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Busting open the old boys’ club: A new look at abstract art

Posted on 24 Oct 2020

The artists in 'Abstract Art: A Global History' make it clear that abstraction is not a closed chapter in the history of modern art – or a club limited to white men from Europe or North America – but an open-ended, inclusive conversation.

Alma Thomas, Carnival of Autumn Leaves, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 127 x 127 cm (50 x 50 in.) Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York. Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

‘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.

Wosene Worke Kosro, Witness, 1986. Acrylic on linen, 152 x 132 cm (59 7/8 x 52 in.) Collection of Jolene Tritt and Paul Herzog. Courtesy of Jolene Tritt and Paul Herzog, Arlington, VA USA. © Wosene Worke Kosrof


One section of the Landscapes chapter shows how the cliffs and waterfalls of nineteenth-century Romantic landscape return in modern abstraction.  In Blue and Yellow One Stroke Waterfall (1992), Pat Steir arranges her painterly drips into the image of a waterfall descending into a pool, like a hallucinatory version of J.M.W. Turner’s Great Fall of the Reichenbach. Steir also links her work to Chinese ink painting, with its concept of qi, a vital energy running through both human beings and the natural world.

Another section of Landscapes traces the evolution from the shimmering brushwork of the Impressionists to the studded reliefs of Günther Uecker and the trembling grids of Nasreen Mohamedi. African American artist Alma Thomas appears here.  After spending most of her life as a schoolteacher, Thomas was inspired by a late Cézanne in the Phillips Collection to begin painting abstractly, arranging strokes of pure color into parallel columns or concentric circles. The trees in Carnival of Autumn Leaves (1973) remain invisible, but their presence is unmistakable.

Pat Steir, Blue and Yellow One Stroke Waterfall, 1992. Oil on canvas, 442.6 x 230.5 cm (174 ¼ x 90 ¾ in.) Private collection. Courtesy Pat Steir and Lévy Gorvy Gallery.


Suns and Planets, in the Cosmologies chapter, starts with the solar disks of Hilma af Klint and Robert Delaunay and concludes with a powerful, mysterious Black Sun (2013-14), by another African American artist, Adam Pendleton. The sun is drawn as a series of concentric circles, with flares radiating from its interior. The composition is based on a drawing by jazz composer and band leader Sun Ra. What looks like a painting is in fact a relief cast in black silicone, its gentle gleam replacing the blinding light of the sun with a dark, comforting warmth.

Adam Pendleton, Black Sun, 2013–14. Black silicone, 304.80 × 304.80 × 4.44 cm (120 × 120 × 1 ¾ in.) Courtesy of the artist.


House with Aids (1987), by Argentinean artist Guillermo Kuitca, appears in the Architectures chapter.  At first glance, the arrangement of vertical and horizontal lines recalls the asymmetrical grids of Piet Mondrian. On closer inspection, the lines turn out to be walls defining the floor plan of an apartment, accompanied by schematic indications of a bed, a bathtub, and other furnishings. In the upper part of the picture, the floor plan is silhouetted against a wallpaper pattern; in the lower, the empty bed reappears in perspectival view, implicitly recalling a lost partner. The enumeration of factual details becomes a statement of numbed grief.

Guillermo Kuitca, House with AIDS, 1987. Acrylic on canvas, 157 x 214 cm (61 3/4 x 84 ¼ in.) Private collection. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York. © Guillermo Kuitca

Signs and Patterns

The chapter on Signs and Patterns covers typography, calligraphy, maps and fabric design, all of which have served as models for abstract artists. Gestural abstraction was often said to be inspired by East Asian calligraphy, and in the 1950s there was a global dialogue among painters in the United States, France and Japan. However, arguably the greatest practitioner of gestural calligraphy is the contemporary Chinese painter Wang Dongling. In Confrontation of Yin and Yang (2005), the artist’s brush turns and twists relentlessly, sometimes reversing course before reaching the borders of the sheet, sometimes shooting beyond them.  Bands of solid black alternate with drips and streaks. The polarities of yin and yang – dark and light, cool and hot, damp and dry – do not cancel each other out but intensify the energy of the whole.

Wang Dongling, Confrontation of Yin and Yang, 2005. Ink on xuan paper, 216 x 144.8 cm (85 x 57 in.) Private collection. Courtesy of Michael Goedhuis Gallery, London

Together with the dozens of other artists in Abstract Art: A Global History, Wosene Worke Kosrof, Pat Steir, Alma Thomas, Guillermo Kuitca and Wang Dongling demonstrate how form and color distill the experience of contemporary life. They make it clear that abstraction is not a closed chapter in the history of modern art – or a club limited to white men from Europe or North America – but an open-ended, inclusive conversation.


By Pepe Karmel, author of Abstract Art: A Global History

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Abstract Art: A Global History

Pepe Karmel