A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Nature (1849)

Let us look at this American artist first. How did he ever get to America, to start with? Why isn’t he a European still, like his father before him?
—D. H. Lawrence (1923)

Abstract art made its debut in America at the same time as it initially emerged in Europe—which is to say, in the two or three years preceding the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Yet the earliest achievements of American abstract art were not destined to have an impact comparable to that of the European masters of abstraction. No artists of the stature of Kandinsky, Mondrian, or Malevich appeared on the American art scene to galvanize a movement in favor of abstraction, and nothing was produced in the realm of theory that came even close to the urgent appeal that was sounded in Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art or the Suprematist manifestos of Malevich. American abstraction in this period was essentially the creation of isolated talents operating in a lonely and leaderless intellectual environment. What the American critic Sadakichi Hartmann had observed in 1898 still described the generation of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin a dozen years later. “Many of our American painters, particularly the better ones,” wrote Hartmann, “have, in strange contrast to French artists who move in the midst of life and society, a peculiar trait in common, they love solitude and shun life.”

Unlike its more robust counterparts in France, Germany, and Russia, moreover, the American avant-garde in the second decade of the century was deeply afflicted with a sense of its own provincialism and powerlessness. As a consequence, its efforts to achieve a modernist art that was authentically American tended to be more a matter of individual aspiration than of group endeavor or shared ideals. Added to this was the nature of the relation that obtained between the modernist artist in America and the dynamism of the society in which his work was created. Nowhere else in the world was the material progress of society so far advanced as it was in the United States. Yet the innovative spirit that animated technological change and capitalist enterprise in America met with firm resistance in the realm of culture and the arts, which, unlike the world of business and politics, remained a citadel of the genteel tradition.

In Europe, the avant-garde mind saw itself as the coefficient of a modernity which society at large had not yet achieved. In America, however, modernity of the sort that the European avant-garde envisioned for its future—skyscraper architecture, high- speed locomotion, assembly-line production, electrified advertising, and similar feats of technological innovation—was already a commonplace. What was missing—and thus left to the individual talent to invent for itself—was an artistic milieu that was open to a comparable level of radical innovation. Such attempts as there were to create a milieu of that kind were greeted with a philistine response so adamant and so uninformed that it inevitably had the effect of confirming the modernist’s profound sense of alienation from the mainstream interests of American life.

The solitude that Hartmann characterized as the condition of the American artist was a direct consequence of this alienation. What also contributed to it was the influence of a well-established American tradition—the Emersonian tradition of free-thinking mysticism, which elevated solitude to the status of a moral vocation. Compounded of French utopian thought, German metaphysics, and Unitarian liberalism, this was a tradition that made of individual consciousness a sovereign of all it surveyed in the life of the times. It set the soul in opposition to the institutions of society while allying itself with the beauty and beneficence of nature. It was thus a tradition that conferred an exalted spiritual sanction on any expression of individualism or isolation.

For the American modernists who came of age in the decade preceding the First World War, this Emersonian tradition, which embraced the kindred radicalisms of Whitman and Thoreau, defined the very atmosphere in which they committed themselves to the life of art, and the ideas it fostered—especially its peculiar combination of mysticism, independence, and rebellion—remained the substratum of their artistic thought even as they looked to artistic developments abroad for the means of implementing them.

It certainly did much to shape the ethos of the first generation of avant-garde artists in America—the embattled coterie of painters, photographers, and writers who sought refuge from the regnant philistinism of their day in the Photo-Secession Gallery, which Alfred Stieglitz had founded in New York in 1902. One of their number—the painter Marsden Hartley (1877–1943)—was given Emerson’s Essays to read by his drawing teacher in art school in Cleveland, and it became for him, as he later wrote, the text “I was to carry in my pocket for at least the five ensuing years—reading it on all occasions as a priest reads his Latin breviary on all occasions, it seemed so made just for me.” Emerson provided, he said, “the religious element in my experience.” Soon thereafter, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass acquired a similarly high place for him as a sacred text, and in the volume of his own essays, Adventures in the Arts, which Hartley published in 1921, Whitman was coupled with Cézanne—the ultimate standard of excellence for an American modernist of Hartley’s generation—as “the two most notable innovators” of their times.

It was hardly surprising, then, that when Hartley wrote a letter to Stieglitz in 1913 from Munich, where Vasily Kandinsky and his circle of Blaue Reiter painters had come to talk to him about his abstract paintings at the Goltz Gallery, Hartley hastened to compare this momentous encounter to Emerson’s historic meeting with Whitman to discuss Leaves of Grass. In Hartley’s greatest moment of triumph as an abstract painter, it was from the annals of the Emersonian tradition that he still derived his touchstone of distinction.

Abstraction & the Stieglitz circle

In the little gallery of the Photo-Secession, where Mr. Stieglitz and his disciples hold forth for months together, there is never so much as a lead pencil sketch in the little exhibitions which may be properly said to have so much as a shred of a subject, and the word of all other words that may be constantly overheard in the discussions there is the word “pure.”
—Henry McBride (1913)

It has to be understood that it was never the specific purpose of the Photo-Secession Gallery—or 291, as it was commonly called (after its address on Fifth Avenue)—to foster the development of abstract art. 291 was founded by Alfred Stieglitz, who was himself a photographer of immense distinction, to promote an interest in photography as a fine art. Beginning with a Matisse exhibition in 1908—the artist’s first in the United States—Stieglitz also took up the cause of the European modernist masters. By 1913, when the Armory Show in New York gave the American public its first comprehensive account of the modernist movement, Stieglitz had already exhibited Cézanne, Picasso, Brancusi, Nadelman, and Picabia, and was thus well-established as the country’s unrivalled champion of modernism. In that role he published an excerpt from Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art in the gallery’s magazine, Camera Work, in 1912. Yet abstraction was not the aesthetic absolute for the painters of the Stieglitz circle that it was for Kandinsky himself.

If the word “pure” was often heard in that quarter to describe the modernist ideal towards which the painters were striving, its precise meaning nonetheless remained ambiguous—as ambiguous, indeed, as the paintings themselves. It might be as easily applied to John Marin’s landscapes and cityscapes in which recognizable motifs remained distinctly discernible within a pictorial structure that was highly abstract, as to the more hermetic abstract paintings from nature by Arthur Dove (1880–1946), which the artist actually called Abstractions as early as 1910–11. At times the word “pure” was merely a synonym for “modern,” and at others it denoted the complete absence of a recognizable subject. At all times it was a way of distinguishing the modernist idea of pictorial form—form that was no longer tethered to a strict description of the observable facts—from what were regarded as the “impure” varieties of academic realism that were in thrall to such facts and still dominated the American art scene.

This whole notion of pure painting recalls the similarly ambiguous Symbolist concept of pure poetry, and there is a parallel to be observed between Mallarmé’s call for artists “to paint, not the object, but the effect which it produces,” and certain strains of Emersonian thought. In writing about Thoreau in 1862, Emerson claimed that “His [Thoreau’s] power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses… . And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.”

Something akin to this attitude toward the observable facts of nature, which are taken to represent the “order and beauty” of something larger than the facts themselves, is what governed the early abstractions of Arthur Dove. The exact status to be assigned to Dove as a pioneer of abstract painting remains an unsettled question. We know for a certainty that he created some of the earliest abstract paintings, yet we also know that abstraction was never for Dove the single-minded pursuit of the absolute that it was for the acknowledged pioneers of abstract painting. Dove’s abstractions are not the kind of paintings that categorically separate themselves from the experience of nature. Their imagery is more like an Emersonian “epitome” of nature than a repudiation of it. Their light is an earthly light—the light of the sun and the moon as it is experienced in daily life. Their forms and their color, too, evoke the organic forms and colors of the natural world.

Dove’s was an essentially pastoral sensibility. He was not a man of wide cosmopolitan culture. Farming was an occupation that sustained him in hard times, and boats were one of his passions. As a young man he had gone to Paris and even showed in the Salon d’Automne in 1908 and again in 1909, and it was on his return to the United States that he earned a precarious living as an illustrator in New York. But cities held no romance for him. He belonged to that class of abstractionists who are totally devoted to nature, totally dependent on it for their visual inspiration and eager to wrest from it something permanent and quintessential. What the critic Paul Rosenfeld said of him in 1924—“There is not a pastel or drawing or painting of Dove’s that does not communicate some love or some sensuous feeling of the earth”—defined his quality. So did Georgia O’Keeffe’s more specific observation that “Dove comes from the Finger Lakes region. He was up there painting, doing abstractions that looked just like that country, which could not have been done anywhere else.”

The modernist conventions Dove learned in Paris and helped to domesticate in America were straightaway placed at the service of this communion with nature. His primary interest was in a certain abstract visual rhythm—elusive, organic, and irregular, constantly changing and constantly enchanting—to be discerned in the diurnal life of the landscape and the seasons and in those objects (both natural and man-made) that nature transforms by its vivid orchestration of light and shadow. It was no doubt for this reason that he moved without qualm or compunction between abstraction and representation in his painting, allowing his inward response to nature determine the terms of his pictorial style. He was, in this respect, anything but an ideological acolyte of abstraction, which remained for him a contingent option in art rather than an absolute commitment. It is for this reason, perhaps, that his influence on the history of abstract art rarely made itself felt beyond the boundaries of the Stieglitz circle itself.

Marsden Hartley’s “cosmic cubism”

It is not like Picasso—it is not like Kandinsky not like any “cubism”—it is what I call for want of a better name subliminal or cosmic cubism—It will surprise you—
—Marsden Hartley to Alfred Stieglitz (1912)

Marsden Hartley’s brilliant, short-lived career as an abstract painter traced a very different course. Although he was reared in provincial and impoverished circumstances in northern New England, Hartley became a man of wide cosmopolitan culture—not only a brilliant painter but a self-educated poet and critic who contributed to The New Republic, Seven Arts, Poetry, and other leading literary journals of his day. Despite his penchant for solitude and the personal problems caused by his homosexuality, especially in America, his friendships and connections in the years immediately preceding the First World War extended beyond the Stieglitz circle in New York to include Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris and the Blaue Reiter painters in Munich. It was, in fact, in Europe that Hartley made his most significant contribution to abstract art. Yet the misfortunes of history—in this case, the eruption of the war in Europe in 1914 —had the effect of limiting that contribution to a very few years, 1912–15, in a career that was otherwise to be devoted to representational painting of an equally high order. In those few years, however, Hartley produced some of the masterpieces of early abstraction.

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, Oil on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

They were not the work of a young or untried artist. Hartley was in his mid-thirties when he went to Europe for the first time in 1912. He had already had two solo exhibitions of his New England landscape paintings at 291, and that was where, before his departure for Paris, he also had his first opportunity to study the work of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. All were to have an immense and immediate impact on his pictorial development. What ignited the spark that accelerated Hartley’s headlong plunge into abstraction, however, was his unexpected discovery in Paris that his deepest affinities—both in art and in life—might not be there, despite the support he received from Gertrude Stein, but with the German avant-garde and Germany itself. For while the Picassos and Matisses in the Stein collection confirmed for Hartley his initial turn to an art more radical than anything he had attempted in the past, it was the German connections he made in Paris, and which then developed into the great romance of his life in Berlin, which provided the existential impetus for the painting that was to be his most distinctive contribution to abstraction.

In Paris, where the French had made Hartley feel like an outsider, his German friends offered encouragement and were eager to acquaint him with artistic developments in Munich and Berlin. One of those friends was a young sculptor, Arnold Rönnebeck, who was accompanied by his American fiancée. He promptly made a bust of Hartley that was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne. (Some years later, Rönnebeck emigrated to America where he became the director of the Denver Art Museum.) Another was Rönnebeck’s cousin, Karl von Freyburg, whose early death in the war inspired one of Hartley’s finest abstract paintings, Portrait of a German Officer (1914). The third was a handsome Swiss poet, Siegfried Lang, with whom Hartley seems to have established an immediate romantic attachment—a devotion subsequently transferred to von Freyburg when Lang returned to Switzerland and Hartley settled in Berlin.

With these German comrades acting as translators, Hartley was introduced to the Almanach of the Blaue Reiter group, an anthology of pictures and essays launched by Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Munich in 1912, and was also able to make his way through Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art for the first time. Being of a mystical temperament himself, Hartley proved to be an eager convert to Kandinsky’s call for an art of spiritual transcendence that would manifest itself in abstract forms, and he straightaway set about the task of creating paintings of this persuasion himself.

Although Kandinsky was already deeply committed to this spiritual mode of abstraction in his own work, the Blaue Reiter program embraced a far wider range of aesthetic affinities and possibilities. In the pages of its Almanach, illustrations of Kandinsky’s abstractions shared attention with the modernism of the School of Paris—the Cubism of Picasso, the Fauvism of Matisse, and the so-called Orphism of Robert Delaunay, in addition to the less classifiable paintings of Henri Rousseau—as well as a miscellany of European folk art, medieval woodcuts, and primitive tribal art. (The latter no doubt reflected the ideas of Wilhelm Worringer, whose Abstraction and Empathy [1908] exerted a considerable influence on the Blaue Reiter circle.) Yet all of these disparate interests were seen to serve the same overarching mystical purpose. Cézanne, too, was drafted into service as a precursor of the Blaue Reiter’s spiritual mission, and so was El Greco, a recent discovery of the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe, who was also a champion of Cézanne. “In their views of life,” wrote Franz Marc in an Almanach essay called “Spiritual Treasures,” “both [El Greco and Cézanne] felt the mystical inner construction, which is the great problem of our generation.”

Nothing could have been better calculated to win Hartley’s allegiance at that juncture in his career. The Blaue Reiter’s alliance of modernism and mysticism was irresistible. He saw it as the invitation to join the European avant-garde that he believed had been denied him in Paris. And his German friends offered Hartley something else as well—a comradeship in which his homosexuality proved not to be an obstacle. That was something he seems never to have felt confident of in America, even in the relatively permissive atmosphere in the Stieglitz circle. The fever of inspiration in which Hartley hastened to join the German avant-garde was thus fueled by a fusion of sexual passion, aesthetic daring, and intellectual ambition unlike anything he had felt in the past.

Yet it was in fact in Paris, before his departure for Germany in January 1913, that Hartley produced the initial attempts at the “cosmic cubism” that constituted his first significant series of abstract paintings. Always a quick study, Hartley seems to have grasped the essential point about abstraction upon his initial contact with its sources. As to exactly what those pictorial sources were in his case, Hartley himself was not inclined to be entirely forthcoming. If the “cosmic” element in these abstractions owed much to his encounter, in Paris, with Blaue Reiter mysticism, their formal language still owed even more to Picasso’s Cubism, and, in all probability, to Delaunay’s Orphic variations on Cubism, which were more adventurous in their use of color than Picasso’s. About his debt to Delaunay, Hartley may have had personal reasons for remaining silent. He clearly felt an intense dislike for the man himself, whom he had met in Paris, but he seems nonetheless to have taken some cues from his work. Certainly the disk-like forms in Hartley’s early abstractions and their color-driven dynamism are traceable to Delaunay, who in this period, not incidentally, was more highly esteemed in Germany than in Paris.

Hartley’s response to Kandinsky was far more complicated. His prior immersion in Emersonian mysticism had naturally disposed him to respond with enthusiasm to Kandinsky’s advocacy of the occult as the basis for an abstractionist aesthetic. About Kandinsky’s paintings, however, he expressed some serious doubt. While hard at work on his own abstract paintings in Paris in December 1912, Hartley wrote to Stieglitz—in the very letter in which he announced his venture into “cosmic cubism” —that “In Kandinsky’s own work I do not find the same convincing beauty that his theories hold—He seems to be a fine theorist first and a good painter after.” And writing to his niece at the same time, Hartley was even more negative: “he is a pure theorist and his work is quite without feeling—whereas I work wholly from the intuition and the subliminal.”

Whatever Hartley may have meant by this criticism, it is to a large extent belied by Kandinsky’s discernible influence on his own early abstractions. Like many of Kandinsky’s Improvisations and Compositions of 1911, Hartley’s 1912 “cosmic” abstractions have the look of imploded landscapes reconstituted on a celestial scale, and they are similarly dependent upon heavily marked black outlines for their basic pictorial structure. It may be, however, that Kandinsky’s paintings were thought by Hartley to be too impersonal to satisfy the kind of emotion that Hartley himself was endeavoring to bring to his own abstractions. For what Hartley seems to have found missing in Kandinsky was precisely the kind of erotic fervor that was then impelling his own creative life.

It wasn’t until Hartley himself went to live in the German capitol, however, that he was fully able to give expression to this erotic impulse in his work. Berlin was clearly the great romantic idyll of Hartley’s life. The sexual freedom he experienced in Berlin, which centered upon a young German officer he had met in Paris, was never entirely distinguishable in his own mind from either his mystical beliefs or his aesthetic aspirations, all of which disposed him to find in the colorful pageantry of German military life both an imagery ideally suited to the artistic imperatives of abstraction and a pictorial correlative for its erotic subtext. It was in this sense that Hartley’s “cosmic cubism” made of abstract painting the vehicle of a sexual romance.

In that endeavor, Kandinsky was indeed less important to Hartley than Franz Marc, who, though not himself either an abstractionist or a homosexual, proved to be a devoted artistic ally. In Marc’s highly colored, folkloristic Expressionism, which encompassed a pictorial romance of another kind, Hartley found a Northern, mystical, modernist sensibility akin to his own, and Marc responded to this aesthetic kinship with the kind of encouragement, criticism, and useful contacts that Kandinsky could never bring himself to offer. It was largely owing to Franz Marc that Hartley was invited to exhibit with the Blaue Reiter group in Munich and become, in effect, a bona fide member of the pre-World War I German avant-garde.

One important consequence of this was an invitation to exhibit his work in the 1913 Berlin Herbstsalon, in the company of Kandinsky, Klee, Arp, Léger, Chagall, Boccioni, Delaunay, and other luminaries of the European modern movement. Five paintings by Hartley were hung between pictures by Kandinsky and Henri Rousseau. As he was the only American artist in the exhibition, Hartley was quick to entertain the illusion that he had at last “found [his] place in the art circles of Europe.”

This short-lived idyll was decisively shattered by the war, which had the paradoxical effect of inspiring Hartley’s most important contribution to abstraction while denying him the possibility of its continued development. Writing to Stieglitz from Berlin in 1913, Hartley had already indicated a “desire—to make a decorative harmony of color and form,” which was his way of talking about abstraction, in his paintings of German military subjects. The outbreak of the war, though it brought him immense personal grief, initially accelerated Hartley’s determination to pursue this pictorial project, and with the death of Karl von Freyburg in October 1914 it was transformed into a series of memorials for the great love of his life. For Hartley, this encompassed not only the fallen von Freyburg but also everything he had come to cherish about his life in prewar Germany.

About the political ramifications of the war, Hartley remained invincibly unconcerned. He seems to have had no faculty whatever for understanding the political situation in which he found himself. While he acknowledged to Stieglitz that he was dealing with “teutonic” themes in these pictures, he never gave a thought to the way the war might affect their reception in the United States, where anti-German sentiment was already running high. (The United States did not officially enter the war against Germany until 1917.) Hartley saw the war entirely in terms of his personal loss, and it was an expression of love and loss that he created the abstract elegies of 1914–15.

The problem was, of course, that by constructing his “decorative harmony of color and form” in the elegies around specific, highly legible symbols of German military glory—most conspicuously, the Iron Cross that had been posthumously awarded to von Freyburg—Hartley made it inevitable that his paintings would be taken to be pro-German political statements. It may have been for their perceived political character that they were favorably received when they were exhibited in Germany, first in Frankfurt and then in Berlin, in 1915. But such a reading of his work seems never to have crossed Hartley’s mind. While nothing was sold in these shows, he nonetheless believed, again mistakenly, that he had achieved a considerable success with them solely on the basis of their artistic merits. The exhibition in Frankfurt had even caught the attention of a correspondent for The New York Times, who, though he may not have known much about modern painting, certainly understood that Hartley’s pictures had been inspired by the war. He described them to Times readers as “a snarl of triangles, squares, rectangles, flags of all nations, in glaring, solid, primitive colors, shuffled together, [which] produces a picture puzzle that absolutely defies you to say it isn’t a battle.” In New York itself, to which Hartley had reluctantly returned at the end of 1915, the political consequences of the war could no longer be avoided.

Stieglitz had been warning Hartley about the difficulty of finding buyers for abstract paintings of any persuasion. Even among the small number of patrons who had an interest in modernist art, abstraction still met with firm resistance. Hartley’s new abstractions would therefore have been a hard sell at 291 even if they had been free of Teutonic motifs. But abstractions that were seen to honor Germany’s role in the war placed the whole matter even further beyond the pale of acceptability.

When, despite his misgivings, Stieglitz gamely mounted an exhibition of Hartley’s German abstractions at 291 in the spring of 1916, it was, of course, a fiasco. Hartley’s belated attempt to forestall censure by falsely denying the symbolic character of his abstractions—“There is no symbolism whatsoever in them; there is no slight intention of that anywhere,” he wrote in the catalogue of the show—persuaded nobody. The symbolism was simply too blatant to be missed. And as the exhibition itself was not so much decried as snubbed, Hartley was denied even the satisfaction of causing a scandal. The net effect of the exhibition was to bury Hartley’s hope of making his mark as an abstract painter whose work would rank with that of the leaders of the European avant-garde.

In the immediate aftermath of this debacle, Hartley made one last attempt to salvage his venture into abstraction. In a series of low-keyed, highly formalized compositions based on Provincetown motifs drawn from boats, houses, and still-life objects in the summer of 1916, he abruptly lowered the emotional temperature of his painting, eradicating all trace of Expressionist symbolism and high color in favor of muted tones and crisp, flat, neutered forms. Under more auspicious circumstances this radical change in style might well have served as the basis of a new development in abstract painting. Whatever they still owed to Picasso’s Cubism, these cool abstractions were something new—an anticipation, in some respects, of the kind of close-valued, clean-edged abstract styles that would later be developed on both sides of the Atlantic. But Hartley’s was not a sensibility that could sustain an impersonal style devoid of existential imperatives. By temperament an Expressionist, he would never find an art of pure form sufficiently compelling to satisfy his inflammable personality. So he abandoned abstraction, which had yielded him his first masterpieces, and entered upon his long quest for a representational style in which the demands of both life and art might be given their due.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 2, on page 10
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