Whitehot Magazine

Nonobjectivity as a Crisis of Subjectivity by Donald Kuspit

Composition 8, Vassily Kandinsky (1923). Kandinsky / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

By DONALD KUSPIT, October 2022

“The theory of moving electricity, which supposed completely to replace moving matter, has found many keen proponents,” Kandinsky wrote in 1912, as though that meant the moving electricity of his own innovative abstract art, which was supposed completely to replace the matter of representational art, would soon find advocates.(1)  Kandinsky attempted to justify the change from representational to abstract art—from an art that engaged visible physical reality to one that evoked invisible spiritual reality—by comparing it to the change in the scientific conception of matter, but he knew that the parallel between the artistic and scientific revolutions could only be carried so far:  “In this era of the deification of matter, only the physical, that which can be seen by the physical ‘eye,’ is given recognition.  The soul has been abolished as a matter of course.”(2)  Science sees with the physical eye, and deifies matter, however dynamic it conceives it to be, while abstract art restores the soul science abolished, showing its dynamics.  Modern science and modern art are opposed, however much they have a certain uncanny resemblance.

While Kandinsky asserts that “the concept ‘external’ should not…be confused with the concept ‘material’,” his attempt “to rid” art of “’external necessity,’ which can never lead…beyond the bounds of accepted and hence more traditional ‘beauty’,” and ground it on “’internal necessity’…which recognizes no such boundaries,”(3) is also an attempt to rid it of dependence on the external reality that traditional art beautified or idealized, and turn art’s attention to internal reality.  As he said, in “objective” art “elements of nature have been employed,” while in “nonobjective” art “the content of the work is realized exclusively by purely pictorial means.”(4)  That content has to do with what he called “inner effects.”(5)  Thus, even if a work is pure rather than natural in its means, it can still be shaped by external necessity, and thus feel dead.  “When the formal element of art is assessed exclusively by cold, external criteria”—he is thinking of Cubism, and especially Constructivism—“works of abstract art appear dead (so too in life).  But when these external criteria are augmented by inner criteria, which we may take as our principal basis for judging the formal element, in the broadest sense, those same works of abstract art respond to the effect of warmth and come to life.”(6)  The issue of abstract art is to bring art, and with it the soul, to life—to feel alive, with the help of pure art, in a world that is known to be dead because it is physical material and, worst of all, determined entirely by external necessity.

Thus the crisis in mimesis that led to the emergence of nonobjective or pure art was a crisis of feeling as well as of reality.  It has as much to do with the artist’s interior world as the exterior world he shared with others.  I will outline the nature of this crisis, and then discuss four case histories—those of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell—which demonstrate how pure art came to the artist’s emotional rescue, indeed, saved his soul from a fate worse than death, namely, the feeling of living death.  As Kandinsky wrote, what is needed is an art that is “something other than a purely practical, utilitarian concern on the one hand, or an airy-fairy kind of l’art pour l’art on the other,” but rather that establishes “relationships with other spiritual realms and, ultimately, with the totality of ‘life’….Art will then be…clearly seen as a life-giving force.”(7)  For Kandinsky, art is either a force for “the positive, the creative…the good.  The white fructifying ray” or “the negative, the destructive…the bad.”  The black, death-dealing hand.”(8)  In other words, art is a psychomachia, with mimesis as bad, because it is materialistic, and pure art as good, because it involves “sublimation,” as Kandinsky called it, which means that it abstracts “the creative spirit” that “lies concealed…behind matter, within matter,”(9) and that is the core of life and the source of the feeling of being alive.  

I cannot help thinking of Winnicott’s observation that “there exists a relationship between the deepest conflicts that reveal themselves in religion and in art forms and the depressed mood of melancholic illness.  In the center is doubt as to the outcome of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, or in psychiatric terms, between the benign and persecutory elements within and without the personality.”(10)  Winnicott also writes:  “the opposite to the liveliness of the infant is an anti-life factor derived from the mother’s depression.”(11)  One can say that the anti-life factor Kandinsky was fighting against with his purely vital art was his depressing experience of the world, who is the mother of us all.  Winnicott notes:  “To be alive is all.  It is a constant struggle to get to the starting point and keep there.  No wonder there are those who make a special business of existing and who turn it into a religion.”(12)  One might say that is what Kandinsky did by way of his pure art, which became a religion.  He got to the starting point, and stayed there.  Abstract art was, after all, his infant, and in fact it has the liveliness, and, one might add, integrity and honesty of an infant—all the more remarkable when compared with the forced, faked pseudo-vitality of such decadent abstract paintings as those by Gerhard Richter, to take a prominent example of the contemporary crop of artificial abstractions, with their simulated vitality and dead purity, which pass for adult sophistication—fending off the anti-life forces in its coldly secular environment.  

Thus the loss of faith in mimesis involved the romantic artist’s increasingly problematic sense of self in a world that aroused more anxiety than its representation could manage.  In mimesis, romantically understood, the artist invests himself in an alien world so that he can feel safe and secure in it.  He empathically burrows into it to make it his own.  This is what Constable was doing when he stated that “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane.”(13)  In the nineteenth century even a scientist such as Sir Humphry Davy could comfortably project and find himself in nature.  Describing the landscape in which he first experienced “a distinct sympathy with nature,” as he called it, he wrote:  “everything was alive, and myself part of the series of visible impressions:  I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees.”(14)  This was close to Wordsworth, whose heart leaped up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky, that is, who came alive when he experienced the colors of the rainbow, all the more lively and fluid because they soared into the sky.  Clearly, nature, a nonhuman environment, was not alien to human nature for Constable, Davy, and Wordsworth.  They felt secure and safe in and with it, and as alive as it obviously was.  It was the vital alternative to the everyday world—to society busy getting and spending, as Wordsworth said—and as such seemed as close to eternity as it was possible to be on earth.  Imitating nature, they experienced the divine.

But in the twentieth century it became impossible for the romantic artist to feel safe, secure, and alive in nature.  It was no longer a haven from society.  It became more and more difficult to establish a convincing therapeutic relationship with it.  Eternity became very remote indeed.  The less natural and organic society itself came to seem—the more deliberately constructed it looked, which is the unnatural and inorganic, indeed, modern way it began to look under the pressure of industrialization (it is clearly reflected in Cubism and Constructivism, in the turn from stone to steel in architecture, in the unnatural and inorganic appearance human beings began to have in painting and sculpture, all signs of modernization)—the less room it seemed to allow for the natural and organic, except in a token way.  Such token traces and ratty symbols of nature were hardly adequate to the romance of life that Constable, Davy, and Wordsworth had sought and found in nature.  It was no longer responsive to human nature—no longer mirrored the organic vitality of human beings.  Thus there was no aliveness left in the world to support the romantic artist’s feeling of being alive, which made it inhospitable as a whole.  Both nature and society had become too alien to merge and identify with.  The romantically inclined artist could not feel himself to be a basic part of anything in the world nor experience anything in the world as a basic part of himself.  The materialistic society of the twentieth century—a society in which, as Kandinsky wrote, “men place exclusive value upon outward success, concern themselves only with material goods, and hail technical progress, which serves and can only serve the body, as a great achievement”(15)—was too untrustworthy to entrust with his sense of self, too emotionally unsafe to be a safe harbor, too exploitive to be in even subliminal sympathy with his existence.  In this situation of complete alienation—irreversible separation—from nature and society, which all but destroyed a self that already felt precarious, the romantic artist fell back on his art.  It was the only remedy he could think of—the only remedy that seemed possible—the only emotional space in which he felt safe, secure, and alive.  Making art, he felt strong and intact—a self cured of its alienation, however much his complete absorption in his art confirmed his alienation.  Art became the exclusive space in which he could lose himself completely and lovingly as he once lost himself completely and lovingly in nature.  Nature completed him by giving him consciousness of his deepest nature, and he completed it by giving it consciousness of itself, and now he had the same dialectical intimacy with art.  Pure art was a homemade, last ditch remedy, desperate self-medication, in a situation in which nature could no longer heal the wounds inflicted by society, and society itself seemed beyond remedy and hope.  

In short, losing reciprocity with nature—signaled by the fact that it no longer seemed worth the trouble of representing, or even fit to represent—the romantic artist established a new reciprocity with art, resulting in its purification.  Society and finally nature became a dispensable alien dross—both were treated with the same destructive indifference with which the romantic artist felt they treated him, in part by being reduced to a realm of raw beta sensations, which destroyed them as alembics or containers in which sublimation or spiritualization could occur—and art became a sanctuary in which the self could commune with and purify itself.  The turn to pure art was in fact a romantic attempt to clean the temple of art so that it could be a place in which the artist could worship creativity as such, if also his self at its most creative—most romantic.  In short, the religion of art replaced the religion of nature.  To understand what occurred, all one has to do is replace the word “Nature” with “Art” in Constable’s recognition of “the beauty and majesty of Nature” which led him “to adore the hand that has, with such lavish beneficence, scattered the principles of happiness and enjoyment throughout every department of Creation.”(16)  It was now the artist’s hand that did the scattering, and did it in the work of art, which became emblematic of Creation itself.

The pure artist—the unequivocally non-objective, uncompromisingly abstract artist—replaced the romance and religion of nature with the romance and religion of art.  One can say that the latter grew out of the former in Kandinsky and Mondrian, but art came to replace nature so completely that nature seemed beside the creative point.  “Many people cannot see the spirit in religion, in art,” Kandinsky wrote,(17) but they would see the spirit in his religious art, the purest of all religious arts.  Similarly, in an essay titled “A New Religion?,” written between 1938 and 1940, during his exile in London, Mondrian, after stating that “the new Nazi and Soviet religion is oppressive, just like the old traditional religion,” declared that “the new art is the old art free of all oppression…in this way art becomes religion.  The new religion is faith in life.  The new religion is for those capable of abstraction.”(18)  

London Bridge, André Derain, 1906. Oil on canvas, 26 x 39 in.

There were still efforts to treat the modern social world as a natural landscape, vitalizing it so that it seemed organic and timeless—Monet’s and Derain’s London pictures are conspicuous examples—but it was no longer convincingly one to Kandinsky and Mondrian, nor was nature spiritually convincing or sublime.  Both began by projecting themselves into nature, in a standard romantic way, and ended up making pure art, the ultimate romantic art, because it evoked a sense of integral and dynamic—creatively alive—selfhood they felt nowhere else.  They began as romantic landscape artists and became mystics of the self.  If, as Harry Stack Sullivan wrote, “the self-system…is an organization of educative experience called into being by the necessity to avoid or to minimize incidents of anxiety,”(19) then mystically pure art was called into being by the necessity to avoid or to minimize the profound anxiety the modern world caused the romantic artist.  Kandinsky and Mondrian educated themselves in pure art—it was indeed a self-education—to avoid and control their annihilative anxiety, that is, their sense of the groundlessness of their existence and art in the modern world.  They turned away from it—refused to represent it—not simply to defensively negate or deny it, but to sustain their innermost sense of self—a creative self so basic and inward that it seemed abstract, unworldly.  They made the romantic turn inward—reached the “spiritual turning-point,” as Kandinsky called it(20)—not only to save the creative self from the indifferent world, but to give it the strength of purpose to survive and flourish without the world.

Pure art was originally the romantic symbol of autonomy in an unromantic world in which none seemed possible—a world which could not be a facilitating environment for the individual because it conceived him in collective terms.  Individualism is a collective ideology in the modern world of instrumental reason, which is concerned with the individual only in his social role and identity.  One of the reasons Kandinsky and Mondrian turned to Theosophy for support, however idiosyncratic and esoteric a religion it may be—the more idiosyncratic and esoteric the better, for that meant it was more oriented to the individual than the collective, more concerned to initiate the individual into his own creativity than to enforce a dogma designed to direct and even limit or humble human creativity (for it would be competitive with God’s creativity)—is because only religion seemed to acknowledge and support the individual’s existence and creativity in a world indifferent to them.  If religion at its deepest involves renunciation and withdrawal from the world to liberate the self’s creativity—for the mystic the world is never an adequate ground of selfhood, since it never liberates the self’s creativity without using it for its own practical purposes, so that creativity never becomes truly free-spirited—then Kandinsky and Mondrian turned to religion for the sake of their creativity, that is, the godhead within themselves.  For them religion was the positive alternative to the “absolute negativity” that Adorno said is now “in plain sight”—in Auschwitz—“and has ceased to surprise anyone.”(21)  Negativity was also in plain sight for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but it did not yet seem absolute—Auschwitz had  not yet happened—which is why they consoled themselves and counterattacked with religion and creativity at their most revolutionary—with the new religion of art.

If “the indifference of each individual life…is the direction of history,” as Adorno wrote,(22) then for Kandinsky and Mondrian pure art goes against the direction of history, for it symbolizes the creative difference of each individual life.  Indifference means the individual makes no difference, only the collective does, but the art of Kandinsky and Mondrian suggests that the individual does make a difference.  Theirs is an art of subtle individual differences, rather than of socially defined and prescribed differences—invariably gross differences.  As Kandinsky emphasized, the creative issue is “the creation of individual forms,” which are the building blocks of “the whole composition,” and assure  its individuality.(23)  There is no doubt what Bion calls “fear of social-ism” in their apparently narcissistic, even psychotic turn to the religion of pure art, but it was the only way they had of defending themselves against the collective, “which is known to be indifferent to [one’s] fate as an individual.”(24)        

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, oil on canvas, 46 x 46 cm (Kunsthaus Zürich).

The art of Kandinsky and Mondrian is religious not because they thought religion would “reconstitute the pervasive human sociability that capitalism had destroyed,” which is what Meyer Schapiro thought Van Gogh’s idea of a quasi-religious commune of artists was meant to do,(25) but because it represented creative autonomy, such as God traditionally had.  If, as Erik Erikson states, “in the language of the uncorrupted core of all spiritual tradition…the identity of knowing transcendence can only be discovered by man when the possibility for any social definition of identity is shattered beyond restoration,”(26) then the spiritual language of Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s pure art conveys the knowing transcendence of creative selfhood by ruthlessly destroying the social definition of artistic identity that mimesis represents, with no possibility of restoring it to credibility.  Kandinsky makes the point explicitly when he declares that “the language of art” is “superhuman.”(27)

All of this is preamble to my argument that the turn to pure art was originally a religious conversion.  Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell had conversion experiences that turned them into art mystics.  Kandinsky wrote:  “the common relationship between works of art, which is not weakened by the passage of millennia, but is increasingly strengthened, does not lie in the exterior, the external, but in the root of roots—in the mystical content of art.”(28)  Its three sources—the artist’s personality, his times, and “the pure and eternally artistic”(29)—converge in the creative “idiosyncracy” of the work.(30)  Motherwell simply says “abstract art is a form of mysticism,”(31) but the idea remains revolutionary.

There is a fair amount of evidence indicating that all four artists experienced a crisis of selfhood –enormous self-doubt, implying a degree of self-disintegration—from which they rescued themselves by making their art as pure as possible.  Art was the medium in which they enacted the spiritual conversion that saved them from complete collapse.  Their artistic conversion to non-objective art—art that withdraws from and renounces the world, rising above it, however many traces of it are left in the art, as though mithridatically protecting its purity—was a religious conversion that made them feel inwardly safe, secure, and alive, and thus self-possessed and even self-sufficient—in a word, autonomous.

To make my point, I will rely on William James’s concept of religious conversion, amplified by psychoanalytic ideas.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience James describes the effect of conversion on consciousness, but he does not analyze its unconscious dynamics, although he acknowledges that conversion involves what he called a “subconscious” factor.  While James’s account of conversion stays largely on the surface, it nonetheless remains helpful for a preliminary understanding of the artists’ remarks about their conversion to the religion of pure art.  For James, “To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.  This at least is what conversion signified in general terms, whether or not we believe that a divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about.”(32)

This conception of conversion occurs in the context of James’s analysis of the “two ways of looking at life,” corresponding to two kinds of human character, the healthy-minded, who need to be born only once, and…the sick souls, who must be twice-born in order to be healthy.  The result is two different conceptions of the universe of our experience.  In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which they naturally appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth.  Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account.  In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery.  Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life.  Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, there lurks a falsity in its very being.  Cancelled as it all is by death if not by early enemies, it gives no final balance, and can never be the thing intended for our lasting worship.  It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth.  There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.

As James notes, the sick soul is made sick by awareness of “evil as a pervasive element of the world we live in,” and “the pessimistic elements” of evil—“sorrow, pain, and death,” that is, destructiveness or negation of life, mental and physical—are inherent to natural life.  Thus renunciation of natural life is renunciation of the “disease” of evil, which includes, as James says, “worry over the disease…itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint.”  Renunciation is in part accomplished by repentance for the natural evil in oneself, and in part by deliberately affirming goodness, consciously struggling and willing to be good, and even happy, that is, full of joie de vivre or delight in life, as I would call it.  For James, this is clearly an unnatural if not impossible effort—a kind of supernatural effort, from the religious point of view.  In other words, one mourns the death of one’s own nature—the old Adam and Eve—and labors to give birth to a new nature—the new Adam and Eve.  This whole process of change induced by mournful renunciation, which is a kind of self-transcendence, and the toughminded resolve to be good and happy, is experienced very personally, as a spiritual conversion.  The renunciation of the sickness and evil of the natural is a spiritual death which makes spiritual birth—the second birth of the twice-born—and healthy-mindedness possible.  After a successful conversion, the self is no longer divided against itself—no longer divided between its actual evil and its potential goodness—but, having accepted its evil and vigorously struggling to actualize its goodness, becomes reconciled to itself, and thus dynamically at peace with itself.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko, oil on canvas, 231 x 180.3 cm, 1956, courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, USA.

With these statements as background, let me foreground statements by Kandinsky and Mondrian on the one hand, and Rothko and Motherwell on the other.  The former are the European pioneers of pure art, the latter are among its American advocates.  This probably affects the difference in their attitudes and conception of the spiritual significance of abstract art, but I want to concentrate on that difference not on their cultural and chronological differences.  Their ideas and feelings converge, but for Kandinsky and Mondrian spirituality means overcoming modern materialism, while for Rothko and Motherwell it means overcoming modern alienation.  No doubt Kandinsky and Mondrian felt alienated from the modern materialistic society in which they found themselves, but it was the society’s materialism that disturbed them more than their alienation from it.  They took alienation for granted, it came with spiritual superiority.  They wanted to save materialistic society through their spiritual example, as Mondrian makes clear in his assertion that “the ‘painting’ of purely abstract art…prepare[s] the realization of pure equilibrium in society itself,” that is, in the “material environment.”  “Only then will art become life.…We then see more clearly manifested the force that animates the joy of living—which says almost all that need be said concerning purely abstract art.”(33)  Clearly abstract art is the antidote to what Breton called “miserabilism,” that is, “the depreciation of reality instead of its exaltation.”(34)  Similarly, for Kandinsky the “new [spiritual] wisdom…inaudible to the masses, is first heard by the artist.”  His spiritual art communicates it to the increasing “number of people who set no store by the methods of materialistic science in matters concerning the ‘nonmaterial’.”  “The artists who seek the internal in the world of the external” do so not only for their own edification, but for the benefit of everyone.  They make the “effort of pulling…the cart of humanity” up “the spiritual triangle that will one day reach to heaven.”

In contrast, for Rothko and Motherwell there was no artistic way of coming to terms with modern materialistic society.  Art could not transform it for the better, either by suggestion or practice.  The artist was always alienated from it, and it was always hostile to his best emotional interests.  Rothko and Motherwell never reconciled themselves to modern materialistic society, and they did not try to educate it for its own emotional good.  They did not try, in Kandinsky’s words, to have “a direct [transformative] influence on [its] soul.”  It was beyond redemption.  All that a mere painter could do was to transcend it by means of his abstract painting.  The more pure—unrepresentational, unworldly, immaterial—the more transcendent the painting seemed.  Indeed, for Rothko and Motherwell pure abstraction transformed the claustrophobic feeling of alienation into the liberating feeling of transcendence.  In short, where for Kandinsky and Mondrian abstract painting was a response to an objective problem, which undoubtedly had subjective consequences, for Rothko and Motherwell it was a response to a subjective problem, however objective its cause.  Where Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted to save materialistic society, Rothko and Motherwell wanted to save their own souls.

Kandinsky writes:  “Our souls, which are only now beginning to awaken after the long reign of materialism, harbor seeds of desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose.  The whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, purposeless game, is not yet over.  The awakening soul is still under the influence of the nightmare.  Only a weak light glimmers, like a tiny point in an enormous circle of blackness.  This weak light is no more than an intimation that the soul scarcely has the courage to perceive, doubtful whether this light might not itself be a dream, and the circle of blackness, reality.”  Mondrian writes, somewhat more hopefully:  “Well executed, works of purely abstract art will…always remain fully human, not ‘although’ but precisely ‘because’ their appearance is not a naturalistic one.  Is art nearing its end?  There is nothing to fear.  What is this—still distant—end of art but humanity’s liberation from the dominance of the material and physical, thus bringing us closer to the time of ‘matter-spirit’ equivalence?”

Shifting to Rothko and Motherwell, the emphasis is less on nightmarish materialism than on nightmarish alienation—less on materialistic society than on its devastating effect on the self, although it also turns out to be—or by force of will can be turned into—a spiritual opportunity for the self.  Rothko states:  “The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept.  Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation.  Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his plastic bankbook, just as he abandoned other forms of security.  Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar.  Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.”(36)  In a related way, Motherwell writes:

The emergence of abstract art is one sign that there are still men able to assert feeling in the world.  Men who know how to respect and follow their inner feelings, no matter how irrational or absurd they may first appear.  From their perspective it is the social world that tends to appear irrational and absurd….I think that abstract art is uniquely modern—not in the sense that the word is sometimes used, to mean that our art has ‘progressed’ over the art of the past…but in the sense that abstract art represents the particular acceptances and rejections of men living under the conditions of modern times.  If I were asked to generalize about this condition as it has been manifest in poets, painters, and composers during the last century and a half, I should say that it is fundamentally a romantic response to modern life—rebellious, individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable.  I should say the attitude arose from a feeling of being ill at ease in the universe, so to speak—the collapse of religion, of the close-knit community and family may have something to do with the origins of the feeling….But whatever the source of the sense of being unwedded to the universe, I think that one’s art is just one’s effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union.(37)

And then Motherwell writes the sentence I have already quoted:  “For make no mistake, abstract art is a form of mysticism.”

The following seems clear:

(1)For all the nightmarishness of modern materialistic society, Kandinsky and Mondrian are optimistic that it can be awakened to the spiritual truth by means of abstract painting, while Rothko and Motherwell have no such expectation or illusion.  For them abstract painting has no social power and influence, for better or worse.  In a letter to Pfister, Freud wrote that “my pessimism seems a conclusion, while the optimism of my opponents seems a priori assumption.”(38)  Similarly, the social pessimism of Rothko and Mothewell was a conclusion based on their experience of modern materialistic America, while the social optimism of Kandinsky and Mondrian was an a priori assumption based on their belief in the power of art.  It is hard to decide whether this idealistic belief was narcissistically healthy or defensive, even insane and delirious, but in retrospect it seems absurd and naïve—a wish fulfilling fantasy, falsifying hope as such dreams do.  It is the echo of the good old times when art was integrated in society—had its place, if often as an instrument of the powers that be, spreading their ideology as though it was the gospel truth.  Art was a mode of aesthetic support and aesthetic dogmatization in the service of so-called higher powers, and unconsciously Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted it to continue to be, however different the higher power.

In contrast, the realism of Rothko and Motherwell is refreshing if also depressing.  It holds out no false hope of art’s integration in society.  No longer of direct use to society—however much it may be appropriated by society—art can be of indirect use to the individual.  It can also become an aesthetic end in itself, realizing its full potential as art.  Seemingly self-sufficient, it becomes a beacon of subjective intensity, integrity, and intimacy in a dismal, disintegrative, cold society—a sign of empathy in a peculiarly abstract society.  Indeed, in a sense the abstract painting of Rothko and Motherwell reconciles empathy and abstraction, in Worringer’s sense.  It is a very personal painting, that is, painting that evokes a sense of person, organically and psychically alive in a peculiarly inorganic, death-infected technocratic/bureaucratic society—an anonymous society of indifferent administration, imposing its universality and uniformity on everything, geometrically dividing things irrespective of their individual differences, intellectually homogenizing them despite their heterogeneity—but the abstract painting of Rothko and Motherwell breathes organic life into the inorganic without denying its dominance.

(2)The mood—in Kandinsky’s sense, that is, as a sign of “the poetical strivings of the living soul of the artist”(39)—of all four artists is remarkably similar, once one gets beyond the difference in their attitude to society.  Kandinsky speaks of “desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose.”  For Mondrian, “our disequilibrated society” is a threat to “joie de vivre.”  For Rothko society is unfriendly and “hostile.”  For Motherwell, it is “irrational and absurd.”  He feels “ill at ease” and disconnected in it.  In all four we see depression and isolation, verging on self-loss and meaninglessness.  That is, all four are what James called sick souls.  They have been sickened by the evil in the modern world, which they experience, variously, as materialistic, unbalanced, alien, and unsupportive—all evil qualities.

(3)For all four, abstract art is a fantasy of religious rescue from unavoidable evil:  from cynical social and scientific materialism for Kandinsky, from lack of social and personal balance and joy for Mondrian, from a crippling sense of separation and alienation, resulting from a sense of the lack and impossibility of community, for Rothko and Motherwell.  Abstract art gave them faith, hope, and charity—faith in themselves, hope for the future of the world, and a freely given gift to the community, regarded as the undifferentiated whole of humanity from which they expected nothing material in return—in a society where they do not seem to exist.  Certainly they did not feel they belonged or had a place in it.  In short, for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell abstract art offered meaningful selfhood and relationship in a world where neither seemed to exist, and seemed all but impossible to achieve.  Abstract art made them feel less like failures as human beings and more equal to the world.  All four artists had deep narcissistic and relational problems, and pure abstract art was a pure abstract way of relating to others, that is, feeling a sense of community with them, with no sacrifice of selfhood, especially important because they didn’t have much self to spare.  

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic #132, 1975–85. © Dedalus Foundation, Inc/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2022.

Pure abstract art was clearly an integrative activity for them, that is, it gave them a sense of being whole, significant individuals and of being a significant, even indispensable part of the community.  The integration and sense of wholeness achieved on a purely abstract or formal level in painting, where it is a matter of balancing primordial visual elements of color, gesture, and space, led, on a psychic level, to self- and world-communion, in whatever fantasy form.  Such a surge of positive feelings involves the fantasy of leaving all one’s conflicts behind forever, and of experiencing a happy, harmonious—non-conflictual—relationship with the world and humanity at large (if not the people in one’s society in particular).  No longer divided against oneself, one no longer feels at odds with—irreversibly separated from—society.  Indeed, the equilibrium and unity of the abstract painting, however hardwon—it is a constant struggle to achieve it, and it always seems on the verge of breaking down, confirming its precariousness and fragility—creates the utopian illusion of a statically tranquil, stable self and society—a well-ordered social pyramid, as Van Gogh said, in which everyone had a happy place.

In other words, for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell, to paint abstractly was to be healthy-minded.  It involved recognition of the evil of the self and the world—acceptance of the fact that they are evil by nature.  Renunciation of representation of that world was renunciation of evil.  The self’s resulting joie de vivre, evident, however subliminally, in the dynamics of color, gesture, and space, is not only a consequence of transcendence of the world, but the discovery of the self’s spiritual nature made possible by that transcendence, that is, the recognition of the self’s potential for goodness, bringing with it faith in the real possibility of goodness in the world beyond the self.  No doubt the joie de vivre is ambivalent, as indicated by the mournful gloom of many of Rothko’s and Motherwell’s paintings, and the desperate surge of blackness in many of Kandinsky’s.  I think that when Mondrian removed gray from his painting he rose above his melancholy, but black was eliminated only in his late New York paintings, that is, at the end of his life.  Even then, the beating pulse of colors the black line became in those last works had its entropic regularity—always a danger for Mondrian, who skirted entropy by asymmetry, thus conveying a lyric effect of “inner freedom,” as Meyer Schapiro called it.(40)  Such entropic regularity overtook Rothko and Motherwell’s late works, and Mondrian only avoided it by a kind of private irony.  This ambivalence—the tense fusion of death-instincts and life-instincts, for Léon Grinberg the substance of ego—signals the ongoing struggle against evil which is the sign of authentic conversion.  Without that struggle, conversion is facile, Polyannalike, and unconvincing, indicating that the convert was once-born all along, that is, incapable of engaging evil, especially the evil in the self, inevitably turning it against the self—splitting it at the root—and of imagining any attitude other than the natural attitude, to misuse Husserl’s idea. 

The problem with conversion is that, however authentic, it is premised on a fantasy of psychic escape that does not preclude capture and hanging by society.  There is a serious failure of reality testing in it.  Much the way the Ambrose Bierce soldier who was being hung by his captures fantasized that he freed himself just as the trap opened beneath him—the Civil War story is told from the point of view of his conviction, so that we don’t realize the truth until the end, when there is a sudden shift to an external observer’s point of view—the abstract painter may be deceiving himself into believing that he is free when he is not.  And yet without the absurd, even psychotic fantasy of liberation and transcendence that is at the core of conversion there is no way Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell could begin to do the psychic work, that is, the actual work of conversion, which involves a working through of evil, in the form of art-work, to use Fairbairn’s term—I accept Arnheim’s idea of isomorphism, which proposes, in the words of Gilbert Rose, that “the structure of art and the emotions are homologous”(41)—necessary to remedy their misery, let alone pretend to change the mood of the world.  Pure abstract painting is a space of conversion in which the emotional ideal of peace, which hovers over the painting as a whole, competes with the aesthetic reality of conflict and struggle that is the nitty-gritty of the painting’s structure, with the whole enterprise catalyzed by the artist’s omnipotent belief in his revolutionary ability to fundamentally change his life, and even that of the whole world.  

It should be noted that the convert abstract artist’s isolation does not necessarily help his self-work.  The usual religious convert enters a community of like-minded believers, who help him sustain his new-found faith in himself and God, with its accompanying belief in the possible—indeed, eventual—conversion of the whole world, so that it will be one grand community of true believers.  But the conversion of the abstract painter does not bring him into a community of like-minded believers—an alternative society of the faithful.  He remains at odds with other abstract painters, a victim of the credo of individualism that at once motivates and hobbles the avant-garde artist.  Indeed, uncompromising individualism is supposedly a badge of honor that confirms vanguardism.  Even the Blaue Reiter group had its conflicts—differences of opinion, to put it politely—and eventually broke up, and not only because of the first world war.  The pure abstract artist remains profoundly alone—his purity and self-esteem depend on it—however much he may now and then associate with other abstract artists.  It is as though they would interfere with his development rather than encourage it—interfere with his spontaneity rather than support it.  One only has to read Hans Hartung’s skepticism about the ideas of Kandinsky and the deceptive personality of Mondrian to realize how tenuous and spiteful the relationship between artists that seem to have an affinity can be.  What Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” seems to be involved.  The pure abstract artist wants to go his own way, whatever the social and, more insidiously, hidden personal cost.  For going it alone in the desert—recall that Malevich metaphorically described his abstract Suprematist painting as a “desert experience”(42)—is no guarantee that one will experience conversion.  It may just prolong one’s agony.

(4)For all four painters, pure abstract painting is a mystical-spiritual enterprise, independent of religious dogmas and rituals.  It is a mode of transcendence that works in terms of immediate sensation rather than symbolism, however subliminally symbolic the pure abstract painting may be.  Indeed, the problem was to transcend traditional spiritual symbolism by means of purely “sensational” painting, whether conceived in terms of geometrical space, as in Mondrian’s and Rothko’s case, or gesture, as in Kandinsky’s and Motherwell’s case.  Not exclusively, of course:  Mondrian’s color planes become color gestures in his late New York work, as though recapitulating and refining the gesturalism of his early works, especially the so-called plus and minus paintings—the New York abstractions are a kind of regression in the service of an ego that had reached a geometrical dead-end—and Rothko’s color planes are an intricate matrix of intimate gestures.  Similarly, Kandinsky and Motherwell attempted to fuse spontaneous gesture and geometrical space in their later work.  They wanted to loosen axiomatically inflexible geometrical space by means of energetic gesture, and give the gesture an intellectual dimension by imbuing it with geometrical deliberateness.  As Plato said, geometry is eternal, and their Platonizing or classicizing of gesture harks back at least to Cézanne’s wish to paint like Poussin, that is, to synthesize geometrical structures and impressionist sensation—to eternalize sensation, which is inseparable from painting, as Boccioni said.(43)  No doubt Ehrenzweig’s distinction between gestalt and gestalt-free forms, and their conversion, helps explain the synthesis.  Pure abstract painting invites one to meditate on the feelings aroused by and associated with primordial sensations—whether geometrically or gesturally evident—rather than to read a narrative  of supernatural life and otherworldly society to prepare oneself for them.

In pure abstract painting visual sensation is enriched by what Deikman calls “the phenomenon of ‘sensory translation,’ through which psychic actions such as conflict, repression, and problem-solving are perceived through relatively unstructured experiences of light, color, movement.”(44)  Every sensory experience of them is heightened or enhanced—radically transformed—by such sensory translation, which involves projection into them, even projective identification with them.  It converts physical light, color, movement into more meaningful—emotionally meaningful—experiences than they would otherwise be.  I think that Kandinsky’s color symbolism—his attempt to correlate particular colors and particular feelings—is implicitly a matter of sensory translation, ultimately the dialectical fusion or cross-pollination of sensations and psychic actions.  It is what makes the sensations and feelings afforded by pure abstract painting seem more “refined” than everyday sensations and feelings, as Kandinsky said.

Sensory translation gives the pure abstract painting its mystical content, to recall Kandinsky’s term.  The abstract painting we perceive as great—experience as spiritual—appears to make this translation spontaneously, right in front of our eyes.  It is experienced as unquestionably and profoundly subjective—imbued with psychic actions (“spiritual gestures”) of all kinds and an externalization of psychic space (“spiritual geometry”), both necessarily abstract, for the psyche is not physical, however rooted in the body it may be.  It invites our instant subjective participation, that is, instantly makes us aware of our psychic activity—of our so-called stream of consciousness.  It in effect converts us to ourselves—compels us to experience ourselves as and convinces us that we are personal subjects rather than social objects—that we have an individual self not simply social identity.  We unconsciously retranslate or re-convert light, color movement back into psychic actions, just as the abstract painter unconsciously translated or converted psychic actions into light, color, movement.  We unconsciously experience pure abstract painting as pure psychic action, and through it we seem to experience our own psychic activity in apparently pure form.  This is what Harold Rosenberg meant when he described it as action painting and an arena of self-creation.(45)  

Sensory translation affords an enriched sensory immediacy.  It generates a ripeness of immediacy that seems to tear the veil of representation open, irreparably, as Yves Bonnefoy says.  According to him, it is in pure abstract painting that “one imagines that…the immediate exists,” that it is “easily verified,” and that it seems “nothing short of miraculous.”(46)  It may be, as Bonnefoy argues, that the abstract painter’s refusal of and need to replace and defeat “conventional readings of the world…keeps them alive, and, in the end…merely adds to the complexities of the sign as it works on being.”  Nonetheless, for however brief an enchanted experiential moment, the immediacy of surface and space achieved in pure abstract painting seems to “transcend perception” in the very act of being perceived.  Bonnefoy finally declares that “there is no immediacy, there is only the desire for the immediate, which so many feel.”  But in the pure abstract painting of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and even Motherwell—of all four, the last relinquishes symbolism (signage) the least—the immediate mystically emerges through the intensity of the desire to be rescued from and transcend—relieved of—the perceived world, with its emotional as well as material crudity and constraints.  In short, the sudden flash of immediacy—of intense and all-encompassing immediate sensation—is the instrument and “proof” of conversion.  

Baudelaire referred to it, unknowingly, when he compared the freshness of vision in an imaginative work of art to that of a child looking at the world for the first time, and to the intense oceanic sensations he experienced using opium.  Similarly, what James called the “subliminal uprush” in the exceptional mental state of genius, and what Kandinsky described as the experience of walking through color, articulate, in however metaphorical a way, a phenomenology of pure immediacy.  The gist of the conversion experience is this feeling of pure immediacy—of pure presence, with nothing communal and familiar present, an absence which confirms its mystical character.  The experience of pure abstract painting is optimally one in which the experience of timeliness conveyed by the feeling of pure immediacy is at the same time an experience of timelessness, which is why it can be called mystical.  The timely and timeless merge in pure immediate sensation, bespeaking the sense of merger with the divine—being wedded to the universe as a whole, as Motherwell says—in which time is altogether transcended.  

Now the question is:  where does the turn to pure abstract art—modern spiritual art—originate?  In what I want to call the spiritual unconscious:  it is a direct expression of the spiritual unconscious.  I want to suggest that the spiritual unconscious only makes itself felt and known, unpredictably, when the self seems to have reached the point of no return from narcissistic and relational injury—when it seems wounded with no hope of recovery or repair.  That is, the self is wounded by its internal perception of itself—more particularly, of its own evil tendencies and character, that is, its destructiveness and destroyed state—and of the external world, which is also experienced as thoroughly evil.  Both perceptions are accurate, and so is the perception of incurability—the impossibility of healing.  It is then that the spiritual unconscious becomes manifest—the Hope unexpectedly found at the bottom of Pandora’s box of existential evils, above all sickness and death.  It is the sudden promise of magical healing and health—unexpected salvation—miraculous rescue from the hellish suffering of despair and dread, bringing with them the sense of the meaninglessness of life, and with that a feeling of helplessness.  The spiritual unconscious---the saving grace latent in the unconscious—its unexpected capacity for Hope--spontaneously arises when one feels totally defeated by life and the world, and with that valueless in oneself.  The Hope that is the essence of spirituality arises in a visionary moment of truth that declares the falseness of the world.  It is what mystics call the light of God that brings to an end what they call the endless dark night of the soul that acknowledges fate.  Hope is the saving grace in a world that seems hopeless—beyond repair, incurably evil.   

Vasily Kandinsky, Study for Painting with White Form (Entwurf zu Bild mit weisser Form), 1913.

The abstract art of Kandinsky and Mondrian is full of hope—Kandinsky’s Blue Rider is a symbol of it, an updated version of St. George ready to engage and defeat the evil dragon of the hopelessly profane world.  The abstract art of Rothko and Motherwell is hopeless, as the dismal, depressing black paintings—abysmal emptiness epitomized—in the Rothko Chapel and Motherwell’s bleak Spanish Elegies—epitomizing images of castration and torture, masochism and sadism, as their display of black penis and black testicles indicate—is full of incurable despair.  Rothko and Motherwell’s pitch-black paintings are triumphs of death and suffering; Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s colorful luminous paintings are triumphs of life and happiness.  I am not sure why the American paintings of Rothko and Motherwell are unrelentingly morbid, considering that America did not suffer the apocalyptic destruction of two world wars and Fascist and Communist dictatorships of Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s Europe.  But their European paintings show that abstract art can be a defiantly healthy response to social reality, while the American paintings of Rothko and Motherwell show that abstract art can be an expression of deep, unrelenting depression which only superficially has to do with oppressive social reality.  In other words, abstract art came to the emotional rescue for Kandinsky and Mondrian—it was truly transcendental, for it transcended the depressing, violent society in which they lived.  It was a healthy response to a sick society.  In sharp contrast, abstract art was an expression of self-defeat for Rothko and Motherwell.  Marketing his art may have been a problem for Rothko—I suggest that he threw away his bankbook because he had little or no money in the bank--and the Spanish Civil War was a tragedy for Motherwell, but his Spanish Elegies suggest that he was suffering from castration anxiety, fear of impotence—the loss of phallic power, emblematic of creative inspiration, embodied by Priapus, the Greek god of fertility.

Conversion to hope brings with it the wish to change one’s life completely—to convert to a new and better—happier--way of life.  And also to convert the world—to change it for the better, once and for all time.  The wish is at once a revolt against the death world of social reality—a world of living death and war of all against all--and a utopian attempt to create heaven on earth.  It is an ambitious, grandiose vision of possibility against the realistic social odds, but it can be realized in and through art, which involves, as Winnicott says, actively “creating into” something rather than passively taking it for granted.  The artist in everyone creates into some material, transforming it into something meaningful, the critic in everyone creates into the art to expose and expand its meaning, for it always means more than it seems to mean at first glance, if it is finally a convincing art, emotionally and cognitively, that is, whatever its attitude, more broadly, Weltanschauung, and the manner of its making, that is, its style.

I suggest that the spiritual unconscious comes to the rescue of the artist when making art becomes meaningless, when being an artist seems beside the point of life—purposeless however ostensibly a purposeful activity, meaningless however ostensibly meaningful, delusional however seemingly revelatory.  Abstract art in particular was insane, for it abandoned the reality principle of representational art, a decision valorized when Kandinsky said he could not see Monet’s haystack only a pile of colors.  As the Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck wrote, most people had no need for art except as a form of entertainment, that is, distraction from—denial of?--reality.  The Romans said the masses wanted bread and circuses; Huelsenbeck agreed—art was another circus in a world of distractions from existential realities—the existential realities that Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell addressed in their different ways.  Nonetheless, as Harold Rosenberg once said, the “test” of abstract painting is its “seriousness—and the test of seriousness is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist’s total effort to make over his experience,” his “experience of transformation.”(47)  The urgent effort the pioneer abstract painters made to transform and purify painting, and the great difficulty, uncertainty, and anxiety with which they did so—an effort they repeated again and again until they were convinced the Rubicon into the promised land of pure painting had been crossed—was a personal as well as artistic effort.  The transformation of impure into pure painting was a self-transformation and self-purification:  the artist’s transformation of himself from a lost soul into a creative god—from abjectness to grandiosity.  It is not clear that contemporary abstract painting has the same desperate seriousness—the same innocent fantasy of art as salvation. WM 


(1)Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 143    


(3)Ibid., 177

(4)Ibid., 515


(6)Ibid., 513

(7)Ibid., 512

(8)Ibid., 235-236

(9)Ibid., 235

(10)D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York:  International Universities Press, 1965), 25

(11)Ibid., 182


(13)Quoted in Hugh Honour, Romanticism (New York:  Harper & Row, 1979), 68

(14)Quoted in ibid., 66

(15)Lindsay and Vergo, 135

(16)Honour, 87

(17)Lindsay  and Vergo, 235

(18)Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, eds., The New Art--The New Life:  The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1993), 318-319

(19)Harry Stack Sullivan, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (New York:  Norton, 1953), 185

(20)Lindsay and Vergo, 139

(21)T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York:  Seabury, 1973), 362


(23)Lindsay and Vergo, 167

(24)Wilfred Bion, Cogitations (London:  Karnac, 1992), 29-30

(25)Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art:  19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers (New York:  George Braziller, 1960), 193

(26)Quoted by Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York and London:  Jason Aronson, 1983), 158

(27)Lindsay and Vergo, 83

(28)Ibid., 175

(29)Ibid., 173

(30)Ibid., 137-138

(31)Stephanie Terenzio, ed. “What Abstract Art Means To Me,” The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1992), 86

(32)William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York:  Modern Library, n. d.), 186.  All subsequent quotations from James are from this book.

(33)Holtzman and James, 201

(34)André Breton, “Away with Miserabilism!”, Surrealism and Painting (New York:  Harper & Row, 1971), 348

(35)Ibid., 347

(36)Quoted in Michel Butor, “Rothko:  The Mosques of New York,” Inventory (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1968), 267

(37)Quoted in Terenzio, 85-86

(38)Quoted in W. W. Meissner, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1964), 81

(39)Lindsay and Vergo, 129

(40)Schapiro, 41

(41)Gilbert J. Rose, Necessary Illusion:  Art as Witness (Madison, CT:  International Universities Press, 1996), 80

(42)In his essay on “Suprematism,” Malevich wrote:  “No more ‘likeness of reality,’ no idealistic images—nothing but a desert!  But this desert is filled with the spirit of nonobjective sensation which pervades everything…a blissful feeling of liberating nonobjectivity drew me into the ‘desert,’ where nothing is real except feeling…and so feeling became the substance of my life.”  Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1968), 342

(43)Quoted in Chipp, 295

(44)Arthur J. Deikman, “Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience,” Psychiatry, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 324-338   

(45)Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1965), 25

(46)Yves Bonnefoy, “On Painting and Poetry, on Anxiety and Peace,” The Lure and the Truth of Painting (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 1995), 171-172

(47)Rosenberg, 33, 35


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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