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Ideologies of Pure Abstraction


This dissertation presents a history of the development of abstract art in the 1920s and 1930s, the period of its expansion and consolidation as an identifiable movement and practice of art. I argue that the emergence of the category of abstract art in the 1920s is grounded in a voluntaristic impulse to remake the world. I argue that the consolidation of abstract art as a movement emerged out of the Parisian reception of a new Soviet art practice that contained a political impetus that was subsequently obscured as this moment passed. The occultation of this historical context laid the groundwork for the postwar “multiplication” of the meanings of abstraction, and the later tendency to associate its early programmatic aspirations with a more apolitical mysticism.

Abstraction has a long and varied history as both a conceptual-aesthetic practice and as an ideal. In the first chapter, I provide a conceptual overview of the terms used by abstract artists and their contemporaries, as well as provide a historicization of the meaning of pure abstraction in terms of the relationship of modernism to its own eighteenth century beginnings and antiquity. The second chapter focuses on the “Soviet moment” of pure abstraction by looking at the Soviet contributions—primarily Konstantin Melnikov’s pavilion—to the 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Modernes in Paris and their enthusiastic reception. The third chapter continues the examination of pure abstraction but in the context of the Parisian art world. It begins with an examination of the L’Art d’Au’jourd’hui exhibit of December 1925 and the two paintings Mondrian contributed to it. I seek to demonstrate that while Mondrian’s practice cannot be assimilated to the revolutionary aesthetics of the previous chapter, it was, nevertheless fundamentally connected to a certain vision of capitalism as a problem of everyday life. I argue that it is within the historical context of a dialectic between a “Soviet moment” and a Parisian experience of daily life that the rise and fall of pure abstraction should be understood. In the final chapter, I present the work of Jean Hélion, a young, committed French painter, whose trajectory from geometric to figural abstraction provides an understanding of the aesthetic and political impasses, as well as defeats, of the period, a case that casts an unsettling light on the entire adventure of pure abstraction.

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