Abstract v. Non-RepresentationalTwo of the most misunderstood related terms in art have to do with that which is "abstract" and that art which is "Non-representational." The public, and no doubt some artists, think of them as meaning the same thing, and I'm afraid I must confess to at times using them interchangeably. However, strictly speaking, an abstract is basically a summary or abbreviated version of something much more complex. Lawyers use the term quite commonly and I'm starting to sound like one at this point. But at any rate, it has subject matter, though like the law, it may, at times, be pretty obscure. Non-representational art, on the other hand, is basically art about art. The subject is colour, or line, or mass or any of the other primary or secondary elements of design we artists love to talk about when we want to impress our friends outside the field, but which we seldom overtly consider in creating our work (perhaps because they've become intuitive). In any case, it has, by definition, no basis in reality other than it's own arty existence.
Now, to muddy the water, there are those who claim that abstracts can be non-representational under certain esoteric circumstances and no doubt others who argue that the reverse is also true. So, it's little wonder I got in trouble the other day for claiming Marden Hartley to have been the first American abstractionist. It would seem that another member of the Stieglitz group of New York artists might have beaten him by a few years. His name was Arthur Dove and his work from the period 1910 to 1912 would seem to be somewhat more abstract than Hartley's and a little earlier too. However, neither artist would appear to have quite reached what we would call a non-representation level. Hartley's early abstracts tended toward still-life while Dove's, toward landscape (as did Hartley's later on).
If we want to dwell on history and "firstisms," Dove was born in 1880, making him a little younger than Hartley, however he beat him to Europe and back by several years. In New York, displaying with the other Stieglitz Avant-garde at Gallery 291, Dove may well have come very close to painting without regard for natural subject matter, depending upon how much the viewer is predisposed to probe for such influences. Yet the influence of powerhouse French artists such as Matisse and CÚzanne IS evident and pretty hard to shake, even though during the 1920s and 30s, Dove further simplified his forms and veered closer and closer toward the truly non-representational. Dove is often compared to Wassily Kandinsky, perhaps what one would call his European counterpart, as both artists struggled to shake free of centuries of deeply embedded subjective influences. So, the calendar aside, is Dove's work non-representational, or merely abstract? You decide.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 August 1999