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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Chain Reaction

We're all familiar with the concept of a chair reaction, a linear progression of events, each the direct cause of the one following it.  A chain reaction occured a hundred years ago in painting. It lasted some fifty years or more, and even today, we still see its results on the posh gallery walls of most big art market cities. 
The work of Paul Cezanne, and  his landscapes, was the spark that lit Picasso's match which ignited Cubism.  Though Cubism was never completely abstract in the non-representational sense, it, in turn, was the torch sitting off the Abstract Expressionist explosion marking the second third of the twentieth century.  When we think of Abstract Expressionism, typically we think in terms of the New York School of the forties and fifties, and certainly, this is there the movement matured and came into its own.  But it's seeds go back a generation before to the work of artists such as Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and ultimately Kasimir Malevich.  These were the planters.  Hoffman, Jackson, and DeKooning were merely gardners, nurturing, and reaping the rewards of what were basically European seeds transplanted to America.
Munich-Schwabing with
the Church of St. Ursula, 1908,
Wassily Kandinsky
Each of the "planters" brought their own "DNA" to the movement.  Miro's genes were symbolic with a trace of surrealism.  Mondrian's roots were pure Cubism.  Kandinsky's contribution was quite literally an epiphany of color.  It is said that he discovered the "inherent expressive properties of color" divorced from the "real" world one evening after a long day of painting.  He was struck by an image of "extraordinary beauty, full of inner radiance" which had eluded him in his struggle to unleash it in his landscape painting.  This "vision" turned out to be one of his earlier paintings accidentally placed upside down, thus destroying it's originaly representational composition.  From that moment on, color began to take on an almost "religious" importance to Kandinsky.

Suprematist Composition:
White on White, 1918,
Kazimir Malevich

On the very opposite side of the coin, the Russian painter, Kasimir Malevich implanted the dada mentality of Eastern Europe within the Abstract Expressionist family tree.  In a carreer tragically at odds with the turbulent political upheavals of Mother Russia in the Post-World War One era, Malevich's work aspired to a visual and compositional purity eschewing very nearly every single element of design known to man.  In a 1918 painting entitled White on White, his basic off-white, off-balance square on a white square canvas contrived to stretch the very definition of painted art almost to the breaking point.  Yet, his "less is more" theories injected an element of subtlety into Abstract Expressionism that was to influence the American branch of this organic art from Frankenthaler, Rothko, and Pollock to the so called "Minimalist" movement in the 1960's.

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