First broadcast: Sep 2014. Documentary in which painter and critic Matthew Collings charts the rise of abstract art over the last 100 years, whilst trying to answer a set of basic questions that many people have about this often-baffling art form. How do we respond to abstract art when we see it? Is it supposed to be hard or easy? When abstract artists chuck paint about with abandon, what does it mean? Does abstract art stand for something or is it supposed to be understood as just itself? These might be thought of as unanswerable questions, but by looking at key historical figures and exploring the private world of abstract artists today, Collings shows that there are, in fact, answers. Living artists in the programme create art in front of the camera using techniques that seem outrageously free, but through his friendly-yet-probing interview style Collings immediately establishes that the work always has a firm rationale. When Collings visits 92-year-old Bert Irvin in his studio in Stepney, east London he finds that the colourful works continue experiments in perceptual ideas about colour and space first established by abstract art pioneers such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky in the 1910s. Other historic artists featured in the programme include the notorious Jackson Pollock, the maker of drip paintings, and Mark Rothko, whose abstractions often consist of nothing but large expanses of red. Collings explains the inner structure of such works. It turns out there are hidden rules to abstraction that viewers of this intriguing, groundbreaking programme may never have expected.


LOS ANGELES— ”The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” surveys a great adventure. At a time when a new generation of abstract artists experiences the grids of Mondrian not as spiritual threshholds but as prison bars, the exhibition reminds us what was at stake when a handful of artists in different parts of Europe first painted without reference to the external world. It helps us measure the leap they made and understand the doubt – and assurance – that was required to make it.

The exhibition inaugurates the Robert O. Anderson Building of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and suggests the path this expanding museum hopes to pursue. It wants to be inclusive. It is concerned with East and West, with East Coast and West Coast, with modern and anti-modern, and it is looking for subjects, like this one, that will make bridges possible.

”The Spiritual in Art” is also a direct challenge to the picture of modernism that has been painted by the Museum of Modern Art. This large show pays almost no attention to the Cezanne-Picasso-Matisse axis around which much of the permanent installation of the Modern now revolves. It has little or no interest in art-historial questions of who came first, or who influenced whom.

Its focus is not on the formal breakthrough but on a particular kind of content. Drawing upon a body of research that has been growing steadily during the last 25 years, the exhibition sets out to prove, in the words of its curator, Maurice Tuchman, that the ”genesis and development of abstract art were inextricably tied to spiritual ideas current in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” It wants to demonstrate that these ideas are still current – that an ”astonishingly high proportion of visual artists in the past 100 years have been involved with these ideas and belief systems.”

The spritual sparks that helped inspire the pioneering abstract art of Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka flew out of spiritualism and the occult. They were generated by such ventures into mysticism as Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, Eastern philosophy, and various Eastern and Western religions. Spiritual ideas were not peripheral to these artists’ lives, not something that happend to pop into their minds as they stood by their canvas. Kupka participated in seances and was a practicing medium. Kandinsky attended private fetes involved with magic, black masses and pagan rituals.

Mondrian was a member of the Dutch Theosophical Society and lived briefly in the quarters of the French Theosophical Society in Paris. He said once that he ”got everything from the Secret Doctrine” of Theosophy, which was an attempt by its founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to do nothing less than read, digest and synthesize all religions. It has been known for some time how much of Mondrian’s symbolism – including the ubiquitous vertical and horizontal lines – and how much of his utopianism, was shaped by Theosophical doctrine. In his 1910-11 painting ”Evolution,” which is in the show, he defines the ascending stages in a Theosophical journey through which he later hoped to guide the public in his abstract art.

The exhibition demonstrates how widespread the late-19th-century reaction was against Realism, Impressionism, materialist philosophy and materialistic values. Positivist and rationalist systems had generated as many problems as answers, and many, if not most avant-garde artists began looking elsewhere. There was a hunger for a reality that was universal and timeless rather than particular and ephemeral. There was a fascination both with mysticism, which Mr. Tuchman defines as the ”search for the state of oneness with ultimate reality,” and with the occult.

In his catalogue essay, Robert P. Welsh makes the crucial point that developments such as Theosophy were not aberrations – not hallucinatory episodes in the hyperactive minds of bizarre cultists. He states that they should be ”viewed as the culmination of studies in comparative religion that began with the Enlightenment and were successively enriched throughout the 19th century.” Indeed the distrust of reason and exploration of intuitive, nonrational experience seem to have run parallel to the Enlightenment’s faith in scientific and systematic thought. The mystical, transcendental current ran through the United States as well, animating Walt Whitman and William James.

The exhibition begins with Symbolism, Edvard Munch, Jugendstil (Art Nouveau in Germany) and the Nabis (a group of artists in France who took their name from the Hebrew word for ”prophet”). In the work of artists like Munch, the French Nabi painter Paul Ranson and the Dutch Symbolist Jan Toorop, the search for spiritual synthesis and essences led to a pictorial simplification in which lines, shapes and colors are almost significant in themselves. After the introductory gallery, there is a display of 16th- to 19th-century esoteric books with which artists in the show were familiar.

Edvard Munch (Wikipedia)

In this show Symbolism is to abstraction what Cubism is to the generally accepted view of modern art. It had enormous influence on European culture as a whole, in part because it was identified not only with painters such as Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, but also with poets like Stephane Mallarme and Paul Verlaine and composers like Claude Debussy. Indeed Symbolism believed in the unity of the arts. It was fascinated with the notion of synesthesia, which Mr. Tuchman describes as the ”overlap between the senses.” Many artists were attracted to the idea that human beings can hear painting and see music, and they believed that the more senses art engages, the more total the experience it offers can be.

There are, in effect, five solo shows: on Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian and Hilma af Klint, a previously unknown Swedish artist whose somewhat mechanical abstract paintings and drawings of organic, geometrical forms were marked by Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Kandinsky, like other artists at the end of the 19th century, saw art as a new religion. In his 1912 essay ”Concerning the Spiritual in Art” – on which the title of the show is based – he equated representational art with materialism. He saw abstraction as a language that was not only capable of expressing deeper truths but also of communicating them to all five senses.

The exhibition sketches Kandinsky’s evolution from figuration to abstraction. It also suggests the key issue of Kandinsky’s hidden imagery. In her book on ”Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style,” Rose Carol Washton-Long discusses the seriousness with which Kandinsky considered the question of intelligibility. In early abstract paintings, he dissolved imagery, but left traces of it, allowing just enough for the viewer to hold onto. The theme of the Apocalypse – inspired by the Theosophical and Anthroposophical writings of Rudolf Steiner – was crucial to Kandinsky’s prophetic ambition. In a great early abstract painting, such as the 1913 ”Picture With White Border,” there is an apocalyptic sense of both destruction and creation, disintegration and celebration.

Kandinsky’s 1912 ”Lady in Moscow” is a show stopper. A woman stands in the foreground with her hand around a dog like a medium around a crystal ball. Floating to her left is a pink sphere. Above her is a flat black coffinlike shape that recurs in several of Kandinsky’s works at this time. If it is sinister in its color and in the way it seems to suck in the sun, it also seems to belong to the sun as a body to a head. The work was apparently inspired by Steiner’s discussion of clairvoyance.

Unlike Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian, there is no evidence that Malevich studied mysticism or occultism, but in the Symbolist environment of late-19th-century Moscow, mystical and occult ideas were everywhere. His earliest painting in the show, the 1908 ”Nymphs,” with its choreography of petallike nymphs, is Symbolist in inspiration. Like Kandinsky, Malevich was touched by Russian folk art and the feeling for Russian soil. He also believed in ”zaum” – meaning ”beyond reason” or ”beyond the mind” – a suprarational process by which connections could be made that transcended the laws and limits of the everyday world. Malevich’s Suprematist abstractions, with their geometric forms hovering and embedded in dense monochromatic fields, are in part expressions of prevailing ideas about cosmology and nothingness.

The second and far less successful part of the show is broken into what Mr. Tuchman calls the ”five underlying impulses within the spiritual-abstract nexus” -Cosmic Imagery, Dualities, Synesthesia, Spiritual Geometry and Vibrations (according to Mr. Tuchman, Kandinsky believed that ”human emotions consist of vibrations of the soul, and that the soul is set into vibrations by nature”); each impulse was defined in Symbolist art and literature. Each section presents a range of artists that, whenever possible, extends into the present. Involving so many artists – the list of contemporary painters includes Brice Marden, Bill Jensen, Jasper Johns, Dorothea Rockburne, Bruce Nauman, Bruno Ceccobelli, Robert Irwin and Sigmar Polke -makes the point that spiritualism continues to play a role in art, but it does so at the expense of the exhibition’s intensity and focus.

The impact of the show has a good deal to do with its timing. This is the first museum show to suggest not only how widespread the artistic dissatisfaction with all institutional forms of thinking has been, but how widespread it is now. The current artistic interest in the more intutitive, holistic aspects of Eastern thinking is one reflection of it. Earlier this year P.S. 1 in Queens and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo organized exhibitions that revealed mystical and occult pockets within contemporary art. While ”Art and Alchemy,” the central exhibition at the 1986 Venice Biennale, was a self-serving mess, it went even further in suggesting the degree to which 20th-century artists have been attracted by esoteric concerns.

The importance of the show is also due, to a considerable degree, to the catalogue. It is massive, more than 400 pages, and it contains essays by 19 scholars. The level of intelligence and passion is generally high, and it provides a larger forum to art historians such as Sixten Ringbom, a medieval scholar teaching in Finland.

But the catalogue also exposes the exhibition’s weaknesses. If it is going to make a point about how concerned abstract artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian were to invent a universal language, then the show itself should have been more imaginative about its presentation. The installation is dry and methodical. For anyone not already familiar with the material, the impact of spiritualism, and the abstract artist’s struggle with content, are likely to be inaccessible.

It is also clear from the catalogue that Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich believed that art had to create an experience. They wanted to break down the distance between themselves and the world, and they wanted their paintings to do the same for us. They made contemplative paintings in which it is necessary, first of all, to try and lose ourselves. This cannot be done when galleries in which the paintings are shown are constricted, when there is no place to sit, and when, in the second half of the show, works by so many different artists are hung side by side as in a salon.

The exhibition does suggest both the possibilities and the political and artistic dangers for artists inspired by mystical and esoteric thinking. At the beginning of the catalogue, Mr. Tuchman writes that the ”Nazi theory of Aryan supremacy” was ”indebted to various versions of Theosophy.” One artistic danger lies in literally taking a spiritual symbol, image or sacred geometric form and then trying to illuminate it. The result can be facile and inert. What distinguishes Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and the Abstract Expressionists is the critical importance of process. Their best work was a discovery in which artistic and spiritual journey merged.

In the second part of the show, Pollock stands out. He was interested in mysticism and in Jung. In his paintings, he knew that attaining the psychological and mythical level he was after could not be done without ritual and sacrifice. His abstract paintings became that ritual, sacrificial process. Pollock is one of the few artists after the abstract pioneers who understood that entry into a more cosmic realm has a cost. His paintings remain so substantial because they are at the same time the record of his journey, his destination and the price he paid for getting there.

After closing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on March 8, the exhibition will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, from April 17 to July 19, and then at the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague from Sept. 1 to Nov. 22. It was financed in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Atlantic Richfield Foundation.

photo of work by Piet Mondrian (page 33); photo of work by Vasily Kandinsky (page 33)

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