Revolution, Abstraction, and the State of Lovey Town

How to remember the dream of Modern abstract art: that a painting may act as portal to inner spiritual dominions, or that energy itself might be conducted through fragmented and rhythmic shape placement, or that color could act in revolutionary ways, bodiless and compressed into two dimensions, chroma hovering in flashes? And how to remember history? The events and cultural seachanges accompanying these non-referential compositions: the machine-age and revolutions, the wars and global folk traditions? How, in other words, can one see abstraction again? 

This Lovey Town exhibition, Orphans of the Storm, features a stunning, salon style display of miniaturized paintings, derived from full sized work of what may or may not be un-catalogued abstract paintings of the Russian revolution. It may not return us, exactly, to the ground of abstraction; we may still be estranged from its ambitions, especially in their full sensational terms. And yet these copied, miniaturized paintings, juxtaposed with contemporary miniature abstractions, may model some of the crises and craziness of abstraction, or drag into the conceptual fore the spectator’s power in relation to these depictions of that which does not appear in the concrete world.  This essay, then, seeks to tour this exhibition of abstraction. But unlike those tours which would present unimpeded paths of navigation, as if terrain were navigable in one exclusive way, I would steer us to those parts of abstract practice that compel because they are difficult to traverse—rocky, tricky, riddled with cliffs, but, nevertheless, featuring spectacular vistas.  Thus I would like to return to the tiny confines of Lovey Town in order to argue that it pushes abstraction in directions that might seem anathematic to it.

Stop One: Historic Crossroads

The ambitions for Modernist abstraction (the period of art ranging from, arguably, 1880-1950) are grandiose and daunting. Wassily Kandinsky, a founding abstract artist in the Modern period, diagrammed an abstraction with spiritual properties, claiming that within the vocabulary of line, color, and shape, one could see the divine, and, even, that through the visual one could activate the other senses. Thus, he claimed in paintings one could hear symphonic music and that abstract art could produce synesthesia. And there are other claims for abstraction: certain artists returned to abstract patterns found in pre-modern folk art to reconnect to the “primitive” while others appropriated the language of art and artifacts from a global world that seemed, increasingly, unknowable and mysterious. Certain abstract paintings strove to picture a range of invisible phenomena: vector, motion, and even dynamism itself.

The abstractions miniaturized in Lovey Town are taken from a collection of un-authenticated Modernist paintings aligned with the Russian revolution.  The work of this period, which dates from the outset of the tsarist overthrow to the early years of the USSR, charged abstract art with an overwhelming ambition. The two of its most famous movements, Suprematism and Constructivism, advocated for an art that annihilated its traditional foundations—rejecting the content of state and church supported art, of course, while also renouncing figuration as a general category—and traded it for a compositional vocabulary that seemed resolutely indecipherable and radical.  Regard, for instance, Kazmir Malevich, a Russian painter who coined the term “Suprematism:” he sought create work that had triumphed over art’s familiar forms. In their stead he offered paintings of near blankness: a canvas could feature, for instance, a black square inside a white one (Black Square, 1915) or a askew white square on a white rectangle (White on White, 1918). At once these bafflingly austere works were, in Malevich’s terms, “the zero of painting,” a new start with a startling new pictorial vocabulary, while, in their geometric clarity and literality, attempting to provide place for the spectator to consider what was actually there in front of him or her, to come to terms not with the story of a past, a narrative from someplace else, but with an abstract composition, nearly alien in its oddness, in the present. 

Of course, this was a time of revolution: the seizing of the means of production by the masses, the galvanization of the proletariat. Thus, artists and art found themselves subject to intense questioning. How was art not just another luxury commodity? What function could art have aside from pleasing the recently overthrown élite? Artists answered, in this early part of the revolution, by rejecting art’s form and subverting its aesthetic, official, and political shape. Certainly Malevich’s contemporary Aleksandr Rodchenko would see an almost revolutionary potential in geometric, non-objective thinking. But there might be another way for art to save itself—by embracing a functional role in this new society. To that end, Malevich would make architectural models, and his contemporary El Lissitzky would create what he called “Prounen,” abstract paintings which also read as blueprints and investigations of time. A growing number of artists would print their paintings and pair their forms with slogans and chants. Another group of artists called, by turns, Productivist and Constructivist, would call for the end of easel painting altogether. Vladimir Tatlin, perhaps the most famous Russian Constructivist, took overwhelmingly humble materials—wood, steel, glass, and the materials of industry—to create dynamic abstract constructions. He even proposed a new kind of weird state architecture made out of abstracted shapes that would be made by the hands of the many out of material that the proletariat had seized. 

The obtuseness of abstraction in this period, however, became its undoing. Yes the forms were radical, and yes these forms worked against received and official ideas of what art should be, but the problem was that these “mere forms” could not be easily co-opted by the propaganda machine that grew up in the increasingly structured order of the USSR. Abstraction was too ambiguous, and Josef Stalin, in particular, would viciously repress it, replacing it with revolutionary narrative scenes as acted out by classical and idealized figures.  (The return to classical figuration, idealized and Aryan bodies, would also be key to German Nazi propaganda.) Thus when one first encounters this abstract art one also might encounter its dream, broken, that art can do something, that it can shed its familiar associations in favor a vocabulary as audacious as revolution itself.  

Stop Two: An Impasse

The paintings shown, or more accurately reproduced, for Orphans in the Storm, may interest us less for their authenticity than for the meaningful implications of transporting them, first, as originals, out of Europe and, subsequently, their transformation and miniaturization when displayed and transmitted in Lovey Town. Indeed, their reproduction and display might speak to certain crises of abstraction. First, despite their revolutionary potential, the paintings, as originals, which would speak to and from the Russian Revolution, would eventually find a place alongside Mondrian, Kandinksky, Robert and Sonja Delaunay, Cubist paintings and Futurist collage; they would retire to museums that can order and handle any revolutionary ambition and hang it. Thus, when displaying these paintings salon style, this exhibition might speak to the fate to which art, and especially abstract art, succumbs: despite the avant-garde urge to break traditional forms, the iconoclastic urge to make a work that inspires action, these canvases become part of dominant, traditional, painterly art histories that nestle quite nicely within established institutional alcoves. Art with revolutionary potential becomes historically inert. 

Second, when massed together, these geometries seem like mere pattern—like interchangeable elements in robustly geometric wallpaper. Set in Lovey Town’s little playpen, a space of display becomes as much as part of the work as the reproduced canvases. Thus the encounter and spectatorial experience of seeing them becomes an obvious subject. What is it like to see abstraction, to see that which would be charged, in this case, with Utopian and revolutionary ideals?  The danger of all abstraction may be that spectators see only the literal shapes they encounter and not the ambitions that infuse these non-objective forms. Abstractions hang in front of us like unsolvable riddles, like flat refusals to make sense. The fact that these paintings are shown in a display space that is also part of the art seems to make the encounters, and their ensuing frustrations, eminently visible.  

Finally, the miniaturization of the paintings makes them, well, adorable. And so the message might be, at first, glance, that despite its ambitions to galvanize a population, this art has become mere furniture in an ingenious dolls house. The shrinking here might parallel its rhetorical diminishment, as the art becomes mere décor, something to put in your pocket, a gewgaw or key chain. And so, then, one is presented with abstraction as impasse in the contemporary moment, abstraction as belittled entity that rears up in front of the viewer inscrutably.  Of course, even if we cede the point that part of abstraction’s ambitions might be more willed than observable, this display makes the work, also, newly charming. Even the gallery’s name, Lovey Town, washes it with a kind of care. Thus, the off-putting form of this abstract work might also be made consumable in a positive sense, that is something that one can hold in head and hand—far from the countries and time in which it was created—a toy with which to play.

Stop Three: New Directions

On the one hand we have the impossible historic ambitions of this work, on the other hand its inevitable institutionalization and inscrutability.  Yet, to assemble the history of this art might make an argument that is limiting: it might encase and tame this art in a previous moment only. Yet this work, displayed copies of unauthenticated and orphaned paintings, might work still, if one doesn’t think of it exclusively as the representation of an unachieved abstract ambition resting in a past.  Thus, I want to offer four routes by which one can wrest this art from its particular revolution and set it spinning again. 

 Broadcast. The art of Lovetown does not exist, only, in a little foamcore gallery but gets transmitted, reprinted, sent over the Internet, re-considered. Thus, the art starts to exist as a formal idea that defies physical form. It can be many places at once; it can start to move. Thus, although marked by a past revolution, one can imagine this art storming contemporary institutions, becoming widely available, and even acting as an animate, and animated, force.  Thus, while the art occupies a place in the rarefied culture of the museum—cozying up to the Renaissance, looking as remote as Antiquity—it may start working amid extra-institutional spaces, reaching as yet-unknown audiences, and thus become unleashed, as abstraction, once again.

Border. It’s not only that the art may travel, like an orphan, speaking of the past but working in the present, but that it might begin to defy the notions of a national art in general. Indeed, when considered only as art of a particular period from a particular region, one looses sight of transnational forms, ways in which this art of the present was linked to folkloric traditions of the past, ways in which despite being resolutely non-religious, this art worked in ways that made its function quasi-sacred. Once we question the terms “Constructivism, Suprematism,” or understand that the art of this time was working amid nations that had yet-to-be formed, from artists who crossed borders, the more we can see it as defying the literal and discursive categories to which it has been assigned.

Shape. The intrusion of contemporary reproduced abstractions, hanging, in the middle of Lovey Town (and then subsequently hanging in the ether of the Internet) may remind us of two things. To detach an abstraction from its ambitions only changes it and it need not stop its work. Meaning if we are only to consider abstraction in terms of form, or of color relationship, or of scale, or of the flatness or gestural brushwork on the surface, the work nevertheless still operates as idea. It still provides spaces for perceptual contemplation. Moreover, the extraordinary contemporary work in this gallery also suggests that the vocabulary of abstraction might work to work again, that the shapes of the past might shape our present, or haunts us even still, or, even, that the painting of the past may meet paintings in the present to memorialize forms while putting them to new use.

Namelessness. The fact that the paintings from Orphan in the Storm are, to a great degree, unsigned and unauthenticated also removes them from the capitalist economy that they would have rejected. Moreover, it reminds us that the dream here—once upon a time, but also a dream with which we can still engage—was to return art to a wider population: not only in the paintings, not only by providing paintings of a radical compositional order, but by giving people access to its materials and forms. Art became a kit for enacting revolution on a scale bigger than a single artist. Thus, when making an abstraction in the present, or when regarding and engaging with its terms, one might add one’s name to a long list of practitioners and dreamers who were unsatisfied with the place of art, or those who sought forms which would make populations feel differently, or those who sought to harness vast and various energies and give them back, in visual forms, to the present moment, a moment that, of course, continues to unfold. Thus this art may inspire us to look, now, for safe harbor for the culturally homeless, for those who have no place, and to provide form and respite and from continuing tumult of the present.

Michael Jay McClure, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.