The Subject Matter
of Abstract Painting
Having briefly outlined some of the major sources that nourished abstract painting and shaped the direction of its development, we can now turn to the actual theory behind it. Here again Kandinsky offers the student the major clues in his search, and provides some of the answers to the questions that arise. In turning to the theory of abstract painting, our first question is obvious: what is its subject matter? What does the painting that has no “object” (Gegenstand) represent? To what did the term “abstract” apply in the minds of the founders of abstract painting? Or quite simply: what did they mean when they spoke about “abstract” painting?
These questions are commonly asked. Listening to spectators at exhibitions of abstract art and in museums displaying works of this school, one often hears: what does this picture really represent? Frequently the tone of the question is one of bewilderment and confusion. Rather than discuss abstract painting in general, my aim here is more modest, namely, to understand how the founders of abstract painting formulated the doctrine of their movement. To a critical reader, some of the theses so ardently defended by the painters in their books explaining the aims of their work seem to contain profound logical contradictions. However, what interests us in the original theory of abstract painting is not so much its consistency as a philosophical statement or as a doctrine of aesthetics; rather, we value it for what it can tell us about the problems that concerned the founders of abstract painting and the direction of their thought. In such a context, even the contradictions may be indicative and revealing.
For decades the view has been widely accepted that so-called “abstract painting” aims primarily—some would say, exclusively—at creating about an aesthetic experience. Many admirers see it as “pure art.” They understand such art as a creation that is fully exhausted in mere sensual experience. According to the artists and critics who hold to this view, the ques