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]

Post-War Art in California

POST-WAR ART IN LOS ANGELES AND SAN FRANCISCO

At first glance, California would seem to be an exceedingly unpromising place for major art to emerge in the second half of the Twentieth Century. A new state with a throwaway culture without a history, California had small pockets of local art scenes, more or less picturesque and more or less obscure, with most of the available money going to architectural development and occasional decorative embellishments, with the bulk of the financing going to film. Art was often allied to these enterprises, acting as a pictorial inducement to move to the Golden State or as a partner to movies. Unlike New York City, which had Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 as the gathering place for local and European avant-garde art, California tended to be geographically isolated and culturally limited.

There was a small group of individuals who supported avant-garde in their own diverse ways: Walter and Louise Arensberg and Galka Scheyer. Hollywood attracted artists and the oldest art schools, Otis and Chouinard, had an internationally known faculty: Alexander Archipenko, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Hans Hofmann. In San Francisco, the California School of Fine Arts dominated the San Francisco scene and was the site of important works by the Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera. In 1940, Rivera created a mural, Pan American Unity, (today located at the San Francisco City College, for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco. California, like other American states, benefited from the WPA mural program and, even today, murals by Maynard Dixon and Millard Sheets and Helen Lundeberg remain in Los Angeles from those days.

The main avant-garde scene in Los Angeles could be characterized as a Surrealist scene, both European and home grown, supported by collectors from the movie colony, such as Sterling Holloway, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price. Man Ray lived in Los Angeles from 1940 and showed in San Francisco at the de Young and at San Francisco Museum of Art. Ray married Juliet Browner in a double wedding with Max Ernst (now divorced from Peggy Guggenheim) and Dorothea Tanning in 1946. The art of Ernst did not necessary please all Angelinos. Indeed, the famous actor, John Barrymore, got drunk and urinated on one of Max Ernst’s works at an art opening.

The remnants of Dada lived on with the Arensberg, in their important Duchamp collection, and from the occasional visits of the famous artist himself. While New York City contemplated Surrealism as painting or as “plastic automatism,” Los Angeles understood Surrealism from the standpoint of the found object and in relation to anti-art subversive forces. While New York City artists extended Modernism along formalist lines and were forced into de-politicizing their art from the late Forties on, artists in California, alone and neglected, were able to be engaged and political, producing content-saturated art.

This local Los Angeles taste for meaning and content in Los Angeles art existed in large part because of the Surrealist sunset in L. A. Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim had visited the city in 1941 and their colleague Julian Levy rented space next to the (Frank) Perls Gallery. Other gallery owners included Guggenheim associate Howard Putzel, Stanley Rose, and Earl Stendahl. Of particular importance to the conceptual trend in the art of post-war Los Angeles was the trace of Man Ray who lived in Los Angeles until 1951 and had an important retrospective there in 1966. In contrast to the lingering influence of Surrealism, artists in Los Angeles, now the dead center of a post-war military industrial complex, were impacted by the experience of being at Ground Zero during the Cold War.

The aging Surrealists arrived in a land of continuous boom and mass suburbanization on an unprecedented scale. Between 1940 and 1960 no fewer than 60 new cities were incorporated, many of which served highly specialized constituencies in greater Los Angeles. Despite the apparent clash between the past and the future, the artists of Los Angeles embraced the nostalgia of the found object in a culture that threw everything away. As will be discussed later, the artists of the fifties were witnesses to the possibility of immanent nuclear destruction, because this center of the defense industry would be ground zero for any atomic attack.

Los Angeles had been “made” by the Second World War. An important port city, LA was ideally situated on the Pacific Rim, a jumping off point for the Pacific Theater. People streamed into the city from all over America to work in the war industries and the boomtown bustled with the constant presence of service personnel. The region’s prominence did not end with the fighting. California had recovered quickly from the war, thanks in no small part to the large petroleum production. The vast defense industry that emerged during the Second World War and remained intact for the Cold War continued the prolonged economic prosperity and population growth.

But for artists, the prosperity had a dark side. It seemed probable that at any moment a button could be pushed and everyone and everything would be blown away. The assemblage works of Ed Kienholz and the casual craft of Wallace Berman was a mute testimony to their alienated state of mind—one gathered detritus and made comments upon a society that could not last in the shadow of constant atomic threat. Art, for these artists, could not be permanent or universal or humanistic, as it was in New York. Art could only be fleeting and ephemeral for tomorrow all could vanish in a mushroom cloud.

While artists contemplated an uncertain future in Los Angeles, the movie business or “the industry,” bounced back from wartime restrictions and stringencies and remained the largest filmmaking center in the world. In short, California was developing industries for the late Twentieth Century and becoming a high-tech industrial base while the East Coast was still dependent upon the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and heading towards a post-War future as the Rust Belt. Without much fanfare the United States government shifted federal largesse to the West Coast, the site of the race to the future—outer space.

Art in California was very different from New York in the post-war era, but these distinctions were complex, ranging from the mindset of the artists to the realities of the art scene. While New York was a single focused center, California had two art sites, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In contrast to the relatively homogenous scene in New York, the two cities had entirely disparate traditions. In San Francisco, the heritage European expressionist painting established a firm foothold; while in Los Angeles, the artists were more responsive to the lingering influences of Dada and Surrealism. In New York, the impact of Duchamp could become Neo-Dada, which is rather different from the influences of Surrealism in Los Angeles. These two movements, Dada and Surrealism, could not be comfortably accommodated to the Modernist line of art development and was termed the “Other Tradition” by art historian, Rosalind Krauss.

The father of the Other Tradition, Marcel Duchamp was an active presence in Los Angeles and was well known in San Francisco, long before his work was remembered in New York City. The Dada tradition, an old one, dating back to the First World War, is both preserved and reawakened in the two major sites for art, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Art in California is essentially a post-World War II experience, in the sense that the region emerges as a particular site for art forms that would have international impact.

If one disregards, for the purposes of discussing contemporary art, the California Impressionists and contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement, then serious avant-garde art is a product of the wartime environment. Before the Second World War, California was best known for its thriving scene in photography to the North and for its role as the movie capital of the world to the South. Less well known was the region’s importance for architecture. Some of the most innovative early Modern architects practiced in the Los Angeles area, from Charles and Henry Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra.

With ample opportunity for building single-family homes and small housing units, these architects, several of them immigrants, could forge forward into modernism. Modernism in California, especially in Los Angeles is worth discussing in relation to the barriers of politics and war in Europe. In contrast, the West Coast with its polyglot non-tradition of many styles was a fruitful site for experimental architecture. Irving Gill’s now-destroyed Dodge House was built as early as 1916, predating Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, 1929. While Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene Brothers were descended from the arts and crafts tradition, but Neutra and Schindler produced very important examples of what would be called The International Style. Both Neutra (Lovell Health House, 1929) and Schindler (Lovell House, Newport Beach, 1926) built houses for Philip Lovell, which were two of the best examples of modernist white walled architecture outside the Bauhaus.

As this international group of architects suggests, California was a land of migrants and immigrants of many cultures and ethnicities: an uneasy mixing bowl where Anglos insisted on maintaining a cultural, political, and economic domination. The history of Los Angeles, for example, can be written in terms of the movement of ethnic groups around the city, shifted at the will of the Anglos. Their voices will not be heard until the Sixties, making the Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia one of the rare public monuments asserting diversity and ethnicity and personal commitment to a sense of place. But the Watts Towers were more than a statement of one person’s determination, they became, over time, a symbol of art in Los Angeles and the peculiar direction art in Los Angeles has taken. Rodia worked as a bricoleur, a hunter and a gatherer, who worked with the objects found in his environment. Like the artists of Los Angeles who would begin their mature careers shortly after Rodia mysteriously left in the early fifties to return to his native Italy, he worked in isolation, without support or audience or appreciation, except by the few who were open-minded. Under such circumstances, without major museums, without patrons, with few galleries, the artists were in a curiously “pure” situation, making art for art’s sake alone, showing art for a truly elite audience–themselves.

In summation, both Los Angeles and San Francisco and their two very different art scenes have traditionally been ignored in favor of art in New York. Broadly speaking, regardless of brief deviations, New York has always been a painting town, as was San Francisco, until the sixties. Although people have always painted in the City of Angles, Los Angeles has always been an object making town. To repeat, a very important factor the artists in Los Angeles was the shadow of the Cold War. Acutely aware of the militarization of the nation, the artists of Los Angeles expected the world to end at any time. There seemed no purpose to make art that was lasting, much less archival. The LA artist has always worked with stuff, junk, detritus, and objects without history, without recognition, only to find out—over time—that something important had been wrought and their art was validated after the fact.

In contrast to this homegrown culture of the found object in Los Angeles, the artist in San Francisco was in a considerably more traditional milieu that of European painting and modern art, imported by artists from New York City, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. The impact of their influence as teachers and as artists was the famous Bay Area Figurative School, which evolved out of abstraction on the East Coast. The New York aura was a short lived phenomenon, however, and the San Francisco period of Figurative painting soon gave way to something more home grown: object-based “funk art” created in a Dada frame of mind. Indeed, Dada and Surrealism have an extended, albeit it American, life in California, north and south.

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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Art in San Francisco, 1940-1950

ART IN SAN FRANCISCO

1940-1950

San Francisco was the center of high culture on the West Coast, boasting an opera and art museums and art schools while Los Angeles was a provincial oil town. Remarkably, the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, was established in 1871.The H. M. de Young Memorial Museum honored the de Young family in 1895. The original building, which had been built for the California Midwinter International Exposition, was damaged by the Earthquake of 1906. The museum was rebuilt in 1929 and again in 2005. The College of Arts and Crafts was established in 1907, which became California College of Arts and Crafts in 1936 and the California College of Art a few years ago, almost a decade before Otis College of Art and Design was opened in Los Angeles. The Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, brought the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bernard Maybeck, to the city on the Bay. Maybeck went on to become the designer of the Los Angeles Public Library. The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park was built in competition with the de Young family, the family of Adolph and Alma Spreckels. In other words by the beginning of the twentieth century, San Francisco was the major and only site for art on the Left Coast.

As Nancy Boas points out in her book, The Society of Six: California Colorists, the artists who made up the Society of Six: August Gay, Bernard von Eichman, Maurice Logan, Louis Siegriest, and William H. Clapp were exposed to Impressionism in the 1915 exhibition. California produced its own “California Impressionists” or plein air painters who took inspiration from the colors of Monet and Renoir. These kinds of landscape artists, working in the clear and strong California light, could be found up and down the coast, depicting the extraordinary landscapes with a combination of post-Realism and late-Impressionism. Although we appreciate the Society of Six today, Boas mentions that these artists, like most of the landscape painters, were ignored in favor of more avant-garde art, which could actually be found in San Francisco.

In Painting on the Left. Diego Rivera, Radical Politics and San Francisco’s Public Murals, Anthony W. Lee points out that the Panama Pacific Exposition left an empty building behind, inspiring the idea of a San Francisco Museum of Art. The founding families of San Francisco were devoted art patrons and the family of railroad baron, Charles Crocker supported the idea of a museum, just as the family of Mark Hopkins had founded and art school. William Randolph Hearst also used the might of his newspaper to sponsor art in the city. Equally prominent in the effort to establish museums and art galleries in San Francisco was the legendary Bohemian Club. In fact the Galerie Beaux-Arts, founded by Beatrice Judd Ryan was a cooperative space and the first private gallery devoted to contemporary art, including artists who belonged to the Bohemian Club. Not to be outdone, the famous collector, Galka Scheyer, showed the Blue Four (Kandinsky, Klee, Jawlensky and Feininger) at the Oakland Art Gallery in 1926–27.

While the twenties might be remembered as a decade of building art patronage and art museums for the city, the thirties is marked by the powerful presence of Diego Rivera who left three major mural projects in the city: The Allegory of California for The San Francisco City Club, located in the Stock Exchange, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City for The San Francisco Art Institute, and Pan American Unity for the San Francisco City College, located in the Diego Rivera Theater. For a fuller account of Rivera’s impact on the city, read Lee’s Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and in San Francisco’s Public Murals but the arrival of the artist in San Francisco announced the arrival of social realism, the prevailing style of the Depression. As would be typical of Rivera’s career, his mere reputation as a Communist, set off waves of anxiety in the city.

A reporter from Time Magazine paid a visit in September 1931 to the California School of Fine Arts to write of Rivera disrespectfully as “famed, fat and 40.” The article goes on to describe the artist’s “plump posterior squashed comfortably down on a plank” while he painted. Although the article was mostly descriptive and not entirely unfavorable, the reporter, who is not named, concluded his article, ”Art: Rivera in California,” with the final facts: “A huge, roly-poly man, he sometimes works 16 hours a day. Once he exhausted himself, fell off his scaffold, split his head.” Diego Rivera also found time to do a mural for the dining room of the Sigmund Stern (later transferred to Stern Hall at Berkeley) entitled Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees, 1930-1931.

But the period of the art patronage of the Works Progress Administration and the age of murals with social content had arrived, so too was the antithesis, the European avant-garde in the person of Hans Hofmann who arrived at Berkeley, in the summers of 1930 and 1931. Although Hofmann would go back and forth between Germany and America for the next few years, in 1934, he received his permanent visa and remained in America. Hofmann pointed the way to the future direction of the painters in San Francisco, but there were other modernist contenders in the Bay Area. Erle Loran, devotee of Paul Cézanne who had lived in his studio in 1927,would become famous for his formalist diagrams of Cézanne’s works, published in 1943. In 1936, Loran established Cubism as dominant mode at Berkeley, but, as can be imagined but there was a gulf between the Berkeley School and the followers of Rivera.

By the time the Second World War broke out, San Francisco had a thriving art scene, with contending perspectives on art. Presiding over what would be an important shift from European Modernism to American contemporary art, was the newly established San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art. Opening in 1935 with Grace L. McCann Morley as its first director. It was unusual if not outright rare for a woman to have such an important and influential position and Morley made adventurous and farsighted important purchases, such as Arschile Gorky’s Enigmatic Combat (1941), which was exhibited in1943 and Jackson Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret (1943), exhibited 1945. At that time, both artists were unknowns, but these two purchases would begin the foundation of what would become an important West Coast collection of Contemporary Art.

Indeed, Rivera returned to San Francisco to paint “art in action” mural to be displayed at World’s Fair on Treasure Island, 1940 and Gorky was in San Francisco the summer of 1941. But the time of one of these artists was ending in America and a new day was dawning. The California School of Fine Arts hired a new and ambitious director, Douglas MacAgy in 1945. MacAgy signaled that the old was out and that the new was in when he draped Rivera mural at the school. Another signal that it was not only the end of mural era was Clay Spohn, who instigated what would later become a West Coast outpost of late, late Dada when he organized the “Museum of Unknown and Little Known Objects” in 1941 at CSFA. Some day this iconoclastic impulse would be known as “funk.” The rest of the faculty included the famed photographer, Ansel Adams, and the painters David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Hassel Smith. It was at the School of Fine Arts that East Coast Abstract Expressionism arrived and changed the artistic landscape of San Francisco.

The powerful and impressive artist and art teacher, Clyfford Still made his career between New York and San Francisco, teaching at CSFA starting in 1946. He took an unlikely trip to Richmond Professional Institute, a vocational school in 1944 and moved to New York in 1945. Still who did large, dryly painted abstract works had one of the last shows with Peggy Guggenheim in 1946 before she left for Europe. Still had a romantic notion of the role of the artist, who he saw as a persona set apart from ordinary people. From 1947, he refused to allow his works to be shown in commercial gallery, but he allowed Betty Parsons to represent him. He taught his students that museums should come to them for their art, not the other way around. To make sure that his flock was beholden to no one, Still founded the Metart Galleries in San Francisco. This was an alternative space, a co-op where he and twelve of his students, co-op could show their art.

Clyfford Still’s exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1947 marked the death of the School of Paris and established CSFA as the counterpart to the “Berkeley School.” For his part, Loren was not impressed with Abstract Expressionism, about which he said, “We call it the drip school, even the shit school. It was pretty repulsive,” he continued. ”We saw it as a revolt as Hofmann’s and our teaching—which was very concrete, and based on real knowledge—Giotto and so on.” In retrospect, this statement by Loren seems odd, given the impetus that Hofmann had given to Abstract Expressionism in New York. However, Loren seems to have wanted the development of Cubism-Expressionism to be stopped at the point of synthesis seen in Hofmann’s work and not imaginatively extended to abstraction. Still continued his strong presence in San Francisco and at the California School of Fine Arts by starting a graduate painting class at a time when many veterans of the Second World War were returning to school, picking up the pieces of their interrupted lives. However, in 1950, Still left San Francisco and returned to New York, were a very different art scene was poised to become very important indeed.

Despite the powerful local objections from the art department at the University of California, Berkeley, by 1950, Abstract Expression was an accepted style in San Francisco, As Thomas Albright pointed out in Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, the local “resistance” the style had been “exaggerated.” Given the general acceptance and promotion of the style as being quintessentially American, it is odd that in the histories of Abstract Expressionism, San Francisco is often left out and its importance in developing the large-scale works of important artists is less well known than that of New York City. One can assume the relative lack of emphasis is due to the fact that the Bay Area developed its own “brand” of expressionism, which was not abstract but figurative. In other words, painting in the Bay Area did not follow the orthodoxy of New York art critic Clement Greenberg who insisted that the proper destiny for avant-garde art was total abstraction. That said, two of the most important abstract painters, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, emerged from the Bay Area Figurative School. It was Still who encouraged Rothko towards abstraction and towards larger canvases while they were working together at the California College of Fine Arts.

Although Clyfford Still left San Francisco for New York permanently in 1949 and resigned in 1950, a more accessible and more congenial teacher, Mark Rothko, was on the CSFA campus between 1947 and 1949. Rothko was just emerging out of his figurative Surrealist phase when he began working with Still and it is during these important years in San Francisco that he transitioned away from his early Surrealism, typical of his generation and made a definitive move to a more reductive abstraction, reducing the number of shapes on the canvas and enlarging the forms. While Rothko shifted towards a simpler means of organizing areas of free floating paint, his “multiform,” and with Ad Reinhardt on campus in the summer of 1950, it seemed that CSFA was the place to be. “Under the leadership of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko it is absolutely true that a new trend in painting has been marked off…it recalls the group feeling that we have read about among the French Impressionists,” Loren admitted. But the college’s moment had passed. After finding his mature and signature style in the Bay area, Rothko returned to New York in 1949. The warning bell signaling that Abstract Expression had peaked sounded in 1950, the year of Clay Spohn’s mocking last exhibition in which he left behind a book of “instructions” for Abstract Expressionism. In other words, the style was rapidly becoming academic, a “kit” of painterly gestures. Albright states that the Bay Area School was indeed “academic.” In New York, the academic was becoming marketable and profitable.

Perhaps Douglas MacAgy sensed the winds shifting away from painterly gestures and personality cults for he left CSFA, because, as the story went, he was not able to hire Marcel Duchamp. Although no one would have predicted it at then time, Duchamp was destined to become a seminal artist for the remainder of the century, taking art in a conceptual direction. Leaving aside for the moment the strange spectacle of Duchamp teaching in an art college, MacAgy denied this version of why he left the school. He felt that the student body was changing from males wanting to be serious artists to females on the hunt for husbands and students who wanted to teach art rather than be artists. In other words, instead of Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis (who attended Berkeley and hung around Clyfford Still) as students, the college would go into a decline. MacAgy’s strangely sexist attitude and his willingness to disparage female students and women artists seems archaic today, but his conviction that the presence of the female automatically lowered the standards proved to be totally wrong–as the art of Jay de Feo and Joan Brown attests to this day.

With Still and MacAgy gone, other faculty followed. Ed Corbett and Spohn left shortly after, then Hassel Smith was dismissed by the new director and David Park and Elmer Bishchoff resigned to protest the change in direction of the college. But in those short years of development, the Bay Area artists created a very different sort of Abstract Expressionism with figuration. But the representational aspect is only part of the story. The New York painters were engaged in formal play with the tradition of European modernism, but the Bay Area artists responded to the landscape of the West Coast. Even when painting abstractly, Diebenkorn always had a sense of sea, land, sky, and moved easily from the colored zones of thick gestures to the deeply colored interiors with lone inhabitants. When he moved to Ocean Park in the sixties, Diebenkorn, flattened his canvases, simplifying that natural creases in the northern landscape into the stripes of the freeways of Los Angeles. Away from the Bay, the artist became totally abstract and never returned to figuration.

Figurative painters, Bishchoff and Park showed more of the outdoor life of Northern California with figures on the beach—once again sky, sea, land—all painted with broad strokes of paint laid on with the strength of Still and the zones of Rothko. In contrast, Hassel Smith and Frank Lobdell were drawers not painters, in other words they were draw-ers who painted in writerly wire-like gestures. In the end it was the thick and assertive approach to paint itself deployed by Bishchoff and Park that eventually characterized the Bay Area Figurative School. These artists utilized the gesture as style and technique used to paint large and powerful figures, often in sea scares or beach scares, rendered timeless by the deep strokes of pigment. What was left of the glory days of Bay Area Figuration, the group of painters more or less disbanded before the color school wing, inspired by Mark Rothko. of the Abstract Expressionists in New York became prominent in the sixties.

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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Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part Two

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[email protected]

 

 

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The American artists had early training from Modernist masters in New York City that prepared the ground with the abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and with Surrealist ideas and techniques of André Masson and Matta. The famous expatriate teacher, Hans Hofmann, taught a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and through the works of Pablo Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. On the other hand, they were also wary of decorative art as being empty. The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning.

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

With Abstract Expressionism, art and artists took up new positions and roles. The artist as a human being was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of discovery. The writings of André Breton were of help by suggesting that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

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

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As art historian, Robert Hobbs, pointed out, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The artists also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. The painting becomes the universe and universal. But in order for the experience to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned.

One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was also balanced. But Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked spontaneity. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content. Compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, just as the way in which Mondrian brought black lines and colors to the end of the canvas.

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

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

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

[email protected]

 

Podcast 41 Painting 7: Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg and Modernist Aesthetics

Clement Greenberg was a rare character in history: the right person in the right place at the right time, writing the right things to the right people. A New York intellectual and art critic, Greenberg was uniquely positioned to be “present at the creation” of The New York School during the 1940s. Greenberg’s art critical writings made the case for the importance of American art in the history of Modernism. Perhaps his most important contribution was to introduce the Modernist aesthetic or definition of art to his American audience. His “formalist” ideas would dominate the New York Art world for decades to come.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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