New York

Frank Kupka

Samuels Gallery

“Though it seems quite simple, Kupka’s case has its own complexity. We find in him a kind of spontaneous generation of free forms arising independently of any Futurist, Fauve, or Cubist influence, or else spurred by all these movements at one and the same time. It is amazing to see with what ease he passes from one form to another, from the simplest to the most baroque, from the arabesque with very pure lines to Symbolist turgidity.” Written by Michel Seuphor, these words sum up much of the atmosphere and perplexity of Frank Kupka, an artist who has not really been put into the historical record, although he has been acknowledged as one of the pioneers of Western abstraction. A medium-sized show at Spencer Samuels Gallery almost, but not quite, clarifies the issues of Kupka’s work.

Imagine, if it does not seem too awful, a configurational cross between Gustave Moreau and Mondrian, couched in the syntax of Vorticism, and articulated in the chromatics of Orphism. Somewhere in this weird melange, making it seem almost natural, is the style of Kupka. Actually, a very personal grafting of Art Nouveau parabolas into splayed circles dominates the wilder side of his art, while a broken vertical stripe and strut alignment of forms characterizes its counterpart. Like Delaunay, with whom he shares the honor of having developed possibly the earliest colorism independent of representation (1911–12), Kupka moves easily from transparency to delicate impasto, negotiating differing states of paint matter and light with real suavity. But unlike Delaunay, he chose, with some important exceptions, hue combinations that were concerned with only one of the primaries—yellow (worked with lavender and grey)—and, therefore, managed to seem considerably more exotic than his contemporary. It is hard to escape Kupka’s association of yellow with gold, and to avoid thinking of such pictures as Arrangement in Yellow Verticals as a kind of cosmic chandelier. In the end, he is much less interested than Delaunay, during their crucial early World War I period, in simultaneity, and even in interpenetration of forms. For it seems that these ideas, metaphorical though they were, were too rationalistic for the crystalline mysticism of the Czech artist.

His preference for the ovoid over the circle, his dappled or vermicular curves, are indices of a lapidary sensibility that even transferred the machine motif during the twenties into an expensive instrument for esthetic delectation. Oddly enough, some of his design ideas have a bit in common with Frank Lloyd Wright, e.g., Une Pensee, 1923. And if one feels that Kupka finishes too often on an illustrational note, he composes with originality, and convinces by a curious, but authentic lyricism. The exhibition contains the important Madame Kupka dans les verticales, and a version of the Disques de Newton, in addition to a wealth of sparkling watercolors and woodcuts that yet stop short of giving him the fuller representation he deserves in this country.

Max Kozloff