An American Original

If Morgan Russell had been in the movies instead of modern art, he would have had one of those special-achievement Oscars named after him. After all, he was one of America's first two abstract painters, along with Stanton Macdonald-Wright. They roamed around avant-garde Paris on the eve of World War I, turning out full-spectrum color symphonies while Picasso was still figuring out how to put the front and back of a violin in the same painting. "Morgan Russell: A Retrospective," now at Chicago's Terra Museum, is an overdue tribute to one of the forgotten point men of modernism. (The Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey organized the exhibition, which also travels to Buffalo.)

Born in New York in 1886, the handsome Russell (who modeled nude for sculpture classes as a student) made his first trip to Europe at the age of 20. The Fauves ("wild beasts") and their brilliant, emotional colors were all the rage. When he finally settled in Paris on his third trip there in 1909, cubism had taken over as the most advanced style. Russell absorbed them both, taking classes from Matisse and studying the paintings of Francis Picabia and Albert Gleizes. By 1913, he and Macdonald-Wright had synthesized their research into what they called synchromism, meaning simply "with color." It combined the spatial fugues of cubism with full-blast color, and pushed beyond any clear images into abstraction. Well, almost: like many early modernists, Russell kept one sentimental foot planted in old-masters territory. According to his notebooks, he thought an S-curve that he lifted from a Michelangelo sculpture gave his painting a je ne sais quoi it wouldn't have otherwise.

Optimistic vision: Fortunately, Russell's passion for pure color and a fascination with the harmonic theories of the teacher Ogden Rood won out over his allegiance to art history's heroes. "Ignore borders, profiles, except where light renders them prominent," he wrote in one notebook. "Make little spectrums, that is all: an order I of little spectrums." Naive perhaps, like I one of those quaint scenarios of the future in which everyone speaks Esperanto and commutes to work in a gyrocopter. But such a wildly optimistic vision--and a real talent for moving paint around--are the reasons why a little picture like "Synchromy in Blue-Violet" (1913) radiates so much more light and soul than does a huge, slick, hard-edged painting manufactured by any Soho sophisticate today.

But the flame burned out quickly, and Russell all but abandoned synchromism by 1916. Consequently, the better-known French painter, Robert Delaunay, was credited with inventing the style. Russell said later that it was simply time to move on. Physical ailments probably played a part: in 1915 he wrote Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose monthly stipends had supported his life abroad, that eye trouble made it impossible to paint with bright hues any longer. Except for some 1920s abstractions called the "Eidos" paintings, Russell spent the rest of his life trying to infuse such pasty and contrived pictures as "The Black Gloves--Youth, Nude and Clothed" (1936) with some of the luminosity of his earlier work. He lived in France, in constant poverty, until after World War II. In 1946, he came back to America, where he settled near a stepdaughter in Ardmore, Pa. A stroke in 1948 effectively ended his life as an artist; he died in 1953.

Compared to the more illustrious careers (like Helen Frankenthaler's) and melodramatic lives (like Jackson Pollock's) of later American abstractionists, Morgan Russell's struggle has a seriocomic tinge to it. He and Macdonald-Wright dreamed of a "kinetic light machine" that would illuminate a moving band of transparent abstract forms. When Russell got together with his old cohort during a brief visit to California in 1931 (reportedly, he went West to get a face-lift), they finally operated one that Macdonald-Wright had built. But they used candles instead of electricity and set fire to the contraption. Although the machine is gone, Russell's abstract paintings remain. Marilyn Kushner, the curator of "Morgan Russell," has done both art history and the viewer a favor by letting them see the light again.