Abstract Spiritualism
   Giorgio de Chirico
   Vatican Letter
   Donald Kuspit
   Antonio Porcella
   With Gerard Tempest
Selected Works
Contact Information

Donald Kuspit, Ph.D.
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Gerard Tempest's Abstract Painting

Abstract art, as originally conceived, was spiritual in purpose-intending to represent the inner reality of things. Gerard Tempest's Abstract Spiritualism, as he describes his work, not only keeps this spiritual intention alive, but gives it new means of expression.

In a 1957 drawing that is in effect a kind of credo and manifesto, Tempest succinctly states his interests; “movement, atmosphere, physical suggestion of becoming, spiritual intensity.'' In a later statement of belief, Tempest emphasizes the energy or force that binds phenomena together as his reality. He speaks of the energy of form and space working together to bring life or vital “Electrification.” For him, Abstract Spiritualism achieves its effect of Electrification through two means, correlate with the two phases of Tempest's development: through “particles suggesting a becoming form (Phase 1),'' that is, a form that is presented as a process; and through “already evident form (ribbon like) [which] pulsates not only as a changing form in motion, but [whose] color radiates an energy to bring about the vital Electrification (Phase II).''

Now Tempest's vision of Electrification is not unrelated to the Futurist principle of ''dynamism,'' with its philosophical--Bergsonian--emphasis on process and its recognition that to be modern means to be in motion, indeed in perpetual motion, both physically and mentally. The Futurists dissolved static, closed form into dynamic--often violent--motion, opening it up, as it were, to disclose it as progress, that is, to indicate that its seemingly finished appearance is a momentary illusion-indeed, the form at a particular moment of its development. In other words, its inner reality is temporal and forceful--literally full of timely force. The ultimate ambition of the Futurists was to transcend the traditional presentation of reality as a “fixed moment in universal dynamism'' and present universal dynamism—“dynamic sensation,” with its aura of spontaneity and power''-- as such. No longer would art render “opaque'' bodies isolated in space but rather an entire “electric atmosphere.” Boccioni is indeed fascinated by the “glare of electric lamps'' (then new), which he thought created an effect of infinitely radiating space. Thus, for the Italian Futurists, and for the Italian Gerard Tempest, the artist is a kind, that is, he can articulate the vital energy or electricity of things hidden to ordinary perception -- no doubt in part by unwittingly projecting the energy of his own inner life into them.

(The Italian obsession with the dynamic has been obscured by the belief that the ideal figure of the Italian Renaissance was nobly static. This view is belied by Michelangelo's serpentine figures, the official grand climax of Renaissance figural art.)

This Italian interest in fusing inner and outer dynamic force in a single intense form has a personal significance for Tempest, for his direct ancestor is Antonio Tempesta, famous for his dramatic battle scenes. The abstract drawing of a vertical figure-like form alluded to earlier not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Boccioni’s 1913 Futurist drawings of a cyclist in headlong horizontal motion—there being the same sense of a figure constructed of interactive curvilinear (circular and elliptical) forms, and the same subliminal sense of a machine aesthetic—but it can be regarded as a kind of battle between the curves. Tempest sets up a number of contrasts between a tightly closed, fast moving, almost completely linear curve, with a planar curve, spread open and slower moving, but the drama of the difference between them suggests that they are in conflict as well as complementary to one another. This ambiguity between the sense of unresolved and resolved dialectical tension between formal elements gives Tempest’s abstract imagery its subtle power.

For Tempest, the issue of Electrification becomes in the last aesthetic analysis a question of conveying “the mystery of the intensity of the light as it vibrates from the green leaf, and as it moves into the infinite.” As noted, Electrification is articulated in Tempest’s Phase I by particles, and in Phase II by ribbon-like forms; this recalls the contrast in physics between the particle and the wave theories of light. Also, Tempest’s allusion to pulsing particle and flowing ribbon makes clear that he is an abstract artist, not a naturalist, as his reference to the green leaf off which the light bounces and resonates to infinity might lead us to believe. Thus, in Tower of Babel, 1967 the light vibrates off—electrifies—green forms (becoming sky-blue as we ascend the ladder), which have a certain affinity with, if not exactly resemblance to, green leaves, by reason of their scalloped edges. But they are essentially ambiguously concave-convex geometric shapes. A passage from nature to abstraction has been affected, but it is not simply a matter of the aesthetic clarification and simplification of naturally given forms but of the recognition of their ultimately purely spiritual import.

In a number of early works Tempest seems deliberately to dissolve organic forms into blazing, irregular gestures of color, for example, Torso, 1958, Neptune, 1960, and especially Dehumanization by Mechanization, 1963. These gestures later become reified into geometrical ribbons of light, as in Matrix, 2 Greens, 1964 and Cosmic Reflections, 1967. This process of abstraction serves to deny that natural appearance is primary reality—that it even speaks to the issue of the reality of the energy in nature. But it also makes clear that nature, however abstracted and formalized, remains a source of visual inspiration for Tempest, as for many abstract artists, who idealize and systematize what at first glance seem nature’s chance, contingent shapes. Again, Tempest gives us a vitalizing ambiguity, as the naturalistic titles of such elegantly abstract paintings as 2 Violets, 1965 and

Mother and Child
, 1964 make clear. Tempest has made another group of works, such as Brain Talk, 1964, Man's Doing, 1972, and Floating Mass, 1972, among others, in which there is an eloquent merger or interplay between observed organic and axiomatic geometrical forms. The ribbon sometimes becomes organized, as it were, and a landscape terrain is organized, in a half systematic way, into ribbon-like strata. These early works have a certain elegant brevity, even severity to them. One or a few essentially simple forest whether organic or geomorphic in import, are made subtly complex, as though their inner intricacy was being revealed, but the final effect is of an admirably bold, forthright statement of form.

But Tempest's later work is conspicuously and brilliantly complicated. Creations 1991 is a tour de force of Phase II-a cosmic spectacle of omen- like ribbons of light. (The ribbon is an essentialization or formalization of process, the visible and material embodiment of its invisible and immaterial flow.) Creation has a cosmic all-overness, suggestive of primal flux. The picture puts us on the border between formlessness and unfinished form as well as between light and dark. The ribbon remains a constant, if unfixed structure or form, a signifier of perpetual, turbulent becoming.

Meteor-like gestures punctuate the surface, making its dynamic even more intense. The work is a profound meditation on the creative act of Primal Differentiation - the moment of origination when elementary form has elemental intensity.

In the Apocalypse, 1990 matter dissolves into energy, the reverse of the process pictured in Creation, in effect its pendant, the alpha to its omega. Apocalypse is more open, its paint thinner and more loosely handled, with the canvas surface itself functioning as infinite space. At the center a collision-potentially a convergence--occurs, with giant blue and red ribbons streaking like comets, making tangents to one another. One cannot help thinking of Franz Marc's Battle of Forms, 1913, in which similar blue and red forces oppose one another. Can they become one? Is a union of opposites possible? This is the question that Tempest poses; it is the issue of both Creation and Apocalypse, which are abstract allegories. In Creation, opposites seem in process of reconciliation; at the Apocalypse, their difference becomes entrenched, as it were. But the opposite is always possible: something can go wrong, the Creation can become the Apocalypse and the Apocalypse can become an unexpected Creation. Process is unpredictable, uncertain. Tempest pictures its complications, keeping us on edge.

Separation of Man and Matter, 1991 is the third large painting in which he successfully elaborates Abstract Spiritualism into a grand style, achieving a true universalization of the principle of dynamism.

Indeed, this group of works amounts to a final aesthetic testament. Again the fundamental dualism of cool blue and hot red--emblematic of contrasting emotional states as well as, ultimately, the struggle between the death and life instincts is used aggressively. A flow of very white, very pure light exists at the center of the picture, separating the dueling forces. Their opposition is made emphatic, but its resolution is also suggested. For in such spiritual light the material differences of the color spectrum dissolve. Once again the dialectic of universal harmony, in which individual differences are forgotten, and the universal disharmony and division in which they are absolute, informs aperture by Tempest.

Indeed, this has been a subliminal constant of Tempest's oeuvre since the Tower of Babel That myth articulates the dialectic in terms of language rather than light. Everyone once spoke the same language but, because of their ambition to ascender way of the tower to heaven, challenging God, He divided them by causing them to speak different languages, which led to war-the violence which affirms and absolutizes difference. War, 1991 deals with such destructive difference, which is ultimately resolved negatively, that is, with the triumph of darkness, the complete absence of light.

There is no spiritual energy or possibility-no light and no hope-in the very material black holes. In them the very idea or Concept of Light has been extinguished and forgotten; light is completely inconceivable from the perspective of the black hole, and Gathering Light seems completely impossible. (I am alluding to two other 1991 works.) Abstract Spiritualism is a moral lesson and fable as well as a demonstration of the principle of dynamism and abstract energy.

Tempest's late works are, then, eschatological and mystical, even gnostic in import. Taken as a group they convey profound uncertainty as to whether life ordeals forces will prevail. At the bottom center of War a serpentine ribbon of energy—at once muscular and delicate, colorful yet luminously transparent- vibrantly flows, but it is tied in a knot. Dare one say a Gordian knot? It suggests the quandary Tempest presents. The sense of unresolvable paradox, latent in his abstractions from the beginning, has become explicit, giving his paintings a startling new driverless and comprehensiveness, demiurges power and universality.

Tempest has come a long way from self-isolating, static, machine-like Portrait of de Chirico, 1971, which seems to epitomize that artist's mannequin - like, ironically “Futuristic'' figures. Tempest's paintings have lost their technological aspect-if not their precision-and become transcendental in import. The ribbons, totally luminous and fluid, while remaining concentrated, notably suggest that space is a process and as such more a matter of unfixed atmosphere than fixed dimensions, but the ambivalence and multidimensions, but the ambivalence and multidimensionality of human emotion, that is, of inner space. His pictures afford a vision of space’s multidimensionsality of human emotion, that is, of inner space. His pictures afford a vision of space’s multidimensionality, a sense that it has many invisible dimensions, and finally of its infinity (all-overness), epitomized by the uncanny, mystical merger of its two visible dimensions, planarity and projection. He has carried the principle of dynamism to an expressive extreme from which there is no return.

Donald Kuspit, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History and Philosophy
State University of New York at Stony Brook

    « BACK