Frantisek Kupka and Charles Sheeler

In 1912 Frantisek Kupka caused a sensation as he came up with the first truly abstract painting, Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors. Yet he did not consider himself an abstract painter nor a cubist, as in fact he was an unhoused loner who fell into relative oblivion in later years. Whereas Kandisky´s Concerning the Spiritual in Art circulated a lot, Kupka´s book Creation in the Plastic Arts went by largely unnoticed. At that time, abstraction was mainly understood as an expression of modernism and a progressive, scientific spirit, Kupka however strongly related to ancient and archaic art and culture and nurtured from the atavistic. To him, the artist cannot create something truly new anyway, therefore it is appropriate for him to try to relate to the glorious cosmic forces. He also says: The artist does not make reference to nature but is rather busy trying to organise his inner material and experiences and visions which are, to some degree, chaotic and consist of perceptions that are unclear, yet, within the process turning it into art, achieve greater clarity – via instrumental composing. The artist is highly sensitive (with a sensitivity that is achieved trough life and not innate), so to say a nerve system that reaches into the cosmos; his self is not a compact unity as his awareness is diffused over the whole body. The artist tells about his privileged inner experiences and visions and, therein, creates new experiences for others (which is, to Kupka, the (rather humble) end of art). There will be no endpoint in art, as the possibilities for visions are endless, likewise, there are no absolute ideals or rules but a quasi-spontaneous combination of elements that makes the primal ground: art is performative. In saying so, Kupka did not make a lot of friends among those who were talking about art as directed towards perfection, wholeness, etc. Kupka was leaning towards the dionysian and the dynamic. – In the Albertina Wien, they have this cool painting Aufragende Formen (Ascent). It is about making cosmic forces and ascension visible. It refers to Hinduism and temple architecture. I like it because it gives you a sense of place. The erectness is appealing. You can communicate with it, but not directly. That´s so fascinating. On the internet I see in the 1990s they had an exhibition about Kupka in Germany, titled Die abstrakten Farben des Universums.

Whereas the unhoused European Kupka, who affirmed that the artist lives in a transcendent or pseudo-reality, was (as they say) otherworldy, respectively, due to his high intelligence, operated at a high level of abstraction respectively overview over the human and the metaphysical condition and was tangential to the man´s world, the Americans were at the same time about to find their own identity and self-assurance in the domain of culture and artistic style. The Great War had shattered humanistic and progressive/spiritual ideals, also those transported by the avant-garde. At the same time the significance of the old world gradually eclipsed and American hegemony gradually solidified. The 1920s were a peculiar decade that brought about rising living standards, liberalism and pluralism, a democratic mass/consumer society and an intrusion of the „mundane“ into high art (the jazz age); alongside a mourning about spiritual emptiness, superficiality, commercialisation as well as that, obviously, under the surface man does not change or improve but may even be hollowed out by stereotypical mass culture. Intellectuals were uneasy about the absence of a grand narrative – in an age where traditions are under siege and society progresses yet no one knows to what end: The usual confusion of epoches of transformation and transition. In Europe, it lead to fascism. In America, the Roaring Twenties were ended by the Great Depression.

Artistically, Precisionism was the dominant style of the era. Pioneered by artists like Charles Demuth, Georgia O´Keeffe, Preston Dickinson or Charles Sheeler, Precisionism combined abstraction with the realisitic representation of everyday objects, particulary those associated with the functional or industrial or urban enviroment. The objects and landscapes are presented as harmonic, hygienic, flat and immediate, new, you have the absence of dirt, decay or human meddling, a rigid geometry, seemingly a „new harmony and order based on function“ that „offered an ideal of stability, eternity, permanency, order and power beneath the chaotic shifting reality of modern life“. You have both culture and inhumanity, a humanity that is probably soon to become obsolete or reduced by the anonymous power of industrialisation, as something both larger as well as inferior to human life. American Precisionists wanted to embrace both „native tradition and modern vision“ (Charles Demuth even said his depiction of modern America tries to relate to ancient cultures and their manifestations and therefore his art relates not to the future but „to the past“). Ambiguous, as it is. Ahhh… Die Welt ist tief/und tiefer als der Tag gedacht. What a supposedly flat pool of meaning, that is yet so deep and obscure. That´s metaphysics. (Quotations from Susan Currell´s book: American Culture in the 1920s)

Charles Sheeler was both a painter and a photographer, which made his paintings particularly „precisionist“ and proto-photorealistic. Sheeler was also particuarly influenced by Duchamp in finding secret meaning and appeal in everyday objects. What I like is that his forms and industrial landscapes are also ascendant and it is cool to be confronted with/exposed to their erectness, and their rigidity, and their asepsis. The sublime comes to mind, and is then relativised: as it is not unlimited and infinite, but seems to carry the potential for transcendance, even ultra-transcendance. It annihilates the subject and, at the same time, empowers it. It is infra-sublime, as it seems more humble and less competent than man, as well as it may be ultra-sublime, that which is destined to transgress man at all. It seems to speak to you, and it does not. It seems to be empty as well as meaningful as well as overcharged with secret meaning and stuff that surpasses man and human understanding, maybe leads into the transhuman or signifies the advent of the transhuman age. Have we conquered functionality, or will it conquer us? It is both heteronomous and homonomous. If it cannot replicate, it will survive as ruins. It is as old as time itself, archetypical. While hypermodern, it also seems ancient (and Sheeler compared it to religious expression in gothic cathedrals, whereas the new religion is scientific objectivity and industrial functionality that relieves man from hardship and makes life smooth). It, foremostly, signifies that there is stuff out there in the world which has semi-independent existence. It adds something to the world, to totality. An enigmatic ontology (respectively Ding-Ontologie), that philosophers have not exactly figured out so far. In reverse to what Kant says about the sublime (that it transcends the possibilities of our sensual perception but not of our ideas), it does not transcent our senses (as it is clear-cut and contoured, even somehow humble), it transcends our intellectual categories and indicates that our very modes of perception and intellect are going to be transformed (opening the apparent rigidity of Kant´s epistemology a bit and making it more malleable). I like the Upper Deck as, in silence, it speaks to me. In insignificance, it signifies. It is pure meaning and significance. It is a culture without me. It is the Great Other. When Bodhidharma failed to make himself intelligible to the Emperor, he sat in front of a wall for nine years, in silence, and finally invented Zen-Buddhism.