Defining Minimal Art, Part Two


Part Two

As an art movement, Minimalism was one of the first to attempt to establish its own art writing and its artists attempted to assert themselves against the art critics. By the mid-sixties, cracks in the edifice of Modernist art writing had begun to appear. From the years of Neo-Dada and Pop, avant-garde art had been moving beyond the limits of formalist writing. Given its basis in Kantian ideas, which appeared to diminish the significance of content or subject matter, formalist art writing had limited itself of an analysis of the surface elements of the object: line, color, form, shape, texture, composition, and so on. One could, of course, write of an Andy Warhol in a formalist manner, concentrating on the Modernist “flatness” of the picture plane, but such an account would have little of significance to say of the social conditions of its making or the cultural production of the imagery. The art world had moved beyond the art critics, leaving a rare opening for new writers and new kinds of writers.

The previous post discussed the definition of Minimalism and laid out the Minimalist “case” against Abstract Expressionism. Although Minimalist objects were three-dimensional, Minimalism was not concerned with sculpture; the target of Minimalism was tradition of Modernist painting itself. When Donald Judd wrote of Minimalism in Specific Objects in 1965, he opens his essay by stating,

“The disinterest in painting and sculpture is a disinterest in doing it again, not in it as it is being done by those who developed the last advanced versions…The main thing wrong with painting,” he elaborated, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.”

When Judd stated, “The new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting,” he was also pointing out the modern sculpture had been a reaction to modern painting and has not been a thing unto itself. David Smith and Anthony Caro transformed abstract geometric paintings into the third dimension and these works, especially for Smith, tend to be frontal, like painting. Judd similarly compared Franz Kline and Mark di Suvero, stating, “Di Suvero uses beams as if they were brush strokes, imitating movement, as Kline did.”

“The main thing wrong with painting,” Judd explained, “is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it. In work before 1946 the edges of the rectangle are a boundary, the end of the picture. The composition must react to the edges and the rectangle must be unified, but the shape of the rectangle is not stressed; the parts are more important, and the relationships of color and form occur among them.”

For decades painting had dominated and sculpture had been relegated to the position of follower. Nothing had challenged the hegemony of painting which was why painting had to be Judd’s major target. Painting is relational or composed and Judd lauded Frank Stella’s painting for eliminating the practice of arranging parts in relation to a whole:

“Stella’s shaped paintings involve several important characteristics of three-dimensional work. The periphery of a piece and the lines inside correspond. The stripes are nowhere near being discrete parts. The surface is farther from the wall than usual, though it remains parallel to it. Since the surface is exceptionally unified and involves little or no space, the parallel plane is unusually distinct. The order is not rationalistic and underlying but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another. A painting isn’t an image. The shapes, the unity, projection, order and color are specific, aggressive and powerful.”

Judd’s analysis of Stella’s work understood his friend’s painting in a way that was similar to the analysis in Michael Fried’s “Three American Painters” of 1965, with its excellent section on the painter Frank Stella. Fried, like Judd, saw Stella’s paintings as shapes stamped out and thrusting themselves forward, projecting aggressively from the wall. With the hindsight afforded by the past fifty years, it is possible to place Frank Stella’s work out of the category of Modernist painting—which was where Fried analyzed it and to position his work from 1958-1965 in the Minimalist column. As Merve Ünsal wrote in an undated article, Minimalist Art vs. Modernist Sensibility: A Close Reading of Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,

“The issue of defining Minimalism is thus one of modernist genealogy, where different critical opinions contextualize the work. The multiple narratives of modernism were an issue for Frank Stella himself, whose work was one of the central elements of disagreement between the Minimalists and Michael Fried. Stella’s work was claimed by Minimalist Carl Andre, as well as by Michael Fried. Retrospectively, Fried commented, ‘Carl Andre and I were fighting for his soul.’”

Judd was alert to the object-like qualities of Stella’s work and he was careful to set it apart from historical painting and sculpture. When referring to Minimalism, Judd used the term “three-dimensional work” and explained why the three-dimensional objects solved the problems of painting:

“Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors – which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present.” He continued,”In the new work the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered. There aren’t any neutral or moderate areas or parts, any connections or transitional areas.”

As Roberta Smith summed up in her April 2012 article on Frank Stella, Laying the Tracks Others Followed,

“They (his black and metallic paintings) provide a heady sense of the first few fastest-moving years of his development, when he helped bring the Abstract Expressionist chapter of New York School painting to a close and lay the foundation for Minimalism.”

The specificity of the objects rests in the ways in which the “new” works lie outside the precincts of the emotive anthromorphism of sculpture. These works use non-art materials. As Judd explained, “Most of the work involves new materials, either recent inventions or things not used before in art.” In addition, “Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglas, red and common brass, and so forth. They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific. Also, they are usually aggressive. There is an objectivity to the obdurate identity of a material,” he said.

One of the greatest irritants to a formalist writer or a Modernist critic would be Judd’s flat statement, “A work needs only to be interesting.” Minimalism staked out a claim on a new and unexplored territory outside of the precincts of “art.” “Interesting” was far removed from the concept of art as a transcendent concept and threatened “art’s” claim to uniqueness. In fact, the biggest impediment to writing about Minimalist art was the fact that Minimalism challenged the very definition of “art.” It is on this precise epistemological battleground that the literary skirmishes too place. Clement Greenberg retired from the fray and the battle to save Modernism was left to his acolyte, Michael Fried. Greenberg, however, put his ever-perceptive finger on the Modernist problem with Minimal art:

“Minimal works are readable as art, as almost anything is today—including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper…. Yet it would seem that a kind of art nearer the condition of non-art could not be envisaged or ideated at this moment.”

It is here with Greenberg’s statement on “non-art” that Fried began his analysis. Fried wrote a perceptive essay on Minimalism, “Art and Objecthood” in 1967, where he signaled his eventual retreat into nineteenth century art that would begin with, Absorption and Theatricality published in 1980. In many ways, “Art and Objecthood” was dress rehearsal for the book to come. For an object to be “art” this object (painting or sculpture) must “defeat” its object-ness. In other words, a work of art must be unique, singular, a universe of its own, a thing set apart from all the other objects in the world. Minimal art is what Fried calls “literalist” in that it insists on its “objecthood” in order to be “specific,” as artist Donald Judd wrote, and is set apart from the precincts of Modernist definitions of art.

Fried moved immediately in his essay—without any explanatory intervening logical steps—to his conclusion that the objecthood of Minimal art is “theatrical” and non-art: “…the literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre; and theatre is now the negation of art.” The “theatrical” quality of Minimalist three-dimensional works results from the viewer’s body which inhabits the same space as the “object” and the object is not set apart from its environment. A traditional sculpture would be placed on a socle, a painting would be hung on a wall, a vase in a vitrine, and so on.

But the Minimalist work is fully integrated with the space and becomes a stage presence. Furthermore the object is hollow, a condition Fried decrees to be “almost blatantly anthropomorphic” not to mention “a kind of latent or hidden naturalism” which constitutes a kind of “presence.” The viewer has wandered into–not a sacred site for art where the work will be contemplated–but into a theater where s/he will have an experience.

For Fried, Modernist art is fighting for its life or to be more precise, the critic is attempting to salvage the traditional Kantian definition of “art” in all its supposed purity. The success of art, he maintains, lies precisely in their ability to “defeat theater” because art “degenerates” when it approaches theater. Fried would go on to elaborate upon this theory in his 1980 book in which he exalts art that is “absorbed,” that is art which is not “theatrical” and does not play to the audience as if it is an actor on the stage. Only art that is self-suffient can reach the place where it is free of the taint of the real world. For Fried the very literalness of Minimal art rests in its traffic with all that is non-art so that it is “corrupted and perverted by theater.”

Minimalism was theatrical, because it existed only when the viewer was present, performed only for a limited period of time, like a play. As theater, Minimalism could not be defined as “art” in Modernist terms. From the standpoint of Kantian aesthetics, which implied that art had to be independent of life, Minimalism, therefore, was “dependent” upon its audience and upon its site. The lack of reference, the defining characteristic of Western sculpture, the lack of a statement of essentialism, and the intrusion of the quotidian, the utilitarian, and even the non-artistic was considered by the formalists to be a “loss for art,” a “dismantling” of the very definitions of art that was a distinct threat to high art.

Traditional Fine Art existed in a mental space of contemplation and independence and self-absorption, but Minimalism was part of the actual world and interacted with temporality and the audience’s reception. Minimalism also broke with sculpture as representation or analogy of the human body but incorporated the human body in a different fashion. The viewer had to interact with the installation and its objects, over a period of time. Thus the Minimalist object existed only in relation to the viewer and was dependent upon the viewer’s presence, and, therefore, existed in time.

The Minimalist object is repositioned as an object among objects, refusing the sitelessness or the “art space” of idealist sculpture on a pedestal. The viewer enters into a particular space and encounters the Minimal work, which becomes a place in which the spectator intervenes. Thus a body encounters another body–the human meets, not “sculpture” in the traditional sense, but an object located in a specific and defined zone. In sharp contrast to Judd who also condemned anthromorphic forms and claimed that Minimal objects were free of human references, Fried insisted that due to the theatrical elements of Minimalism anthromorphicism was present. At one point, apparently referring to the work of Robert Morris, he mentioned the hollowness or humanness of Minimalist objects. However, few Minimal works are hollow but Fried’s sense of an “encounter” between two beings is intriguing.

Towards the end of the essay, Fried summed up the position of Modernism,

“I want to claim that it is be virtue of their presentness and instantaneousness that modernist painting and sculpture defeat theatre. In fact, I am tempted far beyond my knowledge to suggest that, faced with the need to defeat theatre, it is above all to the condition of painting and sculpture—the condition, that is, of existing in, indeed of secreting or constituting, a continuous and perpetual present—that the other contemporary modernist arts, most notably poetry and music, aspire.”

What is ironic about the Modernist arguments against Minimalism is that this movement was uniquely dependent upon the art world—these objects were fabricated purely for the esoteric gallery setting. Unlike Abstract Expressionist or Pop paintings, a large gray object by Robert Morris does not blend into the home of an art collector; a temporary grouping of Carl Andre’s metal squares or plain bricks would not survive exposure to the great outdoors. Minimalism, whether the fragile florescent lights of Dan Flavin or the obdurate steel cube of Tony Smith, must be installed in a museum or a gallery. Without the art world as its specific site, Minimal Art could not exist. In addition, if one accepts the “institutional theory of art” put forward by Arthur Danto and George Dickie, then by simply installing these works in the Greene Gallery or the Jewish Museum, the “institution” or the art world had decreed Minimal Art to be “art.”

In retrospect, Michael Fried’s insightful essay can be seen as one of the last strong defenses of Modernism but it is also an excellent analysis of Minimalism. Fried expressed the problems that formalist writing and Modernist theory would have with Process Art, Performance Art, Installation Art, and other artistic expressions that were temporal and ephemeral and contingent on their specific sites and upon their temporary conditions. Today, one might argue against Fried and made a case for art as theater but it is clear that this writer perceptively understood the stakes in the game and knew that Minimalism was changing the rules.

It is an intriguing “coincidence” that Minimalism as an art movement emerged at the precise point in time when Continental philosophy was rethinking the very bases of the Enlightenment. Contemporaneously, Derrida, in 1966, was deconstructing Modernist philosophers, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss and Husserl, Barthes was rethinking his own structualism work, such as his book Mythologies, Foucault was reconsidering the “archaeology of knowledge” as ever-changing “discourse,” and Kristeva was re-introducing the Russian concept of intertextuality or hetroglossia. All of these French writers rejected the concept of the “author” and proclaimed the “Death of the Author” and shifted their focus to the importance of plurality of meanings and sources and stressed the lack of origins. While the French writers were dismantling conventional artistic wisdom, the new generation of Minimalist writers were dismantling Modernism, bringing the art world to the edge of Postmodernism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Defining Minimal Art, Part One


Part One

“Installation Art” is an all-inclusive term encompassing performance art and public and and art exhibitions in which the objects and the way they are displayed are dependent upon the particular space and the presence of the audience. Installation art is called site specific art, meaning that that site or that place is the only site where the object/s can be shown. Once the object/s is removed from the site, the object ceases to exist. Because it exists only for the viewer and has no life or purpose or meaning without the spectator, installation art raises real questions as to the status of a work of art. Installation art, by Modernist definitions of “art,” cannot be “fine art.”

An installation is a temporary arrangement of objects in a space, usually a museum or gallery room. An installation can also be mounted outside of the domains of the White Cube, in the open environment, far away from the art world. Like performance art, installation art was largely a product of the years following the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and, by extension, painting. A painting is an object that has been designated as “a work of art” and does not change over time and remains “art,” regardless if it is hung on a wall or stored in a warehouse. Installation art may include objects but it is the site itself that is significant, hence the term “site specific art.” These distinctions are profound because the line between object/not object is also the line between art/not art.

Like the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp, installation art subverted previously unquestioned definitions of art and with it the traditional way of writing about art. Modernist art criticism, meaning art writing focused on an object, was the dominant mode of art writing in the 1960s, with Clement Greenberg and his followers having a hegemonic or controlling position in New York. Formalist art writing or a concentration upon line, color, composition, form, texture, surface and so on, is completely dependent upon the autonomous and permanent art object and once this object ceases to exist in a timeless manner, formalism cannot function as a mode of analysis. At the precise peak of formalist art writing and the Modernist point of view, Neo-Dada and Pop Art and then Minimal Art emerged to challenge the previously unchallenged definition of art and of art writing practiced by Greenberg and his acolytes.

The term “Minimalism” was coined by the art writer, Richard Wollheim, and was fleshed out by Donald Judd in “Specific Objects,” 1965, Robert Morris in “Notes on Sculpture, Parts I and II,” 1967, the same year as the famous rebuttal essay by Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood.” A form of Installation Art, Minimal Art was referred to by critics as “ABC Art,” “Primary Structures,” or “Literalist Art.” Eventually the term “Minimal” stuck, referring to the work of several artists, all of whom had their own vision of the response to traditional sculpture and painting. The Minimalist painting is a flat object that hangs on the wall and is covered with paint, but there, any resemblance to Modernist painting ends. The Minimalist object is a three dimensional, existing as free-standing objects in an open space, but there, any resemblance to Modernist sculpture ends.

Emerging within and during the dominance of Modernism and its attendant mode of analysis, Formalism, Minimalism was at once the consummation of Modernism and a distinctive break with historic object-based aesthetic philosophy. Like Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Fluxus, Minimalism was a direct rejection of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism which proposed the work of art as a sacred special object of a specific form of viewer contemplation made by an equally unique type of human being, the “artist.” Minimalism rejected the concept of the artist as an actor, as a specific personality with a signature touch. Minimalism was a rejection of Modernist aesthetics, stripping the object of any points of reference or meaning or physical attractiveness.

Minimalism was the product of university-educated artists. Unlike previous generations of artists who were largely self-taught or who had limited education, the artists of the late 1960s were products of intellectual institutions. These artists, who thought in terms of ideas rather than actions, were also writers who actively defended and explained their art, attempting to create and control the discourse on Minimalism. In contrast to Modernist art, which progressed from the history and tradition of Modern art, Minimalism emerged from non-art sources and entered into the art world with an oppositional frame of mind. For many Minimal artists, their installations and objects were connected to philosophy, not the aesthetics branch of art for art’s sake, but to the philosophy of phenomenology.

The next posts will go into more detail on the thinking of the leading philosopher, Edmund Husserl of phenomenology, but at this point it can be briefly said that phenomenology is an attempt to locate the grounds of knowledge in the phenomenon of perception: what do I actually see, rather than what do I know about what I am seeing? Pure perception forces the individual to observe the world or reality, stripped of it meaning. The action of “bracketing” knowledge to concentrate on pure vision resulted in the fabrication of a certain kind three dimensional forms—forms that are shorn of definition or history.

Minimalist artists attempted to create what Donald Judd called “Specific Objects.” Compared to a painting which always referred to the tradition of painting, or to sculpture which always referred to an object in the real world, a Minimalist object is a thing unto itself, or specific. In order to stress the stripped down, reductive aspects of seeing, the Minimalist artists created objects that did not refer to anything outside of itself. To further stress the impersonal nature of these objects, the artist’s touch was removed by sending concepts or plans to fabricators who were the actual makers. Donald Judd’s shapes were painted a dull and non-descript gray, as devoid as possible of any symbolic associations.

But why is the specific object also not a formalist object, a product of art of art’s sake? Because when Minimalist objects were presented in an installation format, the objects existed for the brief exhibition period, after which they were simply put in storage. Once in storage, a Minimal object could not be recognized as “art,” for it had been removed from an art context. In contrast, a painting by Helen Frankenthaler is always recognizable as a work of art: the painting carries its own self-contained art context. A Minimalist object (or objects) without its companions is not intended to function as an independent work of art. Ronald Bladen’s X was constructed in 1967 for a specific place, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D. C., but outside the site, the shape would lose its “art context” and would be problematic as “art.”

In contrast to the state of dependency of the Minimalist object, Modernist work of art is always independent of the viewer and of the exhibition context. Likewise the Minimalist installation is always a temporal arrangement, dependent upon the spectator. Installation art, for the Minimalists is always a site specific, a time-based event that, like an presentation in a theater, exists for the audience. The Specific Objects of a Minimalist installation are, like actors on a stage, “presences” which confront the spectator who is required to move among the three-dimensional shapes and encounter the objects. Rather than existing in that rarified mental space, called an “aesthetic experience,” the Minimalist experience is local and time-based, and always changes with the venue.

Theoretically untouched or unmade by the artist, the Minimalist object challenged the idea that “art” was unique, made by an art maker, beautiful and psychologically special, and attractive to look at. Although tethered to the legacy of Duchamp, Minimalism took the extra step suggested by the older artist—art is a language: before art is anything else, it is an idea and this idea can be expressed in words. Duchamp made this point with his elaborate visual-verbal plays but Minimalism based its precepts upon the rigors of analytic philosophy: art is a proposition.

When Minimalism became a known and recognized movement at the Jewish Museum in the Primary Structures exhibition in 1966, the art world perceived a shift had taken place—away from the personal painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and away from the celebration of trivial popular culture of Pop Art and towards a new philosophical seriousness. If the 1960s was anything else in the world of New York art, it was the decade of a very pertinent question: what is art?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


New York Art and the Happenings


The so-called “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock may have “broken the ice,” as Willem de Kooning put it, and put American art on the map, but the most lasting legacy of the artist was not his large abstract canvases, but a series of photographs and a short film. In 1950 Hans Namuth filmed Pollock in the act of painting, slinging arcs of paint through the air as he moved with surprising grace around the edges of the fabric on the ground. Two years after his tragic death “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” was published in Artnews in 1958. Written by the artist Allan Kaprow, this article is arguably one of the best descriptions of Pollock’s art. Kaprow took note of Pollock’s use of unorthodox materials and expansive kinetic movement: “With Pollock however, the so-called dance of dripping, slashing, squeezing, daubing and whatever else went into a work placed an absolute value on a diaristic gesture…”

Indeed, Harold Rosenberg, one of New York’s leading art writers, had already written about the concept of “art as act” in 1952. In “The American Action Painters” Rosenberg stated,

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.

While the art cticic, Clement Greenberg emphasized the object, Harold Rosenberg put stress on the artist as an actor. The physical, that is kinetic, aspects of art making on the part of the artist, were foregrounded. The painting was the mere outcome of the action and the marks on the surface bore the imprint of the artist’s psyche. Although today, it is assumed that the essay was about Jackson Pollock, the artist Rosenberg had in mind was almost certainly Willem de Kooning. In 1952 when Rosenberg was writing, Pollock was deep in decline and deKooning was the most respected artist in New York.

Rosenberg and Greenberg (Red Mountain and Green Mountain) were rivals with rival points of view and championed rival artists: Rosenberg supported deKooning and Greenberg supported Pollock. Nevertheless, thanks to Namuth’s iconic film, “Action Painting” and “Pollock” were inescapably linked. Rosenberg envisioned the artist as a kind of warrior, stepping into the arena of art to do battle with painting. Art was an existential act. Art had become performance and process. In the end, it could be said, with hindsight, that it was not the paintings of Pollock that had the lasting impact upon art but the films of the painter’s performances.

This combination of photographs, films and critical articles about Pollock as a dancer who performed shifted attention away from the finished product, the painting, to the process of painting. The young generation of art makers were interested in art-as-process. If art was a process, then there was no particular reason to produce an object—the action alone would be sufficient. On the heels of Pollocks’ death his legacy, as Kaprow put it, there was a shift to “process,” which had a number of names—Actions, Events, Happenings—became known as Performance Art.

In New York, the performances were called “Happenings,” and were singular events, planned but unscripted, acted out but unrepeatable, performed by non-actors, artists who made no attempts towards theatricality. The Happenings were “preformed” by artists such as, Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg at the Green Gallery and at the Hansa Gallery, 1952 in New York. Inspired by the current literary Beat culture and its casual poetry readings, Allan Kaprow created environmental installations as a total work of art with common and informal materials, ephemeral arrangements, and a participatory aesthetic.

One of Kaprow’s most famous events, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959, appeared to be based upon chance but was actually a scripted and staged event, determined in a advance. The audience was given a number of a cubicle to enter where certain actions had to be enacted until a bell rang and then the individual had to move to another section of the installation. The event, like the others that followed, could not be replicated, nor, as a February 2012 article, “What Happened at Those Happenings?” noted, were they well remembered. “It is now known as the first Happening, a mythical event that knocked painting and sculpture from their previously unassailable perches and paved the way for performance art,” Carol Kino stated. She continued, “But what actually happened at the Happenings? Because they were so ephemeral, and documentation is so patchy, art historians have spent decades trying to figure that out. So have their creators.”

Happenings moved art out of the White Cube. Some of these early Happenings took place at the City Gallery with Red Grooms, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenberg, who then moved to the Judson Memorial Church, a Baptist church expanding its ministry to artistic community. Claus Oldenberg’s The Street and Snapshots from the City, featured his alter ego “Ray Gun,” an outlaw fantasy character. “Ray Gun” reappeared in his Ray Gun Manufacturing Company installation in a real storefront for his art in 1961. Kino’s article in The New York Times quoted Claes Oldenberg as remembering:

“The audience was made to suffer. At one performance the only person allowed to sit was Duchamp. He said, “I am very old, and I cannot stand, please let me sit down.” I thought, “Maybe it’s a trick. But then again, he was very old.” I think Duchamp went to everybody’s performances. “Nekropolis I” ended with us all becoming mice, dressed in burlap bags. We crawled out into the audience slowly; we couldn’t see. Then we were supposed to just drop somewhere and not move until they went home. According to the story I wound up on the feet of Duchamp. But I couldn’t see who it was. It’s a good story, but as time goes by you wonder, “Did this really happen?”

Wedged in between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, the moment of the Happenings was as brief and as ephemeral as the performances themselves. Red Grooms explained Happenings as “It was like a sandlot sports game or something, where you just choose sides. Somebody’s the director and makes up the plays, like in football. It’s very improvised, but it’s been directed a bit.” Inheriting the idea from the Happenings that art was life and that life was art, Pop Art was always Concerned with the vernacular environment, its ordinary Facts, and its humble Objects. But Pop Art was a style of objects, paintings and hybrid sculptures that were bought and sold on a now-burgeoning art market.

The significance of the Happenings was that there were no objects that could be collected. Ephemera could be produced but it was not well understood at the time that the flotsam and jetsam left floating in the wake of chaos might have some numerical value in the future. The late fifties were the last years before the art market in New York was able to support a substantial art production. The Happenings were as spontaneous as Abstract Expressionism but unlike the solemn and serious painters, the antic artists of the out law actions were exploring something new, anything else. Ellen Pearlman noted in “When New York was Really Happening” that, “These hijinks revolutionized the art world. Almost no one witnessed it, and almost no one cared.” Only years later did it become obvious that the Happenings opened the door to a new way of thinking about art—not as a single object but as an activity.

In 1958 Allan Kaprow defined this new way of thinking as “a total work of art,” not in the Wagnerian sense but as in the way the Happenings merged life and art. In the opening paragraph of “Notes on the Creation of a Total Art,” he noted that “Conscious thoughts about a total art did not emerge until Wagner and, later, the Symblists. But these were modeled on the earlier examples of the church…” He continued, “Paradoxically, this idea of a total art has grown from attempts to extend the possibilities of one of the forms of painting, collage, which has led us unknowingly toward rejecting painting in any form,without,however, eliminating the use of paint.” Kaprow concluded by noting that the “success” of art such as his “Happenings” resulted in total immersion of the spectator and thus depended upon that very person’s comprehension and participation.

In looking back over the days of the Happenings in a short statement in 2002, Kaprow stated the the Happenings were a reaction to the “overrefinement” in painting (Abstract Expressionism) in the fifties. In this brief reflection, the artist recalled that his “Notes” was written to accompany his own art exhibition and, in retrospect, he realized that “art” itself needed to be interrogated and the concept of “exhibiting” “art” should be reexamined. “Bypassing art had to be systematic. Art itself was the problem” and he noted that he came to the conclusion two years later to give up galleries. In his conclusion he asked, “What is everyday life? he asked. “What is life of any kind?…this is the central questioning from the Environments and Happenings of 1958.”

The Happenings came and went, because, as Kaprow pointed out, the “events” happened in relation to the gallery system and were catalogued as “art” by historians. Indeed, Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine became object makers and Lucas Samaras who wandered into the Happenings as a refugee from the world of New York theater became a visual artist. The world that the Happenings created, carved out from something they called “life,” was translated by galleries and museums into “Installation Art.” Although the phenomenon of the Happenings may have been tamed, the memory of the anarchy of the Happenings would linger in American art and in the 1970s, its descendent would emerge: Performance Art. Meanwhile in Europe, Performance art would become the central defining raison d’être of Fluxus, the child of Dada.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Introduction to Pop Art




“A walk down 14th street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art,” commented Allan Kaprow, a Pop artist in New York. This statement sums up what Pop Art was reacting to and what this movement was against—the “artiness” of “art,” the “masterpiece,” the “artist as genius,” creating art out of the personality and out of the history of “art.” Pop Art emerged out of an American post-War materialism and its ranks were swelled by young and irreverent artists who had not known the deprivation of the Depression and had been too young to be concerned with the moral questions raised Second World War. They had grown up in a world so new that the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, referred to the social space between these children and their parents as “The Generation Gap.” These artists were children of the material age of rock ‘n’ roll, sock hops, drive-in movies, comic books, mass media advertising and the mass-produced omnipresent culture called “popular.”

Reaching their maturity, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, these artists faced an art world increasingly commercialized and internationalized and could clearly see the bankruptcy of an Abstract Expressionism which had become academic and absorbed by the commodity machine called the “avant-garde.” The Pop artists had little patience with their predecessors’ seriousness and repudiated their concepts of High Art. Instead they looked to the streets, to Low Culture, to the vernacular, to Popular Culture, and incorporated this previously disparaged and intellectually degraded material into the sacred precincts of the gallery and museum. The magic metamorphosis was achieved by translating a style purloined from commercial art transferred onto an “art signal,” a canvas, upon which an image was made by an art world approved medium, oil or acrylic paint; and then the object would be placed in a gallery or museum. Any element of popular culture could be elevated into high art by changing the materials and by changing the location of the image. The delighted public was pleased to see, at long last, art they could recognize and understand.

This change from high to low in cultural perspective can be seen in the photographic work of Robert Frank, whose major body of photographs, The Americans, was completed in 1955, the same year as Jasper Johns’s Targets and Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, and Willem de Kooning’s Woman series. The Americans was nothing less than a deadpan, dead-eyed social critique of the overlooked “America,” famously seen through the curious eyes of a Holocaust survivor. In “looking at the overlooked,” as Norman Bryson would say, the Swiss photographer photographed, seemingly at random, but Frank ultimately selected which of the 7,000 works to publish with the ruthless perspective of a non-believer. In borrowing and quoting the already ready, the already seen, and the already known, Jasper Johns assaulted the citadel of Originality, and in pinning his paint spattered bed to the wall, Robert Rauschenberg mocked the vaunted ideal of Creativity. These works of art herald the shift from an art of feeling, such as De Kooning’s slashes of paint on women, to an art of detachment. It was now hip to be cool.

Some art historians have selected certain precursors to Pop Art—Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy—American artists of the 1920s who utilized advertising in their art. Like the American artists, Italian Futurism, in its concern with technology and modern life, used the stylistics of Cubism to celebrate the dynamic modernité of everyday life. Other historians might also include Purism in Paris between the wars and its interest in objects produced via mass technology or Francis Picabia’s hybrid machine-human forms resembling mass produced products. However, the best precedent would be Dada, particularly the (anti)art of Marcel Duchamp, and his discovery of every day objects: the Readymades, the ordinary mass-produced objects the artist “found” by chance and dubbed with a “new thought.” It took decades for the ideas of Duchamp and everyday life to be assimilated by the art world and, in the twilight of his long life, the underground artist began, at long last, to be understood by the Neo-Dada artists.

After the death of Pollock, the art world of New York had its first martyr and Abstract Expressionism was consecrated. With the rise in the prices of American art, it was clear that, the center of gravity of the art world had shifted from Paris to an American scene, and once-quiet neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village, became thriving areas for ateliers and galleries and a new generation of dealers. Buoyed on a wave of prosperity and rising expectations, the art market boomed and art became a commodity, like stocks and bonds, and artists became stars, receiving instant glory, fame, and fortune.

The struggle for the acceptance of “modern” art was over and the struggle for commercial success had begun. But this new situation was not as favorable to the generation of Jackson Pollock. The new generation of dealers were looking for something “new” and Abstract Expressionism was not new, hence the swift success of Rauschenberg and Johns. No sooner than had Abstract Expressionism become accepted (if not loved) by the art audience than a new group of artists arose in an Oedipal rejection. Pop Art was a leading indicator of changing times and new attitudes. Although Neo-Dada may have been a precursor to Pop Art, it would not be the beginning of Pop Art.

British Pop Art

In the 1950s Europe lay prostrated and in ruins; and, during the next two decades could do little more than respond weakly to American innovations in art. But Pop Art was a notable exception. True Pop Art came from American sources, but Pop Art would be inaugurated and would be christened in a most unlikely place, England, in its “austerity” season, following a war it supposedly won. Although “Pop” art is a phrase coined in response to a certain strain of British art, Pop Art was specifically and uniquely American in content and style, for it was America which had taken the lead in creating kitsch–the lowering of high art–the raw material of the Pop artists. The American culture that reached the British people, who were still on rationing, was a culture of abundance. The English consumers leafed through magazines from America and encountered a visual feast of advertising products for the post-war Paradise that was America. The only message was “buy” and the only moral was to “enjoy.”

The post-war artists in England were, like most artists after the Second World War, casting about for a new way to make new art, were dazzled by American products and American graphic design. A group of artists from the Institute of Contemporary Art in London who were interested in American culture began to come together to discuss the barrage of American popular culture. Their leader, Lawrence Alloway, was an art critic and an organizer who was enamored with all things American and absorbed the snappy patter of advertising. It was he who used the phrase “pop art,” it was he who explained how “the aesthetics of plenty” had created a “continuum” between fine art and mass culture, and it was Alloway who rejected the traditional boundaries between high and low culture.

The ICA artists preceded the Pop artists in New York by almost a decade in their experiments with popular culture. Unencumbered by the weight of Abstract Expressionism, unburdened by a mission to supplant Paris as the capital of the art world, these young artists laid the groundwork for the project of how to make art out of life. Many of the most famous British Pop “icons,” were made, not as works of art, however, but as occasions for discussions. As early as 1947 Edouardo Palozzi pasted together American tabloids and advertising in I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. The small collage made in 1956 by Richard Hamilton raised the question, What is it about Today’s Homes that make them so Different, so Appealing? and featured a new Garden of Eden full of American personalities and American products from television to canned ham. The works of Hamilton and Palozzi were small in scale and hand made. Their collages, careful cutouts from American magazines, were extensions of pre-war Photomontages. Totally lacking in social critique, their exuberant exaltation of the vernacular and their innocent pleasure in visual stimulation would characterize Pop Art.

Formally titled the Independent Group, these artists mounted as series of important exhibitions in the early fifties, before Johns or Rauschenberg had become recognized artists. The exhibitions included Parallels of Life and Art, 1953, Man, Machine, and Motion, 1955, and This is Tomorrow, 1956—all were derived from the world of commerce. In a uniquely British approach, these exhibitions of things that existed in the now for America were cast in the future, something that England would aspire to. As Alloway said, “movies, science fiction, advertising, Pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically.” Indeed soon the city of London would begin to “swing” in the Sixties and the Beatles would conquer the world.

French Pop Art

In Paris Pop Art was called Le Nouveau Réalisme (“New Realism”), a term coined by Pierre Restany in 1960. Sidney Janis used this title for his 1962 exhibition in New York which introduced the then-scattered American Pop artists to the art world. However, besides the title, Pop Art in France was quite different from Pop Art in New York. In Paris, Restany issued manifestos and these statements of purpose were signed by artists–like in Dada or Surrealism—in a nostalgic replay of art before the war. Indeed when art critic Lucy Lippard viewed the works of these Parisian Pop artists in 1962, she saw the traces of Surrealism. Indeed the so-called “Pop” artists had little in common with American or British artists beyond making art in the same time period. The French group was so disparate that they had to justify their affiliation under the concept of “collective singularity.”

It is difficult to think of an American or British counterpart to artists such as Yves Klein, Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Mimmo Rotella or Niki de Saint Phalle. It seems apparent that New Realism in Paris is closer to Neo-Dada in New York, for these artists also merged art and life, a key goal of the Neo-Dada artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg. In fact, Rauschenberg was well acquainted with some of the artists, such as Niki de Saint Phalle. All of these Parisian artists were better grouped within Fluxus where their “recycling of industrial and advertising reality,” as Restany described it, would be channeled into “events” the equivalent to “Happenings” and installations and performances.

New Realism in New York and Paris introduced new issues in art, concerned with an aspect of the real, or realism without transcription or interpretation. “New Realism” and earlier terms, such as “Neo-Dada,” and “New American Sign Painters,” were quickly replaced by the more upbeat and less formal sounding British term—Pop Art. However, the term New Realism had an important story to tell: Pop Art or New Realism was a return to representation, a return to realism, a return to figuration. By the 1950s, in the wake of European modernism, it was impossible to bring back an academic way of making art—traditional realism—but a new form of popular realism could be smuggled into art through the appropriation of “life” and its preexisting detritus.

Pop Art in New York

In New York, Pop Art was a rejection of Abstract Expressionism and all its high art pretensions and a celebration of all that had been banished from Fine Art. It was a rebel movement of art outlaws that celebrated the commercial consumerist aspects of post-war art. Although it was thought of as “American,” Pop Art was also a regional art, born and bred in the advertising agencies of New York City. Only Andy Warhol referred to the pop culture of Hollywood; the rest of the artists were embedded in the world of New York commercialism. They used, abused and denied the crass origins and adopted the look of advertising, the bright attention-getting colors and the sharp legible lines and the simple centered designs.

In contrast to the angst of creation suffered so dramatically by the Abstract Expressionist artists, Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was cheekily un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating low culture. Pop Art insisted on leveling the playing field and made the point that all things from life were suitable materials for artists. But it would be to facile to insist that Pop Art was a juvenile rebellion of an adolescent. Pop Art was cobbled together from the raw materials of that way the artists grew up and lived. Pop culture was their culture and the artists merely reflected their own times.

Pop Art signaled a “Return to the Object” and a rebellion against Abstract Expressionism. In contrast to the un-readability and transcendence of Ab Ex, Pop Art was easily identifiable, using specific and recognizable images, from low art mass media sources. Andy Warhol did copies of diagrams of dance steps. George Segal cast his friends and neighbors in their everyday lives. In 1961 Claes Oldenburg sold his papier maché Pop Art objects in his own establishment, The Store. The curators of these earlier exhibitions pulled together this new generation of artists, many of whom were working with popular culture without knowledge of each other. Only when they saw each other’s work in shows, such as New Realism, did they realize a “new” “ movement” had begun and that they were part of “Pop Art.”

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many art writers were repelled by the vulgar sources. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers made Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. The art audiences who had never really embraced Abstract Expressionism loved Pop Art; it was art of their own time. Pop Art in America was the first really popular movement in Avant-Garde art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]



Gutai in Japan

GUTAI 1950-1960


Gutai Art does not alter the material. Gutai Art imparts life to the material. Gutai Art does not distort the material. In Gutai Art, the human spirit and the material shake hands with each other, but keep their distance. The material never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates the material. When the material remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story, and even cries out. To make the fullest use of the material is to make use of the spirit. By enhancing the spirit, the material is brought to the height of the spirit.

After the Second World War, Japan, as a defeated culture, could not go backward to its own past and had to go forward into its uncertain future. For the first time in history in August of 1945, atomic bombs had been dropped, unleashing an inconceivable horror upon targets that were largely civilian and were completely untouched by Allied bombing. Because of their pristine condition, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were carefully selected so that the effects of atomic bombing could be fully viewed. The pika don, or blast of light, killed at least two hundred thousand human beings in the two cities, either outright or over time from radiation poisoning and cancers related to the effects of the bomb. Defeat, the Japanese people had been taught was so shameful it could not be bourn. Some individuals escaped disgrace through ritual suicide but the vast majority of the Japanese lived on to experience the Post-War period.

The nation had not just lost a war; it had lost control over its territory and of its culture. The Americans occupied Japan with General Douglas MacArthur becoming a military “Shogun,” presiding over a Westernization of the nation. Artists were faced with stark choices: Westernize and enter an international art world and risk losing an entire history or remain true to indigenous culture, hold firm to tradition, but risk becoming marginalized. Japanese art makers had been conversant with Western art from the turn of the century, but the artists, like most artists in totalitarian societies, were urged to be nationalistic and make “Japanese art.”

Author Bert Winther-Tamaki pointed out that, in isolation, these artists became well known in Japan, but, after the war, they found themselves out of step with international art. In his book, Art in the Encounter of Nations, Japanese and America Artists in the Post War Years, he describes the “Imaizumi storm,” begun when Imaizumi Atsuo returned from the Salon de Mai exhibition in Paris where he saw Japanese art hanging alongside European art. Imaizumi reported the deplorable results to the Japanese in 1952. Winther-Tamaki quoted artist, Kurabara Sumio as saying, “Japanese art faced American art for the first time.”

The Japanese were occupied for seven years, years in which there was a genuine back and forth between the cultures—returning military personnel brought Japanese culture to America and after the War, the artists were suddenly inundated with art from alien cultures, both American and European. The exhibition catalogue, Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky, quotes artist Ushio Shinohara as saying, “…the colorful wrappers of candy handed out by the American GIs were like a magic carpet to another world, the only color of his childhood.” In the early 1950s, against all art world expectations, a Japanese artist, Kenzo Okada (Okada Kenzo), working in the Abstract Expressionist style, achieve some acclaim in Europe. But trying to catch up would not help Japanese artists achieve international status.

Just as the American artists struggled against their European precursors, Japanese artists had to find their own interpretations of modernist art. They looked to the most prominent post-war style, the new American extension of Modernism called Abstract Expressionism. In the end, it was not so much the idea of Abstract Expressionism as painting that was impactful but the concept of Art as Act or Abstract Expressionism as Performance that proved compelling to the avant-garde artists. Information about Jackson Pollock’s kinetic method of painting—walking around a canvas on the floor, flinging paint through the air, pausing to observe the effect, and moving to the next gesture. The idea of Art as Act came to American-occupied Japan from French artist, Georges Mathieu, who, in 1957, dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono and demonstrated “action painting” at the Daimaru Department Store. A newly formed group of Japanese avant-garde artists, already interested in public art works, was ready for the new and radical idea of performance.

The Japanese Group, Gutai Art Association Gutai Bijutsu Kyōkai literally, “Concrete Art Association,” was founded in 1954 by the painter, Yoshihara Jiro (Jiro Yoshihara), who had lived through the Second World War and the atomic bomb. In its 1955 manifesto, the group stated that “Gutai” means “Spirit” (seishin) plus material (busshitsu) or “Matter.” All things of this world are composed of matter and all things of this world have a unique inner spirit. It is the task of the Japanese artist to find and free this spirit from the material. The idea of the artist as an actor was not unknown in Japan. Sumi ink painting had traditionally been an act of expression and liberation on the part the artist. Yoshihara remained committed to painting through the process of Japanese style calligraphy and Japanese painting became performative, improvisational, and process-orientated.

In 1955, the group of twenty artists held a thirteen day, twenty-four hours a day open-air exhibition in a pine forest in Osaka. The legendary “Experimental Outdoor Exhibition of Modern Art to Challenge the Mid-Summer Sun” exposed paintings and sculptures to the weather. This combination of the use of nature in relation to painting and sculpture and installation was a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions. In the end some forty-nine artists joined Gutai.

After the war, the traditional artistic language of Japan was liberated from Japanese history and updated to respond to Western Modernism. The question was: how to be Japanese and how to join the international art scene at the same time? Yoshihara who had lived with a ban on abstract Western art, urged his followers to “create what has never existed before.” Liberated from a militaristic regime, he thought of art as an act of freedom. The Other painters included Shozo Shimamoto who made holes in his paintings and reenacted his painting/performances for Life Magazine in 1956 and performed “The First Gutai on Stage Art Show” in 1957.

Shimamoto did not know of Lucio Fontana’s slashing of his canvases with a knife instead of a paintbrush, but the Japanese artist’s works were gestures or records of an encounter between his body and a work of art. Okamoto Taro said, “Gutai art puts the greatest importance on all daring steps which lead to an undiscovered world.” For the leader, Yoshihara, “It is obvious to us that purely formalistic art has lost its charm.”

Kazuo Shiraga had originally belonged to the Zero Society (Zero-kai), which believed that every work of art came from nothing, a sort of ground zero ontology. Indeed, reading between the lines of Japanese post-war art, one comes across the feeling of starting over from scratch—a metaphor for the cities blasted into oblivion. Shiraga was trained in an art school, but in 1954, the artist began painting with his feet by working with mud using his entire body.

Reacting to the cultural void of the MacArthur Occupation of Japan, Saburo Murakami hurled himself through a series of paper screens at the “First Gutai Art Exhibition,” Tokyo, October 1955. Akira Kanayama created paintings objectively with mechanical intervention with a remote controlled toy car that carried paint to canvas. There were few women who participated as artists in either Fluxus or Gutai but among the best-known Gutai works was the electric dress by Atsuko Tanaka of 1956 that conflated the traditional Japanese kimono and industrial technology.

In his book, Radical and Realists in the Japanese Non-Verbal Arts: The Avant-Garde Rejection of Modernism, 2006, by Thomas R. H. Havens discussed how Gutai was not celebrated in its own time and was given its due only after the death of Yoshihara’s death in 1972. Havens stated that the movement was given a major retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1993. Being included in Western post-War art history was quite a feat for any art movement not located in New York City. Not until the 1980s, did art history begin to catch up with significant movements in Europe and Asia. Because both movements stressed performance and the temporary experimental aspects of art making and art viewing over the production of collectable objects, both Fluxus and Gutai were neglected by art historians. Art Historians of the post-war period were trained to discuss objects, not experiences, and often gave the performance art movements, at most, a passing mention.

Fluxus was better known from the objects left over from the Events or actions. The most famous Fluxus artists, Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik, transcended their Fluxus origins, with Beuys becoming a famous political activist and Paik becoming one of the founding members of the emergence of the video movement in the Sixties. Like the Fluxus artists, Gutai artists were not well known and are still obscure even today. American art historians routinely ignored European and Asian art of the post-war era, assuming that the hegemony of American art was supreme. Gutai was almost unknown to Americans until the 1995 exhibition Scream Against the Sky. However, both movements were important: they were part of the growing number of art movements that challenged the basic ideas and ideals of Modernism. Fluxus and Gutai challenged the primacy of the object and the permanence of art and, therefore, of the importance of the aesthetics of form.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jasper Johns and “Things the Mind Already Knows”


When Jasper Johns left his native South Carolina for the mean streets of New York, he claimed to have arrived at his Pearl Street Studio knowing nothing about art history. In fact, he later destroyed some of his early work when he realized that it resembled too closely, in his eyes, the work of the Hanover Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters. Nevertheless, despite knowing little of his antecedents, Johns, along with his artistic partner, Robert Rauschenberg, was part of the two-person movement, Neo-Dada, which carried on Dada of the 1920s. Both artists were part of the New York “underground” of artists who were swerving away from Modernism and grappling with the ideas of Marcel Duchamp. In their very important book, Difference/Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, authors Moira Roth and Jonathan Katz wrote of the Aesthetic of Indifference that prevailed in this group of art makers.

Indifference, also defined as Cool Intelligence, was a reaction against the overheated politics of the period—the rhetoric of the Cold War and the Red Scare—and the overvaluation of the artist as creative genius. Using Duchamp’s concept of Chance, Rauschenberg and Johns worked with randomly (non) selected examples of visual culture, both high and low, both loaded with meaning or devoid of significance. They were indifferent as to the materials they appropriated and to the content they drifted into. But it would be a mistake to conflate indifference or coolness with disengagement. Jasper Johns was a very thoughtful and deliberate artist and the key to his art, as with that of Duchamp, lies more with choice than with chance.

When art goes blank, so to speak, and the artist withdraws into silence, a space is opened for the spectator, who now becomes a reader and a participant. Indeed, many of Johns’ early hybrid objects demanded physical participation form the viewer. Tango was a blue painted collaged painting with a key at the bottom. The spectator was invited to turn the key, which was attached to a music box on the back of the painting. The painting would then play a familiar song, Blue Tango. Target with Four Faces was a verbal-visual (Duchampian) pun with the lower part of four faces that would not “see” being covered by a lid, which had to be opened (like an eye) by the viewer.

The technique and materials of Jasper Johns also refused the assertion of the artist’s personality. As an artist, Johns shunned the dominant art world, which was still under the spell of Abstract Expressionism, the “touch” of the artist, the “gesture” of the brush, and the “spiritual” and redemptive potential for art. The surfaces of Johns’ early paintings were first covered with squares of torn newspapers which provided a textured surface for the over coating of encaustic paint, or pigment suspended in wax. His painting technique was slow and careful and absent of signature marks. After decades of abstraction, this return to figuration and to the object was a shock and other artists and critics hardly knew how to read Johns’ laconic workman-like brush work and his deadpan imagery. His painting (non) techniques did not look like painting and his paintings did not look like paintings.

The artist had developed a third way, slipping his work in the in-between rule-bound space of painting and sculpture, a territory for poetic or semiotic objects. Johns claimed that he did not know of Duchamp during the 50’s but the two met later. Despite the superficial resemblance of methods—the use of mundane objects from “life,” the objects presented by Johns are in a very different category from Duchamp’s Readymades. Rather than simply chose an object from a store, Johns re-created the Targets and the Flags as hybrid objects, neither painting nor sculpture but both/and, inhabiting a zone of categorical indifference. In comparison to Pollock, who grandiosely and sincerely stated, “I am Nature, ” Johns was “culture.” Instead of aspiring to the heights of human nobility, this artist’s aims were at once more humble and more complex. Johns deliberately chose “Things the mind already knows” in an attempt to force the viewer’s attention away from painting as an act, a process and an art and redirected the spectator’s thought towards the conceptual nature of vision.

We know the target or the flag in a Gestalt moment of instant recognition in which we grasp the image and its meaning whole, but these images are in fact quite fragmented internally. So ingrained is the idea of “flag” upon our minds, that it is difficult to “see” the “flag”—any flag—as an arrangement of colors. With his indifference to aesthetic balancing, Johns inspired a new generation of Minimalist artists, such as Frank Stella, with his indifference to composition, structure, or design. In choosing the American flag, a thing already ready, already seen and known, he also jettisoned the problem of color relations. The flag is red, white, and blue and the design is pre-given, courtesy of Betsy Ross. However, in the 1950s when Johns was painting his series of flags, the American flag was a politically potent image. For those who were concerned with the threat of Communism, the flag took on an almost sacred meaning and the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. For others, forced to sign loyalty oaths, black listed, and accused of being “un-American,” the flag became an ironic symbol of the loss of Liberty and Freedom of Speech and Assembly.

The targets are less obviously rooted in Cold War mythology and it is more profitable to examine these works as part of the artist’s larger semiotic project. Through the irresistible force of cultural habit, the target insists on pulling the human gaze to the bull’s eye, but in Target with Four Faces and Target with Plaster Casts, both of 1955, Johns fights the viewer’s natural tendency to look at the center. Each of these encaustic targets has a row of plaster cast above the canvas. Visually speaking, Johns made two targets, one with the chin and mouth body parts in the compartments and the other, the target itself below. One looks above the target to the body parts and faces, which hover uneasily above the target. The body parts seem in danger but they are also safe because our aim is inexorably pulled to the bull’s eye. Johns is playing with the viewer who expects a center and a composition and a decided viewpoint. Once again, the play is a between what is seen—the target—and what is not seen—the rest of the face or the rest of the body.

If Rauschenberg was inspired by Duchamp’s use of Chance, Johns was inspired by Duchamp’s word play (fountain-urinal) and understood, as did the famous Dada artist, that art was a language. By remaking unremarkable objects—beer cans, flashlights, shoes, and so on, Johns came close to Duchamp in asking “questions” about what kind of subject, which objects are “appropriate” for High Art. The mundanity of the objects he reproduced should not detract from what is a low-key virtuoso performance on the part of the artist as a master craftsperson, a remarkable sculptor, painter, drawer, renderer, as though he was reiterating academic skills and lavishing them upon an unworthy and indifferent light bulb or ale can. In an age before the art of Andy Warhol gave rise to the questionable concept of “de-skilling,” Johns quietly allowed the ordinary object’s identity to overlay his extraordinary dexterity.

If his works raise questions, Johns rarely gave answers to his questions, only more works of art; and if one asked what the subject of his art was, the artist would allow the viewer the freedom to speculate and contemplate. In his False Start of 1959 shows Johns’ interest in the works of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although Johns did not start reading Wittgenstein until 1961, this and later works suggest his growing interest in meaning as a cultural construct. “The meaning of a word,” Wittgenstein stated, “is its use in the language.” Philosophical Investigations had been published in 1953 and the idea that language is a mere convention and that words have no absolute meaning was a new one. Johns brushed on a grid of colors with ironic Abstract Expressionist verve and then proceeded to stencil on labels that “named” the colors with the “wrong” names. Thwarted by the authority of the stencils we have learned to trust, the viewer struggles to make sense of the “false” naming of “red” on an orange patch, of “white” on a blue section. (For a more complete discussion of the unlikely pairing of Jasper Johns and Ludwig Wittgenstein, see Peter Higginson’s 1974 book on the subject.) The result of False Start is to remind the viewer that the relationship between word and object is arbitrary and exists only because of a cultural agreement. This essential insight of arbitrariness from philosopher Fernand de Saussure suggests that “reality” is also an agreed upon construction and could be “renamed” at any moment.

What Jasper Johns contributed to the art world was an intellectual and conceptual, even philosophical, worldview. However, it is important to not read too much into the manifold “influences” on Jasper Johns as he was, like all artists, consuming the available ideas moving through the culture and making them his own. He shifted the “use” of art from something that was looked at, gazed upon, and contemplated to an object with which the viewer engaged. Like Rauschenberg, Johns broke with the received wisdom that an artist was a creator. For the Neo-Dada artists, the artist was a collector who borrowed and appropriated the pre-exisiting visual culture. Whether Johns chose with Indifference or with a coded passion, the rupture with Abstract Expressionism and the meta-narrative of Clement Greenberg was decisive and complete. From the very beginnings of Neo-Dada, Greenberg rejected these artists and complained into the 1960s of the “confusion” generated by the “obliteration” of boundaries, noting that “high art is on the way to becoming low art and vice versa.”

Neo-Dada opened the way for the return of representation and figuration, albeit from the strategy of quotation. They avoided the apparent back-step of Willem de Kooning who smuggled Woman into Abstract Expressionism in the early fifties and Rauschenberg and Johns did not bother to “represent” in the expected fashion. Jasper Johns took what he found and acted upon it: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” It is this idea—to “take” instead of to “make” that was of such significance. The lasting importance of Neo-Dada and the art of Johns and Rauschenberg was the decisive break with confident creativity of Modernism and with the elitism of high art and the articulation of a new way of being an artist. The art historian, Leo Steinberg, was one of the first to write of these two artists in his collection of essays, Other Criteria. Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art. As a historian of Renaissance art, Steinberg was able to deal with the problem of the social or culture or semiotic meaning of art at at time when the modern art historians and art critics were able to write only of the formal elements of art. In writing of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Steinberg said that the idea of the “flatbed picture plane” was more than a “symptom.” “It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories.”

Steinberg pointed out that the objects appropriated by Johns were essentially “passive,” objects to which things were done—flags, targets, maps, alphabets and numbers: we salute the flag, we shoot the target, we unfold the map, we use the alphabet and we count with numbers. With all these “objects” it is the viewer who brings the flag the target, the map, the number and so into being. Without the user, these objects, like language, are inert. Once installed, the hybrid objects of Jasper Johns defy traditional placement. They do not rest easily on the wall, they must be put on a pedestal, they must be walked around like freestanding sculpture, and, contrary to the artist’s “instructions” they must not be touched. The Flag appears in several guises, in two and three dimensions, and always raising questions: “Is it a flag or a painting or a painted flag?” “Do we salute this object? Do we pledge allegiance to it?” “When is a flag not a flag?”

Not only did the two Neo-Dada artists bring back representation by borrowing images already ready in the vernacular culture but they also rejected the Modernist idea of a unified art meaning for a work of art. Their art was full of meanings, plural; and these meanings came, not from an art tradition but from a low tradition of low culture or from the familiar world of popular culture. In so doing, Jasper Johns made art familiar and understandable to the average museumgoer, but he also made the familiar unfamiliar and confounded the average museumgoer. For both Johns and Rauschenberg, the glory days of their loose collaboration were the 1950s and with the new decade the two went their separate ways. While Rauschenberg explored many areas of art and many techniques, Johns remained fairly consistent to his philosophy of dealing with “Things the mind already knows.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]




Neo or new Dada was named after Marcel Duchamp who, in the fifties, began to emerge from the underground to the surface of cutting edged art in New York. Neo-Dada did not come neatly “after” the leading movement, Abstract Expressionism, instead the new approach to art appeared suddenly in the midst of the celebration of America’s seizure of European modernism. The reason for the clash of these two styles was the generational lag experienced by the Abstract Expressionist artists. At the very moment when they were experiencing success, these artists were near or close to retirement or “master’s” age—forties or fifties—-but their careers had been retarded by the slow development of an art scene in New York. After the decade of recovery after the war, money entered into the art world, just in time for investors to snap up the newest art—-not Abstract Expressionism but Neo-Dada. And keep in mind that the Color Field group had yet to emerge. The Abstract Expressionists were angered but, suddenly, their time had passed.

Neo-Dada was a New York phenomenon of the underground art world consisting of a group of performers, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and painters, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Neo Dada can be dated from late 1940s to late 1950s, from the early works of Cage and Rauschenberg, who worked together at the famous Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. Cage and Rauschenberg were influenced by Marcel Duchamp and by his idea of redefining. The younger artist inspired the musician with his “redefinition” of painting. Rauschenberg covered four canvases with white paint and put them together into a four part square that changed and altered according to changing light and shadows and interactions with the shadows of passing viewers. The result was a painting that changed through ambience. Rauschenberg’s white painting is less famous than what it inspired: Cages’ experiment in ambient sound, 4’30” a piano recital in which the performer allowed the sounds of the environment to become a new kind of sound or “music.”

Upon return to New York, Rauschenberg and Cage continued their collaboration, such as the print of an inked tire driven over sheets of paper. The idea was that of Rauschenberg and the driving was that of Cage and the resulting new definition of “print”—Automobile Tire Print (1953). Then Rauschenberg met Jasper Johns who had come to New York after a stint in the army of occupation in Japan, unsure of whether he wanted to be an artist or a writer. Although Johns did not know him well in the beginning of his career, Duchamp’s ideas were circulating in New York at the time and he probably absorbed Duchampian thought from Rauschenberg who did know Duchamp. Johns was not well educated in art history and later he destroyed some of his early works when he learned that they resembled the Merz collages of Kurt Schwitters.

Using the inspiration of Duchamp, Johns and Rauschenberg began to challenge the rules of High Art. Cage re-defined music as sound and silence, Cunningham re-defined dance as movement through space, Rauschenberg re-defined art as life, Johns redefined art as an intellectual proposition, art as language according to the ideas of philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like the original Dada, Neo-Dada challenged the separation of art from life, so important to the definition of a Modernist work of art. At a time when abstract art dominated, Neo-Dada reintroduced the ordinary object and the figurative image and cultural or social meaning back into art. The significant contribution of Neo-Dada was the return to representation. But the representation of Neo-Dada artists was of a new kind: they did not copy what they saw, instead they simply appropriated, borrowed, or quoted images already available and already circulating in the culture.

Neo-Dada incorporated what the art historian and artist, Brian O’Doherty, called “the vernacular glance”—a kind of casual scanning of random glances. Inspired by the concept of the found object, Rauschenberg literally picked up objects he found discarded on the streets of lower east side New York and put them into collaged paintings or “combines.” The result of Rauschenberg’s collection of pre-made images from popular throw-away images and the way he pasted or posted them onto an upright canvas was termed “the flat bed picture plane” by art historian Leo Steinberg. Johns also used what he called “things the mind already knows” but these “things” were infinitely more banal and more famous than the discards picked up by Rauschenberg. Johns appropriated Flags and Targets and turned them into paintings, which had an ambiguous and hybrid nature. Was it a flag or a painting of a flag or a painted flag?

The result of the strategy of Rauschenberg and Johns, to borrow rather than to create, was a work of art that was hybrid on many levels, blurring the boundaries between sculpture and painting and art and life, and also an object in its own right. Unlike a Modernist work of art, which was pure, a Neo-Dada work is impure. Not only does the Neo-Dada artist use non-art materials and non-art images, the meanings of each object are non-art meanings. In addition to its anti-modernist hybridity, Neo-Dada was deeply involved in Performance Art, due to the presence of Cage and Cunningham. The most famous artists, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, both performed with Cage and Cunningham and lived in the Pearl Street studios in New York, sharing space with performance artist, Rachael Rosenthal.

Performance Art is not theatrical in the sense of a traditional play, which is scripted and acted and performed regularly as repeated performances. Performance Art is planned but not scripted, cannot be repeated precisely, and, in contrast to the “theater,” involved the audience as participants. During the Fifties, performances were called “Events” or “Happenings,” many produced by Allan Kaprow. Kaprow was interested in the experiments of John Cage of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which foregrounded unplanned situations and audience participation. The development of art out of action, related back to the principles of collage, construction, and assemblage in that the Happenings were simple events that used everyday situations, just as a collage used everyday materials. Cage’s experiments re-examined the nature of art, for he saw art not as separate objects in museums but as an experience in any physical or social context. Happenings stressed audience over artistic experience and audience participation and interaction, joining the artist, life, and society.

Neo-Dada was also referred to as Proto-Pop, from 1955 to 1960. Other artists who could be termed Neo-Dada included the elusive and legendary, Ray Johnson and Larry Rivers, both in New York, and Jess, from Long Beach, who was working in San Francisco as an important gay artist. That said, the art history of Neo-Dada is usually focused on the work of Rauschenberg and Johns, both of whom were in the gallery of a new dealer named Leo Castelli, who would make them both famous or infamous. Although it was a secret at the time, the two men were lovers and were a well-known couple on the New York art scene. Their relationship was put under stress when Leo Castelli, who preferred the work of Jasper Johns, gave Johns the first show in his new gallery. Rauschenberg, an older, more experienced and better known artist than Johns, was hurt that he had to come second to his lover whom he had discovered working in a book store. Rauschenberg, who died spring of 2008, spoke only once of the “affection” he and Johns had of each other; Johns never spoke of their relationship at all. The two went their separate ways by 1963 and never spoke to each other again.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Post-War Culture in America



After the Second World War, the art world was characterized by “triumphalism” in New York and a feeling of having won, not just a military war but also a cultural war. The French and their School of Paris had been routed. Also defeated was American Scene painting and its nativist illustrations of a naïve nation. Now, the triumphant society would be represented by works of art that expressed America metaphorically, through sheer size or potent symbols. American art, like American culture, was a global phenomenon with New York at its core. There were “secondary” and usually ignored centers in the Midwest (Chicago) and on the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco), but New York seized the lead, consolidating major art critics, major artists, major art dealers, and major art nstitutions, from museums to art departments, and, perhaps most important of all—important art collectors. Until the 1970s, this scene was the site of rival movements, co-existing and reacting dialectically—Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Pop Art, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, Op Art, and so on, until the great seventies dissolve into incoherent Pluralism. It can be said that, after Abstract Expressionism, most of these movements defined and positioned themselves against the aging artists of the New York School and their continuation of the European tradition.

This cacophony of movements was presided over by art critics and art historians who wrote for a small number of magazines that fulfilled the function of legitimation and validation of artists, their art reputations and careers. As a financial town, New York provided the support system willing to invest in contemporary art, but only the art went through the system of approval from what Arthur Danto called “the art world.” Danto and the aesthetician, George Dickie, conceived of the “institutional theory of art,” meaning that “art” was designated, not on an aesthetic basis, but upon the basis of institutional acceptance. From Neo-Dada onwards, the traditional definition of art was in a state of crisis, brought on by the acceptance of Marcel Duchamp’s alternative concepts of art.

Instead of an attractive object, characterized by “taste,” a work of art was a concept. Instead of an artist who worked with hands and heart, the creator was a conceptualist who conceived of art as language. Far more challenging than Duchamp’s insistence that art should be put “in the service of the mind,” was the logical consequences of Dada’s new artistic freedom. If art was a thought manifested by an arbitrarily found object, then any item from the world outside of the confines of fine art could be termed “art.” Once “art” announced itself with its significant presence, its beauty, its grandeur, its profound intentions, by the Sixties, Danto pondered the difference between a “real” Brillo box and a Brillo box by Andy Warhol.

What is the difference between a mural sized field of glorious color titled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950), a painting hanging on the wall, where it belongs, and Monogram (1955) a stuffed goat with a tire girdling its middle, standing proudly on a canvas, laid down like a “field” on the floor? The gap between the two is the distance between generations, the gulf between America before and after World War II. What happened during the fifties and the sixties to produce such a schism between the nobility of “Man, heroic and sublime” and the ignobility of an abandoned goat, straddling a painted arena, where the heroic artist once did battle with the forces of art and tradition?

The Fifties seemed to be Clement Greenberg’s nightmare of popular culture come true, with the invasion of kitsch—Rauschenberg’s goat and stuffed chickens in the museum just one room away from the abstract purity of Newman’s absolute spiritual state. Life had invaded art in a most unexpected way. Newman’s piece is all about the human spirit at its most glorified, idealized, spiritualized form. Rauschenberg’s work is about life, the quotidian, the overlooked, the ignored. But life in all its inglorious aspects, Rauschenberg is asserting, is worthy of our attention. The distance between Newman and Rauschenberg is the long delayed consideration of Duchamp’s challenge to high art and all its serious pretensions. Instead of the involvement of gesture, we have the detachment of gesture. Instead of the triumph of art, we have the success of art’s acceptance of anything and everything as art.

The ground was fertile for the ideas of Duchamp by the 1950s because of the need to debunk Abstract Expressionism and because of the commercial success of American art. The burgeoning demand allowed the artists scope and freedom to defy rather than to extend and re-define tradition. The success of American art was inseparable from the tragedy of Jackson Pollock. Pollock took a deep breath about 1947 and managed to hold it and his life together for about three years. During this dry spell, Pollock produced some of the most sublime images of the century, and then willfully, capriciously, childishly, he exhaled. His life’s breath drifted out and his art drifted away, and one August night in 1956, Pollock drove his car into a tree, killing himself and a passenger. Great story. American art now had its martyr. The New York School now had its Grand Récit, complete with the tragic arc. Greenberg would recall Pollock’s “run” of about ten years, leaving behind a cult of personality and a Studio full of relics and a keeper of the flame, “the art widow,” Lee Krasner.

In order for the art world to move on, this hagiography had to be combatted. Piece by piece the vaunted characteristics of Abstract Expressionism would be attacked and discredited and discarded, and by the Eighties, the movement was consigned to a Modernist history. Ironically, the “triumph” of the New York School was immediately followed by the challenge of Neo-Dada. Neo-Dada eschewed originality for appropriation, bringing the jewel in the crown of modernism—creativity—to an end. It is here that Modernism ends and Postmodern begins. The art world’s continuing challenges to Modernism and its defenders, Clement Greenberg and his followers, would be expanded to that of a critique of Enlightenment and all that it had wrought. That critique was Postmodernism. Postmodernism was a re-examination of Modernism and was based in philosophy and literary theory, rather than in the visual arts or aesthetics. Therefore, postmodernism could not generate a style or a movement.

As a philosophical critique, postmodernism or post-structuralism was a European phenomenon, dating from the decade of the mid to late Fifties to Sixties. Fueled by the collapse of the Left, following “May, 1968” in France, postmodernism was a re-reading of Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that had proved inadequate to the challenges of the Twentieth Century. In Germany, postmodernism was really a form of post-Marxism, again, generated by the inadequacy of traditional Marxism to social and cultural changes, especially mass media. As an exercise of re-examination, postmodernism took the stance of “belatedness,” everything had already been done, all had been said, and the kind of historical progress promised by the Enlightenment was unlikely to occur.

For years, most Americans in the art world paid little attention to postmodern theories, whether out of philosophy or literary theory. The reason for this neglect are various and include American self-satisfaction with the leadership position in visual culture, the slowness of translation, and the entrenchment of traditional art historical methods. When Americans became aware of the significance of postmodern thinking in the 1980s, most of the important works had either been written or were well underway. Suddenly belated, American art could only try to respond and to catch up to European thinking. The visual arts shifted into “theory” and language and philosophy, as artists began to critique Modernist art and to reject or re-examine its precepts.

With the occasional exception excluding women and people of color, the post-war art world was an all male, all white enclave. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s challenged the art world and revealed the racism and the sexism that favored the production of white men. After the Stonewall Uprising in 1968 and especially after AIDS, the gay and lesbian community also demanded more visibility. Coincidentally or not, postmodernism became prominent in America during the Reagan presidency, which was characterized by attempts to roll back the gains of women and people of color and by neglect of the AIDS epidemic. Because postmodernism re-reads traditions of the past, it is an inherently conservative study, re-examining the work of white males, mostly dead. That said, “theory,” especially post-Marxist theory provided women, gays and lesbians, and people of color a theoretical basis to challenge the more reactive elements of postmodern theory.

For the visual arts the consequences were profound: there was freedom and anarchy and lack of a center. Without an avant-garde, postmodern artists seemed doomed to reactiveness to the past. But folded into the postmodern period, were Late Enlightenment adaptations of social theories, co-existing with postmodern assertions that revolution was now impossible. The so-called “minorities” had the tools to resist the hegemony of the status quo. The question that begs to be asked is, if late modernism and postmodernism co-mingle, when did postmodernism begin or when did modernism end? The answer depends upon where you are, which culture you come from—the Sixties in Europe, the Eighties in America—in terms of response to Enlightenment philosophy. But if one uses another criteria, “the postmodern condition,” then the shift is more cultural, rooted in mass media, and therefore global. This “condition” that is Postmodernism is a post-war response to the loss of mastery and the disillusionment in a disenchanted world.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]



Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part Two

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The Abstract Expressionist artists translated “meaning” from subject matter to the broader and deeper intent of the word. For these artists, “meaning” had to be profound and transcendent so that art could rise above the rather minor role it played during the Thirties as handmaiden to politics. But first, this group of local New York artists had to go through the process of being schooled by the European masters. As mentioned in earlier posts on this website, what was interesting about this apprenticeship was not what was accepted by what was rejected by the New York School. As the critic Harold Rosenberg later explained it in 1972,

“The legacy that New York artists inherited from Paris consisted of the tradition of overthrow of unlimited formal experimentation and parody and fragments of radical ideas. It was on the basis of the consciousness of loss and renunciation of support by the past that a new creative principle was sought by the New York painters.”

The famous expatriate teacher from Germany, Hans Hofmann, presented a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and the works of Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. The abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and the Surrealist techniques of André Masson and Matta were promising but the American artists proceeded cautiously. In addition, they were also wary of abstract or decorative art as being empty.

The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning. The artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence. Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns. Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica (1937) was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion and was shown in the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War. Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. Picasso used the visual language of Cubism and the metaphorical approach of Surrealism and adapted fragmentation and dream to the nightmare of total war.

For each artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement, the journey towards a new, modern and universal meaning had to take them through a journey that cut a path through an American tradition of realism and a European tradition of post-Cubist and post-Expressionsit art. Jackson Pollock denied the folk ways of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton and traveled through a flirtation with Surrealist automatic writing married to vaguely understood Jungian theories. Lee Krasner, the most promising young artist in New York, moved away from her mentors Hoffmann and Mondrian towards a cautious abstraction of her own. Franz Kline shifted his attention from industrial landscapes to the possibilities of making a painting from brushstrokes alone. These, and other odysseys, were slow and sometimes painful and happened over a decade marked by the Second World War.

In order for the experience of a painting to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned. One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Piet Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was at the same time balanced and infinite. But to the American artists, seeking a way out of European modernism, Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked the kind of American spontaneity and improvisation expressed in jazz. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content when compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image, spread all over the surface, implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, as in the way Mondrian brought black lines and primary colors to the end of the canvas.

But the key break from European art was the departure from easel painting for an exploration of the possibilities of mural painting. On a mural scale, the viewer’s peripheral vision could be engaged, rendering a centered composition irrelevant. Part of this severance from old traditions was a paradoxical return to artistic elements that were primal or, as the favorite term of the times expressed it, “primitive.” It was the atavistic that allowed the New York artists to assert their American ways through Native American art. The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb came the closest to understanding the essence of Native American culture. During the Forties, the artist placed inscrutable symbolic forms within a grid with the conviction that symbolic language preceded written language. Unnatural culture was an interruption or an interference with a more universal language. In the same period, Pollock investigated the possibilities of Native American art in paintings such as She Wolf (1943). Art should be able to communicate on the Jungian level of the collective unconscious. As Gottlieb stated,

“If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for the niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”

By the Fifties, as American art took a leading role in international visual culture, Abstract Expressionist art and artists took up new positions in society and new roles in the making of culture. Mythically, the artist became a medium between the mute public and the expression of the need of ordinary people to express their fears and longings. The artist, as a human being, was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of self discovery. The writings of André Breton suggested that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event for the viewer rather than an intellectual act of perception. The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.” This ego-oriented art put the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves. The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As Robert Hobbs pointed out in Abstract Expressionism. The Formative Years, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The painters also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950) by Barnett Newman measured 96 x 216 inches, stretching out horizontally, creating a journey for the overwhelmed viewer who paused here and there at the “zips.” But for Newman, this transit was not simply an aesthetic one but a moral and ethical one as well.

“The self, ” he said, “terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting and sculpture…The artist emphatically does not create form. The artist expresses in a work of art an aesthetic idea which is innovate and eternal.”

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint, followed by the question of what to paint at the time of the end of painting. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]



Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part One

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Content

To work as an artist in New York City during the 1940s was to work in what the Chinese curse called “interesting times. The Abstract Expressionist artists of the New York School struggled to make art during a catastrophic world war while the entire nation was engulfed in the effort to preserve and protect democracy. For the past decade, during the 1930s, art had been socially conscious and politically activist and its illustrative approach was well-suited to conveying informative content to the public in the Depression period. The efforts of the government to bringing art to the people through New Deal public mural projects elevated the overall national awareness of art and these local murals focused on the task of recounting history through visual culture. But the events of the Second World War implied that art might have a new role–to express a collective consciousness that transcended any one nation or any one location.

As the result of unprecedented world events, a war for civilization itself, art now had a serious role and a high purpose. Likewise the artist had a serious role and a high purpose. The social responsibility of the artist was nothing less than the renewal of art itself. The spiritual responsibility of the artist was to translate the felt experience of his or her time into art. The Abstract Expressionist artists lived through the Depression and the Second World War. For them, content and the aesthetic values of art were important, as opposed to the literary component or the illustrative role of representational traditional art so beloved by Americans. Their social consciousness raised by the Depression, these artists asked, not just what should I paint but more importantly why should I paint? What was the existential reason for making art? Moving away from the American Regionalists and from the Social Realists, these new painters turned from representation and looked towards a more ancient and more archaic form of human expression: myth. They scorned the Modernism that had become an academic European art for a collective experience in atavistic symbol making, using the “primitive” and the “primeval” as sources of inspiration for a new art in newly terrible times. The response of a group of artists in New York City to the perceived crisis in subject matter was a new way of making art and new way of seeing a painting.

Abstract Expressionism re-defined subject matter in that time of a crisis in subject matter–how to make an art that expressed an era in crisis? Art had been caught between specific content—representational art and and art that had no content but formal content–totally abstract art. But as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko stated in 1943, “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject matter is crucial…” The Abstract Expressionist artists were concerned with ancient myth and primitive art as way to question an insular European tradition and to show their opposition to Social Realism and American Scene painting. Seeking a profundity that would respond to the shift in mood, Newman and Rothko were particularly interested in the tradition of tragedy from ancient Greek myth. The role that myth played in the painting of Jackson Pollock has been debated and discussed among art historians for decades, and it seems likely that the artist picked up on the zeitgeist and used mythic themes in his art of the last thirties and early forties, such as She Wolf (1943). That said, Pollock dropped the crutch of myth as his subject matter and moved towards exploring new ways of making the act of painting itself the content of painting. Painting was seen as the elimination of past traditions to clear the way to return to primal means of expression. The artists, alienated from society, attempted to devise a new language for mythic thought, a language that was non-discursive, expressing the deep truth of myth.

Indeed, the Abstract Expressionist artists also had to establish their own territory in New York City. Pollock is often given the credit for a “breakthrough,” as Willem de Kooning expressed it, or a breaking away from European art. But, for the New York artists, the process of discarding a tradition had to begin with the reexamination of Modernism. To counter the American Modernism of the aging Alfred Stieglitz and his venerable circle of painters, who tended to be representational and local, the younger artists looked to the waning styles and movements of European art to see what they could salvage. The American artists were less interested in the theories and philosophies of Dada and Surrealism and were more interested in the possibilities of Dada’s use of chance and displacement and in the neutral and innovative practices of automatism they learned from Surrealism. The task was to wrest chance from the idea of “anti-art” and to appropriate automatic writing to the practice of painting, as seen in the work of Joan Miró, in order to apply a hybrid mix of old ideas to make new art.

For Mark Rothko, the goal was to eliminate figuration and to retain his vertical zones of stacked content. During the 1940s, Rothko shunned the dream content of Surrealism in favor of multiple floating areas of color roaming a raw canvas. For some artists, such as Jackson Pollock, the work of art was understood as a “duration,” supported by the “directness” of art. Art was an act, a process that proceeded over a period of contemplative thought and active making. Derived from the “automatic writing” of Surrealism, Pollock’s “drip technique” shifted the content of art from an illustrated scene to an abstract kinetic process captured on his unprimed canvas and sealed beneath skeins of paint. For other artists, such as Robert Motherwell, abstraction could be used to express the lingering sorrow over the failure of the Spanish Republic. The hanging pendulous black figures slung against the raw blank white background of Motherwell’s Elegy series evoke the black and white ethos of an era of great sadness and loss. After not painting for years, Barnett Newman took up art again and began a remarkable and long-lasting series of “zip” paintings, in which, acting like a god, he cleaved the whole of his canvas into two separable worlds of color. Onement I of 1948 is a statement of oneness and division made by a Holocaust survivor. “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone,” he stated, “as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”

Each Abstract Expressionist artist had his or her own way of creating a unique expression for the post-war era. Abstract Expressionism re-defined the purpose of art from Social Consciousness to Human Consciousness, stressing the universal instead of particular. The artistic and conceptual gulf between illustrative nationalist art practiced by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and art that communicated through the collective unconscious of Jungian myth is vast and deep and unbridgeable. Abstract Expressionism marks the transition from lack of subject matter—abstract art—to abstract content with “meaning” as concept. Meaning is to be Felt rather than spoken or directly explained. Art as Experience became one of the defining characteristics of Abstract Expressionism.

Art must be a response to modern life and thus, in order to move forward into the next half of the broken century, the New York School rejected the exhausted European tradition of Modernism in favor of a tradition more universal. Willem de Kooning whose birth city of Rotterdam was pulverized by Nazi bombers renounced figuration and began creating layers of shards of crashed paint, enhanced by painful attempts at rudimentary drawing. The Dutch artist alternatively built and destroyed, constructed and excavated a series of mid-sized paintings that he was notoriously reluctant to finish as if no reconstruction would suffice. As can be seen, the shift into totally abstract art brought formal elements and formal innovation to the fore as artistic statements to create a new way for art to communicate on a more profound level. Adolph Gottlieb was deeply concerned with the state of the post-war world. As a fortunate individual who had survived the Holocaust by dint of being an American, he spoke eloquently of the times he lived in:

The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.

The search for the atavistic roots of art led to a return to an almost Ur manner of painting. The painters ended traditional European play between line and color by combining the two, thereby eliminating relationships among elements as content, such as seen in Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. The act of painting was stripped down to its essence—marking the canvas and covering an expanse with colors. Once the idea of composition was pushed aside, Mark Rothko’s great fields of morphing colors obliterated the division between line and shape, implying a spreading atmosphere rather than a bounded easel painting. Franz Kline swept large swarths of black paint crashing into chunks of white paint in an expression of clash and combat so characteristic of the era of the warrior. What was left on the canvas was the artist’s experience—the marks of his making. He explained,

There is imagery. Symbolism is a difficult idea. I’m not a symbolist. In other words, these are painting experiences. I don’t decide in advance that am going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me.

Over time, the mere mark of the artist, his touch, the slash of the loaded paint brush was the total content of the painting. The personality of the artist replaced figurative content and the cult of the artist replaced tragic meaning or universal truths. To critics, such as Harold Rosenberg, the physical action of the artists’ mark-making was sufficient in and of itself for the art to become an “act.” Rosenberg’s American Action Painters of 1952 recreated painting as an existential act, the sole means of existence in a world without God. A 1948 statement by Barnett Newman: “Terror can only exist if the forces of tragedy are unknown” was replaced by the idea that painting was revelation, a revelation of the artist. The critical shift, seen best in the formalist approach of Clement Greenberg, can be seen as a political neutralization of Abstract Expressionism, removing the artist’s personal convictions and replacing individual feeling with pigment in motion. Following the frightening hostility towards left-wing intellectuals during the MacCarthy era, Greenberg preferred and supported the (apparently) apolitical work of Pollock, and the anti-war messages of Gottlieb’s Blast and Burst series of the sixties were out of step with the increasing (Greenbergian) critical need to separate art from the conflicts of the Cold War.

By making the artist himself (women were usually not included in the ranks of the New York School) the content, Abstract Expressionism became more formal in its content and the very real need of many of the artists to come to grips with the tragedies of their century was covered over by a new discourse of “American triumphalism” over European Modernism. To come full circle, in 2009, the art historian Irving Sandler recently published his own reevaluation of his 1970 history of Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation. The period during which Abstract Expressionist artists were struggling with the problem of how to express an entirely unprecedented historical content was a complex one, fraught with political peril, roiled by critical rivalries, and marked by rival artistic camps. A balance between the intentions of the varied group of disparate artists and the need of historians to define movements can perhaps be reached, but before we can get to that point, we need to have a fuller view of the landscape.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]