Lecture, Opening Celebration

James Johnson Sweeney: This Side of Cubism

  • Fri, Jan 12, 1934
    (This event has already happened.)

    Oriental Institute

    From the event announcement:

    The exhibition and lecture are open to the public.

    The mathematical solids are loaned by the department of mathematics of the the University.

    They are exhibited to illustrate apparent resemblances between solid forms demonstrable of mathematical propositions which achieve visible beauty, and those forms resulting from creative plastic conceptions of artists.

    In the last century there has been a new consciousness of each other by the arts and sciences, and the recognition by artists of certain factors in plastic structure- impetus to which was given earlier by El Greco- and by the late influence of Negro sculpture resulting in what might be called the Non-Illusionist Art of the Twentieth Century. The study of anatomy was used by the “Old Masters.” It was the practice in the school of Thomas Eakins. Eakins read mathematics as a pastime when tired. He said to his students: “You ought to take up higher mathematics; It is so much like painting.” (That was in the eighteen-eighties)

    The term “abstract,” to designate what Mr. Sweeney, in his lecture at the Art Institute on December 5, calls “the plastic redirection of Twentieth Century painting,” is a wrong use of the word. As Professor Mortimer Adler has pointed out, but has been generally adopted by artists and others, and in their usage a special significance has been implied.

    The new catalogue of the collection of A.E. Gallatin. In the Gallery of Living Art, University of New York, provides illuminating articles and illustrations for the study of “plastic redirection.” The following quotations have been selected from the articles by Mr. Sweeney and M. Helion published December, 1933


    From James Johnson Sweeney, October, 1933. “Painting.” New Catalogue of the Gallery of Living Art:

    “The image of nature helps the public very little. It helps perhaps, the artist, because it offers an inexhaustible source of shapes and raports.” (Cezanne declared all shapes in nature could be reduced to cubes, cones, and cylinders.)

    From the few facets to which Cezanne reduced his apples, one went to the art abstract, through a series of shocks, marked by the sign of contradictory personalities, but which have successively wrecked the foundations, the reasons, and the technique constituting the dogma of ancient painting, and substituting new ones for them. There are those…. who…. try to develop a language…..

    The actual abstract art is an ardent debate. Abstract is the falsest term- nothing is more living than this battle.”

    Jean Helion, 1933. “The revolution of abstract art as shown in the Gallery of Living Art.”

    (The two quotations following are from Mr. Sweeney’s article on “painting.”)

    “I like nature but not its substitutes. Illusionistic art is a substitute for nature.” Hans Arp, 1933, “Notes from a diary.”

    “Modern abstract painting is archaic. It is a period of beginnings extraordinarily creative in an extreme conciseness of form. Illusionistic representation is given over for the organization and activation of purely plastic elements.” W. Baumister, “R?ponse a une enquête,” “Cahiers D’Art” 1931.

    Cubism was primarily a critical movement and its sponsors had put it forward purely as such. It was intended as a directive toward a saner mode of plastic approach, and in giving conventional vision as thorough shaking up as it did, it had served its purpose. They had no interest in exploiting it for its own sake. They realized the next step should be to carry the campaign on further, against other confusions and restrictions, along somewhat similar lines.

    Formal criticism in the plastic arts is a parasitic growth. A painting is as straight-forward as a leaf or stone: It requires no commentary- it asks to be looked at.

    The only constructive criticism possible in the plastic arts is the creative art itself and its product.

    “But since a corpus of formal criticism has grown up without justification- mainly an outcome of Renaissance intellectualism- a justification for further criticism has developed: its power of self-undoing. The formal critic’s value to the plastic arts is in direct ratio to his effectiveness at stripping away all conscious attitudes. Without this a renewed naivet? of vision and immediate response will not be possible. And it is only on such bases that any genuine plastic appreciation can be built.

    “Today the first step toward clear-seeing must be one of disavowels, a foreswearing of allegations. Conventions of approach, confusions of objectives, misapplied values- the accumulation of at least four hndred years- must be recognized as what they are and rejected…. the eye must learn to look again unselfconsciously.

    “And in this sense the predominant characteristic of creative work in the plastic arts since the turn of the century has been critical: creative movements militating against restrictive conventions- a provocative balance of destructive and constructive criticism toward a freer expression, and a freer vision.”