PRINT January 1976

Problems from Early Kupka

And only a cowardly consciousness and meager creative powers in an artist are deceived by this fraud and base their art on the forms of nature, afraid of losing the foundation on which the savage and the academy have based their art.

That he has broken an object or placed a red or yellow square in the center of his canvas will not make his work new; what will make his work new is his grasp of the creative spirit infusing this outward appearance.

The artist should now know what, and why, things happen in his pictures.

FRANTISEK KUPKA HAS ALWAYS seemed a minor figure in the School of Paris. His name was known, but hardly more than that, except, perhaps, for an occasional reproduction of Planes by Colors, Large Nude, which seemed, more or less, to be equated with Kupka. After his enormous retrospective at the Guggenheim, such an equation is obviously silly; as, in fact, would be the equation of Kupka with any one of his paintings, or any bunch of them. There is probably as much or even more variety in the transformations and separate but often parallel courses in Kupka’s life work as in that of many other artists. The variety that spans his entire body of work, as well as that within only a year’s time, can become simply baffling.

We’ve gotten accustomed to artists’ careers moving in neat linear progressions. It’s a mainstream notion. Its function is order and its virtue is simplicity. The problem is, neat order and easy simplification become habit-forming. But there is nothing neat about Kupka; on the contrary, if Kupka is anything, in these terms, he’s messy. Among other things, Kupka’s work includes a kind of turn-of-the-century synthetic figure painting (“synthetic” meaning a synthesis of several of the latest styles)—Futurism, Orphism, reductive and not-so-reductive rectangle paintings, biomorphic floral abstractions, a touch of De Stijl, machinery abstractions, cosmic spiral paintings, cosmic architectonic painting, and at least one abstract painting that looks to me as if it came straight from a discount furniture store. A quick look at his retrospective seems to confirm his status as a lesser School of Paris figure. The work may seem at times dazzling, awkward, powerful, hesitant, luscious, or energetic, yet it also tends to seem a couple of jumps behind the work of the well-known School of Paris artists.

However, the catalogue says Kupka wasn’t a couple of jumps behind.1 It says, in fact, that he was a jump or two ahead. Margit Rowell doesn’t hammer the point home, but simply addresses it as one historical fact among many others. More powerfully, she ascribes dates to the work; and if, out of curiosity about this curious painter’s place in the development of the School of Paris and the evolution toward abstract art, his ascribed dates are matched against those of Futurism, Léger, Delaunay, Duchamp, certain Matisses, Malevich and Mondrian, the conclusion is inevitable: Kupka invented all the inventions he seemed to be following, at least until the First World War.2

The inevitability of the conclusion, of course, depends on the accuracy of the dates ascribed to Kupka’s work by Rowell, or rather, on one’s belief in their accuracy. Rowell writes that Kupka rarely dated his works when he made them, but dated most of them retrospectively in 1946; which means his dates aren’t particularly reliable. And Rowell seems not to rely a great deal on them, attributing dates on whatever evidence is available. But Kupka’s inventiveness seems dependent on Rowell’s dates, which may seem to amount to researched, thoughtful, educated guesses. I would think Kupka’s contemporaries could be thought, some of the time, to be in exactly the same ascribed-date situation. If one doesn’t believe the ascribed dates in one case, why believe them in another? But even if many of the exact dates of Kupka’s works, and those of other artists, seem somewhat open to question, there are certain works and dates that are not. Kupka’s Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors, a large painting consisting of a complex of interwoven arcs with shapes defined by points of intersection colored red, blue, black, or white, was painted at least by its ascribed date, 1912. Documentation shows it was exhibited in the Salon d’Automne of that year. According to Rowell, it was the first completely abstract painting to be exhibited in Paris. Perhaps even more remarkable for us now are the two large paintings, Vertical Planes I and Vertical Planes III, of 1912 and 1913. The latter was exhibited in the Salon des Indépendants of 1913. Each painting amounts to a blue or grey field, containing and surrounding a few vertical rectangles, some tied to the edge, some floating. That’s all. The dates of these three important works cannot reasonably be in question, and they are sufficient verification that Kupka followed no one. They even suggest that others may have followed him. If some of the dating seems less certain, disputing it is not the point here, nor is it a possibility. So, like the situation in logic, we may assume the historical facts as they are set out in the catalogue to be accurate, and proceed on an “if it is true that . . .” basis.

If Kupka’s paintings sometimes seem awkwardly executed when compared with those of his better-known contemporaries, it is more than the uneasy finish of his work that makes it seem a bit odd and foreign. The conceptions that prompted it remove it from us and, to an extent, from our perception of his contemporaries. The basic conceptions which prompted Kupka’s urge toward an abstract art were his beliefs that art should reflect the order of the cosmos and could and should be analogous to music. I wouldn’t want to say “no one thinks that way anymore,” but generally those kinds of conceptions of art do not seem particularly relevant to the various ways art is considered now. They can seem rather like conceptions of art on a high-school level.

Mysticism was a condition of Kupka’s upbringing. He was initiated into spiritualism in Prague at the age of thirteen, and from that time on, he periodically made his living as a medium in seances. So it seems inevitable that that sort of experience would play a part in forming his thinking about art, and would now and then explicitly infiltrate his painting. There is, in the music analogy, a kind of putting two and two together: music is felt to provide a stronger emotional rush than turn-of-the-century representational painting, especially if this can be seen as a consequence of its reflection of a cosmic order. If this is apparently achieved by music’s abstractness, i.e., that it does not somehow evoke or mimic natural phenomena (other than other music), then by being abstract, perhaps art could provide an analogous visual reflection of cosmic order and the emotional rush that goes along with it. And here we come to the notion of abstracting, that an abstraction is abstracted from nature. The implications of analogies with music and cosmic order were reasons for abstraction; abstracting was the method, the way of getting there. But within a general notion of abstracting, there was still no indication of how or in what direction the abstracting process should be. For Kupka, the photographic motion studies of Marey provided that direction, roughly in 1908.

Kupka provides a curious turnabout for the popular theory that abstract painting was a consequence of the invention of photography—that the artists couldn’t compete with the camera in accurately representing the visual world, so they moved toward abstraction. Kupka’s move toward abstraction began precisely at the moment when he began competing with what the camera could do. Ironically, before that moment, Kupka’s representational paintings were not in competition with the camera. He had a brief fling with realism shortly after his arrival in a Paris still under the lingering effects of Impressionism. His flirtation with realism more or less ended with his realization that what he saw in an exhibition couldn’t approach what he saw on his way there. Generally, before his use of Marey’s device, Kupka was a kind of spiritualist, allegorical painter, whose style reflected his training in the academies of Prague and Vienna. Certainly his was representational work, but if it was about the world, it wasn’t about the visual one. Representational art for the young Kupka, beyond being the only art in existence, contained a network of visual referents through which spiritualist and philosophical problems could be posed and interpretations of man’s place in the cosmos rendered. Art was to be meditative, morally instructive, and generally uplifting. What Kupka found in Marey’s device was not only a particular method for abstracting, but the apparent relevance of Marey’s motion studies to the rhythms of cosmic order and a potentially new understanding of that order through the abstraction, the ephemeralness of motion.

So at least in Kupka’s case, it was a turning not away from the camera, but toward it, that led to abstract painting. Marey’s device provided only a particular method within the general method of abstracting. The reasons for abstracting were already there, and the intrusion of the camera was irrelevant to those reasons.

There’s an interesting difference between the motion studies of Muybridge and Marey, both of whose work was known to Kupka in Paris. In Muybridge, the figure is maintained in each separate position of movement, but there is no sense of continuity of movement, and no lateral space. Each image is just a conventional full-figure photograph. Movement can be deduced only from the whole suite of separate poses. No matter how fast the figure is supposedly running, it never moves, as if on a treadmill. The figure is always in the center of each photograph, it never reaches the edge. In Marey, there tends to be no discrete figure, only sets of sweeping curves made by staccato and staggered lines amounting to the lines of that continuous movement. And what visually remains of the figure travels across the depicted lateral space of the photograph. Muybridge shows how the figure looks in the various stages of frozen movement; Marey comes close to achieving a picture of the movement. This device of Marey’s could solve several problems for Kupka, and later open the way for the Futurists as well.

Kupka’s push toward abstraction seems to have started innocently enough. In 1908 he painted Girl with a Ball, a generally conventional representational painting of a nude young girl standing in what appears a back yard, in glaring sunlight, holding a red, yellow, and blue ball in one hand. The painting looks oddly like an early Rosenquist, like Growth Plan. In fact the effect of the glaring sun on the child’s squinting face suggests that it might have been painted from a snapshot. To this painting, Kupka later applied Marey’s device in a sequence of drawings dominated by spiraling arcs and circles in which glimpses of the figure are still discernible. It seems that the painting of his step-daughter standing with the ball wasn’t enough. He wanted to paint her as she was with the ball: playing with it, she and the ball in constant movement. In successive drawings, the girl and ball get lost, and what’s left are the lines and blurs of motion, or circles and colors. Kupka seemed interested not so much in the depiction or study of motion, as in some of its consequences. Using Marey’s device the figure loses distinction, as does any sense of figure-ground. The ground gets lost because the ghostlike figure, sweeping across the canvas or drawing surface, becomes just about the whole painting or drawing. Nothing is distinct except color and enough resemblance to a Marey to convey motion. Eventually, through successive studies and reductions in the abstracting and in the scope of the movement abstracted, Kupka arrives at Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors, which by this time, 1912, has nothing to do with figures or movement. But the context of Kupka’s reasons and method behind the painting—cosmic rhythm and rotation, music, and motion abstracted—gives the painting a sense and meaning beyond that of just a flat, patterned, decorative abstraction.

But this sort of description of progress is always too narrow for Kupka. For parallel to the work originating with Marey’s device are all the vertical-planes works, which seem, at least from the exhibition, to come from a wonderfully bizarre little painting of 1909, Piano Keys-Lake. The upper portion of this painting is a more or less conventional lakescape, but the bottom portion of the painting has broad black and white vertical brushstroke planes amounting to a piano keyboard seen from above, with fingers. The center portion of the painting is a kind of synthesis of the two: more black and white vertical piano keys/planes float right up the surface of the painting over the perspectival space of the lake. The lake even reflects the ascending piano keys, creating more vertical planes. These piano keys, apparently superimposed on and in conflict with the perspective illusion of the lake, are also, in some sense, absorbed by it. It is as though the represented lake were reflecting what was on the surface, not of the lake, but of the painting. When the ascending keys get toward the top of the painting, they fade away, meshing with the vertical brushstrokes that form trees behind the lake. It almost looks as if by 1909 the lakescape just wasn’t that interesting to Kupka, so he did something more to it; but piano keys? Is this what was meant by making painting analogous to music? The crazy part is that such a literal application of the analogy seems closer to a kind of realization of the notion of the analogy than the more conventional attempts. At least for me, the painting might not reveal the cosmos (nothing would), but it does bring the emotional rush that is a primary goal of the music analogy.

After Piano Keys-Lake, the vertical planes evolve parallel to the girl-with-the-ball motion studies. For a while, they seem to come together in the Women Picking Flowers pastel series and some of the Planes by Colors studies and paintings. By the time they separate, the vertical planes have become nothing but vertical planes. So, in the years between 1909 and 1912, Kupka was abstracting in the direction of circles and in the direction of rectangles simultaneously. And it is symptomatic of the problem Kupka presents to us: being accustomed to historical tidiness, we find Kupka’s simultaneous but separate progressions from the same thrust are difficult to get hold of.

If Kupka’s cosmic and music-analogy reasons for pushing toward abstraction and his abstracting method seem a bit foreign, or even irrelevant to more current considerations about the nature of art and painting, his situation is not much different from that of his better-known contemporaries. The difference between Kupka and the others, such as Picasso, Léger, Delaunay, Mondrian, Malevich, the Futurists, Kandinsky, and Duchamp of Nude Descending the Staircase, is that Kupka is being seen here essentially for the first time.

The work of the other artists is already so familiar, has gone through such a critical and historical filter of interpretation and reinterpretation, and perhaps more important, assessment and reassessment of historical position, that by now, the reasons and methods for their own impetus toward abstraction are largely forgotten. As if it’s all so well known there’s no point in focusing any longer on those aspects of their work. With Kupka, there is, at this moment, almost nothing else that can be the point of focus. Certainly Cubism was involved with abstracting from nature, but through Cézanne and African sculpture rather than Marey. The Futurists, and the young Duchamp, later superimposed Marey’s device on Cubism. For Kandinsky and Mondrian, the slow, step-by-step process of abstracting and further abstracting landscape is obvious. Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich, like Kupka, were all involved to some extent with visions of cosmic order; Mondrian and Kandinsky, like Kupka, were concerned particularly with theosophy, and Kandinsky and Delaunay were involved explicitly with the music analogy. The Futurists and Malevich were involved with painting as a reflection of a new social order, which is only a step more mundane than worrying about the structure of the cosmos.

So how, in all this, is Kupka so unusual? Curiously, it is only with this group of painters caught up in visions of cosmic structure that there was an eventual arrival and sustainment of a completely abstract art. Those well-known painters of the same period without this mystical bent toward cosmic visions, i.e. Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Léger, the Futurists, never did reach or reach for complete abstraction in their work. So perhaps Kupka is not quite the odd-ball he may at first.

Today abstract painters are not famous for their mysticism, but abstract painting in not for us what it was for the artists of 1909. It couldn’t be, because then there wasn’t any. For us, it has always been there, with a 60-year history of conventions and meanings as rich as those of representational art at the turn of the century. And by now, we need be involved neither with elaborate justifications for the necessity of abstract painting nor with the process of abstracting. The artist now can just start with abstraction. The artists of 1909 couldn’t just start with abstraction because there was nothing there to start with. We won’t speak of Cubism, for example, as a process of abstracting because that process tends not to be relevant to us. Instead Cubism is discussed in terms of grids and flatness. We speak of Cubism with Mondrian, Pollock, Johns, and Agnes Martin already in mind. But even Pollock and de Kooning can be seen going through an abstracting process in the 1940s. However, the manifestations of that process tend not to be what matters to us in their work. And by focusing so exclusively on other aspects of their work, and the work of the well-known early abstract painters as well, there is a tendency to forget the occurrence of the process that eventually formed those aspects we care about.

In a way, Kupka’s strangeness is a reminder of the essential problems involved with arriving at abstraction. However, the blatancy of this reminder is due only to its unfamiliarity. Early in this century, any art that had meaning had its meaning as representational art. The thrust of late 19th-century painting was in a direction, if not away from representation, then in one that was gradually diminishing the importance of what was represented, and hence, representational content. Coinciding with that thrust were the formalist esthetic theories of Bell and Fry, largely in support of Cézanne, which boiled down to the proposition that the greatness of a painting (necessarily a representational one) resides in its form rather than in the content represented. There is a clear implication in such a theory: If form is all that matters, why mess with representational content at all? The artists normally regarded as the major figures of that time seem to have understood that implication. The thrust toward abstraction by 1910 and through 1914 is blatantly evident, so evident that it could be assumed that the artists then knew it as well as we know it now in retrospect. If they seemed to know they were headed toward a completely abstract art, then it might be wondered why they were so cautious in arriving at what they knew ahead of time would be the consequence of their progress. What took them so long?

Here, Bell’s formalist theory wasn’t much help. Obviously everything that exists has form, so the greatness of an artwork couldn’t rest just in the fact that it had form. According to Bell, great art needed “significant form,” and “significant form” was said to be the surest sign of great art. Unfortunately, Bell never said what “significant form” was, what it looked like, or how one form got to be significant while others remained insignificant. The point is not to blame Bell for not making things easy (he couldn’t have), but Bell’s tangle provides a kind of analogy for the basic problem faced by the painters reaching toward abstractions.

If art depends on its form and not its represented content, once representation is gone,leaving only form, what is there to make any of it significant? What reason is there to set one form or set of forms above any other? On what basis are the artists’ decisions to be made? At this point, form by itself is metaphorically left to float in an infinite cosmic limbo. The artist could not just make an abstract painting. It had to come from somewhere, be rooted in something. If arriving at completely abstract painting meant making a painting without meaning, then worrying about going toward abstraction is pointless, because then it not only has no advantage over representational tradition, it has nothing to offer at all. And clearly what is meant by “a painting without meaning” is one without meaning for the artist.

The catch is that the already envisioned end of the process was not a completely abstract painting that could have been whipped off as soon as such a goal occurred to anyone. The envisioned goal was for an abstract art that could have meaning. And an abstract art couldn’t have meaning without some grounding, some foundation. It needed a reason for being, as any departure does, and then it needed a reason for being specifically the way it was. Not rhetoric, not verbal explanations and justifications. Those are, perhaps, necessary for others, but not for the artist. The kind of reasons I mean here are those the artist needs, those that motivate and initiate the work; those that are the cause and effect of the work of art for the artist. In a way, this is not a problem peculiar to the abstraction; it is constantly the problem, in some form, for any young artist. But greatly magnified, it was the fundamental problem in arriving at a completely abstract art, and it was precisely because of this problem that the cosmos, the music analogy, Marey, were, of necessity, invoked. It is also why the whole thing took so long. It seems sensible, at least in retrospect, that the simplest way to arrive at a new foundation for meaning would be a gradual transformation of the old one. Hence the slow process of abstracting as a method toward abstraction. What’s curious is that historically we tend to regard the progress toward abstraction as a race, but it turns out to be a race in which none of the participants seemed to hurry. It had to be cautious, thoughtful, one step at a time.

Kupka was in no hurry either. His path was not the straight and narrow one of Mondrian, but several various wide and winding ones. And he went back and forth among them. Some of the work seems to refer to a cosmic ordering, while lots of it doesn’t. Some of the work seems to go toward the analogy with music, but much of it seems to have nothing to do with the analogy. Throughout all the talk of mysticism and cosmic structures, nearly all of Kupka’s 1909–1913 work is strictly two-dimensional. His destruction of figure-ground through Marey serves both to gain the continuity of the cosmos and to keep the paintings flat. As much as his spiritualism leads him toward cosmic order, his convictions about the nature of painting insist on its two-dimensionality. Yet even within that same period, he does two Organization of Graphic Motifs paintings with a very strong illusionistic pull into depicted deep space. It was constantly back and forth.

At bottom, this back- and-forthness of Kupka’s is probably the aspect of his work that disturbs us now the most deeply. We are not only accustomed to a clean linear progression, and generally expect it, but we just about demand it. It signifies a commitment to the specific nature of the progression. The absence of the linear progression tends to mark, for us, a lack of commitment to any of the forms constituting the various directions. But one thing is consistent in Kupka: his abstraction. What varies is what generates his abstraction. However, his variety isn’t infinite. It amounts to no more than geometric forms or biomorphic ones in deep or only surface-extended space. And in these terms, there is no more variation in Kupka than, say, Kandinsky, among many others. The difference is that Kupka doesn’t do it one way and then gradually change to the other way in a linear progression. Instead, he juggles them all at once, goes back and forth all the time. In this, oddly enough, he’s not so different from Matisse, whose early work lays out right away all the various kinds of work he will go back and forth to for the rest of his life, even to the stark simplicity and baroque ornamentation of the late cutouts.

There is another unusual problem presented by Kupka’s work. We are not accustomed to thinking of Kupka as one of the major innovators of 20th-century art and abstraction. He has never been one of the big names. Most survey books on 20th-century art mention his name but say almost nothing about him, except that he was there. Rarely is there a reproduction. With this exhibition, not only is his work shown to us, but its historical meaning as well; and somehow, we’ve got to think of Kupka differently. This sort of shift in thinking isn’t easy, and the different, unusual look of Kupka’s work, with its variety, only makes such a shift more difficult. We’ve been conditioned mentally and visually, not by a manipulative conspiracy, but by the history of our own experience; and with so much conditioning, habits of thought are stubbornly resistant to change.

We already know “the look” of all the important, innovative, seminal, critical, radical, major, etc. painting of the early 20th century. It’s got a look, a feel, a kind of brushmark, a touch. But Kupka isn’t like that. The look, the touch, etc. is different. It is bright, intense, rough and raw. Perhaps, then, we didn’t really know “the look”, or, what we knew wasn’t all of it; and now, we may have to get used to Kupka as part of “the look.” But we have had, and probably needed, plenty of time to get used to “the look” of the big names, and I suspect we’ll need just as much time to get used to Kupka.

Bruce Boice, an artist, has often contributed to Artforum.



1. Margit Rowell and Media Mladek, Kupka, New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1975. Virtually all historical facts and information about Kupka are from the catalogue for the Kupka retrospective and the essays contained in it. Some of the ideas may come from it as well. It becomes difficult to distinguish sometimes exactly where information ends and ideas begin.

2. Kupka participated in World War I for five years, 1914–1919, in one capacity or another. After a five-year absence from painting, his work, naturally, is a bit different.