Jacques Lacan and Women

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART SIX: LACAN AND WOMEN

Throughout this series on the teachings of Jacques Lacan, I have noted several times that his terms must not be taken literally. The Masculine Order does not signify “men” or “males,” but the Symbolic Order or language and the Feminine, likewise, is not “women” or “females,” but the inarticulateness of the real. The Phallus is likewise a signifier that both joins the masculine and the feminine and acts as a function of difference or becomes the mask of sexual difference. But the Phallus is not merely or only abstract,the Phallus is also part of the physical and is linked to sexual jouissance. The linking can take place because sexuality and sexual desire is deeply rooted in fantasies of desire (for the Mother) that have faded and have become lost over time and are unrecoverable, except symbolically as signified by the Phallus.

As the complexity of the meaning of the “Phallus” implies, Lacan’s thinking on the organ/not-organ evolved over decades—as was his habit—and is marked with traces of his struggle to wrest the Phallus from Freudian biology and to place it, in all its erectile glory, in the abstract symbolic. The centrality of the Phallus is not just a problem for Lacan, for his interpreters, it is also a problem for the 21st century woman, who following the women who read Lacan in the 2oth century, can only wonder, if the Phallus is symbolic of the Symbolic Order, why must the Symbolic Order or Language be represented by an über-penis? why is Desire ordered and organized around this phallic entity? As Lacanian scholar Luce Irigaray wondered, if the Mother is/was the origin of all Desire and the unspoken real, why not the vagina or why not an Economy of the breast? The simple answer is that Lacan spent his lifetime re-telling the tales of the patriarchy as re-told by Freud.

In reading Lacan, it is striking how phallic and aggressive his word choice is, indeed, his entire analysis of the socialization of the human subject is not a story of loving nurturance but one of sexual jealously and dramatic renunciation. Lacan combined Ferdinand de Saussure with Sigmund Freud or language and sexuality with ideas of being and existence, an interesting intellectual game, but, whatever the intent, the effect is to privilege the male and male violence and to write off the female by placing the Feminine in the realm of the non-speaking. The result of the Lacanian “family romance,” while stripped of its Freudian biological roots, is still the same and mirrors the actual male dominance over the female in actual society and has the effect of reinforcing the genderization of the Master/Slave dialectic.

Within the Lacanian system, Woman cannot be; she cannot exist. Within Lacanian thinking, women are merely the sign of difference, and if women are merely the relation of difference, they are excluded from subjectness or subjecthood. While speaking against “mastery,” Lacan not only masters Woman/women but renders them as the Other or the always-already Other which exists for the masculine subject. But this Otherness of women is a minor one and is less than the status of the Symbolic Other to the Symbolic One or the (non)subject. Women cannot even exist as the Other, as Simone de Beauvoir asserted in The Second Sex,

…she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. However, like Freudian thought, Lacanian theory eliminates women, real women, from meaningful participation in society. The theory of Lacan by way of Freud, according to feminists, is nothing more than a ruse for a male voiced or “monologic” “elaboration” of the masculine. The feminine is silenced as the site of plurality, multiplicity, and subversion of the Masculine order, part of the real that resists symbolization. Women, as Difference, have always been excluded from universality, which is always the male who are assumed to transcend the local.

jacques_lacan_031-2

Jacques Lacan as a Young Man

As Lacan explained, the “male way” of jouissance or pleasure precluded any relationship with the female. The male subject is everything: l’homme comme tout. What the male desires is not the specific female but the objet a or the original missing love object that can never be recovered but is identified by Slavoj Zizek as the “Mother-Thing.” Feminist philosopher, Monique Wittig called for the destruction of “sex”or gender differentiation so that women could assume the status of the universal being. Feminist scholars point out that Lacan, like Freud, privileged vision and created a specular system or a system that is deeply scopophilic and voyeuristic. The (boy) child discovers his mother’s (Freudian) castration or (Lacanian) Lack through vision, through looking. He sees that, because the mother does not have the penis which is the appendage necessary to carry authority, therefore, the mother is less than the male. Without definition or meaning in her own right, she is defined by her Lack of a phallus/penis/power. The (child’s) eye has mastered/seen the Mother/object and has reduced her to insignificance.

Notice that the child has already learned–or the male theorist has already assumed–that the female must be “seen” only “in relation” or in comparison to the male. For Lacan, they eyes are the source of the scopic drive, the access through which the libido explores the world by projecting itself on the world. Love reduces the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing and controlling the object. Male/female relationships are organized around the inevitable sadism of Displaced desire in which the Other is reduced to a submissive non-entity and the masochism in which one offers oneself as an object for the other. For Lacan, sexuality, based upon a differential structure, is an assignment and is confined within the structure of the language. To illustrate the ” assignment,” Lacan produced his famous image of restroom doors, one labeled: “Ladies” and the other “Gentlemen.” Just as the doors are labeled, human beings are also labeled or differentiated, their social identities imposed from the outside, assigned to them through the operation of the Law which is Symbolic. Gender may exist as a biological effect, but sex is a social construct and an effect of dominance and subordination and sadism and masochism.

Although the Phallus is put forward as the supreme signifier, its supremacy is fraudulent, it is a mask. The Phallus depends upon its power only through the subjection of the other. But, in truth, we are all castrated. Our place in the patriarchal system is secured at the price of a Loss and our adult life is one of deferred consequences of the repressions instituted by the rule of symbolic patriarchal law. Women might well ask, why not an economy of loss and gain based upon the vagina? But if one follows the logic of Lacan, a vaginal economy would be impossible. Lacan based his psychology on the specular, on the sight of the woman’s “lack” of the Phallus/penis. The vagina exists but cannot be seen. Therefore, the specular order functions only in terms of the seen or visuality. It is not that women don’t possess sexual organs; it is that the organ is not “present” in the sense of being “present/ed” to the viewer.

For years Courbet was in possession of a painting thought lost, Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet. This famous painting was kept hidden and shrouded by a wooden sliding door (decorated with a outline carving of the painting by André Masson), which was pulled aside when the doctor “presented” the painting of a woman’s genitalia to the viewer (male or theoretically female). As Courbet’s painting Origin of the World suggested, the vagina was to be presented under ceremonial circumstances. The viewpoint of the female genitalia is purely that of the spectator: the woman who presumably owns or possesses the organs cannot see that which define her. She is blind to her own sex. The painting of the female vagina by a male, whether by Courbet of anyone else, is an act of not only claiming and defining but also one of radical voyeuristic visualization of the terrifying mystery of Lack. In addition to the literal concealment during Lacan’s ownership, there is the veil of pubic hair which frames the labia, which in turn covers the feared “hole,” that Lacanian theory defined as the Lack.

In contrast to the unseeable Lack, the penis/Phallus is easily located, readily regarded, and is always available to view. The man can see his organ without difficulty. From the standpoint of visual culture, the absence of the woman’s present organ explains the intense male curiosity about the female “sex.” Given the supposed cultural power of the Phallus, it is curious that the penis, its signifier, perhaps in order to preserve its mystique, is kept socially hidden from view. The culture gives the penis a discourse of variety: large, small, long, short, fat, thin, dark, light and so on. To the contrary, the culture seems to assume a “universal” vagina, as though all vaginas are the same, unified by their Lack. Oddly enough, the endless variation of penises is spoken but rarely seen outside of pornography, while the female body is constantly on view while being constantly subjected to uniformity through surgical engineering to ensure sameness. Within this specular system, the woman is denied individuality and must correspond to an abstract vision of herself or be cast out of the visual culture. As Lacan said,

Besides, it isn’t the penis, but the Phallus, that is to say, something whose symbolic usage is possible because it can be seen, because it is erected. There can by no possible symbolic use for what is not seen, for what is hidden…Strictly speaking, there is no symbolization of the woman’s sexual organ as such..The feminine sexual organ has the character of an absence, a void, a hole…

The Phallus is the only theorizable sexual organ, therefore, according to Lacan, the Phallus is only “trivially masculine.” The Phallus is the theory of what is given, what one has, what exists, while the vagina symbolizes what one does not have, a Lack, a Loss or that which does not exist or lies outside of theory. However, Lack and Loss are the very reasons for Desire. Men are energized by the threat of castration (Lack) and live uneasily within a phallocentric message that intimidates men and forces them to enter into rivalry with those who seem to possess more Phallus/power. As for women, Lacan’s theories canceled out women. “Woman” is merely an endless sequence of projections and fabrications emanating from the male discourse. Lacan displayed wonder that the female orgasm even existed and that the woman’s ability to orgasm is situated beyond the Phallus.

For Lacan, there is never a sexual “relationship,” because in their inequality, men and women cannot relate. Each partner plays the role of Subject to the other’s Object. There is never symmetry or reciprocity. The female body scarcely exists (except as Lack). Women have little to do and nothing to say. They can “become equal” only to men, because only men exist. If women do not exist, then who or what is that we see? Lacan, who readily incorporated the the ideas of others, stated that the woman is a masquerade. The idea of “womanliness as a masquerade” was not Lacan’s idea, but that of Joan Riviérè who wrote her famous essay in 1929 in response to a 1927 paper by Freudian follower, Ernest Jones. According to Sean Homer in his book, Jacques Lacan, Riviérè wanted to present a woman more modern, an intellectual woman, into a world of male psychoanalysts who had not considered such a being. The result was her 1929 essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”

According to Riviérè, women who possess intellectual abilities and aspirations must, in the early 20th century, be aspiring to “masculinity,” and such a Promethean act would arouse anxiety within the male. This disruption of male dominance would be so great that men would resort to retribution against the offender. Therefore, women wish for masculinity but wear a mask of womanliness as an expression of the resolution of aggression and conflict. The masquerade averts anxiety and retribution from men. The fear that women have of men can be traced back to the family–her fantasy of taking the place of a man, the Father. For Lacan, the woman is a sign-object, a item of exchange, and, for Riviérè, when a woman speaks in public, acting as a lecturer or in any public way, she feels fear. Not only do men not welcome the voice of a woman, she is also but a castrated subject within the language.

The solution to this fear and the possible retribution from the male is the Masquerade. Riviérè draws an analogy between the woman and the homosexual, both of whom are required to wear masks: an exaggeration of “femininity” is a masquerade for women who wish for masculinity as their identification and the “masculinity” of a homosexual hides from others his “femininity” by an exaggeration of masculinity. The masquerade is central to the creation of a womanliness that men will accept. Ironically it is this art form of disguise through mimicry that authenticates this inauthentic womanliness. Because the entire discourse of sexuality circulates around the needs of the male, femininity is a mask for men. The reassuring mask resolves the crisis of masculine identification by allowing men to define themselves in relation to what they are not: women. In fact, as Lacan stated, “Woman does not exist.” To express the non-existence of an element that must, nevertheless, be spoken of, woman, like Being is put under sous rature. The Woman does not exist.

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 and Meaning

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The American artists had early training from Modernist masters in New York City that prepared the ground with the abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and with Surrealist ideas and techniques of André Masson and Matta. The famous expatriate teacher, Hans Hofmann, taught 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 through the works of Pablo 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. On the other hand, they were also wary of decorative art as being empty. The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning.

Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica, 1937 was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion of for 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. The Abstract Expressionist 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.

With Abstract Expressionism, art and artists took up new positions and roles. The artist as a human being was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of discovery. The writings of André Breton were of help by suggesting 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 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 puts 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 art historian, Robert Hobbs, pointed out, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The artists also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. The painting becomes the universe and universal. But in order for the experience 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 Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was also balanced. But Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked spontaneity. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content. Compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, just as the way in which Mondrian brought black lines and colors to the end of the canvas.

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint. 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]

 

The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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

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

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Podcast 40 Painting 6: Art In New York

Modernism in New York City

Why and How did the impetus for Modernist painting move from Paris to New York? This podcast traces the historical and artistic reasons that resulted in New York becoming the center of avant-garde painting the Fifties. The presence of the European exiles in the city, the availability of innovative art in the Museum of Modern Art, and the sense that European modernism was exhausted combined to give rise to a new school of art called The New York School or the Abstract Expressionism.

 

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

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