Abstract art started looking for a home in the United States when this century was only a few years old, but it didn't really find one until the first quarter-century had passed. By that time, abstraction was firmly established in Europe, and had already been responsible for numerous excellent and important works there.
The delay here was because American artists hesitated to carry modernist ideas and theories to their logical formal conclusion and preferred instead to take only what they needed and to adapt that to their own ends. The situation changed rather quickly, however, as the 1920s drew to a close, and more and more Americans committed themselves exclusively to abstract art.
Even so, abstract painters and sculptors remained very much in the minority since the American public and most of the New York art world preferred the Regionalist and American Scene work also being produced at that time. This condition prevailed well into the 1940s, but even when nonrepresentational modernism did finally receive widespread approval, it was not in the form of the severely geometric kind of abstraction that had first appeared in this country, but the newer, more free-spirited and improvisational sort later known as Abstract Expressionism that got the nod.
''Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America: 1927-1944,'' on view at the Whitney Museum here, documents the highlights and major figures of the primarily geometric and relatively little-known side of American abstract art. It was organized originally by the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, comprising 144 works by 43 artists. These range from the very famous (Alexander Calder and Arshile Gorky) to the practically unknown (Rolph Scarlett and Albert Swinden). The exhibition begins in 1927, the year A. E. Gallatin established the Gallery of Living Art and Stuart Davis painted his ''Eggbeater'' series, and ends in 1944, with Mondrian's death and Abstract Expressionism's preliminary stirrings.
The stars of the show are an artist and a painting: Arshile Gorky and Mondrian's ''Victory Boogie Woogie.'' As John R. Lane, co-curator (together with Susan C. Larsen), writes in the foreword to the exhibition catalog, ''One of the most important figures of the entire decade of the thirties was Arshile Gorky. He was also the artist who convincingly broke the pattern of American dependency on European leadership when, in 1943-44, he abandoned late Cubism and biomorphic abstraction in favor of a freer and looser Expressionist style that carried American painting beyond its provincial and dependent state, setting the stage for the ascendency of Abstract Expressionism.''
Six of Gorky's paintings are included, and while they reflect neither the elegance nor the lyricism of which he was later capable, they do present a very clear picture of probings and formal exercisings he had to go through to acquire those qualities.
The examples by Stuart Davis, Burgoyne Diller, Charles Biederman, Ilya Bolotowsky, Fritz Glarner, Gertrude Greene, Harry Holtzman, Isamu Noguchi, Theodore Roszak, and Jean Xceron, on the other hand, represent these artists at their very best. Stuart Davis, in particular, comes off well with ''Ultramarine, '' as do Roszak with ''Airport Structure,'' Noguchi with ''Noodle,'' and Greene with ''Composition.''
The quality of the work on view is consistently high, thanks partly to its careful selection, but mostly to the talent and seriousness of those who produced it. The exhibition helps illuminate a fascinating time when not only Gorky but de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Ad Reinhardt, David Smith, and Josef Albers (all of whom are included) were laying the groundwork for their major contributions to the art of the 1945-58 period. This was also the time when such famous Europeans as Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, and Leger (who are also represented) lived and worked in the US and shared some of their insights and experiences with their American colleagues.
The show does raise some interesting questions, chief among them being the degree to which American abstractionists merely reflected European models and ideas and the degree to which this form of art was accepted beyond the circles of the artists and their supporters. One also cannot help being struck by the insular nature of some of the work and by the artists' exclusive focus on purely formal matters at the time of the Great Depression and World War II.
Art history has made it very clear that modernism was a European idea. This is especially true of that aspect of it known as abstract art, which grew out of Cezanne's legacy, was given tentative identity by Cubism and Constructivism, and then burst into full bloom at the hands of such artists as Delaunay, Mondrian, Moholy-Nagy, and Arp.
It took the United States almost 50 years to feel even somewhat comfortable with abstract art - though we had begun importing its ideas as early as 1905 through Stieglitz's ''Gallery 291,'' and had been shocked but also challenged by what we had seen of it in the 1913 Armory Show. As far as Americans were concerned, abstraction was foreign and unrelated to ''real'' life - and so was not something a sensible person could consider art.
And so, without any public support to speak of, early American abstract artists could only look to one another, to a few sympathetic critics, curators and collectors, and to Europe for help and guidance. The results were predictable: American abstract painting and sculpture remained quite insular and largely dependent upon European ideas and examples for inspiraiton.
There were dramatic exceptions, however. Stuart Davis almost single-handedly created a highly personal modernist style and produced some excellent abstract and near-abstract images. John Graham, Ilya Bolotowsky, Alexander Calder, and Willem de Kooning also forged personal styles that set them apart from the Europeans of their day, and Fritz Glarner, Hans Hofmann, David Smith, and Ad Reinhardt brilliantly modified what they had received from across the Atlantic.
No, American abstract art of the 1927-44 period was not merely a carbon copy of similar work being produced overseas. Profound parallels existed, of course, but then, much of what was fashioned here derived from European sources. The rest of it, however, emerged from American roots and experience, and some of it (especially the work of Davis, Gorky, Calder, de Kooning, Hofmann, Noguchi, and Reinhardt) had sufficient character and drive to have significant influence on the course of post-World War II international art.
At the Whitney Museum through Sept. 9.