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Abstraction and Purity

David Gariff, senior lecturer, National Gallery of Art. The most daring development in early 20th-century modern art was the step into abstraction—the decision to make paintings that were not pictures of the visible world but just . . . paintings. Abstraction elicited both excitement and anxiety. Painters looked to new sources for the kind of structure that direct observation had once provided: music; the logic of geometry; the forces of emotion and spirituality; the material facts of paint and canvas; and scientific developments that revealed new ways to “see” the world, from X-rays to Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Artists from several countries hoped that abstraction might become a lingua franca, transcending cultural differences. While that did not quite happen, the energies unleashed by abstraction were far-reaching, as works by Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Constantin Brancusi confirm. Abstraction was truly the art of the future. As part of the series Celebrating the East Building: 20th-Century Art, senior lecturer David Gariff explores the birth of abstraction in early 20th-century art. This lecture was presented on August 9, 2018, at the National Gallery of Art.