PRINT September 1985


The future is behind us.
—_Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova, “Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto” (1913)

DOES IT MAKE SENSE to create abstract art today? Several prominent abstract artists have themselves spoken of the ubiquitous bankruptcy of the mode. Most abstract art has now become either corporate or academic design, and thus necessarily emptied of challenging meaning. It is often only an arch breaking of the Modernist rules which fails to fundamentally change what a long time ago became a formalist game.

Nonetheless, belief in abstract art remains—not as a matter of blind faith in an aristocratic institution and an art-historically respectable stylistic language, but because abstract art was once the exemplary means of articulating—embodying—the experience and meaning of Modernity. (Is the way it developed—once violently resisted—inseparable from the conditions of its origins in Modernity?) The uncertainty as to whether it is a finished narrative in and of itself provokes the expectation of new possibilities. The question is whether it can be responsive to new conditions, especially the post-Modern situation of critically looking back at the Modern experience. The post-Modern situation involves a new kind of uncertainty of experience fraught with a freshly speculative anxiety, a vogue for an apocalyptic mentality, and a new sense of. difficulty for the self—not the problems of keeping pace with a fast-moving, optimistic century, but those of surviving, and coming to terms with, its insecure end: of trying to catch its tail in its mouth and to understand the destiny inflicted upon it.

The enlightened experimentalism of the emergent abstract art was a complex response to the new analytic and technological dynamic that at the beginning of the 20th century began to pervade and Modernize—dominate—daily life as it never seemed to have done before. This dynamic was in part responsible for the pursuit of “novelty” inherent in experimental art, and for the determination to be Modern which itself resulted in the development of abstract art—the art appropriate to the Modern age. At the same time, an unconscious reaction to the Modern dynamic led the artistic experimentalists to attempt to articulate an alternative to it. They saw its destabilizing effect on the self, and repudiated it in a striking ambivalence. The pioneering abstractionists were sufficiently acute to glimpse the outline of the problem, and to articulate it in the visionary terms available to them. Since then, with almost a century of triumphant technology behind us, the problem has become more Widespread and evident: the response to technology and Modernization, and the recognition that they have brought suffering as well as benefits in their wake, have created a general ambivalence to them. Can contemporary abstract art rise to the occasion of this new ambivalence as the original abstract art rose to the occasion of an earlier ambivalence? The problem is now explicit in society, not only implicit in the self—in its love/hate relationship with a Modern society whose dynamic seems to threaten it.

One is invariably struck, on reading the manifestos and articles in which the pioneer abstract artists asserted their views, by their tone of unrelieved grandiosity. Can it be that they had no second thoughts about going beyond the hitherto existing limits of art, no uncertainty about what they would find there, about the sense it would make? So intense was their self-assurance, so determined were they to display their confidence, that one can only believe the opposite: their explicit grandiosity hides a profound anxiety, for they were really much less secure than they gave out to be. These artists’ boisterous dogmatism is a mask over an abyss of self-doubt. Self must have existed only as a dilemma to them, caught as it was between old and new worlds—neither of which, experientially, had complete credibility. For them, representational art belonged to the past. They advocated revolution—in art, they were revolution; extreme exhibitionism may be inherent to ideologies in a revolutionary phase, may be part of their force, the major way they generate conviction, create guilt in us for our own lack of fervor, or for our critical skepticism. No doubt the assertive, self-ad vocative, almost bossy style of revolution has been the same since the beginning of society, but in the case of the early abstractionists one cannot believe that this manner of social self-presentation directly reflected their psychology. Maybe they unconsciously expected to be martyrs for the new art, like early Christians. Their conscious sense of themselves as propagandists for a new faith, the new Jesuits of art-making, alternated with this unconscious feeling of martyrdom.

Perhaps in the end the early abstract artists wanted to generate an appealing sense of absurdity to allure the Tertullian hidden in each of us—the socially impotent intellectual who “believes” (who can join in) only because he can respect what is inherently absurd, contradictory, unbelievable. In the case of early nonobjective art, this involves the faith that little form can have much meaning. Yet something else lies hidden in the early abstractionists’ tone of contempt and dogmatism, their unholy mix of destructive and constructive intentions, their fluctuation between unsavory delusions of grandeur and zealous attention to the nuances of an art that is actually fairly obvious in its manipulations of simple gestalts. They attempted to create an appropriately Modern art—so controlled as to appear mechanized, and thus truly in harmony with its times, representing the artist’s eager identification with those times—but their effort had unexpected results: the discovery and experience of a nuclear self, functionally timeless and “primitive” because, even though life without it seemed uncentered, it was beyond the reach of conscious memory. Nonobjective Modern form became a metaphor for an archaic rather than a Modern sense of self. Indeed, one might say the new form’s unintended meaning took over its intended, overstated, ideological meaning. The type of language the artists used about it—emphasizing the newness of nonobjective art, and the “rebirth” of the representational artist as a nonobjective artist—may have indicated that the unconscious meaning was half known.

The new art won converts for its new look, not for the “old” meaning it unwittingly discovered. Now it becomes clear what its wildly vacillating tone (half malevolent, half ingratiating) was about, and why that tone is the central clue to what was fundamentally at stake in the intention to make nonobjective art: it reflects not only the art’s attempt to ingratiate itself with its audience through its supposed Modernity and newness—appealing to our presumed Modernity and newness, our supposed happy engagement with living in the new, Modern world—but also the unconscious desire on the part of both art and audience to resist and undermine that same Modernity by articulating a forgotten sense of “transcendent,” “absolute” self. For Modernity, with its mechanization of the world and implicitly of the self—its robotization of the self— unconsciously poses a threat to art-making, or, rather, to the artist’s sense of special identity. The Modern world can take over the artist more easily and completely than any other world could, including the world of nature; the artist is happy to share symbolically in the Modern world’s domination of nature through a nonobjective, mechanized style, but not to follow the style to conclusion in a complete submission to that world.

Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova wrote, “We exclaim: the whole brilliant style of modern times—our trousers, jackets, shoes, trolleys, cars, airplanes, railways, grandiose steamships—is fascinating, is a great epoch, one that has known no equal in the entire history of the world.”1 But behind the giddiness of their experience of Modernity, they also felt a desire, as Larionov asserted, to create images ”of another order—that superreal order that man must always seek, yet never find, so that he would ’ approach paths of representation more subtle and more spiritualized”2—more spiritualized even than those afforded by Modern dynamism. These paths were more old than Modern. Larionov and Goncharova, like the other nonobjectivists, passed through Futurism, with its belief in Modern dynamism,3 to return to the belief in an eternal, subjectively resonant art. Modern dynamism demanded constant change, creating constant newness, and it was distrusted as much as it was welcomed; the self could not take a stand on it, for the self needed an “eternal” basis. This is what the nonobjectivists intended to supply. Nonobjectivity, they hoped, would make man’s unconscious awareness of eternity conscious, through forms present neither in nature nor in history. Thus Malevich could write, “I assure you that whoever has not trodden the path of futurism as the exponent of modern life is condemned to crawl forever among the ancient tombs and feed on the leftovers of bygone ages,” and in the very same breath proclaim, "We have abandoned futurism, and we, bravest of the brave, have spat on the altar of its art.”4 Through geometry, the new art sought to articulate the feeling of eternity that transcends every movement, every dynamism, every age.

The essential ambiguity behind nonobjective art reflects the general crisis of Modern art-making, a crisis less in the making of the object (the creation of what Harold Rosenberg called the “anxious object”) than in the question of how to retain an unshakable integrity of being in a world that not only mechanizes and ruthlessly controls life, but also is so dynamic that it necessarily denies any being a sense of wholeness with the world. Paradoxically, in the attempt to eliminate the incommensurability between inward and outward life that Piet Mondrian said was the source of the tragic nature of the self, Modern art created a new tragedy for the self, amplifying the original one. The duality became not simply that between inward and outward life, but that between an outward stance more dynamic than inward desire; inward life wants to “slow down” to eternity to preserve itself, to retain its sense of stability and self-identity.

For Mondrian, technology was the major instrument of change, Modernity’s instrument for eliminating tragedy. But he came to realize that art’s role is not necessarily to be dynamically Modern or technically innovative. (What is innovative, after all, about geometrical form?) To its own surprise, Modern art found itself defending and preserving an archaic sense of “eternal” self in the face of the Modern world, of the Modernity it superficially resembled. I emphasize “superficially,” for what began as Modern art’s attempt to articulate what Theo van Doesburg called a “mechanical aesthetic” quickly turned into its rehabilitation of geometrical forms as credible containers of “eternal feeling” and the generalized feeling of eternity. It is as though, once art gave up the representation of nature and the “natural” look of things in general as its goal, it became capable of more than it intended: it created not simply an appropriate mode for representing the logic (rather than the look) of Modernity. but one that represented a more “universal” logic of being. Nonobjective art is not the Modern art that it seems; or, rather, it is more Modern than it seems, for it capsulates not Simply the sophisticated mechanical logic of Modernity.but the determination of the Modern subject in the face of this logic. Once art freed itself of the superficiality of recreating the look of things, it unexpectedly fell into the depths.

Even Kasimir Malevich spoke of the new art as not so much inventing something utterly Modern, never before seen, as recovering the “eternal” in “artistry.”5 The Modern: subjective meaning of this ”eternal“ concerned him much more than the geometrical form it took. He was not interested in contemplating geometrical form for its own elegant sake, as though its self-sufficiency were an object of blind admiration. Rather, he sought its unspoken eloquence, the affect buried behind its silence yet emerging through it. When he wrote that ”any hewn pentagon or hexagon would have been a greater work of sculpture than the Venus de Milo or David,”6 his interest was less in the monumentalization of a geometrical form comprehensible to everyone than in what, to him, that form stood for: “the square is a living, regal infant.”7 This way of characterizing it—as though it were a newborn child—has unconscious implications of which Malevich hardly seems aware. (It is the metaphor that betrays the unconscious sense.) The child is understood to exist in a natural state of fundamental selfhood; to play like a child with the building block of the square, a universally comprehensible form self-evident even to a child, and to let this simple form itself represent the child in oneself, one’s most basic self—this was the goal of the new art. (At least it was the first, primary goal; the second goal. as we shall see, was to create an equally simple, ”harmonious" society.)

That Ivan Kliun, in 1915, called the new artists the “primitives of the twentieth century”8 suggests not Simply that they were the children of a century itself then still a child, but a self-conscious intention on Kliun’s part to be primitive in a sophisticatedly mechanized age. This logic expresses the Modern artist’s unconscious ambivalence toward the experience of Modernity, which is both desired, as a proof of enlightenment, and feared, as destructive of the eternal. Siting the eternal in an unfathomably primitive past, Kliun claims a 20th-century primitivism for himself as a solution to the contradiction. His aphorism also expresses the old Russian love/hate relationship with the West (the ”Modern world") in still another form, a form paradoxically reflective of an ambivalence on the part of traditional, god-fearing Russians. Russia privileges itself as the ultimate eternal land, as if in compensation for its lack of Modernity-but also in defiance of that lack. which makes for too much awareness of the march of time. From the viewpoint of art, the eternalization implicit in early-20th-century nonobjective forms can be regarded as socially reactionary: But this does not bely its psychological meaning, nor its social import as a profound response to the disturbances in self-esteem caused by the dynamic Modern world. The basic self had been so annihilated by Modern dynamism that it had to be buttressed by a sense of eternity. (Whether this is not always the case is a larger issue.) The artist wanted to be like an eternal child—as Baudelaire suggested, the authentic primitive, who sees everything as though it were being seen for the first time and so as excruciatingly novel.

It is worth noting that the word “primitive” is also used in connection with certain non-Western cultures; to then make the leap that these cultures’ art is childlike C’naive“) is a mistake. However, the self in such cultures can be said, idealistically. to find its mirror in what to Western eyes may look like a timeless—and for that reason “primitive”—style. Perhaps culturally ”primitive“ objects appear to alien Western consciousness as unconscious of time. What looks to us like a different sense of time than our own we read as reflective of a paradisaic existence in eternity. ”Primitive“ style, then, is supposedly one of undeniable integrity, theoretically reflecting the integrity of the nuclear self. Already by World War l. when the West realized its own ”primitive“ character, the ”primitive“ was an overloaded concept. It referred Simultaneously to an exhilarated sense of dynamic Modernity (Futurism); a sensibility for novel esthetic fundamentals (Cézanne, Cubism); a mentality (the ”eternal outlook“); and ”alien,’’ non-Western art (for Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists, et cetera). The interplay of all these meanings gave the concept the weight of a black hole within which Western consciousness seemed eager to fantasize. The “primitive” became the mirror through which it saw itself darkly.

It is worth extensively quoting Vladimir Markov, one of the theorists of the neoprimitivism that immediately preceded and was so crucial to nonobjectivity. to make decisively the point that the basic goal of the new art was to induce, as it were, a state of selfhood in the artist (though this state had a double, contradictory meaning). In 1912, Markov began a discussion of “the principles of the new art” with the sentences, “Where concrete reality the tangible, ends, there begins another world—a world of unfathomed mystery a world of the divine. Even primitive man was given the chance of approaching this boundary, where intuitively he would capture some feature of the Divine—and return happy as a child.”9 Later, Markov exclaimed, ”how good it is to be wild and primitive, to feel like an innocent child who rejoices equally at precious pearls and glittering pebbles and who remains alien and indifferent to their established values.”10 From this viewpoint, the artist is implicitly a social revolutionary who denies all material values, for the paradisaic childlike state is all the value one needs in life. One can almost see Malevich on the beach, playing with the shells or squares—Markov’s “features of the Divine” (Alfred North Whitehead has described geometrical forms as “eternal objects”)—he has recovered from the mysterious sea. Two paragraphs later Markov wrote, ”Playing a game compels us to forget about the direct, utilitarian purpose of things, and the artist, in realizing the principles of free creation, has a right to play with all worlds accessible to him: both the world of objects, and the world of forms, lines, colors, and light. He has a right to play with them as freely as a child who plays with pebbles, mixing them up and laying them out on the ground.”11

The pursuit of archaic selfhood is perhaps clearest in the writing of Aleksandr Shevchenko. In 1913, in Moscow, Shevchenko observed,

The world has been transformed into a single monstrous, fantastic, perpetually moving machine, into a single huge nonanimal, automatic organism, into a single gigantic whole construct ed with a strict correspondence and balance of parts. . . . We, like some kind of ideally manufactured mechanical man, have grown used to living—getting up, going to bed, eating and working according to the clock—and the sense of rhythm and mechanical harmony, reflected in the whole of our life, cannot but be reflected in our thinking, and in our spiritual life: in Art.”12

Nevertheless, Shevchenko continued, “for the point of departure in our art we take the lubok, the primitive art form, the icon, since we find in them the most acute, most direct perception of life.” The new artists are “fascinated by its simplicity. its harmony of style, and its direct, artistically true perceptiveness of life,” that is, its articulation of “the aggregate of the forms of these things of which the world consists and of their movements.”13 Viewing this apparent contradiction—the recognition of the miracles of mechanical Modernity yet the desire to interpret and articulate them in primitive/ eternal visual terms—no wonder that ”the mob,“ in Shevchenko’s phrase, insisted that ”this artist has not defined himself yet.“ ”But in this lies his life, his authenticity,“ responded Shevchenko; ”The artist’s vitality is determined by his search, and in searching lies perfection."14 The search led to the creation of nonobjective art, which realized the goal of being childlike in Modern terms. Nonobjective art recreated a sense of an archaic self that seemed timeless and as such was peculiarly resistant to the mechanization process of Modernity. while also reflecting it. It is as though, finding oneself seemingly in command of the machine—and consciously enjoying it, because it seems to give one control, though in fact one is being controlled-one also finds oneself spontaneously rebelling under unexpected unconscious pressure (signaling that unconsciously one isn’t enjoying it) and discovering in oneself an ungovernable or uncontrollable archaic self—a depth self—that one didn’t know one had in the first place.

Virtually all the nonobjectivists went through what they called a neoprimitivist phase; in Russia in particular, during the transitional moment, artists such as Goncharova and Larionov explicitly advocated both neoprimitivism and nonobjectivity. Nonobjectivity followed hard on the heels of neoprimitivism; in Russia, 1912was the year of neoprimitivism, 1913 the year of nonobjectivity. (For the sake of economy, as well as because in my opinion the most important developments in nonobjective art were in Russia and the Netherlands, my examples will largely be drawn from the nonobjectivists in those countries.) The pushing of neoprimitivism away from the figure and toward pure shape arose as a solution to the quintessential problem of self-definition forced on the authentically, self-consciously Modern artist who experienced a radically untraditional, “unnatural,” ”inorganic“ world. Indeed, part of the achievement of the pioneering neoprimitivist nonobjectivists, for which we shall always be in their debt, was their self-consciousness about being irreversibly Modern artists—their sense that the Modern world held no tradition, nothing ”natural“ to fall back on, a recognition that in large part was responsible for their fierce, vociferous rejection of representation or ”objective art,’’ and of nature as a subject matter. They were thus in an extreme situation, with no ideological supports, which forced them toward a confrontation with their repressed, archaic sense of self. The ban on being primitive was lifted by the groundlessness of their situation. Grist for the mill lay in the fact that the nonobjective realization of the neoprimitivist conception of the artist as Modern child created work that in intention was more timeless than Modern and timely.

It may be that one of the reasons that the archaic, deep-psychological character of nonobjective art was later widely dismissed as so much claptrap—at best, theoretical packaging to sell a New Look to a skeptical public—is that it goes against the grain of the subsequent art-historical perception of nonobjective art as the ne plus ultra of the formalist look of the future. But such a reduction of nonobjective art to eunuch status—to use another metaphor, to a purified gold of art that glitters only as design—follows directly from the relegation of radical ideologies to historical limbo, or from the impossible idealization of nonobjective art as utopian. It may be that our resistance to the nonobjectivists’ idea of themselves follows from the fact that the problematic selfhood their art addressed—the self bound by the question of how it was to remain primitively secure while becoming dynamically Modern—remains as trenchant as ever. Our resistance to the nonobjectivists’ feelings about their art is a repression of our own ambiguous, insecure sense of selfhood, despite our more comfortable, self-assured Modernity.

Certain observations by Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky make explicit the deep-psychological point of nonobjective art. Mondrian repeatedly talked of the need to abolish tragic expression in art; his whole enterprise of Neoplasticism existed to do so. “The tragic adheres to all form and natural colour, for the struggle for freedom is expressed by the tensing of line and the intensification of colour as a striving against a stronger counter-striving. Only when line is tensed to the rectilinear and naturalistic colour is tensed to pure plane-colour—only then can tragic expression be reduced to a minimum.”15 Again: “no matter how the duality of inward and outward is manifested-as nature and spirit, man against man, male and female, or in art as the plastic against representational content—so long as this duality has not achieved equilibrium and recovered its unity, it remains tragic. If this duality in art requires equivalent plastic expression, then the artist must be able to abolish tragic expression (so far as it is possible).”16 It was clearly not completely possible for Mondrian: his sense of duality remained, as his retention of the purified horizontal and vertical makes clear, despite the dynamic equilibrium he created between these opposites. His refusal to let them be absorbed and neutralized in the greater unity of the diagonal left the equilibrium unstable, representative more of a pause in conflict than of its termination. Mondrian ”controlled tragic conflict by esthetically structuring it, which hardly means that he resolved it, since the opposites he set up never dissolve into a stable, permanent, pure unity. They are merely projected in a balancing act which can collapse at any moment. Equilibrium is conditional and transient, while conflict is the primary, the given mode of relationship. It was to counter eternal conflict that the nonobjectivists unconsciously sought out eternal selfhood; nonobjective art depicts a psychomachia between conflict and nuclear selfhood in the guise of the drama of Modern dynamism.

The necessity of finding ever-new ways of balancing inherently tragic relationships is made clear in two quotations from Kandinsky Not only did Kandinsky insist on “Feeling” as the “ever-faithful guide” in art, but he felt that the new “spiritual” composition of “pure painting”_”however great or small its individual parts,” however ”infinitely fine and refined, infinitely complex and complicated its painterly or linear details—must “rest on the one great foundation—the PRINCIPLE OF INNER NECESSITY.’’17 “Feeling” is the sign of this necessity. The discovery of inner necessity as the basis for art cannot help but remind one of Freud’s discovery of instinctive drive as the basis for unconscious life. There is something“ even more ”Freudian“ in Kandinsky: the need for balance, manifested in the organization of competing instincts in, to use Kandinsky’s term, an ”absolute equilibrium.“ This organization is necessary if the psyche is to-survive (or, in and in sky’s case, if art is to survive). Kandinsky’s equilibrium is not the same as Mondrian’s; it goes one step further, insisting on parity between equilibrium and conflict—implying, in other words, that there is an eternal drive toward equilibrium as much as there is toward conflict. For Freud, ego struck the balance, created the equilibrium, but an was ego for Kandinsky, and had to equilibrate the opposing claims of ”total abstraction“ and ”total realism”—the instinct for the “purely artistic” and the instinct for the "objective.”18 In Freudian terms, this is the difference, the conflict, between the pleasure principle and the reality principle.

It is what Kandinsky called “incompletely developed feeling” that leads the ego to prefer abstraction or realism exclusively. “The custom of concentrating on form and the resultant behavior of the viewer who clings to the accustomed form of balance are the blinding forces that block free access to free feeling,”19 The viewer—ego—with “incompletely developed feeling” has been repressed by customary forms of balance, that is, by society’s sense of what is normative art. “Civilized or socially dominant forms of balance, which promise peace and eternal stability, are an illusion, but new, unaccustomed equilibrium does not carry with it the illusion of eternal equilibrium. Customary equilibrium and absolute equilibrium are not the same. While absolute equilibrium is never realizable, it is a goal that free feeling strives for eternally; as long as that eternal search continues, as long as feeling is dynamic, it is free. Eternal striving—the inherent drive—for absolute equilibrium is the sign of a dynamic self in a process of eternal becoming, all the more solid and ”real," and paradoxically secure, for being dynamically on the move, for accepting and working through its conflicts. It is the drive to equilibrium that is eternal, not any one form of balance. Feeling moves on, moves beyond any societal equilibrium. Its forms of balance reflect its becoming; some are socially acceptable, some are not.

Kandinsky implied that unsocialized forms articulating an unaccustomed equilibrium are in a sense more attuned to the drive for absolute equilibrium than customary ones, and so more authentic. The nonobjectivist forms of equilibrium that were once regarded as antisocial were created using what David Burliuk called “displaced construction” involving “disharmony (not fluency),” “disproportion,” “coloristic dissonance,” and “deconstruction.”20 This is because ”deviant“ or abnormal—and thus more inherently ”artistic”—forms imply an acceptance of eternal aspiration to unattainable absolute equilibrium as a necessary condition of existence and art. From this perspective, the static self-satisfaction that comes with customary equilibrium is a prelude to the enslavement of feeling.

Free feeling has within it the power or drive to create balanced form—to synthesize opposite drives. But such form, when it becomes dogmatic—habitual or conformist—loses its drive. What has been called the iron law of Freudianism can be applied to art here: the instinctual conflict—between abstraction and realism—that drives art is lost when one or the other becomes cultural law Art tends toward, but never completely becomes, one or the other. The moment it does, it is no longer “art”; it is design (if it is purely abstract) or propaganda (if it is purely realistic). To avoid the self-destructive dogmatization of art, Kandinsky tried to keep it dynamically ambivalent. Freud wrote that “contrasting—or better, ambivalent—states of feeling, which in adults would lead to conflicts, can be tolerated alongside one another in the child for a long time, just as later on they dwell together permanently in the unconscious.”21 For Kandinsky, the artist in effect had to become childlike, in a kind of learned unconsciousness, so as to tolerate contrasting states of art, a kind of permanently ambivalent condition of art. It is when art is in this state of ”conflict”—a kind of balanced ambivalence—that it is in fact most healthy, dynamic, driven, and authentically “art.’’ It is worth noting that Mondrian, in his own way, realized the dangers of abstract dogmatism. When his abstraction was in danger of becoming a habitual style, its equilibrium all too obvious, he changed the rhythm of the relationship between its irreducible or ”primitive“ variables. This is most strikingly evident in his last, New York—“new world”—paintings, in which equilibrium is precarious almost to the point of upset. The pulse of these ’40s works is more rapid, dynamic, and urgent than in the European works of the late ’30s; the energy or drive is not theatrically superimposed on an abstract ”plot,’’ but is a function of the immanent relationship between its parts. The new precariousness—ambivalence—of the relationship can be said to introduce a “realistic” note in the superficially perfect abstract balance, as it were subverting it. Simultaneously unfocused in their new “realism” and less securely abstract than the earlier work, they are thus more truly dynamic.

In completely free feeling that is not nihilistic, the drive to form and the drive to content cannot be differentiated. The differentiation of form and content, like the differentiation of light and dark, land and water, or figuration and abstraction, constitutes a short step toward creating equilibrium out of primordial chaos; Kandinsky was obsessed with the next step in the process: reintegration. His attempt to create an eternal balance was kept from being completely futile insofar as it set up symbols for equilibrium, symbols that he never assumed to be a reality, however much they are sometimes “religiously” mistaken for it. While Kandinsky’s language may be often fervently religious, tending to generate the conviction that the symbol is the reality in order to create a heightened awareness of the process of integration, he did not see the symbol as literal. Rather, it was to be understood as the sign of "integrity.”

An emphasis on feeling exists everywhere in the arguments rationalizing nonobjective art. “The Suprematists,” wrote Malevich, ”have found new symbols with which to render direct feelings (rather than externalized reflections of feelings), for the Suprematist does not observe and does not touch—he feels.”22 Suprematism’s goal is “to reach the summit of the true, ‘unmasked’ art and from this vantage point to view life through the prism of pure artistic feeling.”23 Such ”nonobjective feeling has, in fact, always been the only possible source of art,’’ yet it exists not as an end in itself but to set up “a genuine world order, a new philosophy of life.”24 It must be acknowledged that in 1915 it was enough for Malevich “to attain the new artistic culture,’’ to show ”creation as an end in itself.’’25 By 1927, when his previously quoted remarks were published, the goal was explicitly extraartistic—it was to do with life, not exclusively with art. What remained constant was the insistence that nonobjective art is an art of feeling—an art that recovers feeling repressed in everyday life and conformist art, in the ordinary civilized “representation” of things . For Malevich, pure geometrical form was a vehicle of pure feeling—feeling in an unadulterated, crystalline, irreducible state.

Malevich’s apparently new way of thinking about nonobjective art—not as a formal end in itself, but as the basis for a new philosophy and construction of life—actually involved nothing new: Nonobjective art from the beginning was about art’s relationship to the world of life; from its first formulation to its final phase, it can be understood as a profound meditation on the interaction of art and life in the Modern world. Initially, Malevich thought the world had changed, become Modem, and Art hadn’t caught up with it and had to Modernize. Later, he realized that art, in its changed, Modem, nonobjective form, had potentially enormous influence on society,and was more eternal than simply Modem. It did not have to conform to the world, but could form it. No doubt this belief was a sign of its ego strength, the secure—“eternal”—sense of self it had achieved by becoming successfully, integrally nonobjective in the first place.

Malevich’s optimistic attempt to create a “new philosophy of life” through Suprematism was essentially the same as Mondrian’s attempt to achieve equilibrium through Neoplasticism, and had the same implicit goal: to end, through nonobjectivity or the “abstract-real,” “the domination of the tragic in life,” and to create the moment when “the ‘artist’ will be absorbed by the ‘fully human being’” and society will achieve equilibrium.26 This whole system of expectations depended on the assumption of art’s power to liberate feeling, and thus to recreate “fully human beings.” The belief was stated powerfully and clearly-perhaps given final form—by Naum Gabo in 1937: “The shapes we are creating are not abstract, they are absolute. . . . The emotional force of an absolute shape is immediate, irresistible, and universal. It is impossible to comprehend the content of an absolute shape by reason alone . Our emotions are the real manifestation of this content. By the influence of an absolute form the human psyche can be broken or mold ed . Shapes exult and shapes depress, they elate and make desperate; they order and confuse, they are able to harmonize our psychical forces or to disturb them.”27 When Malevich dramatically asserted, in 1915, ”I have transformed myself in the zero of form and have fished myself out of the rubbishy slough of academic art,”28 he was talking about a change not just of style, but of self. Notwithstanding the struggle of discovering the “zero of form,” which is really greater emotionally than technically, its true importance lies in its power to liberate the self from old and customary modes of self-representation. It is in the zero of form that feeling is most free, and therefore that the artist is most fully human. It is in the zero of form that both the fully human and the internal necessity for art are discovered. The implicit fullness of the zero of form is inseparable from the nonobjectivist belief that only when art reaches the level of the irreducible does it become consequential—that less is always much more than what is conventionally thought of as more, that the minimum is the maximum.

There is a peculiar parallel between the development of nonobjective art and the development of psychoanalysis, a strange similarity in goals: the recovery of repressed feeling, involving the tracing of feeling back to its origin in instinct, and to its original drives. In nonobjective art, the instinctive feeling is incarnated in an irreducible form to match its own irreducibility. These forms are then “interpersonalized” in a symbolic image, an image that for a tantalizing moment in the early century was taken as a kind of beacon of eternity, having significant—almost talismanic—effect in the world. In psycho analytic terms, this is equivalent to taking a dream as reality, or at least as having magical effect on reality.

As Freud wrote, the object “is what is most variable about an instinct and is not originally connected with it.”29 It is only everyday experience that connects the two; by severing the connection, the nonobjectivists recovered pure form. The purified—irreducible—instinct for abstraction articulates itself in irreducible marks or geometrical shapes. The similarly purified instinct for realism articulates itself by organizing these forms in a dynamic, unaccustomed equilibrium—in a more or less balanced or integrated ”world“ of forms. But a nonobjective image exhibiting this kind of organization is not a picture of the ”objective“ world. Rather, it is a representation/integration of the self. Each balancing/integrating act has its own character, which is part of an intrapsychic process of feeling. The nonobjective composition, whether its character is that of a Kandinsky or a Malevich painting (to name the antipodes), remains fundamentally ”expressionistic," that is, a manifestation of drive. As such, it is inherently a form of tragic expression, despite the temporarily untragic look its dynamic equilibrium/integration gives it.

What about the goal of using non objectivity as a guide to social harmony in a technological world? Only the machine, wrote van Doesburg, can provide “constructive certainty. The new potentialities of the machine have given rise to an aesthetic theory appropriate to our age, which I have had occasion to call the 'mechanical aesthetic.'”30 Malevich regarded Suprematism as inseparable from the big city’s “metallic culture . . . of energy . . . machines, motors, and power lines.”31 The provincialism—“peace of the countryside”—repudiated by these artists is equivalent to tradition, with its storehouse of accustomed esthetic equilibriums, as well as to the empty utopianism of the pastoral version of the wish for social harmony. To the non objectivists, social harmony was to be achieved in technological, urban society, as Mondrian thought, and nonobjective art was to show, on an intrapsychic and psychoesthetic level, how harmony could be achieved. First it would be realized in art, then “in our outward surroundings and in our outward life.”32 Art would be a beacon signaling the task, first showing, in Mondrian’s words, the new “simplicity,” sign of the “new harmony” which “will come automatically through the quest for efficiency in machinery, in transportation,”33 and it would prod this new harmony to come into being, reminding society of its possibility.

One can understand the social ambitions—usually dismissed as naively utopian—of the pioneering nonobjectivists in terms of the development of psychoanalytic theory. Initially, the emphasis was on inner drive rather than on outward object, and on recovering free feeling. The initial withdrawal from everyday objects was made in order to restore a sense of instinct in art—even more fundamentally, to revive the drive or will in art, which had lost its will power, even, in Nietzsche’s words, the will to live dangerously. But the depth level necessary for pure instinctive production is hard to sustain—one must come up to the social surface for ordinary air (banality can be refreshing at times)—and “society” as a whole is too vague or abstract an entity for instinct to embrace, or for that matter to reform. The nonobjectivists’ social idealism cost them their instinct; losing concreteness by trying to generalize the meaning to society of what they had already accomplished instinctively, they lost the instinct for art. Once again it was destroyed by “worldliness”—by the attempt to flatter the world through telling it it could be a better place to live.

The world of the early 20th century was an anxiety-arousing, traumatic one. Conventional, illusory art was not doing its job—to keep the chaos (the contradictions) down, in what Harry Stack Sullivan has called a “security operation.” The pioneering nonobjectivists fantasized their works as “diagrammatic fragments”34 of an anxiety free, harmonious society; in this ideal world, which ran like a machine, as the saying goes (a saying very pertinent to the mechanical esthetic), no object or self would threaten any other. Paradoxically, World War I intensified rather than obliterated the nonobjectivists’ fantasies. The first large-scale technological war after the American Civil War, and a major example of the destructive use of technology, the first World War was deeply imprinted on the se artists; but instead of creating images that could be regarded as diagrammatic fragments of the world of destructive technology and social conflict, they created images that turn ed that world up side down, ideal projections that put a constructive aura around technology out of a desire that it be socially integrative rather than disintegrative. The nonobjectivists could not recognize or accept the fact that the social conflict they saw reflected a deeper instinctive conflict. They acknowledged conflict in the microcosm of art, but could not carry their insight into its dynamics forward into the macrocosm of society. Instead, they idealized the new society.

The works of the nonobjectivists are as much unconscious wish-fulfillment s as Surrealist works are, but they embody what Ernst Bloch called “the principle of hope” rather than the principle of despair that motivated the Surrealists. Nonobjective works, initially projecting an image of dynamically integrated selfhood—selfhood conscious of its primitive instincts, and balancing them—became a representation of a dynamically integrated society. The artists’ social ambitions con firmed their self regard, gave their art a greater self-esteem than if it had merely been about art—or about themselves, their own egos. But that social estimation of their art was its downfall, because it led them to regard their original “experimental” forms as customary—socially acceptable, matter-of-fact. This eventually made for work as hollow as the representational forms that these artists had condemned, and made the balance or integration their work projected equally repressive of free feeling. While their works became museum-worthy, free feeling had to move on, abandoning the idea that it could redeem society—an illusion that, like all illusions, proved more monster than objective, conflictful reality. Because they could not face the mad ness of the world—its eternal discord, its perilous existence on the edge of chaos—the non objectivists’ art died. Its deliberate use as social therapy undermined its spontaneously therapeutic use by the machine-haunted Modern self. The non objectivists could heal themselves, but not the world. They had not yet learn ed every revolutionary’s hardest lesson: that nobody can.

Donald Kuspit writes regularly for Artforum. He is a professor of art history at the Sate University of New York at Stony Brook.



1. Quoted in John E. Bowlt, ed. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902–1934, New York: The Viking Press (The Documents of 20th Century Art), 1976. p. 89.

2. Ibid, p. 102.

3. lbid, p. 95.

4. Ibid, p. 124.

5. Herschel B Chipp, ed . Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. p. 344.

6. Bowlt. p. 121.

7. Ibid, p. 133.

8. Ibid, p. 136.

9. lbid, p. 25.

10. lbid, p. 30.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid, p. 45.

13. Ibid, p. 46.

14. Ibid, p. 47.

15. Hans L.C. Jaffé, De Stijl, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1971. p. 76.

16. Ibid, p. 77.

17. Bowlt, pp. 22–23.

18. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, eds. The Blaue Reiter Almanac, New York: The Viking Press (The Documents of 20th Century Art), 1974. p. 158

19. Ibid, p. 160–61.

20. Bowlt, p. 76.

21. Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1952. p 292.

22. Chipp, p. 345.

23. Ibid, p. 344.

24. Ibid, p. 346.

25. Bowlt, p. 119.

26. Jaffé, p. 164.

27. Chipp. p. 336.

28. Bowlt, p. 118.

29. Quoted in Jay R. Greenberg and Stephen A. Mitchell. Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983, p. 39.

30. Jaffé, p. 156.

31. Chipp, p. 338.

32. Jaffé, p. 164.

33. Ibid, p. 165.

34. Cited In Greenberg and Mitchell. p 105. A diagrammatic fragment is a structural residue of a significant person or object from the past. I am using the term to describe bc a utopian residue of a projected but unrealizable future.

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