Hilton Kramer begins this splendid collection of his essays on modern art with a consideration of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian entitled “Kandinsky and the Birth of Abstraction.” He gives a useful account of the spiritual impulses and marginal esoteric thinkers that proved catalysts for Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other modernists—abstraction evolved its own logic—but he does not offer a definition of what abstraction in painting actually is, even though abstract painting still baffles a great many people.
From the Renaissance through the 19th century, painting represented the visible world with portraits, landscapes, the city, and other subjects. Such traditional painting employed color, mass, and line. Eliminate representation from painting color, mass, and line—Voila! you have abstraction. Abstract painting thus achieved a spiritual liberation, freedom from the material-visible world of the 19th century and enabled artists to express states of mind and spirit, including enjoyment of beauty in purity of form.
In Kandinsky and Mondrian, during the first two decades of the 20th century, this spiritual quest sought support in the esoteric thought of such marginal figures as Madame Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, and Amy Besant. As Kandinsky wrote in On the Spiritual in Art:
The whole nightmare of the materialist attitude, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil purposeless game is not yet over. The awakening soul is still deeply under the influence of the nightmare.
Piet Mondrian’s flat rectangular plains of primary colors held together with straight black lines express the achievement of a pure absolute and consequent liberation from our world of contingency and uncertainty.
Not incidentally, one thinks here of Yeats and his own revolt against 19th-century materialism, seeking the occult though ouija boards, séances, and other forms of the esoteric. As one of his Dublin friends remarked, “Willie believes in every supernatural being except God.” Indeed Yeats, like the great modernist artists, threw whatever was at hand into his fight against the 19th century. We might add that T.S. Eliot, who had several times experienced transcendental moments of eternal reality, was able to use French symbolist poets and Dante in his own successful effort to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound exhorted the artists of his time.
In The Age of the Avant-Garde (1972), Hilton Kramer began with a famous essay of the same title that placed modernism in a wide social context as a criticism of the middle class generated from within the middle class. (That essay had appeared earlier in Commentary as “The Myth of the Avant-Garde.”) Such self-criticism is a remarkable cultural and political phenomenon, suggesting great vitality, though many members of the middle class often did not welcome the achievement, the unwelcomers becoming merely the detested bourgeois, a term of contempt in French that does not have an English equivalent. No doubt this middle-class achievement owes much to the creative tension generated by its position between upper and lower classes. It is also important to note that avant-garde, a military term pertaining to warfare, also lacks an English counterpart, which suggests much about the impacted and virtually immovable resistance of the French middle class to imaginative change.
As Kramer shows, abstraction—modernism in painting—triumphed during the first two decades of the 20th century. He does not explore the fact—it would have been inappropriate to the occasional nature of many of these essays—that the triumph of modernism was part of a much wider movement in culture. The rebellion against the 19th century began during its closing decades. For a very fine discussion of this in France, I recommend the opening chapter of Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years (1958). We have the Eiffel Tower (1889), denounced by traditionalists as a pissoir; the modernist Exhibition of the Independents (1886); Verlaine, LaForgue, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé focused around 1885; Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” (1913), its Parisian audiences rioting in protest against its aesthetic modernism.
What we see in England before the First World War was the proliferation of various movements and magazines representing the impulse to “make it new.” Imagism emerged in 1912 with Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”), Pound, and T.E. Hulme. In 1915, at Pound’s insistence, Harriet Munroe published T.S. Eliot’s LaForguian “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” even though she did not at all understand it.
Throughout The Age of the Avant-Garde and now in The Triumph of Modernism, Kramer is luminously intelligent when he discusses the great modernists Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Leger, and Miro. He also analyzes the Abstract Expressionists of the post-World War II New York School, such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and the younger artist Helen Frankenthaler, making necessary discriminations and locating the New York School correctly as a distinctively American and sympathetic response to European modernism.
In this collection as well as in The Age of the Avant-Garde, Kramer returns to the problematic figure of Jackson Pollock, disentangling his actual achievement from his heroic myth and concluding that his vast drip-and-pour canvasses, energetic though they seem, constitute an art that “is maddeningly repetitious in its formal rhythms. It is paltry in its command of color, for classic Pollock is largely based on light-dark contrasts rather than chromatic structure. Classic Pollock also lacks breadth … in its range of feeling and invention.” He concludes that Pollock-as-a-force-of-nature is a major myth but a minor achievement and a triumph of celebrity.
Kramer goes on to make the valuable point that whereas the European modernists had to win their way against established and stubborn traditionalism, America was modern from the beginning:
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 invention—was already commonplace.
As Gertrude Stein remarked in an essay on Picasso, America is the oldest country in the world because it is the first modern country. It is within that context that Kramer discusses such eccentric and quintessentially modernist Americans as Marsden Hartley and Edward Hopper, as well as the modernists around Alfred Stieglitz. I think it possible that Kramer underrates Hopper, whose work I find powerfully evokes a distinctively American kind of loneliness.
Certainly, with Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg, Kramer is among the foremost art critics of our time. His assessment of Greenberg and handsome tribute to his work comes in a very fine essay on the appearance of the first two volumes in Greenberg’s posthumous four-volume Collected Essays and Criticism.
His title, The Triumph of Modernism, requires interpretation. The triumph of the great modernists was one of skill, heroic spirituality, integrity, and purpose. I remarked earlier that the title essay of The Age of the Avant-Garde had previously been published as “The Myth of the Avant-Garde.” That myth holds that because genuine modernism was often mocked and rejected, it follows that art that is mocked and found unacceptable is to be respected as advanced modernist art. But just because audiences rioted at Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” doesn’t mean that the latest outrage is also valid as art.
Kramer’s critical energy in disposing of the fashionable and bogus often reminds me of F.R. Leavis’s “pursuit of true judgment,” a serious responsibility of the critic. Richard Serra and Jasper Johns fail the test of seriousness. Hilton Kramer accurately senses nihilism in Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn; in the banal photography and grotesque sadomasochism of Robert Mapplethorpe; and in the parodic postmodern architecture of the modish Philip Johnson, his buildings a campy joke at the expense of his clients. The wide acceptance as art of productions by such charlatans constitutes a fifth book of The Dunciad and exemplifies the triumph not of modernism but of the myth of the avant-garde.
Jeffrey Hart is a senior editor of National Review and author, most recently, of The Making of the American Conservative Mind.
This article was originally published in the January 15, 2007 issue of The American Conservative.