you bring to it.

ScentScelf said...

Have been enjoying your blog for a while, but never felt erudite enough to comment.

This has not stopped me from "tagging" you in the latest bloggery viral game. I was asked to name six blogs I like, and included yours as one.

Participate if you will--I've no doubt you could turn the whole thing on its head with a visual essay.

Neil said...

Thanks so much, scentscelf (did I spell that right?). I don't want anyone here to feel they have to be erudite. All this art I am commenting on is stuff I myself am finding out about. If it excites me, I want to share it. The simplest first reaction to the work is the crucial element - the research into who the artist was, when they lived, who they studied under or were influenced by and so on is all secondary.

May Kasahara said...


colors like these always lift my day.

..... said...

but where is Malevitch !!

Neil said...

Good point, mr style! So far I've only used prints that I possess to illustrate this blog, so that does leave gaps. I know Malevich did make lithographs. Wouldn't it be great to have one? The Malevich paintings in the recent From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy in London were powerfully impressive.

{Tara} said...

Stunning, colorful prints. I particularly like Arp.

Neil said...

Thanks, Tara.

Teresa Arroyo Corcobado said...

I have had a look to your blog, and I love it! congratulations!

Neil said...

Thanks, Laeternaduda.

tony said...

"Positive and negative forms interact as shapes in hard-edge, united in a single plane.”

I know that it's standard practice to refer to 'positive & negative' but there's something which troubles me with the word 'negative' since those elements which could be contstrued as negative are so often 'positive'in the strongest sense. When I work I try to think in terms of affirmation & denial. A weak substitution but can anybody offer an alternative which minimises the negative aspect of - well 'negative' ?

Incidentally Neil, thankyou for a great post.

Neil said...

Thanks for your interesting comment, Tony. I suppose one might think in terms of matter and anti-matter, which exist in symmetrical tension with each other.

tony said...

Thanks Neil for the thought of matter\anti-matter; it's certainly an improvement on 'poitive\negative' but it still, to me at least, has that nagging quality bound up in the 'anti-'.

Sometime back I stumbled across the following and it seemed to express the notion perfectly but I'm blowed if I can reduce it down to a more concise form.

Form is not
different from emptiness;

Emptiness is not
different from form.

Form is precisely

Emptiness is precisely


Neil said...

I like that, Tony. It makes me think that another venerable set of opposites is the Chinese yin/yang - though I can't be the only westerner who has to look up which is which every time!

tony said...

Neil, as I understand it it's all a question of where your balls hang or not, whatever the case may be.

Forgive the crudity but, believe me, it comes more from innocence than experience .