Making the case


The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present

This book is of paramount importance in overcoming the revisionism that has plagued art history since the post-war period. The spiritual in art has been systematically boycotted as a subject for analysing the inspiration of a huge number of artists.
Unfortunately, the cost of this book is too high and the ebook is also disproportionate given the scarcity of physical copies. I hope for a reprint and its widespread distribution.

Andrea Biasca-Caroni

President of the Archivio Luigi Pericle

Copertina anteriore

C. Spretnak : about the author

Springer, 22 ott 2014 – 271 pagine

This book demonstrates that numerous prominent artists in every period of the modern era were expressing spiritual interests when they created celebrated works of art. This magisterial overview insightfully reveals the centrality of an often denied and misunderstood element in the cultural history of modern art.

“The spiritual dynamic in modern art” : MAKING THE CASE

Some comments about it :

2 years fa


Spretnak does a tremendous job convincing you that the subject of spirituality in modern art has not only been neglected in the art world, but actively suppressed. While she stretches credibility a handful of times (for example, her chief argument for claiming Le Corbusier as a spiritual architect is that his uncle and some of his friends were Freemasons), the number of well-documented examples she presents really live up to the book’s subtitle. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone wanting to better understand the origins of modern art.

4 years fa


This is a terrific overview of the evolution of modern art with a focus on recurrent spiritual expression. Spretnak has done her homework and writes from extensive research, but she does it in a compelling way, showing how art historians, museum curators, and gallery owners have often overlooked or diminished the underlying spiritual impulses of a wide array of modern artists. Spretnak defines spirituality broadly, allowing for religious or secular manifestations. She is not partisan. But she seems to have exposed a kind of modern day cover-up in the art world, and readers will definitely benefit from her close study.

Making the Case :

The effort to induce the professional art world to acknowledge the spiritual content in modern and contemporary art has a history, although not a very successful one with regard to effecting widespread change in the status quo. The following list charts the stream of books, articles, exhibitions, and public lectures on the significant role of prominent artists’ spiritual interests in the creation of their art. It begins in the aftermath of Alfred Barr’s influential exhibition on Cubism and Abstraction at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, before which there was little need to argue the case for recognizing spiritual interests in the new art because the subject was so well-known and frequently written about in Europe by artists and art critics between the mid-1880s and the early 1920s. Each of the works and presentations listed below addresses a sub-set of the larger story by focusing on an art movement, or a time period, or an area of influence. Monographs of individual artists are not included here, although hundreds of relevant monographs are cited in the Notes. A complete bibliography of all the books I consulted during the years of researching
this book would be too vast for the space limitations I was given. Finally, this list is limited to works written in or for the art world. Many insightful papers and articles have been presented within the academic fields of religion and philosophy about modern art, but those have not generally attracted the attention of art world professionals.

Meyer Schapiro, “The Nature of Abstract Art,” Marxist Quarterly, 1:1, January–March (p.263)

Herbert Read, “Farewell to Formalism,” Art News, 51:4, Summer

Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Painting
Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” Art News, 59:10, February
Sixten Ringbom, “Art in ‘The Epoch of the Great Spiritual’: Occult Elements in the Early
Theory of Abstract Painting,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 29

Jane Daggett Dillenberger, Secular Art with Sacred Themes
Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: From Friedrich to

Jane Daggett Dillenberger, ed., Perceptions of the Spirit in 20th-Century Art (exhibition
catalogue from the Indianapolis Museum of Art)
Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern

Lucy Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, ed., Art, Creativity, and the Sacred
Roald Nasgaard, The Mystic North: Symbolist Landscape Painting in Northern Europe and North
America, 1890–1940
Maurice Tuchman, ed., The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890–1985 (exhibition
catalogue from Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Sacred Images in Secular Art (catalogue of a small exhibition at the Whitney Museum of
American Art)
Kathleen J. Regier, ed., The Spiritual Image in Modern Art
“Abstract Art and the Rediscovery of the Spiritual,” special issue of Art & Design (London)
3:5/6, June

See also :

Peter Fuller, Theoria: Art, and the Absence of Grace
John Lane, The Living Tree: Art and the Sacred
Roger Lipsey, An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art

Jane Daggett Dillenberger, Image and Spirit in Sacred and Secular Art
Gail Gelburd and Geri De Paoli, The Transparent Thread: Asian Philosophy in Recent American
Art (exhibition catalogue from Hofstra Museum, New York)
Bernard Smith, “Modernism: That Is to Say, Geniusism,” Modern Painters, 3:2, Summer
Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art
Michael Tucker, Dreaming with Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in 20th-Century Art and
Wendy Beckett, The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred
Mark Levy, Technicians of Ecstasy: Shamanism and the Modern Artist
Spiritual Expressions: Art for Private Contemplation and Public Celebration (exhibition catalogue
from the Art Institute of Chicago)
Reesey Shaw, ed., Espíritu (exhibition catalogue from the California Center for the Arts
Nella Arambasin, La conception du sacré dans la critique d’art: En Europe entre 1880 et 1914
Richard Francis, ed., Negotiating Rapture (exhibition catalogue from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago)
“Spiritual in Art,” special issue of Artweek, 28, January
Maureen Korp, Sacred Art of the Earth: Ancient and Contemporary Earthworks
Anna Moszynska, “Abstraction and Spirituality,” The Age of Modernism: Art in the Twentieth
Century (exhibition catalogue from the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin)
Charlene Spretnak, “The Spiritual Dimension of Modern Art” (keynote address at SightLines,
an international conference of printmakers, Edmundton, Alberta)
Charles A. Riley II, The Saints of Modern Art
Bernard Smith, Modernism’s History
Cosmos: From Romanticism to the Avant-Garde (exhibition catalogue from the Montreal
Museum of Fine Arts)
Dawn Perlmutter and Debra Koppman, eds., Reclaiming the Spiritual in Art
Sarah O’Brien Twohig, The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (five-part lecture series at the
Tate Gallery, London)
Art et Spiritualité, special issue of Ligeia (Paris), no. 29–32 (October 1999–June 2000)
Wanda M. Corn, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915–1935
(on the 291 Group and others; Introduction is on “Spiritual America”)
Danilo Eccher, ed., The Shadow of Reason: Exploring the Spiritual in European Identity in the
20th Century (exhibition catalogue from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Bologna, Italy)
John Golding, Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko,
The Arts and the Spiritual (conference at School of the Visual Arts, New York)
Lynn M. Herbert, ed., The Inward Eye: Transcendence in Contemporary Art (exhibition
catalogue from the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston)
Anne Morgan, “Beyond PostModernism: The Spiritual in Contemporary Art,” Art Papers,
26:1, January–February
Klaus Ottmann, “Spiritual Materiality,” Sculpture, 66, April
Lynn Gamwell, Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual
Celia Rabinovitch, Surrealism and the Sacred: Power, Eros, and the Occult in Modern Art
Sally M. Promey, “The ‘Return’ of Religion in the Scholarship of American Art,” The Art
Bulletin, 85: 3
Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob, eds., Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art
John Baldessari and Meg Cranston, eds., 100 Artists See God (catalogue of a travelling
exhibition; Independent Curators International)
James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art
Eleanor Heartney, Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art
Laura Hoptman, ed., 54th Carnegie International (exhibition catalogue from the Carnegie
Museum of Art)
Jacquelynn Baas, The Smile of the Buddha
Ronald E. Steen, The “S” Word: The State of “Spirituality” in Contemporary Art (exhibition
catalogue from the Judson Gallery, Los Angeles)
Mark Alizart, Alfred Pacquement, Jean de Loisy, Angela Lampe, eds., Traces du Sacré
(exhibition catalogue from the Pompidou Center, Paris)
Franklin Sirmans, ed., NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith (exhibition catalogue from The
Menil Collection, Houston)
Holy Inspiration: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Art, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
James Elkins and David Morgan, eds., Re-Enchantment (a seminar plus essays)
Jed Perl, “The Spiritual in Art,” The New Republic, February 18
Alexandra Monroe, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 (exhibition catalogue from the Guggenheim Museum)
The Spiritual (Re)Turn (online symposium at the Guggenheim Museum)
Dan Fox, “Believe It or Not: Religion versus Spirituality in Contemporary Art,” Frieze, Issue
135, November–December
Beyond Kandinsky: Revisiting the Spiritual in Art (online symposium at School of the Visual
Arts, New York)
Mark C. Taylor, Refiguring the Sacred: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy
Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art (exhibition at the Jewish Contemporary
Museum, in conjunction with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
Linda Nochlin and Sarah O’Brien Twohig, Modernism and Spirituality (one-day conference at
the Tate Gallery)

As the reader will note, all but two of the exhibitions cited above were held in art venues
located far from New York City, the site of greatest resistance to this subject. In addition, all
but two of the entries above, many of which are truly important works, are focused on a limited
scope or time frame within the larger story. The exhibition catalogue for Traces du Sacré, as well
as a shorter version with the same title, contains many excellent essays and does present the
comprehensive story, beginning with a Caspar David Friedrich painting from 1818. However,
the large body of works and commentaries in that exhibition are presented in an array of 22
categories of concepts. To my knowledge, the only book that seeks to present the entire story
in the chronological order of the art movements of the modern period, beginning with the
early nineteenth century, is the present volume.
In recent years, a number of art critics have courageously—or perhaps stubbornly—
acknowledged and sometimes discussed spiritual content in various works of modern and
contemporary art: Kenneth Baker, Holland Cotter, the late Arthur Danto, the late Peter Fuller,
Eleanor Heartney, Dave Hickey, Waldemar Januszczak, Ken Johnson, Michael Kimmelman,
Donald Kuspit, the late Thomas McEvilley, Jed Perl, Peter Schjeldahl, Amei Wallach, and
others. I appreciate their high-profile contributions to liberating this “non-subject.”
In the twentieth century the art critic and historian who most consistently, and insightfully, engaged with this subject in nearly all of his books was Herbert Read. Several other art
historians have also written or spoken repeatedly and compellingly about the spiritual in modern art: Robert Rosenblum, Peter Selz, Meyer Schapiro, Sixten Ringbom, William Seitz, Jane
Daggett Dillenberger, Bernard Smith, John Golding, Suzi Gablik, Wanda Corn, Jacquelynn
Baas, Sarah O’Brien Twohig, Charles Jencks, and James Elkins. The art world professional
who has had the greatest impact on opening the conversation about this subject is, of course,
Maurice Tuchman, who persevered through much resistance to mount the exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890–1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986.
He first proposed the idea in 1970 and never gave up, even after his grant application to the
National Endowment of the Humanities was turned down twice.
A resource for those interested in this subject is the Museum of Contemporary Religious
Art (MOCRA), the world’s first interfaith museum of contemporary art that engages religious
and spiritual themes. Founded by Terrence Dempsey, S. J. in St. Louis in 1994, it recently
celebrated its twentieth year of high-quality exhibitions of works by established artists. This
museum maintains an informative website on the spiritual in contemporary art:

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