AMERICAN GEOMETRIC ABSTRACTION IN THE LATE THIRTIES
A specifically American problem, they are unbeatable in thinking things out in series and in numbers. Starting with figures to create a comfortable unity . . . New World!
—Fernand Léger, “New York Seen,” 1931.
“AMERICAN GEOMETRIC ABSTRACTION OF the 1930s,” an exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York, June 1–July 14, 1972, is being circulated by the American Federation of the Arts. “Geometric Abstraction: 1926–1942,” an exhibition organized by Robert M. Murdock at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, October 7–November 19, 1972 included a broad representation of American as well as European work. This article is a revised and expanded version of the author’s essay in the Dallas catalogue, “The Paris-New York Axis: Geometric Abstract Painting in the Thirties.”
The thirties was a decade of Realist art, of scene painting—regionalism and social Realism. The tradition of abstract art in America initiated by the Armory Show had all but petered out. Its “period of greatest activity . . . was probably 1915–27,” wrote Stuart Davis in 1935.1 Davis, like other pioneer American modernists, had been acutely conscious of possessing a distinctly “American” sensibility despite the European origins of his art. Indeed, there were good reasons why a geometricized Cubist style such as his should be thought appropriate to American machinist society. For Europeans certainly, America was the technological hub of the modernistic world. “This geometric abstraction,” was how Léger described New York.2 And for Americans themselves, national characteristics outside of painting (“inventiveness, restlessness, speed, change”)3 seemed to justify the transplantation of modernist styles. In the thirties, however, abstraction became commonly thought of as “un-American”: a foreign degeneracy which threatened the development of national character. Art for art’s sake seemed irresponsible, or at best irrelevant, in a period of social and political disenchantment.
For geometric abstraction this charge held added weight. In Europe the style had accompanied—and had become associated with—the developing hopes for a new ordered society in the twenties. Now they were being destroyed by the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Trials and finally by the outbreak of the Second World War; the art too was held in question. It was therefore not only European but a symbol of the Europe that was fast disintegrating: doubly inappropriate for a country declaring its independence in cultural and political isolationism and wishing to preserve its native traditions from the erosions of modern life. Although such ideas were far from realistic, given that America was fast becoming a centralized and metropolitan nation and as such inseparable from a commitment to international affairs, these were the kinds of justification that lay behind both popular and official enthusiasm for Realist art.
American art, then, meant American subjects; the Public Works of Art Project inaugurated in 1933 made this quite clear. Byron Browne was impelled to write to the Project’s New York office complaining that “as my work contains little or no emphasis on subject matter, I was ignored for a long time. . . .”4 Although matters were improved two years later in the Federal Art Project of the W.P.A., when abstractionism was officially acknowledged, it still remained an unpopular and minority art. Moreover, one suspects that without the efforts of Burgoyne Diller as head of the mural division the new “democratic” acceptance of abstract art could easily have remained administrative tokenism.5
The importance of the Project toward the creation of a New York art community is too well-known to require much comment here. Less heralded, however, is the major artists’ group of the late thirties to emerge from W.P.A. contacts, the American Abstract Artists.6 In the autumn of 1936, a group of artists, including Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Carl Holty, George L. K. Morris and Harry Holtzman, began to hold informal meetings at Ibram Lassaw’s studio. Depressed at the hostility toward abstraction and at the difficulties in showing their work, they initiated a series of annual exhibitions that fast became, as one writer has put it, “the focus of energies of the emerging American avant-garde.”7 This may be too strong, or at least too simplified, a comment because there were other foci at that time, and when the American avant-garde did finally emerge very few of the A.A.A. members numbered among it. Their geometric emphasis, their separateness from Surrealist influence, and their occasional didactic understanding of art’s potential meant that they could not easily partake of the initiatives of the following decade. They were, moreover, synthesists not innovators—as they readily acknowledged—and this fact primarily, explains their neglect. And yet, their interpretation of earlier styles was in many instances both more original in form and substantial in quality than is generally acknowledged. Ilya Bolotowsky, Burgoyne Diller, Balcomb and Gertrude Greene, Carl Holty, George L. K. Morris, Vaclav Vytlacil, and others, produced important and distinguished paintings through the late thirties, not to mention such other A.A.A. members as Josef Albers, John Ferren, Ad Reinhardt, I. Rice Pereira and David Smith. But to overstate the originality and quality of most of the art would be to miss its essential historical significance. The innovations of Cubism before the First World War laid the groundwork for this art. Not until after the Second World War had a major new esthetic emerged. American geometric abstraction of the late thirties occupies a middle position between the prominence of European art in the Cubist epoch—an epoch which had reached its end in the Paris geometricist groups of the thirties—and the emergence of the New York School. It mediates this crucial transition.
Certainly the most important aspect of thirties abstraction was the way it encapsulated the Cubist tradition. While the newer American painting would owe much to the heritage of Surrealism, and of Matisse, without the detailed knowledge of abstract Cubism it would have been inconceivable. In the thirties, the widest interpretations of Cubism were brought together in a new synthesis: reductive geometry, the late synthetic style, Bauhaus-type painting and biomorphism all became equally available, and inter-relatable. Cubism became, above all else and as never before, a flexible esthetic. This not only cleared the way for what was to come, but often did so in such heroic fashion that thirties geometric abstraction deserves to be remembered not with nostalgia but as the last important stronghold of a fully Cubist art.
Although the American Abstract Artists developed a fairly clearcut interpretation of what abstract art should be like (or, at least, its leaders did), its inception was essentially a tactical response to the difficulties of exhibiting rather than a polemical stance for one kind of art alone. The emerging New York art community comprised several fluctuating orbits and the A.A.A. was in no sense isolated. For example, of the other three main groups that have been distinguished in this period,8 The Ten (centered around Mark Rothko and Adolf Gottlieb and exhibiting together from 1935) included the A.A.A. painters Bolotowsky and Louis Schanker (and later Ralph Rosenborg). Another influential group centered around Hans Hofmann’s school on Eighth Street. Some half of the A.A.A. members were Hofmann pupils, and Holtzman taught at the school. The third loose group gravitated around Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, John Graham, and David Smith. Davis was editor of Art Front, the journal of The Artists’ Union, from 1934–39, for which Balcomb Greene, the most socially-conscious A.A.A. member, wrote. Gorky was a member of the Paris-based international geometricist group, Abstraction-Création, and, with de Kooning, attended the meetings in Lassaw’s studio that led to the foundation of the A.A.A. David Smith himself joined the organization in 1938. A further grouping of Charles Biederman, John Ferren, George L. K. Morris, Charles Shaw, and Alexander Calder, who exhibited together at Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in 1936 under the name “Concretionists,” all espoused nonfigurative art and included the principal A.A.A. spokesman on formal issues. The A.A.A. was therefore an integral part of a broader community of New York artists and for the most ambitious members of this community two issues were uppermost in their minds, one ideological, one formal: a concern as to the social relevance of abstraction and its “American” identity, and, more crucially, a wish to create a new art from late Cubism.
By the mid-thirties, New York artists were in an exceptionally advantageous position for learning the best in Cubist art. Hofmann’s presence in the city (from 1933) brought inspired teaching of the freedom possible within Cubism, and how it could be tempered by Matisse’s color—while Matisse’s Bathers by a River of 1916–17 (now at Chicago), which hung in the lobby of Curt Valentin’s gallery, showed these principles in practice. Other singly influential paintings were: Picasso’s The Studio of 1927–28, acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, whose linear geometric style spawned works by de Kooning, Reinhardt, Gorky, Lee Krasner and many more; the two masterpieces of high synthetic Cubism in the Museum of Living Art, Picasso’s Three Musicians and Léger’s La Ville; and the group of Kandinsky paintings (including two Paris period works) acquired by the Museum of Non-Objective Art in 1937. Moreover, these three New York museums were each directed by partisans of abstract art, and two by geometricist painters. Hilla Rebay had shown with Herwarth Walden’s Sturm group in Berlin, and met Kandinsky, Mondrian, Bauer, Moholy-Nagy and Xceron among others before settling in America in the mid-twenties; and it was these artists she especially supported when helping Solomon R. Guggenheim form the Museum of Non-Objective Art that later took his name.9 Albert Gallatin, a self-taught painter and an editor of the Paris-New York art journal, Plastique, had formed the Museum of Living Art in New York University’s Washington Square premises in 1927.10 Originally a Cubist-based collection, by the mid-thirties it was geometricist in emphasis. Gallatin’s collection was to be most pertinent to the A.A.A.; Jean Hélion wrote the introduction to the 1933 catalogue. Gallatin bought a painting from the first A.A.A. show, joined the association in 1938, and it was after seeing his Mondrians that Holtzman went to Paris to acquaint himself firsthand with neo-Plastic principles and returned as Mondrian’s exegetist in America. At the Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929), Alfred Barr presented through the thirties a series of major European exhibitions, including the famous “Cubism and Abstract Art” show of 1936. It was, however, in part from Barr’s exclusion of Americans from this show, and from his (temporary) antipathy toward geometric abstraction that the American Abstract Artists group was founded.11
For the geometricist painters “Cubism and Abstract Art” was the most influential exhibition of their period, showing the whole range of abstract art in the Cubist tradition, accompanied by Barr’s now classic text. However, the absence of American representation seemed all the more unfortunate because recent American abstraction was also not included in the exhibition “Abstract Painting in America” at the Whitney Museum the previous year.12 For young artists like George L. K. Morris, the Whitney exhibitors were not true abstractionists, but “had become stalled in various ill-digested ferments of impressionism, expressionism and halfhearted cubism.”13 The uncompromising repudiation of earlier American abstract art this statement implies is important for thirties abstraction. It was in no way an organic extension of the Armory Show heritage. This second wave of innovating artists looked directly to Europe for inspiration, and not to a Europe seen through the eyes of their elders. The strength of scene painting in the early thirties removed these artists from their abstract past and turned them to current Paris art, including that associated with the Abstraction-Création group whose geometric styles offered something approaching tangible rules for making advanced art. Charles Biederman, who went to Paris in 1936, said he “left America because it was hostile to all new efforts. . . . In Paris, however, I came to feel I had arrived too late.”14 Abstraction-Création folded in 1936, with no real successor. The worsening political situation in Europe meant that Paris’ days as the principal artistic capital were numbered.
Neglected by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, the group which met at Lassaw’s, and later at Albert Swinden’s studio began in the autumn of 1936 to plan their own exhibition. Gorky and de Kooning seceded. Invitations to established abstractionists, including Calder and Marin, were not taken up. As founded in November 1936, the American Abstract Artists was based around a core of painters and sculptors all committed, in varying degrees, to a disciplined abstract Cubist style. Morris, critic as well as painter, and student of Léger in 1930, Holty, recently returned from Europe where he had been a pupil at Hofmann’s Munich school and a member of Abstraction-Création, and Greene, an active member of The Artists’ Union, were especially prominent in making the A.A.A. a real force in the regeneration of American Cubist-derived art. But A.A.A. members were by no means stylistically bonded: 39 very different artists comprised their first exhibition in April 1937. This show, held in vacant offices of the Squibb Building on Fifth Avenue, inaugurated a series of annual exhibitions. In 1938, a yearbook was initiated and a tour of western museums arranged through the College Arts Association. The group attracted new members, including Albert Gallatin, Fritz Glarner and David Smith in 1938 and John Ferren, I. Rice Pereira and Ad Reinhardt in 1939. The second annual was held at the Fine Arts Galleries in February 1938. Addressing the members on that occasion Morris was able to claim that their’s was “the sole organization in America that is dedicated to the hewing out of an authentic and appropriate cultural expression.”15
Visitors to the first A.A.A. exhibition were given a questionnaire to gauge their interest in the work shown. The results were encouraging: 90% of those who replied saw abstraction as among the natural expressions of civilized man.16 Although the press was not generally sympathetic to A.A.A. work, the New York Times was quick to point out the significance of these findings: “In view of the fact that the official spokesmen for art have consistently preached against abstract art as ‘un-American’, the results of this enquiry show that the American public is far more interested, and would like to see more of it, than anyone had hitherto suspected.”17
An attempt to justify their art as truly “American” runs through statements by many A.A.A. members. It took two forms: justification of their design and color sense as American; and a more general insistence that their art was appropriate to contemporary American society.
One artist, Charles Shaw, actually patterned his shaped canvases after the Manhattan skyline: “Sprouting, so to speak, from the steel and concrete of New York City . . . essentially American in its roots.”18 Few were as specific as this. Writing in retrospect, George L. K. Morris (probably the foremost A.A.A. spokesman on formal issues) remembered a more general American mood in the Squibb show: “There was an honesty of presentation, a sense of fresh discovery, a clearness of color that Europeans were quick to note as something essentially American.”19 He gave no individual examples, but writing in the 1939 A.A.A. yearbook it was color he emphasized. “Anyone who knows America,” he said, “can see that the tone and color-contrasts are quite native, that the cumulative rhythmic organization resounds from an accent which could have originated in America alone.”20 This special “American” color might well have emerged, as Clement Greenberg has noted, because American familiarity with recent European art was for most artists largely through the black-and-white illustrations of journals like Cahiers d’Art.21 This “permitted some Americans to develop a more independent sense of color, if only thanks to misunderstanding or ignorance. And in any case you could have learned more about color from Hofmann, as long as it was just a question of learning, than from Picasso, Miró or Klee. In fact . . . you could learn more about Matisse’s color from Hofmann than from Matisse himself.” Certainly, Hofmann’s teachings were very influential for A.A.A. work, which contains a far greater proportion of loosely-painted abstractions, and employs more vibrant color juxtapositions in geometric work than in comparable Paris groups of the thirties.
If for color the French journals were influential only by omission, they had more concrete and crucial influence elsewhere. In 1933, David Smith began welding after seeing reproductions of Gonzalez’ and Picasso’s welded iron constructions in Cahiers d’Art. In 1932, even more radical Constructivist sculpture, by the Pole Katarzyna Kobro, had been illustrated in Abstraction-Création. Moreover, it is not inconceivable that Ad Reinhardt’s later monochromatic Minimalism ,was in some way stimulated by the declarations of Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Kobro’s husband) on “unistic” painting in the same magazine.22 The main impact of such journals, however, was that they familiarized American artists with the coalesced Cubist tradition manifest in Parisian art of this same period. While defending the Americanness of their work, the A.A.A. willingly acknowledged its roots in European abstraction. This statement by Morris provides the best summary of the group’s principal stylistic components:
There are discernible two main currents that might be claimed as a starting point for many individual artists. Foremost is that French tradition which became grounded upon Cubism and has reached America through several different channels. It recurs in the geometric forms that predominate on the one hand, and in the curved self-contained shapes that have grown through Braque, Arp and Miró on the other. A second current might be said to stem from German abstraction as typified by the Bauhaus and its teaching heritage. Here again we are met with a divided concept—the open pictures of Klee and early Kandinsky on the one hand, and on the other a movement towards closed integration that has influenced the art of today most strongly through Constructivism. Both the Constructivists and the Dutch Stijl group have taught Americans much with their emphasis upon exactness in the absorption of form by color, contour and tone.23
Those deriving principally from geometric Cubism came often to the style through Picasso or Léger. Léger’s visits to New York in 1931, 1936 and 1938, and his brief collaboration on the W.P.A. mural project were undoubtedly influential. Picasso’s late twenties studio interiors (especially the Museum of Modern Art’s painting I have mentioned) were also important. Both of these artists offered a describable system of abstracting reality into a geometric framework of lines and planes which reveals itself in the work of many A.A.A. painters. Sometimes this is very specific, as in Gallatin’s reworking of Léger’s Purist period paintings, but more often it is a general absorption of synthetic Cubist principles.
The influences of Braque, Arp, and Miró) that Morris mentions are readily identifiable in the still-life based paintings of Ray Kaiser and Florence Swift and in the incidence of biomorphic forms in Holty’s and Bolotowsky’s work. For these latter artists, however, it was a biomorphism strongly tempered by the geometric—a similar kind of crossbred art to that practiced within the Abstraction-Création group. Current Paris art provided a storehouse for the various stylistic components on which the A.A.A. drew. Thus, while most A.A.A. art was influenced primarily by French styles, little was unaffected by the “German” undertones they then possessed. A few artists did come close to original German styles (Durnel Grant to the Bauhaus Kandinsky, for example)—and Albers’ membership of the group, and the residence in America of other Bauhaus artists including Moholy-Nagy, offered German sources close at hand. Such was the influence of Paris, however, that German styles affected the A.A.A. most often through the mediation of French eyes. A curious hybrid situation existed in many senses: the crossbred international geometricism of the mid-twenties influencing America through a secondhand interpretation in Paris! And yet, in many cases—in Vytacil’s constructions and Morris’ jigsawlike paintings, in works by Holty, Bolotowsky, Greene, Reinhardt and others—the weight of this conglomerate tradition did not stifle the freshness of the art.
While one does recognize the individual traditions that comprise A.A.A. work—and no artist there was creating entirely original paintings—only rarely were there disciples of a single style. Holtzman and Diller were exceptional in following close neo-Plastic principles (as, outside the group, was Biederman, who lived in New York from 1937–1941). The influence of neo-Plasticism was not so strong in New York in the thirties, and awaited Mondrian’s arrival for its flowering. The work of Shaw and Browne shows general features of this style in their restriction to the rectilinear; but for both of these artists one senses that they abstracted from specific architectural forms.24 Despite the reputation of the A.A.A. as a predominantly geometricist organization with a didactic stand for purity, one must remember that, in fact, some half of its members worked in far looser styles—and that only its leaders were ineluctably committed to the severer forms of abstraction. Many others were what Morris called “expressionist abstract” (a harking of things to come), and several just qualified for the term “abstract” at all: Margaret Peterson and Louis Shanker used clearly figurative elements; Paul Kelpe’s volumetric forms, though indebted to Hélion, had a definitely Surrealist tone. Nevertheless, they united under the call for a pure art in an age of Realism; and despite the broadness of art produced some general similarities can be noted which help to distinguish American abstraction from its European counterpart.
Before such an analysis can be made we must turn briefly to Parisian geometric abstraction of the thirties. This is of importance because American geometric art appeared in direct historical succession to that of Paris. The founding of the A.A.A. in 1936 coincided with the ending of the principal Parisian abstractionist group, Abstraction-Création. The two groups had similar aims: to promote a purified abstract art. They recognized the same inheritance: developed synthetic Cubism and pure nonobjective art. They adopted ideologies as well as formal structures that were alike. There are important differences, however. A comparison of geometric abstraction in Paris in the first half of the thirties to that of New York in the second half offers a unique opportunity to see what happens to a style when transplanted.
Parisian geometric abstraction properly existed as an organized force from around 1930.25 The Cercle et Carré group of 1929–1930 and Theo van Doesburg’s Art Concret group of 1930 were the first real bastions of the style in a city largely antipathetic to its ambitions. Art Concret was objectivist and quasi-scientific in its theories and restricted to the small number of five artists who were willing to court anonymity to create a rigorously nonobjective style. Cercle et Carré, with around 30 exhibiting members, showed far more freedom of movement around the geometricist position and an interplay of geometric and nongeometric currents that Van Doesburg found intolerable. Thus, while Art Concret was the summation of the hardcore utilitarian theories of the twenties, the free interplay of abstractionist ideologies in Cercle et Carré marked the beginning of a new era.
Abstraction-Création-Art non-figuratif, to give it its full name, took over where Cercle et Carré left off. Established in 1931 under the direction of Gleizes, Herbin, and Vantongerloo, it initiated in the following year a series of annual cahiers that included illustrations and statements by a wide and international range of abstract artists. An editorial statement in the first of these explained the significance of the group’s name.26 “Non figuration” was the shared premise: a “pure” art, excluding all explicative, anecdotal, literary, or naturalistic reference. The “abstractionists” of the group were those who “abstracted” from nature—mostly former Cubists like Villon, Delaunay, Gleizes and their followers. The statement distinguishes two kinds of “creationists”: pure geometricists, i.e., de Stijl and Constructivist artists (the group included Domela, Gabo, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Vordemberge et al.), and those using abstract elements as communicable signs. This latter group is in some ways inseparable from the pure geometricists—for they often understood their reductive vocabulary to contain specific meanings—but seems to refer to artists whose sign language was less strictly geometric. Despite the theoretical exclusion of explicit or associative reference from Abstraction-Création art, the influence of abstract (and, in some cases, referential) Surrealism is undeniable, especially among younger artists. Geometric forms floated in a free space or biomorphic shapes structured into the flat planes of synthetic Cubism show this equally and at its extremes. Paintings by Hélion, Wadsworth, Seligman, and many more, adopt a middle position, arranging their associative elements in a flat or narrow boxlike space of pure Cubist origin. It is a loosened Cubism, though: its tightly-wedged planes prized apart to let in a new illusionism. And more than anything else, this “freed” Cubism characterizes the newer work in the Abstraction-Création cahiers. Though not an invention of the thirties, the thirties saw its gain in popularity. To float biomorphic or machinelike forms in an illusionistic but still ordered space was to combine in a single painting late synthetic Cubism, Bauhaus-style painting, and abstract Surrealism, and still retain an overall geometricist look. It had also the advantage of expressing, in its “liberated” style, a more general and philosophical notion of freedom as well. Though very far removed from its twenties forms, geometric abstraction continued to hold a special kind of “democratic” content which contemporary totalitarian opposition to the art only tended to renew. And as this opposition increased, more and more abstract art was to be justified as the true free art of the free world.27
There were 33 American members in Abstraction-Création. When the cahiers were discontinued after 1936, and the group disintegrated, the journal Plastique continued its work, though shifting the emphasis far more surely toward Surrealism. Plastique (1937–39) is significant for its joint Paris-New York letterhead, and included among its editors Morris and Gallatin (the others being Sophie Taeuber, Cesar Domela and Jean Arp). Its policies, however, were eclectic, to say the least—lacking the confidence that Abstraction-Création had possessed, and not surprisingly so, considering the political situation in Europe at that time. But this meant that when American abstraction was getting established there was no real Paris equivalent to the A.A.A., no vanguard organization to give a direct lead to the still provincial followers. Although Abstraction-Création was near enough to be influential, there was no current geometricist journal to set the level of taste for American art of a similar cast. In any case, if Abstraction-Création had demonstrated anything it was the lack of any single direction for geometric art.
The historical continuity of Abstraction-Création and the A.A.A. is therefore, somewhat misleading. As I have said, the groups shared similar ambitions, but the one did not spawn the other. Earlier French art was but one influence on Abstraction-Création styles, and balanced by that of “German” systems. For the A.A.A., in contrast, earlier French modernism was at least equal in significance to the kinds of geometricism that Abstraction-Création stood for; while its experience of German sources was, by and large, mediated by Abstraction-Création itself. In consequence, American geometricism—looking directly to Léger and Picasso for its structure, and casting side glances to Miró, and Matisse for color and unit distribution—remained at once less vanguard and more flexible than Parisian thirties art, which was absorbing largely from only the immediate past. This more open situation was potentially an American advantage. It was less willed, however, than forced by circumstance; and when the very recent was available the A.A.A. members were quick to react. The alliance of Gallatin and Morris to Plastique and, importantly, Helion’s presence in New York from 1936–40 offered new models for the artists. Helion’s work was the major influence for New York geometricists until Mondrian’s arrival in 1940.
The importance of original synthetic Cubist styles to New York geometricist painting meant, by and large, that spaces stayed narrower and paintings flatter and tighter than in Paris. Morris’ Mural Comosition #1 of 1939 and Reinhardt’s untitled abstraction of the following year are typical examples of one popular compositional method: a geometricism of tensed curves offsetting the rectilinearity of the painting surface. As a method, it brings some memories of Helion, especially with the Morris, but the sense of abstract figures in space that we find in Helion is entirely absent here. Similarly, Bolotowsky’s Abstraction in Pink of 1939 (in a style 41 he was soon to abandon under the influence of Mondrian) uses a favorite Hélion motif, the cantilevered “head,” but once more keeps the painting a spread-out surface. This flattened effect seems, more than anything else, to separate New York geometricism from its Parisian counterpart. Paintings of this period by Giorgio CavalIon, John Ferren, Albert Gallatin, Balcomb and Gertrude Greene, and Carl Holty all show it too. Like the artists of Abstraction-Création they loosened Cubism, except not generally toward greater depth. Rather, they relaxed to some extent the degree to which the contours of interlocking forms are related. Forms were still firmly aligned, but no longer so tightly wedged as in synthetic Cubism itself. Jean Xceron’s Untitled #238 (1937) appears as if a twenties painting had been dissected and reassembled on a larger ground: its forms pulled apart to give them more breathing space and to let them stretch out and reach for the perimeters of the canvas. Like most A.A.A. work this is something of a compromise solution. The precarious balance between an interlocking and flotation of forms renders the picture to a degree unresolved. A.A.A. painting was given to a certain clumsiness in drawing and in detail, and relied often on an imposed coherence such as geometricism provided; but it was as ambitious as most Parisian geometricist work, and, by avoiding the illusionism which too often turned into an open-air kind of space, was at its best more solidly abstract.
It is understood, I hope, that these stylistic comparisons of French and American geometric abstraction are intended as generalizations. Any attempt to explain why the two are different must be generalized as well. One reason I have already suggested: the greater traditionalism of American thirties art that kept earlier French modernism as influential as more recent vanguard activity. To this should be added the greater freedom from Surrealist influence in America in the thirties. This became almost a point of principle. The A.A.A. espoused a purified abstract art. It followed, therefore, in Ad Reinhardt’s words, that “intellectually and esthetically the important thing was that there was no relation between the abstractionists and the surrealists.”28 In thirties America, the “Surrealism” of native artists like Ivan Albright, Peter Blume and Philip Evergood was really a distorted, romanticized or mythicized version of scene painting, conservative both in technique and ideology. Such attempts to unite Cubism and Surrealism that did exist in the thirties were through the Surrealist content in Picasso (Gorky, de Kooning), or through the biomorphism of Arp and Miró, (Holty, Bolotowsky, etc.). And in all such attempts it was very much an unequal partnership—more an expanded Cubism—when compared with the new synthesis that emerged in the following decade.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of how uncompromising American geometricism could be is seen in its relief constructions. The thirties saw a great upsurge in relief-making both in Paris and in New York. The relief fulfilled the idea of a broadened Cubism as well as satisfying the insistence on “real” elements that geometric abstraction always possessed. Within Abstraction-Création, the reliefs of Domela, Delaunay, Gorin, Nicholson and others were both “concrete”—using real pictorial elements instead of painted and therefore illusionistic ones—and “expressive”—broadening the affective range of reductivist systems by giving surface new importance. In America, Biederman was to justify the relief as being more “real” than painting.29 His Work #5, 1937, Paris, made shortly before his return to New York, is remarkable for a simplicity unmatched by any comparable European work. Even Diller’s Construction of 1940, though far more obviously indebted to neo-Plasticism than the Biederman, is a blunter translation of that style than anything Domela attempted. Vytacil’s Construction (1938–39) veers toward the expressive pole in its polychromatic wooden details, yet loses nothing in directness in doing so. It also extremetizes something that belongs to most A.A.A. work: an unpolished, nearly gauche, artisanal quality that seems to characterize a young still-provincial art, but which gives it, at its best, a refreshing straightforwardness. One might even go further and suggest that this quality has seemed to belong, in differing degrees, to most American modernism; both before and after this period, it has continually been attracted to the direct and literal and often prided itself on its realism, either literally so or as an attribute of its literalist taste.
The “universalist” implications of geometric abstraction offered a special kind of “realist” justification to A.A.A. members: not only that their work used “real” pictorial elements and not illusory ones, but that abstraction itself was more real even than social Realism in expressing a permanent order behind mere appearance. For Rosalind Bengelsdorf, therefore, writing in the 1938 A.A.A. yearbook, abstraction was “The New Realism”—not the explicit depiction of the scene painters, but in its overall discipline appropriate to the forms of a contemporary and technological American culture.30
The vocabulary of this claim goes back, in America, to discussions on the social function of art at The Artists’ Union in 1935. In that year, Léger’s essay, “The New Realism,” was published in Art Front,31 calling for an art whose substance was beyond its depicted subject. In an Art Front of 1936, Balcomb Greene followed up with the suggestion that abstract art is in fact a higher kind of social Realism—one that can reach man on a level more basic than specific propaganda.32 For Greene (in social issues what Morris was to the A.A.A. in formal ones), an immediately comprehensible art of the masses will only “bolster up sales for a society which in turn is allowed a generation of dictators for its realization.”33 (A sure reference to Stalinist Russia as well as to Germany.) Abstract art, in contrast, will express a more stable and deeply-rooted liberalism in the universality of its style, while its surrendering of individuality for a common vocabulary of motifs is akin to a socialist vision. By the mid-thirties regionalism was appearing increasingly anachronistic, given the centralization and urbanism of American life. Social Realism was being weakened by its direct leftist associations as first the Moscow Trials and then the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact showed a compromise of revolution to Realpolitik. Nonobjective art, given its earlier history, offered to liberals like Greene an almost eternalist expression of social idealism untouched by the vicissitudes of day-to-day politics. The artist, therefore, could “anchor himself always in pigments which will not fade while others hitch themselves to a pragmatism which may whip up a new tune tomorrow.”34 Although committed to a social function for art—and understanding the forms of their art as relevant to contemporary society—the A.A.A. refusal to accept a social differentia into art’s actual practice marks an important landmark in the development of art-ideology relationships in America. After the out-and-out social commitment of the Realists and its checking by anti-Stalinist sentiments, the association of social idealism to pure estheticism in the A.A.A. prepared for an almost exclusively art-for-art’s sake justification of advanced painting (anchored in pigments and not in ideologies) that laid the foundations for the New York School .
By 1940, nonfigurative art had been given new impetus in America by the A.A.A. Its membership had increased and its exhibitions were receiving more attention. It was still, however, a minority cause—geometric abstraction seeming too cold, severe, intellectual or academic for most at a time when “abstractions” of any kind seemed hostile to the new calls for humanism and popular culture. The Museum of Modern Art again ignored American abstraction in its “Art in our Time” show of 1939. In 1940, the Museum of Living Art was given just two weeks to vacate its premises at New York University. In some senses, 1940 is the end of an era: the arrival of Mondrian in New York changed the direction of American geometricist art just as the Second World War disrupted New York artistic life. Once the war was over, a new esthetic was occupying the forefront of the scene. But to mark a caesura in 1940 is a more arbitrary division than most. The critical absorption of European modernism did not end with the thirties, and Cubism was to be relaxed and revalued much further in the following decade.
The late thirties was a period of transition, then; but it was more than that—and geometric abstraction of this period deserves a rather more special place in American art history than is usually afforded it. It was the first organized modernist style to emerge from the decisive watershed of the Depression years and as such founded the new American art in a detailed knowledge of abstract Cubism. The A.A.A. itself, in its exhibitions and publications, disseminated the lessons of European modernism, and did so in a serious fashion that raised the discussion of abstract art in America to a new level. Geometric abstraction was also the first American modernist style to entirely dispense with a parochial understanding of what was an “American” art. The social, political, and artistic collapse in Europe allowed this to happen in the late thirties to an extent impossible for earlier American modernists. The A.A.A. saw themselves as picking up the torch of abstraction from Paris. In consequence, although the A.A.A. was not especially concerned with being original per se—more with what Morris called “intelligent derivation” from Paris35—the level of ambitiousness in American art was considerably boosted, thus setting the scene for a totally unqualified modernism accepted as native. Moreover, while inheriting the “modern” socially-relevant ideology of European geometric abstraction—and accepting its consequences for industrialized America—the thirties geometricists witnessed an increasing withdrawal of such possible justification for their art. Few Americans had come to this style for didactic reasons. These were bonuses if required, that was all. While the question of “meanings” remained a vexed one through the thirties (and continued to be so in the forties), the Depression had prevented any union of abstraction and social utopianism such as had existed earlier in Europe. Advanced art was thus forced back onto itself—to delve anew into issues unique to each individual medium.
The path this new investigation took was barred to most of the geometricist painters. If they had opened doors, they had kept many others closed—not the A.A.A., but the other more loosely structured groups had the future on their side. At the end of the thirties, Gorky, Pollock, Hofmann, de Kooning, and Still were showing themselves impatient with the fixed armatures of tectonic Cubism. A decade later, the geometricists would be all but forgotten in the fanfares announcing the New York School.
1. “On Abstract Art,” in Abstract Painting in America, Whitney Museum, New York, 1935.
2. Cahiers d’Art, VI, 1931 (a translation of “New York Seen” appeared in Artforum, May, 1969).
3. Arthur Dove’s characterization. Quoted by Frederich S. Wright, Arthur G. Dove, Berkeley, 1958, p. 62.
4. Quoted by Francis V. O’Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts: The New Deal and Now, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1969, p. 33.
5. See Dialler’s “Poverty, Politics, and Artists, 1930–45,” Art in America, August–September, 1965.
6. Two absorbing accounts of the A.A.A. by George L. K. Morris provide the best introduction to its development: “The American Abstract Artists,“ in the 1939 yearbook of the A.A.A., pp. 85–90; and ”The American Abstract Artists, A Chronicle 1936–56,” in the A.A.A. publication, The World of Abstract Art, New York, n.d. 119–561, pp. 133–145. Further references to the A.A.A. yearbooks are given as: A.A.A., followed by date of publication, with page references following the Arno Press reprint, American Abstract Artists. Three Yearbooks (1938, 1939, 1946), New York, 1969.
7. Barbara Rose, American Art Since 1900, New York, 1967, p. 144.
8. By Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting. A History of Abstract Expressionism, New York, 1970, p. 20
9. For the early collection of this museum: Acquisitions of the 1930s and 1940s, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1968, introduction by Thomas M. Messer.
10. For the history of this museum up to 1938: A. E. Gallatin, “Abstract Painting and the Museum of Living Art,” Plastique, Spring, 1938, pp. 6–10.
11. Bitter feelings for the Museum of Modern Art were nurtured by some A.A.A. members. Clement Greenberg has written that Alfred Barr “was betting on a return to nature in those years, and the request of the A.A.A. to hold one of their annuals in the museum [in 1937] was turned down with the intimation that they were following what had become a blind alley” (“The late thirties in New York,” Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, p. 231). This refusal caused Balcomb Greene to write that the MoMA “exhibits a craving for popularity which makes impossible any leadership” (“American Perspective,” Plastique, Spring, 1938, p. 14). In 1940, A.A.A. members led by Ad Reinhardt, were to picket the museum for not representing American abstraction.
12. The situation was made worse by the Whitney painting biennale of 1936, which included but ten artists who worked in abstract or near-abstract styles among its 123 exhibitors.
13. “The American Abstract Artists,” A.A.A., 1939, p. 86.
14. Lief Sjöberg, “Interview with Charles Biederman,” The Structurist, No. 3, 1963, p. 62.
15. “To the American Abstract Artists,” Partisan Review, March, 1938.
16. For further details of the questionnaire findings: A.A.A., 1939, pp. 87-88.
17. Quoted by Morris, “The American Abstract Artists,” A.A.A., 1939, p. 88.
18. “The Plastic Polygon,” Plastique, Spring, 1938, p. 28. Interestingly, Mondrian related his narrow vertical paintings of the late thirties-early forties to the skyscrapers of New York City (see Piet Mondrian, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1971, p. 80).
19. The World of Abstract Art, pp. 136 and 138.
20. “The American Abstract Artists,” A.A.A., 1939, p. 89.
21. “The late thirties in New York,” p. 232.
22. Abstraction-Création-Art non-figuratif, No. 1, 1932, p. 35. While general precursors for Reinhardt’s art are often cited. surprisingly little attention has been paid to the more local examples of those advocating an extreme Minimalism in Reinhardt’s formative years. Given his A.A.A. membership, it is extremely likely he saw Abstraction-Création. What impact Strzeminski’s text had on him, or how he was affected by the illustrations of Strzeminski’s work in later issues, is quite another matter. Since Reinhardt dated his interest in “the all-over as a pure-painting idea” to the early forties (It Is, No. 2, Autumn, 1958, p.76), the Pole might have served as an example rather than as an influence. The same applies to a passage in John Graham’s System and Dialectics of Art (New York, 1937, p. 33), a book widely read by the New York vanguard: “Painting starts with a virgin, uniform canvas and if one works ad infinitum it reverts again to a plain uniform surface (dark in color) but enriched by process and experiences lived through.” Graham called such an art “Minimalism.”
23. “The American Abstract Artists,” A.A.A., 1939, p. 89.
24. For Shaw: the New York skyscrapers. For Browne: learning he was a designer of gravestones necessarily affects one’s reading of his art.
25. For a more detailed discussion of Paris geometricism in this period, see my “Geometric Abstract Painting and Paris in the Thirties,” Artforum, May and June, 1970.
26. Abstraction-Création, No. 1, 1932, p. 1.
27. An editorial statement in Abstraction-Création, No. 2. 1931, p. 1, best illustrates the idea of geometric abstraction understood as a “free” art. In 1936, the dedications of Alfred Barr’s Cubism and Abstract Art and to the second edition of Herbert Reed’s Art Now expressed a similar sentiment.
28. Mary Fuller, “An Ad Reinhardt Monologue,” Artforum, October, 1970, p. 36.
29. For Biederman, in the relief “the rectangle of the canvas becomes an actual non-illusionistic plane from which actual planes gradually emerge into the full reality of structure . . . a development from the limited symmetry of painting gradually into the full-dimensional symmetry structure of reality” (Structure, series 3, No. 1, 1960, p. 20).
30. A.A.A., 1938, pp. 21–22. Although the notion of “realism” discussed here links abstraction to social concerns it outlasted this context, and forties artists used it simply to affirm that abstract art was not unreal. Gottlieb: “To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction al all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time” (Tiger’s Eye, I, No 2, December, 1947, p. 43).
31. Art Front, I, No. 8, December, 1935.
32. “Differences over Léger,” Art Front, II, No. 2, January, 1936.
33. “American Perspective,” Plastique, Spring, 1938, p. 12.
34. “Expression as Production,” A.A.A., 1938, p. 30.
35. Morris’ “The American Abstract Artists,” A.A.A., 1919, pp. 85–90, for discussion of this concept, which finds a parallel in John Graham’s System and Dialectics of Art. Neither Morris nor Graham actually opposed originality; they simply recognized that continuity was more important.