The Abstract Tradition

“The Abstract Tradition” was published as an introduction to American Abstract Artists’ 60th Anniversary Print Portfolio, 1997.

The Abstract Tradition

by Stephen Westfall

During the sixty-one years of the existence of the American Abstract Artists group, abstract art has evolved from a foray into largely unexplored imaginary territory into a mainstream modal of aesthetic practice. It seems inevitable that what started out as a mission to foster a sense of community among abstract artists by promoting and providing occasions to exhibit their work and offering a discursive forum for an exchange of views, would now find itself a valuable repository of the history of the abstract movement in America. If professional organizations by their nature tend toward parochialism, the AAA owes its longevity in part to the relative absence of a party line. The will to abstraction, after all, is generated by a variety of private impulses and historical interpretations.

In its early years, the AAA was a refuge and source of strength for adventurous artists faced with a largely uncomprehending and often hostile art public. Abstraction broke in America at the Armory Show in 1913, though Dove, Hartley, and O’Keefe had made forays into abstraction even earlier. Considering the greater difficulties of travel and relative absence of photographic reproduction it is marvelous how advanced the first American work was in relationship to the acknowledged historical primacy of the European abstract painters. And to consider the work of pioneering Americans is to be reminded again of how deeply they were influenced by the Symbolist movement in art and literature. One sees this influence in their emphasis on the natural landscape as source imagery and their attempts to suggest a corollary between the external, natural world the interior world of imagination and psychology.

The American Abstract Artists group wasn’t formed until more than twenty years later, in 1936, out of a support network led by Carl Holty, Harry Holtzman, and George L. K. Morris, among others. By this time, abstract art in the public imagination had come to be equated with the clean lines and aesthetic pragmatism of the machine-age. A dynamic, geometric clarity was certainly the aesthetic goal of many abstract artists, but there were others who worked under the influence of Surrealism and Expressionism, not to mention the natural landscape that so inspired the first generation of American abstract artists. From its beginnings, the AAA sought to accommodate this diversity, whatever the opinions of its individual members.

One manifestation of this tolerance of diversity was the welcome extended to the European artists fleeing the events of World War II. Mondrian, Leger, and Moholy-Nagy were only among the best known arrivals who found fellowship and an exchange of ideas within the AAA. It is important to remember that, while some programs of abstraction were imagined as a universal language of form, the broader artistic climate in America up to and during the war was marked by sentimental and nationalistic clamor for representations of “local scene,” national history and folklore. The international appeal and community of abstract art was regarded with grave, sometimes hysterical suspicion.

The politics of expanded and diversified identity consumes our contemporary art discourse with much of the same sense of urgency. A measure of urgency is, in fact, widely held to be one of the criteria of recognition for contemporary art. The contemplative claim of most abstract art is felt by many to have lost its address. There is also a residual, but still powerful resentment over the dominance of monumental abstractionist styles both critically and in the marketplace during the late fifties and sixties. Against this dynamic and contentious backdrop the AAA has typically gone about its business in low key fashion. It continues to provide a wide tent for its members, to provide forums for exhibitions and discussion, but it also now finds itself in an emergent, wholly natural role as conservator due to both its own longevity and the ebb and flow of critical acceptance.

The print portfolio at hand is in part a testament to that longevity. It is the third the organization has sponsored in sixty years. The first was published in 1937, and the second fifty years later. For the 1987 50th Anniversary Portfolio two of the original participants Ibram Lassaw and Esphyr Slobodinka, each contributed a new lithograph. Many more from the 1987 portfolio are represented this time around, along with several new names. As the new portfolio demonstrates, the AAA continues to abjure any party line about what abstraction should be or look like. Of course, the geometric is strongly represented, but gestural and organically derived imagery is also present. Some of the work is diagrammatic, reflecting imaginations that express themselves more fully in three dimensions. And the visualizing inscription of the computer is increasingly in evidence. Apart from the pleasures afforded by the individual prints the portfolio serves as an index of the plurality of styles and intention embraced by abstract art.

The art world is much larger than it was when the AAA was founded. The proliferation and hybridization of abstractionist styles has clearly been accommodated and encouraged by the group. If abstraction has been so thoroughly integrated into contemporary art practice that it is often considered a mode to work against, then the subtle shift of balance in the AAA’s stewardship from advocacy to conservatorship will provide the careers it nourishes and discourse it foster a reminder of the deepening connectedness that comes from being a part of a living tradition.