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by Thomas Hoving
Abstraction? All art's abstract. Well, isn't it? Because of what it's made of!
That's what my favorite instructor told me when I was an undergraduate -- he was a brassy, slick, articulate young man, not much older than his students, and we adored him for his brilliance and humor plus the way he effortlessly danced through Princeton's grim, Calvinistic graduate school of the fine arts. Today he's become a big-time art historian and something of a celebrity.
I've got to admit that he did almost destroy Giotto for me forever. While showing a slide of Giotto's famous Lamentation in the Arena Chapel of Padua, he quipped, "Very dramatic [pause] particularly because of this apostle in the middle who looks like Gertrude Ederle about to dive into the English Channel."
On the question of abstraction, his point was that all art could only be abstract, since it used its materials to depict things that were in fact made of totally different substances. Once oil paint, encaustic, tempera, acrylic, watercolor and so forth "becomes" a bunch of apples, a patch of sea, a wintery fiord or the setting sun, everything becomes abstract. Or when bronze, marble or clay is used to become flesh, bone, cascading hair or a pair of palpitating lips, true reality vanishes.
He'd say with a gentle smirk, "Ironically, one of the few truly non-abstract painters was Picasso when he broke all artistic conventions and used an actual piece of chair cane in a Cubist work to represent what others had expressed in paint -- the real stuff."
My instructor also rammed into our heads that throughout time there had always been two essential artistic styles -- the abstract and the real -- running side by side to express different things. Abstract for dogma, spiritual essences, the otherworldly, the divine. Realism for secular matters and events, human beings, heroes, beauties and all else to be rendered unto Caesar.
It has never been that an artist had to use abstraction because of an inability to perform in illusionism. There were just different subjects and thoughts to be captured. And there's also never been a realist who couldn't paint or sculpt in a dynamically abstract way -- again, it was a question of what was to be depicted. And why.
Getting into the abstraction mood, here are my personal favorite abstract works of art over time.
* 2600-2400 BC. The female figures from the Cycladic islands at the Met in the soignée Greek and Roman galleries. These sculptures, although totally abstract, nonetheless capture the mystery and beauty of femininity far better I think, than the Venus de Milo.
* 570 BC. The enormous volute krater of the Archaic Black Figure Style with six energetic friezes by the painter Clitias, thickly packed with thrilling and animated "stick-figures" that illustrate the bustling pantheon of the Greek myths and experiences. The huge vase is in Florence -- in the never-seen Museo Archeologico -- and is one of the wonders of abstraction and, for that matter, all art.
* 4th century AD. The flat, cookie-cutter incorporeal sculptures on the main facade of Rome's Arch of Constantine showing the first Christian emperor flanked by his retinue. The arch is loaded with tons of highly realistic sculptures pirated from earlier Roman emperors that are at stark odds with the stiff, cubic, cramped little images. Was it that the early Christian artists didn't know how to make the chief and his cohorts look like real guys? Nonsense. The stunning difference between the spare, flattened-out Constantinian guard and the old, fleshly guard was calculated. The new Christian spirituality had to be abstract in honor of the Messiah who preached spirit over flesh, the word over muscles.
* 8th century AD. The Book of Kells with its 16 by 12 inch illuminated pages with their thousands upon thousands of seemingly meaningless lines creating an infinite variety of dazzlingly madcap forms -- curlicues, lozenges, shapes of every imaginable geometric kind -- placed in an unreal universe populated by hundreds of tiny abstract animals and human figures, as complex as the Milky Way. Contemporary observers wondered if angels had painted these pages -- I believe they could have, they are so out of this world.
* 12th century AD. The great minbar or "pulpit" commissioned by the Sultan Ali Yusuf in 1137, made in Cordoba, Spain, and now in the Badi Palace Museum in Marrakesh, Morocco. Over 12 feet high, the pulpit originally consisted of nearly a million (count them!) diversely shaped and carved pieces of bone and multi-colored woods -- many pieces no bigger than mustard seeds -- shaped as stars, hexagons, scrolling vines, pine cones, blossoms, checkerboard motifs and Arabic letters. The Metropolitan Museum helped to restore the glorious abstract minbar and published a fine book about it.
* 14th century AD. The high Byzantine mosaics in the former Church of the Holy Savior or Chora, Istanbul, now a museum. Completely unreal and surreal, these wraith-like clouds and swirls of human beings act out convincingly virtually all the key roles in the Old and New Testaments. These stunning creatures are served up by means of millions of sparkling tesserae of every color conceivable punctuated by gold and silver chunks. If there is a Paradise this is got to be what it looks like.
* 16th century AD. Michelangelo's "Rondanini" Pieta, in which he veered sharply away from his normal dramatic, near-illusionistic style and deliberately chose crudely designed, raw, abstract forms so as to transform them into the very spirit of suffering humanity of an intense super-realism. As my instructor friend said, "Real realism can only be attained with non-objective forms."
* 19th century AD. Lots of goodies. Begin with Edouard Manet's startling Fifer of 1865, that steamroller-flattened, cannily abstract image of the young boy piccoloing away, looking like a musical Jack of Hearts painted in stark primary colors and surrounded by a severe silhouette, which drove the Academicians bananas and which is the true father-in-law of cubism.
Georges Seurat's Grande Jatte in Chicago populated with totally abstract cardboard cutouts which, nonetheless, manage to live and breathe.
Virtually any landscape of Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cezanne, which fragments, splits, demolishes and rebuilds nature much like the mosaics of the Chora.
* 20th century AD. I have practically more favorites than there's space, but prime are:
Picasso's Three Musicians (at the Museum of Modern Art) for which, I swear, the artist found models on the street who actually looked like these endearing blocks and cubes. They are that thoroughly naturalistic.
Marcel Duchamp's gallant and unruly abstract mess and message in Philly, the Great Glass.
White on White by Kazimir Malevich, one of the most serious abstract efforts of all art history, in the collection of the Museum of Modern art. As serious as a sacred religious icon.
The late Georges Braque in the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Piet Mondrian's sparkling ode to hot jazz and hot times, Broadway Boogie-Woogie.
A host of the glowing, golden, rust-red, orangey Mark Rothkos, which I'd gather up to decorate an abstract and scrumptious womb in which to retire for the rest of my life.
THOMAS HOVING is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of Art for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide).