Carla Accardi, Fondo rosso, 1959 © Archivio Accardi Sanfilippo, Photo: Kristian Laudrup, courtesy Bortolami Gallery, New York


Creating Abstraction

The Materiality of Modernism

By Saskia Flower
Published Saturday, Jan 29, 2022

"Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art."

Clement Greenberg

The development of Modernism – a sprawling term that encompasses many of the artistic, musical, literary, and architectural movements of the twentieth century – is broadly defined in the visual arts as a rejection of the illusory capacity of an artwork in order to arrive at “truth to materials.” In other words, a Modernist artwork is self-reflexive, drawing on the essential, unique characteristics of its medium – the flatness of the picture plane, the density of stone.

Creating Abstraction brings together seven women artists who, in their own idiosyncratic manner, engage with Modernism and material. Though they were born in different decades, in disparate parts of the world, and are unlikely to have ever met, when seen side by side a shared sensibility emerges, both in their relationship to Modernism and their exploration of abstraction. Working across diverse media – be it a painting on sicofoil, a wood carving, a work of delicately interlaced brass – they possess an openness to materials that affords a freedom to experiment, to create abstraction.


Kim Lim, Syncopation 2, 1995 © Estate of Kim Lim, London. Photo: Mark Dalton, courtesy Estate of Kim Lim, London

Carla Accardi, Leonor Antunes, Yto Barrada, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Barbara Hepworth, Kim Lim, and Louise Nevelson eschew narrative or representation in favour of expressing something less tangible and perhaps more intuitive, of distilling their inner world to arrive at abstraction. Translating their visual language across painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, video, and textile art is a means of finding the boundaries not only of their own practices, but of abstraction itself.

For each artist, centralising the materiality of her practice was crucial to constructing a language of abstraction. This attentiveness to material reveals the tidemarks of process, incorporating methods of making into the experience of the work. For Choucair, Hepworth, and Lim, there is a rhythmic, almost musical quality to their work, particularly to their hand-carved sculptures. Indeed, Lim and Choucair borrowed musical terminology when titling some of their artworks – Syncopation 2 (1995) and Rhythmic Composition (1952–55), respectively. The dynamic interlocking forms speak to the lines and shapes of nature. Look closely and the chiselling, scraping, and sanding of the material is almost audible.

The first abstract artist in Lebanon, Saloua Raouda Choucair worked across an array of disciplines, from sculpture, painting, and drawing, to textiles, ceramics, and jewellery. Inspired by mathematics and architecture as well as Arabic poetry, calligraphy, and design, her exploration of abstraction is rooted in the histories of Islamic culture and holds a modular quality that is intimately linked to her experience of religion and spirituality. She considered subtractive sculpture – the act of carving wood or stone to release the form within – as akin to “meditation,” a quasi-religious process similar to “repeating the name of God while threading worry beads.”²

Echoing this sentiment, Barbara Hepworth explained sculpting as a meditative release of anxieties, negativity, and grief in order to arrive at something “beautiful.”³ An innovator of the direct carving technique and the first sculptor to pierce her forms, Hepworth is a master of Modern British art. Though best known for her groundbreaking sculptures, which use bronze, stone, wood, and string, her practice also took the form of painting, lithography, collage, and drawing. Hepworth’s language of abstraction is infused with an organic energy directly inspired by nature. Stringed Figure (Curlew) (Maquette l) (1956) is redolent of the crashing waves and eroded cliffs of the landscape of her seaside home in St. Ives, Cornwall. Weaving string into the composition further complicates the work, playing with the spatial tension of negative and positive space.


Barbara Hepworth, Stringed figure (Curlew) (Maquette l), 1956 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Photo: Courtesy Guttklein Fine Art

For many of the works in this exhibition there is a physical, bodily relationship between artist, artwork, and viewer. Hepworth explained, “You can’t make a sculpture, in my opinion, without involving your body. You move and you feel and you breathe and you touch. The spectator is the same. His body is involved too.”⁴ For both artists, the physicality of their material is inextricably entwined with their notion of abstraction, and the traces of their process remain imprinted in their work’s surface long after it is deemed “finished.”

Carla Accardi’s practice offers a parallel example of this idea. Known for her bold, graphic style and her embrace of “non-art” materials, Accardi’s extensive career paved the way for avant-garde twentieth-century movements in Italy such as Arte Povera. Often painting with unusual materials such as casein or vinyl and working on sicofoil, a transparent plastic, she translated her distinctive style across sculpture, painting, and large-scale installation. Her focus was the individual, isolated gesture, using brushstrokes as repeated, quasi-modular forms to underscore the relationship between mark and surface. In her sculptural sicofoil works, such as Arancio azzurro (2010) and Verde rosa (2010), Accardi inserts a lightbulb, casting shadows across the room to activate the surrounding environment.


Kim Lim, Caryatid, 1961 © Estate of Kim Lim, London. Photo: Mark Dalton, courtesy Estate of Kim Lim, London

Kim Lim’s sculptural and printmaking practice was born from stone, wood, fibreglass, slate, aluminium, and ink. As a Singaporean-British artist, Lim occupied a distinct space at the intersection of Eastern and Western influences. Her references oscillated between the ancient forms she saw during her extensive travels throughout the Middle East, Japan, China, and Greece and the avant-garde contemporary praxis developing in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s. Lim’s sculptures and prints, like Choucair’s, have a modular, repetitive quality that creates a sense of rhythm and strength in her compositions. She explained, “I found that I always responded to the things that were done in earlier civilizations that seemed to have less elaboration and more strength.”⁵ In Caryatid (1961), Lim juxtaposes curved and straight lines, cracked wood against smooth stone, to construct a Modernist, abstracted interpretation of the ancient Greek female figure.

The influence of archaism links several of the artists in this exhibition. In Cindy Nemser’s seminal collection of interviews from 1975, which includes Hepworth and Nevelson, the sculptures of both artists are discussed in relation to Stonehenge despite them working in opposing ways – subtractive versus additive, organic versus constructivist. ⁶


Leonor Antunes, anni #26 I, 2020 © Leonor Antunes, courtesy Air de Paris, Romainville, France. Photo: Marc Domage

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Louise Nevelson travelled extensively in Mexico and Guatemala, visiting the ancient Mayan ruins and pyramids, and was greatly inspired by the totemic, monumental forms. Her practice, which traversed sculpture, installation, and collage, was rooted in the process of assemblage. She sourced material in the streets surrounding her studio, spray-painting them black, white, or gold to erase their former function and focus solely on their formal quality. In so doing, Nevelson abstracted her personal landscape, arriving at an artistic expression that is at once free from narrative and representative of her personal experience of the world.

Creating Abstraction includes twentieth-century artists who were instrumental figures in the development of abstraction, as well as contemporary artists whose work exists within the legacy of Modernism. Leonor Antunes’s practice is research-led, often responding to the work of overlooked Modernist women artists and architects such as Anni Albers (1899–1994), Clara Porset (1895–1981), and Alison Smithson (1928– 1993). Borrowing ancient, craft-based techniques from Portuguese, South American, and Mexican makers, Antunes’s pieces are at once deeply entrenched in the histories of the visual arts and entirely contemporary in their aesthetic. In anni #26 I (2020), Antunes translates the weavings of Anni Albers into a delicate brass grid suspended in air, simultaneously casting shadows and reflecting light. She describes this work as “choreographic… an intimate gesture” that is transformed from a flat sheet to a voluminous object when experienced in the flesh.⁷


Yto Barrada, Practice Piece (Sewing Exercise #7B), 2019 © Yto Barrada. Photo: Kris Graves

In a similar vein, Yto Barrada’s language of abstraction is rooted in storytelling and research. She investigates the microhistories, borderlands, and cultural exchange of North African countries, particularly in relation to central Europe and the United States. Barrada works across a wide range of disciplines including drawing, printmaking, photography, furniture, collage, film, textiles, and installation. Each work uses abstraction to tell a story. In her Practice Piece (Sewing Exercise) series, Barrada uses analogue photography to capture the templates given to textile apprentices in her local town of Tangier, Morocco. Without context, these works are geometric, abstract compositions, beautiful in their simplistic use of line and texture. Yet, when seen with the knowledge of their purpose, they become emblems for the fabric of her local community. As with Nevelson, there is a drive to abstract her personal landscape in order to arrive, paradoxically, at an expression of reality.

Creating Abstraction looks at the intersection of abstraction, materiality, and Modernism. The role of material, as both subject and object, is integral to abstraction’s capacity of expression and is the connecting thread that weaves together these distinct yet connected multidisciplinary artists.


  1. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting” (1965), reprinted in Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, eds., Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 6.
  2. Saloua Raouda Choucair quoted in Nelda LaTeef, Women of Lebanon: Interviews with Champions for Peace (Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co, 2012), p. 20.
  3. Barbara Hepworth quoted in Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with 12 Women Artists (New York: Scribner, 1975), p. 19.
  4. Ibid., p. 21.
  5. Kim Lim quoted in British Abstract (Harrogate, UK: 108 Fine Art, 2015), https://108fineart.com/wp-content/uploads/BritishAbstractLR.pdf.
  6. Nemser, Art Talk, p. 20, p. 54.
  7. Leonor Antunes quoted in Joe Lloyd, “Leonor Antunes: I’m interested in ancient ways of doing things,” in Studio International, July 30, 2018, https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/leonor-antunes-interview-i-am-interested-in-ancient-ways-of-doing-things.
  • Essays — Creating Abstraction: The Materiality of Modernism, Jan 29, 2022