2017 SECAC : “Art, a language that should unite:” The Diversity of European Postwar Abstractions


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.



Kay Wells 
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

]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.


Amy Rahn
Stony Brook University (SUNY)

“They regard me as an emissary of de Kooning”: Joan Mitchell in Paris 1955-1968

Canonical narratives of Postwar abstraction have enshrined the Abstract Expressionist movement as a quintessentially American phenomenon bounded geographically and temporally, yet one of its most successful “second generation” exponents, Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) left New York for France just as the movement was gaining acclaim, and continued to paint abstractly there until her death. Arriving in Paris in 1955, Mitchell explained, “[the Parisians] regard me as an emissary of de Kooning.”
In the early 1960s, Mitchell’s signature slashing strokes tumbled with floating miasmas of color in her “Black” paintings. Often read as responses to personal tragedy, inadequate attention has been paid to Mitchell’s immersion in the cosmopolitan Parisian cultural scene of the 1960s in relation to this stylistic shift. Drawing on Mitchell’s consistent correspondence, this paper examines the specific cultural and historical circumstances surrounding Mitchell’s painterly production during the 1960s, situating Mitchell’s Black paintings in her intermeshing American and Parisian contexts. By considering Mitchell and her works among her circle of nationally and ethnically diverse writers, artists, and composers in Paris of the 1960s, this work offers a view of Mitchell’s Black paintings unbound from personal biography and the dogmas of a movement that could not contain them.


Megan Pounds
Independent Scholar

(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.

Travis English
Frostburg State University, Maryland

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.


Elona Lubyte
Vilnius Academy of Arts, Lithuania

Abstraction in the Wind: Kazimiera Zimblyte and Abstract Art as Existential Resistance in the Socialist Bloc

When things are thrown away/When people leave/Holes (Zimblyte, 1979)
Kazimiera Zimblyte (1933-1999, Lithuania) had developed one of the most radical veins of abstract material painting in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, effectively finding herself in the margin of official art life at the time, and staying relatively unknown to the international audiences up to this day. Having studied textile (1952-1958), the artist subsequently turned to painting and made densely covered monochrome abstractions layered with fragments of old fabric such as decom-posed jute sacking. Already radical enough for making abstract art in the Socialist Bloc, Zimblyte pushed the boundaries even further. She pursued the unprecedented experiments while creating exhibitions as installations (as when she fixed her paintings on the backs of the chairs for her first non-official personal show in 1968), actions, and environments.
The paper will focus on Zimblyte’s environments as the most radical of her experimentations in the late 1960s and 70s. During these events that took place in a private garden in Vilnius and her native countryside, the long narrow stripes of fabrics covered in paint and ink streamed in the wind and fused with nature. These unofficial artistic experimentations acted not only as the for-mal investigations continuing Zimblyte’s fascination with the sensual in the medium of painting, but, most importantly, they stood as the existential and spiritual retreat from the socially repressive environment in times when, as Vaclav Havel writes, “order without life” prevailed.