Morgan Russell’s Fine Art: Thank You, Michelangelo!

In October 1913 there opened at the prestigious Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris an exhibition of modernist paintings by two American expatriate artists, Morgan Russell (then age 27) and Stanton Macdonald-Wright (then age 23). They called themselves-in the French spelling- Synchromistes , to underscore both the dominant role of color in determining the formal composition of their pictures and the relation that was thought to obtain between abstract form in art and the esthetic experience of symphonic music. Russell had actually thought to call his paintings “symphonies” before hitting upon the term “synchromy.” It was thus in the name of Synchromism that Morgan Russell made his entry into the history of abstract painting as one of its pioneer talents.

According to one observer at the time-the critic Willard Huntington Wright, brother of Macdonald-Wright and author of Modern Painting (1915), which is still a book worth reading-only one of the pictures in the 1913 Bernheim-Jeune exhibition was an abstract painting. This was Russell’s Synchromy in Blue-Violet (1913), which is the first picture we encounter in the show that Marilyn S. Kushner has now organized at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, N.J., under the title, Morgan Russell: The Origins of a Modern Masterpiece . Like most of the other audacious talents who were creating the first abstract paintings in the years immediately preceding World War I, Russell had based his early abstract painting on the transformation of representational form to be seen in the art of his modernist elders-pre-eminently Cézanne in his case, but also Matisse, with whom Russell studied in the years 1908 to 1910.

Yet for Russell a far less likely influence-that of Michelangelo-also contributed something essential to the conception of his early abstractions. Russell seems to have become fixated on Michelangelo’s figure of The Dying Slave (in the Louvre) as he was preparing his first attempts at abstract painting, and there can be no question but that he aspired to endow the abstract forms of a painting like Synchromy in Blue-Violet -which is a pictorial structure of pure color-with a visual dynamism more or less akin to what he responded to in the sculptural forms of The Dying Slave .

In the Montclair exhibition, which concentrates on the “origins” of abstraction in Russell’s art, the plethora of drawings, oil sketches, written notations, photographs, watercolors and notebooks, together with the finished paintings, leave us in no doubt that Michelangelo’s sculpture loomed very large in Russell’s imagination at the very moment of his breakthrough into abstraction. It wasn’t that he was attempting to create some pictorial equivalent of the volumetric mass to be found in Michelangelo’s sculpture. That would have entailed a delineation of the kind of deep pictorial space that Russell’s Cézannean loyalties prohibited. What Russell hoped to make visually compelling in his color abstraction was a pictorial representation of the dynamic sensation of light as it at once defined and altered the constituent forms of a sculpture like The Dying Slave even as it seemed to dematerialize its mass.

Does this make Russell’s Synchromist abstractions sound vaguely Futurist in conception? It may be worth noting in this connection that in the fall of 1911, in the same rooms at Bernheim-Jeune where Russell was to show his work two years later, the Italian Futurists had mounted an exhibition that caused a considerable stir in Paris. Can we assume, then, that the Futurists’ doctrine of “dynamic sensation” contributed to Russell’s thinking about his Synchromist compositions? As far as I know, there is no evidence that it did-and the Futurists, for their part, would have been horrified at the thought of basing a modernist painting on Michelangelo. A “speeding motor car”-as one of their manifestos announced-was more in their line.

Yet the parallels leave many questions unanswered. So do the parallels with Robert Delaunay’s Orphic Cubism, which is likewise exactly contemporaneous with Russell’s Synchromist abstractions. The fact that Russell and Macdonald-Wright unwisely attacked the Orphists on the occasion of their Bernheim-Jeune exhibition certainly suggests that they were giving Delaunay some serious attention.

None of this is meant to diminish the amazing originality of Russell’s early abstract paintings. On the contrary, seeing Russell’s early abstractions in the context of their period confirms their importance. For a few inspired years, he was in the forefront of abstractionist innovation, as we can see in several paintings in the Montclair exhibition- Synchromy in Blue-Violet among them. It is a pity, to be sure, that Russell’s single greatest work- Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1914), in the collection of the Albright-Knox Gallery of Art in Buffalo, N.Y.-could not be included in the current show. (It is too large for the Montclair museum to accommodate.) What we are given a detailed survey of in the Montclair show are the studies and sketches-from drawings of the female nude in Russell’s classes with Matisse, to color improvisations done in response to Beethoven’s music-that constitute the prehistory of the early abstractions.

Some of this is the kind of archival material that only scholars, curators and other specialists usually get to see-materials that confide to anyone patient enough to study it the processes of thought that determine the realization of a new artistic idea. In the period from around 1911 to 1914, there were a number of remarkable painters-from Russians in the East to Americans in the West-who were adamantly engaged in exploring the new frontier of abstract art, and Morgan Russell was one of them. We owe it to the extraordinary Morgan Russell Archives and Collection that Henry M. Reed donated to the Montclair Art Museum in 1985 that an exhibition like Morgan Russell: The Origins of a Modern Masterpiece is even possible, and to Marilyn Kushner that this archival material is so clearly integrated with the completed early paintings for the uninitiated museumgoer. This is a show that has something of the flavor of a visit to a painter’s studio.

The exhibition remains on view at the Montclair Art Museum through April 26 and then travels to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (June 12-Aug. 16) and the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, L.I. (Sept. 5-Nov.15).

Morgan Russell’s Fine Art: Thank You, Michelangelo!