Painting, Avant-Garde

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During the 1910s several European painters ventured independently of one another into abstract painting. Along with modern artists' use of found, industrially made materials, this was one of the most radical and important developments in twentieth-century art. Whether this new movement was propagated as nonobjective or as concrete art, as a new realism or as neoplasticism, the colors and forms on the canvas were no longer meant to bear a resemblance to the material world.


The rationales and results of the artists differed greatly, as did their degree of success, but they all shared certain characteristics. They had been deeply impressed by French art since about 1880, by post-impressionism, by the early work of Henri Matisse (1869–1954), or by cubism. Painters such as Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), and, most radically, Matisse, had replaced local with nonlocal color, that is, they had represented objects in colors that did not correspond to the objects' colors in the world. Van Gogh, along with Paul Cézanne and Georges Seurat, had isolated marks on the canvas—as lines, patches, and dots respectively—disconnected from any descriptive value. In their cubist paintings and collages, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963) had revealed the language of Western pictorial representation to be entirely arbitrary and dependent for its meaning on semiotic context, opening the door for experimentation with other arbitrary signs. And all these painters stressed, to varying degrees, the essential flatness of the picture plane and no longer sought to create illusionist, perspectival spaces.

Yet most of these pioneering abstract artists initially hesitated in making the step toward complete abstraction because they worried that they would produce arbitrary, meaningless forms or merely decorative patterns. In combative manifestos and other written texts, they sought ways to justify their choices: they drew analogies to music, the most abstract among the arts; claimed they were representing immaterial realms such as emotions, the spiritual, the cosmos, the absolute, or utopia; argued they were reducing the painterly medium to its essential, indispensable elements; said they were playing with viewers' perceptual faculties; or asserted they were basing decisions purely on chance operations. Often, these justifications served to turn their abstract works into "trace representations," destabilizing the very definition of abstraction.


The Czech artist František Kupka (1871–1957) is most frequently credited with creating the first abstract paintings in the history of modern art. His interest in representations of the cosmos and of music inspired him, beginning in about 1909, gradually to dissolve observed motifs into either vertical schemes or spirals. In about 1912, with paintings such as Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors and Vertical Schemes, he arrived at an art devoid of recognizable elements. Kupka was loosely associated with orphism, a short-lived Parisian art movement that came to the fore in 1913 and united artists interested in pure color, the representation of light, and analogies between the visual arts and music. Its prominent member and spokesman, the French painter Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), in collaboration with his Russian artist wife, Sonia Delaunay-Terk (1885–1979), systematically pursued the study of color, especially the theory of simultaneous color contrast as advanced by the nineteenth-century chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. Like Kupka, Robert Delaunay made his first purely abstract painting following a series of paintings that increasingly abstracted specific representational motifs, in his case the Eiffel Tower, the sun, and a window. Thus, like Kupka's representations of music or the cosmos, the concentric circles with the most intense colors at the center in Delaunay's Simultaneous Disk: Punch (1913) still represent, in a sense, the radiating beams of the sun. Nevertheless, the painting qualifies as the most radically abstract painting made up to that point.

One finds the same trace representations in the art of Wassily Kandinsky, born in Russia in 1866 but based largely in Germany and France from 1898 until his death in 1944. In 1911 Kandinsky and Franz Marc founded Der Blaue Reiter, an association of German expressionist artists with whom Kandinsky pursued the visualization of immaterial and spiritual realms through gesturally applied, amorphously shaped, and intensely colored configurations. Kandinsky gradually embraced abstraction during the 1910s. At the beginning of that decade, the artist began to veil his representational imagery such as mountains, churches, and cows, painting them in nonlocal colors like the postimpressionists and embedding them in purely abstract shapes. The artist conspicuously inscribed the work known as the First Abstract Watercolor with the year 1910, but it was likely made only in 1913, when Kandinsky also began to talk about abstract painting in his writings. In any case, Kandinsky grew increasingly confident about abstraction, leaving behind worries about expressionless ornament, lifeless stylization, and arbitrary experimentation. Instead, he pursued what he called the spiritual in art. Defined, however vaguely, in his seminal written work, Ü ber das Geistige in der Kunst, published in 1911, that term captured both an internal necessity of the work of art and a search for the absolute and thus encapsulated Kandinsky's ways of justifying his abstract art. Colors and forms, Kandinsky argued, have certain inherent meanings: for example, he frequently paired blue and yellow, illustrating his belief that blue is associated with the male sex, connoting severity, depth, and spirituality, while yellow is associated with the female, connoting gentleness, happiness, and sensuality. While often considered a pioneer abstract painter, Kandinsky thus remained deeply committed to representation in art, in particular to a representation of the spiritual, of emotions, and of music. Likewise, Kandinsky retained allusions to landscapes—black arch elements reminiscent of mountains, for example, or shadings, superimpositions, and scale shifts that all give a sense of depth and space—until about 1922.


From then on, Kandinsky taught color theory and wall painting at the influential German art school the Bauhaus, and his abstract painting became increasingly geometric, even diagrammatic. Because of the school's focus on design and architecture, abstract painting was never central to the Bauhaus, though some of its most important teachers were abstract painters. Aside from Kandinsky, these included the German Josef Albers(1888–1976), the Swiss Paul Klee (1879–1940), and the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946). Albers, though he taught the preliminary course in the later Bauhaus years, was most influential as a teacher at Black Mountain College and Yale University following his emigration to the United States, and he is best known for his painting series Homage to the Square made there from 1950 on, in which he uses nested squares to explore optical relations and illusions of juxtaposed colors. Klee, an associate of Kandinsky's at Der Blaue Reiter, taught elementary design at the Bauhaus and subsequently took over the weaving workshop. As an abstract painter, he was particularly prolific in the medium of watercolor, making works informed by myths and mysticism as much as by his interest in the decorative. Moholy-Nagy, who taught the Bauhaus preliminary course during the 1920s and was head of the metal workshop, explored impersonal techniques in his paintings: he used airbrushes and spray guns, and even put in a telephone order to an enamel factory for the serial production of the same painting in three different sizes.


Kazimir Malevich, born in Russia in 1878 and active there until his death in 1935, exhibited what is usually considered his first abstract painting, the Black Square, in 1915. Perhaps unintentionally, he targeted the very ambiguity about what constitutes pure abstraction. The painting originated in a sequence of stage sets the artist had designed for the 1913 performance of the futurist opera Victory over the Sun, which tells the story of humankind's battle to transcend the present and the visible. The sets show the gradual eclipse of the sun, with a black area increasingly encroaching on a white square. Black forms take a variety of shapes throughout the sequence, which concludes with a black triangle covering half of the square, thus implying a black square as a result. Malevich exhibited the first of three paintings derived from this last stage set at the 0.10 exhibition in St. Petersburg in 1915, placed prominently in a high corner of the room, the traditional place for Russian icons. Whether it represents the eclipse of the sun or an abstract world beyond the visible is left open-ended. Similarly, Malevich plays with the question of what constitutes realism in a painting of a red square on a white ground wittily entitled Red Square: Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions, also of 1915. In his booklet From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, published on the occasion of the 0.10 exhibition, Malevich coined the term suprematism to assert the supremacy of his own art. But it also describes the utopian goals of his abstract paintings: to develop a supreme sense awareness in his viewers, to create a supreme space of infinity beyond human measure, and to reach a supreme or zero point of painting where the medium is reduced to its essential elements.

His Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918) exemplifies these goals. Viewers are forced to fine-tune their vision and spend time in order to see the different tones of white, aided by the different textures. The white monochrome gives a sense of lightness, immateriality, and infinity, and painting is reduced to its minimum: white paint on a white ground, a square derived from a square canvas. Malevich's impact is hard to overestimate. His students included the Poles Wladyslaw Strzeminski and Katarina Kobro, who further reduced art to its essence (Strzeminski worked with paint, Kobro with sculpture), as well as the Russian El Lissitzky (1890–1941), who developed Malevich's work in a more overtly political direction.

After studying architecture and engineering in Germany and becoming a prolific producer of book illustrations, in 1919 Lissitzky began his series of paintings and prints titled Proun, an acronym for the Russian equivalent of "Project for the Affirmation of the New." The Proun s worked against habitual ways of looking at and thinking about the world and instead fostered active ways of seeing and a heightened consciousness in their postrevolutionary audience. Keeping to a restrained palette of whites, grays, blacks, and only occasional color, and making use of a variety of textures, the Proun s feature painted and sometimes collaged geometric configurations projected isometrically, often axonometrically. Unlike perspectival projections, these force viewers to readjust constantly to the flip-flopping of space and volume, and allow the paintings to be viewed from different angles, so that one's perception of them changes even further. Lissitzky sometimes encouraged such turning by signing his Proun s on more than one side or by painting configurations suggesting a turning motion, often involving circles and spheres.

The political dimension of the Proun s was less overt, some say more sophisticated, than Lissitzky's work in graphic design, typography, photography, photomontage, and exhibition design. In 1921 Lissitzky essentially gave up painting in favor of these other media. His decision paralleled the sweeping, programmatic rejection of easel painting by the Russian constructivists, an artists' group formed in Moscow that year and committed to politically or socially useful material studies and designs. Last Painting: Blue, Red, Yellow, by the leading constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, is a landmark in that regard, announcing the end of the most important medium of Western art, once it had been reduced to its essential elements: monochrome panels painted in the primary colors. Unlike most of the constructivists and as a result in part of his training in Germany, Lissitzky cultivated relations and collaborations with an international range of artists and institutions such as Hans (Jean) Arp and the Bauhaus. His Abstract Cabinet for the Provinzialmuseum Hannover, now reconstructed at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, was an innovative design of sliding panels and changing wall surfaces for the exhibition of abstract paintings by him, Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian, and others.


Mondrian, born in the Netherlands in 1872 but active primarily in Paris and later in New York City, where he died in 1944, made his first abstract painting several years after Kupka, Delaunay, Kandinsky, and Malevich. In a series of sketches and paintings depicting a pier running into the ocean, he gradually abstracted the motif and eventually arrived at Composition with Lines (1917), a white square canvas featuring a circular cluster of short black and white lines. Still, it would be three more years before his abstract painting reached its mature, iconic phase, which the artist called neoplasticism. That term encapsulated a new building, or composition, of painterly elements in such a way so as to create a perfect equilibrium or equivalence of its most essential opposites: of lines and planes, of color (the primaries) and noncolor (black and white), of vertical and horizontal lines, of expansion and limitation (the illusion of forms moving outward or inward), and of the canvas as surface and the canvas as object. No one element was ever to take over; Mondrian composed each painting intuitively to come as close as possible to harmony, unity, and perfection, to create a sense of the universal through the particulars of painting. Unlike Kandinsky, Mondrian early on rejected theosophical theories—the occult aspects of painting and the implied possibility of representing the spiritual—and was committed instead to a Hegelian idealism, which was the origin of his commitment to a dialectical system.

The year 1932 was of central importance to Mondrian: he began the destruction of neoplasticism and everything he had worked for over the previous twelve years, introducing two adjacent black lines in his painting Composition with Double Line and Yellow and Gray. This seemingly simple gesture destroyed the balance of line and plane because the white space between the lines turned into a line, while the surrounding white areas remained planes. Mondrian's lines quickly multiplied over the course of the decade until, in 1941, with his painting New York City, he created a labyrinthine braiding and optical flicker of lines in which one's gaze becomes lost. During the last years of his life, Mondrian also experimented with moving painting into the realm of architecture, installing colored and white panels across the walls of his studio in New York City. Previously, he had been worried about this step, contending that it was too early to merge painting with the surrounding world, that architecture was too utilitarian and incapable of true equilibrium.

Mondrian disagreed on this point with most of his peers in De Stijl, a Dutch group of artists and architects founded in about 1917 by Theo van Doesburg. A central example of Van Doesburg's practice of abstract wall painting and interior design was his 1926–1928 collaboration with the German-French Hans (Jean) Arp (1886–1966) and Arp's Swiss wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943), on the Café Aubette, a ten-room entertainment complex located in the center of Strasbourg. Their abstract wall paintings, some accentuating and others counteracting the preexisting historical structure, were complemented with the artists' designs for stained glass windows, furniture, and other decorative objects. In conceptually collapsing abstract painting and design, the entertainment complex forms an important breaking point with other pioneering abstract painters' anxieties. Indeed, Arp and Taeuber-Arp's abstract art from early on had directly confronted the dominant fears of their peers about arbitrariness and the decorative. Beginning in about 1915 they made abstract pictures that were woven or stitched—not surprising given Taeuber-Arp's training in textile design and weaving—and between 1916 and 1918 they made abstract collages, often in collaboration, in which the location of pieces of torn or cut papers was left to the laws of chance.

These procedures reappeared in the work of the Spaniard Joan Miró (1893–1983), the most important of the few abstract painters associated with surrealism—Arp too developed relations with the surrealists, but he was at that point active mainly as a sculptor. Miró would frequently drop pieces of torn paper and paint the resulting configurations; he would also draw and paint undirected doodles, leaving the decisions to chance and the unconscious. Combined with his use of intensely saturated colors, thin lines, and small scaled shapes crowded into large formats, Miró's paintings, as well as those of Taeuber-Arp, exude a sense of humor and playfulness rare in abstract painting during the first half of the twentieth century.


Abstract painting, at least its public practice and exhibition, came to an abrupt end in Europe with the National Socialists' rise to power and the beginning of World War II. It was a showcase for what the Nazis declared forbidden and degenerate. In their minds, abstract painting such as that of Kandinsky and Mondrian, both included with more than one hundred artists in the 1937 exhibition Entartete Kunst (Degenerate art), not only revealed a lack of artistic skill but also insulted the German sensibility and destroyed natural form. Much abstract painting, like much modern art in general, was confiscated and destroyed (the complete Café Aubette, for example). Most abstract painters, like other modern artists, went into internal exile or emigrated to the United States.

This exodus, along with the war's destruction across Europe, played a major role in New York's stealing of the idea of modern art, as art historians commonly sum up the state of Western art after 1945. Surrealist and other European artists strongly influenced the American-made, large-scale, abstract gestural painting of the late 1940s and 1950s known as abstract expressionism. In turn, paintings by artists such as Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning multiplied in exhibitions throughout Cold War Europe as an expression of individual freedom. A new generation of primarily French, German, and Spanish abstract painters, who came to be known under labels such as Informel, Tachisme, or Un art autre, felt threatened by what they perceived to be an American onslaught. These young European painters—Wols (Wol fgang Otto S chulze, 1913–1951), Georges Mathieu (b. 1921), Hans Hartung (1904–1989), K. O. Götz (b. 1914), and Antoni Tàpies (b. 1923), for example—were painting abstract gestures like their American peers, but they were frequently perceived as derivative, especially by the now dominant American art market. This perception was partially the result of their much smaller, less assertive formats, which seemed like illustrations by comparison, but was also attributable to the artificial and decorative impression their techniques tend to convey. Mathieu, Hartung, and Götz's gestures appear staged, isolated, overblown, and contrived. Not surprisingly, Mathieu staged public performances of himself painting; Hartung's gestural strokes were copied from smaller sketches onto larger canvases and bore a striking resemblance to mid-twentieth-century furniture and interior design; and Götz marketed some of his earliest scraped, high-contrast paintings as advertisements for the chocolate maker Sprengel. In hindsight, however, this may be the redeeming quality and historical truth of the best of Informel painting: the way its gestures strove for an expression of emotional struggles and even freedom but ultimately revealed that expression to be always already mediated and false. That was fitting during an age when freedom from National Socialist brutality was immediately overshadowed by the massive consumption that defined postwar economic recovery and reconstruction.


Informel painting, along with American abstract expressionism, dominated the European art world into the 1950s. Many young artists felt limited by or critical of its status quo, particularly its premise of subjective expression. The majority of postwar artists abandoned painting altogether, considering it a traditional medium, and turned instead to collage, sculpture, installation art, performance, photography, video, and other new media. A few stuck with abstract painting but often tested and expanded the boundaries of what constitutes the medium. The monochrome, a canvas covered evenly with only one color, was an alternative proposed by a group of loosely connected, at times collaborating painters across Europe: Yves Klein (1928–1962) in France, Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) and Piero Manzoni (1933–1963) in Italy, and Heinz Mack (b. 1931), Otto Piene (b. 1928), and Günther Uecker (b. 1930) in Germany. For all of them, the monochrome was a means of reducing painting to its most essential elements—a canvas on a stretcher and the application of one type of paint—and a way of either aspiring to or mocking notions of immateriality, infinity, and spirituality. Given the rupture of World War II, few of them knew initially about prewar precedents such as Malevich's suprematist white monochromes or Rodchenko's Last Painting.

Whether serious or ironic, Klein in particular claimed for himself the invention of the monochrome. Along the same lines, he also patented what he called IKB, or International Klein Blue, an ultramarine blue prepared with a binder made of ether and petroleum extracts that preserved the intensity and powdery appearance of the raw pigment. In 1955 Klein began making his signature blue monochromes, which emphasize the objectness and materiality of the picture by several means: matte heavy textures created by the pigment powder (or later by added materials such as sponges), rounded corners, paint that wraps around the edges, and occasional displays on poles or brackets to extend the works out from the wall. His 1957 exhibition L'Epoca Blu at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan featured eleven identically sized and painted canvases that were marked with and sold at different prices. In the following year, Klein painted the walls of the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris white and exhibited the empty, monochrome room as Le vide (The void). Klein thus consistently undermined or mocked his own spiritual claims by stressing the objectlike character of his monochromes, by claiming the real value of his paintings to be beyond the visible, and by making the invisible literal, visible, and exhibitable.

The monochrome also became a signature for Fontana, whose major bodies of work, the buchi begun in 1949 and the tagli begun in 1958, consist of punctures and cuts, respectively, into canvases painted monochrome, often in white but sometimes in garish colors such as orange or pink. The ambivalence found in Klein's work operates in Fontana's as well. On the one hand, the rhetoric of infinite space pervades the artist's writings, and he was at pains to make the space behind his cuts and holes look infinite by taping black gauze behind them. On the other hand, Fontana's colors, bordering on kitsch, and his physical violations of these formerly pure surfaces stress their materiality (the canvas fabric often bends inward) and introduce real, three-dimensional space into painting. By the same token, Fontana's slicing and puncturing gestures replicate and further isolate the heroic gestures of the Informel painters, while at the same time dismissing them with their literally destructive force.

Manzoni's attitude, by contrast, is unambiguously scoffing. His white monochromes called Achromes, made from 1957 on—part of a larger conceptually driven body of work that includes witty works such as cans titled Merde d'artista and perhaps actually filled with the artist's excrement, sold by the gram for the price of gold, and a simple pedestal inscribed upside down Socle du Monde (Base of the world)—employ a true variety of materials. Some are simply made of gesso or sewn fabric, others push beyond the limits of painting in the strict sense by using polystyrene, cotton balls, fiberglass, eggs, bread rolls, straw, rabbit skin, or other materials.

The usually white monochrome paintings made from the late 1950s into the early 1960s by Mack, Piene, and Uecker also dealt with immateriality and spirituality. The three formed the core of the artists' group Zero , which was also the name of their journal and alludes to their interests in infinity and a fresh start following World War II. In particular, they tried to capture the effects of light and shadow on their pictorial surfaces by covering these with patterns, textures, and, in the case of Uecker, nails. Their work with painting and reliefs merely constituted a prelude to subsequent work with kinetic sculptures and environments whose technological idealism and spectacular feel mirrored the optimistic, progressive spirit of the contemporary economic miracle in Germany.


The stress on materiality seen in Klein, Fontana, and Manzoni's painting and their turn against the existentialist premises of Informel were pushed even further in the work of a young group of German Pop artists: Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Konrad Lueg (1939–1996), Sigmar Polke (b. 1941)—these three came to be known under the label "capitalist realism"—and Blinky Palermo (pseudonym of Peter Heisterkamp, 1943–1977). Their abstract painting of the 1960s and 1970s was steeped in the banalities of commodity culture and interior design. Lueg, who soon gave up his career as an artist to become an important art dealer, painted abstract paintings copied from designs of towels, washcloths, and wallpaper and made canvases of a sort from patterned or monochrome plastic sheeting, which, like most of Manzoni's achromes, were not painted at all. Polke's few but important abstract paintings consisted of patterns painted onto found, patterned, stretched fabrics or of isolated abstract pictorial elements, featuring ironic titles such as Modern Art or Higher Beings Command: Paint Upper Right Corner Black. In the last decades of the twentieth century, Richter, whom many regard as the most important European artist after World War II, made three series of abstract paintings apart from his more well-known blur paintings: copies of commercial color charts; stunningly bland gray monochromes with more or less visible brushwork; and heavily gestural paintings that nevertheless betray a sense of artifice by their garish palette, stilted strokes, and slick, seemingly airbrushed backgrounds. For these three artists, abstraction ran parallel to representations of banal objects and motifs in drawing and painting.

Their peer Palermo, by contrast, was an exclusively abstract painter and thus assumes a central place in the context of postwar European abstract painting. Two bodies of work, his so-called cloth pictures and his wall paintings, are closely related to the work of the capitalist realists. The cloth pictures intertwine pure abstract painting with commodity culture. They are not painted per se but made of pre-dyed monochrome cotton cloth bought in the department store and then sewn and stretched together in block stripes. The wall paintings, which combine abstract painting and design, employ a decorative vocabulary painted directly on the walls of exhibition spaces. For both the capitalist realists and Palermo, abstract painting was not removed from the world but was a means of commenting on it, indulging in it, or criticizing it more directly than ever before.


Two groups of French abstract painters of the 1960s also continued the turn against Informel painting, specifically seeking to overcome subjective, arbitrary intuition and genius inspiration, which for long stood at the origin of art. The Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel (GRAV), founded in 1960, developed strategies of collective, anonymous, or conceptual making. François Morellet (b. 1926), for example, a founding member of the group, experimented with the minimum number of decisions needed to make an abstract painting. His answer was 16 Squares (1953), a canvas with lines forming a modular grid based on a mere eleven decisions. He also developed the notion of chance procedures, as in Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory (1960). A second group, BMPT—founded in 1967 and consisting of the French Daniel Buren (b. 1938), the Swiss Olivier Mosset (b. 1944), Daniel Parmentier (b. 1927), and the Swiss Niele Toroni (b. 1937)—joined together to exhibit a type of conceptual painting, often staging painting events in public. Each artist chose a different configuration to paint his canvases and stuck with it: Buren vertical stripes, Mosset a central black circle, Parmentier horizontal bands slightly thicker than Buren's, and Toroni a regular pattern of same-sized brushstrokes. Buren especially went on to exhibit his stripes (soon made of commercial striped fabric on which Buren painted one printed white stripe with white paint) in various public, nonartistic settings, ranging from subway stops and buses to building facades and flags, thus questioning, among other things, the institutional definition of art.

The works of some of the members of GRAV were received together with what in the 1960s came to be known as Op Art. The movement was made famous by the popular 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye. Although held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it featured primarily European artists. Op Art triggered in the beholder optical effects of movement, flicker, and distortions and tested the limits of human vision. Although there were also sculptures and reliefs at the exhibition, the popular image of Op Art was defined by the British painter Bridget Riley and her black and white canvases of rhythmically repeating and subtly distorting lines and patterns.

After the 1970s, abstract painting was increasingly relegated to the sidelines. Many artists returned to figurative painting, but in the early twenty-first century the majority work in other media such as sculpture, installation, video, and photography, where avant-garde art is alive and well.

See alsoBauhaus; Braque, Georges; Cubism; De Stijl; Degenerate Art Exhibit; Kandinsky, Wassily; Lissitzky, El; Malevich, Kazimir; Miró, Joan; Moholy-Nagy, László; Mondrian, Piet; Picasso, Pablo; Surrealism.


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