All posts in “Abstraction”

Object of the Week: Abstraction

At first glance, this collage appears to be a simple study— a convergence, or construction, of differently colored shapes floating in a seemingly infinite space. A closer look, however, reveals that the work encompasses many of Hungarian-born avant-gardist László Moholy-Nagy’s beliefs about the role of art in the modern era.

Moholy-Nagy established himself as an artist in Berlin in the aftermath of World War I and spent much of the 1920s teaching at Germany’s famous school of art and design, the Bauhaus. Finding inspiration in the newly industrialized city, he saw potential for employing modern production processes for the creation of art.[1] He found that the city dweller was confronted with an array of new visual and aural stimuli—cars, buses, factories and crowds of people—as well as previously unheard of perspectives. One could now look down on the city from a skyscraper and look up a those tall buildings from a speeding car. For someone who had grown up in the quiet countryside these new experiences could be overwhelming. The artist concluded that artwork of the period should confront the urban condition and set out to find new, appropriate modes of artistic production.[2] Along this live of thought, Moholy-Nagy famously ordered paintings from a German sign factory in 1923 and, with the help of a mechanic and architect, produced a kinetic light sculpture in 1930. However, despite his embrace of new technology, painting remained for Moholy-Nagy the ultimate space within which to experiment.[3]

The metallic sheen of the copper and silver forms in Abstraction suggests newly invented industrial paints. The tall rectangles recall the shapes of recently constructed skyscrapers and the perspective suggests an aerial view. What better way for the modern urbanite to relate to the new spatial relationships of the city than to have those relationships abstracted on a small scale? If nothing else, a small French customs stamp on the back of the work reveals that the piece retained significance for Moholy-Nagy, as it followed him from Germany to France and then the United States, where he eventually settled.

– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator

[1] László Moholy-Nagy, “Abstract of an Artist,” The New Vision and Abstract of an Artist (New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947), 72.
[2] László Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, (Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press, 1969), 43.
[3] Joyce Tsai makes this argument in “Technology’s Surrogate: On the Late Paintings of László Moholy-Nagy.” László Moholy-Nagy: Retrospective, ed. Max Hollein and Ingrid Pfeiffer (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2009): 136-167.
Image: Abstraction, 1923-28, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, collage of cardboard, tempera, ink, crayon, 18 3/8 x 22 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 56.39 © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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Object of the Week: Still Life with Calendar

As we prepare for the last 31 days in our 2017 calendars, it becomes clear how quickly time flies. Where did the year go? In this 1956 work by Northwest artist Wendell Brazeau, Still Life with Calendar, time is certainly a preoccupation, as well as developments in abstraction imported from Europe during the years following World War II.

A painting that could only exist after the pictorial revolution brought about by Cubism, and Paul Cézanne before that, this work is a marker of an important moment in American painting when European theories made their way to artists living and working in the United States. Like many, Brazeau studied in Paris and worked first-hand with the European avant-garde, bringing such ideas back to the Northwest and pollinating the region with new modernist theories.[1]

One of the main genres of Western art, the still life takes many forms; whether arrangements of symbolic objects that point to the brevity of human life,[2] or celebrations of material wealth, the still life has fascinated artists for centuries. In more recent art history, the still life has become a foundation for formal experimentation.

Indeed, here flat geometric forms and bright planes of color unify a spatially ambiguous plane. We see lemons or limes perched precariously on the left-hand corner of the table, as well as a chair, coffee pot, flower vase, and fruit basket, all nearly sliding from their fixed positions. Behind this array of multi-toned vessels and objects we also see a small section of an incomplete calendar—a tongue-in-cheek inclusion that seems to simultaneously honor and scrap the genre’s interest with the passage of time. A knowing departure from the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, Still Life with Calendar playfully explores the possibilities of abstraction while wittily honoring the subject’s antecedents.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Still Life with Calendar, 1956, Wendell Brazeau, oil on board, 41 3/4 x 46 in., Northwest Annual Purchase Fund, 56.254 © William A. Brazeau
[1] Brazeau studied art at the University of Washington for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. For more, please see Barbara Johns, Modern Art from the Pacific Northwest in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990), 16.
[2] Vanitas, for example, contain objects—such as musical instruments, skulls, candles, and flowers—that serve to remind the viewer of their own mortality, as well as the worthless pursuit of earthly goods and pleasures.
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SAMart: Abstract and American

The multiplicity of things which lie in no man’s land just beyond the realm of appearances enchants me.

-Charmion von Wiegand, 1947

Charmion von Wiegand was among a dedicated band of U.S. supporters of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.  Mondrian spent his final four years (1940-1944)  in New York City, and von Wiegand became one of his closest friends.  Von Wiegand’s career as a painter followed Mondrian’s arrival in New York in 1940, and she exhibited frequently from 1942 onward.  Her best works, dating from the mid- to late-1940s, merges the structure of geometry with a ceaseless flow of organic shapes. Von Wiegand regularly exhibited with the American Abstract Artists group, which formed the core of support for U.S. abstract art before the emergence of the abstract expressionists.

Abstraction, 1945, Charmion von Wiegand (American, 1898-1983), tempera on board, 19 3/4 x 15 in., Gift of Zoe Dusanne, 60.54, © Charmion von Wiegand. Currently on view in Elles: SAM – Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists, Modern and Contemporary art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.
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