PRINT September 1979


For D.N.

ART HISTORY BEGAN IN the same period to which we often trace the origins of modern art. When Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art appeared, in 1764, European art was undergoing Enlightenment transformation, changing from an art that flattered aristocracies whose Baroque glory had faded into Rococo delight, to an advanced middle-class art with intellectual concerns, a new art expressing itself by recourse to the timeless lucidity and moral perfection of revived classical forms. This was a great period for the critical mind, and a constructive one for the historical mind.

Scientific archaeology had begun to reveal essential dichotomies between Greek and Roman art, and this new knowledge had artistic as well as political consequences. Before, classical architecture and sculpture had seemed more or less a unity, and its splendor and authority had been readily borrowed by the rulers of Europe and their attendants. But once differences between Greek and Roman sculpture became clear, and, especially, once it was clear that all modern European buildings that had dutifully followed Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture did not depend accurately upon Greek precedents, the old culture and its mystique began to give way.

The columns that support the arcade in David’s Oath of the Horatii, of 1784, so beautifully controlling the space and punctuating the dramatic scene, have no bases. That, no small detail, reflects an understanding of the new archaeology, for not until the systematic study of classical architecture was undertaken was it understood that the correct Tuscan and Doric orders had no base. Most important, in this regard, was Julien-David LeRoy’s Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce (1758). And if any single Greek temple took on categorical importance for the baseless Doric, with consequences that lasted until at least the time of Corbusier, it was that at Paestum, in southern Italy.

Such new knowledge fit in perfectly with the inherited stylistics of the classical orders, by which the Doric (and, even more, the sub-doric “Tuscan”) was the most primitive and “virile,” through the more female Ionic to the most elegantly feminine Corinthian. The gender aspect of the theory of the orders was already familiar from the De Architectura where (Bk. IV, ch. i), treating the mythic origins of the different orders, Vitruvius associates the Doric with the male body and its footprint (par. 6), the Ionic with “the slenderness of women” and their footprints (par. 7; not having said anything about a base for the Doric, Vitruvius here mentions “a base in place of a shoe”), and the Corinthian with “the slenderness of a maiden,” especially maidens’ slenderer limbs (par. 8). Both factors together enabled David to add another layer of sophistication to his already quite Spartan conception of moral and political courage.

By now the fact is well established that the new Hellenism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for all its ultimate classicism of form, was one of the most powerful tributaries of the Romantic movement. It was Santayana who first pointed this out, with the remark that there was nothing more romantic about Goethe than his classicism. For John Keats to make a drawing (Rome, Keats-Shelley Memorial House) of the Sosibios Vase in the Musée Napoléon testifies that the author of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” could take direct artistic interest in a specific Greek vase—a more than pretextual interest, and more than just an interest in the general concept of the Greek vase. The elaboration of this concept of Romantic Classicism has been one of the most productive enterprises of recent art history.

In modern art, Manet’s realist classicism amounts to a radicalized traditionalism. His rich sophistication in traditional culture was grounded, sure enough, on familiarity with specific works, but it was really second nature to him (itself a classicist concept, having to do with nature and the perfect prototypes of ancient art as the truest objects of artistic study). To compare his drawing of a Woman at her Toilet, 1862 (London, Courtauld Institute), with Picasso’s Woman by the Sea, 1922 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts), is to see differences between earlier and later manifestations of the modern classical tradition. While both figures of women sit in distinctly statuesque postures, it is the inventive immediacy of Manet’s woman washing herself that strikes us. To trace a particular prototype for her in classical art would seem pedantic and unnecessary, compared with the freshness of Manet’s exploitation of a potentially equally articulate magnificence in ordinary life. The classicism of Picasso’s figure seems by comparison a fundamentally abstract reflection on the artistic ideals of the classical pose. This is a complex matter, involving general issues of reaction in European culture between the World Wars, specifically the (first) retreat from abstraction in painting. Yet it can still be said that the cerebral classicism representationally evoked in such paintings by Picasso is by no means an inappropriate manifestation of the lucid logicality of the Analytical Cubist mind. If the Manet drawing extends the romance of classicism, criticizing it but trusting in its ultimate efficacy (especially as a matter of attitude, not merely of form), Picasso’s painting is instead neo-Neoclassical, dealing at a still greater distance from antiquity with an idea of an ideal.

That these matters are pertinent to art today, as it reflects on its relation to its own newer tradition of modernity, is evident in the actual illustration of certain prime texts of Neoclassicism and Romantic Classicism by contemporary artists. Giulio Paolini published his Sei Illustrazioni per gli scritti sull’arte antica de Johann J. Winckelmann (Six Illustrations for Johann J. Winckelmann’s Writings on Ancient Art) as prints in book form, in 1977. One spread shows a statue of a seated man contemplating a bust held in his outstretched hand, obviously alluding to the position of the reader/viewer with regard to both Winckelmann’s text and the image before him, this image being itself superimposed upon the “image” of two pages of book text. This amounts to more than a pointless semantic irony. Although Paolini himself is not very interested in the specifics of his Winckelmann source for this image, he does extend a logic implicit in the original. The original image can be found in Winckelmann’s Monumenti antichi inediti spiegati ed illustrati (2nd ed., 1821), where (Vol. II, Pt. 2, ch. vi, with pl. 186) the seated figure appears in the righthand half of a relief in the Villa Albani as a portrait of a Romanized Greek sculptor, Q. Lollius Alcamenes, holding a sculpted head of his own son while his wife burns incense, dedicating the boy to Bacchus. To leave out the wife and incense brazier, however inadvertently, breaks into the narrative and stresses, instead, the idea of a sculpture representing a sculptor holding his own sculpture (creation as art) of his own progeny (creation as nature). For Paolini’s image to be based on Winckelmann’s also means that its “statuesqueness” both precedes that of the Manet and the Picasso, historically, and also succeeds it, in the history of critical modernism.

Now Ivor Abrahams has produced a suite of prints illustrating Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756). He has taken some of Burke’s most conceptual themes—“Astonishment,” “Suddenness,” “Obscurity”—and used them to produce images that have a critical semi-opacity as far as they may be said to show abstract concepts representationally. Abrahams has for the past ten years worked in a kind of sculpture that refers to landscape and landscape architecture by way of the very British tradition of the “natural” garden, one of the first of all pre-Romantic manifestations. The Burke prints, of 1979, would seem to be placing a conceptual reflection on the sources of his own art in the service of abstraction.

A philhellene classicism thrived in Germany at, and soon after, the turn of the 18th century, when the Enlightenment passed into progressive nationalism (as also happened in Ireland). Interestingly, however, the Tuscan order, even “tougher” than the proper Greek Doric, had already been considered somehow rather German in the 16th and 17th centuries.1

The German Romantics especially identified Greece with democracy and with youth, freshness and virtue in the individual life. Schiller remarked on the “naive” Greek state. The elemental clarity and formal simplicity of the Greeks were also considered capable of modern recapitulation. Grimm, in his biography of Goethe, spoke of the poet’s “Ionian” style. Even Marx explained the appeal of Greek culture in terms of a simple, youthful and ideal cultural phase: “Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?”2 —although Jean Duvignard has lately warned that the admiration of a “primitive” golden age can represent a retreat from the complexity of modern culture.3

Among the principal architectural monuments of Romantic Classicism in Germany itself are several structures, especially city gates, in which a pedimental front attaches to a flat-roofed facade, stressing the pure geometry of the triangle in relation to its containing rectangle. This is the case with Johann Gotthard Langhaus’s great Brandenburger Tor (“Checkpoint Charlie”), in Berlin, of 1778–91, Carl Friedrich Schinkel’s project for the Neue Wache, Berlin, 1816, and Leo von Klenze’s splendid Propylaen on the Konigsplatz, Munich, 1846–63. In contemporary art the home-grown classical temple has been parodied insuch Pop-Minimal sculptures by Anthony Berlant as The Marriage of New York and Athens, 1966. Some of David Novros’ paintings, however, now restore to the configuration its romantic-classical grandeur: Untitled, 1977–78, being an example.

The use of round-headed arch forms by a number of artists today also partakes of Romantic Classicism, since such forms are associated not only with the Florentine Renaissance of the 15th century (that definitive classical revival), but specifically with the neo-Florentine Rundbogenstil (round-arch style) of 19th century Germany, where Romantic Classicism had settled in. Having already discussed the relation of Robert Mangold’s painting to Italian Renaissance architecture,4 what I have in mind here and now is the less “Minimal” and more romantically evocative use of round-arch architectural forms in newer art.

Lucio Pozzi’s Four Windows installation at P.S. 1, in 1977, was beautifully attuned to these other possibilities. There one saw four deep framing enclosures (like architectural “reveals” but extending far beyond the thickness of the real wall) fitted around four round-headed windows. These surrounds were all painted in one color, which was changed during the four phases of the installation, the white shown here being the first phase. This project, consisting principally of painting, not only lent the play of light a painterly coloristic plasticity but also referred articulately to the plastic forms of architectural classicism: one saw the pure form of the four round-headed windows unveiled in the sentimental context of the ruinous Victorian building, and even the Ionic classicism of the post office across the street took on a romantic historicism. By comparison, I found Luigi Ontani’s installation Medici Prince, at the Sonnabend Gallery in 1977, in which the artist stood, nude, against a wall on which was projected a round-headed Renaissance painting, with Renaissance checkered floor paving projected onto the floor, to be a transient reflection on the elements (the nude, perspective, landscape) of Italian painting of the Humanist period.

Similarly, if Ned Smyth’s cast concrete arcades, and full-sized drawings for them, tend to refer redundantly to the intrinsic abstraction of arcades in real architecture, displacing just about as much space as those they might describe, some paintings by Marilyn Kirsch, especially small pastels on yellow tissue, show such an amazing reserve and subtlety in their relation to round-arch configurations, that one may hardly even notice the drawing, or acknowledge any application of color.

For the special romance of Doric toughness to inform a whole aspect of modern “primitivism“ is particularly interesting because it returns an “anti-classical,” even anti-cultural, impulse to a classical point of origin, what is primitively classical in ancient art and architecture probably being just what is most open to romance. It has by no means been possible in all period appreciate the capabilities for beauty in crudité (more in the sense of a clean radish than of a dirty remark). The emperor Justinian once bemoaned (falsely, it turns out) a decline in the grandeur at the Byzantine court—in words that one wonders if Whitman ever read—complaining that where once only the best writing paper was used one now found “leaves of grass with cheap writing that smells of poverty” (Joannes Lydus, De Magistratibus, Ill, 14).5 Evidently Justinian was not one who could have appreciated the fine distinction that Confucius had drawn: “When natural substance prevails over ornamentation, you get the boorishness of the rustic. When ornamentation prevails over natural substance, you get the pedantry of the scribe. Only when ornament and substance are duly blended do you get the true gentleman” (Analects, VI. 16).6 Nor the elegantly battered rusticity that come to be appreciated by the Japanese as sabi. But this attitude has been central to the esthetics of modern artists as sophisticated as Brancusi. Even an early plaster bust Vitellius, 1898 (Craiova, Muzeul de Artă), by Brancusi, having the name primitivistically inscribed “VITELIUS,” with a “childishly” reversed “S,” on the base, also commits the crudity of combining the traditions of a Roman, irregularly curved, break in the chest, with a cubical, Greek-style bust base.

Tolstoy must have been important for the modern development of a sophisticated esthetic of forthright primitivism, as in the admiration of folk woodwork for its vigorous forms on the part of Brancusi. Gabo and others, not to mention Béla Bartók’s serious involvement with Hungarian folk music. William James gave a particular crisis in Tolstoy’s life an extensive discussion in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901–02). Tolstoy, having suffered unremitting suicidal feelings of purposelessness, described how he

little by little . . . came to the settled conviction—he says it took two years for him to arrive there—that his trouble had not been with life in general, not with the common life of common men, but with the life of the upper, intellectual, artistic classes, the life of conventionality, artificiality, and personal ambition. He had been living wrongly and must change. To work for animal needs, to abjure lies and vanities, to relieve common wants, to be simple, to believe in God, therein lay happiness again.8

The 20th-century cult of machines, in painting (Precisionism) and, especially, in architectural theory, also has, it turns out, 19th-century origins in a critical preference for the clean-crafted lines of construction outside the realm of the classical architectural tradition.8 Thus the architectural historian James Fergusson (d.1886) likened the building of a Gothic cathedral to the construction of an Atlantic liner, adding that although ships were not really architecture, modern ones were better designed than most contemporary buildings9—and this long before Corbusier’s Vers une architecture (1923). Fergusson may have affected Auguste Choisy’s Histoire de L’architecture (1899), influential for the modern movement. For when Choisy qualifies the well-known theory that the elements of Greek Doric temples are based on a previous, more primitive, wooden architecture, he claims that the Doric temple owes nothing to what we mean by carpentry, which derives from ship-building technique. Emerson had already admired the beauty of unworked timbers, but Choisy’s phraseology is perhaps even more suggestive of Carl Andre’s present day sculptures consisting of dressed but unworked timbers placed onto and against one another: “. . . The difference from our system of carpentry is radical; Greek woodwork . . . is a piling up pure and simple, a veritable masonry of wood. The Doric order was to be the application of this mode of building to stone.”10

In New York modernism, one of the best statements of this point of view is Wolfgang Paalen’s essay “The Doric Column and the Guitar Woman” (1942), illustrated not only by Brassai photographs of prehistoric and primitive sculptures but also by very interesting photographs of architectural details by Eva Sulzer. Paalen compares the baseless Doric columns of the Parthenon with rather astonishingly similar posts and beams of fluted logs in the (by then unroofed) community houses of an Indian village in British Columbia.11 Even Alan Watts could invoke the Doric taste, in a somewhat acidic mid-1960s account of a mystical grasping of the beauty of structure and pattern, speaking of “‘The baseless fabric of this vision.’”12

Nobody ever talks about this, but Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Church, Oak Park, III., of 1906, very closely resembles the blank-walled, very “abstract” structure, flat-topped with projecting horizontals and similar corners, that appears at the extreme right in Raphael’s great Disputà fresco in the Stanza dell Segnatura of the Vatican, painted in 1509. This form in Raphael’s painting, it is agreed, represents one of the rising piers of the great crossing of Bramante’s new Basilica of Saint Peter. Its counterpart at the left of the fresco, with which it stands in almost binary opposition, like city and country (or even culture and nature), is a small town studded with trees.

Wright gave a substantial account in An Autobiography (1932) of the designing of Unity Church, a Unitarian church, although there is, needless to say, no mention of Raphael. In fact there is a heavy emphasis on his own individual creativity, as when Wright describes the breakthrough when he was able to work uninterrupted one whole night and virtually the complete project emerged. And yet there is a very American, Emersonian humanism in this reminiscence that is not out of touch entirely with Renaissance Humanistic tradition: “Why not, then, build a temple to man, appropriate to his uses as a meeting place, in which to study man himself for his God’s sake?”13 To what extent this is an expression of personal intent, and to what extent it is a sensitive accommodation to the client in this case, is problematic. But we can at least say that such thoughts are not out of character for Wright and, also, not incongruous in regard to Raphael’s “abstract” but ecclesiastical architectonic motif—a motif that is also, sculpturally all base.

It was probably in dance that philhellenism manifested itself with the most immediate and fresh revisionism in modern culture. For one thing, the “classic” phase of ballet is the high Romantic period; also, there is a continuous history of freeing the dancer from base-like support ever since dancers first danced en pointe.14 Dance was perhaps the best prepared of the arts to move directly to a position where simplicity and formal lucidity could amount to “abstraction.” The ultimate legacy of this tradition is George Balanchine’s “abstract classicism” at the New York City Ballet, which was of the greatest importance to many New York artists of the 1960s.

But the tradition of radical classicism really goes back to Nijinsky’s upset of what could be called Fokine’s more orthodox “classicism” in L’Après-midi d’un faune, of 1912. There Nijinsky’s choreography was obviously, even ostentatiously, Greek and geometric and pure. His friezelike emphasis on angular postures and profile positions, indeed, involved the especially “archaic” Greek taste that centered on the pedimental sculptures of the temple of Aegina (Munich, Glyptothek) which are touchstones of Romantic Classicism, as much for their restoration history as for their general adulation.15 No wonder Fokine snapped, in words that, however inadvertently, echo architectural theory, “How could dance develop on a base completely devoid of dancing?”16 Massine’s later comments on dancing this ballet himself are to the Neoclassical modernist point:

It was while working on L’Après-midi d’un faune that I discovered how much Nijinsky’s choreography surpassed Fokine’s in its attempt to create the two-dimensional illusion of [N. B.] primitive bas-reliefs. By suppressing the sense of depth, and dispensing with the usual graceful positions, and by twisting sharply in opposite directions the upper part of the body against the lower, Nijinsky evolved a sculptural line which gave an effect of organic beauty such as I had never seen before in any ballet. In dancing the faun, he expressed his belief in the freedom of instinct and his love of nature in all its animal sensuality. As I had never seen him in the part, I could not attempt to recreate his interpretation, nor did I wish to do so. My dancing was based not on any preconceived notion of how Nijinsky might have handled the part, but on my own observations of Greek statues and Greek and Roman bas-reliefs. I sensed that Diaghilev was pleased with my work in this ballet, but as usual he was noncommittal. Rather than praise my dancing, he preferred to discuss the artistic achievement of the work itself, clarifying for me Nijinsky’s discovery of the Greek formula between the movements of the upper and lower parts of the body.17

By the way, Brancusi may have quipped, with a self-conscious flourish of macho bravura (inherited by many later modernist sculptors), “Nude men in sculpture are not as beautiful as toads,”18 but the motif of a muscular male nude with his torso twisted, as Massine describes it, has some importance for 20th-century art, from the history of popular “beefcake” like Ramon Navarro’s performance in the film Ben Hur (1926)19 to such serious avant-garde art as Man Ray’s famous solarized photograph Portrait, of 1933. It also appears in advocacies of functionalist applied art: in Walter Darwin Teague’s Design This Day; the Techniques of Design in the Machine Age (American ed. c. 1940) a male nude flexing well-developed muscles is coyly juxtaposed on facing pages with a busty, Maillolesque, nude black woman, with the comment, thoroughly consonant with the theory of the architectural orders, that “adaptation to the specific functions of the male and female animal is the source of beauty in the human body.”20

Modern choreographic philhellenism must have made another advance with Diana Watts’ The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal (1914), with photographs of sequential movement taken at the Institute Marey in Paris. This book also testifies to the importance of Aegina archaism, for Plate I illustrates the “Herakles of the Aegina Pediment” and Plate IV shows the “Second Position of the Archer,” based on the very famous archer in the same group of sculptures. Plate III is a hypothetical photographic “Representation of the Movement of the Archer,” from standing to crouching, in 20 shots. The last third of her book is devoted to practical exercises, and Mrs. Watts herself appears, by a modification of Greek athletic nudity, in a sort of one-piece bathing suit (or sometimes bloomers), but there is throughout an Isadora Duncanesque emphasis on Hellenically flowing, draped movement.

It must be remarked that the archaic Greek angularity so admired at the time of World War I was much more than simply a trend in the world of art. A 1917 physical training manual of the U.S. Army, for example, makes much the same esthetic point. Even the emphasis on static control evident here—otherwise so different-seeming from Nijinsky’s balletic, and then Duncan’s democratized sense of free individual movement—compares with Diana Watts’ “Position Showing the Lightness Resulting from Extreme Tension” (Plate XLIV), and is equally responsible to an Aeginesque hellenism: “Smartness, activity and precision are the physical expressions of mental activity. All are essential soldierly qualities, as they make for self-respect, neatness and grace, which combined spell discipline.”21

Isadora Duncan may actually have studied Diana Watts’ The Renaissance of the Greek Ideal. Her freewheeling, and practically dateless autobiography records how, when she first installed herself in Paris, she went to the library of the Opéra and read “everything ever written on the Art of Dancing, from the earliest Egyptians to the present day.”22 By 1914, however, Duncan was well established. Interestingly, it was in that same year as Watts’ book that the very first English edition of Vitruvius’ De Architectura was published, by the Harvard University Press, Morris Hicky Morgan’s The Ten Books on Architecture (1914). Until then all architects had depended on Vitruvius’ Latin text (from about the year A.D. 1), or on one of its Renaissance translations, of this only surviving ancient (Roman) treatise on architecture. The new availability in English of Vitruvius has something, in turn, to do with the otherwise 200-years-out-of-date Romanism, whether Imperial or neo-Renaissance, in upper-class American architecture from about 1900 to the impact of modernism in the 1920s, and with a “Corinthian” elegance in painting and sculpture of that period. In any case, the Roman Corinthianism of establishment art in America was soon assaulted by Greek Doric modernity, which is what made Isadora Duncan a radical heroine of arts.

Edward Steichen’s beautiful 1921 photographs of the Doric columns of the Parthenon, with and without Isadora Duncan draped and posturing, windblown, between them, are important documents of the passing into wide modern currency of what once had been esoteric art historical insights. Compared with them, the use to which classical columns is put in Edward Weston’s photograph of a Southern plantation mansion, Belle Grove, Louisiana, 1941, with fluted white columns seen through a dark portal as melodramatically as if by Isadora herself, with the base of the column obscured by a log or a piece of rubble and the top by the doorjamb, is hardly more, 20 years later, than Margaret-Mitchell-like sentimentalism.

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc had given some interesting illustrative details of the relationship of vertical shafts to the horizontal beams which they support, in the “Second Theme” of his modern-influential Entretiens sur l’architecture (1863), the one entitled “Des Constructions primitives; aperçu de l’art de l’architecture chez les Grecs,” in cuts that stress the origins of the post and lintel system in wooden architecture. Particularly interesting is “figure 3 bis,” showing a pier with armlike brackets connecting with the ceiling, in a way that suggests Brancusi’s Caryatid pieces; this particular illustration Viollet-le-Duc borrowed from James Fergusson’s The Illustrated Handbook of Architecture (1855),23 which also says something about Fergusson’s dissemination in France. Viollet, in turn, proved to be of great interest to the modern movement in 20th-century architecture. Charles Jencks is no doubt correct, if semiotically trendy, to point out that Adolf Loos’ famous (rejected) Chicago Tribune Column entry in the 1922 competition for that building, a single colossal fluted Doric column (it is impossible to tell if it was to be “baseless” from the presentation view) towering above a cubical base with two smaller columns in antis at the entrance, “was a double pun on the word column (‘newspaper column,’ ‘tribune,’ the name of the newspaper.)”24 But Loos’ entry might even have been the witty taking up of a challenge that Viollet-le-Duc posed in his 15th “éntretien,” where he said that the day was coming when the architect would have to explain why he uses a classical order, made to rest on a plinth, on the second floor of a building.25

If the concept of the baseless Doric order informed modernity from the outset, and remained a relevant theme whenever a Constructivist emphasis on elemental structure tended to prevail, later modern artists have also been preoccupied with the upper part of a column or other supporting pier, right where it meets with a lintel. This could draw on the idea of a capital, as in a bronze head of Beethoven conceived as part of a columnar capital, made by Antoine Bourdelle, the Beethoven Capital, 1924–25 (Paris, Musée Bourdelle). Or it could mean concentrating on still more “abstract” architectonic forms such as piers or pilasters of plain, prismatic form, either in buildings or in paintings or photographs based on forms first perceived in architecture.

Dove showed interest in such a motif in a charcoal drawing, Barn Interior No. 3, of around 1917–20. Dove was apparently moved here by the intrinsic abstraction of “functional” architectural form, an attitude that informs Precisionism in American painting and that amounts, in fact, to a homegrown quasiConstructivism. Dove singled out the romantically structural “T”-form, where a square timber post supports a cross-beam. He elaborated his composition by reference to other timbers and braces in the barn, announcing the concentration on steel bridges and trusswork in the work of many painters and photographers of the next decade.

The square piers and pilasters of the house that Wittgenstein built for himself in Vienna in 1926–28 are most remarkable in this connection (especially those in the “hall”). Wittgenstein put, as it were, a rationalized but otherwise Manneristic negative emphasis on the form of a capital, recessing instead of projecting the tops of his piers and wall pilasters just before they meet the ceiling beams: capitals are, then, present, but in their negation. If this seems eccentric, despite the flawless and scrupulously clinical reductivism of the execution, Bernhard Leitner has pointed out that it is a disposition that does have prototypes, but in civil engineering rather than in architecture.26 Wittgenstein’s house stands alone in its puristic extremism, and it is not something that very many other artists, especially Americans, would have known. But it does compare with other developments in its stripped-down and “negated” application (removal?) of the classical orders.

Ansel Adams’ photographic portrait of Alfred Stieglitz at an American Place, c. 1939, showing Stieglitz in the corner of his white-painted gallery, standing right in one of the angles where a square pier breaks the corner of the room in two, is a more accessible piece of evidence. Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion, in this photograph, of two ceiling beams, also painted white, like the ceiling, and which jut in at the angle of walls and ceiling just as the vertical corner pier does in the right angle formed by the two walls. But the literally rendered, but somehow cubistic, play of shadows on these angular, all-white architectural forms is not only interesting in its own right: The whole of this “abstract” architectural configuration also recurs in very recent painting.

Robert Moskowitz depicted almost exactly the same architectural configuration in an untitled painting of 1968, showing the architecture of a room corner with a vertical corner pier and one intruding horizontal beam. A similar architectural detail occurs in Giulio Paolini’s otherwise more complex, but also “empty,” view of The Studio, a photographic image on sensitized canvas produced in Italy in 1969.27 And John Day used a similar configuration in his painting Erebos at the Doorway (Erebos being the Greek personification of darkness), 1971 (Marseilles, Musée Cantini).28 Most interestingly, Moskowitz returned to his original preoccupation with the ironic “abstraction” of his earlier depopulated Stieglitzean interior in the faintly perceived backgrounds of such more recent, so-called “New Image” canvases as Retirement Painting, 1975. In these works Moskowitz adds an image of some kind, as an extra layer, on top of the original schema. In his words, in the 1960s he had been painting “an architectural type of space that evolved into a symmetrical corner space,” while lately he “began putting spontaneous kinds of marks on the surface of the painting—marks that violated the surface and were abstract on the two-dimensional space;” more and more came to be added in the way of marks, in “trying to focus on a more central form,” to the point where a motif recognizable as a representational image emerged, although Moskowitz claims that these images are so obsessional that they are “almost abstract.”29 Here we come full circle, from Dove and Stieglitz and the aspirations of earlier American modernism to a point where idiosyncratic imagery effaces and contradicts preabstraction.

When we think of the baseless Doric we may think of baselessness in general, and when we do that we find ourselves involved with a principal modernist critical concern pertaining to Brancusi, with respect to specifically architectural sculptures like Caryatid, or the Kiss Column and Kiss Gate, but also, more broadly, with respect to this artist’s almost Duchampian interchangeable equation of bases with formal units that would once have only surmounted a base. Many of Brancusi’s sculptures thus have multiple “bases,” some occurring within the main body of the piece, or else have the “base” at the top of the work, like the capital, as opposed to the base, of a column. The Endless Column, 1918, could even be said to consist entirely of bases, or to take the form of a column consisting entirely of stacked architectural “bases” and capitals, like the opposite of the baseless Doric—an anti-Doric consisting only of bases. To some extent this involves a Manneristic perverting of the dogmatic orders, an exhibiting of one’s sophistication in the very doing what is “wrong,” which indicates a posture of knowing primitivism, a quality that also pervades Brancusi’s work in other respects.29a

But a modern interest in dealing with the classical column as a problem in implicit and explicit abstraction can be found in Constructivism and more conservative art contemporary with Constructivism, and in still later art as well. We hardly have to be told that Naum Gabo’s 1923 Column (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) is an abstract treatment of a classical column; even the “slipped disk” that leans like a horseshoe against a stake at the bottom refers to the cylindrical, shaftlike form of the whole, perhaps even as a dislodged capital—there being a substantial architectural base. In Bourdelle’s Virgin on a Column, 1929 (Paris, Musée Bourdelle), an architectural column, more conservatively than in either Brancusi’s or Gabo’s pieces, is actually represented in its mass-bearing role, which, in a certain sense, also makes the virgin and child atop the column a representation of a sculpture that happens to be part of another sculpture. Bourdelle’s architectonic base here is especially interesting, not only for resembling the interplay of volumes that, in Frank Lloyd Wright, with whatever degree of likelihood, may suggest Raphael, but also for resembling the base of Emile Darré’s Capital of the Kisses, 1906 (Luxembourg Garden), which Sidney Geist suggests as a source for Brancusi’s Column of the Kiss, c. 1933,30 and which, it may be added, has, in the ornamentation of the shaft, its own stylistic affinities with Louis Sullivan’s ornament in America.

Issues attaching to the Greek architectural orders seem to have declined as a modernist artistic concern by the time of World War II, with the ascendency of architectural modernism. But just because these issues reverted to scholarship does not mean that they had to leave imaginative inquiry behind. A point was made, for instance, by one W. Andrae, in a book called Die ionische Saüle; Bauform oder Symbol? (1933) that reverberates today in architectural theory: “The sensible forms, in which there was at first a polar balance of the physical and the metaphysical, have been more and more voided of content on their way down to us, and so we say, ‘This is an ornament.’”31 Or, in the late 1950s in America, Rhys Carpenter, a scholar of great sensitivity, could comment on the ruined, but still lucid, grandeur of the great Doric temples, in words that, once more, call Carl Andre to mind (especially his Hartford Stone Field Sculpture, 1977): “The nearby rocks against which the sheep rub their flanks have lasted in their places longer than the ruined temples.”32

In Giacometti’s Bust of Diego on a Stele (Stele II), 1950 (Washington, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden), the base plays what, after Brancusi, is a somewhat traditional role, except that the severe extrusion of this tall narrow pedestal, rising from its own blocky architectural base, qualifies the stability that a traditional base in its traditional role would establish. And the bust atop Giacometti’s columnar pedestal also grows out of its top in the manner of a capital.

Barnett Newman’s famous Broken Obelisk sculpture, 1963–67, is perhaps the principal modern Romantic-Classic legacy to the younger generation that emerged as the Minimalists, although as the best-known example of Newman’s work in sculpture and not for its Romantic Classicism of theme. The romance of the broken column as symbolic of the mutability of even the most sublime in life and art and culture—its death-in-arcadia evocation—goes back to Francesco Colonna’s magnificently illustrated mystical book the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), which influenced Renaissance artists and architects. Among the later manifestations of this book’s influence can be mentioned the cult of the obelisk in funerary imagery referring to royal and aristocratic glory, in painting and architecture, through the 18th century. Hubert Robert’s pre-Romantic Classical Ruins, 1798 (Montréal, Musée des Beaux Arts), is an example of more than typical importance. This painting was exhibited in an exhibition of paintings from Montréal that traveled in the United States in 1966–67, stopping at the Gallery of Modern Art in the spring of 1967, and the same painting was illustrated on the cover of the catalogue. I have already suggested that Newman may have seen this painting while he was still working on the Broken Obelisk.33 But Newman’s generation was already predisposed toward an imagery of romantic sublimity: Harry Levin’s widely influential The Broken Column; a Study in Romantic Hellenism (1931), originally a Harvard senior essay, is an important piece of evidence from the realm of literary history. It is arguable, in fact, that the notion of Romantic Classicism is so closely tied to the outlook of that generation that it is now impossible to recapitulate the idea without implicating Abstract Expressionism.

In the earlier 1970s other artists also invoked the Doric ideal. Al Jensen painted a painting called, as though in homage to the whole idea, The Doric Order, in 1972.34 In Europe around the same time Blinky Palermo was working on painting ideas manifested in quasi-architectural installations, in works such as I (For a Door), 1972, part of a more comprehensive project called For a Door, For a Wall, For Between Two Windows, where two painted canvases stretched over wood, hung vertically either side of a doorway, evoke the columns or pediments of more traditionally classical interiors. Needless to say, these wholly abstract “pilasters” are baseless (and capital-less). In American sculpture, one confronts Andre’s radically simple post-and-lintel timber sculptures, which are most “Doric” in their brave insistence on stripping down even Brancusi’s comparatively ornamental approach, to a point where one horizontal beam placed atop two verticals is both more “primitive,” and no less radically classical, than the Kiss Gate of Brancusi, or any sculptures related to it. Yet by the later 1970s many artists, especially architects, had lost faith altogether in what might be called the modern Doric tradition of classicism and spare, simple, “nude” form. Charles Jencks, in his The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, now quotes, not without bitterness, an interesting offhand remark of Herbert Read’s: “In the back of every dying civilization sticks a bloody Doric column.”35

However, even Conceptual sculpture projects can display a concern with the Romantic-Classical tradition of, ultimately Doric, baselessness. Piero Manzoni’s Base of the World, 1961, marked “Hommage Galileo,” is as worthwhile as it is funny: here a sculpture that is all base annexes the entire world, including, needless to say, all other sculpture, by resting upon it, on two foot-like sub-bases, a headstone-like block inscribed, upside-down, “SOCLE DU MONDE.”

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s more recent landscape pieces also make territorial claims that implicate previous art by the simple application to a specific landscape of a “base.” His Elegaic Inscription, 1975, for instance, consists of a low stone block, again like a cemetery marker, carrying the inscription “See POUSSIN/Hear LORRAIN,” as if to invest the landscape with evocations of Poussin’s and Claude’s classicizing views, in a bracketing frame designed by Finlay as “artist.” For some esthetic reason—perhaps because the real nature here might just as well be being seen by Poussin or Claude for the first time—this seems to carry more conviction than certain merely territorial Conceptual projects by Europeans in which previous art, often enough classical art, or even whole museums, are claimed by the artist as his work merely by supplying such a “frame.” When such projects have an antimodernist edge they are even more problematic: if the mine has already been worked out and abandoned, why stake a claim to it?

Other sculptors have drawn on the by now long tradition of Romantic Classicism in respect to the ancient architectural orders. Dolmen, c. 1959, by John Baxter (d. 1966), calls Brancusi to mind, for its capital that functions sculpturally as an inverted base as well as for its raw wooden, overall elegant primitivism. Dolmen also reflects the earlier “Doric” and “Tuscan” aspects of Turner’s and Constable’s fascination with Stonehenge as a mysterious and somehow native antique adumbration of the full-dress formality of classical post-and-lintel architecture.

Lynda Benglis’ Primary Structures (Paula’s Props), 1975, is campier in its otherwise seemingly closer relation to the romance of classical architecture and, specifically, of the broken column theme. The camp here does serve an irony pointed up by the reference to Minimalist sculpture in the title (“primary structures”), but after that, and after the complication of the little (Joel Shapiro-esque?) cast of a toy automobile atop one column—with its own conceivable ironic reference to the artistic adulation of industrial forms between the two World Wars—little remains for us to confront as sculpture in Primary Structures except the campiness of cheap metallic-painted classical column props arranged on luridly draped velvet as in a suburban beauty parlor window.

Similarly in architecture, in Venturi and Rauch’s fat wooden outside column (1976) for the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, in Ohio, a recapitulation of Mannerist pseudo-naïveté is apparent in the “mistake” of having a baseless Ionic column instead of a Doric one—not to mention the grossly incorrect proportions of the column, either way. What is questionable is how long such ironically neo-Romantic-Classical, pseudo-neo-Mannerist witticisms can hold any flavor. Besides, it is not pleasant to imagine the wider implications of a self-protectively ironic modernity that pretends populistically to eschew modernism but that in fact gives up altogether the possibility of wide appreciation or critical response, now that an even smaller segment of the art world can get the joke. Meanwhile, Alison and Peter Smithson have kept up serious modernist architectural interest in the baseless Doric ideal, stimulated, interestingly enough, by studying ancient Japanese wooden architecture.36

There are times in the history of Western art when there has seemed to be no future. Some artists and architects today, contemplating the possibility that modernity is finished, rush for refreshment to the already long mossy fountainhead of the classical tradition. Those not so much in doubt continue to question and extend what the modern past has handed down to them, which is a more profoundly classical approach to past artistic greatness than mere formal replication anyway. Some of these others may wander away from modern orthodoxy, but they persist, perhaps more out of hope than out of despair, in romantic thoughts about classical art and natural beauty that are by now not undistinguished, just for being less clearly defined.

Joseph Masheck



1. Erik Forssman, Dorisch, Jonisch, Korinthisch; Studien über den Gebrauch der Säulenordnungen in der Architektur des 16–18, Jahrhunderts (Acta Universitatis Stockholmensis; Stockholm Studies in the History of Art, V), Stockholm, 1961, p. 55.

2. Karl Marx, Grundrisse; Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus, New York, 1973, pp. 110–11. See my “Beauty Incarnate, Considerations on a Drawing by George Santayana,” Arts Magazine, October 1975, pp. 73–79.

3. Jean Duvignaud, The Sociology of Art, trans. Timothy Wilson, New York, 1972, pp. 25ff, etc. (1967)

4. Joseph Masheck, “Robert Mangold: A Humanist Geometry,” Artforum, March 1974, pp 39–43.

5. Qu. Gervase Mathew, Byzantine Aesthetics (1964), New York, 1971, p. 70.

6. The Analects of Confucius, trans. Arthur Waley (1938), New York, n.d., p. 119.

7. William James, The Varieties of Religous Experience, New York, 1958, p. 153; see also pp. 128–33, 154–56.

8. An attitude whose roots trace back even further to 18th-century French treatments of Gothic, in analogy with Greek construction, especially in writings by the Abbé de Cordemoy and the engineer Amédée-François Frézier. See R.D. Middleton, “The Abbe de Cordemoy and the Greco-Gothic Ideal: a Prelude to Romantic-Classicism, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vols. XXV (1962), pp. 278–320, XXVI (1963)” pp. 90–123; Dorothea Nyberg. “‘La sainte Antiquité’: Focus of an Eighteenth-Century Architectural Debate,” in Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, ed. Douglas Fraser, Howard Hibbard and Milton J. Lewine, London, 1967, pp. 159–69.

9. Maurice Craig, “James Fergusson,” in John Summerson, ed., Concerning Architecture, Essays on Architectural Writers and Writing Presented to Nikolaus Pevsner, London, 1968, pp. 140–52, here p. 150.

10. Qu. fr. Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, London, 1960, p. 29.

11. In Wolfgang Paalen, Form and Sense (Problems of Contemporary Art. No. 1), New York, 1945, pp 50–53. The two concerns of Paalen’s argument are the derivation of the Doric order from primitive wood construction and the primeval sculptures of women as clues to the significance of the guitar in Cubist painting as an abstracted female figure.

12. Alan W. Watts, The Joyous Cosmology; Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, New York, 1965, p. 56; qu. without a source.

13. From Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography (1932), as excerpted in his Writings and Buildings, ed. Edgar Kaufmann and Ben Raeburn, New York, 1960, pp. 74–83, here p. 75.

14. Ivor Guesn, The Dancer’s Heritage; a Short History of the Ballet, Harmondsworth, 1962, p. 47, suggests that dancing en pointe was “probably an inevitable consequence of the discarding of the heeled shoe towards the end of the eighteenth century,” which comes very close to the ideal of the baseless Doric if we remember Vitruvius’ comment on the base of the Ionic order as being like a woman’s shoe.

15. See Joseph Masheck, “Beauty Incarnate: Considerations on a Drawing by George Santayana,” Arts Magazine, October 1975, pp. 73–79 (with letter of correction, on a different point, June 1976, p. 110).

16. Michel Fokine, Fokine, trans. Vitale Fokine, ed. Anatole Chutoy, Boston, 1961, p. 207.

17. Leonide Massine, My Life in Ballet, London, 1968, p. 84.

18. Constantin Brancusi, “Aphorisms” (undated), trans. fr. This Quarter (Paris), I/1 (January 1925), p. 236, in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art; a Source Book by Artists and Critics, Berkeley, 1970, p 364.

19. Illus., Mark Gabor, The Pin-Up; a Modest History, 2nd ed., New York, 1973, fig. E-3 on p. 137.

20. Walter Darwin Teague, Design This Day; the Techniques of Order in the Machine Age, London, n.d., pls. 18 (male, by “Twin Arts Studio”) and 19 (female, by Germaine Martin, from Arts et Metier Graphique); qu. fr. caption to pl. 18.

21. United States of America, War Department, Office of the Chief of Staff, Extracts from Manual of Physical Training for Use in the United States Army (War Department Document No. 436), Washington, D.C., 1917, p. 6. Several photographs in this book are particularly noteworthy, Fig. 54 on p. 66, from the fourth series of setting-up exercises, is based on Leonardo’s “Vitruvian man”; fig. 15 on p. 151, from the second series of rifle exercises, derives, no doubt perfectly logically, from the pose set in art history by the Herakles Archer of the Aegina temple, and fig. 21 on p 157, from the first series of a second group of rifle exercises, strikes a distinctly Davidian, Oath of the Horatii, note.

22. Isadora Duncan, My Life (1927), New York, 1955, repr., New York, 1972, p. 80.

23. Eugène Viollet-de-Duc, Entretiens sur l’architecture, Paris, 1863, repr. Ridgwood, N.J., 1965, vol. I, p. 38.

24. Charles A. Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, rev. ed., New York, 1977, p. 53 (caption).

25. Viollet-le-Duc, Entretiens (Note 23), vol. II, p. 215.

26. Bernhard Leiner, The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein; a Documentation, New York, 1976. p. 102.

27. Illus. in the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna catalogue Combattimento per un’immagine; fotografi e pitton, Turin, 1973 (unpaginated; pl. near the very end).

28. Illus. in the catalogue 3 Villes, 3 collections; l’avant-garde 1960–1976, Marseilles, Grenoble and Saint-Étienne, 1977, q.v. Day.

29. Robert Moskowitz, statement in Richard Marshall’s Whitney Museum catalogue New Image Painting, New York, 1978, p. 50, with illus. of Retirement Painting (difficult to reproduce), on p. 53.

29a. Mircea Eliade commented several times in his journal on Brancusi’s rediscovery of a “Neolithic” sense of “the sacredness of brute matter”; see his No Souvenirs; Journal, 1957–1969, trans. Fred H. Johnson, Jr., New York, 1977, entries for July 10, 1962 (p. 167). May 23, 1964 (discussing his writing of an article dealing with Brancusi for L’Art du XXe siécle; p. 218) and an undated 1966 entry (treating the relation of the Endless Column to Rumanian folk woodwork, pp. 291–93).

30. Sidney Geist, Brancusi: The Kiss, New York, 1978, p. 71, with illus., figs. 55 and 56 on pp. 70, 71, respectively.

31. Qu. in Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art (formerly entitled Why Exhibit Works of Art?), New York, 1956, p. 56 n. 27.

32. Rhys Carpenter, The Aesthetic Basis of Greek Art of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C., Bloomington, Ind., 1959, p. 137, Carpenter, however, continues, “. . . but it is/the temples which cry aloud than they are everlasting.”

33. Joseph Masheck, “Exhibitions of Past Art and the Modern Artist,” lecture delivered at the Art Libraries Association, New York Chapter meeting, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, November 10, 1976.

34. Illus. in the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977 Biennial Exhibition catalogue, New York, 1977, p 47.

35. Jencks, Language (Note 24), p. 14, caption to fig. 15.

36. Alison and Peter Smithson, “The Doric Order as Metaphor,” in their Without Rhetoric: an Architectural Aesthetic 1955–1972, Cambridge, Mass., 1974, pp. 50–58.

The assistance of Mme. Rhodia Dufet Bourdelle, of the Musée Bourdelle, Paris, in obtaining information and phonographs, is gratefully acknowledged.