What does one mean by “the spiritual” when it relates to art? It’s a question that becomes particularly problematic when one considers the creations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many of which are commonly regarded as lacking such values. Art historian Roger Lipsey takes on this big question in his excellent book, drawing on examples from throughout the last century, and giving primacy to the artist’s own words as expressed in memoirs, articles, and public documents as well as private diaries and journals.
Lipsey tentatively defines the spiritual as “when people begin to look beyond or within themselves for a strength to face life or a wisdom to understand it that surpasses their ordinary capacity.” He is deliberately vague about the details, noting that this quest is often, but not exclusively, a religious one. In the artistic context, Lipsey sums up the spiritual as “an idea of vast scope conveyed through an image, not a word, complete in itself, not an illustration but an illumination.” This spiritual element, Lipsey believes, is present in much art of the twentieth century, but has been misunderstood or ignored by many.
The author takes his cue from Wassily Kandinsky’s short book On the Spiritual in Art (1912). In it Kandinsky wrote of a new art that, leaving behind realism and traditional subject matter, would instead, in Lipsey’s words, “be based on an absolutely fresh sensitivity to line and color in themselves, to form as such rather than as description, and to space as such rather than as a setting for events,” drawn from “a new wisdom born of the artist’s awareness of his or her own depths and of the resonant universe.”
Kandinsky incorporated many esoteric sources into his work, like the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and The Theosophical Society, Kabbalah, and shamanism, not to mention his own personal spiritual views and metaphysics. But he also wished to emphasize in his works the primacy of form and color in and for themselves. This tension – as Lipsey describes it, “the struggle between the artist’s delight in form and the seeker’s delight in meaning” – is a significant part of his art. For instance, in Several Circles (1926) one may be looking at a proto-cosmos and a solar eclipse, or a meditation on color and the impact of the circle.
Despite the hesitancy with which many people still approach it, abstraction has been a major trend in visual arts for many decades. However, as Lipsey says, “we don’t expect abstract art to have intellectual content or to reflect the life of feeling except in a general, non-specific way.” Yet the spiritual content of their abstract work has frequently been argued by artists like Kandinsky, Constantin Brancusi, and Piet Mondrian, although their audiences haven’t always understood what they meant. Lipsey sees four keys to understanding abstract art: “the idea of analogy or symbol, an acknowledgment of the primary force of the image itself (not to be tampered with or chatted away), a concept of the inner life in terms of multiple levels of being and expression, and a preliminary grasp of the language of abstract art.”
Lipsey relates the lines and forms of abstract art to the diagrammatic religious art found around the world – Buddhist mandalas, Native American sand paintings, the portals and stained glass of medieval churches. Lipsey points out the resonances between Jackson Pollack’s works, for instance, and equally intricate, abstract designs from medieval Irish or Koranic manuscripts. He sees Pollack as “falling within the tradition of cosmological imagery depicting the wondrous complexity and order of Creation.” Also part of Pollack’s art, however, is a frenetic energy and feeling of chaos barely tamed.
Through an embrace of both Cubism and Theosophy, Piet Mondrian represents, according to Lipsey, “a first attempt to fit perennial spiritual ideas into the context of twentieth-century art.” For Mondrian this manifests itself in ideas and works that were specific, objective, precise, even mathematical. Mondrian’s writings about art are often opaque. But occasionally some light will shine through: “Art, although an end in itself, like religion, is the means through which we can know the universal and contemplate it in plastic form.” Among the works that Lipsey finds as exemplary of the transition from naturalism to abstraction are Mondrian’s Tree series from 1909-13. One sees the simplification of color, the schematizing of space, the “regularization” of nature’s diversity in the branches – even within one painting, like the left and right halves of The Red Tree (1909-10). In Flowering Apple Tree (1912), the sweep of the branches to the sky in the center makes almost literal the joining of the upper and lower worlds, the spiritual and the worldly.
Even the conceptual art and Readymades of Marcel Duchamp reflect spiritual values when one regards the obscure, the work that allows for multiple interpretations, as somehow initiatory, moving one past mere intellect. Then we enter the realm of what Lipsey calls “Zen without Enlightenment.” Likewise in the works of Kasimir Malevich and the other artists of the early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde, Lipsey finds an embodiment of spiritual values. Of his Black Square, a black square on a white background that brought a new abstraction to Russian art, Malevich once wrote, “Objects have vanished like smoke to attain the new artistic culture…” This also reflects for him a turn from outward forms to inner realities, from subjective to objective, from the tangible world to a greater reality. Malevich also wrote, “Nothing but the expression of the pure feeling of the subconscious or superconscious (nothing, that is, other than artistic creation) can give tangible form to absolute values.”
Along with Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art, Lipsey points to two major written documents by artists on the spiritual content of their work. One is Paul Klee’s lecture “On Modern Art” (1924). Using the metaphor of the tree, with Klee himself the root of the tree and the development of the tree as his art, Klee positions himself as a medium, taking nature, the root of the tree, and guiding its development in his own way. Thus he defends deviations from what he calls “departures from nature,” saying that the tree never develops in imitation of its roots. Both the artist and the viewer are embarked on something of a quest, as Klee says, “into other dimensions, into a remoteness.” Lipsey mentions a trip to Tunisia that greatly affected Klee’s way with color. Klee is quoted as saying, “color possesses me … Color and I are one.” As an example Lipsey chooses Ancient Sound (1925), in which a grid pattern of colors emerges from darkness. Lipsey says “The image takes the viewer into the realm of primary sensation – the seeing and sensing that we do negligently, and in front of this painting with greater awareness.”
Lipsey’s other major written source is the aphorisms of Constantin Brancusi. In one of these Brancusi summed up a major theme of Lipsey’s book: “They are imbeciles who call my work abstract; that which they call abstract is the most realist, because what is real is not the exterior form but the idea, the essence of things.” Brancusi was more interested in the essentials, the innate truth, of the few subjects he examined in his work, than in the representational details of a scene – “distilled form and metaphysical content,” as Lipsey says it. This examination inevitably led Brancusi in the direction of abstraction. Bird in Space, a familiar Brancusi theme that exists in multiple versions, is an abstraction that points far beyond itself. As Brancusi once wrote, “It is not a bird, it is the meaning of flight.” He also wrote, “It struggles … toward heaven.” Or, as Lipsey puts it, “Bird in Space embodies timeless symbols of transcendence and immortality.” Likewise the Endless Column, at the memorial park in Târgu Jiu, Romania, in its 96-foot ascent, could be likened to the axis mundi, the world axis. Brancusi certainly did so, calling it “a stairway to heaven” and “a column which, if enlarged, would support the vault of heaven.”
Isamu Noguchi, one-time apprentice to Brancusi, was able to bring modern abstraction and concepts from Japan’s ancient past together seamlessly. As he said of his design for a garden at the UNESCO building in Paris, “my effort was to find a way to link that ritual of rocks which has come down to us through the Japanese from the dawn of history to our modern times and needs. In Japan, the worship of stones changes into an appreciation of nature. The search for the essence of sculpture seems to carry me to the same end.” Noguchi writes of “the almost religious quality of ecstasy and anguish to be found emerging here and there in so-called abstract art,” finding “no conflict between spirituality and modern art as some do; rather it opens another channel to our non-anthropomorphic deity.”
The evocation of ancient art was important to Noguchi and to many of the artists discussed here. Lipsey identifies four strains of archaic art that helped modern artists to identify the “essential”: (1) the tribal art of Africa and the Pacific (evident in Cubism, Surrealism, and the works of Pablo Picasso); (2) the art of children (one sees this in some paintings by Klee and Kandinsky); (3) prehistoric, Neolithic art (one of Brancusi’s sources); and (4) Classical art of the Mediterranean (an element in the art of Picasso and Henri Matisse).
Classical values were institutional, a significant part of an artist’s training, through the nineteenth century. With the onset of the twentieth, though, those values were to a large extent rejected in favor of new influences. So the re-embracing of Classical style by certain artists was a conscious choice. Nostalgia, a longing for the perceived simplicity of the past, was part of this, but even more important were the seriousness and the inclination to a tragic perspective implicit in Classical art.
Lipsey inventories some of the antique influences on Picasso: “early fifth-century Severe Style in sculpture, red-figure and white-ground pottery painting, engraved Etruscan mirror-backs reflecting the fluency of line and narrative power of Hellenistic art, Pompeiian wall painting, provincial sculpture.” In talking about Picasso’s The Pipes of Pan (1923), Lipsey enlarges the discussion to a modern version of spirituality: “The Mediterranean ethos, this pagan current in twentieth-century art, is a spiritual current by virtue of its sober image of humanity and its acknowledgment of Nature. Its spirituality is not one of transcendence but of immanence, of presence to self and world.”
Some modern artists have publicly denied trafficking in spiritual content in their work, almost embarrassed by the concept and wanting instead to stress the tangibility of form, color, line, and texture in their work. Their private statements, however, were sometimes a different matter. Mark Rothko was such an artist. In his later years he tended to deny the presence of larger themes in his work. Early on, however, he was willing to admit, for instance in a letter to the editor he co-wrote in 1943, that “there is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” A few years later, he wrote “I think of my pictures as dramas,” but added, “The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.” In speaking of destroying the “finite,” of course, he implicitly identifies with a desire to depict the infinite or transcendent. Sometimes Rothko was even more explicit. At a party he once supposedly said, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”
Lipsey’s description of the classic later Rothko canvas is perfect: “two or more stacked rectangles hover against – and partially mingle with – a background that reads as space, air, and light. The rectangles are almost never opaquely painted but open and variable in tone and texture, with freely brushed permeable edges. They are like nothing so much as clouds, the most vagrant and variable of things, mysteriously conforming to a rational order. Narrow bands in the gaps between large rectangles in some canvases read in a number of different ways, depending on the overall composition – as transitional elements in a simple architectural order, as light flashing, as vapor that has wandered into the gap.”
Lipsey not only pays attention to the major figures of twentieth century art, but also has time for what he calls Kleinmeisters, or little masters, like Giorgio Morandi and Julius Bissier. Among more recent artists, Lipsey cites the Earthworks of the short-lived Robert Smithson, examining in particular Smithson’s most famous work, the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. A sort of homage to the great temples and religious architecture of the past, the Earthworks were an embodiment within the landscape, Lipsey quotes Smithson, of “…purity and spiritualism and esotericism and hermeticism … abstraction, all those things … idealism … all those imponderables … metaphysics. There’s just a great storehouse, as I call it, at the end of this junkyard … “
“The spiritual in art,” Lipsey concludes, “is not exclusively directed toward the higher or the more inward, toward the essential released or the individual liberated – nor toward the paths that lead to them. Now and always, it also looks toward the human condition … in their authentic forms, contemplation and compassion are the deep capacities out of which the spiritual in art has been elaborated.”