Far away and long ago?
Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still By John Golding. Thames & Hudson, 2000. 240pp. £36
In the last of this series of six comparative studies, John Golding speaks of his 'strange but overpowering sense' that a Rothko painting, 'when not being looked at, ceases to exist'. This is a telling phrase. It forges a link between the painting and its viewer, and it brings to the fore Golding's strong sense of identity with the works and the artists he explores: he writes often of the viewer entering into the paintings.
Paths to the Absolute, based on a series of lectures which Golding gave in Washington in 1997, seeks to revive what he describes as 'the major artistic force of the 20th century': the pursuit of abstraction. It focuses on some of abstraction's prime movers and moments: on Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich in Europe in the early decades of the last century, and on Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko in New York during and after the Second World War.
Golding is an abstract painter of long standing himself, as well as a renowned critic, art historian, teacher and curator. His approach to the subject is an appropriate mix of high-minded seriousness, empiricism, intuition and passion.
This is the book's great strength: writing at the end of the century in a prevailing climate of pluralism, doubt and irony, of stances theoretical and political, Golding returns to enter the artists' worlds, and their paintings, on their own terms - though by no means uncritically. He brings them back to us in all their strangeness and familiarity.
The book homes in on the artists' intentions, stated or apparent (not always the same thing), and on their works (again, with a life of their own). Golding's approach is essentially monographic, though cross-references and comparisons proliferate as the parallel stories develop.
The central axis of the account is between Europe and the US, the first and second waves of abstraction. He examines the intellectual climate in which each artist emerged, and follows their development towards full abstraction - the absolute of the title, a goal addressed often in spiritual terms; a course which may now seem inevitable, but which was never straightforward or programmatic.
Mondrian saw art itself as a religious pursuit, believing it capable of transforming mankind. His lifelong aim was to 'see through nature', to find the unchanging laws of reality, to arrive at a tabula rasa, an absolute akin to the 'infinity of a night sky'.
Mondrian's early interest in theosophy, his absorption of Cubism, Italian Futurism, Purism, and his methodical formal moves towards an increasingly pared-down grid of lines and colour planes, are followed step by painstaking step. The search was unwavering throughout his life, summed up in his own words: 'I don't want pictures. I just want to think things out.'
Malevich similarly forged a path through Symbolism, Post-Impressionism, Futurism and Cubism - theories often partially understood - to reach abstraction in his Suprematist works of 1915, such as the iconic Black Square, a patch of unmodulated black on a square white ground.
Golding identifies Malevich's true subject as the art of flight - the imagining of a new 'perspectiveless perspective', with no top or bottom. He sees Malevich, the 'true father of minimal and conceptual art', as ultimately broken by the system, forced back to figuration in the retrogressive cultural climate of Soviet Russia in the 1920s.
Kandinsky, himself of Russian origin, was, says Golding, 'like all the early abstractionists, in revolt against the materialism of 19th-century society'. Guided by Symbolist thinking and by the notion of the union of the arts, he was propelled towards full abstraction by Schoenberg's music: the idea of colours, lines and forms evoking sound was central to his philosophy of 'following the laws of nature that govern the universe as a whole'.
Mondrian the prophet, Malevich the mystic, Kandinsky the romantic: Golding portrays these pioneering artists converging on abstraction from all directions, climbing on each other's back, using half-digested theories and philosophies for their own ends. He suggests an artistic progress in which deep-rooted intuition underlies and precedes any theoretical justification.
The Europeans were there first, of course, and as such posed a problem and a challenge (as well as vital lessons) for the Americans, Pollock, Still, Newman and Rothko - all born at a time when the pioneers were already close to their grail.
European abstraction stood before the Americans as part of the tradition of art - as, significantly, did the intervening phenomenon of Surrealism, which had transferred from Europe in the 1930s and '40s to take root in the US.
With the Americans, the artistic rhetoric changes: Pollock talks of painting as selfdiscovery, abstraction as salvation, the rhythms of nature as a guide; the human scale, the range of the human body, is a continual presence. He was a visual thinker, not an intellectual.
His breakthrough came in 1947 with the 'dripped' paintings, in which the original (figurative) motif is buried or drowned in a welter of paint-marks. Yet having arrived at an abstraction, Pollock felt the strain (as did others) of maintaining it, of keeping it alive and fresh - and, tragically, lost confidence and direction.
Of Newman, Rothko and Still, Golding writes: 'None of these three artists was naturally talented; it was their vision, not their natural gifts, that made them great artists.'
Clyfford Still (for whom Golding shows a strong allegiance) is cast as a shaman, attempting to exorcise the Western tradition of art through primitivism and an understanding of the tragic.
Newman and Rothko, too, work through European Modernism and ancient myth.
Newman, unlike Still and Rothko an intellectual and an optimist, arrives at his tabula rasa in 1948 with his first stripe (or 'zip') painting, Onement 1 - a moment crucial to American abstract art, which Golding sees as a revelation, a technical and visual discovery only later imbued with emotional and intellectual weight.
The Americans projected a more selfconscious sense of heroism than did the Europeans; scale, too, became an issue.
Golding makes much of the move from reduction of the image to the imagining of an 'abstract sublime'. He quotes Newman: 'There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. Subject matter is crucial, and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.' But as artistic comradeship gave way to rivalry, and fierce argument over who did what first, the debate turned to questions of form and style, no matter how much artists wanted it to be about content.
The stakes, indeed, were high. Golding describes a moment, so different from now, when art was fundamentally a question of belief, a matter of life and death, when doubt, and the sense of impasse could result in the sort of human tragedy that overtook Pollock and Rothko.
Far away and long ago? It may seem so, though Golding would assert the opposite.
He does, though, in closing, evoke the pathos of one legacy of heroic abstraction: the thousands of vast canvasses now rolled in barns and studios throughout the Western world - unloved, unseen, and hence, in his terms, non-existent.
Martin Caiger-Smith is head of exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery