Michael West: The Artist was a Woman

MICHAEL WEST: PAINTINGS FROM THE FORTIES TO THE EIGHTIES

ART RESOURCE GROUP

Newport Beach

June 5 – September 25, 2010

The Fifties. According to Gore Vidal, the worst decade in the history of the world—unless, of course, you happened to be white, male, heterosexual and an artist. For the American artist with the appropriate characteristics, it was the best of times. The Second World War left the United States in a position of dominance, militarily, politically, and, thanks to decades of conservatism in Paris, artistically in the lead. The art scene and the art market migrated from Paris to New York; and New York, as Serge Guilbaut stated, “stole the idea of modern art.” Operating out of the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, the new American artist had to shake off the “feminine” qualities of being an artist. Sensitivity and intuition were replaced by a strident masculinity, reflecting the military posturing of the Cold War era. Women who were artists were not welcomed in this male dominated arena where tough, ugly, alcoholic men like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline belched and bellowed like bull elephants. Harold Rosenberg wrote of “art as act” and imagined the (male) artist as a modern gladiator bringing himself into being through the act of creation. Females could create only through motherhood. Women were girlfriends, mistresses, wives, groupies, or all three. Some were allowed to have the privilege of being patrons and collectors, like Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. This is the world of Michael West, one of the best artists of Abstract Expressionism. Present at the beginning of the New York School, she was relegated to the footnotes and left behind by art history, all because she was a “she.” To be forgotten was the fate of female artists from the Fifties, the worst of times for women.

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Michael West in 1948

Although best known as the reputed girlfriend of Arshile Gorky, whose legend overshadowed her, Michael West was, in fact, one of the stronger women of the New York School. Unlike Lee Krasner, who reacted to Jackson Pollock, she never allowed Gorky to impact upon her art, unlike Elaine de Kooning, she never made the mistake of marrying a colleague and taking his name. As a result of her independence, the art of West remained true to her own vision and she continued to develop and evolve even after her untimely stroke in 1976. West bravely continued to paint until her death in 1991. The way in which she continued to make art, undeterred by the chauvinism and bigotry against women, undismayed by the way in which critics and dealers ignored women artists, and un-swayed from her course by her marriage to combat photographer, Francis Lee, resembles the career of Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler married into the New York School when she became the wife of Robert Motherwell; but her art continued to be sponsored by the smitten art critic, Clement Greenberg. Thanks to him, Frankenthaler would be knitted into the critical fabric of modernism. With little support from critics and dealers, like most women, like West would be left out of the modernist meta narrative. Finally, in the twenty-first century, the artists who were the historical actors in the art world are being, slowly but surely, replaced in the history of art.

It is often overlooked in the circles of art history, that art dealers are on the front lines of primary research, and it is to Miriam Smith and Nora Desruisseaux of the Art Resource Group that much credit is due in bringing Michael West to the attention of the art world. Located in Irvine, the Group deals with the secondary market in art, handling estates and bringing to light artists who need to be remembered. A striking full page in the summer issue of Art in America announced their full scale show of Michael West’s work. West was born in 1908, a year after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon changed the course of modern art. Her original name was “Corrine,” and it was under this name that she began a career as an actor. Photographs taken of her in the style of Edward Steichen show a beautiful woman, her face glowing in the key light. Later photographs reveal that she never lost that sophisticated beauty and sense of elegant style, which must have beguiled Arshile Gorky, the Armenian immigrant painter. As though the event was the closing act of the theater chapter of her life, there was a brief marriage to an actor, quickly over. An unusually ambitious and determined woman for the period, West simply started all over again.

A talented pianist and gifted poet, she had many possibilities before her, but she chose to become a painter. Few women would have gambled in a career in the arts during the Depression, much less go to New York. But she was one of the first students of the new European refugee, Hans Hofmann, at the Art Students League in New York. In 1932, West was joined by artist, Lee Krasner, sculptor Louise Nevelson, and future gallery owner, Betty Parsons, during a period when women were tolerated in an art world devoid of prizes and competition. Undoubtedly Hofmann would have preferred to teach men, but as a newcomer to America, he needed the students. Hofmann was an autocrat, equaled perhaps only by Joseph Albers who was to arrive later. Both were known for bringing European ideas to America and for teaching a combination of Cubism and German Expressionism. Albers was fascinated with color and mixed media, bringing the idea of collage and assemblage to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Hofmann remained a total painter, combining the structure of Analytic Cubism with the color play and expressive brushwork of Der Blaue Reiter. The impact the conservative Cubism of the Twenties shows clearly in his work, reflecting his belatedness to the pre-war avant-garde. But his combination of avant-garde styles was part of the prevailing ethos of the art market in Europe where the collectors wanted the “look of” the radical but nothing actually innovative.

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Michael West. Poet With a Brown Hat (1941)

Being of the post-avant-garde generation made Hofmann the ideal candidate to transport European studio talk and German art theory to the New York artists. Clement Greenberg, a fledgling writer, learned the aesthetic discourse at the master’s feet and would translate it into his theory of Modernism. Although Hofmann’s students started out together, they would show little loyalty to each other. Krasner, once so promising, would give up her career to support Pollock. Betty Parsons would run a gallery that excluded women. Working under Hofmann’s strong willed dogmas, West quickly caught on to the basic lessons of post-war Cubism, which incorporated the multiple viewpoints of Analytic Cubism with the large colored shapes of collage but replicated everything in paint. The women trained by Hofmann would have been well ahead of their male counterparts, none of whom were his direct students. When Krasner introduced her lover to Hofmann, the older and more experienced artist famously warned Pollock to work from nature, rather than depend upon his personality. Offended, Pollock insisted arrogantly, “I am nature.”

Like Pollock, West rejected Hofmann and left this breeding ground for new American art. Her reasons were different from Pollock. Hofmann was too domineering and his patriarchal ways did not sit well with the independent American women. In 1934, she began studying under the American Modernist, Raphael Soyer, who seems to have left little trace on her mature work. What did leave a mark on her life was an introduction to a man who had reinvented himself as a Russian, Arshile Gorky. Because of his posthumous fame, she would be recast as his “muse,” although at the time she was his equal as an artist. In 1935, she sifted her locale to start her art career outside of New York. To save money, she lived with her parents in Rochester, where she apparently became a bit of a local art star, showing with the Rochester Art Club and lecturing on the current theories of modern art and about “The New American Art.”

This apprenticeship probably served the same purpose as working for the WPA did for other artists—an opportunity to make art and to learn how to be an artist. The sojourn in Rochester would have been an ideal place to develop a career. Here she could get opportunities that would not have come her way in New York, such as a commission to paint fourteen panels for a local production of the Ballet Petrouchka, originally developed by the Ballet Russes for Nijinsky, with music by Igor Stravinsky. Although the ballet was twenty-five years old, in the Thirties, it was still a very modern take on ballet and the fact that the city was supportive of avant-garde theater and hired a modern artist to do the backdrop speaks volumes of the sophistication that could be found in the provinces.

Since their meeting in New York, Gorky was smitten and deluged West with love letters and poems, mostly purloined from the writings Surrealist poet, Paul Eluard. A telegram he sent her in 1936 was probably the most authentic words he wrote to her: “Dear Corrine, Please come to New York for a few days. Let me know when coming, Arshile.” There are intimations that the separation, bridged by letters, had weakened the relationship, as she later explained, “We planned to marry but changed out minds at least 6 times.” Having learned her trade and craft in the visual arts, in 1938, she returned to New York. Whatever the reasons for leaving Rochester, West had come back at a good time. The clock was ticking down on artistic freedom in Europe and in a year, Hitler had overrun the continent. What followed was the greatest intellectual and artistic migration in modern history. Half the greatest minds and talents in Europe arrived in New York and the rest found themselves in Los Angeles. The Surrealist artists from Paris arrived and became a major presence in New York, sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim and shown at her gallery, Art of This Century. For many artists these haughty painters, who refused to speak English, brought with them the key to the next step for abstract art, automatic writing, écriture automatique. But Michael West seemed to be influenced by the Surrealists in that she assimilated the ideas and reshaped them for her own use more than the actual techniques, while she also stayed true to her Cubist roots.

For this second period in New York, West ceased to be “Corrine” and became “Michael,” upon the advice of Gorky. Undoubtedly, his suggestion was based upon the very real prejudice against women, who had a long history “passing” as men: Georges Sand and George Eliot, for example. West went beyond signing her work as a man; and, like Lee Krasner, she used her new name in all aspects of her life. Becoming “Michael” could not obliterate her beauty and men in the art world probably had a hard time forgetting her gender, but West, like all her generation was consumed with the art problem of the day. How could Cubism become abstract? Hofmann remained figurative for years until he made the shift to painting squares of strong vibrating colors, alternatively roughly and smoothly painted. It should be noted, in comparison to the later works by West, that Hofmann tended to be a flat painter. In his earlier works, he wove a thick and active web of broken brushstrokes, which built up his post-Cubist compositions, featuring favorite cubist still life subjects. Later, he further flattened the picture plane and developed his famous “push-pull” effect, which solved the problem of how to keep abstract painting from going dead. The juxtaposed colors vibrated against one another, cool colors receding and warm colors advancing, activating the surface.

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Michael West. Transfiguration (1948)

The decisive move away from her Cubist figuration can be traced from West’s A Girl with a Guitar of 1944 to Harlequin of 1946 to Transfiguration of 1948. The jump to abstraction took two years, but it was not a complete transformation until the Sixties. Like de Kooning, West returned to figuration in the 1950s. What is clear is that she understood the basic lesson of Cubism well: the entire surface had to be activated or what would later be called the “all-over” effect. With Cubism, the problem was to equalize the figure and ground, to reduce all areas of the canvas to a pattern of shattered shapes. Without the armature of the object, the question for abstraction became how or perhaps why to fill the canvas. The solution, which we also see in Pollock of the same period, was to cover the surface with dense biomorphic marks, built up into rhythms of painterly movement—a visual horror vacui. Transfiguration of 1948 demonstrates the same denseness and thickness that would characterize her compromise between geometric Cubism and biomorphic Surrealism. But West was still in the process of becoming. The last years of the decade would be critical for the development of American painting as the artists had to take the final step that would free them from dependence upon European Modernism.

Because we have become so familiar with the history of the American avant-garde in New York, it is important to remember that the scene among the artists was not as clear-cut as it would seem with historical hindsight. In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut recreated the confusion and uncertainty during the late Forties. By the end of the war, representational art disappeared from the galleries, replaced by abstract art. But abstraction was the only certainty. There were pressing questions of the relationship between the European tradition of Modernism and the newly emerged American art. American artists needed and wanted a complete break and sought to create an “American” art. Michael West had been on the forefront of the pioneers who moved forward to create abstract art in an American idiom. However, as a definition of Abstract Expressionism, American avant-garde, American painting emerged, it would be specifically constructed to eliminate certain elements and players, including and especially women.

Politics was removed from art. This removal was part of a rejection of previous art, such as Social Realism and a reaction against wartime fascist propaganda. It was clear to American observers that the French post-war entanglement in politics was harmful to the recovery of their art. In America, there was a conservative reaction against “elitism” and anything that seemed “un-American” such as European based art. Added to the fact that “modern art” became suspect in many quarters was the chilling fear of the coming Cold War and communism. American insularity and hostility to new ideas was on display against the important show of 1946, “Advancing American Art,” a show that traveled to Europe, organized by J. LeRoy Davidson and sponsored by the State Department. Attacked as being “Red Art” made by “left wing artists,” the “travesty of art” was designed to cause “ill will” towards America which would be made to look “ridiculous” by “half-baked lazy people,” who made that “so-called modern art.” An image of Hiroshima by Ben Shahn was singled out for criticism. For any artist who might have qualms about atomic warfare, it would be wise to forego comment, as America apparently quickly became desensitized and brutalized during the war to dropping “the bomb.’ Fortune Magazine’s chilling 1946 account of the dropping of the atomic bombing of Bikini atoll shows either ignorance or fear,

….there is no reason why only one bomb should be dropped at one time. Some bombs might be detonated mainly for blast effects, others underwater to contaminate the whole harbor area. Some military men even foresee the release of clouds of radioactivity without bombs to act as an invisible gas.

Not every observer was so sanguine. By the end of the Forties, West married again to a combat photographer, Francis Lee. It is unclear what impact this marriage to a man who knew war so well had on her opposition to the Cold War, but her horror over what the war had wrought was shared by many artists in New York. This was a generation that had survived the hopelessness of the Depression and the daily fear of defeat by ruthless enemies, only to be faced—after victory, after the peace—with what proved to be a state of permanent war. In an age of total abstraction, when political art or art with any overt content was unwelcomed, many artists had to hide their horror at the continual testing of atomic weapons. Written after American had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese to win the war and after the American government began systematically testing nuclear weapons, one of Michael West’s poems related the plight of the artist in such a dark time:

Rebel March 1948

Black Hands Crowd the Angry Dark
With Tales of Fire Coughing —
Money — genius —
unlimited or even limiter
What a ludicrous price —praying —
Dismantled — disarmed —
the artist in society —suffocates —

During the Sixties, Adolph Gottlieb did a series of paintings, called Burst, an oblique reference to the threat of immanent annihilation. West had also “blasted” her early work, Harlequin, with a dull silver paint, the color of a bomb casing. The spill of paint obliterated the earlier surface, stunning it into submission. This old work was transformed by her Cold War protest, the silver color acting as a metaphor of the Frankenstein effects of technology. Other works of this period show the cultural dis-ease with the Cold War. West’s Nihilism (1949) and Dagger of Light (1951) have titles which predate those of Gottlieb, suggesting a veiled statement, implied but not stated, except in the use of industrial enamel paint splayed across the canvas.

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Michael West. Dagger of Light (1951)

After those splashes of violence, the art of West began to include landscapes and still lives on white ground. Her 1950s return to figuration would have been regarded as tantamount to treason in the New York art world after the hard fought battle for abstraction. De Kooning was roundly attacked for his Woman series of 1952. West joined the Dutch artist in being one of the few who dared to challenge the new orthodoxy. The flurry of brushstrokes in Flowers of 1952 and Road to the Sea of 1955 are an entirely new form of mark making for West. The works of the Forties retain a sense of the biomorphic that is, in and of itself, a signature of the era. The straightened marks, applied individually in a slashing movement prefigured her later mature work and were characteristic of the Fifties. What remains a constant for this return of figuration were the colors of the early abstractions. West was a colorist, a very inventive and subtle one, creating cool in-between tones mixed to unusual hues of thinned out reds and metallic greens. Green is a very difficult color for artists to work with, but West not only mastered the color but also invented a new version of her own: dense and acid with a sense of transparency, pale and dark at the same time. A Coke bottle green. This green appears in Space Poetry of 1956 and Study of 1962. As West wrote,

The future of art lies in color—but I/ am personally interested in an/ effect of dark and light/ The color explains the space/ The more complicated the space/ the simplier the color/ (this sounds wrong—but it is right for me)

The work of West during the decade when the New York School and Abstract Expressionism became the dominant movement in the international art world demonstrates the current aesthetic zeitgeist, on view at The Stable Gallery in 1953. In an homage to the famous Ninth Street Show of 1951, Eleanor Ward invited the best and the brightest in New York, including all the (remaining) artists of Abstract Expressionism, including both de Koonings, Motherwell, some future Pop precursors, Rivers and Rauschenberg, and all the notable women of the scene, Frankenthaler, Bourgeois, Mitchell. West was in this famous exhibition, which was prefaced with an interesting and telling introduction by Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, seeking to make his mark as an art critic, echoed the macho rhetoric of Rosenberg, writing of the “indispensible” “rivalry” among artists. The ironic juxtaposition of the presence of many women in an important exhibition and the masculine rhetoric of the short essay boded ill for the future careers of artists who were women. By 1952, the new artist, according to Harold Rosenberg, was an “action painter,” modeled on a militaristic fantasy, echoing American triumphalism.

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…

Rosenberg continued,

Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating.

So by the time of The Stable Gallery show in 1964, it was already too late for women. Like politics, they were in the process of being written out of art history. The new artist had to be masculinized and Americanized. Stung by accusations of being “left,” the vanguard art world put forward a group of men who were too old or too unfit to fight in the Second World War and who had to be turned into cowboys and fighters. Most importantly the artist had to be depoliticized as well, a feat that was accomplished by elevating “him” to the status of individual, merged with “life” but not with current events. The male artist had to be male in order to symbolize the true subject of modern art: “man.” The independent male individual was alienated—had to be alienated—in order to create transcendent art.

Constructed during an era when men were supposedly suffering from a “crisis in masculinity,” the new American artist became an extreme figure, modeled on Jackson Pollock, a troubled alcoholic. Above all, this male artist must have “freedom.” In contrast, women in the post-war society were shaped for domesticity, were devoted to her husband and family, and were delighted by housework. Without “freedom,” they were unable to open their own bank accounts. Their individuality disappeared under their husband’s names. They were not individuals, but were defined in terms of their family roles. As “wives” and “mothers,” they could not alienated, nor could they ever be independent. This new post-war woman certainly did not even remotely resemble the newly fabricated American artist.

It is necessary to “re-place” Michael West in the history of art, because like all the women of her time, with the possible exception of Frankenthaler, she was written out of the New York School. By Sixties, she had moved back to abstract art, bringing together all she had learned over the past thirty years. Having experimented with avant-garde abstraction and figuration, in the Fifties, she made the choice to stay with her generation and did not attempt to follow figuration into Neo-Dada. She was a woman, and due to her gender, she has been mistakenly located historically as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist artist, but this designation was because the art of women were assumed to be derivative of the work of men.

In fact, West was part of the First Generation and her development during the Forties as an abstract artist paralleled and paced with that of Pollock. He, of course, was given credit for what de Kooning called the “breakthrough,” or the breakaway from the dominance of European art. Her path to abstraction, unlike that of Pollock, was not through the automatic writing of Surrealism, but was through Cubism. Her transition would have been more like that of Mondrian or Malevich, in that she retained the cubist structure; but she utilized the expressive brushwork of Hofmann and broke free of the outlined strong Cubist blocks. Unlike Pollock, she never worked on the field painting scale but she solved the problem he presented in his Mural of 1943-4—how to paint large scale with kinetic strokes over a large expanse of canvas. Unable to work on an easel, Pollock threw an unprimed canvas onto the floor in 1947 and flung paint onto its surface, solving his found problem with a solution found three years later.

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Michael West. Enamel 10 (1960)

West apparently learned that she could work in large brushstrokes with a big paintbrush and keep the canvases to a large scale. She maintained the easel painting tradition, like de Kooning, but, when one measures her canvases, one can see that they were sized to fit her body: the size of the brush her hand could hold, the distance her arm could travel from end to end, as she swept across the surface. The canvases were as tall as an average woman’s height, minus a few inches and as wide as her outstretched arms. The term “kinetic” is often applied to Pollock’s work, referring to his throw of paint but the term can also be applied to the way in which West must have interacted with her surfaces and materials. Unlike Franz Kline who painted black against white, creating an intermix of contrasts, which flattened his surface, West laid stroke upon stroke, building up and out. In response to the increased use of the entire body in painting, artists of the Fifties often thought of themselves as performers and many allied themselves with body oriented activities, such as the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College.

The idea of a performance or of a kind or proto-body art did not include women at the time, but an examination of the canvases of Michael West immediately demonstrates the sheer physicality of her painterly style. Her strokes of strong paint drew a map of figure on top of ground, applied with the rhythm of the sway of her body. As can be seen in her paintings of the 1960s, she left behind the packed and built up surface of the forties abstraction and became a figure-ground painter, seen as early as 1955 with a simple black Still Life. The use of dripping, small splashes on the canvas, which will become part of her work begins to appear. At times, she would take advantage of the liquidity of the paint and allow the paint to flow down but she never allowed the direction of the flow to dictate the orientation of the painting. In Narkisses of 1966, the canvas has clearly been flipped on its head.

West’s paintings were built up with gestures of strong over-painting, often allowing the ground to show through. The strong vertical slashes of the figurative paintings of the Fifties were carried over into the next decade and used on a large scale as though the brushes and the brush strokes had been greatly enlarged and blown up to fill a larger stage. Her colors became stronger and deeper, blacks, dark reds (Untitled, 1961), slate blues (Moments 1970), with touches of white (Vietnam Summer, 1963), and pale lemon yellow (Gento Niese, 1978) were applied with great and confident freedom. Despite the stroke of 1976, she painted on. Little was allowed to deter West—not the death of Gorky in 1948, not her second divorce in 1960, not an illness which was defiantly followed by the beautiful Save the Tiger of 1980.

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Michael West. Save the Tiger (1980)

Over and over, from decade to decade, Michael West always moved with and was part of the cutting edge of the art world. But just when Michael West hit her stride as an artist, just as she found her own voice, the art scene shifted and abstract art became a historical artifact. Pop Art ascended, followed by Minimal Art, both of which repudiated Abstract Expressionism, and, unfortunately, attention shifted away from abstract painters. We know that she was close to the painter Richard Poussette-Dart, but women received little support in an art world dominated by men and she did not get the exhibition exposure equal to her male colleagues. West simply kept evolving, independent as always.

The question is why did such an interesting artist, so in tune with her artistic time, get left behind and written out of the history books? The answer, as was indicated, is two fold. First, Michael West was a victim of the passing fancies of an art world, increasing driven by an activated art market. New York began to look like Paris before the First World War, becoming home to a dizzying series of “isms.” But there the comparison stops. Before the Great War, the avant-garde movements built one upon the other, but in New York, true to the new martial Cold War fervor, each “ism” ousted the other. The “rivalry” Greenberg wrote of began to infect the art world.

The older Ab Ex artists sparred with each other and the group, never a close one, splintered in the fight for recognition and patronage. Even worse, the New York School was superceded, first, by the upstart Neo-Dada trend, and then, by the Pop artists, who were followed by the Minimalists, who were overcome by the Conceptual artists who eliminated the object. All of the new movements rejected the pompous pretentions of myth and poetry and spirituality that were part of the credo of Abstract Expressionism. Michael West, who was interested in what she called “the new mysticism,” Zen Buddhism, and Henri Bergson’s élan vital, was now in an art world charmed by popular culture and dedicated to literalism. The spontaneous art of personal gesture gave way to artists who hired fabricators and mailed instructions to installers. In this new world, one group was suddenly out and old-fashioned and the new group was in favor. The generation that had fought so hard to break away from the Europeans witnessed the uprising of the young artists, who not only mocked them but also obtained, too easily, the financial rewards they had worked so hard for.

Michael West was left behind by history, but so were Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. Rothko and Newman were not truly appreciated until the Minimalists during the late Sixties. But regardless of the fact that West produced stunning abstract paintings, such as Mt. Siani Clinic of 1962, she still would have been ignored, unlike her male counterparts, because of the art world gender ideology. The second reason women were left out of art history had to do with old-fashioned gender bias and male prejudices against the female. Harold Bloom, the literary theorist, wrote of the history of literature as a contest, an “agon” between fathers and sons. In A Map of Misreading, Bloom wrote,

A poet, I argue in consequence, is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.

Artistic rivalry was Oedipal, between men only. Given the succession of movements in the New York art world, with each generation rejecting the other, a male enterprise; women were not and could not be part of the canon. The ideological construct of men defeating men precluded any role for artists who were female. It took decades for new generation of art historians to recognize that it was not “history” that had been written but a male-based belief system—a belief that only men could be artists. Many years after her death, Michael West is joining the long line of women who paint in the rewritten art history.

Bibliography

Ashton, Dore, The New York School. A Cultural Reckoning, 1973

Belgrad, Daniel, The Culture of Spontaneity. Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, 1998

Bloom, Harold, A Map of Misreading, 1975

Bloom, Harold, Anxiety of Influence 1973

Frascina, Francis, ed., Pollock and After. The Critical Debate, 1985

Guilbaut, Serge, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, 1983

Lewis, David, “Michael West: More than Gorky’s Muse,” in Michael West. Paintings from the Forties to the Eighties, 2010

McNamara, Chris, “By Any Name,” in Michael West. Painter-Poet, n.d.

Olds, Kirsten, “The New Mysticism in Art,” in The 1950s Paintings of Michael West, n.d.

Pollock, Lindsay, The Girl with the Gallery. Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market, 2006

Rosenberg, Harold, “American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New, 1959

Sandler, Irving, The Triumph of American Painting, 1970

Spender, Matthew, ed., Arshile Gorky. Goats on the Roof. A Life in Letters and Documents, 2009

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

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

[email protected]

Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory

POSTMODERNISM

Coining the Term

“Postmodernism” was a term coined by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) early in the century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. For Toynbee, this new period, beginning in 1875 actually coincided with the modernist avant-garde in the art world of Paris. However, Toynbee examining a larger swarth of history and noted the rise of “mass:” mass culture, mass education and mass culture. When he died in 1975, the “post-modern” was already ninety years old but the intellectual world was just beginning to incorporate the concept. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If Toynbee’s concept of the masses could be applied to the art world it could be seen in the rise of the larger culture of women and people of color and other other artistic impulses to challenge the white male elite who painted large abstract paintings. The masses had come to break down the Modernist hegemony and to scatterer the “rules of art” into the fractured world of pluralism.

The collapse of the dominance of Modernism was a signal that a new questioning was occurring—a questioning of the entire basis of Western philosophy and its products. That new skepticism was called Postmodernism. By 1970 “modern art” had become a period style, a historical entity. The style of Modernism had evolved into a vocabulary of ornament and had developed into a grammar of available forms. Modernism was used as an international art language, which both dispersed its vocabulary but also thinned out its avant-garde origins. This concept of a single “style” or the morality of abstract art as being hegemonic broke down, and painting and sculpture, the best carriers for abstraction, declined as dominant art forms. Self-confined to the museum and gallery, modernist art was vulnerable to being challenged by artistic expressions that were not restricted to artistic traditions. The entry of the “theatrical” with installation art and the flight of environmental art from the “white cube” made the Kantian contemplation of the serenely independent art object impossible.

As art moved out of the museums and into the actual environment and new technologies took center stage, the entire epistemology of Modernist art began to disappear. As the younger generation of artists rejected the old tenets of the meaning and purpose of art, Modernism could no longer hold its own against the expansion of means of art making. Although there are multiple moments in time where one might see a Postmodern direction, this breakdown of Modernism and the rise of Pluralism probably preceded Postmodernism in the s consciousness of the art public. Postmodernism was a time and a period: after Modernism, but over time the differences between the two movements are becoming clearer. Despite Toynbee, the Postmodern in the world of the arts was a short shiver, a shaking off of Modernism for a pseudo style which rapidly aged and dated. While Modernism had a sound philosophical foundation, in the arts it was expressed largely through art criticism, from Stéphane Mallarmé to Clement Greenberg. In contrast Postmodernism was a pluralistic mélange of theoretical position or reinterpretations and re-readings of Modernist theories.

Modernism (1860-1960)

Modernism, as a movement, was opposed to popular or bourgeois taste and espoused the avant-garde stance of the alienated artist. Modernism, as a means of analyzing art, assumes a cultural equality of diverse art, critiqued through a formalist methodology which levels out difference. The work of art is a self-referential object in a self-critical relationship with itself and with its medium. The medium is the crucial determinant in the pursuit of identity, as the problem of art was perceived by Clement Greenberg was to eliminate surplus, such as “realism” or cultural or life-reference, which interferes with that which is qualitatively significant in art. Art must self-identify as a physical object and must suppress metaphor or symbolism–art could not “represent” anything but art. Therefore Modernism rejected what Clement Greenberg called “literary forcing” or a dependence upon the narrative.

The Modernist theories of Clement Greenberg were based upon Enlightenment models: Hegelian and Marxian and Kantian. Because these models were formal and answerable to large forces, such as “history,” art had to be isolated in order to respond appropriately to the critic’s grand narrative. The result is an internal contradiction: either art is relevant because it is an expression of an Enlightenment version of the human spirit or individuality or art is transcendent and is uninvolved with “the world” in which case, how can art be meaningful? As Marx pointed out, everything is pregnant with its own contradiction, and Postmodern artists reacted against transcendence and immanence. Pop artists were, like the Impressionists who worked a hundred years earlier, only reacting to the time honored advice: to be of your own time. By the 1960s, the Modernist imperative of pure art, transcending the ordinariness of banal reality had broken down to the point where aestheticians Arthur Danto and George Dickey had to cobble together a framework for judgment called “the institutional theory of art.”

Pre-Postmodern artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Eliminating Kantian universality of the disinterested judgment of art, the relativistic and pragmatic “institutional theory” had to be asserted in order to create the legitimacy of “copying” a Brillo box by Warhol and the fact that a difference had te be made between representation and resemblance. The idea of “artistic creativity” became re-defined as artists and art historians rediscovered Marcel Duchamp who seemed to answer the need to refute Modernism. Duchamp applied a Kantian disinterest to his art making practice and carried out detachment to the logical extreme of “indifference.” What happened to Modernism was that the critique which was at its heart twisted around and turned upon itself, emptying out its humanistic stance and replacing art with language. Perhaps due to the impact of Marcel Duchamp, postmodern art became more conceptual, exposing the hidden heart of of Modernism: representation. The Modernist artist “represented” humanity by “representing” individuality,” but the postmodern artist, thinking of Duchamp began making art that did not “represent” but was “about” an idea.

After the death of Duchamp, by the rebellious period of the seventies, Modernism became a partisan position, identified with American boosterism, Clement Greenberg, Eurocentrism, androcentrism, and an elitist mission to preserve high art. Modernism also became entangled with the politics of the times, echoing the imperialist attitude for American art and the heroic character of American art, which at the same time attempted to justify its exclusion of women and people of color. Modernism also became caught up in the rising tide of the highly profitable art market in New York which was able to co-opt avant-garde art and to transform a high style into a salable commonplace. Abstract art became vernacularized and with an affluent society invested in an increasingly consumer-based culture, the public lost the need for an “absolute” meaning for art. “Modern art” became another period style that was characterized by a perceptual, sensuous surface that was polyphonic and all over. The assumed self-integrity of the artist collapsed along with the conceit the significance of unity and centrality of consciousness.

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

Modernism’s “will to style” and its hierarchical way of thinking about art was rejected by the concepts of Postmodernism. Postmodernism questioned how value in art is determined and answered that value was a social construct and could never be independent. Human consciousness had always been psychically entangled with fine art, but postmodern philosophers dismantled the notion of the independent subject. Unity of consciousness was impossible to achieve, not necessarily desirable, and there was no final resolution of parts. It was previously assumed that “art” worked and existed in a dialectical situation with art being defined by what is “not art,” but Postmodernism accepts the notion of irresolution and incompleteness by recognizing the interdependent linguistic and conceptual overlap between “high art” and “low art.” Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new historicism of Postmodernism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The only question is—not what it “means”—but how it’s all put together.

In this new age of Indifference, Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over and the disillusionment of something called Late Modernism or Postmodernism took the place of the innocence of pure art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire who could have predicted art functioning as fad, fashion, and consumer good. As Foucauldrian socialist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, an artistic strategy of legitimization, par excellence, was the “return to origins” or to the purity of the first rebellion. This “return” to an art for the people seen so strongly in the art of the Sixties and Seventies, was a form of longing for the comforts of a past that never existed but this nostalgia was one of the hallmarks of Postmodernism’s desire to look back and not forward.

In rejecting the futuristic position of the avant-garde, Postmodernism re-placed itself into the stream of history and in acknowledging the past, art underwent a sea change. One of the major distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism is based upon the concept of a truth or of a transcendence. Modernism sought to transcend time and place. Modernism desired to be universal by passing over the particular and the local and the peculiar in favor of the absolute. Modernism, in its quest for transcendence will always attempt to remain pure, bounded, contained, seeking closure, to seal itself off from the world in order to rise above it. Modernism was created after the fact by theories, or “truisms,” that were merely ways of looking at and speaking about works of art, all devised and developed self-reflexively during the Modernist period. From the position of post-post-modernity, it seems clear that Postmodernism was a correction to Modernism, a difference obtained by asserting its polar opposite.

Postmodernism is a mega term, suggesting two possibilities. One is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism in that we have moved beyond Modernism and into another era, as not yet understood. The second prospect is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism through a new purification: we perceived the error of our ways. While once a work of art was perceived as an object separated from its context and from its signifying functions, Postmodernism, on the other hand, rejects the point of view that art stands alone. There is no escaping the literary dimension of all works of art, which are necessarily poetic, referential and metaphorical. Content, not form, becomes crucial and content is always historically mediated, created through and defined by history. Found styles, left over from history, are left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude. Postmodern painter and bricoleur David Salle exerted no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity of meaning.

In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize through a limited vocabulary, Postmodernism combined art and theater in a frank theatricality that beckons to the now activated art audience who recognizes the references and joins in a game of play, sorting through the assemblage of historical quotations. The idea of “style” itself is bankrupt and the work of art is an assemblage, such that of Charles Ray, that refuses unity. Postmodernism, while unsure of its impact or to put it another way is reluctant to announce its self-importance, is concerned with how art communicates. For Rebecca Horn art is language and the relationship of the signifier to the signified depends upon the reaction of the spectator, making the work of art non-hermetic and readable. The result is a doubling of signifiers, a shorthand crowding of givens that are never explained only felt, that empties out art content. The givens of immediate perception have no ability to generate symbolic meaning. When the rhinoceros horns, “detached” from the animal’s theoretical body and crafted by Horn gradually move towards each other, when the tips “kiss” with electric eroticism, the Kiss of the Rhinoceros in 1989 is just a kiss.

Coming after high-flying Modernism, the Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance. All one can do is to comment upon the precursor. Preferring intellectual scorn, postmodernism is ironic rather than openly rebellious. Postmodernist critiques of modern philosophy will note that Enlightenment concepts, such as Structuralism, depend upon figurative models of depth and division. Karl Marx built a model of society resting upon a base, which supported the superstructure, Sigmund Freud built a model of a divided but enclosed mind, segmented into sections and built upon two levels: the conscious and the unconscious, Ferdinand de Saussure built a model of language based upon boundary and enclosure, Claude Lévi-Strauss built a model based upon depth or seeking meaning below the surface of a narrative.

These Modernist philosophical architectonic models would later be critiqued as being figural and constructive metaphors, embedded in Enlightenment discourse, existing in an unquestioned condition. The architectonic tropes of the conceptual models were circular arguments that ignored the history of their own making but were reflections of Enlightenment thinking that sought answers and certainty, based upon the powers of the rational human mind and its powers. The guarantee of the efficacy of these models was the authenticity of presence which in turn was based upon desire–desire to resolve, desire to make sense of the world–that drives the structure of the model. Postmodernism would smash the carefully constructed models by reviewing philosophical writing as writing, as writing, as a form of literature. The theorists would deliberately read against the grain, feeling blindly for the elements that couldn’t quite be suppressed through rational and logical thinking. In a visual answer, postmodern art understood modernist art as a dictionary of dislocated languages to be deconstructed.

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Conceptual Art and Philosophy, Part Two

THE PHILOSOPHY OF CONCEPTUAL ART

PART TWO

“Art is art. Everything else is everything else.” Ad Reinhardt

The artist, Joseph Kosuth, insisted that Conceptual Art was a child of the 1960s, not the Civil Rights sixties, not the Stonewall sixties, not the Women’s Movement sixties, but the war protest sixties. As Kosuth stated, Conceptual Art was “…the art of the Vietnam war era.” Previous posts discussed the extent to which this era was an overthrow of authority figures and certainly, the male-led protests against the Viet Nam War were Oedipal, as young men refused the lead of the old men. One of the main elements of writing on Conceptual Art as it was conceived by the artists themselves was the overthrow-the-father intentions.

Following the example of the Minimal artists, the Conceptual artists, who were very much in the same circles, wrote their own art movement. These artists, Mel Bochner, Sol Le Witt, and Joseph Kosuth and the Art-Language group, wanted to wrest control from the art critics who had always subordinated artists to their words, overwriting works of art with works of language. That said, as shall be seen, the seizure of the right to define is far more important than a mere Oedipal rebellion. In his essay, Introductory Note to Art-Language, Kosuth asserted that true conceptual art “is based on an inquiry into the nature of art…this art annexes the function of the critic…”

The right to define Conceptual Art on the grounds established by the artist led to larger consequences. Conceptual Art was anti-art and an outright dematerialization of the object. Anti-art was not necessarily connected to either anti-aesthetic or to dematerialization but was an independent attitude which rejected the traditional notion of “art.” As the Brazilian artist, Hélio Oiticica, wrote,

Anti-art, in which the artist understands his/her position not any longer as a creator for contemplation, but as an instigator of creation—“creation” as such: this process completes itself through the dynamic participation of the “spectator,” now considered as “participator.” Anti- art answers the collective need for creative activity which is latent and can be activated in a certain way by the artist. The metaphysical, intellectualist and aestheticist positions thus be- come invalidated—there is no proposal to “elevate the spectator to a level of creation,” to a “meta-reality,” or to impose upon him an “idea” or “aesthetic model” corresponding to those art concepts, but to give him a simple opportunity to participate, so that he “finds” there something he may want to realize.

In other words, “art” was an aesthetic given, presented to the viewer for contemplation and delight. Anti-art is a joint process, not product, an exchange between the artist and the spectator. If anti-art is creative activity, then the need for an object is problematized. As Lucy Lippard and John Chandler explained,

As more and more work is designed in the studio but executed elsewhere by professional craftsmen, as the object becomes merely the end product, a number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art. The studio is again becoming a study. Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialization of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object’s becoming wholly obsolete.

Writing in the wake of Seth Siegelaub’s “exhibition” of Conceptual Art in January 1969, Gregory Battock wrote, Painting is Obsolete,

The works in the show are ideas that are not intended to be any more than ideas. As such they are pretty much invisible, which itself is a good idea. We’ve suspected, for some time now, that art perhaps can be invisible and now it is. Therefore there’s nothing to steal, nothing to damage, no images to remember later, and we don’t have to worry about slides and lighting. If 69 contributes to the history of art invisibility, art history students from now on will remember us fondly.

Another thing about this show is that perhaps it isn’t art and maybe it’s art criticism, which would be something I’ve suspected all along, that the painter and sculptor have been moving further and further away from art and in the end perhaps all that would remain is art criticism. (. . .) What a show like this does is, in one stroke not only demolish the Museum of Modern Art (the Whitney demolished itself last week) but all those painting courses they are still cranking out in the “art” schools, which were doomed a decade ago but nobody noticed, oh well it’s too bad, after spending all that money on paints and everything.

But this elimination of the object, especially painting, was only one part of the rebellion against the previous generation of artists. The felling of the great edifice of Abstract Expressionism and with it painting cannot be totally separated from the slaying of the other great edifice of Modernism, Clement Greenberg. In Art after Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth conflated formalism and aesthetics and modernism and Greenberg’s theory of the necessity for Modernist art to purge itself to its essential and intrinsic elements. Greenberg’s aesthetics, the way in which he designated “art” was based solely upon the look, appearance and the physical existence of a unique and specific object. It was this kind of definition of art which was object based that Kosuth rejected in favor of a questioning of an “art” based upon its impact on the retina.

In 1969, the artist elevated the late Marcel Duchamp as an alternative to Clement Greenberg. Whether or not Duchamp put forward an entire philosophy or an aesthetic is doubtful, for he was a provocateur who wanted to mock the notion of “art” as a sacred relic, resplendent in its own aura. Kosuth needed to establish a new way of thinking about art and in order to do so he stated that,

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s functionwas its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy that dealt with beauty and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bound to discuss art as well. Out of this habit grew thenotion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true.

Kosuth stressed that because aesthetics is disconnected from function or use that it is connected to “taste,” which brought him to Clement Greenberg, described as “the critic of taste.” Taste resides in “judgment” which is part of the job of being a critic who passes judgment, but, as Kosuth pointed out, Greenberg’s “taste” was tied to the fifties and hence, the artist intimated, out of date and out of step with the time. Certainly there is a great deal of truth in this suggestion—art had exceeded the limits of Greenbergian formalist theory. The reason that art moved beyond Greenberg’s critical grasp was that the artist, following the lead of Marcel Duchamp questioned “the nature of art.” Interestingly, Kosuth asserted that the “function” of art was the same as the “nature” of art.

One could object to that equation on Kantian terms, stating that art should have no function or purpose, but Kosuth was saying something else. In a later essay, Introduction to Function, he said simply, “Function refers to ‘art context.”” Regardless of its purpose, art functions as language or art functions linguistically. As Kosuth insisted,

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context—as art—they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art. Thus, that it is art is true a priori (which is what Judd means when he states that “if someone calls it art, it’s art”).

Kosuth then, strangely, brought up A. J. Ayer who reiterated Kant’s definitions of analytical and synthetic propositions rather than Kant himself. Ayer defined analytic statements as tautologies, meaning that an analytic statement is true under all conditions. A synthetic statement, unlike an analytic statement, does not contain its definition in itself, but depends upon empirical evidence or authorization. Neo-Kantian Ayer explained,

In other words, the propositions of philosophy are not factual, but linguistic in character – that is, they do not describe the behaviour of physical, or even mental, objects; they express definitions, or the formal consequences of definitions.

Or as Kosuth expressed it,

…what art has in common with logic and mathematics is that air is a tautology…art cannot be…a synthetic proposition…to consider it as art it is necessary to ignore this same outside information, because outside information(experiential qualities, to note) has its own intrinsic worth. And to comprehend thisworth one does not need a state of art condition…Art’s only claim is for art. Art is the definition of art.
While this early essay made it sound that Kosuth was crudely and bluntly presenting a work of art as a tautology but his intent was more inclusive. He recognized that the recognition of art as art depended upon the context. “Advance information about the concept of art and about an artist’s concepts is necessary to the appreciation and consideration of contemporary art.” And towards the end of the essay, Kosuth gave a Kantian assertion, “Art indeed exists for its own sake.”
Perhaps the most famous influence on Kosuth were the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In An Interview with Jeanne Siegel, Kosuth admitted that although there was a “too obvious relationship” between his art and the philosopher. However, he cautioned Siegel that there was the early and late works of Wittgenstein, with the late works refuting the earlier. That said, the early seminal work by Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is perhaps the most clear on how language allows us to talk about reality through propositions.
From 1966, Kosuth produced a series of Propositions—photostats of words—implying that he was presenting a proposition, a word, which was the elementary part of language. But the word can function only within a sentence (proposition) that pictures something about the world. This is the famous “picture theory of language.” “Pictures” are strung together into a sentence structure which logically presents the world. In other words, the structure of reality determines the structure of language.
In Art after Philosophy Kosuth quoted Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, “Meaning is in the use,” from Philosophical Investigations (1953) in which the philosopher shifted from the idea of a picture theory to the metaphor of language as a tool box. Different words are different tools which are used in different ways, depending on the occasion. This concept is a reversal of his position in the Tractatus. Wittgensten came to realize that meaning could not be a picture theory, in other words, that language could picture (reflected) the world. The tool box idea of Investigations suggested the idea of “language games” which are bundled together in terms of “family resemblances.” Words did not have “essences” and their use is social.
Wittgenstein’s turning away from the essential dismissed his earlier position that words are essentially meaningful because they are associated with objects. Now he is saying that words have meanings that are dependent upon the “use.” Language was now thought of as a form of life. Meaning was now unfixed and became fluid, guided by rules which were subject to change. When Kosuth asserted in 1969 that art is understandable within a context or that function is context, he was attempting to fix art firmly into an art world where it could safely exist as a proposition. Like the early Wittgenstein, he was limiting what it was proper to “say” about art, but, like Wittgenstein, the later Kosuth came to understand that art, like language, was a product of social and cultural forces. The meaning of art, ultimately, would have to be in its “use.”

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Conceptual Art

ART AS IDEA—IDEA AS ART

At mid-century, the question of what is art? was raised again for the first time since Emmanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Judgment in 1781. Starting in the mid-fifties, Neo-Dada art and Minimal Art challenged the presumed Modernist definition of “art,” as channeled through Clement Greenberg’s theories. Neo-Dada artists did not create, instead they borrowed and appropriated already available imagery. Pop artists mocked the pretensions of “high” art with their mimicry of “low” art. Minimal artists did not make works of art, they arranged encounters for the audience. If there was no difference between art and life, if there was no difference between the object and the spectator, if there was no such thing as independent art, if there was no sacred art space, then what was art? and why was this object designated as “Art?”

By the end of the Sixties, the art world was splintered and fragmented between the lingering effects of Modernism and the continuing tributes to Abstract Expressionism and new challenges to the hegemony of European high Modernism and to the aging Greenberg himself. Anti-modernist Pop Art and Minimalist Art and Fluxus and pro-modernist Post-Painterly Abstraction existed side by side, but in 1970, Conceptual Art emerged out of Duchampian-based interrogations of Modernism. As a movement that generated works of art, Conceptual Art might have been less important for its disdain of objects than for the fact that it presided over the final act of Modernism.

In 1964, it was a suite of Brillo boxes re-fashioned by Andy Warhol that stopped critic Arthur Danto in his tracks at the Stable Gallery. Clearly, a new theory of aesthetics—a new definition of “art”—had to be conceived. In his 1964 essay on The Artworld, Danto pondered this state of affairs:

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art…

Independently, philosopher George Dickie began to refashion aesthetic theory and in 1974 something new emerged: the Institutional Theory of Art, which states that “art” is legitimated by institutional processes. Art does not exist on aesthetic grounds and has no inherent or intrinsic properties. Art is an object “annointed” by the art world. The new functional analysis of the suitability of a candidate for the designation as “art” takes place within the institutional frame and destroys any possibility of the nominalism established by Greenberg.

Questioned by the intellectuals and attacked by artists, formalism collapsed. By 1968, Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth completed the destruction of Modernism by revealing that the “quality” upon which high art was based was nothing more than “taste,” and the taste of Clement Greenberg himself—one man with a good eye for art. “Above all,” he wrote, “Clement Greenberg is the critic of taste. Behind every one of his decisions is an aesthetic judgment, with those judgments reflecting his taste.” In addition, Kosuth pointed out, the “condition” or definition of art rested upon “morphological” grounds—physical attractiveness. In contrast to the formalists who did not question the received concept of art, the role of the artist was to question the very notion that art had to be an object.

Although Kosuth would be connected to Conceptual Art, his essay is a definitive re-positioning of art. Based upon Marcel Duchamp’s criticisms of “retinal art,” Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Philosophy,” 1969, was a definitive art critical end to Greenberg’s Modernism. Kosuth suggested that an act of art was an act of language.

Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context ± as art ± they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is atautology in that it is a presentation of the artist¶s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.

TRANSITION TO POSTMODERNISM

The late 1960s and the early 1970s is a time marked by an artistic withdrawal from the established art rules and by a distaste for making saleable objects. Conceptual Art was the first important gesture against the highly profitable art market, attracting artists who refused to make things anymore and/or who had a more intellectual bent. Sol LeWitt was an important transitional figure between Minimal and Conceptual art, and many Minimal artists drifted towards Conceptual art. According to LeWitt’s well-known dictum, “The idea is the machine which makes the art.” The term “conceptual” Itself had been around since the early 1960s, meaning art, which was not sufficiently expressive or personal. The German art movement, Fluxus, was considered “conceptual,” but Sol LeWitt’s 1967, essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” gave the term its first theoretical exegesis. By 1969 the term referred to the works of Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Thanks to the first exclusively Conceptual exhibition, January 5 – 31, 1969, arranged by Seth Siegelaub, their dealer, Conceptual Art announced itself. The object had been eliminated in favor of the idea.

Art became Philosophy. Art was now understood to be an idea that could be expressed in language and did not need to become an object. The Art-Language group in London published “Art and Language Point of View” in Art-Language magazine in 1967, stressing the fundamental role of language in the development of art. This group consisted of Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin, Howard Hurrel who worked with Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden. Conceptual artist from London to Tokyo to New York began to foreground the mental processes of the artist and to present, not works of art, but ideas about art in the form of declarations, statements and documentations of artist’s activities. As Raoul Noortmann wrote in 2012,

It can be argued that Art & Language is the most interesting expression of the resistance of conceptual artists against an alleged oppressive discourse in this decade. Their journal stood as an independent force within the artworld of this decade.

Written material, such as artist’s books and dealers’ catalogs, were presented as evidence of the mental activities of the Conceptual artists. Following the lead of the Minimal artists, these Conceptual artists took an active part in art writing. The writing of Conceptual Art was not intended to be either a work of art or of art criticism but an artist’s idea, which takes the place of a now-unnecessary art object. In contrast to Minimal art which had emphasized the perceptual experience of an object, Conceptual art re-located art in the mind of the artist and in the mind of the spectator. Supported by the austere philosophy of British analytical philosophy, particularly that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Conceptual Art represented a total withdrawal from object-ness into a discourse about the philosophical nature of art. As Kosuth wrote in “Art After Art Philosophy,”

It comes as no surprise that the art with the least fixed morphology is the example fromwhich we decipher the nature of the general term art. For where there is a contextexisting separately of its morphology and consisting of its function one is more likely tofind results less conforming and predictable. It is in modern art’s possession of a language with the shortest history that the plausibility of the abandonment of that language becomes most possible. It is understandable then that the art that came outof Western painting and sculpture is the most energetic, questioning (of its nature), andthe least assuming of all the general art concerns. In the final analysis, however, all of the arts have but (in Wittgenstein’s terms) a family resemblance.

Post Minimal Art or Conceptual Art changed the notion of abstraction in that the art no longer refers to reduction of form only but to Abstraction as an idea for it’s own sake. 1966- 70 was a watershed year in American art, as options derived from Minimalism, from the elimination of the object—Conceptual Art—to an expressionist revival of painterly issues as seen in Process Art which is a break with Minimalism. Process Art restored the non or anti-object resulting in “the de-materialization of art,” as Lucy Lippard said. Both Conceptual Art and Process Art reject the physicality and the literalness of Minimalism. Conceptual Art completely eliminates the object in favor of texts and language. Kosuth produced a series of Photostat texts-as-art, “Art as Idea,” consisting of definitions of, for example, “red” or “water” or “art” as propositions.

Influenced by the analytic philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Kosuth saw art as a proposition, that is, a statement of reality put forward to be analytically understood. A proposition “creates” the event or the object and comes out of an a priori concept. “Art” is a proposition that must precede any “art object.” If that is the case, that art is, a priori, a proposition, then there is no need to produce the object. All one needs is a text that defines “red,” and there is no need for a red painting. The viewer is intellectually activated far more than s/he was with Minimalism.

As Sol Le Witt expressed it, “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” When one reads one of Weiner’s enigmatic phrases, such as “…the joining of France and Germany by a rope…” written on a gallery wall, one is forced to “think” or “conceive” of what this “joining” would look like. When Robert Barry announces that he is presenting a photograph of a mile high column of air, one must attempt to envision such a column in the mind. The stress on art and language meant that art and language are interchangeable concepts.

Although any account of Conceptual Art must discuss Marcel Duchamp as a precursor, Duchamp was essentially an artist of the object. Duchamp’s main contribution to the end of the Modernist definition of art was to expand meaning beyond the object. “Meaning” in art was no longer inherent in the object or as an art meaning. Duchamp’s work suggested that meaning is multivalent, that meaning exists as a surplus, spilling over the supposed bounds of the object. In contrast, Conceptual Art was not concerned with meaning per se. Meaning is an externality that is of little interest. What concerned the Conceptual artist of the seventies was the tautology that is art. If Art is a Linguistic System and if Art is Information, then Art is Language.

Conceptual Art opened the door for artists who were writers, such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Kruger and Holzer installed a form of communication or speech-making in galleries and museums, directly addressing the audience who “reads” directives and exhortations. “Your body is a battleground,” as Kruger asserted, was not an analytical Wittgensteinian proposition, but a political statement. Kruger was a designer who stamped out slogans. Holzer wanted to write simple sentences. Had these artists begun their careers twenty years earlier, they would have been expected to paint, but after Conceptual Art, the two women had the art world’s “permission” to turn words into objects.

As Holzer stated in her Truisms, A SENSE OF TIMING IS THE MARK OF GENIUS.

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Defining Minimal Art, Part Two

THE DIALECTICS OF MINIMALISM AS DISCOURSE

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.

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

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Defining Minimal Art, Part One

MINIMAL ART AS ART/NOT ART

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?

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

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New York Art and the Happenings

THE HAPPENINGS: AN INTERACTION OF ART AND LIFE

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.

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Characteristics of Pop Art

WHAT WAS POP ART?

Before it was anything else, Pop Art was American…and white…and urban….and male…and middle class…and straight. Pop Art was about affluence, about money and all the things that the middle class white male could afford to buy and everything the man of affluence wanted to look at. Mainstream art history has tended to present Pop Art as if it were ungendered and unclassed and uncolored, while at the same time, stressing the “American-ness” of a movement that eliminated color, exploited the images of women and ignored the plight of the poor. The exception that proved the rule of Pop’s machismo was the now-celebrated “queer” artist, Andy Warhol, who had to got to the Left Coast to get his first show of Pop Art, his now famous soup cans, at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles.

Pop Art as Reification

The so-called “Classic Pop Movement” from 1961 to 1964 were precisely the peak years of the Civil Rights Movement, the years of highest violence against African-Americans. The “Freedom Riders” began their dangerous, life-threatening bus trips into the Deep South in 1961. In 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And four little girls died in a Birmingham basement when their church was bombed in 1963. Except for Andy Warhol’s powerful Race Riot series, few Pop artists took notice. The important invention of the 20th century that changed the social construction, the political make-up and economic power of the Western world—the Pill—passed without notice on the part of a group of artmakers who were largely male.

Fifty years ago, it was possible to gaze innocently upon art and declare it “not political,” because it was “art.” Today, we look at Pop Art in a far more critical fashion. No one is naïve enough to claim that images are innocent; images mean more than the makers intended. If Pop Art was anything, it was a movement of excess and surplus and a plentitude of meaning, exceeding any attempt to control the signifiers. Therefore one of the major characteristics of Pop Art is the linkages between the New York artists and New York Advertising and the post-war consumer culture fueled by a government policy that shifted resources from one group, women, to another: white males. In its studiously muscular assertions of conventional masculinity, Pop Art managed to elide the increasing pressure on an oppressed population of homosexuals, both male and female.

While the female nudes of the San Francisco artist, Mel Ramos, were more modest than those of the New York artist, Tom Wesselman, both artists are typical in their equation of women with consumer goods. Women were presented as objects to be consumed. Always nude, always stripped of power or agency, always preening and presenting their open mouths, bared breasts, and pubic areas to the voyeuristic gaze of the avid male viewer, the women were pink and pornographic. Claes Oldenburg’s vision of Pop Art also displays a fixation on oral pleasure. Much of his early art recreates food, mostly American food, mostly junk food and mostly fast food—giant furry popsicles and looming hamburgers. Oldenburg’s art vacillated between the hard and erect, the phallic lipstick mounted on top of a tank pedestal, and the dysfunctionally flaccid toilet.

The focus on male performance only reflected American bellicose foreign policy which feminized its foes. The Soviet Union, as George Kennan expressed it, must be contained in its “flow” by the potency of the United States which courted this misguided empire with the superiority of democracy and capitalism. Pop Art was inherently conservative, reinforcing the dominant culture of the well-paid white male who had unexamined privileges withheld from women and people of color. For Roy Lichtenstein, couples are always heterosexual. Men disappoint women, not men; women die for the love of men, not women. His parodies of Romance comics for girls are the mirror image of his reification of war and violence found in post-war comics for boys. In popular literature, women seek romance and men seek combat, thus reinforcing gender roles—a particularly urgent task given the presence of women in the workplace, newly empowered by the Pill. Thus, in returning to representation, Pop Art was an unmediated revelation of the values of an affluent culture dedicated to the preservation of the power of the heterosexual white male.

Pop Art as a Changing of the Guard

Fifty years ago, typical accounts of Pop Art excluded the art produced in Europe and in Los Angeles. It took years to include the so-called “Pop artists” of the overlooked centers of popular culture. The reason for this neglect of important art is two fold: first, Pop Art in Los Angeles and Berlin or Paris differs from locale to locale. Pop Art was always an art of the local, the popular culture of a particular society. Post-war Los Angeles was a very different place from Berlin which was a very different place from Paris and so on. (These cities and their popular culture will be discussed in more detail in subsequent posts.) The second issue has to do with those who produce the discourse on Pop Art—art writers in New York. Because of their place in the art world, these writers constructed what were actually quite fractured accounts of Pop Art. Hidden beneath the master narrative of an art of popular culture was an Oedipal sub-text of a new generation beginning to challenge the old gatekeepers of art, headed by Clement Greenberg.

When one re-reads the early writers on Pop, it quickly becomes clear that the defining characteristics of Pop Art in New York were understood through a filter of the kind of art that Clement Greenberg had excluded in his definition of “Modernism.” Greenberg’s theory of the evolution of art towards a material and moral purity demanded that figuration and representation be eliminated from “fine art.” Beginning with Neo-Dada, there was a dramatic change in art: a return to the object through a new kind of literalism, an appropriation of the image of a common object without change or alteration. The cool, detached acceptance of the low and the ordinary by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg signaled a new depersonalization in art, a rebuke to the stress on the artist’s personality seen in Abstract Expressionism.

Like the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists borrowed, quoted, and appropriated already available subject matter that was timely, topical, concerned with ordinary life. Unlike the Neo-Dada artists, the Pop artists were less inclined towards found objects and were more deliberatively selective of what they purloined. The artists sacrificed individuality creativity in favor of consuming advertising, mostly invented in the offices and studios of New York ad agencies. Pop Art reveled in banal imagery of commodification and consumerism and celebrated post-War affluence in America. Therefore, in contrast to Ab Ex’s European-based influences, Pop was a return to American art subject matter in America. Pop was cosmopolitan, especially concerned with the sophisticated urban environment of a New York culture of persuasion, and uses quotations, translations, imitations, visual double-takes in a witty and youthful fashion.

In 1957, the British artist, Richard Hamilton, defined Pop Art as “1. popular: designed for mass audience, 2. Transient: short-term solution, 3. Expendable: easily forgotten, 4. Low Cost, 5. Mass Produced, 6. Young: aimed at youth, 7. Witty 8. Sexy 9. Gimmacky 10. Glamorous and 11. Big Business.” In other words, Pop Art does not take itself seriously. American Pop Art in New York was concerned with reacting against gestural Abstract Expressionist painting and against Modernist spiritualization of art. Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating a once-disparaged low culture.

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many observers were repelled by the vulgar sources favored by the artists. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers transformed 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. As early as 1939, Greenberg had campaigned against “kitsch,” the natural enemy of the avant-garde. Many subsequently linked Pop Art to kitsch, thinking popular culture, but kitsch, as Greenberg explained, is a debased form of high art: an Alexandre Cabanal reaction to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. That said, Pop Art in its built-in marketability was a form of temptation for artists who refused to risk their income or “stardom” in favor of difficult experimental art and the sheer popularity of Pop Art would draw the ire of Greenberg.

Reprinted in Homemade Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, Greenberg’s 1971 lecture, “Night Eight,” summed up his problems with Pop.

…Pop Art appealed to a lower, obvious order of literary of literary taste–making fun of advertising, making fun of pinup girls, making fun of labels on cans. and so forth—which is so easy to make fun of and we are all in on it anyhow…I think some of Pop Art is respectful academic art. It will probably last the same way the small pictures of Gérome or Bouguereau—and probably not was well as some of the small pictures of Meissonier—have lasted…(Pop Art) is nice small art and it is respectable, but it is not good enough to keep high art going…

Earlier in his remarks, Greenberg claimed that Pop Art was “academic” because it was from “the art school Cubist grid,” clearly defining Pop Art as “kitsch.” However, it is possible that because of his age—Greenberg was born in 1909—he could not see the sheer joy the artists took in popular culture. He assumed that the painters were making fun of the imagery. The conceptual basis of Pop was that the art was not serious, not intellectual, not a critique. By its very nature, Pop Art was an art of the status quo. On the other hand, Greenberg would have understood Pop Art within the structure of the dialectic. Pop Art was the linear answer to the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art was the figurative antithesis to the abstract thesis of Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art, as originally written, was a discursive repudiation of Clement Greenberg, the Father of American Art Criticism.

Pop Art as Mass Culture

As a lived condition of real artists, Pop Art was a less Oedipal reaction, not to art, but to the real world as it was coming into being on the cusp of the early sixties. When one looks at the white plaster sculptures of George Segal, Pop Art seems an art of the ordinary, examining the colorless and uncelebrated lives of “real life.” But Segal is an outlier, lumped, perhaps inaccurately, within the Pop movement because of a coincidence of time and place. Segal, unlike many of the Pop artists, commented upon contemporary events—the Holocaust, Kent State, homosexual rights. From the perspective of hindsight, some artists, from Segal to Marisol, lie uneasily within the precincts of Pop. It is helpful to think of Pop Art, not as a revival of 19th century Realism but as a thoroughly modern movement, an art of mass media; and specifically an art of the kind of media that, for the first time in history, could be omnipotent in everyday life because of a technology that had never existed before. The Pop Art of mass media had two main themes: desire, the kind of desire that can never be fulfilled, the kind of desire that is endlessly displaced and projected onto another consumer object through advertising, the kind of advertising that is a fantasy swallowed whole, the kind of advertising that is capable of selling anything, as long as the jingles are jaunty and the colors are jumping, because the spectacle offers the second theme: fulfillment.

Unlike Realism of Courbet, Pop Art was noticeably passive: it observed and it seized and re-gifted the object of its desire without comment, like Manet. But unlike Manet, Pop Art did not attempt a new style to signify the salient characteristics of the new era—the transient nature of modernité, instead, it simply reified the nature of post-war life—the elevation of an artificial manufactured culture of desire into high art. To quote Jean Baudrillard on simulacra, Pop Art was an art of the simulated—it was a simulation of something that is simulated from something that never existed. As a simulacra of a simulacra—Warhol’s Evis paintings—Pop Art reiterated an image of an image, gleefully recapitulating to its glorified artificiality—Warhol’s Marilyn paintings.

James Rosenquist was a rarity among Pop artists, an artist who critiqued aspects of the American society that fed his art. Like Lichtenstein replicated the Ben-Day dots of four color printing, Rosenquist used the creamy sensuous appearance of mass advertising of the fifties as the starting point for his version of Pop Art. Working like an editor enamored of montage, the artist sliced and diced found images like a bricoleur on a rampage. President Elect, painted in 1961 with the smiling picture of Kennedy, a luscious piece of cake offered to the open mouth of the public and the yellow car, completely changed in its meaning after November of 1963. After that date, one could not see a car juxtaposed with Kennedy without shuddering. Such are the dangers of using contemporary images—they can go beyond fashionable banality and sink to irrelevancy or they can rise to the historical occasion and remain potent and powerful like Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. President Elect became tragic two years after it was painted, a morning wall for a grieving public.

F-111 was Rosenquist’s most eloquent statement against the official foreign policy of America, the doctrine called MAD and the Viet Nam War. Only Robert Heineken, his contemporary who was never included in Pop Art, was as fearless in his denunciation of a highly contentious war. A large multi-paneled installation, F-111 was painted in 1964, years before the nation rose up in anger against the latest manifestation of the Cold War. Although for decades art writers and curators would stoutly deny the political content of this painting, Rosenquist was very frank in his intentions. The mock billboard was, as the artist said, “…flying through the flak of consumer society to question the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, the media, and advertising.”

The painting was a consummate statement on mass culture, showing that mass advertising, mass popular art—advertising—can sell anything, even death through nuclear annihilation, even death in a remote rice paddy for purposes unknown. F-111 refers to a new and expensive fighter jet awaiting its Top Guns. Its tail and its tip are the beginning and end of the painting which is propelled along its four panels by tire tracks that roll past a little girl sheltered beneath the nose cone of a missile. Along the way, atomic blooms and an umbrella of Mutually Assured Destruction are way stations on a deadly journey ending in a close up of gut-like spaghetti. With its sophisticated manipulation of propaganda, advertising, the raw material for Pop Art, was an art of all things urban, successfully wiping out folk art and sweeping humble craft to the margins. In its time, even when reinforcing an old and tired patriarchal system, Pop Art represented all things shiny and new.

Pop Art as Mass Media

Fifty years later, the dust of history has settled on Pop Art. Some of the artists are dead–Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, some are still alive and well and making art—Ruscha and Hockney, but the time of Pop Art has past. Some of the art has not worn well and exists only as a blue chip “example” of Pop Art, but the movement itself remains relevant. Pop Art in America presaged things to come: the fact that our social lives, our economic well-being, our very culture in the West would be based upon mass culture driven by mass advertising fueled by the technology of mass media that impels us to consume our way to happiness.

Many observers have linked Pop Art to the 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin, “A Work of Art in an Age of Reproduction,” and indeed there is much merit in this correspondence. Pop Art replicated the style of mass reproduction as it existed in the sixties, slick and clean lines, strong and sharp colors, subliminal mash-ups to form connections among objects of abundance and signs of affluence and insatiable desire. Not only did Pop Art reject the painterly surfaces and the high seriousness of Abstract Expression, it also rejected the shared sacrifice of the Second World Two and its patriotic rationing. Pop Art is a art of cheerful greed, targeted like advertising, toward those whom society rewards and ignored those whom society punishes. Pop Art reproduced the reproducibility of advertising. It was an art to be looked at, an art to be seen, an art to be enjoyed. Like the consumer goods it advertised, Pop Art was consumed, first by avid viewers and be acquisitive collectors and then, at last, by history.

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Jasper Johns and “Things the Mind Already Knows”

JASPER JOHNS (1930 –)

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.”

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“Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg

THE MODERNISM OF MODERNIST PAINTING, 1960/1

Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting,” originally given as a radio broadcast in 1961 for the Voice of America’s “Forum Lectures,” was printed in 1961 in the Arts Yearbook 4 of the same year, reprinted in 1965, ’66, ‘74, ’78, and 1982. The article achieved a canonical status and served as one of the definitive statements of formalism as a mode of visual analysis and of formalism as a critical stance, and possibly, of formalism as a mode of making art. In his 1961 essay on “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) defined “Modernism” as the period (in art) roughly from the mid-1850s to his present that displayed a self-critical tendency in the arts.

Greenberg considered Immanuel Kant the first Modernist. The essence of Kant’s thesis was the employment of the characteristic “methods” of the discipline to “criticize the discipline itself.” According to Greenberg, Kant used logic to establish “the limits of logic.” The Modernist goal of self-criticism grows out of the critical spirit of the Enlightenment philosophical system which was based upon the belief in the power of rational thought and human reason. “Critique,” as a method, analyzes from the inside, from within the object being examined and does not judge from the outside, according to external criteria.

Painting must analyze itself to discover its inherent properties. Painting, according to Enlightenment methodology, must be interrogated according to its inherent purposes. The key term here would be “inherent,” for analyzing an object according to its essential definition must preclude bringing forward any non-essential or external criteria. In other words, a painting telling a “good story” is not necessarily a good painting. In this article, Greenberg carries on his attempt to “save” and to define “high art,” and “Modernist Painting” of 1960 can be compared to “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. Two decades had passed and Greenberg had progressed from being an up-and-coming art writer to being the arbiter of fine arts in New York, enjoying a truly hegemonic position. His crusade was all the more urgent in 1961, as territory of the avant-garde was being invaded by popular culture and the forces of disrule, exemplified by Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Fluxus. Greenberg had also shifted his political position, from being an intellectual Marxist, to being a Kantian formalist, a far safer situation which removes the critic and art from current cultural considerations.

Greenberg stated that art can “save” itself from being entertainment by demonstrating that the experience it provides is “unobtainable from any other source.” It is the task of art to demonstrate that which is “unique” and “irreducible”, particular or peculiar to art and that which determines the operation peculiar and exclusive to itself. All effects borrowed from any other medium must be eliminated, rendering the art form pure. “Purity” becomes a guarantee of “quality” and “independence” of avant-garde art. All extrinsic effects should be eliminated from painting.

One could say that it is not the essential to the definition of a painting that it re-create the world realistically. Today, that role can be fulfilled by photography or film. Film and theater are defined by storytelling and narrative, enhanced by illusions of everyday reality. Following Greenberg’s line of reasoning, realism and story telling and illusionism should be eliminated from painting. For Greenberg, art was used to call attention to art. Clement Greenberg logically worked out the limitations and peculiarities of painting, which are a flat surface, the shape of the support and the properties of the pigment. These physical and material limiting conditions became positive factors.

Once suppressed by artists through under-painting and glazing, these material aspects of painting were now acknowledged by Modernist painters. Because he appeared to have considered and taken into account the limitations of painting as the application of paint upon a flat surface, or a stretched canvas, Édouard Manet is designated by Greenberg as the first Modernist artist. Manet “declared the surface;” his follower, Paul Cézanne, fit the drawing and design into the rectangle of the painting. In Modernist painting, the spectator is made aware of the flatness and sees the picture first, before noting the content.

Modernist painting abandoned the principle of representation of Renaissance illusionistic space inhabited by three-dimensional objects, giving the effect of looking through the canvas into a world beyond. Modernist painting resists the sculptural, which is suppressed or expelled. The question is that of a purely optical experience. With Greenberg, flatness alone is unique to painting. For this critic, “art” carries within itself its own teleology. As art seeks self-definition and determines its own uniqueness, it becomes more pure, more reductive in its means. More is eliminated—subject matter, content, figuration, illusionism, narrative—and art becomes independent, detached, and non-objective, that is, abstract. Content becomes completely dissolved into form. Greenberg, in looking back selectively at the history of art, presented a map of progress and evolution of painting, away from representation and toward purity, abstraction, reductiveness; to flatness, to pure color, to simple forms that reflected the shape of the surface.

The essay noted that Modernism “resists sculpture” or three-dimensionality and reminded the reader that this “resistance” was by no mean recent. The critic pointed to Jacques-Louis David as an example of an artist whose work was flat and surface based. Greenberg insisted that the scientific method justified the demand that painting (and art) limit itself to “what is given in visual experience.” Greenberg equated the artist to the scientists, both of whom “test” and experiment. The equation of art with science, replaces his earlier equation of the avant-garde with politics: “…a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.” One can “only look” at a work of visual art, which is discernible only to the “eye.” Poetry is “literary,” art is not and should not attempt to be, for as Greenberg reminded us, any translation of the literary into the visual “loses” the literary qualities.

Like Avant-garde and Kitsch, Modernist Painting, had a subtext, Enlightenment philosophy, especially that of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. The 1939 article concerned itself with aesthetics but more with the “experience” of the aesthetic. In Avant-garde and Kitsch, it is possible to believe that Greenberg was writing of the experience of the aesthetic in terms of the placement of art in the culture, in other words, it is not so much the “how” of the experience but of the “where” of the aesthetic. In Modernist Painting, the experience of the aesthetic is located in the realm of the how one looks at a work of art.

The proper attitude of the spectator was important to Kant who recommended a posture of detachment from personal desire and indifference to artistic content in search of a universal means of judging the efficacy of art. The Enlightenment philosophy cherished the idea of the universal or the absolute, for some kind of standard had to be erected to replace the all-knowing presence of the now-banished God. Kant was not interested in defining what “art” was but in establishing the ground for the judgment of art. Working in the new philosophical field, aesthetics, Kant attempted to establish the epistemology of art, based, not in individual works but in a method of knowledge.

Greenberg’s understanding of Kant led him to use the methodology of critique but the critic took “critique” in a rather different direction. Writing two centuries after the German philosopher, Greenberg looked backwards in time and implied another favorite Enlightenment idea, that of progress. Modernist art, if one understands the essay correctly, seems to “progress” and move forward in time, away from manifestations of extrinsic properties and towards a purity of means. “Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.”

The ground has shifted away from a means of judgment (Kant) to a theory of the evolution of art along telelogical lines with a goal in mind: purity. Even though as Greenberg pointed out, “The first mark made on the canvas destroys its virtual flatness,” purity seems to imply a historical rejection of representation and a validation of abstraction. The point of noting Greenberg’s development of Kantian theory and its application toward Modernist Painting is that, without the notion of progress, the critic’s theory of artistic development would have to include some of the masters of flatness, such as William Bourguereau and some of the masters of the surface such as Thomas Kincaide, both of whom Greenberg would have excluded from the family tree of modernism.

While Kant would at least judge these two artists (and perhaps find them wanting), Greenberg seems to imply a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde and establish ground for exclusion of the unworthy. The oppositions of the dialectic are implied: those who did not follow the path of Modernist reductionism were, like dinosaurs, left behind. If one reads in a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde, even if only through the names of the canonical artists Greenberg mentioned and thought his previous articles, then the conflation between the continuity of art and the avant-garde, which supposedly breaks with the past, becomes rather awkward. Indeed, Greenberg does not mention the avant-garde, he uses the term “authentic art,” instead.

“Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity. Art is, among many other things, continuity. Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as modernist art would be impossible,” Greenberg stated.

However, as pointed out in his earlier work, Greenberg refused to connect the avant-garde with a rejection of the past: “…the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving…” (Greenberg’s italics). The underlying continuity of the two articles can be seen in the precursor remark in the 1939 writing on the role of the avant-garde artist: “’Art for art’s sake’ and ‘pure poetry’ appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like the plague.” Given the openness of the construction of this essay and the plurality of texts mobilized by Greenberg, it is no wonder that “Modernist Painting” lent itself to so many causes, whether as a rallying point or as a bête noir.

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

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