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By Deedee Wigmore

In the 1930s nationalism and an isolationist point of view dominated the American art scene. This was expressed through art designed to tell the American story in a language everyone could understandórealism. At the same time there were artists who had experienced modernist developments in Europe in the 1920s who felt art should be international and open to new ideas. They wished to continue to develop abstraction using the international art styles of French Purism, Dutch Neo-Plasticism, German Bauhaus design and theory, and Russian Constructivism. As each of these styles was based on Cubism, it was the foundation of the American abstract art movement. Cubism allowed the breakup and reconfiguration of geometric shapes to become the subject of a painting.

For many American artists working in abstraction they first used Cubism to handle still life and figurative subjects explored by their contemporaries in Paris, Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).  Two paintings executed in 1935 by Charles Green Shaw (1892-1974): Musical Composition and Le Soldat Inconnu along with Albert E. Gallatin’s (1881-1952) Synthetic Cubist Composition, 1945-49 illustrate this.

Struggling to reimagine pictorial space, American artists explored line, color, space, form, light, shade, and texture to create a new abstract language. Realist practices such as a single center of interest, avoiding juxtaposing complementary colors, or not mixing soft and hard edged forms were thrown out. Artists discovered that imaginative geometric shapes could provide greater freedom to investigate new form and color relationships. With the replacement of illusionistic space and its perspective-based forms by geometric shapes, new rules for abstract compositions were found. For example, relying solely on color choices artists could make geometric forms float toward the viewer to heighten the illusion of depth.

Paintings based on collage form a section of our exhibition as using collage in the design of compositions was fundamental to artists moving beyond Cubism. Ilya Bolotowsky’s (1907-1981) bold yet simple composition Geometry on Green, 1937 demonstrates collage use to aid in shape and color choices. In Urban Collage, 1943, George L.K. Morris (1905-1975) adds actual collaged elements of gilded paper and birch bark to his painting for a sophisticated reference to both the urban environment full of swirling movement and the simpler one of nature. Developing abstraction through collage provided a number of new compositional possibilities. Artists saw that by shifting the emphasis from the dense patterns and overlapping planes of Cubism to single shapes rendered against neutral backgrounds a feeling of deeper space was created. Cut-outs in a variety of shapes were moved around to examine different placements of line and form resulting in a new approach to spatial interplay with movement created by starts-and-stops of line and color. Movement and rhythm could also be provided by variations of light and dark and alternations of flatness and depth. Structure could be produced through the repetition or interweaving of line and color. These new approaches helped artists break through Cubist ideas of abbreviation and segmentation of an object to create our modern conception of all-over pattern. Examples illustrating the expansion of American abstraction beyond Cubism’s fragmentation are Blue Structure, c.1945 by Ilya Bolotowsky and Geometric Abstraction, 1940 by Irene Rice Pereira (1902-1971).

In the 1930s with the rise of Surrealism in Europe, some American artists pioneering abstraction accepted intuition, chance, and the subconscious as influences that could bring forth a painting. Rooted in realism, Surrealism was born as an artistic comment on aggression and cruelty. Abstract artists made their comment with an adaptation of Surrealism called Biomorphism, which used irregular organically-derived forms. These biomorphic shapes were thought to have an emotional charge because of their loose connection to real things suggested by the subconscious. Using interlocking biomorphic and geometric shapes, abstract paintings gained a fresh means of pictorial expression. Energy, movement, anger, or joy could be suggested by the shapes and colors selected for a painting. Our best example of Surrealism adapted for abstract commentary in the exhibition is Gambit, 1943 by Werner Drewes (1899-1985), which comments on the progress of World War II and the escape from Europe by the persecuted. A more subtle use of biomorphic shapes is seen in Drewes’s Forward Reaction, 1947. Sound and strife are suggested through interlocking shapes and primary colors, which enhance the mood of struggle.

The search for an authentic American abstraction was complicated as it dealt with balancing a cosmopolitan international style with nationalism. The solution was to integrate motifs and symbols from American life into the art. For example, George L.K. Morris often collaged birch bark into his compositions as an American material referencing our country’s native people and craft tradition. This was a new use of an historical American material to suggest a national narrative within abstraction. The 1930s saw a major expansion of New York museum collections to reflect their interest in ethnology, geography, geology, and environmental studies. East Coast artists visited installations of American Indian art at the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of the American Indian in Harlem, and the Museum of Natural History and began to use Indian design in their abstract compositions. Maude Kerns’s (1876-1975) Composition No. 62, 1946 and Werner Drewes’s Composition 27A, 1933 reflect this interest in making a connection to our national history. Although Drewes first visited Taos, New Mexico and California in 1926, it was not until he taught drawing and printmaking at the Brooklyn Museum under the Federal Arts Project in 1934-1936 that Drewes began to actively pursue connections to Indian culture in his abstractions.

In New Mexico, the presence of Native American, Anglo, and Hispanic cultures each with a strong spiritual focus influenced the art of the Transcendental Painting Group. The group’s best known members include Emil Bisttram (1895-1976), Raymond Jonson (1891-1982), Lawren Harris (1885-1970), and Ed Garman (1914-2004). This group abandoned references to the landscape in their abstract work by the mid-1930s, using instead symbolic representations of their location through Indian designs and a Southwestern palette. Often examples of abstraction by the Transcendentalists convey the group’s urge to release from deep within themselves art with such vitality it provokes an intense spiritual feeling in the viewer.  This is the aim of Bisttram’s Celestial Alignment, c.1938 and Ed Garman’s Painting No. 258, 1942 featured in our exhibition.

Neo-Plasticism, a cool, geometric style invented by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) found favor with a group of American artists interested in developing abstract compositions with greater clarity and precision.  The American artists Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965), Harry Holtzman (1912-1987), Charmion von Wiegand (1896-1983), Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996), and Carl Holty (1900-1973) were attracted to Neo-Plasticism as it offered a universal system of relationships for form and color.  Through the system, the artists achieved both control of advancing and receding movement and balance within the composition.  When Mondrian came to America in 1940 his presence in New York acted as a catalyst to his American followers, leading to broader experimentation.  While reliefs appear within American abstraction in the 1930s, the Neo-Plasticist constructions of the 1940s took on greater dimension and complexity. Our exhibition offers the opportunity to see the rare culmination of these space, color, and form developments in the 1960s with freestanding sculptures by Burgoyne Diller, K Color Structure, 1962 and Untitled Structure, 1962, as well as one of his wall reliefs First Theme, 1962.  The tempo and sounds of New York influenced Mondrian and increased the rhythm and complexity of his work within the boundaries of hard-edge geometric painting. John Sennhauser’s (1907-1978) oil on canvas Synchroformic No. 23, 1951 in our exhibition illustrates this continued influence of sound on painting’s color and structure in the spirit of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43.

Important art requires its own language.  The language for abstraction was developed in America in the 1930s and 1940s through invention and intuition. Artists distilled ideas from European modernist art styles to create an abstract language for America capable of reflecting the dynamic rhythms of modern life and expressing  feelings and comments about building a life in a time of Depression, war, and change. Today we forget that abstraction needed a defense in its initial manifestations and had to develop both a language and an audience to be appreciated.



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