Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I just finished a painting which, by an amusing coincidence, is directly related to a talk I heard over the weekend by Donald Kuspit, an art historian, professor, and critic for ArtForum. Kuspit was advancing the thesis that abstraction in art is anti-feminine to its core. Proceeding from the predominance of representations of women in the earliest known art, and the continuous quest for integration of the parts (with women ever as the subjects) thereafter, he contends that the modern art movement, first with its fragmentation, and then with its complete abstraction, is in large part an anti-female movement.

Well, that's a lot to swallow, and I'm not entirely convinced, although the macho swagger we associate with Jackson Pollock and the "men's men" artists, certainly give it the intuitive ring of at least a half-truth.

Anyhow, Kuspit cited Piet Mondrian as evidence for his argument. The contention is that Mondrian's straight-line abstractions are not only implicitly misogynistic (women being associated with curves), but explicitly misogynistic in the stated aesthetics of Mondrian himself. A little googling has gotten me only this for textual support:
The New Plastic in Painting, a text published in the first issues of the journal De Stijl in 1917, defines "representation of any kind" as "predominantly female art." The historical dominance of representation is the expression in art of "oppression by the female, a legacy of the old mentality," which "in our time... stil weighs so heavily on life and on art that there is little room for male-female equilibrium." The way to the establishment of this equilibrium can be sown by "abstract-real" art (Mondrian's earlier term for his "neoplastic" art), where it is given form in particular by the relation between feminine horizontality and masculine verticality. The victory of the masculine principle of abstraction is evidenced by the disappearance of curves, with all lines "tensed," as Mondrian put it, by the dynamism of rational control.
Well, at least as much of that statement is interpretation by the authors of the passage (from Critical Terms for Art History, Robert S. Nelson, Richard Shiff) as it is old Piet himself. But assuming it to be correct for a moment, it seems to suggest that Kuspit, by focusing on the "masculinity" of the straight line, is elliding Mondrian's own proposition on the male-female duality of straight lines, depending on their vertical/horizontal orientation. In a sense, Mondrian has made two statements about whether or not straight lines are entirely masculine, and Kuspit is taking the less dualistic statement for the entirety of the argument.

But let's take Kuspit at his word, that the Mondrian pictorial system is anti-female. Well, that brings us to this painting I happen to have been working on, which I am calling Integrity, because, again, I suck at names. Here's the painting:

That would be a female model (Jordan), integrated into a single relaxed form so much as I and the wonderful Jordan were able, and painted in a manner I borrowed as much as possible from the great integrator, Da Vinci (I used the color scheme of the early Renaissance for the flesh, and the pictorial convention of the fresco for the emphatic outline). From its conception, I wanted this figure, with its organic irregularity and unity, to sit in front of a Mondrian. So I hunted around until I found this 1921 Mondrian here. I think it's called Untitled:

By means of simple photoshop tricks, I eliminated the colors and thinned the lines:

Then I rotated it until it I felt like it serendipitously matched the divisions of the figure:

Then I placed it into the painting:

So I happened to have foregrounded, in a way, the very point that Kuspit was making, by bringing the warm, integrated, organic, and feminine image into juxtaposed conflict with the cold linear Mondrian grid. What the effect of this conflict is in terms of the final painting, I cannot say - that's up to the viewer.

Maidman, you may be wondering, are you some kind of an intellectual?

No. I'm not anti-intellectual as regards my work, but I would say that I'm non-intellectual. What this means is that I am open to an intellectual interpretation of work, but my work does not arise from an intellectual mechanism. I didn't sit down and say, "Well, I'd like to explore the conflict between the masculinized modernist paradigm and the classical concept of the feminine." I drew Jordan at a life drawing workshop, and the painting just popped into my head. It seemed like it would be a good painting, so I painted it. That's more or less how all of my paintings happen.

But you could ask me the question, "Are you some kind of an intellectual?" from another angle. You could say, "Do you believe that paintings have intellectual content?"

I would say to you, sure they do. I will even go so far as to say that they are capable of having profound, complex, and even revelatory intellectual content. But I will not hold with the critics in contending that this content is particularly historically important. I think you're looking at a certain excitable revolutionary quality to the French with or without Liberty Leading the People:

And I think you're looking at The Terror with or without the Death of Marat:

I think paintings can illustrate the thought of the times, and prophesy the thought of the ages following. But I do not think that one woman more or fewer gotten beaten up, snubbed, or leered at based on Mondrian's frankly idiotic musings. People are people, and history has more important things to shape it than pictures. Pictures are one doorway to the transcendental, but the transcendental is hardly, to date, the prime motivating force of mankind.

No doubt I will find reason to argue against this position regarding the role of art at some later date.

A final note: Mondrian came to mind for this painting because I happen to like Mondrian. I've got a soft spot for Mondrian, Sol LeWitt, and all artistic geometers, because had I been one whit less interested in girls and more interested in number theory, I might have been a mathematician myself.

Next time I will explain what on earth I was doing at a talk by Donald Kuspit.


If you've been following this blog, you know that I've navigated some pretty tricky reasoning based on involved neurological research. I try hard not to misunderstand or misrepresent the work of the scientists and scholars I cite.

Well, I sure did it here. Donald Kuspit clarifies that he did not say abstraction per se was anti-feminine. His point was in regard to Mondrian only, and based on the solid documentary evidence that Mondrian called the curved line female, and the straight line male, and then went right on ahead and did away with curved lines in his work.

With typical categorical abandon, I extended Kuspit's argument to cover the entire rest of abstract art. So, uh... just ignore this post. And many apologies to Mr. Kuspit.


  1. Integrity might your best painting yet. Great job.

  2. Thank you, Chris. That means a lot to me.

  3. I love this painting and love this post as well. Great discussion starter for the argument of masculinity and femininity combined with realism in your work. -Annie

    1. Thank you! I hardly even remember what I wrote here, and sadly, this blog is nearly defunct. But the painting is now in the permanent collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art. So the story had a pleasing ending...