Sunday, April 16, 2017

Aspects of Abstraction

Readings: Harold Rosenberg, “American Action Painting”, and Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author"

from Harold Rosenberg, "American Action Painters" from Tradition of the New, originally in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952, p. 22

"J'ai fait des gestes blancs parmi les solitudes." APOLLINAIRE
(I made blank gestures in the solitudes.)
Apollinaire, anonymous photograph and in a portrait by Expressionist Maurice de Vlamink, 1903

"The American will is easily satisfied in its efforts to realize itself in knowing itself." WALLACE STEVENS

What makes any definition of a movement in art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artists in the movement—certainly not as well as, if successful, it does the others. Yet without the definition something essential in those best is bound to be missed. The attempt to define is like a game in which you cannot possibly reach the goal from the starting point but can only close in on it by picking up each time from where the last play landed.
Modern Art Makes Many people Scream. Edvard Munch The Scream, 1893
Modern Art? Or An Art of the Modern?

Since the War every twentieth-century style in painting has been brought to profusion in the United States: thousands of "abstract" painters—crowded teaching courses in Modern Art—a scattering of new heroes—ambitions stimulated by new galleries, mass exhibitions, reproduction in popular magazines, festivals, appropriations.

Is this the usual catching up of America with European art forms? Or is something new being created? For the question of novelty, a definition would seem indispensable.

Some people deny that there is anything original in the recent American painting. Whatever is being done here now, they claim, was done thirty years ago in Paris. You can trace this painter's boxes of symbols to Kandinsky,

boxes of shapes...Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967
Add captionWassily Kandinsky Composition VIII - 1923

Arthur Dove, Me and the Moon, 1937 Source
 that one's moony shapes to Miró or even back to Cézanne. 
Miro, The Hunter, 1923

Quantitatively, it is true that most of the symphonies in blue and red rectangles, the wandering pelvises and birdbills, the line constructions and plane suspensions, the virginal dissections of flat areas that crowd the art shows are accretions to the "School of Paris" brought into being by the fact that the mode of production of modern masterpieces has now been all too clearly rationalized. There are styles in the present displays which the painter could have acquired by putting a square inch of a Soutine or a Bonnard under a microscope. . . . All this is training based on a new conception of what art is, rather than original work demonstrating what art is about to become.
Chaim Soutine, carcass of Beef 1925,
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Franz Kline, Orange Outline, 1955, (soutine under a microscope?)

At the center of this wide practicing of the immediate past, however, the work of some painters has separated itself from the rest by a consciousness of a function for painting different from that of the earlier "abstractionists," both the Europeans themselves and the Americans who joined them in the years of the Great Vanguard.

This new painting does not constitute a School. To form a School in modern times not only is a new painting consciousness needed but a consciousness of that consciousness—and even an insistence on certain formulas. A School is the result of the linkage of practice with terminology—different paintings are affected by the same words. In the American vanguard the words, as we shall see, belong not to the art but to the individual artists. What they think in common is represented only by what they do separately.

Getting Inside the Canvas

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or "express" an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock Painting, 1950
The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.
Lucretia - Rembrandt
Rembrandt, Lucretia, 1666
It is pointless to argue that Rembrandt or Michelangelo worked in the same way. You don't get Lucrece with a dagger out of staining a piece of cloth or spontaneously putting forms into motion upon it. She had to exist some place else before she got on the canvas, and paint was Rembrandt's means for bringing her there, though, of course, a means that would change her by the time she arrived. Now, everything must have been in the tubes, in the painter's muscles and in the cream-colored sea into which he dives. If Lucrece should come out she will be among us for the first time—a surprise. To the painter, she must be a surprise. In this mood there is no point to an act if you already know what it contains.
Picasso, sketch for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, showing soldier at center and medical student at left. Modernism, or, African Influenced Period.

"B—is not modern," one of the leaders of this mode said to me. "He works from sketches. That makes him Renaissance."
Leonardo, Sketch for Head of Leda,  1506, High Renaissance

Here the principle, and the difference from the old painting, is made into a formula. A sketch is the preliminary form of an image the mind is trying to grasp. To work from sketches arouses the suspicion that the artist still regards the canvas as a place where the mind records its contents—rather than itself the "mind" through which the painter thinks by changing a surface with paint.

If a painting is an action the sketch is one action, the painting that follows it another. The second cannot be "better" or more complete than the first. There is just as much in what one lacks as in what the other has.

Of course, the painter who spoke had no right to assume that his friend had the old mental conception of a sketch. There is no reason why an act cannot be prolonged from a piece of paper to a canvas. Or repeated on another scale and with more control. A sketch can have the function of a skirmish.

The new American painting is not "pure" art, since the extrusion of the object was not for the sake of the esthetic. The apples weren't brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting. In this gesturing with materials the esthetic, too, has been subordinated. Form, color, composition, drawing, are auxiliaries, any one of which—or practically all, as has been attempted logically, with unpainted canvases—can be dispensed with. What matters always is the revelation contained in the act. It is to be taken for granted that in the final effect, the image, whatever be or be not in it, will be a tension.

The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just to PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value—political, esthetic, moral.
File:Kline no2.jpg
Franz Kline, Painting #2, 1954
If the war and the decline of radicalism in America had anything to do with this sudden impatience, there is no evidence of it. About the effects of large issues upon their emotions, Americans tend to be either reticent or unconscious. The French artist thinks of himself as a battleground of history; here one hears only of private Dark Nights. Yet it is strange how many segregated individuals came to a dead stop within the past ten years and abandoned, even physically destroyed, the work they had been doing. A far-off watcher unable to realize that these events were taking place in silence might have assumed they were being directed by a single voice.

At its center the movement was away from, rather than toward. The Great Works of the Past and the Good Life of the Future became equally nil....

The [ white male] American vanguard painter took to the white expanse of the canvas as Melville's Ishmael took to the sea.

File:Newman-Onement 1.jpg
Barnett Newman, Onement, 1948
Philosophy is not popular among American painters. For most, thinking consists of the various arguments that TO PAINT is something different from, say, to write or to criticize: a mystique of the particular activity. Lacking verbal flexibility, the painters speak of what they are doing in a jargon still involved in the metaphysics of things: "My painting is not Art; it's an Is." "It's not a picture of a thing; its's the thing itself." "It doesn't reproduce Nature, it is Nature." " The painter doesn't think; he knows." Etc. etc. "Art is not, not not not not . . . ." As against this, a few reply, art today is the same as it always has been.


The test of any of the new paintings is its seriousness—and the test of its seriousness is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist's total effort to make over his experience.


Once the difficulties that belong to a real act have been evaded by mysticism, the artist's experience of transformation is at an end. In that case what is left? Or to put it differently: What is a painting that is not an object, nor the representation of an object, nor the analysis or impression of it, nor whatever else a painting has ever been—and which has also ceased to be the emblem of a personal struggle? It is the painter himself changed into a ghost inhabiting The Art World. Here the common phrase, "I have bought an O—" (rather than a painting by O—) becomes literally true. The man who started to remake himself has made himself into a commodity with a trademark.

We said that the new painting calls for a new kind of criticism, one that would distinguish the specific qualities of each artist's act. (Tie To "Death of the Author")

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted…Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature…we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author. [Final passage in "The Death of the Author," in Image-Music-Text, by Roland Barthes, Trans. Stephen Heath (1977)]

Modern art is educational, not with regard to art but with regard to life. You cannot explain Mondrian's painting to people who don't know anything about Vermeer, but you can easily explain the social importance of admiring Mondrian and forgetting about Vermeer.
File:Johannes Vermeer - Het melkmeisje - Google Art Project.jpg
Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1660

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930

Since the only thing that counts for Modern Art is that a work shall be NEW, and since the question of its newness is determined not by analysis but by social power and pedagogy, the vanguard painter functions in a milieu utterly indifferent to the content of his work.

Rothko asserted: "I am not an abstractionist.. .I am not interested in the relationships of color or form or anything else.. .I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions.. .The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"
In: Conversations with Artists, Selden Rodman, New York Devin-Adair 1957

I will say without reservations that from my point of view there can be no abstractions. Any shape or area that has not the pulsating concreteness of real flesh and bones, its vulnerability to pleasure or pain is nothing at all. Any picture that does not provide the environment in which the breath of life can be drawn does not interest me.
letter to Clyfford Still, undated; as quoted in Mark Rothko : A Biography (1993), James E. B. Breslin / and Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 170

Willem de Kooning, Woman V, 1952-3

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