A Brief Abstract Art Survey, or af Klint, de Kooning, and Kandinsky, oh my!

“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes or dark lake with the treble.”

Wassily Kandinsky


This is an excerpt from the second section of my written thesis document,

"Synesthesia & Siphonophorae: a reflection on the liminal between abstraction and translation"


It has been well over a century since Wassily Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, his manifesto as a trailblazer in abstract expressionism. Kandinsky held the contemporary belief that meaning was embedded in the medium.[i] That the translation of the soul could be possible. For Kandinsky abstraction was an explored realm, one with the central quest of manifesting the unseen into a tangible, visual form. Instead of rendering an orchestra, one would paint the music.


Synaesthesia is the fusing of the senses where sensory perception misfires and causes unrelated senses to engage. This phenomenon has many facets but a key manifestation in visual art is the example of seeing color and hearing a particular sound attached to that color.[ii] Music, with its power to evoke an emotional response in the listener, was the key synaesthetic connector for the early abstract expressionists. Abstract art could aspire to have a similar effect on the viewer, a welling of emotion that was unrelated to religious iconography or pastoral beauty, a purely visual linguistic transference of feeling from artist to audience.

Visual language is the foundation of abstract expression. It is a language not made up of phonics and letters, but pattern, color, and gestural movement, which work together to convey meaning. In essence, to translate the incorporeal. An abstract composition is the transmutation of memory and emotion, energy, and incorporeality into visual shape and color where the viewer can momentarily lose their senses. When asked what I wanted the viewer to experience when looking at Siphonophorae for the first time, I unknowingly channeled Kandinsky. Paradoxical as it may be for a piece so steeped in memory, my first instinct, my kneejerk word association, was simple. I wanted the viewer to forget. To get lost in the swirls of color, the intricacies of the stippling, the fluorescent viscera, and forget for a moment the crushing, banal terror of the last year. Kandinsky expressed similar sentiments of wanting his viewers to “stroll”[iii] through his work, absorbed and “forgetful” of themselves.[iv]


Kandinsky Composition IV, 1911


Kandinsky, in his persistent allusions to music and the unconscious, had the tendency to get lost in the reeds of his own prose. The viewer’s autonomy is at once cherished and dismissed in the same line. Painting’s methods are heretically uniform in Kandinsky’s eyes, and the painter must have an obsessive compulsion toward balance in composition. In describing his 1913 Composition IV, Kandinsky wrote:


“If the left-hand scale goes down too far, then you have to put a heavier weight on the right – and the left

will come up of its own accord. The exhausting search for the right scale, for the exact missing weight, the

way in which the left scale trembles at the merest touch on the right, the tiniest alterations of drawing and

colour in such a place that the whole picture is made to vibrate – this permanently living, immeasurably

sensitive quality of a successful picture – this is… [the] beautiful and tormenting moment in painting…”[v]


The subjective, Lauterbach’s chosen, is subsumed by Kandinsky’s purple prose given.


Kandinsky relied on painting to award multisensory redemptive spiritual enlightenment. His work was informed by Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, a new religious movement that amalgamized the occult, Spiritualist séances, science, and comparative major religion.[vi] Unbeknownst to Kandinsky, another Theosophical abstract painter had superseded his first non-objective work by five years when Hilma af Klint painted her first abstract composition in 1906.[vii]


The piece, an individual composition that made up the larger body of work Primordial Chaos (1906-07)[viii], was composed of shape and color, balance and spirit, the same vein of automatist abstraction that Kandinsky set upon opening.


Synaesthetic synchronicity.


af Klint Primordial Chaos, 1906-7


In the early twentieth century, science and the esoteric were not in opposition. New religious movements like Theosophy existed in the liminal. Naturalists and Spiritualists alike adapted and remixed the occult with new discoveries of the intangible such as X-Rays and electromagnetic fields.[ix] Artists like Kandinsky and Klint sought to embody vital forces and energy, merging the metaphysical with their material.


All this is not meant to suggest that abstraction is informed solely by the immaterial, but to place Siphonophorae in a historical context. Contemporary abstraction pushes at the boundary of where the spiritual and physical world intersects: the body. Willem de Kooning resisted retrospectives of his work for years, anxious over the canonization of abstract art through the century. His work was sensual in secular ways, sumptuous swathes of color not the pure rhapsody of musical spirit, but the base pleasure of the human body.[x]


De Kooning Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964 De Kooning’s own work was leveled against his bodily abstraction. In the wake of Minimalism’s rise in the Sixties, all sharp edges, sparsity, and square color fields, De Kooning’s sensuous bodies were derided as Dionysiac orgies, lush and overindulgent.[xi]


De Kooning’s later work did fit cleanly into the canon of abstract expressionism, just as Jackson Pollock’s later black paint pours did not match the curated canon of his splatterings. De Kooning’s depiction of bodily abstraction has persisted despite its critical dismissal, serving to inform the contemporary work of artists like Jenny Seville and Carrie Moyer.


In an interview about her series of 2012 work Interstellar, Carrie Moyer addressed her work as visual transference, or in her words:


“My paintings may have become less explicit, but my ambition to seduce viewers into reflecting on

their own conditions – optical, physical, historical, and otherwise – [remain] undiminished. Painting

is a very intimate delivery system.” [xii]


Moyer’s paintings exist in a liminal space as well. They are the intersection of beauty, landscape, and bodily form, at once sensuous biometric shape and precise geometric patterns.


Moyer The Tiger's Wife, 2011


Moyer’s work showcases that that contemporary abstraction is not a cut and dry binary of spirit or body, but a nexus of expression wherein the viewer is invited to reflect on their own bodily experience. Sight, smell, taste, touch- the synaesthetic means by which the internal consciousness, or spirit, is embodied in the physical world.

The connection of interior and exterior is the liminality of abstract expressionism, a boundary creature seeking at once to understand how it moves through the world and how the world moves through it. The given and the chosen. The viewer is the variable in this equation, their own subjective chosen gives meaning to the work beyond the artists’ need to emote.


In summation, abstract art is characterized in many facets and forms and this is but a brief survey into its history from the early 1900s to the post-modern present. Beauty, as Plato describes, highest form lies not in nature but in geometry[xiii]. Contemporary abstract artists like Moyer and traditional abstract painters like de Kooning’s gravitation toward the body is extremely attractive to me as an artist because it does not deal purely with eyes, feet, and hands as I have in my past work, but something harder to capture: the internal, the visceral, the abject, with touches of the feminine sublime. I anticipate that future abstract projects will lead me to contribute to that conversation.


Shape, color, line, gesture are the elements that make up abstract expression, creating a sensual experience for the viewer and transferring the artist’s intangible into a visual manifestation.


References

 

[i] Brandon Taylor, “Kandinsky and Contemporary Painting”, in Tate Papers. [ii] Strick, Jeremy. “Visual Music,” in Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900. Kerry Brougher and Jeremy Strick, eds. Los Angeles: Thames & Hudson, 2005, pg. 15-16. [iii] Like an erudite Burt & Mary Poppins jumping into the chalk sketches. [iv] Kandinsky, ‘Reminiscences/Three Pictures’, in K. Lindsay and P. Vergo eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, vol. 1, London 1982, pg. 368–9. [v] Kandinsky, ‘Reminiscences/Three Pictures’, pg. 379. [vi] For further reading on Theosophy’s philosophies and Madame Blavatsky’s influence on automatism and art, see the Harvard Library’s digitized Theosophy Collections: “Theosophy Collections.” Harvard Library, Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, https://library.harvard.edu/collections/theosophy-collections [vii] Voss, Julia. “The First Abstract Artist? (And It's Not Kandinsky): Focus: Hilma Af Klint – Tate Etc.” Tate, The Tate Gallery, www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-27-spring-2013/first-abstract-artist-and-its-not-kandinsky. [viii] Bashkoff, Tracey. Hilma af Klint: Paintings of the Future. New York: Thames & Hudson. 2018. [ix] Voss, Julia. [x] Hellstein, Valerie. “De Kooning's Embodied Vision and Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s – In Focus.” Tate, www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/women-singing-ii/de-koonings-embodied-vision. [xi] David Thompson, ‘Art’, Queen, 22 January 1969, clipping found in the Arts Council of Great Britain: Records, 1928–1997, London: Victoria and Albert Archive of Art and Design. PDF. [xii] “Carrie Moyer: Interstellar.” Worcester Art Museum, 2012, www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/carrie-moyer/ [xiii] “Abstract Art – Art Term.” Tate, The Tate Gallery, www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/abstract-art.