Within the time and space you have been gracious enough to grant me, in addition to painting, I have been reading–something I hadn’t had the energy to do much of when I was still posting the blog seven days a week. More specifically, I have been reading a lot about the heritage of this art form I’ve been engaged with for the better part of a decade now–abstract art.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently presented its ambitious and powerful show titled, Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art. I ordered the catalogue and have been immersed in it ever since it arrived. I highly recommend it to any of you who are interested in abstract art–this from a woman who flunked Art History in college, in part because I can’t memorize to save my soul but mostly because it fell right after my three-hour etching class. I simply couldn’t make myself leave something so captivating for the dry-as-dust lectures about art history–a subject that could and should be fascinating, by the way–as it is when presented by MoMA.
In this wonderful book I’ve read that, “Roughly one hundred years ago, a series of precipitous shifts took place in the cultural sphere that in the end amounted to as great a rewriting of the rules of artistic production as had been seen since the Renaissance.” The show sets out to illustrate those radical shifts with groundbreaking works of art. Further, it makes the case for abstraction having been birthed by many artists around the world simultaneously. In MoMA’s words, “The story of its [abstract art] sudden flourishing may have something to tell us about the nature of innovation itself: abstraction was not the inspiration of a solitary genius but the product of… ideas moving through a nexus of artists and intellectuals working in different media and far-flung places.”
Vasily Kandinsky, along with all of the emerging abstract artists of his day, struggled with the concept of making art that didn’t “picture” anything. In the end, having gone back and forth in his own work, he crystallized abstract’s overriding question, one with which Pablo Picasso disagreed rigidly, “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” I had never fully appreciated the revolutionary thinking this concept embodied at the time of its inception, but this presentation of works combined with the ideas put forth by its contributing authors, has brought it home to me.
And it has also made clear that the revolution shaking up visual arts of the time was also creating profound shifts throughout other art forms. According to MoMA, “The coming of these first abstract pictures was matched by extraordinary developments in other spheres. Sound poetry, non-narrative dance, and atonal music developed in parallel with pictures that no longer pictured; each jettisoned the weight of convention… Inventing Abstraction explores the productive relationships among artists and composers, dancers and poets, in establishing a new modern language for the arts.” Artists of all art forms who would transform and, “… fundamentally shape artistic practice in the century that followed,” needed each other and a worldwide network emerged, “… sweeping across nations and across media.”
It’s been my experience to be affected by the ideas and inventions of others even when I may not be aware of their influence. One personal example is the profound effect the Russian Avant-Garde has had on my thinking and designs even though, until recently, I’d never heard of them.
In one form or another I’ve been exposed to their work for decades, mostly in advertising and design. And just as have many of the artists in the MoMA show, I believe they have touched my art in profound ways. Working with stripped down shapes and geometrics, the words, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” are always present in my mind when I paint.
The Russian Avant Garde and several of its artists are prominent in the MoMA show.
Not featured in the show is a group of important abstract artists that have also greatly influenced my work. The Taos Moderns as they were called, didn’t emerge until the early 1940s, well outside the time frame of MoMA’s focus. According to The Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico,”The 1940s was an important transition period for the Taos art community. A group of modernist artists arrived who would set a new artistic course for a generation. Following World War II, Taos became an important crossroads in contemporary American art, a place where the influences of European and American modernism came together. Artists from New York and San Francisco, the cradles of post-war abstract painting, found in Taos a conducive place to work devoid of the distractions of the big cities. Many of the modernist artists arrived in Taos… as if inexplicably drawn to the town’s inherently creative atmosphere.”
Beatrice Mandelman, one of my favorite Toas Moderns…
…who has influenced my work more than I realized until dipping back into a book I own about her art, said that, “… the land of New Mexico makes it possible to be an abstractionist,” and I think she’s right. Most of you probably know that I was a realist painter until I visited Truchas, New Mexico for the first time, a trip that changed my art from realism to abstraction forever (see previous post An Uncomfortable But Compelling Push-Pull).
Of course I believe that in addition to the magnificent vistas of New Mexico offering up its mountains, valleys, barrancas, mesas, and canyons seemingly all at once (not to mention its shimmering light and vast skies), Mandelman is also alluding to the intangibles of this place when she refers to the land of New Mexico: its power and energy and the sense of spirit it palpably embodies. Mix that with the sounds of the lark, the coyote, the hawk, the raven, and this place becomes alive in a way that makes it a character in our lives, a friend we walk within and live on. THAT is what makes it possible for me to be an abstractionist. And I think if Bea were alive today and sitting here with me now she would say, “Exactly!”
An important element that makes art possible, and I think this has been very true for artists down through the ages and certainly at the birth of abstraction, is a dealer who believes in our art. This is not to be minimized. I have said many times that Bill Franke, owner of Hand Artes Gallery here in Truchas and my dealer, not only loves art but artists. He is there, as enthusiastic as a child at Christmas, when we bring in new work. He loves this place in which we live, its heritage and its special beauty, so much so that he always, always gets what we are endeavoring to honor in the work we do. He GETS it. And he gets us. Then he practices his own art by putting diverse artists together, modernist with traditional, abstract and real, throughout the many rooms of his gallery, in a way that showcases us all–no small feat.
This is Bill standing in a room of the gallery where he is showing Kim’s Moss’s work and my work together, examples of two very different artistic expressions of what it is to live on this land.
And here, in what I fondly call the piano room, he mixes my older work with the new. Bill dearly loves to show the provenance of an artist and cringes whenever I talk of painting over an older canvas.
Above the piano he’s hung a recent seven foot painting that he believes deserves the whole wall…
… and here he shows one of my newer pieces alongside the mysterious and moving work of Sheila Keefe.
So I make my paintings, influenced by the rich tradition of those who went before me, works made possible by the sacrifices required of revolution, by great artists breaking new ground.
It’s almost as though I’ve breathed in their struggles and something of them is born in me…
… that I embody their tradition, one I carry forward, birthed a century ago.
I think those artists live on, not only in their own works they left behind, but in the works of those of us who call ourselves abstractionists… the ground they broke is still bearing fruit.
Love to you all,