“3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing,” the unbelievably intriguing exhibition at the Drawing Center, proves that abstraction has always been more than art historians said it was. To see why, consider a question posed by artist Robert Irwin: How did art go from the hyper-realism of David to the total abstraction of Malevich in less than 100 years? Why was a gloriously perfected pictorial machine swapped for one that was unknown and unstable?
The reasons for this are varied, complex, and buried in the psychic ruptures that took place in the 19th century. The question, however, contains part of the answer. As scientific knowledge increased, multiplicity replaced certainty, relativism grew, our experience of our world became more unknown and unstable, and the hierarchical way we pictured the world no longer seemed adequ ate or accurate. Single-point perspective and realism were originally devised to present a kind of double-positive: Things were rendered realistically in order to be known. This worked visual wonders for several hundred years. However, by the mid 19th century it became evident that there was a latent negative lurking in the double-positive: Things were bein g named but they weren’t being known. A hole formed in the ozone of representation. Technique was only leading to more technique, perspectival space unraveled, and representation began to feel suppressive and deficient.
A visual analog for indefiniteness and instability had to be devised. A space for intuition was needed. Ab straction was one antidote. The wish was that abstraction would reverse the charge of the double-positive by presenting a double-negative: It would portray a world beyond naming. In this way a negative would be transformed into a positive. Although it led to astounding things, this premise has at least two glaring faults. First, understanding is an essentially useless measure for art. No one “understands” a Botticelli or any work of art. Second, there’s ultimately no difference between abstraction and representation; both are simply depicting systems. Abstract space exists in representational art and vice versa.
From the start, many who touted abstraction made grandiose claims for it. Soon formalists took up residence in abstraction. Todaytiresome, mostly male academics who can’t get over Greenberg persist in draining the juice from nonobjective art. Yet abstraction is far sexier than these dogmatists imagine. Abstraction is a way of seeing that which cannot be seen. It was one of the more massive gambles in art history. Not even Picasso went fully abstract, believing that it implied the death of painting. Those who took the full leap into the nonobjective void were heroes.
And heroines. Malevich believed in “the supremacy of pure sensation” and “the solemnity of the Universe.” The three extraordinary artists—Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), Emma Kunz (1892–1963), and Agnes Martin (1912–2004)—who are the subjects of the Drawing Center show, were after something supreme but less solemn. They wanted to locate the cosmic rift where form and consciousness intersect, reality and the ethereal merge, and the inner self and the outer limits converge.
Each was what Deleuze called a “doctor of the world.” All three were visionary conceptualists. Remarkably, the academically trained Swede af Klint arrived at abstraction more than five years before Malevich—which is a lifetime for such a breakthrough. Regrettably, she specified that this work not be seen until 20 years after her death. In the Drawing Center show, which has been deftly curated by Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher and comes with an informative catalog, you can see af Klint’s physically clunky yet visually alluring focused flights of fancy. She excels at portraying celestial schema and placing shapes just so in disembodied non-space. Her work looks simultaneously alchemical, Zen, and a touch mad, as if it was taken from an encyclopedia from a parallel universe.
Kunz deserves a survey of her own. Envisioning drawing as a healing device, art for her was a way to channel medicinal and mystical spirits. For Kunz the path to form and healing were identical. She, like af Klint, approached art not in modernistic terms—although both relate to symbolism—but in more archaic, shamanic ways. It’s appalling that art history is so timid and limited that it has yet to find a place for either (neither hangs in MOMA). Kunz’s straight-edge images, which look like pre-cybernetic mappings of hyperspace, function like psychic holes in the world, gaps through which one can slip and commune with “the other side.” You look at them with your third eye. The two drawings installed as tables let you peer into an abstract tantric void. As Correggio punched a hole in the fabric of illusionistic space, so Kunz creates tears in telepathic space.
Martin is a dyed-in-the-wool modernist, and her work still makes perfect sense here. It’s obvious why she’s recognized as a master of color, light, atmosphere, and spirit. To look at her work is to know what meditation feels like. Many of her early paintings and drawings come on like thunderstorms from across transcendental valleys. The serene This Rain (1960) looks like a Buddhist test pattern from the planet Rothko.
“3 x Abstraction” shows how the double-negative turned positive in another way. All three of these artists began working when women was a “negative” category. Each artist proved this notion laughable. Af Klint and Kunz created mind-expanding art. Martin’s work is all that, and breathtaking.