Time: October 25—28, 2017
Location: Columbus, OH
In the catalogue of the 1948 Venice Biennale, Giovanni Ponti declared: “Art invites all mankind beyond national frontiers, beyond ideological barriers, to a language that should unite it in an intense humanism and a universal family against every Babel-like division and dissonance.” After five years of brutal conflicts and the mounting threat of the Soviet Union, the Western world was indeed in dire need of unity and solace. In this context, abstract art was often presented in the West as a universal language able to overcome national divisions and unite humankind.
But could abstract art have overcome the divisions engendered by the Second World War and the Cold War? Could American Abstract Expressionism have served as the West’s shared language against Soviet Social Realism? Even if abstraction dominated Western postwar art scenes, didn’t it assume different forms and meanings on each national scene? All the more so, since the interruption of international artistic exchanges during the War had led to independent and singular artistic developments.
Taking on these questions, this panel seeks to question the myth of abstract art universality by showcasing the diversity and richness of European postwar abstract practices that the triumph of American Abstract Expressionism has eclipsed.
Session Chair: Catherine Dossin, Purdue University.
]Weaving Abstraction for the World: Postwar Tapestry and International Modernism
Immediately following World War II, French artists, dealers, and government officials used abstract tapestry as an international calling card. The revival of tapestry as a medium for modern art seemingly demonstrated the revival of France from its wartime hardships and its return to cultural leadership as the source of both elite luxury goods and modern art. Numerous international exhibitions of modern French tapestry resulted in projects such as the monumental tapestries designed by Le Corbusier for the High Court Building in Chandigarh, India; the Biennale Internationale de la Tapisserie held in Lausanne, Switzerland beginning in 1962, which brought together the work of Eastern and Western European artists; and the production of French tapestries after works by American modernists such as Hans Hofmann and Robert Motherwell. Modern tapestry thus negotiated the politics of both the Cold War and decolonization. This paper focuses on three, ostensibly foreign, sites of modern French tapestry in order to show how ideas of abstraction were renegotiated in confrontation with Eastern European fiber artists, Indian viewers, and American critics. It argues that modern French tapestry made an essential contribution to the postwar understandings of abstraction as a universal language, precisely because French tapestry producers were unable to fully control how tapestries were circulated or defined.
“They regard me as an emissary of de Kooning”: Joan Mitchell in Paris 1955-1968
(Un) Forming Nature: Kurt Schwitters’s Merz Barn (1947-1948)
This paper centers on Kurt Schwitters’s Merz Barn (1947-1948), exploring the relationship between nature and the Merz principles of formung (forming) and entformung (un-forming) within the context of this late work. The Merz Barn, the last of Schwitters’s Merzbauten, has yet to receive the extensive level of research accorded to its famous Hannover predecessor, resulting in an underdeveloped grasp of the project as a whole within Merzbau scholarship. The present study considers Schwitters’s increasing orientation towards nature as a model for artistic creation to elicit an understanding of the ways in which his paradoxical Merz formula, “Formen heißt entformeln,” evolved during his period of exile. I contend that Schwitters employed the organic processes of natural growth and decay to realize the principles of formung and entformung in his Merz Barn. Furthermore, the sculptural interior underscores the dialectical exchange between forming and un-forming, highlighting the liminal space between the opposing processes.
Hermann Glöckner and the Private Life of East German Abstraction
This presentation seeks to highlight the conflicted and overlooked position of abstraction within East German artistic production through the work of Hermann Glöckner (1889-1987). Glöckner’s career-long commitment to the aesthetic aims of Constructivism places his work in contrast to ideas of universalism and spirituality that dominated the language of abstraction among non-conformist artists in East Germany. In staking out a space for Constructivism, albeit a space that for most of his career was out of necessity quite private and provisional Glöckner’s work offers us a glimpse of an alternative poetics of abstraction, one founded in the rich textures of everyday material existence. His small scale geometric constructions present the viewer with a humble exploration of materials and their aesthetic interactions that has commonalities with the work of the Zero Group in West Germany and a number of international manifestations of concrete art in the postwar period. Likewise, in looking back to the formation of Constructivism in revolutionary Russia, Glöckner’s work developed as an echo of the possibility for avant-garde artistic experimentation in line with the aims of socialism, however fraught a departure from the norm of Socialist Realism this may have been.
Abstraction in the Wind: Kazimiera Zimblyte and Abstract Art as Existential Resistance in the Socialist Bloc