artists respond

Forward thinking artists in Western Europe and the American continents had been experimenting with individual elements of abstraction for some time when the century turned in1900. The Impressionists’ once revolutionary theories about color were being abandoned by artists like Vlaminck and Matisse in favor of more radical approaches. Gauguin and Van Gogh had created their most significant work, attempting to find a common ground between the ideal and the real.

By 1900, Van Gogh had been dead for ten years. Edvard Munch (moonk) had painted The Scream in 1893. With its swirling lines of color and the expressively distorted face of its subject, the painting became a symbol of modern life, effectively communicating a new dimension of terror — that of the internal, modern psyche.

There was an interest in “the new” in all the cultural capitals of the West. Some of the artists who chose to aggressively search out new strategies for visual communication were: (click on the painting titles below to see the paintings online.)

Paul Cézanne

“Painting from nature is not copying the object; it is realizing one’s sensations.” — Paul Cézanne (French: 1839 - 1906)
Cézanne was nearing the end of his career at the turn of the century, yet he continued to patiently refine his vision of art. The young firebrand Henri Matisse said of the aging artistís stature, “Cézanne, you see, is like a God.”

Still Life with Basket of Apples, 1890-94
oil on canvas
Art Institute of Chicago

Arthur Dove

“I should like to take wind and water and sand as a motif and work with them, but it has to be simplified in most cases to color and force lines and substances — just as music has done with sound.” — Arthur Dove (click here) (American: 1880-1946)
Considered by many to be one of the first artists to commit themselves fully to pure abstraction, Dove exhibited in New York and Chicago in 1912.

Marcel Duchamp

“Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought — but at the same time my aim was turning inward, rather than toward externals.” — Marcel Duchamp (French: 1887-1968)
The idea for Duchamp’s (du-SHOM) early paintings exploring movement came in response to a poem by Jules Laforgue entitled Encore à cet astre (Once More This Star) . His later work was associated with the Dada movement, a group of artists who had become so disgusted with the carnage of World War I they chose to make art that seemed completely irrational.

Nude Descending a Staircase, #2 , 1912
oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Wassily Kandinsky

“(I aim) to let the viewer stroll arond within the picture, to force him to forget himself, and so to become part of the picture.” — Wassily Kandinsky (Russian: 1866-1944)
Kandinsky advocated “pure” abstraction, ie: images based not in a tangible reality but on the merging of the artistís inward response to stimulus with his or her mastery of the visual elements. Among his important contributions to art theory was the book On the Spiritual in Art.

Improvisation #28, 1914
oil on canvas
Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

Paul Klee

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” — Paul Klee (Swiss: 1879-1940)
Klee’s (clays) playful imagery masked a serious theorist who was an influential teacher at the German Bauhaus from 1921-31. Along with Franz Marc, Klee helped form Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) – a group of prominent German artists who experimented with abstraction.

Red Balloon, 1922
oil on gauze
Solomon Guggenheim Collection

Henri Matisse

“I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.” — Henri Matisse (French: 1869-1954)
Matisse (mah-TEES) gained notice for his fearless compositions employing flat areas of color and the spirited joie de vivre or sensuous joy his subjects seemed to express.

La Danse, 1909
oil on canvas
Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

“I did not begin as an abstract painter.” — Lazlo Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian: 1895-1946)
Moholy-Nagy (mo-ho-ly NAH-zhy or mo-hoi-NOD-je) came to Chicago to begin the New Bauhaus, a school of design which, even with an erratic history and the interruption of World War II, became one of the most influential centers for design instruction in the U.S.

A II 1924
oil on canvas
Guggenheim Collection

Pablo Picasso

“Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?” — Pablo Ruiz Picasso (Spanish: 1881-1973)
The Spanish artist adopted Paris as his home and, in conjunction with Georges Braque, forged Cubism, a revolutionary way of perceiving and depicting the world. The movement’s influence eventually spanned virtually all boundaries of the arts in the Western hemisphere.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906
oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In this and the preceding pages, the stage has been set with a review of some of the factors leading to the rise of abstraction. The sections titled seeing things differently, reforming formal elements, and crossing the line are brief examinations of how different artists from Illinois have chosen to utilize abstraction in their work, how the visual building blocks of art — such as line, shape, and color — have been employed in the service of abstraction, and finally, an illustration of how one Illinois artist coped with two primary and seemingly contrary paths to abstraction.