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Resisting Abstraction

Robert Delaunay and Vision in the Face of Modernism

Robert Delaunay was one of the leading artists working in Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century, and his paintings have been admired ever since as among the earliest purely abstract works.

With Resisting Abstraction, the first English-language study of Delaunay in more than thirty years, Gordon Hughes mounts a powerful argument that Delaunay was not only one of the earliest artists to tackle abstraction, but the only artist to present his abstraction as a response to new scientific theories of vision. The colorful, optically driven canvases that Delaunay produced, Hughes shows, set him apart from the more ethereal abstraction of contemporaries like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and František Kupka. In fact, Delaunay emphatically rejected the spiritual motivations and idealism of that group, rooting his work instead in contemporary science and optics. Thus he set the stage not only for the modern artists who would follow, but for the critics who celebrated them as well.

184 pages | 92 color plates, 46 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2014

Art: Art Criticism, European Art


“An engaging and enthusiastically written study, constantly roping in intriguing contextual details on the way. . . . Richly and informatively illustrated.”


“Intriguing. . . . In Hughes's ambitious and provocative lens, Robert Delaunay emerges as the missing link not just in the history of abstraction, but in the history of nearly all avant-gardes after orphism. . . . Highly recommended.”


“Offers a great opportunity to a new generation to revisit a period of astonishing creativity (and destruction).”

Leonardo Reviews

Resisting Abstraction presents a new understanding of Robert Delaunay’s achievement that goes beyond the stylistic and iconographic approaches that are typical of the literature to now. It does so by offering truly original readings of Delaunay’s early work (during the years of his most important production) that give us new insights into how to read them and that allow Hughes to situate Delaunay’s work in relation to theories of vision and historical events that reveal the depth and intelligence of Delaunay’s work in those years.”

Charles Palermo, College of William and Mary

“Hughes’s interpretations of Delaunay’s difficult works are both original and convincing and bring to light Delaunay’s deep engagement with developments in psycho-physiology and optical theory. Only aspects of this engagement have been previously investigated and never with the same critical acumen as here. Hughes’s historical contextualizing secures for Delaunay a crucial place at the end of the long nineteenth century as the painter who deepened the stakes of earlier artistic investigations of perception and brought this historical trajectory to a surprising, provocative, fulfilling endpoint in creating the first abstract painting.”

Martha Ward, University of Chicago

“For over a century, Robert Delaunay’s modernist masterpiece, First Disk (1913), has defied understanding by all comers. Now in a brilliantly economical tour de force of historical and critical recreation, Gordon Hughes has solved the mystery. Resisting Abstraction is a wonderful book, one that will instantly take its place on a short shelf of indispensable studies of the great years of early twentieth-century art.”

Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

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Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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