Art historians often begin with a close focus on an individual artifact before setting that object into a history. Earlier, later, latest: that’s the basic historical structure. Giotto was studied by Masaccio, whose art influences Michelangelo’s. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) presents such a history. So too does E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art (Phaidon, 1950), which discusses the progressive improvement of techniques of representation, what in a later, related book he calls the history of Art and Illusion (Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series, 1960).
A social account provides another, alternative way to organize a history. Renaissance Italian art expresses a Catholic worldview, and Dutch Golden Age painting presents a different style of thinking, that of mercantile Protestants. And the right-wing Austrian art historian and Nazi Party member Hans Sedlmayr (1896-1984) argued that art since 1750 is marked by “new gods and idols – Nature and Reason [. . .] art (aestheticism), the machine (materialism), chaos (antitheism and nihilism)” which embody “the basic spiritual attitude of the age” (Art in Crisis, Chicago, 1958). Ironically, Marxist commentaries also adopt this approach.
Nowadays, when artists everywhere routinely scrutinize work from all visual cultures, global assessments have gained increasing importance, such as the massive survey organized by Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes in 2016, Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945-1965.” To do a history of abstract art however, poses special difficulties.
If we think of abstraction, as many did in the mid-20th century, as marking the endpoint of art’s history, coming after the figurative tradition is essentially exhausted or abandoned, then, by that logic, abstract art would have no history. Its development from Hilma af Klint to Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin could not be understood historically, the way we understand the story from Giotto to Masaccio and Michelangelo.
Is there some validity to this hypothesis? Suppose that someone who knows nothing about art history is handed a Powerpoint display and asked to put images in order of making. With a little coaching, that person would likely place Giotto, Masaccio, and Michelangelo in historical order. But it would be impossible, I think, to do the same with af Klint, Mitchell, and Martin.
At the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art show Inventing Abstraction: 1910- 1925 (December 23, 2012–April 15, 2013), there was a very complicated diagram, reproduced in the catalogue, charting the relationships between the numerous pioneering abstractionists. One artist followed another without defining a historical development. Abstract Art: A Global History (Thames & Hudson, 2020) by Pepe Karmel, an associate professor of art history at New York University, in effect provides another such chart, taking us up to the present. It’s a social history that uses five categories: bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, and signs & patterns. Dedicated to his former MoMA colleague Kirk Varnedoe, the goal of Abstract Art is to revisit the analysis of Varnedoe’s book, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock (Princeton, 2006), which gave Karmel the idea that “abstraction is a form of representation.” But his critical sympathies are much more far-ranging, and his conceptual perspective much for fully developed than Varnedoe’s.
The first part of Karmel’s narrative, the discussion of the birth of abstraction in the art of Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian, and its development by the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock and his peers, is very familiar. And so what’s most challenging and important is the way that he takes the story into the present, and includes artists from everywhere.
Thus his discussion of body-based abstractions includes not only totems by Jackson Pollock, but also the animals of Ibrahim El-Salahi, from the Sudan and works by Ethopian-born Wosene Worke Kosrof; Carmela Gross, a Brazilian sculptor; Chakaia Booker, an African-American sculptor; and Sopheap Pich, a Cambodian sculptor. In place of the old French and American phallocentric order, we have an account including male and female artists from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Karmel believes that we are living in a golden age of abstraction. I think that it is too soon to tell, but certainly this narrative will provide much necessary visual information for those future scholars who will make such judgments.
Karmel’s originality and literary skill are praiseworthy. But his account is not a history. There is no reason given to suggest that the later artists further developed the forms of abstraction explored by their predecessors. There were similar problems with Pictures of Nothing, which Varnedoe mistakenly called a rival to Art and Illusion. Gombrich offered a history of figuration, but Varnedoe did not present a similarly historicist account of abstraction.
The publisher of Gombrich’s great treatise requested that it be called Art and Illusion, even though, as he says in that book, his subtitle, A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation is more accurate. Analogously, I imagine that Thames & Hudson would have vetoed calling Karmel’s book A Global Charting of the Varieties of Abstraction, with Reference to Its Figurative Roots, though that title would give a clearer view of his achievement.
Karmel has, in fact, proven that a global history of abstraction is impossible. This is an important achievement, for it opens the way to constructive analysis. Today’s art world has an essentially different structure from Gombrich’s Eurocentric tradition or Clement Greenberg’s New York-centric era; we must now recognize that writing a global art history demands that we give up historical thinking.
Thames & Hudson also published Art Since 1900 by Rosalind Krauss and her fellow Octoberists, a book famously characterized by esoteric theorizing and oddly narrow judgments of taste. Karmel’s conceptual apparatus is simpler, though understanding its implications is not easy, and he displays a much wider range of taste. Abstract Art is a much better book because it is infinitely more readable, because it offers a more sympathetic political analysis, and because it is more truthful. And for the practicing critic, this book is a godsend; already I’ve made effective use of it both in a catalogue essay and a review (for another journal).
Ann Saul’s Abstract Pissarro: Planting the Seeds of Abstract Art (Art Book Annex, 2019) supports Karmel’s ways of thinking about the porosity of abstraction with detailed case studies of Camille Pissarro. Using generously full illustrations, Saul argues that often his works focus our attention on the materiality of painting, the physical medium of the pigment, rather than on its subjects. You can focus on the picture surface or what it represents, but not both at the same time — as Gombrich said in Art and Illusion.
Pissarro often found settings that made for abstract compositions; Saul writes that by “focusing on forms” in his painting, “Banks of the Marne at Chennevières” (1865) in the collection of the National Gallery, Scotland, “the Landscape merely provided a design pattern for his unconventional execution.” She explains why some of his paintings were proto-abstractions, too radical to be appreciated at the time they were made, though she does, maybe, get carried away when she compares Pissarro with Mark Rothko, whose radical abstractions have a different genealogy. Her analysis was anticipated in an extremely brief statement made by Greenberg in 1949:
The best modern painting, though it is mostly abstract painting, remains naturalistic in its core, despite all appearance to the contrary. It refers to the structure of the given world both outside and inside human beings. (“The Role of Nature in Modern Painting,” reprinted in his Collected Essays: Volume 2, edited by John O’Brian; Chicago, 1986).
It is a statement easily made when abstraction was thought to have a history, and even an eschatology. But it is much harder to prove in an era of global postmodernism.
Abstract Art: A Global History (2020) by Pepe Karmel is published by Thames & Hudson.
Abstract Pissarro: Planting the Seeds of Abstract Art (2019) by Ann Saul is published by Art Book Annex.