History of Art Home Page

Arthur Dove 1880 - 1946

In Tatlin's reliefs, the physical texture of the objects is very rich. A piece might have a weathered, complexly grained wood boards, leather, metal strips, nails and screws, metal, with various designs stamped in it, and so on. All in richly colored hues. Tatlin liked curved edges. The curved lines of the flat pieces are continuous with the curved pieces of metal that pull off into three space. Some of the less regularly formed three space pieces use 3 dimensionality almost as a form of texture. A curling wire does not form a regular curve, but its projection off the canvas is nearly the equivalent of the rich surface texture of a piece of leather or board.

Dove's assemblages have an even more diverse variety of materials than Tatlin's. Dove used found objects, such as coins, clothes and bamboo fishing poles. He also loved wood, metal, and what looks like sand paper. The sheer physicality of these materials, their texture, is an important part of Dove's approach. There is often something vaguely surreal about their juxtaposition. One is not used to seeing bamboo and canvas together. The use of found objects in a work of art is also startling and mentally dislocating. These objects are completely outside their normal context. One is encouraged to look at them abstractly, to consider them purely as abstract objects with a particular shape and texture.

Agnes Pelton 1881 - 1961

Pelton's abstractions tend to show imaginary objects. These objects correspond to no known shapes, and neither do the paintings of them. But somehow, they look as if they could exist, somewhere in a fantasy world. They seem to describe objects of an unknown spiritual universe. Pelton sometimes gave her works titles that suggest such interpretations. For example, in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, the three objects symbolize the three time concepts. Pelton's objects tend to be floating up in the sky, as if they were heavenly revelations or visions. They often tend to have bell shapes. Their curved lines suggest they are harmonious and benevolent.

Pelton's Growing Dates - July seems as symbolic and as formally patterned as any of her abstract canvases. It shows date palms, among the most complex and delightfully geometric of all trees. Pelton further increases their symmetry by showing each palm reflected in water. My favorite kind of date palm (Phoenix), visually speaking, is not the edible kind depicted here, but a closely related species, the Canary Island Date Palm. These are beautiful trees that seem to equal the work of the greatest sculptors.

Raymond Jonson 1891 - 1982

Raymond Jonson's pictures often contain biomorphic forms. These are the union of a few simple, curved lines. This gives his pictures a Miró like effect. So does the way that there seem to be "glowing" colors around the objects, as if they were radiating some sort of light.

Charles G. Shaw 1892 - 1974

Emil Bisttram 1895 - 1976

Emil Bisttram's abstractions follow in the traditions of Constructivism: they are full of geometric shapes, brightly colored, and roughly of the same size, that float without strong over all pattern in the center of the canvas, overlapping each other. Bisttram's objects tend to have at least one side or axis parallel to the sides of the canvas, giving his works a strongly rectilinear look. Such objects make Bisttram specifically like Malevich and Kandinsky. Bisttram often includes parallelogram shapes. They look as if they are "really" rectangles have been titled on angles oblique to the plane of the picture. This gives the illusion that one is looking at a 3D group of objects, with the rectangle sticking out from the surface of the picture. Many of these parallelograms look hollow, as if they were simply outlines in 3 space. There are also what look like circular rings that seem to be tilted; i.e., they are the results of rings "projected down to the surface of the canvas. Bisttram also uses transparency effects: one object will be seen "through" another object, with colors of the region modified to give the effect of seeing it through a different colored region. Bisttram tends to use light colors, and also dotting effects to colorize his objects, so such transparency effects can be practically implemented.

The effect of Bisttram's painting Interior (1938) is of a little bit of machinery. There are what look like gears. There is also an arrow, which seems a human symbol with meaning, among all these abstract forms. One arrow points right at the heart of some meeting lines; it is as if a wire framework was attached at that point. Another line moves right to the center of a circle, as if a wheel had a rod connected to its center. Such effects make the whole picture look more like the diagram of a machine. Or some 3D construct, perhaps a 3D map. Dotted lines in the Untitled painting with Arrows (1937) also connect up the centers of regions.

El Lissitzky's Prouns are two dimensional paintings of imaginary, abstract 3D objects. This is not entirely an accurate description, for perspective does not have to be consistent throughout the whole of a Proun. What looks like a consistent spatial grid in one section mysteriously falls apart before regrouping differently in another. One finds a similar diversity of spatial organization in the paintings of Emil Bisttram and Stuart Walker.

However, the Prouns seem to contain far more solid objects that these later painters. A Proun tends to be made up of heavy, three dimensional rectilinear objects. They are brightly or even darkly colored, and painted to give them a solid, massy look. They often have long, heavy looking sticks connecting up their sections. The impression that I often get of the Prouns is that the objects are made of painted wood - just an illusion, of course. By contrast, Bisttram's paintings often include just outlines of 3D areas and regions. These outlines have a pronounced 3D effect, but they are not at all solid or massive. The Prouns have line grids too, sometimes, but they are massive areas that look like wire grids or meshes. When Bisttram created abstract flower forms in Flower Forms, Spring (1932), he left them open along one side, emphasizing their hollow nature. This makes them look quite light. The transparency of some of Bisttram's regions also makes them appear very thin and light weight. He also uses brighter, even pixieish colors for his regions the those in the Prouns. Walker uses lots of very pale beige and pastel, to make his surfaces look light and airy. The sheer curvilinearity of Walker's surfaces, and Bisttram's in Flower Forms, Spring, also makes them look less massive than those in the Prouns. So do the use of flexible tubes in Bisttram, and the even lighter looking curved ribbons in Walker. Such long strips and tubes, though extremely 3D appearing, do not look strong at all: their flexibility implies they are soft and easily bent.

Stuart Walker 1904 - 1940

Stuart Walker's pictures often contain curved surfaces: they look as if one took a sheet of colored paper, curved it to make a cylinder or cone, then painted the results with 3D illusionism on the canvas. Such "curved surface" regions are intermixed with flat regions and shapes. They also have what look liked curved ribbons: long strips of cloth twisting and turning in direction, also painted with 3D effects. There are also spheres, and what look like pieces of paper with curved up edges. The curved forms look rather like those in Emil Bisttram's Flower Forms, Spring (1932). Bisttram regularly experimented with 3D effects in his works.

The canvas designs are "filled": the objects shown fill up the entire surface of the canvas, and there is no "background space" showing through, as there tends to be in Malevich and Kandinsky and Bisttram.

Ed Garman 1914 -

Ed Garman's No. 319 (1943) seems like a straightforward imitation of Kandinsky. It is a good painting, and shows an especially nice sense of color. It is rich in circles, rings, circular arcs cut from rings, and triangles and quadrilaterals. The various kinds of circular rings are especially fascinating. The surface is nearly entirely flat. However, the small green triangles at the right can be interpreted as being aligned on all different tilted planes. This gives a small 3D region in a larger, nearly flat surface.

By contrast, Garman's No. 343, (Invention - Study for Dynamic Synthesis) (1945) looks like a frame of an animated motion picture, one of the color studies done by German artists in the 1920's. The lines joining the triangles have a 3D effect. They look as if they bend on their angles while moving around, rather like a lamp on a flexible, jointed stem. The regions made up of triangles do not look 3D. But they do look as if they were in arrested motion. One can envision the inner colored triangles becoming narrower and wider in their upper angle, opening and closing like a scissors or grass clippers, all the while the regions themselves are being moved around by the flexing of the large jointed lines. Another interpretation: the regions made up of triangles are space ships, and the long angular lines are their smoke trails. The regions can be seen as flat geometric areas; they also can be read as diamond shaped 3D lozenges, something like an Octahedron, which extend out from a peak on top, to a maximum bulge along their mid line, then collapse back to a point again at their bottom. In any case, the painting seems remarkably full of movement.

Steve Wheeler ? - 19?

Steve Wheeler's abstract compositions are full of much geometric detail. The effect is of elaborate machinery, friendly good natured devices made up of gears and conveyer belts. These compositions anticipate Eduardo Paolozzi, and his sculptures and drawings resembling imaginary abstract machines. They perhaps ultimately derive from Kandinsky's 1920's Constructivist paintings. Both Kandinsky and Wheeler show many angular curved regions, broken down into multi-colored rectangular sections. They also both show section in which there are dots, circles or other smaller geometric designs and regions superimposed. Kandinsky was a major influence on most American abstract artists who fall in the period after the Stieglitz group and before the Abstract Expressionists.

Robert Natkin ? - 19?

Natkin's work is often made up of many small colored regions, fairly rectangular, and filled with light colors and patterns. The effect is quite Klee like. One wonders if he sometimes create the patterns using stencils. They recall the effects created by commercial illustrators such as Virgil Finlay using stipple boards. For all its gentle quality, Natkin's work does not fit easily into most schools of abstract art. It is not Constructivist, or biomorphic, or painterly.

Hans Burkhardt 1904 - 1994

Helen Lundeberg 1908 -

Lundeberg's Fantasy (1948) is in the tradition of Yves Tanguay: a bare plain extends to infinity, with abstract, biomorphically shaped objects on it made out of stone. Lundeberg's treatment is more minimalist. There are only two objects on her plain. The two objects have holes, like a sculpture by Henry Moore. The first object is more aggressively vertical, and with its holes more regularly spaced, than any Moore sculpture. The two objects look as if they are part of some progression. It is if the second, background object were a mathematical projection of the first. Or as if it were going to evolve into the second object after some process. Almost as if, by letting the air out of the first object, we produced the second. Each object is roughly triangular in outline. The triangles make a contrast with the trapezoids of the frame, and the small spheres of what are apparently the moon, and two blue spheres in the black region outside the main body of the painting. There is a sense of 3D illusion here, as if we were viewing the painting on an angle, and the two blue spheres were floating in space, like planets in a model of the solar system.

Microcosm & Macrocosm (1937) shows elements related to Fantasy (1948). It has the plain stretching off to the horizon, planets and spheres from space. It also has biomorphic, microscopic creatures, some real, some apparently invented by the artist.

A Note on Abstract Art in Design

In some ways Art Deco simply was Abstract Art, spread throughout society, and entering all aspects of daily life. The geometric forms of De Stijl and Constructivism were used for the design of furniture, dinnerware, jewelry and buildings. They permeated the movies, public buildings and homes. They also were in numerous movies - the first modern art movement to spread by mass media.

In many ways, the replacement of Deco with Modernism after WW II was a rejection of abstract art. Instead, everything had a functional design. There were rectangles, it is true, but of a monotonous, rhythmic regularity. The other popular architectural style of the 1950's, Suburbia, also had no roots in abstract art or Deco. Instead, homes were built to look like Colonial or Ranch.