By jared a. j. butler - Posted on 24 March 2010

   “Language and Time in Abstraction”
Jared Butler


   Wassily Kandinsky, among the first abstract artists, put forth an extensive theory of art, and had a well-recognized ability to communicate his intention and ideas through the written word.  Grace DeGennaro, a prominent Maine artist, was featured in Mirare, the winter exhibition at the Alva deMars Megan Chapel Art Center.  One can easily draw parallels between these artists by extrapolating elements from Kandinsky’s work: namely his notions of time and pure artistry in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  I have had an ongoing conversation with DeGennaro regarding these concepts and others.  Referring to both this conversation and Concerning the Spiritual in Art, this presentation will make connections between Kandinsky and DeGennaro, despite their separation in space and time, and will introduce concepts veiled within DeGennaro’s work.

   In Chapter 6 of Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky concludes that the wealth of possibilities of color in combination with the possibilities of form compel the artist to express an inner need.  Color, exceedingly rich in its own variety, succumbs to a greater set of possibilities when combined with the vast possibilities of form. This combination of sets is perhaps comparable to the set of positive integers giving way to even more considerable set of both positive and negative integers.  The encounter with this extension of possibility, perhaps marked by the infinite, results in the expression of the artist’s inner need.

   This expression is comprised of three elements, mystical in nature according to Kandinsky: 

1. Every artist, as a creator, has something in him which calls for expression (this is the element of personality).

2. Every artist, as child of his age, is impelled to express the spirit of his age (this is the element of style)—dictated by the period and particular country to which the artist belongs (it is doubtful how long the latter distinction will continue to exist).

3. Every artist, as a servant of art, has to help the cause of art (this is the element of pure artistry, which is constant in all ages and among all nationalities).
(Kandinsky, 1913, 33-34)

Personality and style, dictated by all the contingencies of personhood and cultural milieu, results in the diversity of art in its various appearances and traditions.  Pure artistry on the other hand, is marked by a volitional act that defines art, or at least from whence it arises.  In other words, what is “constant” in art throughout “the ages and nationalities” (34) in Kandinsky’s thought is his notion of the willful act of the spirit submitting to the cause of art. 

      Kandinsky writes that “A full understanding of the first two elements is necessary for a realization of the third.  But he who has this realization will recognize that a rudely carved Indian column is an expression of the same spirit as actuates any real work of art today” (34). While still affirming the contiguity of the spirit of pure artistry, Kandinsky reveals that this inner basis is contained within the elements of personality or style; they as they outer basis contain the expression of an inner eternal artistry.  The former being relative to space and time, are only able to be understood within the context of a particular constellation of associations.  This is why Kandinsky says “An Egyptian carving speaks to us today more subtly than it did to its chronological contemporaries; for they judged it with the hampering knowledge of period and personality.  But we can judge purely as an expression of the eternal artistry” (34).  Familiarizing oneself with the constellation of ideas, influences and concepts that inform a work of art makes more efficacious the expression of its artistry. 

      This effectively becomes Art History, and is a bridge between the public and a work of art and the artist’s intention.  This education is a dialogue between people and ages alike.  When DeGennaro says in her artist statement that “research sets the context for her work,” she indicates that emergence into her visual vocabulary sets the context of her own personality and style.

Chakras, oil on linen, 48” x 30”, 2008


      Chakras provides a good introduction to her work, as it demonstrates her process of juxtaposing the geometric and the sensual through an intentionally limited visual vocabulary. The diamonds, indicative of constancy, are constructed of myriad hand-painted dots; the impeccable precision creates a meditative tone. The vesica piscis, a staple of her visual vocabulary, is rich in symbolic meaning for Christian and non-Christian spiritualism alike. Here, a column of vesicae pisces are situated in the center of the painting. Because they grow concentrically in size but do not change in shape, they are an instance of gnomonic growth, where the form of the final shape is contained in the form of the seed. Complemented by the phases of the moon, this expansion reminds viewers of time’s passage.

Indigo 42, watercolor and gouache on arches, 30” x 22”, 2009


      The pisces also create the illusion of a spinal column situated amidst torso-like, non-linear curves. This image and its sensual colors add a human dimension to the symbolism of the piece. The curves and diamond pattern extend beyond the confines of the painting above and below. The continuity of the forms beyond what is directly observable may remind viewers of duality, and of what is invisible or at first glance unknowable.      

In Indigo 42, which will be on view at the Aucocisco Gallery in Portland, Maine in April, she utilizes the pisces to juxtapose the botanical; the simple geometric shapes construct a striking flower.  Beads and concentric shapes make reappearances, and tongues, another common element in her work, wreath the concentric pattern on its outskirts towards the boundary of the canvas, perhaps a metaphor for language escaping beyond the confines of its limits


      Hopefully, introducing the relationship between context and pure artistry according to Kandinsky, and identifying examples of the visual vocabulary of a particular artist have illuminated aspects of art, abstract art in particular, that are at times obscure.  Mentioning the Lascaux Cave Paintings, DeGennaro has pointed out, “Language and a ‘conversation’ can always illuminate a viewer’s understanding of a work of art and an artist’s intent….  However, ideally an image has potency on its own.”  Thus, the purpose of this presentation is ultimately not to demonstrate the ways in which language serves to expound concepts, to name, or to describe. Rather, language in this instance serves to allow a beautiful work stand on its own, the noise surrounding it dissipated, and the eternal spirit of its expression to radiate in silence.


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