Beyond Boundaries: Avant-Garde Masterworks from a European Collection
In the early years of the Twentieth Century, such dramatic discoveries were made in the world of science and mathematics that, it could be argued, ordinary people were constrained to perceive the world differently. Even though many did not fully understand what had taken place, they knew that their very conception of the universe had been altered, and some feared (quite rightly, as the future would prove) that the newest innovations in technology might pose a threat to the peaceful existence of mankind. There is no question that these revelations affected the arts—literature, music, dance and the visual arts—which, in roughly the same period, experienced a dramatic upheaval of tradition, causing some to go so far as to question the very essence of art itself. A number of artists turned to a reliance upon alternative systems of thought as a rationale for their creative activities, from the fourth dimension and non-Euclidean geometry to an exploration of heightened spiritual awareness, one that with proper focus and guidance could serve to reveal the ultimate mysteries of the universe. All of this occurred in a period of social unrest, one that led to a world war in Europe and America and a revolution in Russia, replacing the monarchs of the past with various systems of egalitarian rule. This caused some to question and challenge all forms of political authority, particularly artists—who, after all, want no restraints of any kind imposed on their work. As a result, many sought a means by which to renounce governmental control, some seeking solace in the ideals of anarchism.
The one characteristic that the artists included in the Beyond Boundaries Collection share is that they all came of age and matured as artists in roughly the same period, from 1910 through 1920, that is to say at approximately the same time when these dramatic changes in their world were taking place. Even though they operated in highly diverse environments and sought inspiration from very different sources, each emerged and followed the basic principles and tenets of the artistic style with which they eventually became associated: (1) expressive or amorphic abstraction (Wassily Kandinsky, Francis Picabia); (2) Cubism and/or Futurism (Henri Laurens, Francis Picabia, Gino Severini); (3) Dada and/or Surrealism (Marcel Duchamp, Jean Crotti, Suzanne Duchamp, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Man Ray); (4) constructivism and geometric abstraction (Theo van Doesberg, Moholy-Nagy). Many aspects of contemporary art today owe their origin to techniques and innovations introduced by these artists, but there is one approach to the art-making process—where an idea takes precedence over the material form used to express it—that was unquestionably pioneered by a single artist in this group, Marcel Duchamp. In the case of the work by him contained in this collection—an ordinary sheet of paper seemingly selected at random and signed by the artist—the very nature of what constitutes a work of art is thrown open to question. Although these ideas would not take hold in the art world until the emergence of Conceptual Art in the 1960s, once they did, they “changed,” as Jasper Johns described the contribution of Marcel Duchamp, “the condition of being here.”
The individual works in the present collection are not only representative of the art movements with which they are associated, but to varying degrees, they represent such a significant contribution to each artistic style that the works themselves could function as exemplars of its most salient characteristics. Henri Lauren’s La bouteille de Beaune, for example, renders simultaneous views of the inside and outside of a bottle (as well as the space surrounding it), thereby questioning the traditional distinction that existed between solid and void and, like many contemporaneous Cubist paintings, we are presented instead with dismembered planes set within an indeterminate spatial structure. Similarly, Severini’s Danseuse portrays a professional dancer kicking her leg so forcefully into the air that she seems to explode out of the picture frame into the viewer’s space, a quality that reflects the goal of Futurist painters and sculptors who attempted to capture the sensation of movement within the confines of a static image. In utilizing the basic visual vocabulary of Cubism (as well as the technique of papier collé), this work could just as accurately be described as Cubist, or Cubo-Futurist, an intermingling of the two styles that had occurred often in this period (Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase, for example, clearly exemplifies aspects of both styles, although the artist insisted that his imagery was drawn from sources in stop-motion or chronophotography).
Because of its title, Picabia’s Animation would seem indebted to Futurism, yet its overall abstraction is more in keeping with Kandinsky’s vision of non-objective painting, although its sharp-edged, harshly defined geometric forms may have come out of Cubism (a movement from which Picabia had himself only recently emerged). The degree to which a knowledge of Kandinsky’s paintings influenced Picabia in this period is hard to say, although like most of the other artists committed to modernism in this period, there is no doubt that he was familiar with his ground-breaking and highly influential book, Űber das Geistige in der Kunst: Insbesondere in der Malerei [Concerning the Spiritual in Art: Especially in Painting], 1911. We know that Duchamp read this book during an important sojourn to Munich during the summer of 1912 (although an English edition appeared in 1914, a French translation would not be published until 1949). As the title of his book suggests, Kandinsky was a theosophist, a practitioner of mystical and occult philosophy that believes the origins and purpose of the universe can be unlocked by those who possess heightened states of spiritual awareness. Whereas Kandinsky today is accepted as the father of abstract art, in his book he warned against the complete elimination of subject. “Today the artist cannot confine himself to complete abstract forms,” he wrote, “they are still too indefinite for him.” Indeed, in his Improvisation mit Pferden [Improvisation with Horses], the prominent, zig-zagging black line outlines the profile of a galloping horse mentioned in the title, while other horses appear to be ascending a mountain at the upper right. Other details within the composition suggest the form of an embracing couple and the turrets of a cityscape in the background (elements that reappear with some frequency in Kandinsky’s work of this period).
At first, the idea of a pure abstraction was considered too radical, since in having eliminated the subject, a work of art would be considered nothing more than mere decoration for its own sake. “Let us admit,” wrote Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger in their book on Cubism in 1913, “that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely banished, not yet, at all events. An art cannot be raised to the level of a pure effusion at the first step.” Clearly, in Animation, as well as in other pictures by the artist in this period, Picabia ignored these warnings, as he would the advice of anyone throughout his career who sought to impose rules and restrictions on any facet of the creative process.
Picabia met Duchamp in Paris in 1911 and, shortly after their meeting, he introduced him to the writings of the German philosopher, Max Stirner (1806-1856), whose most important book, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum appeared in a French translation in 1899 (L'Unique et sa propriété) and in English in 1907 (The Ego and its Own). Stirner espoused a philosophy wherein decisions made by an individual were considered superior to restraints imposed by society, a way of thinking that held a special appeal for any artist who sought to liberate themselves from the conventions of the past. Precisely such an approach would be espoused by Dada, a movement in literature and the visual arts that began in neutral Switzerland in 1916, but which—thanks to the proselytizing efforts of its principle spokesman, Tristan Tzara—quickly spread to other European capitals. In reaction to the atrocities of war, the Dadaist championed chance as a legitimate means of expression, as it defied the logical system of alliances that threw most of Europe into a worldwide conflagration. Dada soon found adherents in New York, where, after the outbreak of war, many artists—such as Jean Crotti and Marcel Duchamp (both of whom arrived within months of one another in 1915)—moved to escape the war. In 1916, Crotti and Duchamp shared a studio in the Lincoln Arcade Building on 67th Street and Broadway (today Lincoln Center), where Duchamp worked on the construction of the most important work of his early career, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-1923 (Philadelphia Museum of Art), a construction executed on the surface of two large rectangular plates of glass and, therefore, better known as The Large Glass. It was within this environment that Crotti made his Les forces mécaniques de l’amour en mouvement [The Mechanical Forces of Love in Movement], a work on glass that is fabricated from many of the same elements Duchamp used in the execution of his Large Glass. Both works employ a similar mechanical approach and address related subjects; whereas Duchamp chose to emphasize the sexual interaction between man and woman, with the word l’amour [love] in the title of his work, Crotti reveals his preference for a more sentimental and romantic approach to his study of human relationships.
While living in New York, Duchamp earned some money by giving occasional French lessons, mostly to friends who already had a working knowledge of the language. In 1917, the United States entered the war, and a few months later, Duchamp got a full-time job working for the French war mission. He served as the personal secretary to a captain, performing clerical activities that he feared would become too boring and bureaucratic for the free and adventurous lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. Before he left the job (upon his departure for Buenos Aires in 1918), he appropriated a sheet of paper from his office that listed the names of four military attachés whose names he crossed out, a sheet that he inscribed and signed at the bottom “(from) Marcel Duchamp.” Innocent though this gesture might at first appear, the inscription is identical to the one he placed three years earlier on an ordinary snow shovel and called In Advance of the Broken Arm, an object that he purchased from a hardware store with Crotti and hung from the ceiling of his studio apartment. This was his first American readymade, an object, as he once explained, that did not require an artist to make it, but which was appropriated from life and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of the artist’s selection and the application of his signature.
Shortly after Duchamp’s arrival in New York, he met the American painter Man Ray, who then lived in an artists’ colony in Ridgefield, New Jersey. They would become exceptionally close friends and collaborators in 1920, the year they became involved with the formation of the Société Anonyme, Inc., the first organization devoted to the collection, display, and promotion of modern art in New York (founded nearly a decade before the Museum of Modern Art). The institution received financial support from Katherine S. Dreier, an artist and social activist who was one of Duchamp’s most dedicated patrons. Man Ray found Dreier domineering and doctrinaire, a temperament he likely parodied in his Catherine Barometer, a construction composed of colored sheets of paper mounted above a metal washboard to which is attached a glass tube, the resulting assembly resembling a large barometer. Since a barometer measures humidity in the atmosphere, Man Ray evokes a subtle pun on Dreier’s last name, since the air is registered as either being wet or dry (in the past tense: “drier”). Some might argue that a work like this owes a great debt to the precedence of Duchamp’s readymades, but Man Ray wanted the objects he constructed to take on a poetic dimension, a quality he provided with his ingenious title. Moreover, since his constructions were often composed of objects presented without alteration, they can safely be classified as among the earliest known assemblages, a technique that would not be fully exploited by artists for another 35 to 40 years.
In 1921, Duchamp returned to Paris, followed only a few weeks later by Man Ray. The French capital had become the new home of Dada, when Tzara—who was said to have been awaited like a Messiah—moved there from Zurich a few months earlier. Duchamp renewed acquaintance with some old friends including Picabia, whose style as a painter had morphed from machine-inspired work of the mid-teens, to a series of paintings and drawings that are composed almost entirely of lines and circles that look as though they were appropriated from mechanical diagrams, such as his Laveur fondu [Washer]. Picabia showed this picture in the Salon des Indépendants in 1921, the same year in which Duchamp’s sister, Suzanne, and her husband Jean Crotti (Duchamp introduced them), premiered Tabu Dada, a self-styled offshoot of Dada that was designed to be more positive and uplifting. Such were likely the sentiments that motivated Suzanne’s Radiation de deux seuls éloignes [Radiation of two Solitary Beings Apart], likely a reference to her relationship with Crotti, their union in this case represented by the thin line that joins the pyramidal form in the center of the composition with the grafted, lozenge-shaped diagram below (aided by the overlapping and intersecting colored triangles that surround them, likely meant to represent the invisible radiation suggested by the title).
In the mid-1920s, the negativity implicit to Dada was supplanted by Surrealism, a new movement in literature and the visual arts spearheaded by its charismatic founder and spokesman André Breton. Many of the artists who had affiliated themselves with Dada embraced its more alluring and seductive principles, which posited that artists could experience an entirely new freedom if they relinquished control over the creative process. From the technique of chance pioneered by the Dadaists, Breton came up with the concept of ‘psychic automatism,’ wherein an artist or writer allowed their unconscious minds to play an active role in making works of art. Surrealism would eventually come to rely upon the juxtaposition of extraneous objects to create a world that exists beyond our physical world (a “sur-reality”). This approach, it could be argued, had already been employed for some years in the collages and paintings of the German artist Max Ernst, who was part of the Dada movement in Cologne but moved to Paris and would be quickly embraced by Breton as crucial contributor to the Surrealist enterprise. Ernst would go on to invent new techniques (frottage) and experiment with others (decalcomania) and, in the early 1930s, he invented a avian alter-ego, a birdman named Loplop, who shows up in numerous works of the late 1920s and early 1930s, including the large and colorful bird in his Le chant du pinson [The Song of the Finch] of 1933.
By the 1930s in Paris, most artists committed to a vanguard aesthetic were already able to trace their lineage to the pioneers of modernism who had preceded them. Those dedicated to an expressive form of abstraction followed Kandinsky’s lead, while others were more strongly attracted to the geometry of Cubism. By 1913, the Dutchman Piet Mondrian reduced his subject to an allover warp-and-weft pattern of vertical and rectangular lines, which, within the matter of a few years, morphed into the well-balanced rectangles of primary colors enclosed by black lines for which he would become known. It may come as no surprise that, like Kandinsky, Mondrian was an avowed theosophist, for he felt that his paintings sought an inner, spiritual truth, and he believed that abstraction (or neoplasticism, as he called it) would one day serve as the ultimate expression of the spirit, particularly in the presumed capability of abstraction to establish an international language that reflected the intricacies and complex nature of the universe. At the outbreak of war, Mondrian returned to the Netherlands, where he entered into a written exchange with Theo van Doesberg, a fellow Dutch painter who had been pursuing his own independent investigation of abstraction. The two artists met in 1916, and within a year, van Doesberg fully embraced the purity of Mondrian’s approach, whereupon he reduced the elements of paintings to similar rectilinear configurations. He felt that his work could be applied to all aspects of design, particularly in the environment of the home. The study included in the present collection was planned for a glass mosaic to be installed above a fireplace, its reflective internal geometry in keeping with van Doesberg’s quest for works of art to exhibit an inner harmony (he compared his works of this period to musical compositions).
Van Doesberg moved to Weimar, Germany, in 1922, where he believed his ideas would be applicable to the Bauhaus, an art school established a few years earlier by the architect Walter Gropius, who sought an integration of all the arts, craft, design and the fine arts. Gropius thought van Doesberg’s ideas about art too single-minded and restrictive, so he never offered him the teaching position he desired. Instead, he offered the position of Master Teacher to László Moholy-Nagy, a young, 28-year-old Hungarian painter and photographer living in Berlin who had affiliated himself with the Constructivism of the Russian sculptor Vladimir Tatlin (which itself, had come out of the Suprematist paintings of Kasmir Malevich). It was while teaching at the Bauhaus that Moholoy-Nagy made the work in this collection, an assembly of translucent sheets of celluloid on which are painted crosses in varying colors, the successive layers of each giving the impression that they are projected on the surface by light. This construction and others like it by Moholy-Nagy in this period foreshadow works produced in the Minimal Art movement of the 1960s, as well as, to a degree, the light experiments of artists like Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson.
Duchamp posited that a work of art has a life expectancy of 40 to 50 years, because after that time, he claimed, it was relegated to the dustbin of history. “I think a picture dies after a few years like the man who painted it,” he said toward the end of his life. “Afterward it’s called the history of art.” Yet works in museums continue to exert influence, particularly among young and impressionable artists who consciously seek inspiration from them. There is no question that every work in the present collection is of such rarity, high quality and importance, that they are each worthy of being included within the chronological framework of a comprehensive museum collection. In that sense, they will continue to exert their influence for many years to come, well beyond the confines of the artistic styles to which they belong and the time period in which they were created.