"Abstract art remains misunderstood by the majority of the viewing public. Most people, in fact, consider it meaningless," Maurice Tuchman writes in the exhibition catalogue of "The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985."

If the show that Tuchman has organized to inaugurate the County Museum of Art's Robert O. Anderson Building has its desired effect, abstract art will gain a more discerning audience.

No one claims that the exhibition of about 230 paintings and 125 related books and charts will reveal deep meanings in all abstract art. Artists who base their abstractions on the visible world are not represented. Under scrutiny are those who portray the invisible. A fresh scholarly light illuminates the role of spiritual concerns in the birth of abstraction and exposes shady connections to the occult and the mystical.

From the pioneering work of Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian--who developed purely abstract visions to express esoteric systems of belief--to Craig Antrim's contemporary explorations of ancient cultures and Tom Wudl's cosmic works, "The Spiritual in Art" delves into almost a century of artists' involvement with arcane thought systems. Bruce Nauman's spiral neon wall piece declaring, "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths" caps a startling array of artworks.

"By the end of the show, if reasonably alert viewers don't see something more than form and color in a Brice Marden grid, I will be very dejected," said Tuchman, the museum's senior curator of modern and contemporary art. He doesn't expect to be dejected. "We can't be that far off base," he said.

His confidence arises from about 10 years of work--with associate curator Judi Freeman and an international group of scholars--on a subject long considered declasse. Following the lead of Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art and such influential formalist critics as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, several generations of students have learned their modern art history from a purely aesthetic viewpoint that emphasizes stylistic progressions and dismisses spiritual content.

"This show could not have been done without recent scholarship on the origins of abstract art and its connections to occult and mystical belief systems," Tuchman said, citing Sixten Ringbom's study of Kandinsky and Robert P. Welsh's work on Mondrian in the '60s and early '70s, along with Robert Rosenblum's 1975 book, "Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: From Friedrich to Rothko."

Prior to their work, formalism's reign had been so strong that alternate approaches were considered suspect, he said. Jasper Johns, whose red, yellow and blue painted book is "an emblem of the show," now admits being affected by Tantric art, according to Tuchman. When the curator contacted Robert Irwin about the exhibition, he not only agreed that his work fit but indicated the piece that should be shown: a 1966 painting in which tiny colored dots on a slightly bowed canvas gradually coalesce into an aura.

Occupying the entire first floor of the new building, the show is arranged in 12 sections. An introductory gallery of Symbolist painting of the 1890s leads into a display of books, five small solo shows and five larger thematic displays. Some elements of the 18,500-square-foot layout correspond to the mystical concept of "sacred geometry": A triangular space for viewing an audio-visual presentation, a round, golden room of mystical and occult source books, and vitrines with triangular legs.

The five solo exhibitions feature works by celebrated artists Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and one woman whose work is scarcely known outside her native Sweden. According to Tuchman, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) is a sort of isolated "control case." A portrait painter who became deeply involved with spiritualist group, she began to do automatic drawings, eventually merging her occult explorations with her painting . Tuchman selected the 13 oils, watercolors and related materials in the show from a barn near Stockholm crammed with 2,000 artworks.

Af Klint's strange painting is a revelation, but hardly the only one in the provocative exhibition. One finds a shivering figure by Mondrian that might have been painted by Edvard Munch and a virtually unknown painting by Munch depicting a red soul departing a dying man's body.

One recently discovered item that Tuchman considers "a nice little firecracker"--the sort of "proof positive" of artists' spiritual concerns that appears throughout the exhibition--is Marcel Duchamp's own copy of Kandinsky's seminal treatise, "The Spiritual in Art." Apparently Duchamp translated the little book from German into French (presumably for his brothers) in 1912 when he went to Munich and conceived his key work, "The Large Glass."

To put a hazy assortment of concepts into focus, Tuchman and Freeman arranged the bulk of the show according to "five impulses" or "fundamental occult ideas that have visual cohesion": "Cosmic Imagery," "Vibration," "Duality," "Synesthesia" and "Sacred Geometry."

Each section has a chronology dating from the 1890s. According to Tuchman, modern artists' involvement in spiritual matters came in "three waves and an '80s twist": a surge of interest in Neoplatonism, Rosicrucianism and the teachings of mystical philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg in the 1890s; a wave of enchantment with anthroposophy and theosophy during the early 20th Century, and the impact of Jung in the '40s and '50s. The current decade brought the influence of "Third-World thinking and a more traveled, worldly, assimilated point of view," he said.

The "Cosmic Imagery" section centers on the mystical concept that the universe is a single, living entity. Paintings in "Vibration" refer to a belief that a formative energy regulates material shapes. "Synesthesia," pertaining to an overlap between the senses, includes such examples as a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe that was done to music. Artists affiliated with "Duality" portray evolution as a dialectical opposition. "Sacred Geometry" confirms a belief in geometric forms' ability to express abstract truths and to describe nature.

"The Spiritual in Art" has come a long way since 1973 when the idea emerged in a conversation between Tuchman and critic Barbara Rose. He proposed the show in 1976 to the museum's board and for seven years used "Mysticism and Modern Art" as a working title. Originally the exhibition included more figurative work, "but it covered too much territory," Tuchman said.

"We had to ask, 'If so much fits, what is it?' So we decided to concentrate on the linkage between abstraction and the spiritual. We pared it down to the essence."

The exhibition continues to March 8, then travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (April 17 to July 19) and to the Haags Gemeentemuseum in the Hague.

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