Painting & abstract art

Rudolf Arnheim, Art and visual perception: A psychology of the creative eye, Berkeley: CA: University of California Press, 1974 (the new version). The purpose of this book is to discuss how we see, with a particular focus on how we see art. Arnheim’s attitude and style are established in the book’s introduction. “Art is the most concrete thing in the world, and there is no justification for confusing the mind of anybody who wants to know more about it [p.7].” This is a book about concrete details, about helping anyone who wants to see art better. In its ten chapters, this book summarizes much of what artists and psychologists know about balance, shape, form, growth, space, light, color, movement, dynamics, and expression. Around each of these thematic concepts, the author discusses what we find attractive and why. I return to this book over and over again.

Karl Gerstner, Review of 5 x 10 Years of Graphic Design etc. (edited by Manfred Kroplien), Hatje Cantz, 2001. This is Gerstner the designer, though it opens with a lecture in which he argues that “Art = Design”. Each of the five decades, the fiftiess through the nineties, of his professional carreer is profiled and profusely illustrated. Like his earlier books, it is beautiful and thought-provoking.

Karl Gerstner, The forms of color: The interaction of visual elements, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986. Gerstner’s book is absolutely beautiful, as is his art. After general discussions of color and form systems, Gerstner presents what amount to case studies in which he examines Islamic form and Hans Hinterreiter’s form organ in some detail . He then discusses his own extension and application of Kandinsky’s basic form and color correspondences. He applies the resulting Color Form Model to produce some very striking illustrations. The book finishes with one of the most stimulating discussions of the relationship of color and sound to be found among these works.

Karl Gerstner, The spirit of colors, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981. Karl Gerstner has spent his life as an artist digging ever more deeply into the nature of color and its use. This book is a kind of prelude to The forms of color. Many of the same themes are present, but here we see both the ideas and the works in their ealier form. His reflections on Goethe and Max Bill make the book woth seeking out even if you have The forms of color.

Marilyn S. Kushner, Morgan Russell, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990. Morgan Russell was among the first American artists to respond to abstract art, with the development of Synchromism. Russell’s work is among the most relevant of all artists of his time to the interests of imagists. As William Agee notes in the preface to this work “Russell equated light with color, and color with form, concerns that are at the very heart of his Synchromies of 1912-14.” The book includes a chapter describing his experiments with Stanton Macdonald-Wright on developing kinetic light machines.

Karin v. Maur, The sound of painting: Music in modern art, Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1999. This is a broad and well researched examination of historical efforts to relate music and painting. In addition to many of the names familiar from other works listed here, it examines the ideas of less familiar painters, film-makers and composers. It is filled with stimulating insights about the nature of harmony and dissonance, rhythm, and approaches to a synthesis of music and painting.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Moholy-Nagy: An anthology (edited by Richard Kostelanetz), New York: DeCapo Press, 1970. Moholy-Nagy was associated with the Bauhaus and later brought many of its ideas to the United States where he was the president of the Chicago Institute of Design. This compilation of his essays along with critical essays by some of his contemporaries, represents the diversity of this thinking about art, education, and social and technological change. Of particular interest are the sections on film and light machines, which reflect the extent of Moholy-Nagy ‘s appreciation of the extraordinary potential for light as a medium of art and expression.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Vision in motion, Chicago, Paul Theobald, 1947. In this book Moholy-Nagy presents the ideas and work that he developed while at the Institute of Design in Chicago. It presents “a broader, more general view of the interconnectedness of art and life (p. 5)” than his earlier works. Among its many provocative predictions is this one: “Most of the visual work of the future lies with the ‘light painter’. He will have the scientific knowledge of the physicist and the technological skill of the engineer coupled with his own imagination, creative intuition and emotional intensity. It is difficult to go into details yet, but in the coming experiments, research in the physiology of the eye and in the physical properties of light will play an important part [p. 168].”

Samuel Putnam, The glistening bridge: Leopold Survage and the spatial problem in painting, New York: Covici-Friede Publishers, 1929. This book, by a friend of Survage’s, was published in a limited edition of 175 numbered copies. It is at once Samuel Putnam’s tribute to his friend’s important contributions to modern art and the most comprehensive English-language presentation of Survage’s own thoughts on his work. In addition to thirteen chapters by Putnam, each exploring a problem that Survage’s painting attempted to address, the book includes an essay by Survage on the problem of space in painting, a brief autobiography and a collection of his maxims. Upon his first encounter with Survage’s paintings, Putnam wrote “They are as good an example as any I know of what Mr. Roger Fry calls ‘visual music.’” Among the most interesting of Putnam’s many interesting observations is a comparison of Survage’s Colored Rhythm paintings with what had been achieved by inventors working on a similar problem. “We have had, since, the “color organ,” not the Survage thing, but something quite different, not the measure of that cadenced and directing rhythm of which Survage speaks, but, for the most part, a rather curious combination of mechanism and chance. Interesting, undoubtedly, but most of us felt as we watched it that it did not attain the free control of the medium which is plastic creation, whether in sound or in light—the creation of an ordered and yet organic, rhythmic (organic because rhythmic, moving) succession dans le temps, as Survage puts it [p. 118].” (11/28/2018)

Frank Whitford, Bauhaus, London: Thames and Hudson, 1984. The Bauhaus stands as one of the most ambitous experiments in art education in the modern era. The influence of the Bauhaus is out of proportion to its brief history (1919 to 1933) and relatively small size (the total enrollment of 1250 with only about a hundred students at the school at any one time). Many of the artists who figure in the development of lumia–including Klee, Kandinsky, Albers, Itten, and Max Bill–were among those who taught and studied there. This very readable history places the artistic movement that found its impetus there in its complex cultural and historical context; a context filled with strange and interesting personalities, difficult social and economic conditions, and extraordinary aspirations.