Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art

By John I. H. Baur | Go to book overview
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Nature in Abstraction

For the past ten or fifteen years, abstract art has been a dominant mode of expression in America. But in its character, most of our abstract painting and sculpture pays small fealty to the concepts of those pure abstractionists, who hold that the work of art should be a completely meaningful object in itself, of solely esthetic significance, hermetically sealed against all other associations. In Europe, as George Hamilton pointed out in the catalogue of his "Object and Image" exhibition at Yale, this atlitude is historically associated with the early modern movemen in its heroic break with tradition and is diametrically opposed to a more recent trend toward an abstract but evocative imagery which reflects man's consciousness and inner being. In America, few even of our pioneer abstractionists could be called purists. The latter began to appear here only in the 1930's (many from abroad), and while they still form an active and vital group, they have always been a minority. Our tendency, more marked than ever today, has been toward kinds of abstraction which draw on observed reality to create, variously, a conscious imagery, an unconscious imagery or, at the least, a kind of organic and "natural" teleology of form.

It is our purpose here to determine exactly what the relation is between American abstract, art and one traditionally important aspect of observed reality -- nature. The inquiry is not in any sense a reactionary back-to-nature thesis. It is, rather, an effort to understand the character of the abstract vision and especially the personal attitudes and methods of various abstract artists in dealing with nature. These terms are used in their widest and commonest meanings: "abstraction" to describe any art not clearly based on recognizable visual reality, "nature" as the all-embracing universe about us, the tangible world of land and water, the intangible world of light, sky and air, the eternal forces of germination, growth and death which make up the cycles of life and season -- with man and man-made things alone excluded.

It is apparent that this is but part of a larger question, the relation of' abstract art to all experience. Still, it is a significant part, for the multitudinous aspects of nature are inescapable, a part of every man's environment. Since the Renaissance they have been the timeless themes of art, and there is ample evidence that they continue to move, and sometimes perplex, many abstract artists just as

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