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By Deedee Wigmore

The artists who pioneered pure abstraction in America in the 1930s were Charles Biederman, Alexander Calder, Burgoyne Diller, John Ferren, Suzy Frelinghuysen, A.E. Gallatin, Balcomb and Gertrude Greene, Carl Holty, Harry Holtzman, George L.K. Morris, Isamu Noguchi, Irene Rice Pereira, Theodore Roszak, Charles Green Shaw, and Jean Xceron. They had experienced a variety of abstraction in Paris from French Cubism and Surrealism to Dutch Neoplasticism and Russian Suprematism and Constructivism. Along with their education in modern art they were introduced to new artistic dialogues and a cross-fertilization of styles by their experience of the international avant-garde in Paris. As a result, they carried back to New York the dream of creating an international community of artists that could transform the United States into an important center for avant-garde art. This they achieved, but not without great effort. Immigration of artists of exceptional ability from Europe also figured prominently in achieving the dream of this avant-garde art community in America. In the 1920s Ilya Bolotowsky, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Paul Kelpe, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, and Esphyr Slobodkina arrived in New York joining the American artists who were developing abstraction. In the 1930s and early 1940s Hans Hofmann, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, and László Moholy-Nagy added a major contribution with their well-formed talent and ideas.

Bringing these artists together in New York were two institutions: the Société Anonyme, an art organization founded in 1920 by the artists Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp, and the Gallery of Living Art, founded by artist and collector A.E. Gallatin. The Société Anonyme presented exhibitions, radio programs, and public lectures. Among its major exhibitions was An International Exhibition of Modern Art Assembled by the Société Anonyme held at the Brooklyn Museum from November 10, 1926 to January 1, 1927. The exhibition surveyed worldwide modern art country by country. The highly focused Gallery of Living Art opened on December 12, 1927 at New York University. The Gallery of Living Art offered a survey of European and American Modernism assembled by A. E. Gallatin personally to reflect chronological and stylistic relationships between major artists and movements in the early 20th century. Gallatin’s exhibitions were free, the atmosphere was informal, and the gallery was open until 9 or 10 o’clock at night. Gallatin exhibited Picasso, Mondrian, Léger, and Miró, as well as contemporary American abstract artists like Charles Green Shaw, George L.K. Morris, and Alexander Calder, at a time when no American museum was exhibiting any of these artists. Both the Société Anonyme and the Gallery of Living Art were based upon the premise of continuity between European Modernism and abstract art in America, as well as the belief that American art’s future could be shaped by their activities.

Opposed to these institutions supporting American abstraction were the Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which opened to the public in 1931. Those directing the policies of the Museum of Modern Art did not expect an evolution of non-objective art in America. The policies of the museum supported a view that the strong Realist bias in American culture would cause American art to develop along that path, one separate and unique from Europe. The Museum of Modern Art’s collection and exhibitions surveyed and supported only significant European modern movements and excluded contemporary American modern movements. The museum’s serious scholarship and excellent exhibitions affected the direction of art collecting and art historical studies in the United States away from American art. The Whitney Museum of American Art also excluded American artists developing pure abstraction from its collections and its exhibition programs which were focused on the continuity of modern realism from 1907 forward. The Whitney embraced the Ashcan School, the Stieglitz Group, and the American Scene.

Also opposed to pure abstraction’s development in America in the 1930s were critics writing for the major newspapers. They expected and welcomed the return of realism in American art after the modernity introduced by the Stieglitz Group in the 1910s. They saw American Scene’s realism as the revival of an indigenous tradition and the right direction of development for an identifiable national style that would communicate the American story. The artists who sought to develop American abstraction were criticized for being isolated from society, with more concern for aesthetics than the social conditions of American life. In the minds of many critics, curators, and art dealers, American art was not concerned with the formal values and philosophical issues of European art. However, the American abstract artists saw art and social changes as independent issues. In the 1930s artists developing pure abstraction were faced with negative reception by New York art critics, museums, and dealers, an uncomprehending public, and an economic depression so terrible it is still discussed today.

Early support for American abstraction came with the appointment of the abstract artist Burgoyne Diller as Project Supervisor of New York’s Works Progress Administration-Federal Art Project. Many artists taking part in the WPA/FAP were directed to the mural division due to Diller’s support. Out of 200 mural commissions around New York City in public schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public institutions from 1935 to 1943, 40 commissions were “modernists” including abstract, semi-abstract, surrealist, and photo-murals.1 Diller was assisted by Harry Holtzman who oversaw the abstract commissions. Some of the most important abstract commissions included the Williamsburg Housing Project in 1936 with murals by Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden (now at The Brooklyn Museum); Arshile Gorky’s Aviation murals for Newark Airport unveiled in June 1937 (now at The Newark Museum); and James Brooks’s Flight at LaGuardia Airport completed in 1942.

An even greater source of support was the founding of the group American Abstract Artists (AAA) in November 1936 by 39 artists. The AAA was formed as a defensive move to create exhibitions and publications to build an audience for abstraction in America. An additional benefit was the camaraderie of identifying other practitioners of abstraction and differences and commonalities within each artist’s style. The AAA’s first exhibition was at the Squibb Building on Fifth Avenue from April 3 to 17, 1937 where the 39 founding members showed 100 works and approximately 1500 people visited the exhibition. The second annual exhibition for the AAA opened in February 1938 attracting 7000 visitors and portions of the exhibition traveled to Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. The third group exhibition from February 14 to 28, 1939 had 42 members participating. Held at 215 West 57th Street, the exhibition attracted 5000 people and at its end a smaller survey exhibition traveled to several Midwestern museums. The group remains active today, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Through these exhibitions, members of the AAA began to gain individual recognition as well as broadening the awareness of American abstraction across the country.

The formation of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1937 and the opening of its Museum of Non-Objective Painting, run by Hilla Rebay, in 1939 provided a museum venue for solo and small group exhibitions of American abstract painters. As a German artist, Hilla Rebay first directed Solomon R. Guggenheim to support European painters with an emphasis on the art of Germany, Holland, and Russia. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting’s opening exhibition Art of Tomorrow in May 1939 featured the museum’s permanent collection of works acquired by Guggenheim and Rebay. It included four Americans: Penrod Centurion, John Ferren, Rolph Scarlett, and Jean Xceron. The first loan exhibition at the museum from January 3 to February 14, 1940 presented the work of Balcomb and Gertrude Greene and Irene Rice Pereira, three founding members of the AAA. Soon after, Charles Green Shaw had a solo exhibition from April 1 to May 13, 1940. The New Mexico-based Transcendentalists who formed as a group in 1938 were followers of Kandinsky and their emphasis on inner vision and the spiritual aligned with Hilla Rebay’s artistic beliefs. The Transcendentalists Emil Bisttram, Lawren Harris, Raymond Jonson, Agnes Pelton, and Stuart Walker were included in a larger group exhibition in May-June of 1940. By 1942 the museum predominantly featured the work of the American abstract artists listed above as well as Ilya Bolotowsky, Alexander Calder, Werner Drewes, Ibram Lassaw, Albert Swinden, John Sennhauser, and Esphyr Slobodkina.

By 1940 the battle for the acceptance of pure abstraction as an American art style had been won. Everything had changed as a result of war in Europe. The Moscow show trials, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, the Soviet invasion of Finland, and the intransigence and militancy of Americans who adhered to Stalinist-Marxism caused American artists and critics to question their support of realism, particularly the political content of Social Realism. Prominent Surrealists such as André Breton, Max Ernst, André Masson, Roberto Matta, and Yves Tanguy arrived in New York in 1940, which helped glamorize abstraction. The WPA Federal Art Project was drawing to a close by 1942 and many American Scene artists were drafted into military service. Two symbols of abstraction’s success were the acquisition of the Société Anonyme Collection by Yale University Art Gallery in 1941 and Gallatin’s collection finding a permanent home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1943.

What seems ungenerous today is that so many of the pioneers of pure abstraction in America during the 1930s have never been properly recognized for having kept vital the tradition of 20th century Modernist painting and sculpture when the art world was overwhelmingly anti-Modernist in its bias. Our exhibition provides an opportunity to review and celebrate the achievements of these American pioneers of pure abstraction.

It is important to understand the basic steps these artists took to arrive at pure abstraction to appreciate their contribution to 20th century American art. The American path to pure abstraction began in the late 1920s as artists experimented with rhythmic linear stylizations of the figure and abstractions from nature. Formal and compositional structure were freely appropriated from major European artists or taken from American culture. Gradually the connections to the figure and nature gave way to pure geometric abstraction in the 1930s. Out of the traditions of Cézanne came Cubism and out of Cubism came geometric abstraction.

Virtually every abstract artist passed through some personal variant of the Cubist style during the early 1930s. Cubism was one of the foundations of the American abstract art movement. Using Cubism’s geometric ideas the term “organization” was coined to describe a structured, cleanly articulated composition in which the forms were organized by the horizontal and vertical axes. A new idea was that the primary subject was the creation of the object itself. When color and form were freed from their traditional representational duties, it changed the aim of the artist from representing subjects to creating compositions based on the relations of volume, mass, shape, and light. The artists focused on these relationships called themselves Neo-Plasticists or Constructivists, most notable of this group was Piet Mondrian who came to New York in 1940. American artists included in this group were Charles Biederman, Alexander Calder, Burgoyne Diller, John Ferren, A.E. Gallatin, Gertrude and Balcomb Greene, Carl Holty, Harry Holtzman, George L.K. Morris, Charles Green Shaw, and Jean Xceron.

The American Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists made several important discoveries with lasting effects. During the 1930s the American Constructivists Charles Biederman, Burgoyne Diller, Gertrude Greene, Harry Holtzman, and Charles Greene Shaw anticipated the shaped canvas developments of the 1960s. By creating constructions that broke with the traditional canvas shape and used wood elements to add actual volume to their works, they achieved a reciprocal rhythm between form and open spaces that went beyond the limits of two dimensional painting’s implied depth.

In sculptural works of a size and shape that could not be understood without moving around them, American Constructivists discovered they could introduce the factor of time. These constructions required the viewer to develop a visual memory to understand the whole work. In some of the most successful constructions, the geometric forms engage each other in a direct pull and tug within the planar boundaries of the work, embodying physical activity and tension. To underline this feeling of tension the artist often painted opposing zones in different, contrasting colors. The Constructivists employed a variety of inventive techniques to achieve the special effects they were looking for in their ambitious constructions. These techniques included cast shadows, overlapping forms, and optical shifts between real built-out planes and illusionary painted ones. Constructions were created in many non-traditional art materials, including wood, masonite, plastic, and metal.

Surrealism was another major influence on American abstract artists by the mid-1930s. In a period when Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories about the unconscious aspect of the mind were being discussed, biomorphic forms could suggest the expressive and non-rational side of mental and physical states of feeling. Surrealism could allude to political and mythological themes as well. Surrealism’s flexibility allowed artists to investigate stylistic and conceptual links between art of the past and the present, taking design and message ideas from African, Oceanic, and American Indian Art. The incorporation of Surrealism became popular with artists in America by 1943 and was supported by major New York art dealers Julian Levy and Pierre Matisse.

In the 1930s and 1940s American artists discovered and developed concepts of systemic movement, juxtaposition, and repetition in creating a new non-objective art. These concepts along with strongly structured compositions emphasizing the pictorial plane were used by future generations of American artists. In developing non-objective art a new understanding of how color functioned in a work was also determined. This led to the use of color to structure a composition in the 1960s. As surface and depth were explored in the 1930s and 1940s a new tension between the elements came into being. The open imagery in biomorphic abstraction, and to an extent in geometric abstraction, took on meaning through the viewer’s personal reading of the shapes in their placement and color. As our artists became more accomplished in abstraction - simplicity and functionalism, long hallmarks of American style, were achieved.

One last surprising discovery about the 1930s-1940s paintings is the positive expression they convey through pleasing shapes, colors, and organization of fanciful space. Despite the hardships these artists endured through two wars and the Great Depression, the overall feeling one gets from their art is hopeful. A wider range of emotions expressed through colors and brushstrokes were developed by the younger generation of Abstract Expressionists from the foundation provided by the first non-objective artists. All in all, American artists who pioneered abstraction in the 1930s and 1940s left a mighty inheritance.

1Greta Berman, "New York WPA Artists, Then and Now," New York City WPA Art: Then 1934-1943 and…Now 1960-1977, p.xix Further discussion of abstract murals in New York is available at the American Abstract Artists website.

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