The Abstract Book

I’d like to return to a woodcut by Kandinsky posted earlier on this blog. When I first looked at it I saw an early compendium of techniques still useful in abstraction. Take repetition and mirroring, for example. The white crescent moon shape in the lower right hand quadrant repeats in a large blue arc above; but then closer inspection shows many crescent shapes of different sizes. Parallelism is another—for instance the red slashes dancing in threes around the picture. But then one realizes that it is in fact a picture of three canoes or rowboats crossing a lake, with what look like mountains in the background, and not abstract at all. My attention was scattered and moving around the image, taking it in as a dance of colored shapes, until I saw the image.

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Vassily Kandinsky, woodcut from Klänge 1913

So Kandinsky doesn’t go down to as low a level of dedifferentiation as Pollock, but in his context the process and accomplishment is the same. Important is that the image, which once recognized is blindingly clear, at first escaped me. I really value that kind of mistake, and in fact an experience like it started Kandinsky’s career as an abstract artist. In any case, there is still something to learn. I particularly notice the large black shape that rises up to become the lake shore in the middle of the picture, and lies over top a red shape. These shapes are attractively arbitrary—they do representational duty, but not perfectly—but what interests me is that they overlap in a way that is particular to printmaking. I see the possibility of simultaneous levels of form, autonomous yet building the image together. Those red and black forms are just what they are. But there is more in this work. It’s actually one page of a book, and the idea of an abstract book has been on my mind for a long time. I have made a few, and there is potential yet.

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Vassily Kandinsky, pages from Klänge (artist’s book) 1913

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