There’s an oft-told tale in art history: non-objective art came into existence as the Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky viewed a painting of his from across the room, bathed in the waning rays of the afternoon light, and was struck with inspiration. It was as if he was looking at the painting for the first time. He was shocked both by the lack of subject matter in this work and also by the sheer beauty of it, despite having no references to the natural world. The power of the painting held together perfectly, in his estimation, by the works colors and formal composition alone. Non-objective, purely abstract art, was born.
I never liked this tale.
Don’t get me wrong: I have felt a deep, unwavering connection to Kandinsky’s paintings since first learning of his work when assigned to read his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914), in an undergraduate art history class. The sheer power of his paintings (and his writing, still in publication) is of that jaw-dropping, leave you breathless sort of experience one has in the presence of great art. I’d rather that Kandinsky rushed head-strong into non-objective painting with full intention, as did the other Russian non-objective painter of his time, Kazimir Malevich. Counter to Kandinsky’s cacophony of color and form on canvas to represent his “inner necessity,” Malevich created hard-edged shapes to “free art from the burden of the object.”
From Kandinsky and Malevich we can trace two divergent strains of purely abstract, non-objective art – painterly expression versus geometric abstraction – both springing from a need to portray interior, spiritual landscapes of emotion and thought. In the brief history of non-objective art, additional impetus has joined the spiritual to forge a lasting legacy of paintings that eschew the exterior world in form. Non-objective expressions of art on the flat canvas have been derived from the influences of music, poetry, war, landscape, science, the human body – the stuff of life. Yet, by pulling out all references to objects upon which we can hinge our gaze, and without a guidebook, we have only our subjective selves and the painting before us to reconcile the meaning of the work.
This is the exquisite beauty of non-objective art and its ultimate frustration for so many. If there is no subject matter, how can one “enter” the painting? From what can we derive meaning? Why do artists continue the non-objective tradition (despite hearing of the “death of painting” one too many times) and, even more surprisingly, continue to have an audience? These questions are pertinent as Patrick Moore Gallery prepares to install an exhibition of non-objective works on a magnitude not seen in Salt Lake City for at least thirteen years.
The history of exhibiting non-objective painting in Utah is a short history. In the early 1990s, the Salt Lake Art Center presented an exhibition of non-objective works that included notable Utah artists such as Lee Deffebach, Denis Phillips, and Don Olsen – all considered key artistic figures who helped to introduce and champion abstraction as a serious painting movement in Utah. Since that time, totally non-objective exhibitions have been few and far between. Part of our reticence stems from our artistic heritage: Utah’s early painters focused on our spectacular landscapes and on the intimacy of portraiture. Moving towards total abstract means leaving behind the familiar signposts of our daily, visual lives.
Yet, in speaking with a handful of the artists in the exhibition, one hears familiar words that spark unfamiliar, exciting images. Jean Arnold says of her work: “I extract my artwork from the experience of mobility, the velocity of travel – capturing the complexity, speed, and flux of contemporary urban life.” Arnold’s canvases sing with saturated colors that move quickly, causing your eye to range over the canvas field, resting solid shapes, then moving just as quickly to the next stop.
Other artists discuss their tendency towards abstraction as a result of the abstract quality of life itself. Sunny Belliston believes, “Much of what we experience in this life is abstract and intangible – ideas, emotions, memories, sound, and time. Intangible concepts such as these can never fully be depicted through a photographic image alone.” Geometry and edges play against each other, causing interesting tensions to be presented and resolved. Trent Alvey talks about artists who consider themselves to be “slipping glimpsers” – a phrase coined by the American artist John Sloan – those who were enamored of the fleeting moment, who yearn to capture that moment on the canvas. Sloan was one, as was the great Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning. Alvey says of her non-objective work that it is the “primal response . . . better than thinking about something for a long while, say — life, war, anger, politics, fear, love, bliss or death — and then responding. Abstraction is the immediate, non-icon response.” Her paintings for this exhibit are dynamic compositions energized by the contrast between broad swatches of color and spindly lines of poured paint.
For the show, exhibit curator Layne Meacham consciously included artists from a span of ages, from veterans like Denis Phillips and Gary Collins to young artists like Steven Stradley and David Maestas. A pivotal question on his mind has been – what is the motivation to paint in the non-objective style? Ultimately, he believes totally abstract art shows the real person, the real self. There is no imitation involved. There is no secret language involved – the painting is what it is. In a nutshell, it’s about the self. Taking in The Truth of Abstraction allows you to know the self of each individual artist. Meacham’s canvases show the complexity of an active, inquisitive mind: paint is layered – both as colors on top of each other and as paint itself, thickly applied – then in places is gauged away; scribbles allude to a language that is not yet learned.
The full intention of non-objective painting is evident in all artists in this exhibition. None of the works appear to be happy mistakes, as in the case of Kandinsky’s sideways painting. All artists, in their vast array, show that non-objective painting is indeed alive and flourishing. There is still much to plumb in total abstraction, as the freedom from the pressures of depicting the natural world gives way to the expansive freedom to explore our interior worlds. Enjoy the freedom this exhibition unleashes as you take in form, shape, and color; texture on canvas; and the incredible and expansive space that these elements hold in relation to the flat canvas of painting.
The Truth of Abstraction will be at the Patrick Moore Gallery (2233 S 700 E, Salt Lake City, UT 84106 (801) 484-6641) April 17 — May 8. An opening reception, featuring a visit by the 337 Project Art Truck, will be held Friday, April 17, 6 to 9pm. More than twenty Utah artists will be on exhibit.
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.