Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 16, 2017
Gordon Hughes Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 169 pp.; 92 color ills.; 46 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226159065)

I inevitably discuss Alfred Barr’s 1936 diagram from the cover of Cubism and Abstract Art when I teach surveys of modernism, but I had never noticed a curious point that Gordon Hughes raises in the introduction of his Resisting Abstraction: Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism. Of all the movements charted along the way to the two destinations, non-geometrical and geometrical abstract art, only Orphism “goes exactly nowhere” (3). In his sumptuously illustrated and beautifully written book, Hughes takes up the question of why Delaunay—for Hughes the quintessential representative of Orphism—has been relegated to a footnote in art history (4). Hughes argues that Delaunay has not been properly understood and shows how he might be differently situated within the field of twentieth-century art.

The argument hinges on Delaunay’s approach to vision. Rescuing Delaunay from being lumped in with the other Salon Cubists (Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, et al.), Hughes contends that this early abstractionist was not out to reveal a mystical inner vision (5). Instead, Delaunay was engaged in a “last-ditch effort to ground a structural foundation for painting in vision” (7). Appearances were no longer enough to sustain the double viewing position elicited by the tableau—the simultaneous distance from and immersion in the painting, most famously described by Michael Fried (as Hughes gladly acknowledges). Delaunay was compelled to turn to “vision itself” (8)—to representing how we see rather than what we see. The First Disk (1913), readers learn, is not a contender for the title of first abstract painting: it is a means of resisting abstraction.

To explain what he means by “resisting abstraction” and how Delaunay arrived at the solution of The First Disk, Hughes lays out the stages of the artist’s career in the years immediately preceding and following this painting that marks both a dead end in early twentieth-century modernism and a link to new iterations of abstraction by postwar artists including Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, and Kenneth Noland (think: targets). The three chapters respectively focus on three sets of paintings: the Windows series, the Cardiff Team series, and the Circular Form series, culminating with The First Disk. The book’s strength lies in the argument’s overall cohesiveness and Hughes’s brilliant descriptions of the artworks that serve as key evidence.

In chapter 1, “Break (Windows),” Hughes explains that Delaunay’s Windows demonstrate “that vision, all appearances to the contrary, is precisely not like a window” (54; emphasis in original). Whereas Delaunay has been disparaged by some art historians for his “retinalism,” as if he were only concerned with capturing optical data that pummeled the eyes in the constant barrage of modern life, Hughes emphasizes the artist’s interest in modern optical science’s distinction between the images received by the retina and the images perceived by the mind. Delaunay’s views of the Eiffel Tower, then, are not simply representations of modernity rushing in through a window to harass the hapless viewer; instead, these paintings aim to incite awareness of the mediated processes of vision—as exemplified by Simultaneous Windows onto the City (1st Part, 2nd Motif, 1st Replica) (1912). Unique within the series, the painting here exceeds the confines of the canvas, extending across its substantial wooden frame. Initially we may only see a refracted grid, but Hughes leads us to notice the green form of the Eiffel Tower and—perhaps—our own reflection in the glass (30–32). (I can’t quite manage to see a face in the painting, yet I still find Hughes’s account persuasive—it is enough for me that the painting evokes glass’s capacity to shift between transparency and reflectivity.) Like Roland Barthes making sense of his view onto the Eiffel Tower from another window at another time, we make sense of this view by piecing together varied bits of knowledge (34). By extending the composition into the frame, Delaunay both reinforces and dissolves the barrier between us and what we see. We witness both modernity’s speed and spectacular feats of technology—and the way it offers a distanced vantage point from which to analyze these feats, our aerial view folding into itself our memories of popular photography featuring the Eiffel Tower.

In chapter 2, “Punch (Painting),” Hughes develops this line of reasoning—that Delaunay is investigating “vision in the face of modernism”—by showing how the artist builds on the insights of the Windows in his Cardiff Team series. These paintings, which tend toward immediate legibility (sports! Ferris wheel! airplane!) unlike the hard-to-decipher near-abstraction of the earlier series, might appear a step backwards if we think Delaunay’s goal is abstraction, but Hughes explicates them as an elaboration on different modes of seeing under the conditions of modernity. If Delaunay’s emphasis in the Windows is on the slow process by which “visual perception develops through a gradual, learned process that combines cognitive knowledge with sensory information,” here the artist acknowledges the importance to modern vision of speed and “optical punch” (67–69). For Hughes, Delaunay’s simultaneous investment in contact sports and advertising, both interests he shared with many of his avant-garde contemporaries, speaks to his concern for the operation of vision (78). The Ferris wheel is the ultimate emblem of this circuit, rotating viewers from a bird’s-eye panorama down through the overwhelming bustle and around again (91–92).

Chapter 3, “Movement (into Abstraction),” is where everything comes to a head. The Ferris wheel offered only a metaphor of modern vision. What Delaunay ultimately wanted was something that incarnated both the instantaneity of that vision (the shock, the swoop into the crowd) and its contemplative, analytic capacity (the scientific insights, the aerial view) (98). Then, too, there was the problem of how to keep abstraction and representation in tension, how to realize pictorial autonomy while retaining a link to the world out there (97). Delaunay found his solution in The First Disk, whose title establishes a “perfect congruence” between its literal and depicted shapes (109). Instead of painting as semblance, Delaunay aimed to make the very structure of vision visible: the disk is both what we see and how we see it, the circular shape mimicking our own optical cones (110–11). Hughes drives his argument home with a virtuoso corralling of historical and philosophical evidence, convincingly demonstrating how Delaunay’s The First Disk relates to debates concerning consciousness and free will as raised by the infamous case of Gaston Calmette’s shooting by Henriette Caillaux (113–36). I cannot pithily do justice to the riveting convolutions of Hughes’s argument, but the upshot is that the visual punch of The First Disk mattered because individual volition was at stake. Had modernity turned people into mindless automatons (Caillaux was acquitted on the basis of a crime of passion), or was it possible to retain control? Unlike Marcel Duchamp’s use of disks to trigger involuntary responses, Delaunay’s The First Disk demands protracted contemplation, spurred by an initial optical punch but then unfolding slowly, dissonance yielding to harmony (136).

Resisting Abstraction provides the tools to teach key paintings by Delaunay in a careful, resonant, expansive manner. Hughes demonstrates how the artist’s prewar paintings responded to changes in visual culture—both to developments in optical science and to modernity’s effects on everyday experience (urban life, advertising, leisure activities, etc.). There is much to learn from this intellectually stimulating book.

I do, though, have a few reservations. For example, I kept waiting, to no avail, for Hughes to explain how Delaunay’s interest in optics compared to Paul Cézanne’s. Hughes claims that Delaunay’s Windows series is “radical” because it “stages a central claim within modern optical science: that vision, far from being fully formed at birth, develops over time through a gradual process of acquisition” (30). But how radical was Delaunay’s investigation, since he was no doubt familiar with Cézanne’s? Given how much time Hughes spends on optics and writers concerned with the possibility of returning to “infantile vision” (69), it is striking that he never mentions Cézanne, an artist who loomed prominently over Delaunay’s generation and famously strove to see “like a newborn.”

The omission of Cézanne is the most glaring example of a tendency to highlight Delaunay’s uniqueness by choosing certain comparanda and ignoring others arguably more relevant. Hughes dedicates significant energy to contrasting Delaunay’s painting with Salon Cubism but little to exploring how it compared to the perhaps more closely related efforts of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. He broaches the “standard story” of abstraction as a means of attaining spiritual truth to point out that Delaunay does not fit, but does not acknowledge that the standard story also fails to do justice to many other early abstract artists (5). Despite realizing that a monograph cannot address everything, I would love Hughes to help me figure out how Delaunay relates to Cézanne, gallery cubism, and Wassily Kandinsky (whose materialism I would be curious to compare with Delaunay’s) because I am sure he would have informed, perceptive answers. But I am resigned to doing the work myself—greatly aided on the Delaunay front by Hughes.

Hughes’s proclivity toward aggrandizing Delaunay, though, is symptomatic of the extent to which this monograph entrenches the existing canon and its worrisome occlusions. Why does Sonia Delaunay feature so scantly in Hughes’s account of Robert’s supposedly distinctive vision? In chapter 2, the only time when Hughes discusses Sonia’s work, he acknowledges that she, like her husband, was interested in advertising—indeed, that Robert “lagged far behind” Sonia in that he only started designing posters in 1923 whereas she had been working in this realm for a decade (86). The illustrated juxtaposition between Robert’s 1923–24 poster project, Garçon! Un Byrrh, Vin Tonique, and Sonia’s undated collage sketch for Dubonnet speaks volumes about the formal proximity of this couple’s aesthetic, but Hughes declines the comparison. And, oddly, he asserts: “among the painters within his immediate milieu, it was Fernand Léger who most actively shared Delaunay’s enthusiasm for the modern advertising poster” (158n48). Was Sonia not a painter? Unaccountably, Hughes almost completely erases Sonia from this history that aims to situate Robert as distinctive among the Orphists and vital to the lineage of twentieth-century modernism. Sonia’s role, ignored by Guillaume Apollinaire in his founding definition of Orphism, remains unexplained here even though her contribution to modernism has just as many—if not more—implications for later twentieth-century art. While my own agendas might prevent me from assigning Hughes’s book in class, it changed how I understand and will teach Robert Delaunay—and Sonia as well.

Bibiana Obler
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts and Art History, George Washington University