American Abstract Painter
Charlottesville, Virginia, United States
Los Angeles, California, United States
Summary of Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Best known as a co-founder of Synchromism, Stanton Macdonald-Wright was a pioneer, both as one of the first American avant-garde painters to receive international attention and for his role in introducing modern art to Los Angeles in the 1920s. He worked in both abstract and figurative styles, although both were guided by his belief in the harmonious and spiritual power of color, as well as his study of Asian art and belief systems.
- As one of the founders of Synchromism (with Morgan Russell), Stanton Macdonald-Wright developed the first American modernist style of painting. His radical embrace of abstraction and reliance on color and form to create movement and meaning, places him among the pioneers of non-objective painting. Although he would eventually return to figuration, his Synchromist works were among the first completely abstract paintings of the 20th century.
- Using color to express musical qualities, Macdonald-Wright experimented with the notion of synesthesia, a popular artistic and scientific concept at the time that also featured in the work of French Symbolists, the Orphists like Robert Delaunay, and the German Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky. Creating connections between color, music, and spirituality, Macdonald-Wright was integral in developing abstraction in Paris during the 1910s, and in transmitting these experimental ideas to his colleagues in America.
- Macdonald-Wright organized the first exhibition of modern art in Los Angeles and was instrumental in fostering a community of modern artists on the West Coast. His teaching and writings on color theory were important models for young California artists, providing an alternative to New York as a cultural center. His work with the Works Progress Administration in California during the 1930s also provided training and opportunities for many.
- With new interest in his career after World War II and the development of his Neo-Synchromist style, Macdonald-Wright was a critical advocate for the relevance of early American modernist painting during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. He was an important reminder that Modern Art had a history in America, particularly in the study of color theory.
Biography of Stanton Macdonald-Wright
Born to Archibald Davenport Wright and Annie van Vranken, Stanton MacDonald-Wright was named after women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom his mother greatly admired. The family lived comfortably in Santa Monica, where his father ran a beachfront hotel. Archibald Wright was also an amateur artist, who encouraged Stanton's artistic talents, enrolling him in private art lessons as a young boy. His older brother, Willard Huntington Wright was an art writer and critic, who later wrote the very popular Philo Vance detective novels under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine.
Important Art by Stanton Macdonald-Wright
This painting, an early example of the Synchromist style, utilizes color in an abstracted manner, allowing it to serve as both the subject and theme while building a three-dimensional rhythm across the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. Macdonald-Wright described this color effect as creating "bumps and hollows," bringing the flat surface of the painting closer to a sculpture.
Here, the composition creates balance within a field of dynamic movement through the deliberate and careful juxtapositions of brilliant and repeated hues. At the same time, these patches of color create a sense of classical harmony which is reinforced by the dimensions of the square canvas. The color spirals out from a central vortex, creating a sense of outward movement similar to that of an expanding universe.
The relationship of color with music was a central idea of Synchromy. Macdonald-Wright assigned each color of a twelve-color scale to a note on the musical scale. He then composed harmonious "color chords," and gave them a sense of rhythm through the juxtaposition of the various colors and the interplay of light and shadow. The result was a painting that was not just a static image, but a dynamic interplay of color that took time to see, not unlike the performance of a piece of music. These interdisciplinary theories provide an additional layer of universalizing meaning and significance to paintings such as this, elevating them from decorative arrangements to explanations (or at least, explorations) of larger cosmic systems.
This work, which at first appears quite similar to Macdonald-Wright's earlier, purely abstract synchromies, represents his shift towards figurative images. Within the shimmering facets of color, the viewer can pick out elements to reconstruct a pair of figures: a seated man at the lower right faces a woman wearing a hat, who is raising a wine glass to her lips. After an early period of abstraction, the majority of Macdonald-Wright's mature paintings would include some level of figuration, coupled with his color theory to create suggestive atmospheres and layered meaning.
Beyond the use of color to abstract and enliven these figures, the jewel-like tones are carefully arranged to evoke feelings of happiness and liveliness. Unlike more monochromatic and static Cubist depictions of café subjects, here the viewer can easily imagine a lively café setting, filled with upbeat music and bustling crowds. The mirrored use of deep reds, juxtaposed with cool blues and greens in each figure suggests a relationship that is passionate, but also comfortable, relaxed, and familiar.
Geometric planes of color (predominantly blues and greens, accented with orange and yellow) fill the canvas, creating an initial impression of an abstract composition. Yet, within the arrangement of these planes appear four human figures, obscured to the point that it is difficult to identify precisely where one figure begins and another ends. Nevertheless, the viewer is able to discern what art historian Ann Lee Morgan refers to as "fragmentary figural elements," including a face, a bent elbow, a thigh, and a raised arm. This creates a human element within the pulsating color fields.
In this particular image, sharp contrasts of light and shadow create stronger outlines toward the center of the work, diffusing toward the edges. This hazy effect not only enhances the artist's intended evocation of "space and depth," but also enhances the painting's subject - Macdonald-Wright wrote that it was "based - in its forms & arrangement & subject matter - on an opium smoking group." The graceful composition of the image reflects the euphoric, relaxed, dream-like state experienced by the opium smokers. As both Macdonald-Wright and his brother were addicted to opium during the 1910s, this would have been a personally familiar scene; shortly after this painting, however, Macdonald-Wright quit the habit, although his brother Willard never would.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Stanton Macdonald-Wright
- Synchromism and American Color Abstraction, 1910-1925By Gail Levin
- Synchromism and Color Principles in American Painting, 1910-1930By William C. Agee
- The Art of Stanton MacDonald-WrightBy Stanton MacDonald-Wright
- A Treatise on ColorOur PickBy Stanton MacDonald-Wright
- Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton MacDonald-Wright and SynchronismOur PickBy Will South