PRINT March 1987


FAITH IN ABSTRACT ART has been in crisis for the last two decades or so, after a period of generations in which its potential and leadership in painting and sculpture ran more or less unquestioned. While a number of serious artists have remained just as committed to abstraction as ever, in general it has seemed that its deep reasons for being have been sucked out of it, leaving only the abstract style. A recent revival of the practice of abstraction, in fact, comes with the same cover story as much contemporary nonabstract art, the notion that this is not the genuine article but a critical simulation of it, one movement among many in the late-night reruns of 20th-century styles that are our fin de siècle gasp.

Lately, a number of major exhibitions have investigated the roots of abstraction. Each has tended to emphasize a particular relationship, exploring the bridge between abstraction and another subject. The eruption of primitive styles in European art around the turn of the century has been offered as one key to the historical continuity between preabstract and abstract Western art. The utopian promise of the industrial revolution, and especially of machinery, has been proposed as another, and the influence of revolutionary political doctrine as yet another. Though all these exhibitions, each with its scholar or cabal of scholars, its stunning documentation, and its visual argument, tend to magnify their own threads, together they make it obvious that the roots and meanings of abstraction are far more varied and complex, and far more involved in changing circumstance, than any explanation of abstraction based on the idea of the search for pure form allows.

Recently, amid the hubbub surrounding the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art somewhat more quietly opened its new 20th-century exhibition space, the Robert O. Anderson Building, which houses the museum’s permanent collection of 20th-century art and a temporary show called “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985.” The show sets out to demonstrate that much significant Western abstract painting developed not as a strict consequence of art-historical evolution, but with influences from various occult and hermetic traditions. It is a passionate reopening statement, and in making it the museum aggressively sets itself apart from the predominantly polar tradition of curating in recent years—a tradition of either a hands-off or a heavy-handed approach, both with a proud inattention to iconographic content. Curated by Maurice Tuchman (who, with this exhibition, makes his strongest claim on art-world attention in many years), with the assistance of Judi Freeman, it is in parts a beautiful and fascinating exhibition. While it is as tendentious as any in its particular approach to abstraction, there is—whether intentionally or not—a formlessness to long stretches of it that makes it less finished, and leaves a more participatory role for the viewer. The show shares the common problem of theme exhibitions—certain work seems to have been wished into the theme rather than solidly to belong there—but this seems a product of its lack of rigor rather than of an excess of control. The contemporary section is the least careful in this sense; it looks very much like many other exhibitions with a bit of this and a bit of that, exhibitions of a type so common in recent years when it comes to presenting the art of the ’60s through the ’80s.

The spiritual traditions that Tuchman and his collaborators consider are those of alchemy, Rosicrucianism, theosophy and its variants, the tarot, Tantrism, the cabala, ideas of the fourth dimension, Egyptian or pseudo-Egyptian mysteries, esoteric Christianity (especially the work of Jakob Böhme), and more. They are mostly not parts of established religions but heretical offshoots of them. Tantrism, which regards itself as the true essence of Hinduism, is illegal in India in certain of the practices recommended in its classical texts. Cabalism, which regards itself as the secret tradition of Judaism, has been frowned upon in many Jewish contexts. Böhme was forbidden to publish by Lutheran authorities. Of the Western traditions here, most go back to the ancient school known as Neoplatonism. They tend to emphasize the concept of the underlying oneness of all things, and hence to blur traditional distinctions between good and evil, pure and impure, and so on. This is why these esoteric traditions, as they are called, are inimical to the mainstream religious traditions, which usually rely on such distinctions to define themselves and their congregations against the rest of the world.

To relate abstraction to the esoteric traditions is significantly to open up the inherited doctrines about it. The most influential 19th- and 20th-century formulations of the premises of art history were made under the sway of the Hegelian idea of history as an evolutionary process in which nature would gradually and inevitably be converted into pure spirit. There is a similarity between this idea and the occult or esoteric notion of the many returning to the one, but as the two belief systems have functioned in history they have not for the most part been ethically or emotionally equivalent. For all its talk of pure spirit, Hegelianism emphasizes the evolution of the national state, while the spiritual traditions emphasize the internal evolution of the individual personality. In the classical Modern tradition shaped by Hegel and his successors, abstraction stands for the advance of history, and it conceals within itself the onetime structure of Christian millennialism; the spiritual traditions usually teach an infinite cyclicity of emanation and return. Modernist formalism has been more about Hegelian ideas of control than about spiritual ideas of receptiveness. Though the two traditions share a certain structure, they imply different stances toward life.

Abstract, diagrammatic representations of reality have been made for thousands of years, throughout known history and deep into prehistory. For centuries, the esoteric traditions have produced visual devices for education or contemplation. Symbolically or diagrammatically, these have often portrayed a series of stages through which multiplicity is held to emanate from and return to oneness, which is regarded as the foundation on which every particular phenomenon has its being. Often through an iconography of geometric shapes (which looks much like certain Modern abstract art), these works mediate between the one and the many, between changing experiences and an unchanging metaphysical ground. The mainstream, established religions, of course, also offer abstract or semiabstract visual encapsulations of their doctrines, but with a linear and dualist emphasis (except in the cases of Hinduism and Buddhism, where different considerations apply). In the European tradition, the 17th century was the heyday of the esoteric cosmogram. Rosicrucians, alchemists, and mystics such as Robert Fludd, Böhme, Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Heinrich Khunrath, Athanasius Kircher, and Michael Maier specialized in abstract or semiabstract compositions, often strikingly beautiful, which were preserved in their books, such as Fludd’s Utriusque cosmi (History of both worlds, 1617), Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (Atlanta fleeing, 1618), Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae (Amphitheater of eternal wisdom, 1609), and Kircher’s Mundi subterranei (Lower worlds, 1678). In the 19th and 20th centuries, occultists such as Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Charles Leadbeater, and Max Heindel continued or revived this tradition.

“The Spiritual in Art” sets out to establish a relationship between such books–both their teachings and their images—and the 20th-century tradition of abstract art. One of the most interesting and impressive features of the show is the display, in vitrines scattered throughout it, of rare early editions of classics of Western occultism, including most of those just named and more. The beauty of these books is hard to exaggerate, and they hold the viewer’s attention as strongly as any great painting. The idea that these books had a formative influence on abstract art, however, requires a number of qualifications, which can be found in more or less detail in the catalogue essays. (They tend to get buried in the exhibition itself.) Piet Mondrian read and looked at the works of Blavatsky (from whom he once said he learned everything), Besant, and Leadbeater because of a passionate interest in their contents—virtually a religious conversion–but he did not proceed to invent abstract art solely on the model of their occult images and cosmograms. Beyond their formal influences, what these books offered, it seems to me, was a general proof and promise. Abstract art was arising anyway, out of its variety of causes, but at the moment when it was arising Mondrian saw in books about theosophy, and others in other sources, the proof that it could be saturated with content, that it could be a deep and far-reaching mode of communication, a visual means to express both an esthetic sense and a vision of reality—to unite, as Mondrian said, art and philosophy.

Hermetic, alchemic, and cabalistic cosmograms are symbolic representations of philosophical and spiritual ideas, visual encapsulations of world processes. What the emphasis on abstraction as pure form has prevented us from seeing for so long is that much of 20th-century abstract painting is not strictly abstract—like the cosmograms, it involves symbolic representations of ideas about reality, with varying degrees of visual mediation. Tuchman and the other authors who contributed the catalogue essays have ample evidence to work with in making their connections between Modem abstraction and occult traditions. For long periods, though, this type of evidence has been unacknowledged, circumvented, or brushed aside, since from a formalist point of view such strong outside content is an irritant and an obstacle to the idea of pure, autonomous form. It renders hollow the insistence that abstraction refers only to itself.

There was a time when the idea of an abstract model that denied influences of ambient conditions, references, and circumstances conveyed a sense of liberation and transcendent possibility, and thus exerted a wide appeal. From a post-Modem vantage, that denial seems an inherent and fatal flaw. To isolate one chain of causality, such as the causality of sequences of visual forms, from the causal web as a whole is to ignore the linkage of social and psychological (including imaginative) forces. It is to posit an immaculate conception, a zone in which the meanings of the world miraculously cease to function. This is really no less a religious belief than are the mystical traditions that it refuses, but it is a religion in disguise, masquerading in secular clothing. When religious beliefs are elevated into principles of history they can exert a frightening, irrational power, blinding whole populaces to what history is really unfolding. The Hegelian-based belief in pure form guided by transcendent spirit, for example, eventually came to serve a dominance-oriented view of history. This view in turn, clouding the Western mind for a belief that certain forms held supremacy over the future, fed an age of terrible wars. Of course, the occult traditions are equally susceptible to abuse when, as does happen, they shift from the periphery to the mainstream of cultural history. Then, their usual emphasis on inner personal development can be generalized and externalized into a model of historical development quite as dangerous in its claims on the future as the Hegelian one. Kasimir Malevich, seemingly combining the Hegelian myth of history with the concept of entering the fourth dimension, felt that he was making the final artworks; Mondrian, from his point of view of theosophy, felt the same about his work and that of the other Neoplasticists; and Yves Klein, from his Rosicrucian point of view, made the same claim for his own work. All these cases show a similar ego inflation and a similar willingness to foreclose the future. And, as Tuchman points out in the catalogue for “The Spiritual in Art,” Karl von Reichenbach’s theory of “Odic force” was used by some of the Nazis to justify their claims over everybody else’s future as well as their own. The point is that though the esoteric traditions have generally functioned benignly in history, they cannot be regarded as inherently and necessarily benign. Their benignity results in part, as it were, from their underdog position.

A center of the exhibition is the focus on the works of four pioneer abstractionists who were clearly and consciously influenced by various occult traditions: Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Malevich, and Mondrian. Examples of these artists’ work are supplemented by catalogue essays which develop the show’s argument primarily in terms of their biographies and their statements of intention. One reads that “Kandinsky’s paintings were very much a product of his close reading of theosophical and anthroposophical writings by Helena P. Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner”; that Kupka “was apprenticed as a youth to . . . a spiritualist who led a secret society,” and that his “visionary experiences were translated into visual form in his painting”; that “Mondrian joined Amsterdam’s Theosophical Society in 1909,” and “invented an abstract visual language to represent these concepts”; and that Malevich consciously “fused his interest in [P. D. Ouspensky’s concept of] the fourth dimension with occult, numerological notions” in Suprematism, which was “intended to represent the concept of a body passing from ordinary three-dimensional space into the fourth dimension.”

The fact that the occult traditions in general involve a mysticism of space, of the fullness of emptiness (the idea that all things come out of it and return to it), has made them easy to confuse with the formalist insistence on pure form and its desired emptiness of all external content, as displayed by Clement Greenberg’s writings on Mondrian and Kandinsky. According to Greenberg, these artists derived “their chief inspiration from the medium they worked] in,” and from a “pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.”1 Mondrian and Kandinsky are drastically misrepresented by such remarks, which address half the story at best. Thus one of the important realizations that this exhibition promotes is the disturbing fact that many abstract painters were misrepresented by what became a solipsistic genre of critical discourse about the intentions and boundaries of abstract art. Matters were not helped by the many artists who in effect laughed behind their hands at what was being said about their work while ostensibly going along with the verbal rush. Here, really, is what the exhibition tacitly lays bare—the almost scandalous lack of communication between Modernist abstract art and the way it has predominantly been understood.

In addition to the four pioneers, the exhibition contains works by nearly a hundred other artists. The underlying point here is that throughout the period covered by the exhibition, the period between 1890 and 1985, the intention of abstract art involved a spiritual iconography as well as esthetic aspects. The wide-ranging essays in the catalogue discuss many of the artists in the show, and others as well, and here one reads in more or less detail of Jean Arp’s concern with representing the thought of Böhme, of Jackson Pollock’s explorations of Amerindian and Jungian cosmograms, of the influence of cabalistic concepts on Barnett Newman’s work, of Marcel Duchamp’s conversion of the symbolism of alchemy to his own purposes, of the influence of Böhme and Paracelsus on what Marsden Hartley called his “cosmic Cubism,” of Oskar Fischinger’s adoption of Buddhist, alchemic, and theosophical elements, of Eric Orr’s selection of forms and materials from Egyptian burial cults and shamanic rites, and of much more.

Some inclusions in the exhibition, such as those of Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns, seem somewhat forced, making the exclusions appear all the more unfortunate—especially the under-representation of women, with only 8 out of nearly 100 artists female, and only 1 of the 8 still living. (The show also seems at times to be tipping its hat to artists from California and New Mexico, some of them quite minor, creating the opportunity for critical punch lines about it being merely another expression of the land of cults and fads.) Perhaps Tuchman felt that he had liberally remembered women artists by the show’s fascination with a virtually unknown Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint, whose works are displayed in a room by themselves. Af Klint is used as a kind of paradigm or test case of the relationship between abstract images and occult or visionary thought. Born in Sweden in 1862, she was a professional portrait-and-landscape painter and one of the founders of a spiritualist group which centered on her abilities as a medium. Her two professions merged in the 1890s in a series of “automatic drawings,” which developed in about 1906 and after into oil paintings on canvas and watercolors. These works offer a distinct addition to the history of abstract art, as well as to the diagrams of spiritualist works. Yet according to the catalogue essay on her, by Ake Fant, af Klint seems to have known nothing of abstract art (which indeed was largely inchoate in 1906). Somewhat unclearly, Fant’s essay seems to imply that the archetypal or innate nature of both the esoteric traditions’ diagrams and Modern abstract painting is demonstrated by af Klint’s intuitive arrival at their look. It seems, however, that much of her painting can more or less be accounted for by her apparent familiarity with at least the work of Böhme, and possibly of others. In any case, the phenomenon of her work does clearly point to turn-of-the-century occultism and the birth of abstract painting as parts of a single cultural nexus.

That nexus, however, was broader than the exhibition suggests. As the rewarding catalogue essay by Linda Dalrymple Henderson brings out, the occult undercurrent was significant not only for early abstract painters but for early-20th-century art and culture in general. This was a late part of the Romantic period, when, as Matthew Arnold said, poetry and the arts functioned to buffer the shock of the de-Christianization of the West, compensating, in their transcendent aspirations, for the discrediting of religion in the Enlightenment. To give an example (mentioned by Henderson) from the field of painting, Cubists such as Max Weber and Pablo Picasso, and Surrealists including Matta and others, were at one time as interested in the concept of the fourth dimension as was Malevich, and also attempted to express it in their work—for example, in the Cubist idea of seeing an object from all sides at once, which was a concept of fourth-dimensional seeing. A wider purview on the part of the exhibition might have really explored whether the penchant for occult thought was especially felt by abstract painters, or whether, as Henderson implies, it was equally inspiring during the period in question for poets, composers, and artists of all media. To present spirituality as if it belonged especially under the umbrella of abstraction is to act out once again the Modernist myth of the anointed destiny of this type of art.

There is a related lack of attention to the limits of the influence of spiritual traditions on abstract artists themselves. It is easy enough to show that artists were intellectually influenced by the various spiritual traditions they adopted, and, furthermore, that their ambitions as artists were influenced by their spiritual ambitions. But what is lacking in the exhibition, and in most of the catalogue essays (perhaps because of their limitations of length), is detailed analysis of the relations between the texts and images of occultism on the one hand and those of abstract art on the other. Such an analysis would show, among other things, at what point the art left its sources and became something different from them. The essays understandably focus on the moments of the artists’ contact with or conversion to the occult, the moment of joining this or that society, of discovering this or that book—often a moment or period of youthful enthusiasm. They tell much less of the attitudes the artists held ten or twenty or thirty years later, of possible fallings away from their faiths—even of possible conversions, later in life, to the critical doctrine of contentless form.

What the catalogue essays do achieve is nevertheless considerable: their historical investigations place some abstract art firmly in the context of spiritualist thought (along with whatever else was in that context alongside it). Seen in this context, abstract art no longer seems, as some love to claim, something absolutely new under the sun. Instead, it appears as a continuation of a tradition that goes back to 17th-century occultism, which in turn goes back to the Neoplatonism and cabalism of the Renaissance and thence to the Neoplatonism and mystery cults of the Roman Empire, the philosophical cosmograms of Plato and the Pythagoreans, the works of Babylonian astronomers and cartographers, Sumerian cylinder-seal engravings, Egyptian hieroglyphic rebuses, and the abstract iconographies on Paleolithic cavern walls. This is a linkage with the past of a kind that Modernism and post-Modernism desperately need in order to keep their own insights and achievements in perspective.

It is ironic that around the cutoff date of this exhibition, 1985, two tendencies deeply germane to it began to make themselves felt. It was in 1985 that neoabstraction began to blast in full force. This work emphasizes the draining of content from abstract art by the formalist cult of pure form. Ostentatiously unspiritual, it is the empty simulacrum of abstract art, the corpse of the faith in pure form. It makes the antispiritual into a cultic style that is a mockery of the history of abstract art and of the meaning it once had. Its emptiness is the demonstration of the art-annihilating or art-devouring solipsism of formalist doctrine. And while the claim of this work to be a model, unreal, is ostensibly post-Modern in meaning, and is based on post-Structuralist ideas of the death of the real, it echoes, in its implications of the end of the authenticity of art, a tone of apocalyptic absolutism familiar from classical Modernism.

At about the same time that neoabstraction was appearing, self-conscious linkages to non-mainstream or esoteric traditions such as those in Tuchman’s show began to flurry again. Above all, the word “alchemic,” in its third or fourth resurgence in our century, began to appear in almost as many sentences in the art press as the word “appropriation.” In the last couple of years various symposia and exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale of 1986, have focused on the theme of alchemy as if it offered a kind of regenerative force for the present. Certain artists have for decades been producing works, with or without the word “alchemy” attached to them, that now can be seen as authentic and deep images of transformation. But in the face of the suddenly spreading wave of interest in alchemy, and of the inevitable works aimed at that interest, one braces oneself for another stream of empty simulacra of the real thing. Unfortunately, neoabstraction wraps up our century, and wraps up abstract art, in a neat package, as if both were closed and ended, while neoalchemic work, so to call it, heralds a new age in which the problems of the past will supposedly magically disappear. Neither is the case.

Thomas McEvilley is a writer who lives in New York. He is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston.



1. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. p 7.

“The Spintual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985” will remain at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until March 8; it will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, from April 21 through July 19, and to the Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, from September 1 through November 22.