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Left: Joaquín Torres-García, Color Structure, 1930. Oil on canvas, 24 × 20 in. (61 × 50.8 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (by exchange). Courtesy of the Estate of Joaquín Torres-García. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY. Right: Alejandro Otero, Ortogonal (Collage) 2, 1951. Cut-and-pasted colored paper on paper mounted on paper, 12⅝ × 12⅝ in. (32.1 × 32.1 cm). Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Otero Pardo Foundation. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

On Qualifying Abstraction

Megan A. Sullivan

Alejandro Otero, Colored Lines on a White Background, 1951. Oil on canvas, 25 3/16 × 21¼ in. (64 × 54 cm). Private collection. Courtesy of the Otero Pardo Foundation.

Abstract art has never been one. From its very inception in the early twentieth century, qualifiers have been employed by both artists and scholars so as to distinguish between its competing formal and theoretical approaches. Of all those qualifiers, perhaps the most basic and well known are “non-geometrical” and “geometrical,” as proposed by the MoMA director Alfred Barr in his now-infamous 1936 chart. In due course many others would join: “hard-edge,” “monochrome,” “biomorphic,” “gestural,” “color field,” “calligraphic,” to name just a few.

Over the course of the last several years, however, qualifiers of a different kind have emerged. Rather than pointing to formal distinctions, they speak to cultural, ethnic, national, or gender identities: “queer abstraction,” “women in abstraction,” “abstraction from the Arab world,” “Afro-Brazilian abstraction,” among several others. These qualifiers are evidently not all of the same order. While some imply material and stylistic differences evident in the work themselves, others attend to groups and agents making their mark within established practices of abstraction. But such distinctions aside, these new qualifiers collectively suggest that a broad methodological shift has taken place—one that entails a marked departure from the formalist approaches that have long dominated the study of abstraction. In their stead, a sociocultural paradigm has risen to prominence, allowing us reckon with previously neglected topics or rethink ones whose interpretation had seemed set.

Questions that once seemed inimical to the study of abstraction (e.g. the influence of the decorative arts, the legacy of autochthonous cultures, or the search for national representation) have surfaced as both fully meaningful and crucial to its study. This has produced a far richer picture of how abstraction produces significance and for whom it might be significant. I’d like to think through the implications of that shift specifically for the study of non-western abstract artists—many of whom had been previously overlooked, as their work seemed derivative of, or too far removed from, the formal concerns of their European and American peers.

Alejandro Otero, Ortogonal (Collage) 2, 1951. Cut-and-pasted colored paper on paper mounted on paper, 12⅝ × 12⅝ in. (32.1 × 32.1 cm). Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Otero Pardo Foundation. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

To begin, it’s worth noting that the case against formalism is not entirely unfair. Historically, formalist approaches to abstraction have privileged a certain kind of radical critique of representation and self-conscious exploration of the limits of the medium that flourished in Europe and the United States. To the extent that this is true, formalism can be said to have a western bias—although its most ardent critics would arguably prefer to construe this bias as simply motivated by a dismissive attitude toward non-western artistic traditions. In any event, the sociocultural paradigm, for its part, has urged us to enlarge our interpretive scope by both situating abstraction within highly localized contexts and acknowledging abstraction’s capacity to perform symbolic and representational functions.

But in spite of these important developments, is it possible that this shift from a formalist to a sociocultural variety of art history is producing another bias in the study of abstraction?

Joaquín Torres-García, Color Structure, 1930. Oil on canvas, 24 × 20 in. (61 × 50.8 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection (by exchange). Courtesy of the Estate of Joaquín Torres-García. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

My new book, Radical Form: Modernist Abstraction in South America, takes on this question. In it, I too qualify abstraction. Nevertheless, the attribute that I stress is not primarily linked to any identity-based category; it’s rather abstraction’s connection to modernism. I take “modernist abstraction” to mean a conceptualization of abstract painting as a progressive, self-reflexive, and semi-autonomous practice intent upon tackling the questions posed by the modern condition. For scholars of western modernism, this might seem like something of a pleonasm, as they have long taken this connection for granted. But for the adherents of the sociocultural paradigm, it might also look like an attempt to restore formalist approaches to their previous hegemony.

In proposing this category, however, I’m not trying to advance a normative, one-size-fits-all definition; my goal is to bring visibility to features of abstraction that have been historically downplayed outside of the West. South America is a case in point. Since abstraction was introduced in the region in the 1930s, it was regarded with suspicion. Many local critics dismissed it as foreign, international, “l’art-pour-l’art,” and ultimately representative of a sensibility that lacked roots in countries that, in their eyes, were the heirs to Latin (which is to say, Mediterranean) European cultures. Although at odds with these critics, those who championed autochthonous peoples and cultures held essentially the same view: abstraction, a foreign import, could play no meaningful symbolic role in the region.

By the mid-1950s, the artistic establishment of the most economically advanced countries in the region—Brazil and Argentina—changed tack. Their local elites started to regard abstraction as a potentially profitable symbol of material progress, economic development, and what they would customarily refer to (albeit in an unqualified manner) as “modernity.” Attitudes changed, yet the basic premise that abstraction (and art in general) ought to perform a representational role remained untouched.

Tomás Maldonado, Development of a Triangle, 1949. Oil on canvas, 31¾ × 23 ¾ in (80.6 × 60.3 cm). Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of James Cuno. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Artwork © Tomás Maldonado. Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

In both cases, this approach—which can be seen as a forerunner of the current sociocultural paradigm—did little justice to local universalist projects of abstraction. Here I have in mind projects like those of Joaquín Torres-García, Tomás Maldonado, Alejandro Otero, and Lygia Clark (the subjects of my book), which were rather driven by investigations of the meaning of belonging, political emancipation, modernization, and the self taken at their most general (i.e. universal). These projects were not representative of any collective; they were unconcerned with identity. And there is no reason why they should be exclusively measured by that yardstick.

To varying degrees, both scholars of western and non-western abstraction tend now to share the assumption that the work of abstract artists outside of the West is primarily relevant to their own societies and most immediate contexts. Of course, this premise is not problematic in and of itself; it evidently applies, for example, to artists who deployed abstraction to produce national allegories, and it can even serve to explain—whatever the artists’ intentions—the social and political functions that different artistic establishments ascribed to abstract art.

It is important to note, however, that some non-western abstract artists endeavored to speak in the voice of the universal. If we apply the sociocultural paradigm to all projects of non-western abstraction in a blanket manner, we risk missing the opportunity of developing a full picture of modernist practices at a global level. Universalist ambitions are not exclusive to the West; they have never been. Unearthing the history of non-western universalisms, while still not a major trend in the discipline of art history, remains an urgent task. If we fail to engage with these projects, I believe, we are in danger of producing a history of art in which it appears that only European and U.S. modern artists explored universal questions. And in doing so, I would dare to say, we fall short of fully decolonizing the discipline.


Megan A. Sullivan is assistant professor in the Department of Art History and the College at the University of Chicago.

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