One part of me keeps saying that abstraction is over and done with: What more can be done with pure form, at least what more can be done to make it expressively convincing -- "visionary?" Only by being convincing can it avoid becoming the formal exercise -- the clever, empty manipulation of forms -- it seems to have degenerated into as it has become assimilated into art history.
But another part of me says this is a silly thought: Look at what continues to be done with the human figure -- a basic staple of art since antiquity. Abstract painting is much younger than figural painting, suggesting that however rapidly it has matured into a convention, there’s still room for growth.
I think that one of the areas of growth is "mood." Kandinsky defined "mood" as "a particular state of mind," and thought that Impressionist painting conveyed mood indirectly through "the forms of nature." But that was only the beginning of the modern attempt to convey what he called "inner beauty": The final step was to convey mood directly through "abstract form[s]," that is, without depicting natural objects -- "non-objectively." Modern mood painting, as abstract painting might be called, "prevent[s] the soul from becoming coarsened" by the modern world, as it is likely to be by reason of its rampant materialism -- what he called "the whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude," with its emphasis on the external at the expense of the internal.
Kandinsky regarded "the struggle toward the nonnaturalistic, the abstract, toward inner nature" as a defense against soul-coarsening modern society, against the "oppressive suffering caused by [its] materialistic philosophy," which "turns the life of the universe into [a] purposeless game." The "desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose" in materialistic society conveys "spiritual-moral" blight -- a "black inner mood." For Kandinsky, the task of abstract art is "to awaken. . . feelings of a finer nature. . . that we cannot put into words," feelings that show we have a spiritual-moral core, however outwardly materialistic we have become -- indeed, a spiritual-moral self that we ourselves might not know, or might have forgotten, that we possess, so possessed have we become by materialistic pursuits.
In other words, for Kandinsky abstract art is the antidote to the spiritual poison of modern materialism -- a saving grace, a rescuing emotional angel, that unexpectedly arises from within its morbid materialistic depths, as though by some dialectical miracle. The paradoxical mission of abstract art is to communicate the "incommunicado core of the self," as Winnicott calls this soul or spirit that has been ignored and denied by modern materialism. And, further, to communicate it in a "visionary" way, that is, through visual means, which are the only means that can do it justice (however limited), for it is wordless. It can never be stated discursively, only "discovered" through an abstract mood, which is what pure art at its most esthetically convincing -- pure art that affords a eureka moment of "in-sightful" esthetic awareness -- is.
I agree with Kandinsky, and agree that it is becoming harder and harder to make pure spiritual-moral painting because society has become more grossly – and more desperately -- materialistic. Even necessarily materialistic, by reason of the great number of people who are materially deprived, deprived of the material essentials necessary for survival. It has also become harder to make visionary pure painting -- in contrast to merely formal painting -- because there are few if any credible religious supports to help sustain a purely spiritual-moral mood -- to give esthetically and socially convincing form to the individual’s spiritual-moral feelings. It is also inherently difficult to remain in abstract communication with -- that is, to have what Jacques Maritain calls a "creative intuition" -- the incommunicado spiritual-moral core of one’s own self, that is, to connect "introspectively" with it, for it seems to exist (if one senses that it does) at an infinite remove from one’s everyday self. As such, it seems impersonally abstract, if not a mirage, a delusion of narcissistic grandeur. It seems like an absurd hallucination because it cannot be materially "formulated," making it altogether inconceivable and unfathomable. Kandinsky decisively makes this point by noting the shortsightedness of Virchow’s remark that he dissected many bodies and never saw a soul. Virchow was a great physiologist, but he was a spiritual innocent, the unwitting victim of the authoritarian materialism of his day.
Looking around our so-called art world -- a rather sectarian place (the factions have been trying to kill each other off for sometime) -- I have found, in the paintings of several Spanish abstract painters, a convincing mood, that is, a significant sense of what Kandinsky called "inner necessity." The place to see Spanish art in New York is the Gabarron Foundation Carriage House Center for the Arts, and Elie Halioua, whose abstract paintings are currently on view, is one of these painters. At first glance, the mood of his paintings seems familiar, but one quickly realizes that it is their geometry that is familiar, by way of Rothko and Scully. Geometrical forms add up to an integrated whole, as hermetically compact as the forms are self-contained. The color is usually a sort of irradiated blue, although sometimes it looks bleached out, and dark edges enhance its intensity. The shadow helps the geometry stand out by making us aware of its inner light: obscurity adds a certain expressive density to the "mathematics," as Halioua calls it. In one work, two broad vertical bands and two large squares seem at odds yet integrated, in a way suggestive of Mondrian’s deceptive simplicity. But Halioua’s atmospheric surface gives the geometry a certain poignancy.
Holioua is indeed a mathematician, trained as an engineer, and his compositions utilize a polyp tic format. They are based on alogithms. The mathematics is a means to the end of painting, not a formal end in itself. The use of mathematical models and graphic info applications seems at odds with the moody atmospherics. We feel the underlying tension between the mathematically subtle forms and the refined colors and shifting shadows -- especially the shadows. The tension is echoed in the contrast between the firm contours (often black) of the geometrical forms and the seductively soft colors and atmospheric shadows. The tension gives rises to an exquisitely ineffable feeling -- a pure nameless mood. Passion seems implicit, control explicit -- passion in the color and shadow, however subdued and impacted. The abstractions are constructions, but rather poignant constructions, as their moody color suggests. Halioua’s paintings put us in a twilight zone of feeling -- the liminal esthetic space that the best pure painting seems to create out of next to nothing.
Like good abstract paintings, Halioua’s are mood experiments: they dive into the psychic depths and come up with a pearl of unusual -- yet strangely familiar -- feeling. The particular feeling that Spanish art seem to specialize in is depression. It is subliminally present in Spanish mystical painting, even when it is starkly realistic. Spanish painting is emotionally realistic -- in touch with the most fundamental feelings -- even when it is descriptive. I suggest that the mood of Halioua’s paintings is depressive: he distills the depressiveness of traditional Spanish paintings, abstractly refining it until its morbidity becomes explicit. The somber spell of traditional Spanish painting becomes the depressive eloquence of Halioua’s abstract paintings. Only pure painting can convey pure suffering at its deepest. Halioua has turned natural shadow into inner shadow -- morbid abstract shadow. This is his "advance": he makes the disturbing inner meaning of traditional Spanish painting explicit by giving it non-objective form. Strange as it may seem to say so, what the Spanish call duende is latent in Halioua’s abstract mood.
Am I putting too much "inner necessity," as Kandinsky called it, into "dark" Spanish painting and Halioua’s luminously dark paintings? Only if one is afraid of the dark.
"Elie Halioua: Anatomy of a Thought," Oct. 30, 2008-Jan. 7, 2009, at the Gabarron Foundation Carriage House Center for the Arts, 149 East 38th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.