In 1936, Alfred H. Barr used the term “biomorphic” to describe sculpture for his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art. The influential founding director of MOMA gave currency to a word first coined by English critic Geoffrey Grigson that means “life forms” to characterize a trend in modern art as exhibited by Hans Arp, Jean Miro, Arshille Gorky, Henry Moore, and others. Believing that science and its instruments allowed us to tap into and connect to a life force, Wassily Kandinsky had amassed a collection of photographs of micro-organisms in which the microscope penetrated beyond the external into “the hidden soul of all things.” For the Surrealists, these liminal and unstable forms provided a formal strategy that were a means of dredging up the unconscious. When Barr created the category biomorphic it was the emotional/psychological counterpart to reason as exemplified by geometric abstraction.
We read forms in relation to other forms. Wanting to make the history of art a discipline approaching science, Heinrich Wölfflin devised a system of analyzing art with five opposed formal modes: linear/painterly, plane/recession/closed/open, multiplicity/unity, absolute clarity/relative clarity. Published in 1915, his Principles of Art History has served as the underlying premise for formal analysis ever since — “compare and contrast.” [Erwin Panofsky supplied the analysis of narrative and symbolic content with the study of iconography and iconology.] Barr’s distinction between curvilinear as intuitive and hard-edged as cerebral persists. We can unpack why that might be the case in terms of their associations. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points and speaks of calculation and no-nonsense efficiency. Whereas a curved line meanders and is more playful. Yet a curved line in a field of straight lines has a different affect than one among many. The meaning of any individual form is felt or understood in context within the closed system of the language of art.
Can an artist today can do anything more than use the elements of this language to stand for or represent a new concept? Can an artist “advance a new understanding of form” that takes us “out of art, into the world beyond us?” When Kandinsky valorized photomicrography, he applied his mystical purpose of unveiling or making visible. When an artist such as Tanguy populated worlds with biomorphic forms, he created the unease of a dreamscape with Freudian hints. An artist today creates meaning working with or against all that has been visually expressed before. I have written about the pteropod sculpture of Cornelia Kubler Kavanaugh, who speaks of the warming of the oceans and the tragic fate of these creatures at the bottom of the oceanic food chain with biomorphic forms that evoke pathos rather than whimsy. She took the language of art to something about the fragility of our ecosystem as now understood through systems relations. It seems to me that reclaiming form involves recognizing that form is content but that content is multivalent, complex, and expansive.
For the past few years, I have been interested in luminescence in contemporary painting. Since I first noticed its frequency, its use has only increased. I have considered how it is happening at a time when our world has become more luminous especially as regards backlit digital devices. Certainly the availability of sophisticate pigments allows for artistic exploration, but it certainly doesn’t explain why we would be attracted to them. [Sometimes the effect is achieved through pigment alone, and sometimes it is through contrast.] As a result of this symposium, I have been wondering whether the appeal of these colors is not based in new technology but in our ancient biology. Luminescence in nature does have evolutionary purpose, and is it possible that we are mesmerized by our handheld devices and computer and TV screens because of some sort of physical effect or wiring of our nervous system. [Note to self.] That would suggest that this new quality of color is implicit in the body and doesn’t represent in the way a biomorphic shape would. So perhaps it is possible to connect with the world outside of ourselves in a new way. And yet…each of the artists using this type of color is using it for their individual expression, and it often seems to represent some sort of alternate or transcendent reality. [Below: Shannon Finley, Spiritual Amnesia]