PAINTING SINCE WORLD WAR II
Abstract Expressionism: Action Painting
The world, having survived the most serious economic calamity and the
greatest threat to civilization in all of history, now faced a
potentially even greater danger: nuclear holocaust. This central fact
conditioned the entire Cold War era, which has only recently come to an
end. Ironically, it was also a period of unprecedented prosperity in
much of the West, but not in the rest of the world, which, with the
notable exception of Japan, has struggled until recently to compete
The painting that prevailed for about
years following the end of World War II arose in direct
response to the anxiety brought on by these historical circumstances.
The term Abstract Expressionism is often applied to this style, which
was initiated by artists living in New York City. Under the influence of
existentialist philosophy, Action Painters, the first of the Abstract
Expressionists, developed a new approach to art. Painting became a
counterpart to life itself, an ongoing process in which artists face
comparable risks and overcome the dilemmas confronting them through a
series of conscious and unconscious decisions in response to both inner
and external demands. The Color Field Painters in turn coalesced the
frenetic gestures and violent hues of the Action Painters into broad
forms of poetic color that partly reflect the spirituality of Oriental
mysticism. In a sense. Color Field Painting resolved the conflicts
expressed by Action Painting. They are, however, two sides of the same
coin, separated by the thinnest differences of approach.
During World War II, the early Abstract Expressionists evolved their own
form of Surrealism that allowed them to express their sense of horror at
the pervasive evil of a chaotic world. Distraught by the carnage, which
threatened the very existence of civilization, they became myth-makers
who sought to evoke images that expressed their sense of impending
disaster. In this they were strongly affected by the theory of the
collective subconscious formulated by Freud's disciple Carl Jung, who
believed that universal archetypes are imbedded in our psyches. The
breakthrough came in a discussion between
(1903-1974) and Mark Rothko
(1903-1970), who suggested
they try Classical themes. Gottlieb consequently began to paint
pictographs based on Sophocles and the other Greek tragedians.
Pictographs are a form of picture writing found in prehistoric art; no
longer intelligible to us, they continue to exercise a mysterious,
instinctive appeal. Few prehistoric images, however, have the impact of
Gottlieb's pictographs (fig. 1092),
which conjure up something more elemental than even the
most ancient relic. The canvas owes its power to his uncanny ability to
cast the viewer back into the dark, primitive realm of the subconscious.
Painted in an uncompromisingly severe style, it radiates a menacing evil
that is a truly frightening evocation of the war. Composed in a grid
system derived from Mondrian, it contains Surrealist forms influenced by
the grimmest works of Picasso, Miro, and Klee from the war years. At
face value the picture seems a confusing jumble of human anatomy cut up
and reassembled by a lunatic. It demands to be read section by section, yet it does not yield a literal meaning. Instead, the
accumulation of intuitive responses through free association to this
enigmatic image provides an experience at once overwhelming and
an Armenian who came to America at
16, was the pioneer of the
movement and the single most important influence on its other members.
It took him 20 years,
painting first in the manner of Cezanne, then in the vein of Picasso, to
arrive at his mature style. We see it in The Liver Is the Cock's Comb
(fig. 1093), his
greatest work. The enigmatic title suggests Gorky's close contact with
the poet Andre Breton and other Surrealists who found refuge in New York
during the war. Gorky developed a personal mythology that underlies his
work; each form represents a private symbol within this hermetic realm.
Everything here is in the process of turning into something else. The
treatment reflects his own experience in camouflage, gained from a class
he conducted earlier. The biomorphic shapes clearly owe much to Miro,
while their spontaneous handling and the glowing color reflect Gorky's
enthusiasm for Kandinsky (see figs. 1079
Yet the dynamic interlocking of the forms, their
aggressive power of attraction and repulsion are uniquely his own.
Descent into Darkness.
The Liver Is the Cock's Comb.
The most important of the Action Painters proved to be
His huge canvas entitled Autumn Rhythm: Number
30, 1950 (fig.
1094) was executed mainly by pouring and spattering the colors, instead of
applying them with a brush.The result, especially when viewed at close
range, suggests both Kandinsky and Max Ernst (compare figs.
1075). Kandinsky's non-representational
Expressionism and the Surrealists' exploitation of chance effects arc
indeed the main sources of Pollock's work, but they do not sufficiently
account for his revolutionary technique and the emotional appeal of his
art. Why did Pollock "fling a pot of paint in the public's face," as
Ruskin had accused Whistler of doing? It was surely not to be more
abstract than his predecessors, for the strict control implied by
abstraction is exactly what Pollock relinquished when he began to
dribble and spatter. Rather, he came to regard paint itself not as a
passive substance to be manipulated at will but as a storehouse of
pent-up forces for him to release.
The actual shapes visible in our illustration are largely determined
by the internal dynamics of his material and his process: the viscosity
of the paint, the speed and direction of its impact upon the canvas, its
interaction with other layers of pigment. The result is a surface so
alive, so sensuously rich, that all earlier painting looks pallid in
comparison. When he "aims" the paint at the canvas instead of "carrying"
it on the tip of his brushor,
if you will, releases the forces within the paint by giving it a
momentum of its ownPollock
does not simply "let go" and leave the rest to chance. He is himself the
ultimate source of energy for these forces, and he "rides" them as a
cowboy might ride a wild horse, in a frenzy of psychophysical action.
He does not always stay in the saddle, yet the exhilaration of this
contest, which strains every fiber of his being, is well worth the risk.
Our simile, though crude, points up the main difference between Pollock
and his predecessors: his total commitment to the act of painting. Hence
his preference for huge canvases that provide a "field of combat" large
enough for him to paint not merely with his arms, but with the motion of
his whole body.
The term Action Painting conveys the essence of this approach far
better than does Abstract Expressionism. To those who complain that Pollock was not sufficiently in control of his
medium, we reply that this loss is more than offset by a gain
new continuity and expansiveness of the creative process that gave his
work its distinctive mid-twentieth-century stamp. Pollock's drip
technique, however, was not in itself essential to Action Painting, and
he stopped using it in 1953.
who was married to Pollock, never abandoned the brush,
although she was unmistakably influenced by Pollock. She struggled to
establish her artistic identity, emerging from his shadow only after
undergoing several changes in direction and destroying much of her early
work. After Pollock's death, she succeeded in doing what he had been
attempting to do for the last three years of his life: to reintroduce
the figure into Abstract Expressionism while retaining its automatic
handwriting. The potential had always been there in Pollock's work: in
Autumn Rhythm, we can easily imagine wildly dancing people. In
Celebration (fig. 1095),
Krasner defines these nascent shapes from within the
tangled network of lines by using the broad gestures of Action Painting
to suggest human forms without actually depicting them.
Number 30, 1950.
1904), another prominent member
of the group and a close friend of Gorky, always retains a link with the
world of images, whether or not it has a recognizable subject. In some
paintings, such as Woman II (fig.
the image emerges from the jagged welter of
brushstrokes as insistently as it does in Rouault's Head of Christ
(see fig. 1038). De
Kooning has in common with Pollock the furious energy of the process of
painting, the sense of risk, of a challenge successfullybut
barelymet. What are we to
make of his wildly distorted Woman II ?
It is as if the flow of psychic impulses in the
process of painting has unleashed this nightmarish specter from deep
within the artist's subconscious. For that reason, he has sometimes been
accused of being a woman-hater, a charge he denies. Rather, she is like
a primordial goddess, cruel yet seductive, who represents the dark,
primitive side of our makeup.
Lee Krasner. Celebration.
Willem de Kooning.
The work of
Willem de Kooning (born
Willem de Kooning.
Expressionism in Europe
Action Painting marked the international coming-of-age for American
art. The movement had a powerful impact on European art, which in those
years had nothing to show of comparable force and conviction. One French
artist, however, was of such prodigal originality as to constitute a
movement all by himself: Jean Dubuffet, whose first exhibition soon
after the Liberation electrified and antagonized the art world of Paris.
had formal instruction in painting, but he responded to
none of the various trends he saw around him, nor to the art of the
museums. All struck him as divorced from real life, and he turned to
other pursuits. Only in middle age did he experience the breakthrough
that permitted him to discover his creative gifts. Dubuffet suddenly
realized that for him true art had to come from outside the ideas and
traditions of the artistic elite, and he found inspiration in the art of
children and the insane. The distinction between "normal" and "abnormal"
struck him as no more tenable than established notions of "beauty" and "ugliness."
Not since Marcel Duchamp
had anyone ventured so radical a critique of the nature
As a young man
Dubuffet made himself the champion of what he called L'art brut,
"art-in-the-raw," but he created something of a paradox besides:
while extolling the directness and spontaneity of the amateur as against
the refinement of professional artists, he became a professional artist
himself. Duchamp s questioning of established values had led him to
cease artistic activity altogether, but Dubuffet became incredibly
prolific, second only to Picasso in output. Compared with Klee, who had
first utilized the style of children's drawings, Dubuffet's art is "raw"
indeed. Its stark immediacy, its explosive, defiant presence, are the
opposite of the older painter's formal discipline and economy of means.
Did Dubuffet perhaps fall into a trap of his own making? If his work
merely imitated the art brut of children and the insane, would
not these self-chosen conventions limit him as much as those of the
We may be tempted to think so at our first sight of Le Metafisyx
(fig. 1097) from his
Corps de Dames series. Even De Kooning's wildly distorted
Woman II (fig. 1096)
seems gentle when matched against this shocking assault on our inherited
sensibilities. The paint is as heavy and opaque as a rough coating of
plaster, and the lines articulating the blocklike body are scratched
into the surface like graffiti made by an untrained hand. Appearances
are deceiving, however. The fury and concentration of Dubuffet's attack
should convince us that his demonic female is not "something any child
can do." In an eloquent statement the artist has explained the purpose
of images such as this: "The female body . . .
has long . . .
been associated with a very specious notion of beauty
which I find miserable and most depressing. Surely I am for beauty, but
not that one ... I intend
to sweep away everything we have been taught to considerwithout
questionas grace and
beauty [and to] substitute another and vaster beauty, touching all
objects and beings, not excluding the most despised
... I would like people to look
at my work as an enterprise for the rehabilitation of scorned values,
and ... a work of ardent
1921), one of the
group's co-founders, soon distinguished himself as the finest pure
painter of his generation in postwar Europe. To the subject matter of
Dubuffet he added the slashing brushwork and vivid colors of De Kooning.
During several extended visits to the United States in the late
1950s and early
1960s, Appel was directly exposed
to the Action Painters and inspired by jazz musicians. As a result, his
palette became even more sonorous, the texture more sensuous, and the
space more complex. Burned Face (fig.
1098), one of the personages that inhabits
Appel's work from that period, is an explosion of color applied with a
brilliant technique that at first hides the figural elements lurking
within the painting. In maintaining the importance of content while
thoroughly integrating it with the style of Abstract Expressionism,
Appel established a precedent which was followed by many other European
artists, as well as by a number of American painters who have become
preoccupied with the same problem.
Le Metafisyx (Corps de
L'art brut and Abstract Expressionism provided the
mainsprings for the
COBRA group in Denmark, Belgium, and Holland, which took its name from Copenhagen, Brussels, and
Amsterdam, the capitals of those countries. The Dutch artist
(1909-1992) was allied not with Abstract
Expressionism, though he was clearly related to it, but with the
Expressionist tradition. For his
power to transmute sheer anguish into visual form he had no equal
among twentieth-century artists unless it be Rouault. Bacon often
derived his imagery from other artists, freely combining
several sources while transforming them so as to infuse them with new
meaning. Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (fig. 1099) reflects Bacon's
obsession with Velazquez' Pope Innocent X (compare fig. 773). a picture
that haunted him for some years. It is, of course, no longer Innocent X
we see here but a screaming ghost, inspired by a scene from Sergei
Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky, that is materializing out of a black
void in the company of two luminescent sides oi beel taken from a
painting by Rembrandt. Knowing the origin of the canvas does not help us
to understand it, however. Nor does comparison with earlier works such
as Grunewald's The Crucifixion, Fuseli's Nightmare, Ensor's Christ's
Entry into Brussels in 1889, or Munch's The Scream (see figs. 709,
1003, and 1004), which are its antecedents. Bacon was a gambler, a risk
taker, in real life as well as in the way he worked. What he sought are
images that, in his own words, "unlock the deeper possibilities of
sensation." Here he competes with Velazquez, but on his own terms, which
are to set up an almost unbearable tension between the shocking violence
of his vision and the luminous beautv ol his brushwork.
The English artist
Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef.
Color Field Painting
By the late 1940s, a number of artists began to transform Action
Painting into a style called Color Field Painting, in which the canvas
is stained with thin, translucent color washes. These may be oil or even
ink, but the favored material quickly became acrylic, a plastic
suspended in a polymer resin, which can be thinned with water so that it
In the mid-1940s
Rothko worked in a style derived from
Gorky, but within less than a decade he subdued the aggressiveness of
Action Painting so completely that his pictures breathe the purest
contemplative stillness. Orange and Yellow (fig. 1100) consists of two
rectangles with blurred edges on a pale red ground. The lower rectangle
seems immersed in the red ground, while the upper rectangle stands out
more assertively in front of the red. The canvas is very large, over
seven and one-half feet high, and the thin washes of paint permit the
texture of the cloth to be seen. This description hardly begins to touch
the essence of the work, or the reasons for its mysterious power to move
us. These are to be found in the delicate equilibrium of the shapes,
their strange interdependence, and the subtle variations of hue. Not
every beholder responds to the works of this withdrawn, introspective
artist. For those who do, the experience is akin to a trancelike
Orange and Yellow.
who was inspired by Rothko's example as early as
1952. In The Bay (fig.
1101) Frankenthaler uses
the same biomorphic forms basic to early Action Painting but eliminates
the personal handwriting found in the brushwork of Gorky and De Kooning.
The results are reminiscent of O'Keeffe's paintings in their lyrical and decorative
qualities, and no less impressive (compare fig.
The stained canvas was also pioneered by
Helen Frankenthaler (born
1953 proved decisive for
(1912-1962), perhaps the most
gifted of all the Color Field Painters. The following year he painted
his first "veil" paintings, then struggled unsuccessfully for several
years before inaugurating a second series that proved even more
majestic. The successive layers of color in Blue Veil (fig.
1102) have been "floated
on" without visible marks of the brush. Their harmonious interaction
creates a delicately shifting balance, like the aurora borealis, that
gives the picture its mysterious beauty. How did Louis achieve this
mesmerizing effect, so akin to late paintings by Monet (see fig.
958)? We do not know for certain,
but he seems to have poured his gossamer-thin paints down the canvas,
which he tilted and turned to give direction to their flow. Needless to
say, it took a great deal of experimentation to arrive at the seemingly
effortless perfection seen in our example.
A visit to Frankenthaler's studio in
Morris Louis. Blue Veil.
Late Abstract Expressionism
turned away from Action Painting altogether in favor of
hard-edge painting. Red Blue Green (fig.
Ellsworth Kelly (born
an early leader of this
tendency, abandons Rothko's impressionistic softness. Instead, flat
areas of color are circumscribed within carefully delineated forms as
part of the formal investigation of color and design problems for their
own sake. This radical abstraction of form is known as Minimalism, which
implies an equal reduction of content. It was a quest for basic elements
representing the fundamental aesthetic values of art, without regard to issues of content. Minimalism was a
necessary, even valuable phase, of modern art. At its most extreme, it
reduced art not to an eternal essence but to an arid simplicity. In the
hands of a few artists of genius like Kelly, however, it yielded works
of unprecedented formal perfection.
Many artists who came to maturity in the
1936) began as an admirer of
Mondrian. then soon evolved a nonfigurative style that was even more
self-contained. Unlike Mondrian, Stella did not concern himself with the
vertical-horizontal balance that relates the older artist's work to the
world of nature. Logically enough, he also abandoned the traditional
rectangular format, to make quite sure that his pictures bore no resemblance to windows. The shape of
the canvas had now become an integral part of the design. In one of his
largest works, the majestic Empress of India (fig.
1104), this shape is determined
by the thrust and counterthrust of four huge chevrons, identical in size
and shape but sharply differentiated in color and in their relationship
to the whole. The paint, moreover, contains powdered metal which gives
it an iridescent sheen. This is yet another way to stress the impersonal
precision of the surfaces and to remove the work from any comparison
with the "handmade" look of easel pictures. In tact, to call Empress
of India a picture is something of a misnomer. It demands to be
thought of as an object, sufficient unto itself.
Ellsworth Kelly. Red Blue Green.
The brilliant and precocious
Frank Stella (born
Frank Stella. Empress of India.
Following World War II, blacks began to attend art schools in growing
numbers, at the very time that Abstract Expressionism marked the coming
of age of American art. The civil rights movement helped them to
establish their artistic identities and find appropriate styles for
expressing them. The turning point proved to be the assassinations of
Malcolm X in
1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr..
which provoked an
outpouring of African-American art.
Since then, black artists have pursued three major tendencies.
Mainstream Abstractionists, particularly those of the older generation,
tend to be concerned primarily with seeking a personal aesthetic,
maintaining that there is no such thing as African-American, or black,
art, only good art. Consequently, they have been denounced by activist
artists who, stirred by social consciousness as well as by political
ideology, have adopted highly expressive representational styles as the
means for communicating a distinctive black perspective directly to the
people in their communities. Mediating between these two approaches is a
more decorative form of art that frequently incorporates African,
Caribbean, and even Mexican motifs. Abstraction has proved the most
fruitful path, for it has opened up avenues of expression that allow
black artists, however private their concerns may be, to achieve a
universal, not only an ethnic, statement.
(1911-1988). Although he got
his start in the 1930s, it was not
until the mid-1950s that
he decided to devote his career entirely to art. Over the course of his
long life, he pursued interests in mathematics, philosophy, and music
that enriched his work. Bearden was inevitably affected by Abstract
Expressionism but, dissatisfied with the approach, abandoned it in favor
of a collage technique, although abstraction remained the underpinning
of his art. His reputation was established during the
mid-1960s by photomontages such
as The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism (fig. 1105). Bearden's aim, as he put it, was
to depict "the life of my people as I know it, passionately and
dispassionately as Brueghel. My intention is to reveal through pictorial
complexities the life I know." He had a full command of the resources of
Western and African art. Our example is as intricate in its composition
as Terbrugghen's The Calling of St. Matthew (fig.
but it is couched in the
familiar forms of tribal masks. The picture fulfills Bearden's goals so
completely that it exercises an immediate appeal to people of all races.
Small wonder that he is revered as a great African-American artist.
No hard-and-fast rules separate these alternatives, however,
and aspects of each have often been combined into individual styles.
Certainly the most successful synthesis was realized by
belongs to the generation of African-Americans
born around 1940 who have
brought black painting and sculpture to artistic maturity. He was
initially a member of the "lost" generation of the lyrical
Expressionists from the early 1970s
whose contribution has been largely overlooked. After a
period of intense self-scrutiny, he developed the sophisticated
technique seen in Batman (fig. 1106).
His method can be compared to jazz improvisation,
a debt that the artist himself has acknowledged. He interweaves his
color and brushwork within a contrasting two-part structure that permits
endless variations on the central theme. Although Williams is concerned
primarily with formal issues, the play of color across the encrusted
surface evokes the light, patterns, and texture of a landscape, one that
is deeply rooted in the artist's memory of the rural South where he
spent his childhood.
The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism.
William T. Williams.
William T. Williams (born
1934) has a spontaneous creativity that emanates
equally from his reservoir of memories. He was among the first artists
to explore the urban African-American environment. Graffiti, church
facades, store signs, restaurant menus, and other commercial imagesthese
and like motifs are grist for his mill. The specific combination in
White Flower Black Flower (fig. 1107)
holds no literal meaning and arises purely through free
association. By the same token, there is no precise order, despite the
formal presentation. Λ
brilliant technician, Saunders feels at liberty to juxtapose the
representational and the abstract, "real" collage elements and
"imitation" graffiti, pure geometry and painterly gesture. These
components are nevertheless related thematically and aesthetically
through their origin in Saunders' experience. We may see this approach
as a stratagem that permits him to have the best of both worlds by
fusing the unique features of black culture with a singular form of
abstraction in a wav that resists ready categorization.
William T. Williams.
With Williams, it is the intense effort to build up meaning
through dense layers of paint within a clear framework that impresses.
By contrast, the work of Raymond Saunders (born
1107. Raymond Saunders.
Black Flower. 1986
A trend that gathered force in the
was known as "Op Art" because of its concern with
optics: the physical and psychological process of vision. Op Art has
been devoted primarily to optical illusions. Needless to say, all
representational art from the Old Stone Age onward has been involved
with optical illusion in one sense or another. What is new about Op Art
is that it is rigorously non-representational. It evolved partly from
hard-edge abstraction, although its ancestry can be traced back still
further to Mondrian.
At the same time, it seeks to extend the realm of
optical illusion in every possible way by taking advantage of the new
materials and processes constantly supplied by science, including laser
technology. Much Op Art consists of constructions or "environments"
dependent for their effect on light and motion and cannot be reproduced
satisfactorily in a book.
Because of its reliance on science and technology, Op Art's
possibilities appear to be unlimited. The movement nevertheless matured
within a decade of its inception and developed little thereafter. The
difficulty lies primarily with its subject. Op Art seems overly cerebral
and systematic, more akin to the sciences than to the humanities. Op Art
often involves the beholder with the work of art in a truly novel,
dynamic way. But although its effects are undeniably fascinating, they
encompass a relatively narrow range of concerns that lie for the most
part outside the mainstream of modern art. Only a handful of artists
have enriched it with the variety and expressiveness necessary to make
it a viable tradition.
who came to America after 1933,
when Hitler closed the Bauhaus school at Dessau, became the
founder of the mainstream of Op Art. He preferred to work in series that
allowed him to explore each theme fully before moving on to a new
subject. Albers devoted the latter part of his career to color theory.
Homage to the Square (fig. 1108),
his final series, is concerned with subtle color
relations among simple geometric shapes, which he reduced to a few basic
types. Within these confines, he was able to invent almost endless
combinations based on rules he devised through ceaseless
experimentation. Basically, Albers relied on color scales in which
primary hues are desaturated in perceptually even gradations by giving
them higher values (that is, by diluting them with white or gray). A
step from one color scale can be substituted for the same step in
another; these in turn can be combined by following the laws of color
mixing, complementary colors, and so forth. This approach requires the
utmost sensitivity to color, and even though the paint is taken directly
from commercially available tubes, the colors bear a complex relation to
each other. In our example, the artist creates a strong optical
push-pull through the play of closely related colors of contrasting
value. The exact spatial effect is determined not only by hue and
intensity of the pigments but by their sequence and the relative size of
developed his art by relaxing Albers'
self-imposed restrictions. In Entrance to Green (fig.
1109), the ever-decreasing series of rectangles creates a sense of infinite recession toward the
center. This is counterbalanced by the color pattern, which brings the
center close to us by the gradual shift from cool to warm tones as we
move inward from the periphery. Surprising for such an avowedly
theoretical work is its expressive intensity. The resonance of the
colors within the strict geometry heightens the optical push-pull,
producing an almost mystical power. The painting can be likened to a
modern icon, capable of providing a deeply moving experience to those
attuned to its vision.
Homage to the Square:
Albers was an important teacher as well as theorist.
His gifted pupil
Richard Anuszkiewicz (born
Other artists who made a name for themselves in the
rediscovered what the public continued to take for
granted despite all efforts to persuade otherwise: that a picture is not
"essentially a flat surface covered with colors," as Maurice Denis had
insisted, but an image wanting to be recognized. If art was by its very
nature representational, then the modern movement, from Manet to
Pollock, was based on a fallacy, no matter how impressive its
achievements. Painting, it seemed, had been on a kind of voluntary
starvation diet for the past hundred years, feeding upon itself rather
than on the world around us. It was time to give in to the "image-hunger
' thus built upa
hunger from which the public at large had never suffered, since its
demand for images was abundantly supplied by photography, advertising,
magazine illustrations, and comic strips.
The artists who felt this way seized on the products of commercial
art catering to popular taste. Here, they realized, was an essential
aspect of our century's visual environment that had been entirely
disregarded as vulgar and antiaesthetic by the representatives of
"highbrow" culture, a presence that cried out to be examined. Only Marcel Duchamp and some of the
Dadaists, with their contempt for all orthodox opinion, had dared to
penetrate this realm.
It was they who now became the patron saints of Pop Art,
as the new movement came to be called.
mid-1950s with the Independent
Group of artists and intellectuals. They were fascinated by the impact
on British life of the American mass media, which had been flooding
England ever since the end of World War II. The first work that can be
called an unequivocal statement of Pop Art was a small collage (fig.
1110) made in
1922), a follower of
Marcel Duchamp, which already incorporates most of the themes that were
taken up by later artists: comic strips, cinema, commercial design,
nudes, cheap decor, appliances, all tokens of modern materialistic
Pop Art actually began in London in the
It is not surprising that the new art had a special appeal for
America, and that it reached its fullest development there during the
following decade. In retrospect, Pop Art in the United States was an
expression of the optimistic spirit of the 1960s
that began with the election of John F. Kennedy
and ended at the height of the Vietnam War. Unlike Dada, Pop Art was not
motivated by despair or disgust at contemporary civilization. It viewed
commercial culture as its raw material, an endless source of pictorial
subject matter, rather than as an evil to be attacked. Nor did Pop Art
share Dada's aggressive attitude toward the established values of modern
one of the pioneers of Pop Art in America, raises
questions that go beyond the boundaries of the movement. Johns began by
painting, meticulously and with great precision, such familiar objects as flags, targets, numerals, and maps. His Three Flags (fig.
1111) presents an
intriguing problem: just what is the difference between image and
reality? We instantly recognize the Stars and Stripes, but if we try to
define what we actually see here, we find that the answer eludes us.
These flags behave "unnaturally." Instead of waving or flopping they
stand at attention, as it were, rigidly aligned with each other in a
kind of reverse perspective. Yet there is movement of another sort: the
reds, whites, and blues are not areas of solid color but subtly
modulated. Can we really say, then, that this is an image of three
flags? Clearly, no such flags can exist anywhere except in the artist's
head. The more we think about it, the more we begin to recognize the
picture as a feat of the imaginationprobably
the last thing we expected to do when we first looked at it.
Just What Is It That Makes Today's
Home So Different, So Appealing?
The work of
Jasper Johns (born
Revolutionary though it was, Johns' use of flags,
numerals, and similar elements as pictorial themes had to some extent
been anticipated 30 years
before by another American painter, Charles Demuth, in such pictures as
I Saw the Figure 5
in Gold (fig. 1070).
Roy Lichtenstein (born 1923),
in contrast, has seized on comic stripsor,
more precisely, on the standardized imagery of the traditional strips
devoted to violent action and sentimental love, rather than those
bearing the stamp of an individual creator. His paintings, such as
Drowning Girl (fig. 1112),
are greatly enlarged copies of single frames, including
the balloons, the impersonal, simplified black outlines, and the dots
used for printing colors on cheap paper.
These pictures are perhaps the most paradoxical in the entire field
of Pop Art. Unlike any other paintings past or present, they cannot be
accurately reproduced in this book, for they then become
indistinguishable from real comic strips. Enlarging a design meant for
an area only a few inches square to one several hundred times greater
must have given rise to a host of formal problems that could be solved
only by the most intense scrutiny: how. for example, to draw the girl's
nose so it would look "right" in comic-strip terms, or how to space the
colored dots so they would have the proper weight in relation to the
Clearly, our picture is not a mechanical copy, but an interpretation.
In fact, it is excerpted from the original panel. It nevertheless
remains faithful to the spirit of the original because of the countless
changes and adjustments of detail that the artist has introduced. How is
it possible for images of this sort to be so instantly recognizable? Why
are they so "real" to millions of people? What fascinates Lichtenstein
about comic stripsand
what he makes us see for the first timeare
the rigid conventions of their style, as firmly set and as remote from
life as those of Byzantine art.
used this very quality in ironic commentaries on modern
society. A former commercial artist, he made the viewer consider the
aesthetic qualities of everyday images, such as soup cans, that we
readily overlook. He did much the same thing with the subject of death,
an obsession of his, in silk-screened pictures of electric chairs and
gruesome traffic accidents, which demonstrate that dying has been
reduced to a banality by the mass media. Warhol had an uncanny
understanding of how media shape our view of people and events, creating
their own reality and larger-than-life figures. He became a master at
manipulating the media to project a public persona that disguised his
true character. These themes come together in his Gold Marilyn Monroe
(fig. 1113). Set
against a gold background, like a Byzantine icon, she becomes a
modern-day Madonna. Yet Warhol conveys a sense of the tragic personality
that lay behind the famous movie star's glamorous facade. The color, lurid and oil-register like
a reproduction in a sleazy magazine, makes us realize that she has been
reduced to a cheap commodity. Through mechanical means, she is rendered
as impersonal as the Virgin that stares out from the thousands of icons
produced by hack artists through the ages.
Gold Marilyn Monroe.
Although Pop Art was sometimes referred to as "the new realism," the
term hardly seems to fit the painters we have discussed. They are, to be
sure, sharply observant of their sources. However, their chosen material
is itself rather abstract: flags, numerals, lettering, signs, badges,
comic strips. A more recent offshoot of Pop Art is the trend called
Photorealism because of its fascination with camera images. Photographs
had been utilized by nineteenth-century painters soon after the "pencil
of nature" was invented (one of the earliest to do so, surprisingly, was
Delacroix) but they were no more than a convenient substitute tor
reality. For the Photorealists, in contrast, the photograph itself is
the reality on which they build their pictures.
Don Eddy (born 1944),
shows Photorealism at its best. Eddy grew up in southern
California. As a teenager he learned to do fancy paint jobs on cars and
surfboards with an air brush, then worked as a photographer for several
years. Whεο he became a
painter, he used both earlier skills. In preparing New Shoes for H,
Eddy took a series of pictures of the window display of a shoe store
on Union Square in Manhattan. One photograph (fig.
1115) served as the basis
painting. What intrigued
him, clearly, was the way glass filters and alters everyday reality.
Only a narrow strip along the left-hand edge offers an unobstructed
view. Everything elsethe
shoes, bystanders, street traffic, buildingsis
seen through one or more layers of glass, all of them at oblique angles
to the picture surface. The familiar scene is transformed into a
dazzlingly rich and novel visual experience by the combined
displacement, distortion, and reflection of these panes.
Their work often has a visual complexity that challenges the
most acute observer. New Shoes for H (fig.
When we compare the painting with the photograph, we realize that
they are related in much the same way as Lichtenstein's Drowning
1112) is to
the original comic-strip frame from which it derives. Unlike the
photograph, Eddy's canvas shows everything in uniformly sharp locus,
articulating details lost in the shadows. Most important of all, he
gives pictorial coherence to the scene through a brilliant color scheme
whose pulsating rhythm plays over the entire surface. At the time he
painted New Shoes for H, color had become newly important in
Eddy's thinking. The H of the title pays homage to Henri Matisse and to
Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist whom Eddy had come to admire.
1936). His work is
marked by its technical perfection, which turns Photorealism into a form
of Magic Realism. Masterful though it be, this ability is no better than
that of any competent illustrator; nor does it distinguish him from the
who often used photographs as the basis for their
paintings. What, then, is the key to his success? It lies in his choice
of subject and composition. Estes has a predilection tor store fronts of
an earlier time that evoke nostalgic memories. In this he is like an
archaeologist of modern urban life. His best paintings, such as Food
(fig. 1116), show the
same uncanny ability to strike a responsive chord as Hopper's Early
Sunday Morning (see fig. 1090).
The more we look at it, the more we realize that the
gridlike composition is as subtly balanced as a painting by Mondrian
(compare fig. 1072). In
this way Estes elevates his humble store front to an arresting visual
experience fully worthy of our attention.
New Shoes for H.
Don Eddy. Photograph for Nen Shoes for
The acknowledged grand master of Photorealism is
the resurgence of realism. It took on a wide range of
themes and techniques, from the most personal to the most detached,
depending on the artist's vision of objective reality and its subjective
significance. Its flexibility made realism a sensitive vehicle for the
feminist movement that came to the fore in the same decade. Beyond the
organizing of groups dedicated to a wider recognition for women artists,
feminism in art has shown little of the unity that characterizes the
social movement. Many feminists, for example, turned to "traditional"
women's crafts, particularly textiles, or incorporated crafts into a
collage approach known as Pattern and Decoration. In painting, however,
the majority pursued different forms of realism for a variety of ends.
Photorealism was part of a general tendency that marked
American painting in the
1931) have used realism to
explore the world around them and their relation to it from a personal
as well as a feminist viewpoint. Like most of Flack's paintings.
Queen (fig. 1117) is
an extended allegory. The queen is the most powerful figure on the
chessboard yet she remains expendable in defense of the king. Equally
apparent is the meaning inherent to the queen of hearts, but here the
card also refers to the passion for gambling in members of Flack's family, who are present in the locket with
photos of the artist and her mother. The contrast of youth and age is
central to Queen: the watch is a traditional emblem of life's
brevity, and the dewy rose stands for transience of beauty, which is
further conveyed by the makeup on the dressing table. The suggestive
shapes of the bud and fruits can also be taken as symbols of feminine
Women artists such as
Audrey Flack (born
Queen is successful not so much for its statement, however
provocative, as for its imagery. Flack creates a purely artistic reality
by superimposing two separate photographs. Critical to the illusion is
the gray border, which acts as a framing device and also establishes the
central space and color of the painting. The objects that seem to
project from the picture plane are shown in a different perspective from
those on the tilted table-top behind. The picture space is made all the
more active by the play of its colors within the neutral gray.
The art we have looked at since
although distinctive to the postwar era, is so closely
related to what came before it that it was clearly cut from the same
cloth, and we do not hesitate to call it modernist. At long last,
however, twentieth-century painting, to which everything from Abstract
Expressionism to Photorealism made such a vital contribution, began to
lose vigor. The first sign of decline came in the early
1970s with the widespread use of
"Neo-" to describe the
latest tendencies, which came and went in rapid succession and are all
but forgotten today. Only one of these movements has made a lasting
contribution: Neo-Expressionism, which arose toward the end of the
decade and became the dominant current of the f980s. Indeed, imagery of
all kinds completely overshadowed Neo-Abstraction (also known as
"Neo-Geo"). to the point that abstraction itself was declared all but
dead by the critics. In its place was left a feeble imitation, which
signified that modern art had turned its back to the mainstream. And
despite the fact that Neo-Expressionism is deeply rooted in modernism,
there can be little question that it represents the end of the tradition
we have traced throughout this chapter.
is representative in many respects of his artistic
generation in Europe. His association with the Arte Povera ("Poor
Art") movement in Italy led him to develop a potent Neo-Expressionist
style. His career took a decisive turn in 1982
when he decided to go to New York in order "to be
where the great painters have been," but he also spends much of his time
in India, where he has been inspired by Hinduism. His canvases and wall
paintings sometimes have an ambitiousness that can assume the form of
allegorical cycles addressed directly to the Italian painters who worked
on a grand scale, starting with Giotto. His most compelling works, however, are those having as their
subject matter the artist's moods, fantasies, and appetites. Clemente is
fearless in recording urges and memories that the rest of us repress.
Art becomes for him an act of cathartic necessity that releases, but
never resolves, the impulses that assault his acute self-awareness.
Francesco Clemente (born
suggest a soul bombarded by drives and sensations that
can never be truly enjoyed. Alternately fascinating and repellent, his
pictures remain curiously unsensual, yet their expressiveness is
riveting. Since his work responds to fleeting states of mind, Clemente
utilizes whatever style or medium seems appropriate to capturing the
transient phenomena of his inner world. He is unusual among Italians in
being influenced heavily by Northern European Symbolism and
Expressionism with an occasional reminiscence of Surrealism. Here indeed
is his vivid nightmare, having the masklike features of Ensor, the psychological
terror of Munch, and the haunted vision of De Chirico.
1945) is the direct heir to Northern
Expressionism, but rather than investigating personal moods he confronts
moral issues posed by Nazism that have been evaded by other postwar
artists in his country. By exploring the major themes of German
Romanticism from a modern perspective, he has attempted to re-weave the
threads broken by history. That tradition, which began as a noble ideal
based on a similar longing for the mythical past, ended as a perversion
at the hands of Hitler and his followers because it lent itself readily
The German artist
Anselm Kiefer (born
To the Unknown Painter (fig. 1119)
is a powerful statement of the human and cultural
catastrophe presented by World War II. Conceptually as well as compositionally it was inspired by
the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, of which it is a worthy
successor. To express the tragic proportions of the Holocaust, Kiefer works on an
appropriately epic scale. Painted in jagged strokes of predominantly
earth and black tones, the charred landscape is made tangible by the
inclusion of pieces of straw. Amid this destruction stands a somber
ruin: it is shown in woodcut to proclaim Kiefer s allegiance to the
German Renaissance and to Fxpressionism. The fortresslike structure is
a suitable monument for heroes in recalling the tombs and temples of
But instead of being dedicated to soldiers who died in combat, it is a
memorial to the painters whose art was equally a casualty of Fascism.
To the Unknown
In the mid-1970s
the contours of the horse seen in profile provided a
thematic locus and persona! emblem tor her highly formal paintings, but toward the end of the decade she turned
to more emotive subjects. The sheer beauty of the surface in
belies the intensity of her vision. The figure emerges from the welter
of feathery brushstrokes like an apparition from a nightmare. The face,
which bears Mondrian's unmistakable features, conjures up a vision of
madness. We have seen its like before in Bacon's Head Surrounded
by Sides of Beef (fig. 1094).
The picture, then, announces Rothenberg's allegiance to
Expressionism and constitutes a highly charged commentary on Mondrian,
whose rigorous discipline is so antithetical to her painterly freedom.
Neo-Expressionism has found its most gifted American
Susan Rothenberg (born 1
has long been recognized as a talented painter; absent,
however, was content worthy of her ability. Like Audrey Flack before her, she
recently turned to a traditional motif which supplies that missing
material. The tour elements, a popular subject with artists during the
Baroque and Rococo, has provided the focus tor an extensive series that
is as rich in meaning as it is in appearance.
1120. Susan Rothenberg.
Jennifer Bartlett (born
1121). though reminiscent of
Monet's Water Lilies, Giverny (fig.
is no mere evocation of nature: floating half-in, hall-above the water is a skeleton. Indeed,
the real subject here is Vanitas, another theme associated with the
elements and, in turn, the senses and the seasons. References to Fate,
inexorable and quixotic, are found in the cards, dominoes, and other
devices used in games and fortune-telling. These are seemingly "stuck"
onto the canvas, along with illusionistic swatches of plaid material,
which serve to deny the illusionism of the scene and emphasize the surface as an independent, formal entity; hence,
too, the red container that seems to hover nonsensically in midair. This
play between "two-D" and "three-D" has much the same effect as in
Flack's Queen (fig. 1117),
and it shares a similar meaning: it both enlivens the
painting and places it at one remove from everyday reality, so that we
are forced to contemplate its message instead of seeing it simply as a
Neo-Expressionism has a counterpart in Neo-Abstraction, which
has yielded less impressive results thus far. The greatest success in
the Neo-Abstractionist vein has been achieved by those artists seeking
to infuse their formal concerns with the personal meaning of
Elizabeth Murray (born 1940)
has emerged since 1980
as the leader of this crossover style in America.
More Than You Know (fig. 1122)
makes a fascinating comparison with Audrey Elack's
Queen (fig. 1117), for
both are replete with autobiographical references. While it is at once
simpler and more abstract than Flack's, Murray's composition seems about
to fly apart under the pressure of barely contained emotions. The table
will remind us of the one in Picasso's Three Musicians (fig.
1062), a painting she has
referred to in other works from the same time. The contradiction between
the flattened collage perspective of the table and chair and the
allusions to the distorted three-dimensionality of the surrounding room
establishes a disquieting pictorial space. The more we look at the
painting, the more we begin to realize how eerie it is. Indeed, it seems
to radiate an almost unbearable tension. The table threatens to turn
into a figure, surmounted by a skull-like head, that moves with the
explosive force of Picasso's Three Dancers (fig.
1064). What was Murray thinking
of? She has said that the room reminds her of the place where she sat
with her ill mother. At the same time, the demonic face was inspired by
Munch's The Scream (fig. 1004),
while the sheet of paper recalls Vermeer's paintings of women reading letters (fig.
804), which to her express a
combination of serenity and anxiety.
Cherokee, she was deeply affected by her Indian spiritual heritage,
especially its reverence for the earth, although she was raised in white
culture. The death of her husband in 1989
brought forth the literal outpouring of grief seen in
On the Edge (fig. 1123),
which combines two separate landscape forms in a format
that she had experimented with briefly several years earlier. The two
halves respond to entirely different impulses. The left panel, built up
in thick coats of paint applied mainly with her hands, pursues the
abstract manner she had developed successfully for more than a decade.
In the center is a fan shape, which both suggests a man-made feature in
a primitive landscape, like those of the ancient mound builders, and acts as a
sign, investing the canvas with mysterious emblematic significance. The
right half, painted in a more naturalistic style, unleashes a torrent of
anguish that is further expressed by the violent color. This duality has
several layers of meaning. It can be seen as describing the contrasting
aspects of nature as spiritual center and generative force, of order and
chaos, of calm contemplation and powerful emotion. Thus both parts of
the diptych are necessary to give the painting its full import.
More Than You
An artist who has managed to combine Neo-Expressionism and
Neo-Abstraction in a particularly fruitful way is Kay Walkingstick
1123. Kay Walkingstick. On the Edge.
Painting, like sculpture, is a traditional medium that does not lend
itself well to post-modernism. Indeed, it is arguable that most of what
passes as post-modern painting is really late modernism in disguise. In
any event, there is no fixed boundary between the two. To the extent
that it can be said to exist at all, however, post-modern painting is an
outgrowth of Conceptualism. Pop Art, and Neo-Expressionism. Yet it
differs from them in a fundamental respect: now painting acts like a
deconstructed text gutted of all significance, except for whatever we
choose to add by way of free association from the reservoir of our own
How did painting come to be so barren of content? Traditional
vehicles such as allegory require a shared culture. However, this is
hardly possible in the post-modern age, despite the concept of the
"global village," for our civilization is more fractured than ever.
Deconstruction, moreover, proclaims the death of the author and subject
matter as unnecessary vestiges of humanism, thus rendering meaning null
and void. It argues instead that representation in its broadest sense is
both unnecessary and undesirable on the grounds that it strives to
re-create a fraudulent reality, and therefore can never provide an
authentic experience. Such an attitude is not confined to
deconstruction, however. It is inherent in post-modernism as a whole.
controversial figure who often incorporates racy images of nude women.
(He worked for a while as a layout artist for a pornographic magazine.)
An appropriation artist by nature, he derived everything in Miner
from other sources: the Depression-era picture of a miner with two
diamond rings superimposed on his jacket, and the bust of a girl
hovering like a neon sign in front of the partial view of an interior.
Although his technique is conventional enough, the treatment is novel.
The miner's head, for example, is flanked by two smashed metal tables,
as if to represent his "thoughts."
The post-modem approach to painting is demonstrated by the work of
By combining different objects and materials, the diptych becomes a
pictorial counterpart to installations by his friend Robert Longo (see
and in principle there is very little difference between them. Salle's
disregard for art-historical decorum in juxtaposing unrelated elements
is as great as Michael Graves' (see fig.
1247), and reflects his training under the
Conceptual artist John Baldessari, for whom anything goes (compare
Salle is clearly a gifted painter, so that we are forced to take him
seriously, despite reservations that his reputation (like that of so
many other artists in the 1980s)
was driven by the art market's need to find a new
"star." Yet the syntax is so disjunctive that Miner refuses to
yield a satisfactory meaning, try as we might to discover one.
1939). Penck is the
pseudonym adopted by Ralf Winkler from a famous geologist whose
specialty was the Ice Age. In fact, the artist lived in East Germany
throughout most of the Cold War, a political "ice age" of its own,
before emigrating to the West in 1980.
The "primitive" and "childish" quality in The Demon
of Curiosity (fig. 1262),
with its colorful directness, is deceptive.
Although largely self-taught.. Penck uses a fluid technique that is, in
fact, very sophisticated, making it a wonderfully sensitive vehicle for
expressing every possible meaning. But what are we to make of the
picture's content? At first glance, it seems as bewildering as the rock
engraving at the Cave of Addaura.
David Salle. Miner.
Salle was influenced decisively by a group of postmodernist artists from
the former German Democratic Republic who have helped to make Germany
the leading school of painting in the West today. Perhaps the most
interesting among them is
A.R. Penck. (born
Upon closer inspection we realize that the artist's "code" can be
broken, at least enough for us to understand the basic intent. The
demon, as fierce as anything conjured up by Gauguin (compare fig.
995), is surmounted
by a bird looking both ways that signifies inquisitiveness, to which the
small crucified figure at the left has been sacrificed. The figures swim
in a sea of hex-like signs, letters, and numbers, symbolizing knowledge,
which fills up the man to the point where he seems literally "pregnant
(or at least bloated) with meaning." The painting reflects Penck's
fascination with cybernetics, the science of information systems.
Indeed, to him the artist is a kind of scientist, and he sees little
difference between the two.
The Demon of Curiosity. 1982
If Penck follows in the footsteps of artists such as Paul Klee by
inventing a personal vocabulary of pictographs, Mark Tansey (born
1949) uses the Roman
alphabet to accomplish the seemingly impossible: construct
representational images that are literally made up of texts following
the principles of deconstruction. Derrida Queries De Man (fig.
1263) shows the
founder of deconstruction with his chief American disciple, Paul de Man.
If we look closely, we see that the landscape consists of typeset lines
that merge to form the steep cliffs. Here the texture of the paint
serves to bridge the gap between text and illustration by embedding the
idea within the image. In this sense, the painting functions as an
illustration of a metaphor. But what is it saying? Certainly it makes a
serious point about the relation between content, picture, and reality.
Yet it does so with surprising wit, beginning with the very idea of
building a painting out of words. And, in a gesture of supreme irony,
Tansey has appropriated the image from a famous illustration showing the
death of Sherlock Holmes at the hands of his archenemy, Professor
Moriarty! We have seen such humor before, in the work of Rene Magritte
(see fig. 1077),
who served as an early inspiration for Tansey. By
precluding a literal reading of the painting, this astonishing
juxtaposition opens up new lines of questioning for the viewer that
never fully resolve themselves.
Derrida Queries De Man. 1990