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1913

Robert Delaunay exhibits his "Windows" paintings in Berlin: the initial problems and paradigms of abstraction are elaborated across Europe.

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ezanne broke the fruit dish," Robert Delaunay his near-abstractions "extractions." This list makes two points (1895-1941) once remarked, "and we should not glue it obvious at once: abstraction was international, and many of its together again, as the Cubists do." This call for abstracinnovators were not formed in avant-garde Paris. Why would this tion is clear enough, yet its actual development was complicated: '" be so? Although Matisse and Picasso opened the way to abstraction, centered on painting, abstraction was driven by diverse motivathey were too invested in the world of objects-or, more precisely, tions, methods, and models. Some artists deepened the painterly in the visual play of figures and signs that this world afforded-to aspect of Impressionism; others, the expressive dimension of enter into abstraction fully. On the other hand, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Klee, and Kupka were formed in cultures (Russian, '" Postimpressionism; still others, the linear design of Art Nouveau. The fragmented "fruit dish" of Cezanne and Picasso was influenDutch, German, Czech) whose metaphysical imperatives and/or tial to many painters on the verge of nonrepresentational art; iconoclastic impulses might have made abstraction less alien. the broad color fields of Matisse were inspirational to others; In this respect Russia was especially important as a crucible for and the bold geometric forms of African sculpture also served as abstraction. There were important collections of avant-garde an important provocation, sometimes replaced or supplemented painting (the Shchukin Collection alone boasted thirty-seven by folk art (and, in Russia, by religious icons). In 1912-13 such Matisses and forty Picassos), vigorous exhibitions of international precedents and provocations converged to allow the recognition art not only in St. Petersburg and Moscow but in provincial cities of abstraction as a value, even a necessity, in its own right. Since too, and a range of groups eager to assimilate the lessons of Symabstraction is primordial to the arts of several cultures, there is bolism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Cubism, as well as to elaborate on folk art, children's drawings, and medieval icons (an exhibition of no question of a single origin or a first abstraction: in this sense, abstraction was found as much as it was invented. In a famous restored icons was staged in Moscow in 1913). The latter interests anecdote Wassily Kandinsky told how, when he returned one were strong in Larionov, who was drawn to the popular woodnight to his studio in Murnau, Germany (he dated the event to carvings known as lubki, and Goncharova, whose early paintings of 1910), he failed to recognize one of his paintings upside down in peasant life also reflect the simple forms and strong outlines the dim light-only to discover the expressive potential of of peasant carvings, embroidery, and enamels. Larionov and abstract forms through this experience. Goncharova were velY active in exhibition-making too ("Knave If there was no one parent of abstraction, there were several of Diamonds" in 1910 and "The Donkey's Tail" in 1912 were the midwives, in particular the Frenchman Delaunay, the Russian Sonia II most important); and inspired by Cubist and Futurist works, Terk (1885-1979; she married Delaunay in 1910), the Dutchman they moved away from primitivist experiments toward a form of II Piet Mondrian, and the Russians Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich abstraction marked by fractured lines and luminous colors-a (1878-1935). The1astthree are often given pride ofplace as the most style that Larionov dubbed Rayonism for the manner in which the committed, but other early abstractionists include the Czech surface of the painting seems to be struck by multiple rays of light Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957), the Frenchman Fernand Leger that cross, crystallize, and sometimes dissolve there. The structure (1881-1955), the Russian Rayonists Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964) of these paintings owes much to Cubism, but the dynamism is and Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962), the English Vorticist Futurist (as is the rhetoric that supported them), and this combiWyndham Lewis, the Italian Futurists Giacomo Balla and Gino Sev- nation of Cubist faceting and Futurist movement resulted in erini, the German-Swiss Paul Klee (1879-1940), the Alsatian Hans paintings that are among the earliest abstractions anywhere. Arp (1888-1966), the Swiss Sophie Taeuber (1889-1943; she Only a few such works were made, however, before Larionov and married Arp in 1921), the American Synchromists Morgan Russell Goncharova fled the war for Paris (where they were often commis(1886-1953) and Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1973), and sioned to design sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes produced still others like the American Arthur Dove (1880-1946), who called by Sergei Diaghilev).
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Even as abstraction moved away from a mimetic relation to the world, it did not necessarily embrace the "arbitrary" nature of the A visual sign as explored in Cubist collage and construction. Abstract artists might have declined to depict worldly things, but they often aspired to evoke transcendental concepts-such as "feeling," "spirit," or "purity"-and in this way they replaced one type of grounding, one form of authority, with another. (In such influential texts as "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" [1911], Kandinsky called this new authority "internal necessity," and others came up with similar coinages.) Such insistence on transcendental truths betrays an anxiety that abstraction might be arbitrary in two additional senses. First, arbitrary in the sense of decorative: in a 1914 lecture in Cologne, Kandinsky cautioned that"ornamental" abstraction might impede rather than produce the requisite transcendental effect of art. And, second, arbitrary in the sense of meaningless: faced with the charge, actual or anticipated, that abstraction had no meaning at all, its proponents often overcompensated with tendentious claims of absolute meanings-transcendental for Kandinsky, revelatory for Malevich, utopian for Mondrian, and so on. When not defined in such grandiose terms, abstraction was often framed negativelyagainst art based in mimesis (which was regarded as academic) and against design intended as decoration (which was regarded as a low or applied form). But many exceptions qualify this rule. For example, how are we to categorize the grids of Sophie Taeuber [1], who sometimes based these works (which predate the first modular abstractions by Mondrian) on the quasi-spontaneous arrangements of collaged squares of Hans Arp? For his part, Arp called them "probably the first examples of 'concrete art'," at once "pure and independent" and"elementary and spontaneous." Are they high art? Low? Transcendental in ambition? Decorative? Programmatic? Aleatory? These works complicated such hierarchical oppositions almost before they were in place.

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1 Sophie Taeuber, Horizontal Vertical, 1917 Watercolor, 23 x 15.5 (9 x 6Y,)

Definitions and debates


Standard definitions favor the idea of abstraction as idealization. The Oxford English DictionalJ offers "separated from matter," "ideal," and "theoretical" for the adjective abstract, and "deduct," "remove," and "disengage" for the verb. Appropriate for some artists who evoked ideal states through disengagement from the world, these meanings did not suit others who privileged the opposite terms-the materiality ofpaint on canvas, or the worldliness of utilitarian designs. This tension between idealist and materialist imperatives runs throughout modernist abstraction, and it is not solved by related terms such as "nonobjective" or "pure." Abstraction approaches the nonobjective by definition; on the other hand, many artists sought "objectivity" above all-to make an art as "concrete" and as "real" as an object in the world. Indeed, Delaunay, Leger, Arp, Malevich, and Mondrian all declared abstraction the most realist of modes for this very reason. So, too, abstraction was often promoted as "pure," the final refinement of art for its own sake; on the other hand, purity was often associated with
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reduction to the constituent materials of a medium, the stuff of paint and canvas, which are difficult to see as pure. In the end, these tensions are integral to abstraction, which is best defined as a category that manages such contradictions-holds them in suspension, or puts them into dialectical play. The materialist/idealist opposition governed discourses around abstraction as well. Some artists were guided by Platonic, Hegelian, or spiritualist philosophies. For instance, Malevich, Kandinsky, A Mondrian, and Kupka were all influenced by Theosophy, which held (among other beliefs) that man evolved from physical to spiritual states in a series of stages that could be evoked by geometric forms; in Evolution (1911), Mondrian imaged the geometric sublimation of a female figure in this way. Perhaps paradoxically, some artists also looked to science to support the idealist version of abstraction. "Why should we continue to follow nature," Mondrian asked around 1919, "when many other fields have left nature behind?" In this regard non-Euclidean geometry interested artists as diverse as Malevich and Marcel Duchamp for its nonperspectival conception of space and its antimaterialist idea of form. In addition, analogies were made to other arts, especially music.
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"All art," the English aesthetician Walter Pater famously remarked, "constantly aspires towards the condition of music"; so it was still for some artists in the first generation of abstractionists. (This points to a further paradox: can the essence of one art, painting, be found via another art, such as music?) Klee and Kupka were drawn to Baroque and classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach in particuAlar; Kandinsky, to late-Romantic and modern music, especially Richard Wagner and Arnold Schoenberg. Indeed, Kandinsky patterned the categories of his early abstractions-"Improvisations," "Impressions," "Compositions"-on music, which also influenced his emphasis on color tone, linear rhythm, "thorough-bass" (a notion derived from Goethe), and immediacy to feeling. Kupka, too, stressed the Symbolist analogy between pure music and pure painting, with the attendant implication that such art could act directly "on the soul" without the distraction of content or subject matter; his large canvas AmOlpha, Fugue in Two Colors [21 is often claimed as the first nonfigurative painting to be exhibited publicly in Paris, at the Salon d'Automne in 1912, though it was inspired in part by the mundane movements ofa multicolored ball (a plaything ofhis stepdaughter), as well as by the celestial motions ofthe planets (which had also informed his previous Disks ofNewton paintings) . .. For his part, Mondrian adored jazz: he found its syncopated rhythm analogous to his asymmetrical equilibrium of color planes, and its resistance to melodic narratives parallel to his resistance to temporal readings ofvisual art. Other abstract artists were driven by materialist concerns. Some looked to abstraction as the only mode adequate to the becomingabstract of the object-world in a world transfigured by new modes of commodity production, public transportation, and image reproduction. The project to capture the increased mobility of products, people, and images in the modern city was not strictly II Futurist; it also provoked artists such as Leger to a paradoxical type of realist abstraction. In his Contrast of Forms [3], we see a symbiosis of human and mechanical forms abstracted as if to the geometric specifications of the canvas. Indeed, by the end of the decade Leger would conceive painting, in analogy with the machine, as a device of interrelated parts. Yet already in 1913 he referred the abstraction of his painting, as well as the separation of all modernist arts, to a capitalist division of labor-a modern condition that he sought to make a modernist virtue:

2 Frantisek Kupka, Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors, 1912 Oil on canvas, 211.8 x 220 (83% x 86%)

Each art is isolating itself and limiting itself to its own domain. Specialization is a modern characteristic, and pictorial art, like all other manifestations of human genius, must submit to its law; it is logical, for by limiting each discipline to its own pUlpose, it enables achievements to be intensified. In this way pictorial art gains in realism. The modern conception is not simply apassing abstraction, valid onlyfor afew initiates; it is the total expression ofa new generation whose needs it shares and whose aspirations it answers.
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3 Fernand Leger, Contrast of Forms, 1913 Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 (21 % x 18)

Cubism was the first style to perform this paradox of an art that appears both abstract and realist, and it remained the crucible for most abstract artists. Yet "Cubism did not accept the logical conse.. 1917, 1944a II 1909

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4 Piel Mondrian, Tableau No. 2/Composition VII, 1913

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quences of its own discoveries," Mondrian remarked in a retrospect A ofCubist collage were the immediate precedent for the abstract color shared by others, "it was not developing towards its own goals, the planes of Malevich, while the factual elements of Cubist construction, which Picasso showed Vladimir Tatlin in Paris in the spring of expression of pure plastics." Thus in 1912-13 some artists pushed A the "analytical" aspect of Cubism to dissolve the motif altogether. 1914, were one provocation ofhis Constructivist "analysis ofmateriThey did so either in linear coordination with the implicit grid ofthe als." Some kind of passage through Cubism became almost a canvas, as with Mondrian in a work such as Tableau No. 2/Composiprerequisite for followers: "From a [Cubist] analysis of the volume tion VII [4], or through prismatic effects ofcolor seen as light, as with and space of objects to the [Constructivist] organization of eleDelaunay in a work such as Fenetres simultanes sur la ville (Simultaments," the Russian Liubov Popova (1889-1924) wrote in a 1922 neous Windows on the City) [5]. IfMondrian explicated the grid in a studio note, as ifthis development were already a catechism. way that exceeded the faceted planes of Cubism, Delaunay intensiIn most instances one element of painting was made dominant, fied color in a manner that was alien to its muted palette. Meanwhile, even turned into a medium of meaning in its own right: thus the other artists pushed the "synthetic" aspect of Cubism: the flat shapes privileging of verticals and horizontals in Mondrian, of color as
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light in Delaunay, of monochrome geometries in Malevich. Soon A Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried). In some of these interests Delaunay was joined by Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonaldthese elements were refined further into two relatively stable paraWright, who were also active in Paris in these years. They too A digms of abstract painting: the grid and the monochrome. To a treated light in terms of prismatic color, though they allowed for great extent they became fixed because the grid worked to undo the primordial oppositions ofline and color, figure and ground, motif effects of spatial projection and even temporal duration that Delaunay tended to resist; they also pursued musical analogies for and frame (it was the genius ofMondrian to explore these possibilabstraction that Delaunay tended to dismiss. ities), and the monochrome worked to negate the two dominant Delaunay made his breakthrough in his "Windows" series, some paradigms of Western painting since the Renaissance: the window and the mirror (it was the hubris of Malevich to announce the end twenty-three paintings and drawings executed in 1912, thirteen of which were shown to great effect in Berlin in January 1913 (he had of these old orders). In 1913, as they advanced toward the grid and the monochrome previously exhibited with the Blaue Reiter in Munich). To coincide with the show, IDee translated a text by Delaunay titled "Light" that respectively, Delaunay and Malevich provide an instructive conpresented a series of equations among color, light, eye, brain, and trast. Delaunay mostly scoffed at models extrinsic to painting: soul. In his aesthetic the painting is the "window" of all these "trans"I never speak of mathematics and never bother with spirit"; "I am parencies"-a medium abstracted into immediacy, dissolved into horrified by music and noise." Concerned with "pictorial realities" alone, he looked to color to cany all aspects of painting: "color what it mediates. In this way Delaunay hardly rejected the old paragives depth (not perspective, nonsequential but simultaneous) and digm of painting-as-window; on the contrary, he purified it: the form and movement." To this end, Delaunay developed "the law of reality of vision is delivered in the abstraction of painting. Consider simultaneous contrasts," which French artists from Delacroix to Simultaneous Windows on the City, which set the compositional type for the series. The Eiffel Tower, the central motifofhis entire oeuvre, Seurat had adapted from an 1839 treatise by the chemist Michelis now vestigial, its green arcs caught up in a play of opaque and Eugene Chevreul, into his own notion of simultancHsme. Besides color contrasts, this "simultaneity" pertains to the immediacy of transparent color planes pushed beyond Cubist faceting toward a pictorial image to retinal image, indeed to the transcendental post-Cubist grid (which, in the neo-Impressionist fashion ofSeurat, Delaunay extended to the frame). The windows are thus referential, simultaneity of the visual arts as opposed to the mundane tempopictorial, and objective all at once; they reconcile the "sublime rality of the verbal arts (this opposition is a persistent one in subject" of Paris with the "self-evident structure" of painting, as the modern aesthetics from the German Enlightenment philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing [1729-81] to the late-modernist critics III poet-critic Guillaume Apollinaire, a great Delaunay supporter, once remarked. Delaunay rendered the medium opaque, only to make it disappear again in the interests of transparent immediacy. In effect, Simultaneous Windows on the City are windows without curtains, almost eyes without lids: color as light is nearly blinding here. The next step was to do away altogether with the windows in order to present the painting in direct analogy with the retina. This is what Delaunay did in Disk [6], the purest of abstractions at this time, a circular painting of seven concentric bands of solid colors divided into quarters, with the more intense primaries and complementaries closer to the center. Although sometimes dismissed as a mere demonstration of color theory-a color chart in fact-Disk contains resources for abstraction (utter nonreferentiality and opticality, structured canvas and composition) that would not be developed fully for another fifty years or more. The year 1913 was also a significant one for Sonia Terk Delaunay, who, already active in design (primarily books and embroidery), illustrated The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Jeanne of France by the avant-garde poet Blaise Cendrars [7]. Published on a single sheet of paper two meters long folded into twelve panels, this object-book combined avant-garde abstraction and typography (the same text was set in ten typefaces, and a railroad map was included) in order to evoke the prismatic simultaneity of modern life. Often exhibited and reproduced, the book cover was widely influential (Terk may have affected German modernists almost as much as her husband did), 5 Robert Delaunay, Fenetres simultanees sur la ville, 1911-12 and its success encouraged her to apply the same "simultaneist" Oil on canvas and wood, 46 60 (18'/ X 23%)
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6 Robert Delaunay, Premierdisquesimultane (Disk [The First DiskJ),1913-14 Oil on canvas, diameter 135 (52%)

rhythms of abstract colors to other designs-clothes, posters, even electric lamps devised to diffuse light into color on Paris streets. Malevich took a different course: not to purify painting-aswindow but to paint it out. He referred his first total abstraction, A Black Square (1915), to a sketch for a backdrop that he designed for a Futurist opera, VictOlJ over the Sun (1913), an opera opposed to Symbolist art ("the old, accepted concept of the beautiful sun," its composer V. N. Matiushin once scoffed) as well as to naturalist theater. Here Malevich places, in a perspectival box, a square divided diagonally into a black triangle above and a white triangle
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below in order to evoke the "victory over the sun," the eclipse of light by dark, perhaps the overcoming of empirical vision and perspectival space by transcendental vision and modernist infinity [8 J. In this sketch the countdown to his own private tnbularasa begins: on the other side of this "zero of form," Malevich announced, lies "the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art"-hence his term for his abstract style, Suprematism. Thus Delaunay and Malevich appear to be opposed: the first proclaims the transparency of the window to color as light; the second, the victory over the sun in the triumph of the black square. But both

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8' Kazimir Malevich, sketch for Victory over the Sun, Act 2, Scene I, 1913
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7 Sonia Terk Delaunay, La Prose du Transsiberian et de la Petite Jehanne de


France (The Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Jeanne of france), 1913
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all of which these abstractions are asked to signify at one time or another. In the end abstraction is a paradoxical mode that suspends such oppositions-between spiritual effect and decorative design, between material surface and ideal window, between singular work and serial repetition (bereft of external referents, abstract paintings tend to be read internally, in terms of one another, in sets, and they are often designated in this manner too: "Untitled # 1,2,3 ... "). The materialist/idealist contradiction might be the most profound of all: painting as a plane covered with paint, the medium disclosed in its empirical materiality, versus painting as a map of a transcendental order, a window to a world of spirit. For the French A philosopher Michel Foucault, however, this relation is less contradictOly than complementary: modern thought, he argues, often comprehends both kinds of investigations, empirical and transcendental, and both kinds of dispositions, materialist and idealist. Nonetheless, this tension is experienced as a contradiction not only in modernist art but also in modern culture at large, and it suggests one reason why this culture has privileged artists who, like Mondrian, are able to hold on to both poles at once, who offer aesthetic resolutions to this apparent contradiction.
FURTHER READING Yve-Alain Bois, "Malevitch: Ie carre, Ie de9re zero," Macula, no. 1, 1978 Arthur A. Cohen (ed.), The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay (New York: Viking Press, 1978) Michael Compton (ed.), Towards a New Art: Essays on the Background ofAbstract Art 1910-1920 (London: Tate Gallery, 1980) Gordon Hughes, "The Structure of Vision in Robert Delaunay's 'Windows' ," October, no. 102, Fall 2002 Rosalind Krauss, "Grids," The Originality of the AvantGarde and Other Modernist My1hs (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985) Fernand Leger, Functions of Painting, trans. Alexandra Anderson (New York: Viking Press, 1973) Kazimir Malevich, Essays on M 1915-1933, ed. Troels Andersen (London: Rapp and WhITing, 1969)

are high priests ofpure vision, and this renders them opposites that belong together. Even as Delaunay atomizes the motif in his color as light, while Malevich darkens it through his eclipse of the sun, both cancel one relation to reality only to affirm another, higher relation, and in this transformation they are joined by others such as Kandinsky and Mondrian for whom abstraction is the apotheosis of the real, not its downfall. They may render the medium opaque, self-evidently material as canvas and paint, but they do so in order to render it transparent again-to feeling, spirit, or purity,

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