Understanding Abstract Art by Frank Whitford - review by Oliver Bennett

Oliver Bennett

Driven to Abstraction

Understanding Abstract Art


Barrie & Jenkins 160pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

Boldly going where no art historian has gone before, Frank Whitford attempts a double; the first book exclusively on abstract art, and the first to explain it in everyday language. Understanding Abstract Art treats its elusive subject matter like a primer for a difficult new language. Its liberal brief is to clarify and open up a notoriously hostile and hermetic world for the curious novice. Pitted against a double edge of popular antipathy and defensive practitioners, this would seem a difficult task, but Whitford does rather well, producing a polite yet firm document while genteely sidestepping the vanity of judgement, like the good art historian that he is.

This is bound to upset people. Kurt Schwitters is quoted on page 41 as saying ‘Art is a primordial concept … inexplicable as life’, conjuring up generations of stroppy artists antagonistic to anyone who tries to understand their riddles. However, the elements of abstract art often resist description, let alone comprehension, so it is with this in mind that many abstract artists have devoted a lot of energy to theory, in lip service to a predominantly verbal and analytical culture. But their utterances have so often been as elusive as the images they purport to represent that they have created theoretical black holes – helped by the bewildering pick ‘n’ mix of 20th century art classification; anyone for neo-plasticism? Whitford sorts through the jamboree bag of a century’s abstract art with the precision of a seed grader. He only allows himself bemusement on a few occasions, for example over Mondrian’s well-known unwillingness to accept De Stijl colleague Van Doesburg’s use of the diagonal line: ‘quite sensible, highly intelligent men regarding art with the seriousness with which others regarded morality or religion’. Not so strange when we realise that abstraction, in the hands of its original proponents, was so severe a wrench from the past that it became the ‘court painting’ of new social orders. The Russian Constructivists hoped their geometric paintings and sculptures would become absorbed into brave new engineering projects, and around the same period Mondrian said ‘Non-figurative art brings to an end the ancient culture of art’. But this voluntary castration of artists demanding the end of art became submerged by the immediate post World War II years, when the Americans wanted to do it their way, and performed a PR job on Abstract Expressionism to show the world they had ‘culture’ too. They subsequently seized the European power base of the art world and never gave it back, but that’s another story.

When artists gradually lost the object around the beginning of the century, they lost the enduring but historically recent notion that representation of the real world is the primary aim of art. Without a recognisable moral or narrative context, abstract art was either adrift or autonomous, depending on your position. The centre of gravity shifted from content to form. Jung felt it indicated the psychic rift between man and nature. For others it showed a rift between artists and art.

Recorded in the book are the feelings of both caution and liberation at abstraction’s onset. While Malevich, to ‘free art from the ballast of objectivity … took refuge in the square …’, Kandinsky was ‘freed’ into a world of forms where ‘everything dead trembled.’ A common realisation was that paintings were objects in their own right, and thus for a while the ‘art for art’s sake’ lobby were vindicated.

Is there anything more to abstraction than novelty, the jacket asks, being slightly unfair to such an obviously inspirational value in modern art history. However, in the book, the question yields the best aphorism of the book, ‘there is nothing new about originality’, leading into an interesting passage about the neophilia of artists.

Whitford’s book is largely non-chronological – itself a departure from the usual low-pitched history-of-art source book. It’s thematic approach means that it could have a particular value in education, like Linda Nochlin’s Realism, or John Golding’s Cubism. As it makes clear, the artistic disruptions of the early Twentieth Century reverberate today, which makes it tantalising that Whitford does not ask whither abstract art? This could have led into an interesting discussion about why the stuff is lining our boardrooms and public places. But he is too shrewd to start speculating here, which demonstrates the credibility of this efficient book. My feeling is that the antagonism and suspicion that abstract art has aroused is surely part of its potency. And for as long as it continues to baffle, writers such as Whitford will have their work cut out.

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