Archives for posts with tag: Mondrian


Last night I heard a reference to Gesamtkunstwerk on the PBS Idea Channel available on YouTube. This morning The Globe and Mail contained an article by Russell Smith that referenced the same thing. I always enjoy a good coincidence, a pleasure I share with André Breton. I recommend his book Nadja. It elicits an aesthetic appreciation of coincidence, and once you’ve developed the habit of noticing such things, there’s a world of accidental art to be explored. Breton was an arrogant bastard, but I like him in spite of his faults.

The problem is, if you begin to suspect a real connection within a coincidence, its beauty begins to drain out. I’m not talking about the one world, all and everything, cosmic consciousness, clear light, nirvana kind of connection. That’s a whole different, perfect beauty. That doesn’t drain anywhere, it’s already there. I’m talking about causality, which ruins everything.

So it may be the case that the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk is fashionable right now, and as a fashion victim, I’m also trying to write about it. Wagner is associated with the idea, but let’s consider Wassily Kandinsky, author of Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910), who was somewhat of a Theosophist, a synesthete, and the painter of the world’s first abstract, or non-objective painting in 1910.

From the very beginning there were various understandings of ‘abstract art’. It was something spiritual for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but formal, and a touch political, for Malevich and Tatlin. Today the term seems totally empty and its only reference is historical. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I didn’t encounter anything written about the centenary of this event. It would have been fun to read.

This is where I would build a case for some kind of non-coincidental connection between synesthesia, or the desire for it, and the Gesamtkunstwerk. But I really don’t feel like it. I don’t sense any worthwhile aha in a conclusion

It’s claimed that Richard Feynman, Franz Liszt, and Vladimir Nabokov also lived with synesthesia. That might be interesting, then again, I don’t think so. It’s not a good coincidence.

Image: Wassily Kandinsky, untitled, watercolour, 188 x 196 cm., 1910, collection of Paris, Musee National Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou. As far as I know, this is the first abstract painting in the Western tradition.



By Stephen Eric Armstrong, artist, January, 2001

Numerous boxes that market and protect things like pharmaceuticals, soda crackers and nails enter my home. I have been saving these boxes, carefully undoing them, and then painting them. This process:

1. Redeems (almost Biblically) commodified objects to a context of personal value by way of laborious embellishment with gesso and paint. Late Capitalism’s colonization of the individual is reversed by the exercise of taste. Artists must be earnest and diligent if they are to succeed in the great task of ideological intervention. We are not to be envied in this hard work.

2. Plays with the fundamental notion that a painting is a flat thing that offers a virtual, or apparent, volume. The boxes were not flat when I found them, but of course, they were flat at some earlier time on a factory floor somewhere, but this is irrelevant because the point is, they were designed to be folded and glued, or possibly stapled, and not be flat, and when most of us encounter them they aren’t flat, and we don’t generally understand them as being flat, but I made them flat and then I painted them to suggest illusory volumes of celestial proportions. But, simultaneously, and contradictorily, these illusory volumes look like nothing more than paint on cardboard. These paintings demonstrate the letter of Clement Greenberg without the spirit, or the spirit without the letter, or perhaps neither, or even both. Moreover, they could equally be regarded as Minimalism deconstructed. There is a lonely grandeur in such subtleties.

3. Celebrates the ordinary, that inevitable place where we all live. The boxes document the private life of a household as it is reflected in its consumer choices. Marx said that commercial relations falsify human relations – this process needs to be turned around, and this can only be accomplished by remembering who we are – we the people, who truly own this world. These boxes are cargo-cult totems for personal lives lost in global commercial culture. They reclaim a folk tradition and re-integrate the individual into meaningful social constellations. (see #1)

4. Sets up a figure/ground tension on a painted surface that has no clearly discernible figure on a ground, and is, indeed, only ground and nothing else. This tension is achieved by way of the peculiar shapes of the boxes. The shapes cause our perceptual mechanisms to seize upon the entire painted surface as a figure, while the ground becomes the framing materials I suppose, or even the entire world in which the figure exists. These paintings deny the figure/ground relation, but by so doing, export that relation into the real world, becoming in the process, virtual sculpture. (see #2)

5. Etc.

Originally published in Wegway No. 7, Fall 2004.

(But I still find it kind of amusing and worth putting out there again. I initially wrote it to accompany a two person show I had at the SPIN Gallery in Toronto with Gary Michael Dault, but I only ever received one comment about it. Happily it was someone who thought it was funny. So basically, nobody read it, and I suppose in a way that was part of the point. Who, after all, actually reads the dreck usually found in artists’ statements? Roy Lichtenstein said, “ Philosophers rarely, if ever, create art and artists’ philosophy is equally moronic. What artists think they are doing and how they are later seen is always in contradiction; witness the writings of the Futurists, Purists, and even Mondrian.”* A bit harsh perhaps, but more or less true.)

(I might write a future post that compares the above quote with something Susan Sontag said)

(I might also write a future post about the hot conflict between the Formalist Party (items 2 and 4 in the artist statement) and the Ideological Interventionist Party (items 1 and 3). The Formalists are presently in a minority position)

*Roy Lichtenstein, “Interview with Philip Smith,” Arts Magazine (November 1977), p. 26.

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