By: John Dorfman
Seminal advances in abstract art aren’t usually thought of as coming from Americans, especially in the early modernist period, when the avant-garde of Europe was busy revolutionizing the visual vocabulary that had held sway for hundreds of years. Nonetheless, in 1913 Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, two young American expatriates in Paris, created a technique and style they called Synchromism, which represents a major step in the direction of nonobjective painting. In fact, not only was Synchromism the first abstract style in American art, but Macdonald-Wright and Russell were the first artists of any nationality to exhibit abstract art in Paris.
However, unlike Vasily Kandinsky, Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Frantisek Kupka, also working in Paris at the time, Macdonald-Wright and Russell didn’t become famous. Their brilliantly colored paintings, which dye Cubistic geometric forms with intricate rainbows were certainly eye-catching, but for a variety of reasons—some of which had little or nothing to do with art—their work was largely ignored or derided. A few other American painters, such as Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Dasburg and Patrick Henry Bruce, took up Synchromism for a short time, but by 1916 Macdonald-Wright and Russell had largely abandoned it for other, ultimately less-satisfying artistic pursuits.
Their names remained little known for decades, not only in Europe but in their native country. Starting in the late 1970s some significant exhibitions began to re-establish Synchromism’s place in art history, and the market for such works also began to grow. In the 1990s major scholarly discoveries demolished long-held misconceptions about how the esoteric technique of Synchromist painting really worked. And earlier this year, art historian Henry Adams published a book, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, that argues for Synchromism as a major influence, ultimately, on the art of the most important American abstractionist of all, Pollock.
In order to understand this undeserved obscurity, we have to first understand something of the careers and personalities of the artists. Macdonald-Wright was born in Virginia in 1890, the pampered son of a prosperous hotel owner who moved the family to Santa Monica, Calif. Russell was four years older, raised in New York City and had a far less privileged and indulgent upbringing. His father abandoned the family, plunging them into poverty, and his mother neglected him. She had a habit of punishing his misbehavior by forcing him to wear girls’ clothing, which led to a lifetime of cross-dressing and tortured sexual ambivalence. Both Macdonald-Wright and Russell were rebels by temperament, like so many modernists, set adrift in the 20th century in search of the new. Both ended up in Paris, then the world art capital and center of study, where they were introduced to each other in 1911.
Before meeting Russell, though, Macdonald-Wright’s best friend in Paris had been Benton, at that time an aspiring avant-garde modernist rather than the American Scene realist he later became. Both were arrogant young men, alarmingly sure of themselves and dismissive of the opinions of others, though the haughty, pseudo-aristocratic Macdonald-Wright was more so than the pugnacious, countrified Benton. As related in Adams’ book, after their first conversation, in a cafe, Macdonald-Wright said, “Benton, you’re great. Really great. You’re the only intelligent man I’ve met in Paris.” Many years later, Benton recalled, “We were an odd pair of friends. We were totally unlike and argued incessantly. We agreed on only one thing. That was that all in Paris, but ourselves, were fools.” Both had attended fashionable painting ateliers and left in disgust, referring to the conservative teachers as “fat heads.”
After a couple of years in Paris, Benton was whisked back to America by his domineering mother, who had had enough of his bohemian shenanigans on the family’s dollar. Into the void stepped Russell, who at that time thought of himself as more of a sculptor than a painter and was making ends meet by posing as an artist’s model. He and Macdonald-Wright soon became inseparable. Together they took a class on color theory with one Percyval Tudor-Hart. This conservative, Canadian-born painter was one in a long line of color theorists who influenced art, such as Michel-Eugène Chevreul in the previous century, whose ideas about complementary colors were key to the development of Pointillism. By combining what they learned from Tudor-Hart’s theory with what they were learning from the practice of Cézanne and the Cubists, Macdonald-Wright and Russell invented Synchromism.
“Synchromism” comes from “synchromy,” the term the two artists used for their abstract paintings. They gave them titles such as Synchromy in Orange andSynchromy in Blue-Violet. The new word was formed by analogy with “symphony,” which was meant to express the idea that music and color are parallel phenomena. Of course, this is virtually a truism that goes back to ancient times, and at least one other school of art in turn-of-the-century Paris, Orphism, endorsed the notion in a general way (the Greek hero Orpheus was known for his magical lyre-playing, thus the name). However, Macdonald-Wright and Russell meant something very precise by “synchromy,” although exactly what they meant was not fully understood by the art establishment until 2001, when the scholar Will South, now chief curator at the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, came out with the book Color, Myth and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism (an exhibition in conjunction with the book was mounted at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, along with a public television documentary).
South had the tenacity to hunt down a copy of Macdonald-Wright’s privately printed and ultra-rare 1924 Treatise on Color, which, with the aid of hand-painted color plates, explained the setup of Synchromism. Not surprisingly, the theory is fairly arcane, but fundamentally, Macdonald-Wright and Russell postulated that color and sound were exact, literal equivalents of each other. Since the musical octave is broken up into 12 tones, the color spectrum must also be divided into 12 hues. To make a Synchromist painting, one must choose a color as the “tonic” or base note (thus the Synchromy in Orange, etc., like, say, Symphony in D Major), and create a scale beginning there. One must then find the colors that occur on the spectrum where the third and fifth tones would occur in a musical scale. In this way one creates color “chords” or harmonies that can be manipulated along what Adams calls “a sort of sinuous ladder.” The problem with this is that the ladders tend to lead the artist in the direction of color discords after a while, which then have to be corrected, disturbing the perfection of the system.
But Synchromism wasn’t entirely about color; it was also about space and form. Taking a page from Cézanne, it mapped color onto geometry by using warm colors such as orange or red to indicate a bulging or convex surface and cool colors such as blue or green to indicate a receding or concave surface. Although theSynchromies were abstract, some of them still related to subjects in the physical world. This was particularly true of Russell’s. The former sculptor had imprinted Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, with its dynamic contrapposto (uneven posture created by placing the weight on one foot), on his mind. “Russell’s focus on movement was in that sculpture,” says South. “He was obsessed by the possibility that all you needed was push and pull, that everything else would follow.” In one way or another, all of Russell’s Synchromies are abstracted versions of the Dying Slave. “The fascination with the Dying Slave has to do with performance and self-consciousness as an artist’s model,” says Adams.
The first public exhibition of a Synchromist painting was in Paris in March 1913, at the Salon des Indépendents, where Russell’s Synchromy in Green (now lost) elicited some attention, notably from The New York Times’ reviewer. The first all-Synchromist show was in Munich, Germany, in June of that year, where again there was significant interest. This time, however, some of the interest had to be attributed to the combative catalogue Macdonald-Wright and Russell produced to go with it, which attacked the Impressionists, the Cubists and the Futurists alike. To hear the two young Synchromists tell it, art had barely existed until they came along. For the second Synchromist show, at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, they upped the ante with an even more provocative manifesto that trashed Picasso (as a Cézanne knockoff) and the Orphists (to mistake a Synchromist for an Orphist was like confusing a tiger with a zebra).
South believes that the Synchromists’ overheated rhetoric and overdose of attitude played a major role in their rejection by the art world and their eventual obscurity. “How Synchromism got sunk,” he says, “is that those guys were so relentlessly arrogant, saying that they had surpassed everybody, there is good possibility that they turned off the very small art world there was in Paris. They blew onto the scene and claimed dominance in color painting, and their reckless self-promotion was so self-serving that it blew up in their faces.” That this could happen in an age of manifestoes, when each new cenacle of art was printing up a manifesto and denouncing the opposition, speaks to the extraordinarily high level of bile in those early texts, which were mainly written by Macdonald-Wright. It also didn’t help that the artists were Americans, attacking the French on their home turf.
Facing financial disaster (the Synchromies had failed to generate much income), Macdonald-Wright returned to the U.S., landing in New York in February 1915. Russell remained behind in Paris, still painting. At this point Macdonald-Wright was in a partnership with his brother, Willard Huntington Wright, a journalist and art critic who served as Stanton’s press agent and mouthpiece. (Willard’s 1915 book Modern Painting is still worth reading, despite its limitations and special pleading in favor of Synchromism.) Together they organized a group show, called the Forum Exhibition, at the Anderson Galleries on Madison Avenue. This was truly a monumental event, including such artists as Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and John Marin as well as the Synchromists. This time, Stanton and Willard, whom Adams calls “the other Wright brothers,” made sure to tone down the rhetoric, and the judicious choice of work and its obvious quality made the event a seminal one.
Still, Synchromism failed to take off. Perhaps it was simply too difficult to understand. “Why is it obscure?” asks South. “Because it’s hard to understand. It’s not accessible like an Andrew Wyeth. The establishment has never caught up with them. They really didn’t get color theory.”
Adams suggests some other reasons: “For such an interesting group of painters, the Synchromists have been a little bit sidelined. One of the reasons is that there are not many Synchromist paintings left from their Paris period, their great historic moment. To some extent, rarity of survival is part of the problem.” Adams points out that “John Dracopoli, a friend of Macdonald-Wright’s, burned a bunch of paintings, many of which had been in the first Synchromist exhibition. It was a great tragedy.”
Another factor, according to Adams, “is that they fall between categories. People writing the history of modern art think of them as not fitting in because they’re upstart Americans; people writing American art history think they don’t matter because they’re off in France.”
That in-between status has also affected the market for Synchromist painting. “New and even seasoned collectors often don’t know about them,” says New York dealer Debra Force. “Americans consider them to be after the Europeans and therefore second-class, and Europeans don’t buy American modernists.” Still, with scarcity such a major issue and the growing recognition of their art-historical importance, a Synchromist painting at this point in time would certainly command a very high price if it were to appear on the market. In November 2007 at Sotheby’s New York, a 1918Synchromy by Macdonald-Wright sold for a record 2.3 million, bought by Walmart heiress Alice Walton for her not-yet-opened Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark.
In 1918, the year he painted that record-breaker, Macdonald-Wright decamped for California in a state of demoralization and disenchantment with the art world. In the 1920s he continued to paint Synchromistically, but with an increasingly figurative bent. He became very interested in Chinese painting and Eastern philosophy in general, which he incorporated into his work. The rest of his long life (he died in 1973) was spent in Southern California, teaching and painting prolifically, but these late works haven’t received anywhere near the recognition his Synchromist ones have. “He didn’t do himself any favors by drifting off into some bizarre figurative styles,” says South. “He realized later in life that first thing he did was the most authentic.” Willard Wright went on to a very profitable career writing murder mysteries under the pen name of S.S. Van Dine. As for Russell, he also gave up Synchromism for figurative painting, in his case largely on religious themes. He stayed in Paris until 1946 and died in the U.S. in 1953.
The great early work of Russell and Macdonald-Wright, whatever its theoretical complications, has an undeniable emotion and intellectual power. One doesn’t have to have synesthesia to sense the musical vibration and spatial energy in these heroic canvases. Synchromism, says South, “was born out of a real struggle to get to something so basic, primal and pure—what an extraordinary ambition. The huge mistake they made was that they thought when they foisted this on the world, that the world would capitulate. It didn’t happen; nobody cared. Imagine the deflation.” South continues, “when you stack the paintings up in the same room with Kandinsky, Kupka and Delaunay, they’re all there. They’re no weaker, in terms of spiritual vision, they’re the equivalent of anything those guys ever painted. It’s a great story, and it’s still a lost story.”
Debra Force Fine Art, New York
Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe and New York
Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York
Sullivan Goss, Santa Barbara, Calif.