From the Archives

Elements of Modern Painting

Elements of Modern Painting

Thomas M. Messer
Published in 1961
40 pages, fully illustrated

Thomas Messer begins his introduction to this small publication series by stating that the intended audience consists of: "museum visitors who find themselves unprepared for a confrontation with the new language of contemporary art." Written before museum audiences were familiar with abstract and modern painting, the 1961 publication was to instruct the ordinary museum visitor on the basic principles to understanding and appreciating abstract art. Messer dissects the elements of modern painting for an uninformed audience by describing five basic tenets of modern painting: representation, expression, decoration, construction, and fantasy. Each section is illustrated by a work of modern art from the collection, including Jean Hélion, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso. Elements of Modern Painting presents a glimpse into the history and theories of modern museum art, at a moment when abstract painting was still an unfamiliar form of artistic expression.


Decorative painters today, particularly those who express themselves abstractly, are accused of producing meaningless paintings. More often than not, this charge is justified, since decoration when divorced from other creative elements does not make for art any more than does isolated emphasis upon expression. Abuse and incomprehension always render painting meaningless artistically. As realism can be reduced to naturalism, expressionism to caricature, construction to pedantry, so is decoration in inept hands perverted into an empty ornamentalism that may at best be acceptable as design. In the hands of the skilled and talented artist, however, decoration is part of a varied and complex creative repertory.

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