Constructive Spirit: Abstract Art in South and North America, 1920s–50s

Amon Carter Museum

Frances Colpitt

Joaquín Torres-García, Locomotora con casa constructiva (Locomotive with Constructive House), 1934; oil on canvas; © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain; Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

Joe H. Herrera, Untitled, 1951; oil on canvas; Jonson Gallery Collection, University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque

A clear-eyed, utopian vision of art’s role in society distinguished the extensive survey of American abstraction at the Amon Carter Museum from the tattered weariness of much contemporary art. Despite the limitations of primarily easel-size works and an almost exclusively geometric orientation, the show included an eclectic range of expressive possibilities for communication on a supra-linguistic level. Representing sixty-eight artists, and many women, it also introduced lesser-known figures, especially from South America, to an audience more familiar with abstraction’s Eurocentric reputation. While the exhibition didn’t dispute such an origin, it argued for the widespread popularity of constructivism—distinct from the more subjective expressionist strains of abstraction—as an international, even “universal” language extending to painting, sculpture, photography and film.

While other exhibitions have documented the South American embrace of abstraction, Constructive Spirit, organized by Mary Kate O’Hara, Associate Curator of American Art at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, is the only one to focus specifically on American developments. The influence of Native American sources on both North and South American artists, as well as abstraction’s very cosmopolitan nature—its nourishment by cities such as Buenos Aires, Caracas, Montevideo, New York and São Paulo—are well documented by the beautifully illustrated, scholarly catalogue accompanying the exhibition. I have few quibbles with the essays, with the exception of Aliza Edelman’s claim, in her contribution, that the anonymous language of geometric abstraction, which she insists on gendering male, was adopted by women as a “masquerade,” concealing their explorations of female identity. I would argue that it is the very anti-subjective anonymity of the style that attracted those women to geometry; they were more interested in the nature of reality, vision, the aesthetic or the spiritual rather than the self.

Installed along loosely chronological lines, the exhibition opened with the “pioneers,” New Yorker Stuart Davis and the peripatetic Uruguayan, Joaquín Torres-García. Davis’ abstract still life, Egg Beater #2 (1928) from the Carter’s collection, boasts a seductive, tactile impasto built from thick, directionally applied paint, spread like butter or mayonnaise. An eggbeater, fan and rubber glove are suggested by sharply delineated, mechanical shapes in yellow, blue, orange, ivory and pale magenta, set against a bright green background. Less colorful but equally influential, Torres-García’s paintings are based on the grid and reflect the constructivist ethos of building a composition with discrete rectilinear elements. Composition (1932) is a classic example of his compartmentalized compositions containing individual pictographs, outlined in black. Popular in North as well as South America, the symbol-filled, blocky armature was also inspired by building techniques of pre-Columbian architecture and the designs of Northwest Coast textiles and totems. The standouts of the exhibition’s comprehensive pictographic section were Adolph Gottlieb’s The Mutable Objects (1946), Louise Nevelson’s Dark Shadows (1957) and Rosa Acle’s painting Norte (1938), a fusion of pre-Columbian glyphs and the modernist grid.

Stuart Davis, Egg Beater No. 2, 1928; oil on canvas; courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth

Toni LaSelle, Study For Puritan, c. 1947–50; oil on canvas; 12 x 16 inches; courtesy of Barry Whistler Gallery; photo by Allison V. Smith

By the halfway point in the exhibition, a considerable number of formal vectors extended from the core commitment to constructivist abstraction. Surface treatments ranged from George L. K. Morris’ decorative use of pointillism to Carmelo Arden Quin’s irregular wooden polygon with an enamel surface sanded as smooth as glass entitled Points and Lines (c. 1950). Shaped canvases and reliefs, often with glossy, industrial surfaces, were popular with many artists, especially members of the numerous groups championing constructivism, such as the American Abstract Artists, the Argentine Asociación Arte Concreto-Invención and Ruptura in Brazil. The high point of the exhibition was a pair of paintings by John McLaughlin and Ad Reinhardt, hung side by side. Each is exquisitely painted by a hand sensitive to the surface of the support and the properties of oil paint, but without visible brushwork. Reinhardt’s vertical Triptych Painting (1955) contains three cruciform shapes delineated by contrasts of warm and cool blacks; the distinctions slowly manifest as the viewer’s eyes adjust to the paucity of reflected light from the dark powdery surface. The overall rectangle of McLaughlin’s luminous Untitled (1952) is divided into a series of matte black, white, gray and light steel-blue rectangles tautly locked together in total flatness. With crisply painted edges and harmonious proportional relationships, the rectangles provide an immediately perceptible sense of measure and reason.

The exhibition concluded with a survey of Op Art, a more direct descendent of constructivism in South America than it was in the north. Venezuela was well represented, especially by Carlos Cruz-Díez’s abstract film of an openwork sculpture by Gertrud Goldschmidt (known as Gego), which was installed below the projected film. Much of this work is forgotten today, when an emphasis on surface embellishment has replaced abstraction’s profound concerns with structure. A small oil sketch by Texas artist Toni LaSelle, the centerpiece of a recent show at Barry Whistler Gallery, is a pivot point in this development. Recalling a constructivist still life, Study for Puritan (c. 1947–50) is composed of precariously balanced green and black rectangles, triangles and an oval, roughly drawn and modified with white paint. In contrast to the scruffiness of LaSelle, John Pomara’s commitment to industrial materials and high-tech finish recalls the sensibility on display at the Carter. A black staccato pattern, produced with a squeegee, appears to float over the center of the glossy white enamel ground of his Screen Play Study (2010). Other works in Small Abstract Painting, which was organized by Pomara and Whistler, are more quirky and undisciplined, at a considerable remove from the hygienic vision of the constructivists. With their capricious brushwork and off-key palettes, Lorraine Tady and Ludwig Schwarz represent an essential direction in contemporary abstraction. Splitting the difference, Polly Lanning Sparrow tames eccentric color combinations with a subtly askew grid. Together, these summer shows provided ample evidence of the boundless potential of abstraction that eschews the indulgences of self-expression in favor of cool creativity.

Frances Colpitt is the Deedie Potter Rose Chair of Art History at Texas Christian University.

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