The New Criterion, February 1992, p. 24-30                                 Back to Writing

Abstraction then and now,
or, thoughts on drawing
from the Morgan Beatus

Deborah Rosenthal

This is a tale of two apocalypses. Waiting for the millennium, having already passed the first deadline for the end of days somewhere around A.D. 800, awaiting his own death and final judgment, a monk in Spain paints in a scriptorium; he is illustrating passages from Revelations that were quoted, some centuries before, in a commentary on that book by Beatus of Liebana. We painters here now, having already passed the proclamation of the death of painting, "postmodern," await our own fates—while we paint.
      This Beatus manuscript lies almost exactly as distant in time from the twentieth century as the art of the antique was from the Florentines of the 1420s. Just as the world of classical antiquity was opened to the artists of the Renaissance, this other Lost World, of which the Morgan Beatus is part, may be reopened to artists now.
      Like the antique sculptures that were unearthed during the Renaissance after centuries under rubble, sometimes right in front of the artists who then used them as their models, the artifacts of this other Lost World have always been around us, though in various ways secreted from our view—in recent centuries largely by the prevailing taste for the Renaissance and Baroque, which kept the smaller objects of pre-Renaissance Europe's sacred art less well known. Like many of these objects a luxury made only for the eyes of the few, this Spanish Beatus manuscript has been a prize of the Morgan Library's collection since 1919. Although individual leaves have been exhibited from time to time, it is, being a bound book, impossible to show in its entirety. (In one now-famous episode, Meyer Schapiro brought Fernand Léger to the Morgan Library to leaf through the manuscript—probably the most important encounter with the manuscript that has been had so far.) Just now, this manuscript has been printed in facsimile—for the first time in its existence, anyone can look at the totality of the manuscript's illustrations.¹ Anyone can, and artists, especially, should.
      Luckily, this manuscript is, owing to its graphic clarity, eminently reproducible as a book; the facsimile contains wonderfully faithful reproductions of the pages I have seen several times at the Morgan Library. I have been drawing from some of these pages in reproduction over the years; a few are in John Williams's book Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination. Now it is possible to draw from any of them, almost as if one were drawing from the original (the facsimile is reproduced almost the same size as the manuscript, too).

When I think of the Morgan Beatus, I find that I am thinking of Mondrian, Klee, Kandinsky, Arp, the Delaunays, and Léger. First comes Klee: this manuscript is a set of illustrations of that which has been revealed, or, as Klee's said, rendered visible. That includes, here, words as well as images; some of the images are bounded by rectangles, even bordered by elaborate frames, but others wander in and out of the region of the text, some pieces of which in turn drift through the pictorial spaces. The letters, of course, are shaped, and colored, and sometimes capped or filled in, with forms borrowed from the pictorial side. These are not symbols, these words, but thoughts made visible. I think with regret how much was surrendered when the words imprinted on the air passing between the angel and Mary evaporated out of Western painting . . . and then I remember instances of that Lost World reborn in the work of those modern artists: the large green "R" of Klee's The Villa R; the complementary colors of Sonia Delaunay's collage letters spelling out "Dubonnet"; the occasional letters, words, and numbers, drawn in a stick-figure manner so much like his figures, of TorresGarcia's compartmentalized paintings . . .
      Abstraction, then and now, evinces toward nature an analytical attitude that displaces perception as the motive for representation. There is a natural hierarchy of forms in the physical world—the artist who chooses to describe an object is at literal and metaphorical distance from it; it is separate from him or her, and can likewise be distinguished from other objects and phenomena—fur from glass, the proportion of a child's head to body from an adult's, the figure from the flux of the background, the flat printed letter-symbols that make up the word "head" from the head of a person. Klee's mutable line, Mondrian's flat frontal rectangles of primary color, Kandinsky's translucent interpenetrating planes that loom and recede—all these minimize, even abolish, or, on the other hand, equally emphasize the perceived boundaries between forms, between objects. By drawing attention to these contours, these artists imply that their own boundaries—the distances, psychic as well as formal, between them and their forms, be they figures, letters, paisley shapes, or cylinders—also have been brought into question. We are not meant to be able to measure, securely, the distance between the felt presence of the artist-observer and what he or she has observed. Only the presentation of forms in relation to one another allows us to understand their value. In fact, the "natural" hierarchy that mimesis is designed to describe is destroyed in abstraction precisely to make possible a reordering, one that presents us with a world that may look very different from the ordinary everyday one. I believe it was Augustine who—equating beauty with symmetria—said that Phoenician pots, infamously ugly, become beautiful when arranged symmetrically. The Byzantine artists, depicting Jesus miraculously raising Lazarus from the dead, turn all the faces—Jesus', Lazarus', and the spectators'—toward us, the viewers.

Explicit. This word occurs often in the text of the Beatus, which is, after all, a collection of commentaries on texts from Revelations. How to make their meanings clear? Maius, the monk-illuminator, illustrates one passage of Revelations at a time, each episode taking up part of a leaf, a whole leaf, or occasionally a double-leaf spread. John the visionary has already supplied the metaphors, slews of them, piled one over another over another in the text: "The sun became black as sackcloth of hair; and the whole moon became as blood. And the stars of heaven fell upon the earth, as the fig tree sheds its unripe figs when it is shaken by a great wind"; "And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed in the sun, and the moon was under her feet and upon her head a crown of twelve stars"; "Behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horses, and upon his head seven diadems . . ." The text is all images, and the pictures, following the text closely, seem as complete and detailed a rendition of the text as could be: I think there are no elisions, no additions, no reversals of the juxtapositions explicit in the words. Maius never flinches or wavers from his sole task of reification of the text. There is a matter-of-factness to his means, a modesty (which is more common to "visionary art" of all periods than is thought—look at the drawings of Blake, or Redon). The world Maius creates here is uniformly painted, nowhere more than one layer of pigment deep. (Nor is there any gold leaf used in this manuscript.) Since Maius never calls attention to the painted surface itself, either by fluctuations of his touch or by only partially covering a form with color, each area of the surface is the equivalent of every other one.
      The painted surface of the Beatus manuscript suggests the uniformly inflected surface which Clement Greenberg put at the very heart of abstraction. We may wonder, then, at the distance between the richness of the world of the Beatus and the near nullity of the world of Abstract Expressionist and Color Field paintings. Is it true, as Greenberg said, that abstraction tends to "monotony"? The great European inventors of modern abstraction made such full works—their drawing, their color, their spatial realizations are so varied, are such full utterances—that to develop abstraction from one of their premises alone would be an impoverishment. Yet the American abstract painters who came up in the 1940s, at the end of this seminal European generation, for the most part responded to those masters by emptying out a great deal of what they had put into their paintings, and by focusing largely on Greenberg's one issue, the issue of the paint itself.
      But this question was already part of the complex meanings of European abstraction, and its various directions. It is made clear, by the work of Klee, or Kandinsky, or Mondrian, or the Delaunays, that oil paint is not the natural medium of abstraction. Developed in the service of mimesis, oil paint is, as often noted, perfectly suited to the demands of rendering the different surfaces of objects as well as weaving a unified atmosphere of light to bind them together. Although the European abstractionists were not the first modernists to use oil paint against itself (think of Seurat), it is notable that every one of them did—or, in the case of Klee, invented a thousand other mediums to approximate other surfaces instead. To construct a flat surface where every form could seem significantly related to every other one—where every form could, by analogy, be turned into every other one—the European abstractionists applied their oil paint in various ways. For example, they hid the individual brushstrokes while still making felt the fat, sensuous surface associated with painterliness (Mondrian); or they diluted their paint to a wash out of which forms swelled and contracted like a kind of low-grade pulsating matter (Miró). Beginning with Hans Hofmann, though, the surface ceased to be part of an analytic mode. Because Hofmann's Cubism was a perceptual study, he and the American abstractionists who followed him were left, perception abandoned, with not much more than surface effects. Paint quality was not, for them, one of the layers of a complex metaphor but instead, almost exclusively, the subject of the paintings. In some bright or monochrome paintings of the New York School (certain Hofmanns, Rothkos, and Stills come to mind), color itself has been virtually eliminated, and, as Greenberg says, the texture of paint alone is what is left to engage us. That was truly a reductio ad absurdum . . .

Frontal. In the Beatus manuscript, every shape is colored in right to its contours—Maius is like Mondrian in that he constructs his flat world of little more than planes of different colors. Maius's palette, of a gay and bright pastel intensity, consists of a handful of essential colors deployed to make every shape; from page to page, out of the same orange, blue, red, green, and elusive reddish mauve, Maius shapes here birds, there buildings, here human figures, there monsters. The very same colors form the famous horizontal bands that stretch through the entire field of most of the pages. On some pages curved, or less rectangular than blocklike, these zones of color set off the actors of each page's little drama. If one tries to draw the simply shaped figures—human and animal—it becomes apparent that the similarity of surface signifies that all things depicted are made of the same substance, that one must understand them to be equally palpable (or impalpable); one must translate them, in short, into similar or equivalent graphic elements.
      Space and surface are identical here; the surface, as thin as a layer of pigment, is as uniformly opaque as a wall. But within that uniformity is a set of tensions, torsions, complications, juxtapositions, as rich as the world of Revelations. When a figure contorts itself, or a monster flicks its tail at an angle to the picture plane, in fact each time an opaque shape of color is put over another color, the space that seems everywhere to rise uniformly toward us is allowed to become a location that comes further forward. These forms of Maius's that cast no shadows behind or under them inhabit a universe of in front and even in front-er locations.
      Because of its opacity, this world of the Beatus seems to be made of nothing but objects; objects themselves, in turn, are identified with locations. Writing of pre-Newtonian concepts of space in the Western world, Albert Einstein observed that "space (or place) is a sort of order of material objects and nothing else. If the concept of space is formed and limited in this fashion, then to speak of empty space has no meaning." The flatness and frontality embodying the complex subjects of the Morgan Beatus seem to me a perfect reflection of this cosmology; so are, among many other things, Byzantine mosaic figures, Catalan Romanesque altar frontals, early medieval ivories, Romanesque tympanum sculpture, and Gothic stained glass. Parallels (which we may also learn to use) may be found farther afield, in, for example, Egyptian art, certain Mesopotamian works, certain African art, and Islamic art. Artists recently have too often overlooked all these flowerings of what Einstein called "space as positional quality of the world of material objects."
      Before abstraction was seen as an end to art, it was misunderstood as a rejection of nature. Klee, who modestly named his abstraction only "graphic art," taught that this art "renders visible" a world. The universe that is thus rendered visible is one that always exists beside—or inside—the ordinary material world, and often (though not always) contradicts it. Think of these examples: the convexity of the nose of Gabo's famous Head which becomes the ridges of two planes with a (concave) channel between them; the universally unbent verticals and horizontals of Mondrian's cityscapes which evince no parallax view, no perspectival swaying into diagonals or curves; the impossibly parallel full circles that in Klee's Around the Fish make up either end of a drinking glass seen thus at once from above and below, and in cross section. (One can find this same world rendered visible within the context of representational easel painting by such so-called visionary artists as Bosch, Goya, Blake, and Redon.)

Dialectic. As I draw from the Beatus pictures I find that every shape, be it monster or serpent, figure or group of figures, has its closed contour. Drawing around those contours yields almost nothing usable, just reduced forms that are clear but not illuminating and almost as conventional as heraldic forms. Since they are not meant, ultimately, to separate figure from ground, the contours of these objects or the grounds need not intrigue or seduce the eye—the drawing one gets from following them is dry, almost stock drawing. From reductions like those of Maius, we cannot derive reduction. Simply to trace, as it were to reproduce, the largest divisions here—the horizontals and the curved contours of the animals and people that intersect them—is to find only a number of simply repeated shapes. The text is full of details of enumerated identical forms, and the illuminations follow the text.
      How, then, does the space in these pictures open up? In the corner of a typical page, for instance, seven angels are depicted holding trumpets. Lined up frontally so that the hems of their robes form a straight line (out of which fourteen identical little forms of feet emerge), these angels' faces are identical schemata, and the general posture of each body is the same as those of the other six. But draw from one to the next and you will discover that of the seven configurations of short, colored lines and little colored planes that form the draped surfaces of their bodies, no two are identical. Each piece of drapery is made up of a combination of colored lines and small planes of color (rather like Mondrian's "free line" and "neutral plane"); seven different times, the same outer contour of the angel is found to be in tension with a different set of colors, combined and configured differently. The simplified, rather unsatisfying shapes of Maius's creatures come to seem rather like Mondrian's stock of simplified (or, in his word, "neutral") forms: a method of reducing everything to comparable terms so as to permit the intimate comparison that is metaphor. In Maius's pictures, as in Mondrian's, the multiplication of such incidents of comparison is dizzying, seemingly infinite.
      Drawing from pictures is a way of understanding them, explaining them; we are used to the idea that in finding the essence of a picture we will reduce as we draw, finding some "bare bones." Not so here: drawing from this reduced world, we are unraveling a metaphor that is irreducible; we must respond with expatiation and elaboration. Drawing from the Beatus, we may reinterpret its bands of color in our drawings as Constructivist planes, composed of many lines; the splendid complications of its draperies may yield in our drawings the comparative geometries of Platonic solids or even tessellating patterns in the plane: In such dialectics the abstractionist may find the resistance equal to the tension exerted on perceptual artists by stubborn reality.

The twentieth-century mind, even the artistic one, likes to explicate itself. The European abstractionists were so engaged in the process of understanding and explicating what they did that their invention bears all all of the following names: Constructivist, concrete, nonobjective, Synchronist, simultaneous, Neoplastic—among others. And this sometimes amicable act of naming was only part of the artists' compulsion to teach, through manifestoes, books, schools, and lectures, both one another and the general public, what their art meant. The catalogue of names, the relic of so much ardor and passion, should at this distance serve to remind us that abstraction resulted from responses to all the aspects of the art of the past, not just one. The great abstractions of Mondrian, Klee, Kandinsky, Arp, and others may include any or all of the following: distortion, reduction, or streamlining of forms; flatness; a palette reduced to the primaries; a palette reduced to whites; a palette reduced to black and white; a fully tonal palette; a palette of complementary colors; atmospheric effects; total opacity; geometrically reduced forms; organically based forms, including the human figure; forms based on machinery . . . this list is incomplete. Among their subjects: processes of nature rather than facts; a significant relationship of parts rather than the whole of the surface that covers them; the view of an object from a moving rather than a fixed vantage point. Like Masaccio regarding Giotto, or Delacroix regarding Rubens, we may look back across our own century to recognize our own essential vision in that of the seminal abstractionists of Paris, Moscow, Munich, and Dessau. Of course we know we are different women and men from them; but to be frightened off by the differences would be to become artists only of this moment—academic artists.
      Though it is necessary, in relation to abstraction, to know that knowledge may lead to contradiction of experience, this notion is not, as some take it to be, a methodology of abstraction. We need to re-learn from the inventors of abstraction the way to make up pictures (in the course of doing so, we'll regain the subject matter Abstract Expressionism washed out). It is only because the ways of inventing abstractly have been so obscured that painters have recourse to drawing directly from life as a way of arriving at an abstraction. I do not mean to say that drawing from life is impossible or unnecessary; but the artist who goes to nature expecting everything but really looking for reduction is probably striking a devil's bargain. This method—holding to experience so that one's procedure may contradict it—is the opposite of discovery. Often, working this way, an artist drawing the curve of the model's flank or the set of land against the horizon can find only the same thing in both experiences. This way of coming to nature—with nothing in mind but making art—derives from the literalism about natural sensations of Abstract Expressionism. In the classrooms of its practioners, there is little possibility of learning to invent.
      Yet it is true that very few artists are able to make up something out of their heads that can in any way rival nature. The example of Picasso, who usually worked from invention, looms large in the thoughts of many artists for whom artistry lies almost exclusively in making it up. In the funhouse mirror of Picasso's work painters discover elements of the parallel world of abstraction which seem essential: displacements, distortions, reductions, etc. Picasso's vision was at once so totally transformed and "other" and so overwhelmingly not abstract that he may prove to be a trap for the abstractionist. It may be more useful to think of those "abstract" aspects of Picasso's work as really owing more to his invention of Cubism, in the afterglow of which his lifelong impulse toward a figurative art unfolded.
      Of greater interest to the abstractionist may be Matisse, the non-Cubist and inventor of great reductions whose final statements were the great abstract cutout decorations. (It is only in his last works that Matisse is useful to an abstractionist—his earlier reductions are so directly connected with a perceptual goal.) In his 1953 Large Decoration with Masks, the elemental mask-faces set in among the leaf and quatrefoil forms are a challenge to them, and are being challenged by them—that is, we are asked to compare the way the two are drawn. What Matisse employs in this work is the emblem of his own history of perceptual drawing, but also the history of the tri-lobed, quatre-lobed decorations in medieval stained glass and cathedral facades. Matisse invents a complex work by juxtaposing two distillations: one, the radically reduced drawing of the face, based on his own years of drawing heads from life; the other, the simplified leaves, derived from ornament, which is itself a collection of forms simplified by the hands of innumerable artist-artisans.
      If the Matisse Decoration is a great, odd example of the way abstract invention may incorporate perceptually based elements, we should note that the organizing principle of this symphonic work is symmetry—which is non-perceptual. It is necessary to discover that knowledge may contradict experience . . . and of course this discovery began with Cezanne's overloading the picture with perceptual knowledge and resulted in paintings that contradict experience in many ways. And for the seminal abstractionists, too, because they were born in the nineteenth century, perception was the springboard: Mondrian, drawing the pier-and-ocean motif over and over again, finally imposes on it a symmetrical arrangement; Klee, on the epochal trip of his youth to Tunisia, was actually in the process of painting outdoors when he introduced into those watercolors the grid that lies beyond or outside the possibilities presented by the cityscape. These were leaps, not steps, rather like the leap Giotto made when he dared to turn the back of the figure on the viewer. And like Masaccio, who leapt from the place where Giotto had landed, artists learning from Klee or Mondrian need not trouble themselves to re-trace the steps immediately preceding the leap, but instead must find the deeper past of abstraction spiraling back from these artists' works. They themselves showed us this past—so much of the focus of their lecturing, and writing, and teaching was on showing us the abstract works of art which became their models. In Kandinsky's Blue Rider Almanac we find Egyptian shadow puppets whose lacy, irregular forms populate his late abstractions with a grave comedy. Mondrian mentions Byzantine art favorably in his credo, "Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art," published in Circle, the Constructivist manifesto. Kandinsky reproduces the famous Ravenna mosaic of the Empress and her retinue in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Klee, of them all the most intellectual, addressed himself in all his brilliant teaching to the principles of nature study carried on in the absence of a desire to imitate the appearance of nature. This artist, who drew on more artists from the Western and other traditions than one can name, did not show those artists' works to his students.² Rather Klee, the savant of abstraction, showed them the sorts of things that a twentieth-century mind may know (and that sometimes contradict experience): atomic structure; X-rays; microscope views; telescope views; aerial views . . .     

Coordinates. Most modern of all the things we know about space is the fourth dimension. For an artist, though, the fourth dimension can mean only a sort of pressure exerted on the two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional world. "The victory over the concept of absolute space," wrote Albert Einstein, "became possible only because the concept of the material object was gradually replaced as the fundamental concept of physics by that of the field . . . The whole of physical reality could perhaps be represented as a field whose components depend on four space-time parameters . . . That which constitutes the spatial character of reality is then simply the four-dimensionality of the field." If we wish to be visionaries—if we wish to invent abstractly—we may have our feet still planted in the pre-Newtonian world of space-location and our heads in the air of the field theory following on Faraday and Maxwell. Maius wanted to invent the world seen after the Last Judgment, the world of heaven; we want to invent the world after the abolition of the concept of the material object, the world of the fourth dimension. But for us, as for Maius, it is the two- and three-dimensional coordinates of the field that most preoccupy us . . . because, after all, what we do when we paint is to make a material object. Experience in the world is the womb whose pressure is felt in the birth of invention.
      We go to the museum and find that it is full of art that has met such pressure with abstraction; figures that look back at us in enamel on Limoges caskets, or in ivory carvings; elaborate geometric fantasies in the colored shapes of stained glass, or in the cold clear stone of Gothic tracery; foliage and borders and figures in the painted surfaces of Catalan frescoes and altar frontals; rhythmic draperies in the stone pictures of the Romanesque tympana. It is pointless to separate these worlds from the spiritual mind that made them: in its explicitness the religious vision is as surprising and unconventional a world as any we moderns could imagine. Metaphor unsexes Adams and Eves, who stand surprised in nude-shaped clothing; metaphor reduces the Mother to childish proportions, and thus, theologically, to the child of her Child.
      May no fate willfully [or otherwise] misunderstand me /And half grant what I wish . . . This is not the time to go learn scribal arts, or gold-leafing, or Catholic theology in preparation for making such pictures as one might from our roots in this old abstraction. Let us use the monk-artist Maius as a glorious metaphor: let us, too, celebrate that we are here, now. There has been, after all, no apocalypse: let us go on inventing modern pictures.

¹A Spanish Apocalypse: The Morgan Beatus Manuscript, with an introduction and commentaries by John Williams and a codicological analysis by Barbara A. Shailor; George Braziller/The Pierpont Morgan Library, 239 pages, $175

²Klee's titles sometimes direct us to his sources. Occasionally too an art historian analyzes a work by Klee in relation to its sources. A fascinating example is Phyllis Williams Lehmann's "A Roman Source for Klee's 'Athlete's Head,'" which appeared in the December 1990 Art Bulletin.

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