ABSTRACT ART

 

 



PICTURES OF NOTHING



ABSTRACT ART SINCE POLLOCK



 


Contents:


1. Why Abstract Art?

2. Survivals and Fresh Starts

3. Minimalism

4. After Minimalism

5. Satire, Irony, and Abstract Art

6. Abstract Art Now

 

 


WHY ABSTRACT ART?

 


Pollock Jackson

Autumn Rhythm: Number 30
1950

 


The main title of this year's Mellon Lectures, ''Pictures of Nothing," is from an essay by William Hazlitt about one of his contemporaries, the early nineteenth-century English painter J.M.W. Turner. Turner was celebrated (or no-torious) for painting vaporous and indistinct conjurings of atmospheric effects, as you can see from one of his landscapes of the 1840s, Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth. In his essay, Hazlitt reports the remark of a dyspeptic viewer about one such work: "'Pictures of nothing,' the viewer harrumphed, 'and very like.'" This attitude, skeptical at best, dismissive at worst, seems as premonitory of modern reactions to abstract art as Turner is of abstraction itself. Because such skepticism is what I want to confront, and because issues of both nothingness and likeness have a looming presence in these lectures, the borrowing from Hazlitt seemed to me an appropriate provocation with which to begin.

Throughout these lectures I am going to talk about abstract art during the last fifty years or so. The big question I want to ask eventually is the one you are entitled to ask up front, and it is the title of today's talk: Why abstract art? But let me dodge that question for a moment and start with a second one: Why abstract art of the last fifty years? The quick answer is that fifty years takes us to the mid-1950s, a crucial juncture in twentieth-century culture.

To say why it was crucial requires looking back even farther to the decades before World War II, when modern art in general and abstract art in particular had been dominated by Europe. The fragmentation and reassembling of the world effected by
Picasso Pablo and Braque Georges in their Parisian cubism of 1909 to 1914 had allowed, encouraged, even goaded several artists, especially from outlying countries such as Holland and Russia, to push farther into a world of forms, leaving behind any trace of reference to recognizable objects or scenes. The invention of these new kinds of abstract or "nonobjective" art coincided with the cataclysm of World War I, and the artists involved explained their innovations in terms of contemporary revolutions in both society and consciousness, proposing in numerous manifestos that their art laid bare the fundamental, absolute, and universal truths ap-propriate to a new spirituality, to modern science, or to the emergence of a changed human order.

In the 1920s and 1930s these principles of abstract art were institutionalized in academics such as the
Bauhaus in Germany, and they had a pervasive impact, reconfiguring the look of the man-made world in architecture, graphic design, film, and photography as well as in painting and sculpture. But the original Utopian aspirations of the pioneer abstractionists seemed thwarted, and their collectivist optimism discredited, by the rise of totalitarian governments and the eventual collapse of Europe into a second world war.

During and immediately after the confla-gration of European culture in World War II, a new push toward abstract art occurred among younger artists in America, especially in New York. But this time the artists' motivations and ambitions seem sharply different. What came to be called abstract expressionism in the art of Pollock Jackson
, Newman Barnett, Willem de Kooning, Rothko Mark, and others emerged now from the context of surrealism, with its stress on visual free association. Abstract expressionist painting had its roots in the unconscious mind. It was, to paraphrase one of these artists, made "out of ourselves," without any accompanying insistence on the former metaphysical or social agendas of abstraction.

In the mid-1950s abstract expressionism was exported internationally in important exhibitions. It was a key moment in the emergence of this new kind of American abstract painting. When
Pollock died in 1956 in a car crash he was hailed by his prime champion, the critic Clement Greenberg, as the legitimate inheritor of the great tradition of European abstract art represented by cubist pictures such as Picasso's Accordionist of 1911. Pollock was said to have "picked up for America the torch of innovations lit by Picasso," eliminating deep perspectival space, for example, as in Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). Greenberg argued that Pollock had advanced the line of abstraction's logical progress toward its supposedly destined goal of expressing the essential visual qualities of painting without any extraneous literary content..

Yet if Greenberg could see Pollock
's poured paintings as extending the European avant-garde tradition, these same works also displayed some radically new aspects. They brought the process of art-making to the tore, so that the painting seemed only like the record of the event documented by Hans Namuth in his famous photographs of Pollock pouring and dripping paint onto a canvas in his barn studio on Long Island. Pollock's work allowed for the forceful expression of chance in the way the paint fell uncontrollably in spatters and drips across the canvas, dissolving traditional distinctions between figure and ground. A picture such as Lavender Mist shows a nearly even dispersal of pictorial incident over the entire field of the canvas, yielding a new "allover" wholeness that seemed a kind of anti-composition. Moreover, the most celebrated of Pollock's drip pictures were big, up to five-and-a-half meters across, and this mural-like scale suggested a sharply different relationship between the body and pictorial space. In these ways Pollock's paintings seemed to offer a thoroughly new point of departure for abstraction.

But this moment in the mid-1950s also saw what has come to be seen as the death knell of abstract expressionism and the launch of an antithetical idea of art in
Johns Jasper' White Flag of 1955, a deliberately deadpan work by a then-unknown Southerner in his mid-twenties. Whereas painting such as Pollock's seemed expressive of a heatedly urgent, physical, psychic, and emotional engagement, Johns' painting seemed the opposite: coolly detached, diffident, suffused with irony—an impassive presentation of commonplace things. Johns seemed to resurrect a different European tradition of the prewar era, not the tradition of Picasso and cubism but the tradition of Duchamp Marcel and Dada, with its subversive pranks. The ready-made imagery of White Flag recalled Duchamp's decision to select a urinal from a plumbing supplier, sign it, and submit it to a New York art exhibition under the title Fountain. But Johns' scrupulously hand-painted flag transmutes Duchamp's idea of the ready-made into something new. It is a way of making art rather than a way of not making it. Instead of remaining a hermetic in-joke, a piece of art about art, Johns' White Flag opened the way for artists to work in what his partner, Rauschenberg Robert, famously referred to as the space between art and life. Along with Rauschenberg's work, Johns' flag catalyzed the explosion of a new realism in pop art. This was a realism that embraced photography, advertising, and the image-saturated world of modern media—everything that Greenberg's ideal of a pure abstraction had so strenuously excluded.

Our starting point in the mid-1950s, then, seems simultaneously to present a new form of abstraction and a new resistance to its premises. This contradictory development is what I want to document and explore. For many people who think and write about culture, this moment marks an even larger watershed between the end of modernism and the inauguration of a postmodern world, a great divide between the world of, say,
Matisse Henri and Picasso and that of contemporary art. I am not one of those people, however, and this dichotomy is not what I am here to talk about. Those who believe in a strict opposition between modern and postmodern art will perhaps be discomfited by the story I have to tell. For instance, I want to show how strains from two seemingly opposite camps-—from Johns and Pollock, for example, or from Picasso and Duchamp—overlapped and blended, and how the emergence of important new artistic languages depended precisely on those unexpected hybrids.

Let us look, for example, at
Frank Stella's The Marriage of Reason and Squalor of 1959. Stella himself described this work as a piece of "negative Pollockism"—a radical reaction against Pollock, and yet at the same time an extension of Pollock. Many things about it—the allover composition, wall-to-wall, edge-to-edge; the even distribution of emphasis across the canvas; the black industrial house paint—are a direct response to Pollock's work. On the other hand, Stella's stripes, as he himself has said, come directly from Johns. Stella's work does not seem to make sense unless we combine (rather than set in opposition) the modern Pollock and the postmodern Johns—just as Johns' handmade flag is unthinkable without the seemingly antithetical influences of Cezanne Paul and Duchamp.

Conundrums such as this interest me a great deal. Moreover, I do not accept the modern/postmodern split because I do not put much stock in either—or any—"ism." Epochs do not have essences, history does not work by all-governing unities, and works of art in their quirkiness tend to resist generalities. These Mellon Lectures will dwell on experience and works of art. Between the vague confusions of individual experience and the authority of big ideas, sign me up for experience first. Given one minute more to either parse critical theory or stammer toward the qualities of the individual work of art, I will use the time for the latter. Now this may sound like dumb anti-intellectualism, but I hope it is something better. Abstraction, of course, has a lot to do with ideas and theory. One of the valuable things it does more fiercely than a lot of other art is to make us think and read what others think: Greenberg on
Pollock, Professor Michael Fried, Mellon lecturer in 2002, on Stella, and so on. But it is also crucially about experience and about particulars. The less there is to look at, the more important it is that we look at it closely and carefully. This is critical to abstract art. Small differences make all the difference.

For example, the next time someone tries to sell you on the mechanical exactitude of
Stella's stripes, think again about the beautiful, delicate, breathing space in these stripes, the incredible feathered edge of the touch of the picture, and the dark, espresso-ground, Beat-generation blackness that places the picture in its epoch. This does not translate well in photographs, and it is easy to lose in theory, yet il is critical to the experience of the picture. Hard examination and questioning of the specificity of works of abstract art, combined with the experience of the viewer, are our best ways to hold out against and to test "big ideas." What we want to do is cut through the gas and grab the ideas that flow out of and drive us back toward such confusing, gritty particulars of experience, rather than the ideas that constantly and confidently blend such things into soupy generalities.

Still, even though these talks will focus on individual works and creators, I am going to try to indicate the connection of these artists and their art with broader histories: the Cold War and Vietnam, America versus Europe, capital-ism and socialism, and so on. While I make no pretense to inclusiveness, there is so much ground to cover that I am necessarily going to paint, time and again, with comically broad brush strokes. Thus those who prefer reductive generalization and crude caricatural summary will probably find a lot to like.

Here are some of the stories I want to tell in the course of these lectures. I will begin, in the next lecture, by talking about the 1950s. One of the standard art historical accounts of recent years tells how, in the 1950s, the CIA and the Museum of Modern Art colluded to promote abstract expressionism as an American tool in the Cold War battle. This paranoid cliche is not only flawed in itself but also hides more interesting, complex confusions and overlaps between, on one hand, the prewar tradition of constructivism, with its agendas of science and objective order, both aesthetic and social, and, on the other, new styles that utilized similar forms but with very dissimilar premises. A key example is the work that Ellsworth Kelly did in Paris in the early 1950s, such as the beautiful 1951 work called Colors for a Large Wall . The painting resembles but is crucially different from the math-based, systematic art of the Zurich "concrete" artists such as Richard Paul Lohse, whose Complementary Groups Formed by Six Horizontal Systematic Color Series  dates from about the same year that Kelly painted his Colors for a Large Wall.

Compared to Pollock's broad, gestural abstract expressionism, work like Lohse's seemed very retrograde. It looked back to the beginnings of the concrete art movement in the early 1930s. Suddenly, in the 1960s, Kelly's work was exhibited along with minimalist avant-garde work by younger artists such as
Andre Carl, as if Kelly and Andre were doing the same thing.

Andre's floor piece of 1969 seems to have exactly the same modular construction and the same rigor as Kelly's Colors for a Large Wall." In the 1950s, when abstract expressionism defined the New York School, Kelly left New York for Paris. The story of his artistic formation there, and of his cooptation in the 1960s by minimalism, will provide a different view of the 1950s.

Then in the third and fourth lectures I want to turn to the 1960s, and to minimalism in its multiple forms. This new kind of hardedged abstraction emerged around 1960 in sharp reaction to the loose, gestural abstract painting that had followed from abstract expressionism.
Minimalism was so drastically reductive that it appeared utterly nihilistic. But within the dead certainties that it seemed to propose lurk many an ambiguity and contradiction. I want to examine the battles within—and overlaps between— the different readings of this new direction in abstract art. Minimalism claimed to be purely American in its philosophical grounding—in its "I've got to kick this to believe it" empiricism. This represented a willed and self-proclaimed split with Europe. But at the same time the art seems to coincide with and to draw on European art—on the work of Romanian sculptor Brancusi Constant, for example, and on Russian constructivist art. I also want to contrast the strains of minimalism that appear in New York and Los Angeles. For example, in 1966 New York artist Morris Robert makes a box painted neutral gray that has a reductive feeling, a feeling of utter object-hood; in the same year, the Los Angeles artist James Turrell uses light projection to conjure a box that does not exist at all, that is purely a light illusion, that has entirely to do with playing on the sensorial. While Turrell on one coast is creating inner events, Morris on the other is creating something that only exists outside.

Then I want to look at the varieties of minimalist art in between. Between the gray neutrality of Morris and the shining illumination of Turrell's Afrum-Proto, one might position something like Donald Judd's open aluminum boxes of 1969, fudd is someone we want to explore for his combination of a seemingly rigorous reductive geometry and odd materials Harley-Davidson paint, galvanized metal, colored Plexiglas, for example—materials that offer a different kind of delicacy and subtlety than one finds in Judd's manifestos.

I am interested in looking at the degree to which 1960s minimalism expresses something quintessentially American. Some scholars have told us that Pollock
's loose gestural freedom and broad cowboy scale offered an epitome of American society, and that the CIA plotted to promote his work in Europe for just this reason. More recently, other scholars have told us the exact opposite: that American society is really dominated by corporate capitalism, that minimalism expresses an industrial aesthetic, and that it is therefore in collusion with the military-industrial complex.

In the fourth lecture I will look at how minimalism changed very swiftly around 1968, as seen in works such as Richard Serra's One Ton Prop and Eva Hesse's Accession II. In this short time span—between the Morris
and Turrell in 1966, and the Serra and Hesse in 1968—one sees a rebellion against the pure, strict, seemingly neutral geometry of minimalism. In the case of Hesse's piece, with its rubber tubing entering the inside of a cube, we find a new kind of organicism with entirely different psychological and social ramifications, particularly in regard to the body and women. It is so interesting to think about how the Pollock exhibition of 1967 inflected the change and interpretation of minimalism after it, and how two things that represented the macho ideal in art—Pollock's bold athletic drip paintings and Judd's stern cubes—in combination became an ideal vocabulary for feminist art in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Another aspect of
minimalism I will explore is how it changed in its relationship to scale and the body. In contrast with an inert cube such as Morris's gray box, Serra's four pieces of lead poised against one another threaten to collapse; they have a real-time relationship to gravity and to the body that dramatically changes the premises of minimalism.

These changes, effected by a younger generation who were inheriting the vocabulary of minimalism in the late 1960s, also come to bear on the earlier minimalists themselves and what they do in later years. Thus the minimalism of Judd
or Morris in the early 1960s that had been proposed as an art of immediacy—an art of awareness of the sensory relationship to the object in the present tense—becomes in the 1980s and 1990s an art par excellence of memory and the monumental. It also takes on a new relatedness to America and to the American landscape, in works such as Walter De Maria's amazing Lightning Field near Quemado, New Mexico, an array of stainless steel, javelin-like rods in a giant, empty Southwestern landscape, making up a grid that extends for a mile along one axis and for a kilometer along the other. A work like this changes what scale means for minimalism and releases the potentially megalomaniacal desire for control into a whole new environment, quite different from its containment in the early boxes of the 1960s.

 From works like De Maria's in the 1970s, I will move on in the fifth lecture to the 1980s and away from weighty issues into apparent jokes. The opening premise of this lecture on satire and irony will be the truism that an abstraction often inadvertently looks like something. For example, Roy Lichtenstein's Large Spool from 1963 was designed to look something like one of
Stella's striped paintings, Zambezi, of 1959 . It is an extended joke about the relationship between pop, as Lichtenstein practiced it, and minimalism, as represented by Stella's black painting. It is just one of any number of examples of pop artists—Lichtenstein, Warhol Andy, Oldenburg Claes, and others— thumbing their noses at the pretensions of minimalist art, and bringing those pretensions back to earth by showing that exactly the same designs appear in crass, man-made objects.

This forces open an issue—the relationship between abstraction and mere design—that has lingered as a haunting doubt within the idea of abstract art. Yet Lichtenstein's jibe at
Stella seems lighthearted or dryly ironic once compared with what begins to happen in the 1980s, with paintings such as Peter Halley's Two Cells with Circulating Conduit of 1985. The joke here is that Halley's painting looks a lot like a Newman Barnett. But Halley's painting is accompanied by an enormous commentary in which the joke becomes deadly earnest. Halley argues that there is a resemblance between Newman's paintings and diagrams of computer chips, and that this resemblance is not in fact coincidental, because the strictures and pretensions of hard-edged abstraction emerged at the same time that the hegemony of control and order became the dominant feature of modern society and philosophy. Halley's argument here comes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Following Foucault, Halley discerns a sinister, constraining order that links together the geometry of prisons, the organization of information in cyberspace, and the inclination toward geometric abstraction. Hence the presence of the word "cell" in the title of so many of Halley's paintings, referring simultaneously to the modular unit of Newman-style abstraction and to the confining spaces of a prison.

Another representative figure of 1980s abstraction is Philip Taaffe. In a picture like Blue, Green of 1987, Taaffe takes a big blue arrow shape, quoted directly from early Ellsworth Kelly, and doctors it up with wavy lines and flower patterns, cheapening it and making it look like a trivial plastic decoration. Where Halley tells us that abstraction is all-powerful and dominating, Taaffe tells us that it is inconsequential and thin. This kind of politicized critique of abstraction dominates much of the 1980s.

From there I want to look at the larger question raised by all of these jokes and satires as to whether abstraction is even possible after Johns' flag and the triumph of irony in contemporary art. Can artists have it both ways? Can they be ironic and abstract? Among the paintings we will look at are
Gerhard Richter's Gray Streaks of 1968, which has an obvious relationship to Stella's work, and at Johns' own paintings of the years 1972 to 1980, when he painted pure abstract pictures in a Crosshatch mode that seems like a geometrized variant of Pollock's allover space and gesture. I want to examine the phenomenon of part-time abstractionists, artists such as Johns and Richter and Twombly, for whom abstract art is not an end-of-the-line distillation but rather one option among many. On one day, or in one week, or in one decade, they might make abstract work, but it would exist in counterpoint with the photographic realist work that they would make on the next day or week, or in the next decade. This is a phenomenon unique to the period after World War II.

Having moved through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, in the final lecture I will arrive at the present day, talking about the remarkable new installations at the Dia Art Foundation facility in Beacon, New York, which openfed in May 2003. The work on view at Dia includes a Heizer Michael
piece, North, South, East, West, which consists of extremely large depressions cut into the floor and lined with Cor-Ten steel. This was originally conceived in 1967, although it was only permanently realized at Beacon. In a large train shed at Beacon, there is a whole run of Richard Serra's "torqued ellipses" designed in 1998. Thirty years stretch between Heizer's original proposal for North, South, East, West and Serra's series of torqued ellipses. In this time span there are huge changes in the status of abstraction, and particularly in the status of minimalism. There are now monuments to the achievement of minimalism all over the country. Following the model of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the minimalist shrines range from Turrell's Quaker meeting house in Houston, to Judd's vast complex in Marfa, Texas, to De Maria's Lightning Field in Quemado, to Heizer's complex City monument outside of Las Vegas, and ultimately to Dia Beacon itself. The strange thing is that, despite the enshrinement and monumentalization of minimalism, abstraction now seems to be in suspension, or even in eclipse. The great lions of minimalism, like Heizer and Serra, are into or well past their sixties. It is not clear whether abstract art holds the same attraction for a younger generation, or whether the most contentious issue in visual culture of the twentieth century has now lost its urgency.

Included in these decade-by-decade time capsules that I have summarized here, there will be stories of lofts and deserts, hot rods and philosophy seminars, Day-Glo paint and dirt, rusting steel and shiny brass that will take us from Patagonia to Paris. My hope is that these selective histories will offer a chance to review, look at, and think about some of the best and most challenging art of our epoch. Simply to summarize this history may be more than enough, more than you or I can handle in a handful of lectures. But I also think there's a point to all these accounts, to this chronology—that is, a general meaning behind the unfolding of particular facts. And perhaps there is a basic doubt haunting everything I've laid out so far. So in addition to all the "how" stories about the way this art developed over several decades, I feel obliged to ask some "why" questions, including ultimately the overarching one I deferred at the outset: Why abstraction? Why abstract art? I believe in abstract art, and I like a lot of it, and obviously part of what I hope to do in these lectures is to make you like it too. But whether or not I succeed, there will be a question hanging over us. Beyond my liking abstract art, or your liking it, or even all of Washington, DC, liking it; beyond the commitments of the artists who make it; and beyond the collectors and institutions that support it, What is abstract art good for? What's the use—for us as individuals, or for any society—of pictures of nothing? What's the use of paintings or sculptures or prints or drawings that do not seem to show anything except themselves—big holes in the ground, or huge curved pieces of steel?

I take this topic ultimately because it seems to me one of the most legitimate and poorly addressed questions in modern art. Put another way, I want to ask whether there is any grounding for abstraction, perhaps an underlying logic, or specifically a "logic of the situation," to borrow a term from E. H. Gombrich. Almost fifty years ago, Gombrich gave the epochal Mellon Lectures that became his book Art and Illusion, and I want to recapture some of the excitement that must have filled the National Gallery's lecture hall in 1956 when Gombrich spoke. He asked at that time one of the most resounding questions of all: Why does art have a history? Gombrich wanted to crack what he called the "riddle of style," that is, to find an explanation for the succession of odd stylizations by which different epochs and civilizations have represented the visible world. He opens Art and Illusion with a cartoon of Egyptian boys drawing from a model. Given that the elements of the natural world have always looked as they do, and given that human vision has always functioned as it does, Gombrich wanted to know why ancient Egyptians and medieval Italian monks and baroque ceiling painters depict the world so differently. He was intensely dissatisfied with explanations that rested on some quasi-mystical spirit of the age or Zeitgeist. Instead he wanted an explanation of the history of art that had more scientific and philosophical rigor, that would take into account both the "hardwirine" of human perception and the way knowledge has progressed cumulatively through successive ages and societies. Gombrich's proposal, which drew on the best minds of his time in areas such as perceptual psychology and the philosophy of science, was that within the confounding variety of the history of Western art one could trace a long, halting, but ultimately rational progress toward the development of a credible illusionism, that is, the feat of getting a viewer to conjure from painted marks on a flat surface a convincing illusion of such things as seamlessly receding space and three-dimensional volumes. Albrecht Durer, in his 1525 woodcut of an artist trying to reason out the correct way to show a lute in perspective, reminds us how long and hard artists had to work to achieve this illusionism.

Gombrich delivered his Mellon Lectures in 1956, the year of Pollock's death, when, as we have seen, abstract art appeared to be spreading triumphant. At the same time, realist illusionism, propagated on every pulp page and street corner billboard by magazine illustrations, advertisements, and above all by photography, was taken for granted by the wider public. Gombrich wanted to reproblematize that commonplace: to show that, far from being a merely servile copying of nature—we see it, we draw it—illusionist representation was a willed, hard-fought achievement of human culture, It was the result of a cumulative dialogue between invented conceptual schemas and their corrections—a dialogue that was worthy of being regarded, like science, as a unique virtue of the Western tradition, stretching from what he called "the Greek miracle," in the vase painting and sculpture of the fifth century B.C., through D
urer and the Italian Renaissance up to
John Constable's naturalist landscape paintings, such as his beautiful 1816 picture of Wivenhoe Park, Essex from the National Gallery of Art collection.

But this noble progress foundered when it came up against the wall of the oncoming twentieth century. As much as Gombrich cherished the triumph of illusionism, he disliked and mistrusted its demise in abstract art. The antipathy was partly personal. Gombrich was, after all, a Renaissance scholar, and his tastes and sympathies were grounded in an earlier humanism. But his was also an intellectual and even ideological bias. Gombrich thought that abstraction was understandable as an extension of the history of decorative pattern-making, as in Alhambra tiles, rugs, basket weaves, tile work, and the like. But—if 1 can risk summing up and interpreting his many writings on the subject of abstract art—he saw the claim that modern abstract art might be something more than decoration as based either in mystifications about abstraction reflecting hidden metaphysical truths or in specious arguments that the tides of history somehow required such innovations.

It was precisely that lethal combination of belief in "higher ideals," stretching back to Plato, and pronouncements about the "requirements" of history, grounded in Hegel, that Gombrich's close friend, the philosopher Karl Popper, in his wartime book The Open Society and Its Enemies, had recently scourged as the false philosophical foundations of totalitarian thinking, propounded by both Fascism and Soviet Communism. Thus, to put it far more crudely than Professor Gombrich, the implicit message of Art and Illusion is two-fold. On one hand, Gombrich argues that the construction of illusionist naturalism is directly consonant with the neurological hard-wiring of human nature. On the other, he suggests the progressive way illusionism developed also makes it the appropriate "house style" of the best liberal traditions of free inquiry and criticism in the open society of the West. Conversely, Gombrich's subsequent put-downs of abstract art present its excesses as being, at best, whims of trendy fashion, and, at worst, tainted with the most dangerous policies of totalitarian thought.

I admire so much about Art and Illusion. Rather than critique the flaws that have become evident in Gombrich's arguments over time, I want to wonder with you whether there can ever be an argument for abstract art that is as good, as generous, as ambitious, and as challenging as Gombrich's argument for its opposite. Because as Sir Ernst rightly saw, all the many claims about timeless universal forms and historical destinies that have been used to explain modern abstraction are, however sincere or sophisticated, intellectually bankrupt. There are not any "hard" reasons why abstract art has to be. Nor any teleology that explains why it developed as it did. And it is useless to keep looking for those kinds of justifications.

This does not invalidate abstract art. The familiar arguments that abstraction is just a big hoax, a colossal version of the "emperor's new clothes," perpetrated on a duped public by cynical art mandarins, seem like tiresome whistling in the dark. Abstract art has been with us in one form or another for almost a century now, and has proved to be not only a long-standing crux of cultural debate, but a self-renewing, vital tradition of creativity. We know that it works, even if we're still not sure why that's so, or exactly what to make of that fact. To borrow the phrase of the apocryphal contemporary academic, "Okay, so it works in practice. But does it work in theory?" What is still needed, what seems well overdue, is to make the case for a logic of abstract art, as Art and Illusion made the case for illusionism, that would describe it (with respectful opposition to Gombrich's own dismissals) both as a legitimate reflection of the way we think individually and as a valid and valuable aspect of liberal society.

This is, of course, a tall order, not least be-cause at the start of the twenty-first century we have very different ideas about how our minds work and how a just society functions. Looking at early minimalist works by artists such as Sol LeVVitt and Dan Flavin necessitates revising and expanding Gombrich's idea of making-, by which he meant the invention of forms and schemas, the mind's primal work in building knowledge. Especially in the last fifty years, a lot of abstract art has demonstrated that our intelligence innovates not by making things up out of whole cloth or by discovering new things about nature, but by operating with and upon the repertoire of the already known: by adapting, recycling, isolating, recontextualizing, repositioning, and recombining inherited, available conventions in order to propose new entities as the bearers of new thought. In the case of art, these conventions are dumb, man-made forms like cubes, stripes, and other architectural configurations. With illusionism, the argument could be made that art progressed by a series of corrections, made according to the unchanging standard of nature and perceptual mechanics. But there obviously is not any standard of measurement or external resemblance by which we could correct abstractions such as LeWitt's or Flavin's, or establish their relative success or failure. So we have to expand our sense of the drives wired into human cognition, recognizing that we are set up not just to make connections and find resemblances, but also to project meanings onto experience.

In Art and Illusion Gombrich discussed the classic drawing that looks like both a duck and a rabbit. We can see either the duck with its beak to the left, or the rabbit with its ears to the left, but we cannot see both at the same time, so we have to decide to see it as one animal or the other. Gombrich uses the drawing to illustrate the way that our visual perception involves what he calls "the viewer's share," that is, the active imposition of an interpretation on incoming experience. The point made by the duck-rabbit drawing can be broadened into a suppler and more inclusive notion of cognition as a process of finding meaning in the world.
Gombrich's model reminds us that works of art are vessels of human intention. The problem is that he judges artistic schemas exclusively by how well they transcribe reality. This is a useful yardstick for discussing representational art, but it is not much help in talking about artists whose goal is to have no reference. In abstract art, we face the problem of interpreting images that  resemble any number of things, but look like nothing in particular. This situation is lovingly summed up in another cartoon  that is, in effect, the modern inversion of Gombrich's cartoon of Egyptian boys drawing from a model.'

Where Gombrich remains useful, here, is in reminding us that abstraction, even more than illusion, can never reside solely in the intention of the artist, but must also be in the eye of the beholder. Artist x may think he's making something that looks like nothing, but Viewer Y may think the work is just the color of Aunt Emmy's purse, or curves just like the bent blade of his favorite golf club, or involves the key principles of 1911
Picasso. I could take the case of Judd's early minimal sculptures as somewhat comic examples. These early
Judd's are what he called "specific objects," that is, things that do not seem to be either painting or sculpture, that escape category, that are not familiar, that cannot be pinned down as to what they are. Judd intended these works to be entirely idiosyncratic, outside the common bounds of descriptive language. But in fact he himself, and his viewers and critics, immediately started to categorize these objects, and continued to do so. In the literature on Judd, one of these weird works is known as the "Letter Box", while the other is commonly referred to as "The Bleachers". Other early Judd's got nicknamed "The Harp" and "The Lifeboat."

Almost as fast as artists can open blank slates, others hasten to inscribe something on them, trivially at first, as in this case, but eventually with more serious freights of meaning. Hence the difficulty of enforcing the "abstractness" of abstraction.
Pollock told an interviewer that when he poured his paintings, he was ever mindful to suppress unwanted imagery or any apparent figuration that his lines might inadvertently suggest. "I try to stay away from any recognizable image; if it creeps in, I try to do away with it." Since then artists have worked and harder to keep the crutch of resemblance permanently kicked out from under their viewers. They understand that abstraction is most successful and effective when association and meaning appear to be out of reach. The absence of resemblance allows the work to embrace a great range of intuitions barely imaginable before the work was done, and only marginally present in the artist's conscious intention.

Take for example the huge painting—about four by six meters—done in 1970 by Twombly. Drawn with what looks like chalk but is actually an oil crayon on gray ground, it is one of his so-called blackboard series; this label is itself a kind of joke, like the descriptive titles people gave Judd's work. In fact, it is not a blackboard, and this forces us to deal with what it is. But what is it? It is a kind of furious scribbling, a seemingly mindless repetition of the same hand-drawn gesture. But the gesture is repeated so often and on such a scale that it begins to vault into a different set of references. We lose sight of the arm or the wrist, and begin instead to be aware of the scale of the whole body. And then, because the overlays and densities begin to create a sense of space or depth that is no-where cued by perspective but is suggested by the blurring, cloudlike structure, we lose awareness of the scale of the body as well. My wife, who is an artist, said of this picture that it's so large and complex that it has its own weather. We sense that it has a kind of energy to it, a pulse like that of a cosmic nebula. And we keep reaching for analogies—weather, night sky, impulsiveness—for a vocabulary that in the end describes nothing other than this picture. We grapple with the combination of things the picture presents: with minute, intimate, and grand scale; with flatness and depth; with huge energy and vast, dissolving serenity. And we continually wind around something that never becomes any particular thing but itself, that has all of the complexity and energy that only it has, and that did not exist before.

Gombrich showed that, in representation, recognition and resemblance required interpretation. But abstractions such as Twombly's show that interpretation does not demand recognition or resemblance and may in fact profit from its absence. In cases like this, abstract art absorbs projection and generates meaning ahead of naming, establishing the form of things unknown, sui generis, in their peculiar complexities. This is one of abstraction's singular qualities, the form of enrichment and alteration of experience denied to the fixed mimesis of known things. It reminds me of the joke about the person who invented the cure for which there was no known disease.
At the same time, this expanded, open-ended process of matching forms with meanings, by means of projection and cued invention, constantly turns abstractions into representations in a broadened sense, and defines the nature of abstract art in our time. In early modern art, abstraction was often promoted (or scorned) as a final destination, an ultimate endpoint of art, the culmination of a progressive divorce from appearances, or the terminal cancellation of everything that art required. But by now we have seen art declared "dead" too many times, and we're weary of going to fake funerals. (My colleague Robert Storr taught a course in abstract painting a few years ago that he called "Dead but Won't Lay Down") In our model of history, there is not any progress at all, in the sense of straight-line, cumulative refinement toward a fixed goal. We have seen the end of the line become a departure station frequently enough to understand that even the seemingly purest abstraction that looks like a fat zero is in fact often an egg waiting to hatch. Not the period at the end of the story, but an ellipsis ... (to be continued) within a looping and branching system that ties together a wide range of visual representation: loquacious, laconic, dumb, and all stops in between. Within that system, the abstract artist may colonize a new realm of feeling, as Twombly does, unique to his or her forms, and may also invent a new alphabet which a great many others—artists, designers, filmmakers, and so on—can use to represent the world in very different ways.

For an example of how things get recycled, let's look at the use of mirrors in minimalism and postmodernism. In 1965, Morris Robert created a set of untitled mirrored cubes that were just that: cubes with mirrors fixed to the five visible sides. These may have had something to do with his desire to produce a totally neutral, industrial-looking form—something that seemingly is not made by the human hand, has no room for touch, is absolutely hard—and with his desire to force us to recognize the space around the object as part of the work of art. Then, in 1968, when a new organicism appeared in minimal or postminimal art (as I described earlier), Morris created a very different piece, using mirrors stuck into a pile of thread waste.

In the same year,
Smithson Robert made his Red Sandstone Corner Piece. This is like an inside-out version of one of Morris's mirrored cubes, with a pile of broken sandstone inside it. Smithson may have got the idea of using mirrors from Morris, but his use of them was radically different. His combination of mirrors with natural materials had to do with a science fiction idea of crystallography, with the notion of the inertness of mineral matter as a paradigm for the entropic universe and for the way that life forms lose their energy; it had to do with the idea that glass is made by grinding up sand, and that the two are different states of the same thing. For Smithson there was a pseudo scientific rationale to using mirrors, but the mirrors themselves functioned as abstract elements in his work. In the 1970s the young artist Koons Jeff comes along and puts an inflatable rabbit and flower on a mirror in the floor corner position—the same mirror arrangement that Smithson used, but with a completely different effect. We are no longer in the world of entropy and crystallography; we're in the world of boutique design. The mirror suggests glitz and glamour. This evolution reaches its final realization when Koons puts the mirror on the rabbit by recasting the rabbit in shiny stainless steel instead of plastic. This amazing object is often taken to be the ultimate symbol of Reagan era glitz, a critique of the commodifi cation of society. So the inclusion of the mirror begins as a neutral, formal element in Morris, becomes a sci-fi image in Smithson, and finally provides Koons with a symbol for the hard sheen and glamour of American consumer culture.

In this fashion, abstract art, while seeming insistently to reject and destroy representation, in fact steadily expands its possibilities. It adds new words and phrases to the language by colonizing the lead slugs and blank spaces in the type tray. Seeming nihilism becomes productive, or, to put it another way, one tradition's killer virus becomes another tradition's seed. Stressing abstract art's position within an evolving social system of knowledge directly belies the old notion that abstraction is what we call an Adamic language, a bedrock form of expression at a timeless point prior to the accretion of conventions. If anything, the development of abstraction in the last fifty years suggests something more Alexandrian than Adamic, that is, a tradition of invention and interpretation that has become exceptionally refined and intricate, encompassing a mind-boggling range of drips,
stains, blobs, blocks, bricks, and blank canvases. The woven web of abstraction is now so dense that, for its adepts, it can snare and cradle vanishingly subtle, evanescent, and slender forms of life and meaning. The tradition of abstract art has recently shown time and again that, for those who learn it, it can make something out of apparent nothing. All in all, this is a good thing.

Like Gombrich's illusionism, abstract art is a construction that began in Western Europe but that has proved useful for a broader world. Early modern society created—and we have inherited—that paradoxical thing: a tradition of radical innovation. Abstraction is a remarkable system of productive reductions and destructions that expands our potential for expression and communication.

Just the same, this is a risky business. Abstract art is a learned language, and not always easy to understand. I do not mean there is nothing to be had from an unprepared, naive encounter with Flavin's "monument" for Tatlin Vladimir, or with a blank, waxy monochrome canvas by Brice Marden. Nor do I mean to endorse the sense of cultish elitism that requires an M.A. in art history and a subscription to Art forum to understand what goes on in the Chelsea galleries. Dealing with recent abstraction is neither like falling off a log nor like solving differential equations. But the fact is that it does profit from some prior knowledge. Because contemporary abstract art operates within a long tradition, it helps to be aware of the parameters and rules of that tradition.

Understanding the tradition of abstract art sharpens our experience of what we are seeing. The idea that you need to learn about abstract art to enjoy it strikes some primal nerve, arousing our anxiety about authentic versus fake experience. It offends the know-nothings, who fall back on: "I don't know art, but I know what I like." But this cliche flies in the face of our common sense awareness, reinforced a thousand times in our life, that some of the most deep-seated pleasures of our natural selves—from sex and food on up to music—involve appetites that had to be educated. If these pleasures are rooted in crude instinct, they nonetheless grow in depth and power as we acquire hierarchies of discrimination, until second nature is nowhere separable from the first. Yet visual art—and abstract art most particularly—remains one of the last bastions of unashamed, unrepentant ignorance, where educated experience can still be equated with phony experience. In regard to abstract art, this syndrome becomes ever more acute as the tradition gets fatter and the works get leaner. What we see gets simpler, and what we can bring to it gets more complex. So we are constantly worried that we are being played for fools by works like Flavin's sculpture or Marden's painting. What makes the anxiety even worse is the fact that this is an art that, by its very nature, willfully and knowingly flirts with absurdity and emptiness, dancing on the knife edge of nonsense and beckoning us to come along.

Why put up with it? Because we want what only this risk has been able to give us. Of course, what we want from many of the forms of our culture is comfort and continuity, a sense of connection to enduring traditions, a respite from the relentless clocks that drive our individual lives. But, in modern society, we also live with a sharply ambivalent, painfully keen awareness that our lives are irremediably different from those of the past. We rise each day to a particular mix of sharpened pleasures and deepened anxieties that quickens our sense of separation from other days—a century ago, a decade ago, two years ago. This arouses in many of us a hunger for a culture that affirms this sensation, by giving us new forms that give shape to our feelings, our moment in history—as distinct from the feelings of our forebears, even of our youth. We torment (and flatter) ourselves with the belief that it has not all been said, that life as we live it is more complex than has until now been articulated. And in order to allow room for the new cultural forms we feel might be adequate to this vivifying hubris and doubt, we are willing to accept the destruction of past cherished norms, to endure large measures of disorientation in the present, and to sift through a great deal of dreck.

Abstract art is propelled by this hope and hunger. It reflects the urge to push toward the limit, to colonize the borderland around the opening onto nothingness, where the land has not been settled, where the new can emerge. That is part of what drives modernity: the urge to regenerate ourselves by bathing in the extreme, for better and for worse. What is remarkable is that abstract art, which was initially advanced by its advocates as a culture of crypto-religious, timeless certainties, associated closely with the new monolithic collectivism in society, should have been reinvented and flourished the last fifty years as a paradigmatic example of secular diversity, individual initiative, and private vision. It is a prime case of modern Western society's willingness to vest the fate of its communal culture in the play of independent subjectivities, and to accept the permanent uncertainties, pluralities, and never-ending, irresolvable debate that come with that territory.
But if we are going to spend time trying to worry out a philosophy of abstract art, we should also remember that the prime contribution of America to philosophy is perhaps pragmatism. And the pragmatist's question is basic: "Does it work? What do we get out of it?" What I am going to try to deliver in the next five lectures is a partial answer to that uncertainty, a selective sketch of what we have learned from abstraction these past fifty years.

 

 

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