The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985<i> by Maurice Tuchman et al (Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville: $55, hardcover; $24.95, paperback; 435 pp., illustrated)</i>
This is at once a book of essays and a catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same title at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through March 8), the inaugural exhibition of the museum’s Robert O. Anderson Building. The exhibition has deservedly received major attention in the art world, both for its visual achievement and for the interesting questions it raises with respect to the spiritual, mystical and occult origins of abstract art. The documentation in the book will forever change how we understand those origins. Moreover, that one of the major museums in this country should inaugurate a new period in its life with the subject matter of the spiritual in art represents a major shift in contemporary sensibilities. Two decades ago this would have been unthinkable.
The 435-page book, with more than 500 excellently reproduced illustrations, one-fifth of them in color, is both interesting and different from most museum books. The opening comprehensive and indispensable essay by Maurice Tuchman, the presiding genius behind the book and the exhibition, is followed by 17 essays on different periods, countries or groups of artists, all concerned with the spiritual and the abstract in art. The more than 250 works in the exhibition, representing approximately 100 artists--ranging from such earlier figures as Maurice Denis, Paul Gauguin, Ferdinand Hodler to contemporary painters such as Craig Antrim or Joseph Beuys--are listed in seven appended pages, with page references to the location of the plates in the essays. Sixty or more works not discussed in the essays are sandwiched without comment between two essays.
Since the essays had to be written before the exhibition took its final form, the scholarly book that contains them seems almost incidentally to serve also as a catalogue, though the categories used in the installation--cosmic imagery, duality, vibration, synesthesia, sacred geometry--are mentioned by Tuchman in his introductory essay. Moreover, the volume has more than 40 illustrations of such groupings from occult literature, all of which in one form or another have influenced abstract art. The impressive array of material in this volume will be a definitive reference work of modern art. Moreover, this subsidized book is modestly priced.
Scholars have generally known of the role of spiritual movements in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a background ethos in the emergence of abstract art; that is, art in which the traces of the visible world as we know it began to disappear. Never before has that role been documented so extensively as in this work.
Since the spiritual movements and their major figures are so little known or inexactly known to most of us, the catalogue includes a welcome glossary, covering, in alphabetical order: alchemy, anthroposophy, cabala, fourth dimension, hermeticism, mandala, mysticism, Native American art, Neoplatonism, the occult, Rosicrucianism, spiritualism, Taoism, thought-forms, Theosophy, Zen Buddhism, as well as figures such as Helena Blavatsky, Jacob Boehme, Robert Fludd, Paracelsus, Rudolf Steiner and Emmanuel Swedenborg. In the essays themselves, all of these movements and individuals receive appropriate further attention.
Diverse as these movements and individuals are, they have in common the conviction that reality, whether one thinks of the cosmos or of humanity or both, is beyond or beneath the world as we see it or directly experience it. They set this conviction of theirs against what they take to be the more commercial or materialistic view of the world. Some of the movements are directed to a view of the soul as that which must be nourished beyond its physical embodiment, while others counsel us to see the spiritual in and through the physical or (as in Swedenborg’s writings) in a correspondence between the two. In some instances, the otherworldly dimensions are expressed in religious movements, as in Theosophy; sometimes in more philosophical form, as in forms of Neoplatonism; sometimes in the attempt to reach forces and realities by special means of divination, as in spiritualism or in alchemical processes; sometimes in the identification of physical or material patterns that have spiritual implications, as in the fourth dimension as a special way of sensing space beyond its usual three dimensions.
All these movements are dealt with recurrently in the essays, so that the occult, for instance, is discussed as a movement affecting the art world in France and Russia; symbolism as one affecting it in France and Holland. And the same movements recur when individual artists, particularly Wassily Kandinsky, the grandfather of abstract art, are discussed. A chronology is provided for each artist, featuring “only events in the artist’s life that involve spiritual material or contact with related figures.” The contacts are incontrovertible; but what we conclude from them is surely ambiguous, as indeed many of the authors indicate.
For example, W. Jackson Rushing’s essay on “Native American Culture and Abstract Expressionism” is an exceptionally instructive account of the relation of Native American art and its motifs to such artists as Richard Pousette Dart, Adolph Gottlieb, and Jackson Pollock. The pictographic, ritualistic sources are clear, and in the case of Pollock, even his mode of painting evokes analogies to Indian culture. Yet none of the paintings of these artists could be understood as an illustration or translation of the sources they used. The earlier works of these artists may bear traces of such sources, but they also have transformed them.
While, on the one hand, “The Spiritual in Art” effectively challenges the conventional view that, first, Paul Cezanne and, then, Cubism are the principal sources of abstract art, we need to remember, on the other hand, that art works generally transcend their sources. We are more than what we have read or seen, and artists in particular strive for visions that transcend what we ordinarily know.
While, for example, Barnett Newman organized exhibits on Pre-Columbian stone sculpture and on the Northwest Coast Indian painting, these experiences served him as interesting analogies, opening up different sources of art from those the New York art world had provided. Two of the essays repeat the oft-quoted thesis of Thomas Hess that Newman’s art was influenced by cabalistic sources, though Newman himself rejected that thesis long before Hess’ book was even published. And while such a denial may not be definitive, it should at least put one on guard. It seems to me that Newman’s vision of art as sublime and heroic was his own.
The essays in the book are most convincing for the period before the 1950s, and even for later decades, they raise questions that no one interested in contemporary art can ignore. At the same time, the exhibition itself and the plates in the book show how much the art works themselves transcend their sources. The authors of these essays would agree that this is as it should be.
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