May 12, 2014

New Forms: Early European Abstraction at Yale

Kurt Schwitters, Relief with Red Segment, 1927

It was such a pleasure to recently visit the newly expanded galleries at the Yale University Art Gallery, discovering one treasure after another. I wrote about the gallery dedicated to Mesoamerican art here; last year I wrote about their collection of African art, which was already on view, and about a small selection of their earlier European paintings, focusing on Angels and Demons. On this trip I was thrilled to see Yale's outstanding collection of early 20th century European abstract painting, a vividly fertile period of new ideas, enlarging the meanings and techniques of painting. Last year the Museum of Modern Art mounted a grand exhibition on the early years of abstraction, Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, which I wrote about here. Seeing the paintings at Yale reminded me how exciting the work of this period is.

Kurt Schwitters, Merz 1003 (Peacock's Tail), 1924

I find myself falling into clichés when thinking of the three Schwitters works I've reproduced here, like they "knocked my socks off"! When I think of Kurt Schwitters it's his poetic small collages; I was not at all familiar with these larger assemblages, dynamic in form, rich in color.

Kurt Schwitters, Oval Construction, 1925

The three dimensional aspects of these pieces, whether subtle as in Merz 1003, or dramatically volumetric as in Oval Construction, add energy and presence; they almost make me want to run up to my work room and start making constructions. Very inspiring.

Suzanne Duchamp, Accordion Masterpiece, 1921

I thought that this work had a similarity to the Schwitters, both in structure and in its use of unusual materials, here silver leaf. The shimmering silver in Duchamp's painting made a form that was hard to pin down: it moved about with the light, forward and back, a secular halo.

Juan Gris, Newspaper and Fruit Dish, 1916

This Gris has a wonderful stacking of forms and rich color contrasts. Not all early abstraction was non-objective; the cubists brought us a new way of seeing the world. I remember that at a large Picasso retrospective at MoMA years ago, we could see him step close to the edge to leap into non-objective painting, but then drawing back. Since I too am tied to images of the world in my paintings, I like to have the example of Picasso to think of, who after all is a great painter. 

Fernand Leger, Composition No. VII, 1925

I love the layering of shapes in this Leger, the contrast of the large curving forms of the vase with the stacked straight lines. It has a little humor to it: a magazine? on a table with a vase? everything flipped to its characteristic view, a very modern still life. 

Paul Klee, Joyful Mountain Landscape, 1929

I'm not much of a Paul Klee fan, finding his work too sweet for my taste, but I liked the angled planes of this painting, and the interesting color relationships.

Carl Buchheister, Red and Green Steps, 1925

Back to the non-objective, my true love of this period, here is a painting by an artist I had not known. A serious, yet somehow joyful collection of squares. They are joined by colored rectangles of different sizes and transparencies, and red semi-circles adding bounce. The squares seem illumined against the dark ground.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, G5, 1926

Moholy-Nagy combines geometric elements in a way that seems simple, but to balance the subtle tensions of thick line and thin, round and straight form, transparent and opaque paint, acute and gentle diagonals, is not easy.

Theo van Doesburg, Simultaneous Composition, 1929

Simultaneous Composition could probably be mistaken for a work by Mondrian. van Doesburg and Mondrian were friends for a time, both participating in the group de Stijl that van Doesburg had founded in 1917. But, one thing I think that Mondrian did not do was have lines overlap shapes, as the lines do here, so that the linear grid looks as though it is in front of the color shapes, giving the painting a quality of movement.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, Black, and Light Blue, 1929

Mondrian's paintings are still; they have classic form derived from essentials. I always have a feeling of the universal when looking quietly at a Mondrian painting, like a glimpse into Plato's ideal forms.

Piet Mondrian, Fox Trot A, 1930

This painting is almost empty, but its three lines on a white diamond are miraculously expressive. They quietly animate a space that now seems boundless rather than contained. Mondrian, and the other painters I've shown, began the 20th century with an enormous outpouring of original forms, which painters have built on over the years.


  1. what a great post to read with my morning coffee and be reminded of some artists that had moved to the back of my mind and be introduced to a new one - Bechheister. The Klee looks weak in this company but typical of your open mind and approach to include him here.

  2. I wish I could take a class in early 20th century painting with you Altoon! You give me such a great sense of perspective and relationship that describes the painting so clearly. Thanks.

  3. Thank you, maureen and Annette, for your nice comments; I'm glad you enjoyed this post.
    I don't think I'd enjoy teaching an art history class, but I do love writing these brief photo essay blog posts.