‘There is no such thing as good painting about nothing…the subject is crucial’, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb wrote in 1943. Taking them at their word, Abstract Art: A Global History jettisons the usual narrative of ‘Cubism begat Constructivism, Abstract Expression begat Minimalism’, etc., and instead approaches abstraction by focusing on five kinds of subject matter: bodies, landscapes, cosmologies, architectures, and signs and patterns. This new approach makes it possible to include a wide range of abstract artists omitted from conventional histories.
It’s well known that Abstract Expressionists like Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock were inspired by the totemic imagery of African and Northwest Coast artists. In the chapter on Bodies, these familiar names are joined by Ethiopian American artist Wosene Worke Kosrof, whose 1986 canvas Witness arranges masks, geometric figures and lettering in a grid, evoking the strips of traditional Ethiopian prayer scrolls. Modernism is put into the service of African culture, instead of the other way around.