What do you understand by the phrase non-objective art? In relation to key examples, demonstrate your understanding of the term, and discuss why, within the context of the period, artists may have been seeking to work in this way.
This essay will examine the movement known as non-objective art, and to question if it has been successful in accomplishing its goals of rejecting past movements and representational art. This movement branches from Cubism and Constructivism. It was first seen in the early 20th century, around the time of the Russian Revolution and is pre-World War II, this time involved a lot of political and religious tensions which influenced artists heavily.
These tensions led to artists wanting to create art devoid of representational imagery. This was to encourage the viewers to re-assess their lives, to encourage change in society and not just represent the environment around them. As Malevich (1915-33) explains “I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things”, this shows his intentions to remove imagery from his works.
The criteria for this movement are to create pieces that cannot be associated with imagery that can be seen in the world, this led to artists using geometric shapes, which are often colourful and have no linear perspective, they also tend to feature crisp, flat brushstrokes. In this essay I will also investigate whether non-objective art is superficial and if it is truly non-representational and “free from the suggestive, the meaningful, the biologically dramatic, and the “literary” as Stephen C.
Pepper (1953, pg. 259) once stated. I want to contest the idea that non-objective art is achievable and to explore the artists who are most associated with this movement and to see if they maintained the principles of the movement.
Firstly, I will examine the difference between non-objective art from the pre and post-World War II and the abstract expressionism of artists such as Jackson Pollock. The movement of high modernism criticises artists like Mondrian and Malevich, as critics felt that they lacked the ability to express a full immersion into the colour field and they were merely imitating the basic structures of nature. The high modernism movement saw a change from expressing the landscape, especially in Mondrian’s case, to the raw expression of nature through the artist’s consciousness, this is emphasised through Pollock’s statement “I am nature”. Pollock felt strongly about being connected to his art, he was not trying to express nature of the landscape we see in the external world, but to express the nature that is within himself, he felt so strongly about this that he often discarded of paintings he lost a connection to. High modernism also extended the impact that non-objective artworks started, they wanted to have a more impacting sensory encounter and creating a bolder sense of creating a colour field the viewer can become immersed in. Barrett Newman (1947) states “instead of creating plastic objects, objective shapes which can be contemplated only for themselves […] the new painter feels that these shapes must contain a plasmic entity that will carry his thought, the nucleus that will give life to the […] ideas he is projecting”. Newman’s critiques introduce my argument that all non-objective art has a suggestion of nature, they all have some relation to the world, society and even our emotions and intentions for our work. Meyer Schapiro also supports my opinion as he believes that representational art is abstract and that geometry is also representational. Schapiro (1978, pg. 77-98) then goes on to state “all renderings of objects, no matter how exact they seem, even photographs, proceed from values, methods and viewpoints.” This adds to my arguments, as the process of creating an artwork is constantly influenced by our environment, whether it is nature, society or the works of others which give us ideas.
Mondrian’s artwork is inspired greatly by the landscape and therefore, I argue his work cannot be non-objective. Mondrian’s disagreement with Theo van Doesburg over his use of diagonals in his paintings supports my argument, as George Rickey (1968, pg. 36) emphasises Mondrian’s need of “vertical-horizontal, pure colour as the expression, [and to create] ideas of social harmony through art”, this reiterates my view that Mondrian had an objective for his paintings, which I have shown is to create an expression of nature and to influence society through plastic awareness. His need for vertical-horizontal grids shows that he does not feel that diagonal lines express what he wanted to express in his paintings. This further implies that Mondrian had an objective for his paintings, as his style was very intent on expressing social harmony, landscapes and breaking down the environment into grids. As his work has these associations it can be seen as representational, however, George Rickey (1968, pg. 38) summarises the artwork “does not depend on any recollected experience, event, or observed object”. In my opinion, I feel this shows that even though he wishes his work to be void of representation, he fails to meet his own principles for his own movement. Even suggestions from peers, like Mondrian’s peer van Doesburg, the constant flow of communication between artists greatly affect the images we create, to support this, we can use the cover of Alfred H. Barr’s book Cubism and Abstract Art, 1936, to emphasise my previous view that Cubism greatly influenced Constructivism and Suprematism. The connections between these movements and how they all are reacting to their environment and opposing representational art can be seen as an objective, and as Schapiro (1978, pg. 77-98) states “shape the image and often determine its contents”. Therefore, despite Rickey’s and Mondrian’s intent to show that non-objective art is possible, my arguments and supporting scholars show that Mondrian’s artwork fail to meet his own principles and intentions for his work.
Mondrian’s artwork such as No. VI / Composition No.11 was created using oil, the canvas is quite large (99.7 x 100.3). The painted grid lines vary in strength and colour, varying from slate grey to black. The lines are not sharp and in some places are faint, the colour palette consists of warm reds and yellows to greys and black, which to the viewer creates a sense of depth. The all-over composition is similar to his other grid-like paintings and some of the shapes are identical in size. The effect of the grid and repeated shapes can be seen to give the viewer an impression of street layouts, the blocks of colour can be seen as representative of buildings or housing. The way he has placed the colour blocks in an asymmetrical way make the viewer follow them with their eye, as although they appear random Mondrian was very meticulous in creating his works, and this suggests the placement has significance. The use of primary colours emphasises the influence of nature in his work, as all colours are created from primary colours, the choice seems pure and reflective. Another art piece that I have examined is Composite 1939 / Trafalgar Square 1939 – 43. This piece has bolder, stronger grid lines which make it stand out more to the viewer and appears to separate the blocks of colour with more emphasis. This later work has a very different composition, yet it still draws the viewers gaze to the coloured blocks, but also to the greater absence of colour. His greater use of white gives a different experience to the viewer, as it appears purer and feels like more of a statement by Mondrian. These pieces create an insight into the ideas and influences that Mondrian had when he created his works. To me, these pieces showcase my argument that Mondrian was inspired greatly by his surroundings and therefore his pieces are representational. I feel this way because of the way they appear to be influenced by the structure of streets and nature. In addition to this, his use of primary colours affects how we view his work, as we can recognise them easily because of how often primary colours can be seen in our society. Also, to greater support my argument, Mondrian can be seen to reject his own principles of separating art and life, as he titles his work Trafalgar Square. Therefore, I feel that these pieces strongly reflect and support my argument that Mondrian’s work is representational, and he has failed to achieve pure art, devoid of any social or environmental influences and imagery.
Secondly, I will investigate claims that the idea of non-objective art is purely aesthetic and is superficial. Stephen C. Pepper (1953 pg. 255) is a great influence on this argument, he compares the non-objective movement to the influx of purely instrumental music. He believes that the ideas behind both is to be purely aesthetic, something to appeal to the consumer. In addition, I believe that the appeal to viewers is the shock of seeing something that appears random, non-representational and revolts against the norm of representational art. The contrast of thousand-year-old of the tradition of artwork depicting nature and the environment and the new, shocking blocks of colour created uproar and attention to the paintings. This emphasises mine and Peppers view that non-objective art is motivated by aesthetics. To support this Burger (1984 p. 49) states that “Once the signed bottle has been accepted as an object that deserves its place in the museum, the provocation no longer provokes; it turns into its opposite. If an artist today signs a stovepipe and exhibits it, that artist certainly does not denounce the art market but adapts to it”. This shows that even though artists like Mondrian and Malevich created a new movement to challenge society and make viewers rethink their mundane environment the sudden influx of geometric based art in galleries created a movement that quickly lost impact. This links to my view on Pollock and other post-world War II artists, as they are seen to have more impact on the viewer, as they are insistent on expressing their unconscious mind and they project the effect nature has on them through their artwork. In contrast, Malevich’s work is so simple in form and composition with mostly monochromatic palettes and therefore is easy to replicate and lacks the effect that Pollock emanates through his paintings. This emphasises my view that the purpose of this art movement is purely to approach new aesthetics, and therefore it appears that it is superficial in means. My claim that non-objective art is superficial is supported by the definition of superficial, meaning shallow and non-substantial. I have used this word as I feel that the movement is purely focusing on shock and the effect of using limited techniques and colour under the guise of trying to drastically change society following the Russian revolution and the effects of World War I.
Malevich’s artwork is inspired by his religion, and hopes to achieve an insight into the infinite, this aim appears unrealistic and arguably quite egotistical. What I want to explore is the way Malevich wanted his art to be perceived, if his art is too hard to comprehend for most of society and if that affects his aim of being an avant-gardist. His artwork is so simplistic and lacking any significant visual presence, as he used mainly monochromatic colours and simple compositions that it can be hard for the public to respond to it emotionally. Most people who view his artworks do not have the knowledge to understand, it could be that they don’t have an artistic background or a have a lack of exposure to non-representational art. Stephen C. Pepper (1953 pg. 259) supports this view as he questions “can pure non-objective painting arise which also has richness?”, he believes that he has yet to find a non-objective artwork which provides symbolism of the human experience. This emphasises my previous argument that artworks, like Mondrian’s, aren’t non-objective as they “evoke representational meaning”. It also supports my argument that Malevich’s artwork lacks the ability to express emotion to its viewers and is therefore shallow in significance to them. In addition, this shows that his work fails at becoming a revolutionary movement, although it is revolutionary in the works mode of production and use of colour.
To complete my previous argument, I must also assess Malevich’s artwork as not truly being non-representational. I am going to approach this based on my opinion that Malevich’s work was influenced greatly by his ego and his need to go so far beyond others works by creating works such as Black Square (1929) and his exhibition The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 (Petrograd 1915-1916). Black Square is his most famous painting, the black quadrilateral is centre surrounded by a stark white. The painting is one of his most simple compositions and is arguable his most extreme abstraction. This piece is very bold and evokes some ideas of passing through the black square and into another reality. This piece’s effect is strongly dependent on its placement within Malevich’s exhibition, he placed the piece at the top right corner of the room. This location is customarily reserved for Russian leaders in the household, and therefore emphasises his view that this piece is so revolutionary that it is equal to the revolutionary leaders who have led Russia throughout history. Malevich’s high regard for his own pieces emphasises my argument that his work is strongly influenced by his need to be the top revolutionary in early 20th-century art. It is indisputable that this artwork is a hugely progressive piece that even almost a century later it still has the same effects of its viewers being dumbfounded. However, this further supports my argument that his work is motivated largely by aesthetics, as his artwork is remembered for its aesthetic progression rather than his effect on society. Therefore, I can conclude that although his works are the largest extent into abstraction I have seen, that they are not truly non-objective as his works are influenced by his surroundings and his own urge to create the most shocking and commotion causing art work.
To conclude, non-objective art cannot be achieved without an artist’s true lack of influences, representation of the environment, ulterior objectives of creating shock and awe and wanting to cause a change in the viewer. I feel that this shows that non-objective art cannot ever truly be achieved, as we as human beings are constantly affected by our environment, our own ideas for our artwork and how we want others to perceive us as artists. As Schapiro (1978) perfectly summarises that all artwork comes from something, nothing is true of its own ideals. We as humans cannot function without learning from others, experiencing the world and therefore as art is created and expressed through us it reflects that quality of being connected to something, anything and can never be non-representational.