Skip to Main Content

The Pursuit of Abstraction

The first half of the twentieth century was a time of spiritual crisis. Scientific reasoning pervaded all areas of human understanding, supplanting religious and mythological beliefs with the promise of objective knowledge. As such beliefs eroded under the pressure of secular outlooks, many artists and designers experimented with new forms of expression that might reintroduce mystery into everyday life. Drawing on a wide variety of sources—philosophy, mythology, religious doctrines, and esoteric schools of thought—participants in this spiritual counterculture rejected materialism in favor of insight gained through abstract thought and feeling. Behind the veil of matter, their works assert, lie secrets that only metaphysical perspectives could disclose.

Drawing on the holdings of The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Jeri L. Wolfson Collection, and The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection of Decorative and Propaganda Arts Promised Gift, The Pursuit of Abstraction presented works of fine and decorative art that seek to reenchant the world by way of aesthetic experience.

The exhibition was organized by The Wolfsonian–FIU and made possible by Funding Arts Network (FAN), Inc. and Northern Trust. We extend our gratitude to Jeri L. Wolfson and Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. for their generous loans, and wish to recognize their important contributions to the reconsideration of the often marginalized art and artists on view.

Exhibition History:
Debuted at The Wolfsonian–FIU in Miami Beach, Florida (October 6, 2016–April 16, 2017)
Traveled to The Baker Museum at Artis–Naples in Naples, Florida (May 13–July 23, 2017)


Named one of the top 15 U.S. exhibitions of 2016 by Hyperallergic

A "dense and eclectic exhibition" that "enriches and expands the conventional account of European and American modern art"

Also featured in:

  • Art Basel Miami Beach Magazine
  • Art Newspaper
  • Centre Magazine
  • Miami Herald
  • Miami Rail
  • Portfolio Magazine
  • Selections


With writing by curator Matthew Abess

  • Dreamscapes
    Scientific understanding renders the natural world explicable and, therefore, exploitable. This demystification of nature, once a wellspring of enchantment, met with resistance during the early twentieth century from a cadre of artists who sought to reestablish the landscape’s capacity to arouse spiritual passions. Their crystalline vistas and luminous dreamscapes assert the existence of otherworldly frontiers that elude mere empirical observation.
  • Secret Doctrines
    A desire for mystical experience heightened the appeal of movements that aimed to access hidden forces and inner truths. These “secret doctrines” offered paths to knowledge and transformation through adherence to a set of principles and meditative practices. Speculating that an invisible spiritual reality exists in parallel with the physical realm, followers of various esoteric schools of thought pursued visions of universal order that could not be penetrated by scientific reason. More than merely illustrating ideas, art and design were viewed as direct manifestations of spiritual energy, as well as aids to understanding the nature of the cosmos.
  • Dislocation
    Responding to the perceived breakdown of traditional religious and social bonds, artists used formal and symbolic strategies to register a sense of dislocation and uncertainty. Distorted faces and displaced figures visualize the angst of personal isolation, surreal terrains picture metaphysical disturbance, and landscapes emptied of human presence show a world stripped bare of animating force. Such images make apparent an otherwise imperceptible condition, but offer no suggestion of reconciliation or repair.
  • Ritual Action
    Rituals provide stability and meaning to societies in the midst of upheaval, binding individuals into a community centered on shared principles and a common identity. From the messianic hope of Expressionist theater to the conjoining of souls through erotic love and the collective drama of native ceremony, ritual found a privileged place in the arts as a basis for the renewal of spiritual life.
  • Revelation
    Despite arising from similar motivations, artistic efforts to reenchant the world often followed radically different paths. Certain artists revisited biblical episodes and prophecies wherein ruin cleared the way for purity and rebirth. Such end-of-days scenarios suggested that the corrupting effects of modernization must be eradicated and civilization built anew. Others approached the modern world on its own terms, offering new visions of nature and industry harmonized by the creative spirit.

Meet the Collector

Dive Deep

Explore the Galleries

Installation: The Pursuit of Abstraction

Explore the Art

Objects: The Pursuit of Abstraction

For complete caption information, click on the image to view each object on Flickr.

Related Works

Cut for Space: The Pursuit of Abstraction

For complete caption information, click on the image to view each object on Flickr.

Recommended Reading

  • Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater, Thought-Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation (1901)
  • Henri Bergson, An introduction to Metaphysics (originally published in French, 1903)
  • Helena Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Modern Science and Theology (1877)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841), available in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays (1982)
  • Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious (originally published in German, 1912)
  • Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (originally published in French, 1912)
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All or None (originally published in German in four parts, 1883–1891)
  • Rudolf Steiner, The Philosophy of Freedom, sometimes appearing as The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (originally published in German, 1894)