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A Note on Abstract Painting

One of the points brought out by the exhibition of “Abstract Painting in America” held at the Whitney Museum last spring was the fact that between 1915 and 1935 a surprising number of American painters had turned to Europe for direction. A few of them came to understand the trends that painting was taking with their European contemporaries during that time quite thoroughly— in fact, were able to produce work along the same lines that might have passed without adverse comment in any group showing of avant-garde European work of its period. Save for a “Flower Forms” piece by Charles Sheeler from 1919, an oil entitled “City Walls” by Niles Spencer dated 1921, and a water color, “Provincetown, 1918,” by Charles Demuth, the work of this handful constituted the only exhibits of any interest in the Whitney show. Yet it was also clear from the showing that this efflorescence had been more in the nature of an exercise in appreciation than one of personalized creative expression; that no native “abstract” art had developed from it; and that there was no promise of such an art’s developing from it in the immediate future.

From the paintings themselves the explanation for this failure was not readily apparent. Many of the canvases, in spite of their obvious debt to a foreign tradition, showed a genuine sensibility and a mature technical grasp. Since these American artists had been in touch with the work of the leading abstract painters in Europe, traces of a European approach in their work were hardly unnatural. Nevertheless, the nationalist critics employed it as an excuse to bring forth the usual complaints against alien influence of any sort. And of course the advocates of nationalism and anecdotalism had another text to illustrate their belief that abstract art must always be sterile.

But all these questions become clearer when we consider them in a historical light. The “abstract” movement in France, which would later inspire the American abstract painters, was originally associated with the interest in primitive art, especially Negro art. Yet this did not result in sterility. Picasso’s painting of his 1907 “Negro period” was in some respects a pastiche and parody of Negro sculpture, and yet it developed clearly and logically into his later work, in which all superficial traces of the 1907 contact have disappeared. Perhaps this offers a hint of what is wrong with the American approach to abstract painting.

The fact that a foreign tradition is involved clearly does not affect the issue: European art in “going to school” to Africa and the South Seas was certainly making a wider pilgrimage than American art in turning to Europe. The difference in results evidently had its roots in certain differences of attitude on the part of the artists themselves. For the European painters of the early nineteen hundreds, after their first Romantic encounter with primitive art, took up an approach to it on purely analytical grounds. They pulled it to pieces to discover its inherent principles, then built their own expressions on these principles, not on physical resemblances. Primitive art may or may not have profoundly influenced European painting. But in either case, as soon as the leaders of the new movement (already started on its journey toward cubism) had familiarized themselves with primitive art sufficiently to understand the principles underlying its effects, the temptation to copy surface features disappeared. The younger men had set themselves certain plastic problems to solve—problems in representing forms as apprehended conceptually, rather than visually. They went to primitive art because they felt primitive art contained solutions of somewhat similar problems. Their interest was not in adopting, or reproducing, the idiom of African or South Sea sculpture, but in the plastic fundamentals of the art. And out of the principles they saw illustrated there, a new style of their own grew up, stage by stage, with no grafted elements, organically—a style that was, in its essence, merely the outward form of their solutions of problems peculiar to a certain time and a certain environment.

On the other hand, it was evident in the Whitney show that when these same formal solutions, constituting what might be termed “abstract painting in Europe,” were approached hy American painters, they were almost universally adopted, so to speak, full-grown. Unlike the attitude in Paris about 1907, there was little evidence of an attempt here to reduce such stylistic solutions as Cubism, Futurism or Superrealism to the problems that underlay them—at least not any evidence of subsequent applications of their underlying principles along new lines. And because of this failure to carry analyses any deeper than the physical organization of the elements of expression—or perhaps better, because of the failure to relate these elements of expression to something more immediate than the problem that called the European solutions into being—the adoption of these means of expression seems never to surpass the level of a rearrangement of the same—or similar—elements into a varied but similar organization. In the less intelligent borrowings one frequently finds an admixture of plastically unrelated features, or of attitudes that basically conflict. But even in the most conscientious interpretations—such as those by Max Weber of Futurism and of Picasso’s earlier work, Gorky’s interpretations of the later Picasso, or Schary’s Superrealist Alice-In-Wonderland illustrations—even in these there is no evidence of the artist’s advance beyond the point to which his original problem carried him. They remain sensitive appreciations—paraphrases, as it were—lacking the force and immediacy of a direct personal expression.

James Johnson Sweeney is the author of “Plastic Redirections in Twentieth Century Painting.” He has contributed to art magazines and general publications.

This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.