Whose Abstract Art? by Carla Blank
In The New York Times (April 7, 2006) art critic Holland Cotter began a Weekend Arts review of “Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964-1980” at the Studio Museum in Harlem stating, “Histories get lost. That’s how life is. Then, when the time is right, they get found.” He then calls abstraction “one of the most radical forms of 20th century art….”
This statement ignores the fact that examples of abstract art can be found prior to the 20th century and appears to imply that white artists invented abstract art when Mr. Cotter continues, “Also, abstraction raised authenticity issues. It was widely seen as white art, academic art. Whites viewed black practitioners as copycats; blacks dismissed them as sellouts.” While this statement may contain some truth, it neglects to mention that copious documentation exists to prove that those late 19th and 20th century visual artists, living in Europe and the United States, who were looking for new ways to express their individual visions, were at least, in part, inspired by examining objects made by Native American people, as well as other cultures based on the continents of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Although even court art styles practiced in Japan, Southeast Asia, Persia, Egypt and other African civilizations were labeled under the “primitive” or “tribal” rubric and relegated to ethnography museums, where they often still remain, artists’ exposure to world art forms was not just a matter of a few chance encounters.
It is well-known, certainly in art world circles, that many modern artists experimenting with new forms have been avaricious collectors of objects made for everyday home or ceremonial use in non-European cultures, be they ceramics, basketry, textiles, hide paintings, beading and quillwork, masks and other sculptures made of wood, carved stone, wrought iron, and so forth. So many artists have used these pre-existing objects, ancient or not, to create new works that the art world accepted and defined the practice with terms such as “borrowed,” “appropriated,” and “found.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries it was common for homeowners in Europe and the United States to display their family’s collection of objects meant to fascinate in their front parlors, some of which were accumulated during Grand Tours, a refinement required of upper class families. Known as a ‘cabinet of curiosities,” it generally contained a mixture of specimens from natural and human creation. P.T. Barnum was the most famous American proprietor of public displays of “interesting curiosities.” His American Museum, which opened in New York City in 1842, was filled with a jumble of the most rare and extravagantly “exotic” curiosities, including such odds and ends as a Turkish lady’s boot and a dog sled from Kamchatka. Moreover, universities systematically gathered ethnographic specimens from cultures under study by their anthropologists and archeologists, which when stored became anthropology museums. The extensive collection of Tlingit carvings at U.C., Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum, founded in 1901 in Kroeber Hall, is an example.
By the second half of the 19th century, interest was so strong that public moneys were spent on housing ethnographic collections in grand buildings: a natural history museum was built in Paris and the Museum of Mankind (British Museum) in London; an anthropology museum in Berlin was built in 1873; and in New York, the Museum of Natural History opened in 1877 and began loading rooms full of arts from peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska, Oceania, the Far East, Mesoamerica, South America and elsewhere around the globe. Also, ground shaking expositions and world fairs brought American and European artists in direct contact with ethnographic materials and actual practitioners demonstrating their traditional art forms. Crowds numbered in the millions at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition (1876), Paris’ Exposition Universelle (1889 and 1900), the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), Brussels’ Exposition Universelle in 1897, Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition (1901), and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (1904). By 1906, vanguard Paris-based artists are said to have “discovered” African masks and figure sculptures at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. By then they could easily collect inexpensive curios in flea markets, brought by sailors, missionaries, and other travelers returning from colonized territories, and many gallery dealers offered quality examples of ancient African and Oceanic arts.
In 1914, Alfred Stieglitz claimed his New York City gallery, commonly known as “291” for its Fifth Avenue address, mounted the first U.S. exhibit of Central and West African sculpture where it was called “art” rather than “ethnography.”
Famously, Surrealism’s philosopher André Breton displayed a “wall of objects,” behind his desk in his Paris atelier where he lived from 1922 to 1966. This collection easily fulfills standard definitions of abstraction. There were sculptures from the South Pacific islands of Easter Island, New Guinea and New Ireland, besides other artworks including Native American, pre-Hispanic Mexican and Inuit objects, along with paintings and engravings by his friends and associates, including Francis Picabia, Roberto Matta, Wassily Kandinsky and various famous others. Breton’s wall was transferred and installed at the Centre Pompidou’s show, “La Révolution Surréaliste” (2002), and was featured in critic Alan Riding’s article for The New York Times (December 17, 2002) when everything in Breton’s estate except the wall was being prepared for a 2003 auction. Riding says Breton was especially inspired by Oceanic art, considering it “one of the great lock-keepers of our heart.” Ishmael Reed, after viewing Breton’s collection in Paris commented that “instead of being called a Surrealist, Breton should be called an Africanist.”
After its founding in 1929, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art mounted various shows in the 1930s and 40s that heightened awareness of connections between contemporary arts and non-Western and indigenous traditional arts. The aesthetics of Aztec, Maya, and Inca art were featured in “American Sources of Modern Art (1933),” and “Indian Art of the United States (1941)” exhibited over one thousand examples of ancient, historic and contemporary arts and crafts made by American Indians living in the present continental United States, Alaska and Canada. Newsweek magazine said this show set Indian art “among American fine arts.” Major exhibits of African and Oceanic art were assembled in 1935 and 1946. By 1985, when Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture William Rubin curated MOMA’s famously controversial show, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art,” he placed quotation marks around the title word “Primitivism,” to acknowledge difficulties inherent in using this prevailing term. Mr. Rubin also noted the word’s embodiment of Western Europeans’ ambivalence when considering objects and cultures based in traditional communities of Africa, Oceania, Native America, Mesoamerica, and other non-Western locales in his two-volume publication that accompanied the show. The volumes included many photographs of artists’ studios and homes, revealing significant collections of “primitive art.” In the exhibit and two volumes, individual works, similar to or the actual traditional objects owned or viewed in museums by various icons of Modernism, were juxtaposed with the modern works they influenced. These European artists, soon to be considered the vanguard of abstraction, included philosopher and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Constantin Brancusi, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Max Ernst, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Jean Miró, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso.
American born artists associated with Abstract Expressionism openly acknowledged their study of the arts of other cultures. Jackson Pollack said his action-based painterly approach was influenced by Native American dance and painting. Barnett Newman focused on Oceanic and pre-Columbian American arts and Adolph Gottlieb on prehistoric petroglyphs. American born artists identified with Earthworks or Site Specific installations, including Michael Heizer, Maya Lin, Richard Long, and Robert Smithson, have widely cited the influence of monuments of archaic cultures, such as the earth mounds found in the Midwest and Southern United States, Stonehenge, and the pictographs of the Nazca Plains in Peru.
Painter Vincent Smith is quoted discussing the world of black artists who worked in Greenwich Village during the 1950s, the center of Abstract Expressionism in the United States, in Sharon Patton’s African-American Art (Oxford University Press, 1998). Mr. Smith says, “The art scene was in transition. There were the social expressionists and the up and coming abstract expressionists. We were influenced by everything. The French painters, Picasso, Brancusi, Klee, the Dutch painters, the Flemish school, Zen Buddhism, the Mexican painters, the German expressionists, the Japanese woodcut and African sculpture. Within the styles and forms and techniques of these schools we painted and experimented and attempted to find our way.” It would be helpful to everyone’s sense of history if critics and cultural historians could maintain this generosity of spirit and consistently acknowledge all sources of what is generically referred to as abstract art.
This article originally appeared in The Green Magazine (August/September 2006).