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

 

 



SATIRE, IRONY, AND ABSTRACT ART
 


Rothko Mark
Untitled

 

The question of good faith/bad faith is the subtext of today's lecture on satire and irony in abstract art. We expect of abstraction, per-haps more so than of other art forms, that its intentions be whole, that it be meant earnestly. Traditionally we think of abstraction as pure and unmitigated, a set of black-and-white principles that will not admit of grays. In other words, we associate abstraction with a kind of idealism. The question arises, If we are suspicious of idealism, are we then suspicious of abstraction? Is it necessary that abstraction be ideal and that it be in good faith?

These questions take us back to the subtitle of my lectures and to the lines I quoted at the outset from Hazlitt's essay on Turner: "Pictures of nothing . .. and very like." It is the "very like" that I want to start with, because the whole question of abstraction's likeness to something—although it tries to be a picture of nothing, it constantly could be a picture of something—is abstraction's steadily attacked Achilles' heel.

Let's begin with a wonderful old cartoon from the New Yorker that aptly names art as a two-way street, as in, there was no fog in London before Whistler painted it. Indeed art makes us see the world differently, and having seen the world in that way, we go back and see the art differently.
Rothko may make us think anew about the evening sky, but having once thought about the evening sky, we think about Rothko differently. Hence, the extreme difficulty of ever coming up with a pure abstraction that remains resistant to association and reference. In its alleged resistance to association and reference, abstraction was destroyed or at least strongly subverted even before it was invented. Already in the 1880s a group of artists in Paris who called themselves the Societe des inco-herents, the Incoherents, held a series of exhibitions that produced remarkably premonitory work. On the music side, for example, the Incoherents published a blank set of musical bars without notations called Funeral Mass for a Deaf Man, subtitled Grief Is Mute. And on the visual side, in 1883, under the name of the celebrated humorist Alphonse Allais, they exhibited a pure white sheet of Bristol paper entitled First Communion of Anemic Young Girls in Snowy Weather. Subsequently, the same M. Allais in 1884, using a piece of red fabric, exhibited a small masterwork known as A Harvest of Tomatoes on the Edge of the Red Sea Harvested by Apoplectic Cardinals. And finally, in 1889, Allais exhibited his pre-Malevich masterpiece and the end of abstract painting before it began: a dark blue piece of fabric entitled Total Eclipse of the Sun in Darkest Africa.

These little bits of satire and irony before the fact are then picked up almost as soon as abstraction is fostered by artists of greater historical stature and consequence. For example,
Matisse posited in 1911 in his Interior with Eggplants—a wonderful large work inspired by Persian miniatures and the multiplication of pattern across their surfaces—that abstract pattern could have an independent life. In Matisse's view of his studio, which includes a still life with eggplants on the table, everything becomes fabric and the flowers independently rid themselves of any association and begin to pattern the entire surface, as if in fact it were a decorative textile. The whole question of decoration is advanced by Matisse as an important form of art that moves one with its rhythms and colors, independently of what it represents.

A year later, when
Picasso was making collages, as fack Flam pointed out, he delib-erately used a piece of flowered wallpaper with a suspicious resemblance to the patterns of Matisse. It was as if he were saying, "You want decoration? I'll give you decoration. How about cheap wallpaper? And thus begins a series of thrusts and parries between abstract and nonabstract artists in the twentieth century in which the supposedly high, unique, invented forms of abstraction are constantly subverted or demolished by other artists who see them as being perilously close to cheap, commonplace, commercial, and mass-produced artifacts. This same little joke that we see happening early on becomes a staple of Pop Art, specifically in the hands of Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein's Large Spool from 1963, a sort of cheap tabloid advertisement whose subtext is its close relationship to Stella's black stripe paintings of 1959, is meant to thumb its nose at Stella's pretensions by showing how the simple codes of cheap advertising look much like the high order that Stella is imposing. Even more notorious is Lichtenstein's Composition II , which mocks the idea of composition and is certainly an amalgam of abstract painting relating partly to Jack Youngerman but mostly to Pollock's black-and-white works after 1950. This snarky and snide relationship to abstraction plays an important role in pop art and its predecessors. It comes to form an attack art whose target is the pretensions of the abstraction that immediately precedes it.

Rauschenberg had already entered this arena in the 1950s by making two paintings, Factum I and Factum II. Here all the rhetoric that was so important to the epi-phanic uniqueness of the moment in abstract expressionist painting—the apparently spontaneous and casual slathering of strokes, the idea of spatter and drip—is in fact nearly duplicated, side by side, in the two pictures, putting a deep chill on the idea of the unique moment of spontaneity in the handling of material. Lichtenstein pursued this idea even more aggressively in works such as Big Painting No. 6 (the title itself has a satirical ring to it) of 1965. He takes the lavish, heated, inimitable, signature brush stroke of painters like de Kooning, for example, and shows that it can be codified—freeze-dried, if you will— as if in comics, undermining as insincere the rhetoric and scale of these painters. Everything that is supposed to be ethereal, ineffable, ambiguous, or soulful about abstract expressionism is rendered as die-cut, stamped form, reduced literally to comic formulae in these hard-won brush strokes by Lichtenstein. He was interested in the way these comic conventions for brush strokes also looked like slabs of bacon—how you took something that was formless and shapeless and codified it in comics. He hated comics for their trashiness at the same time that he appreciated their economy and force of conviction in condensing form. He obviously had the same kind of love/hate for the big ambition and rhetoric of abstract expressionism.

Lichtenstein's satires and ironic comments on abstract art run all through his career, and they have at least two different meanings. The stripes and rhythmic repetitions of his entablature series, for example, are a send-up, certainly, of Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and a lot of hard-edge abstract painters in the 1960s; perhaps the rhythmic structure at the top of his 1974 painting from the series has a bit of Donald Judd in it as well. Lichtenstein is engaged by the notion that you cannot get away from the history of style. That is, when an artist such as Judd posits a man-made order of geometry, an affinity with the history of man-made orders of geometry is inevitably present—in the architectural vocabulary of frets, designs, egg-and-dart patterns. So the entablature paintings are about the fine-tuned relationship between the apparent neutral emptiness of minimalist painting and architectural references keyed to an entire history of human invention.

The second meaning manifests itself in Lichtenstein's series of painted mirrors, like the one of 1971. It seems to me that if the entablature series asserts that all abstraction is representational—that with just a tweak one can turn what looks like an abstraction into what looks like an advertisement for a ball of twine, a composition book, or a study in classical architecture—Lichtenstein is saying the opposite with the mirror series. That is, with the mirror paintings Lichtenstein is claiming that all representation is at base abstract, made up of coded distillations of, or removals from, the imitation of nature. Therefore he is particularly interested in Benday dots, for example, and economical codes of the kind that he finds in comic books or in ads in the yellow pages. From small, mundane yellow pages ads for mirrors, he draws a series of enormous abstract paintings, often two or three meters in height. What interests him is the tension between a completely abstract, reductive skein of dots, angles, and lines and its conjuration of something as ineffable and mercurial, as intangible and insubstantial, as reflections on glass. See what energy arises when that insubstantial and mercurial reflection is made hardedged and reduced to a code.

So Lichtenstein is engaged in both sides of the argument, and he does not want to let go of either representation or abstraction. As a result, in a painting such as his 1964 Non-Objective I he pokes fun at the pretensions of simplicity in early modernism, redoing
Mondrian in Benday dots as it the work of this highly idealized and unworldly artist were but comic relief. Lichtenstein's is not a simple jab, however, because he recognizes the secret affinity between the condensed and economical visual language in comic books and the drive to reductive simplicity and purity in modernism. Mondrian's idea of using only primary colors, for example, closely conforms to the commercial printer's use of four ink colors. With Lichtenstein there is both aggression and affection to consider, and he sees the dialogue between these two things as having circularity.

On the one hand, Lichtenstein constantly seeks to demote
Mondrian's idealized simplicity to its lowest common denominator by recouching it in mass media reproduction techniques. On the other hand, he is equally fascinated later in his career by how one takes the simple reductive thing and builds back up from it. For example, in his Plus and Minus (Yellow) of 1988 he starts with the simple idea of two variations—plus and minus, on and off, vertical and horizontal—used in exactly the same module. Simply by varying the degree of tint in the background he begins to produce something that is atmospheric. In other words, in Non-Objective I, everything that is textured, individual, atmospheric, or personal is reduced to the schematic and industrial. In Plus and Minus (Yellow}, what begins with the schematic and industrial reaches back up toward the atmospheric quality of Mondrian's pier and ocean series of 1915. Here Mondrian took the dazzle of light on open water, the vastness of the sea, and tried to distill from a language of essence. Lichtenstein enjoys reversing the process: starting with something crude, anonymous, and predetermined, he tries to push back up toward the subtleties and complexities of a mirror's sheen or the dazzle of fog and light on water.

An implied social message is embedded, I think, in the satires of abstraction that Lichtenstein undertakes, and it is not his alone. The quickest route to this message is in a picture such as Keds of 1961, which Lichtenstein has said in interviews was specifically intended as a jab at
Vasarely, who as you remember is the bete noire of Stella and others. Stella and Judd disliked Vasarely's idealized geometry and its pretensions of social order—his claim to defeat elitism and make a broadly and radically democratic art by means of a geometric abstraction that operated on the optical nerve. A good example of Vasarely's optical abstraction is Grid of 1959, in which an intersection of hidden bars disrupts the pattern along its axis and diagonally. By pointing out the potential Vasarely in the sneaker tread, Lichtenstein may be trying to argue that what he wants is not a brotherhood

of hard-wired neurology but a brotherhood of what is shared and exchanged, a brotherhood of democracy that is associated at ground level with something as common as a pair of Keds. Lichtenstein looks not to the clinic but to the souk as the shared meeting ground. What we have in common, argues Lichtenstein in this debate, is the commonplace of negotiation, of the market, of the sale, of commerce; with all of its terrible flaws and tawdriness, it beats the clinical clarity and totalitarianism posited in Vasarely's idealized geometry. The found geometry, the wit, and the imagination of the anonymous artisan who designs the sneaker tread is of more interest to Lichtenstein as a model for the foundation of a society.

The same thing might be said of Oldenburg in his proposal in 1969 for an inverted Chicago fire hydrant posing as a colossal skyscraper; you can see the little boats sailing underneath it. The Oldenburg is a direct quotation of Brancusi's Male Torso of 1917. The Oldenburg seems to be thumbing its nose at Brancusi, just as Picasso's wallpaper scoffed at Matisse; that is, both are saying that what appears to be rarified and the product of highly individual thinking can often be found in the marketplace or our daily environs. Yet even more is going on in this satire. I think Oldenburg wants to bring modernism out of its closet and into the public or civic realm, that is, to take Brancusi's advances—what Brancusi had done in getting rid of the sentimentality of Rodin, in getting rid of pathos, in taking sculpture off its pedestal and putting it directly on the floor— and re-realize them in the fire hydrant, which is of course a denunciation of the traditional civic monument of the man on a horse. It suggests, like the Lichtenstein, that a society should rally around what is most inclusive and commonplace, that we are ill served by idealism, by symbolism, and by separating ourselves from the ordinary by means of pedestals. Instead, work like this encourages us to recognize a civic side, which is about the everyday, functional, material things of life. A heroic irony is at work in the pop art of both Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, an irony that posits knowing skepticism as a positive ideal, an irony in which bad faith is a necessary ingredient for a good society. And that is extremely hard on abstraction. Indeed these puns come down very hard on the idealism that seems to be embedded in the abstractions at which the pop artists aim their barbs. The little jokes in pop are both less serious and more serious than they seem: admiring of abstraction and at the same time deeply suspicious of it and looking hard at an alternative.

Now we come to the high prince of bad faith, not just in pop art but in the latter half of the century: Andy Warhol, an original, who you think might be a con artist, who you know found the nerve of the good faith/bad faith problem and drilled right into its core over and over like a malevolent dentist. Warhol is to the emperor's new clothes what Chanel is to the little black dress. He may not have invented the concept, but he has become its spokesperson. For nose-thumbing on a bold scale, look at Warhol's Crossword of 1961, which is certainly a send-up of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie, or at his Diamond matchbook of 1962, clearly a Newman Barnett turned on its side, with its zips and hard edge.

Looking at
Warhol's 1963 painting Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, which Philip Johnson gave the Museum of Modern Art, it is easy to be cynical. In fact, Warhol told its former owner David Whitney that he had just added the big red side panels to make the picture larger and more expensive, and that if Whitney did not have room in his apartment, it was okay to show just the left side of the picture with the car crash. Warhol frequently undercut his own work this way. And yet, having lived with this painting at the Modern, I'm fascinated by its minimalism and the extent to which Warhol effectively uses the forms of abstraction, just as he sniggered at the repetition and seriality of minimalism in the Brillo boxes and soup cans, and just as he used hat repetition ostensibly to vitiate or deaden the impact of this photograph of someone in a car crash. One cannot help but feel that the staccato beat of the repetition, while perhaps numbing, also has an emotional effect on us that surpasses the impact of showing it just once. The stuttering repetition, like a flickering film or a television screen, strikes this image into us and gives the picture its power. Likewise, the emptiness on the right-hand side reinforces and makes the image on the left more isolated. The impersonality and deadpan aspect of this picture are in a tug-of-war with its nagging insistence on its subject. The huge red emptiness on the right is not only utterly vacuous but reinforces and makes more powerful—by the incursion of that central notch of red, for example-—the message on the left-hand side of the picture. Without the red emptiness, the picture loses half its power. So Warhol is using and understands to some extent the language of abstraction. For all that he is represented as the arch-appropriator and pop artist, Warhol, at least as much as Lichtenstein, is involved in a dialogue with the idea of abstract art.

The model of abstract painting regularly tugs at Warhol; in fact, throughout his career he is obsessed with abstraction at the same time that he is denigrating it. His most direct insult, I would suppose, to abstract painting is represented by Oxidation Painting of 1978, part of a series of 1977-82 canvases in which he and his assistants literally piss on Pollock. These are large canvases coated with reactive copper sulfides that oxidize and change color when acids come in contact with them. Warhol laid these canvases on the floor, and he and his assistants urinated on them in an exaggerated replay of Pollock's heralded drip paintings.
The dry version of the wet Pollock is
Warhol's series of yarn paintings of 1983, which are made up of skeins of yarn of various colors. These are obviously willfully dumb pictures. They are also sort of smart. I think that, for example, if one were to think about Sigmar Polke's alchemical abstractions of the 1980s, Warhol's oxidation series would have a different place in the language of abstract art at mid-century.

Some of Stella's complexity of the 1970s is in the yarn pictures. That is, Warhol is crazy like a fox. He wants to press on the nerve of abstraction made easy, on the idea that what abstraction requires in order for us to have faith in it is some sense of skill or effort. This is exactly where he wants to plant the knife and twist. His paintings seem to trivialize the idea of invention, of individuality. And yet he found, as I suggested in comparisons to Polke and Stella, sneaky ways of getting a certain painterliness back into the extremely dry and reductive art he practiced. He made an entire series of camouflage paintings in 1982 in which he found a backdoor route to the biomorphic surrealist language of Arp Jean and Miro Joan and Calder Alexander. His Rorschach pictures—huge, four-meter-high paintings of 1984—resonate with the scale and bravado of something they are truly not, say a Kline Franz or a Robert Motherwell. The whole idea of doing something while appearing not to do it is perfectly likable to Warhol.

There may be a pattern in his madness. If you look at the wet and dry versions of his Pollock's, you will see that whereas Lichtenstein tends to be interested in economy and reduction,
Warhol is an artist of splish, splash, blot, excess. (There is an interesting edge to Warhol in that his spillage is often the residue of techniques that are normally deployed for precision and a hard edge, such as photo silk screen or stencils.) Perhaps the example one would put next to Lichtenstein, in terms of rendering the ineffable by apparently mechanical means, would be Warhol's Shadows paintings of 1977-78 . This series would be a key chapter in the long history of the relation-ship between photography and modern art, it seems to me, that would belie the conventional wisdom that photography gave birth to abstraction by usurping the task of representation from the painters, starving them in a certain sense and encouraging the turn to abstraction. But another way to look at the history of photography is that the invention of photography fed not only the language of representation but the language of abstraction that is encoded within the representation of things: blur, halation, fogging, solarization, dazzle, grain. Think of all of the abstract aspects of photography that feed an encoded, abstracted language of representation. They become so much a part of our thinking that we almost take them as natural, but they are in fact abstractions induced by the process of photography. Warhol seems to be highly aware of them and of their potential. He is as interested in the graininess of photography as Lichtenstein is in the even spread of Benday dots.

The grain becomes for
Warhol what the aquatint was for Goya, and I do not use the work of Goya lightly. Warhol is the poet of the morbidity of our time, as we saw in the car crash series. For all the glitz and glamour, he is an artist who is interested in death and disaster.

And just as he is ever the pop artist, he is also interested in the pure codes of representation. These forces come to a head, it seems to me, in the large series of Shadows paintings. (An entire room of these paintings is installed at the Dia Art Foundation at Beacon.) The pictures are nearly two meters high, very big and very impressive. And again, they recall the indeterminacy and broad rhetoric of abstract expressionism at the same time that they undercut it. You know right away by their codes that they represent something, and yet they are clearly pictures of nothing. They are, in Warhol's vein, grave things, emotionally powerful. But they are grave things about utter hollowness and insubstantiality, and they will not let go of either side. What is so interesting to me about Warhol's relationship to abstraction is his love/hate relationship with its powers and weaknesses.

Pop art's long-running joke, then, is that abstraction looks like something, and more often than not, that something is worldly, commercial, or gritty. This joke turns grim and ideological in the 1980s. After a decade dominated by conceptual art and installations, pop art returns iced down and unsmiling in the 1980s in work like Hairn Steinbach's shelf display of 1986 or in Allan McCoIlum's Plaster Surrogates of 1989. Plaster Surrogates is a wall full of framed black plaster squares. Warhol painted Campbell's soup cans in a way that played on the intuition that the sale of art and the sale of commodities were not very different from each other. But he gave them a snappy, cheeky, upbeat rhythm by injecting some of the bright colors and the crassness of commerce into the language of his painting. In contrast, it seems to me that what McCollum is doing is stealing a somnolent monotony from abstract painting and injecting it into the idea of commerce, so that the relationship between abstraction and commodity is drumbeat in here in an entirely different way, which seems the difference between quip and dogma. The series of display shelves by Steinbach played generally on wall pieces and minimalism, on the language of minimalism and the language of display. This does not have to do with the fraught relationship between the power of minimalism and the power of industry, as we talked about before, but with the tawdry slickness of minimalism and the consumer culture of such things as toilet brushes and lava lamps.

There is a true downbeat feeling to this art. You would hardly guess that this is occurring in a boom period in the American economy. In fact a secret rebellion is taking place here. For example, Sherrie Levine's paintings of the 1980s are filled with the rhetoric of appropriation. As with Steinbach and McCollum, Levine is out to subvert bourgeois concepts of originality. These artists stage a wholesale critique of commodity, sweeping up abstraction as an undifferentiated example of the investment in the ideals of individual creativity. The secret rebellion is that after a decade of artists producing unpurchasable, conceptual art—land art, installations, and so forth—these artists produce objects that are extremely salable, that want to be critiques but are at the same time portable and collectible. They borrow many ideas of anti-institutionalism and put them into objects that have a certain market status in the early 1980s.

More specific to the critique of abstraction would be two of Peter Halley's paintings: Two Cells with Circulating Conduit, 1986 and Prison with Conduit of 1981. Halley is back on the argument that all abstraction is in fact only coded representation—not in the sense that Lichtenstein saw it, but something much more extensive and serious. I will in fact read to you. Halley is not interested in the ambiguity of abstraction. He would like you to know exactly. And in 1982 he wrote:

1). These are paintings of prisons, cells, and walls.
2). Here the idealist square becomes the prison. Geometry is revealed as confinement.
3). The cell is a reminder of the apartment house, the hospital bed, the school desk—the isolated endpoints of industrial structure.
4). The paintings are a critique of idealist modernism. In the color field is placed a jail. The misty space of
Rothko is walled up.
5). Underground conduits connect the units. "Vital fluids" flow in and out.
6). The "stucco" texture is reminiscent of motel ceilings.
7). The Day-Glo paint is a signifier of "low-budget mysticism." It is the afterglow of radiation.

Any questions? Absolute and clear, the meaning being that all abstraction, and particularly the hardedge abstraction of work by
Newman, for example, is coded representation of power.

If one reads on further in Halley's essays, one sees repeated references to Michel Foucault and the idea of a world of incarceration in which one is constantly in prison. It is as if Halley translates Foucault into a kind of neon Monopoly board, or reimagines Smithson in Day-Glo. There's an odd split between the cheery positivism of Halley's colors and shapes, and his sense that all of life is imprisoned; that art, like other things, is a series of conventions given to us, not something we do. That is, buildings, for example, are built to house us, not structures that we make to have a view onto the outside world. There is a deep sense of pessimism in all this bright and affirmative color. Halley's work of the 1980s, interestingly, is done before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the advent of cyberspace. Yet in the 1990s Halley's work continues in somewhat the same vein, with somewhat the same set of meanings, now much more complicated and overlaid in a work like Powder of 1995. It seems that although Halley's rhetoric is very much involved with the world of, say, Morris,
Smithson, Foucault, and Baudrillard, his visual rhetoric is directly from the world of, say, Gerald Murphy and Stuart Davis. And this clash or tension, I think, makes the work much more interesting and appealing than some of the words and rhetoric that go with it. You could say about Halley the reverse of what Marx once said about history, referring to Louis Napoleon as a pale, farcical imitation of his predecessor and relative, Napoleon I: History always repeats itself. The first Lime it's tragedy, the second time it's farce. What you see happening in Lichtenstein and then Halley is history repeating itself, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.

One of Halley's partners in crime, who was frequently talked about in the same breath in the 1980s, is Philip Taaffe. In Taaffe's case the farce is continued, the farce against abstraction, but in a slightly snider and ad hominem way. Taaffe's Madame Torso in Deep of 1985 is a pun on Hans Arp and his Dada relief of 1916 called Madame Torso in a Wavy Hat. Madame Torso is now united with a Playboy bunny. Instead of a separate affinity between commercialized representation, in the way that Lichtenstein makes the comics look like Mondrian, by putting together Arp and his playfulness—and this is meant to be a kind of lyrical automatic drawing that has a providential relationship to the sense of feminine fashion of Madame Torso in a Wavy Hat-—Taaffe wants to conflate this individual invention and Dada serendipity with the die cut of the Playboy bunny.

There's one more shape of interest in here, which comes out of Taaffe's painting itself, and it is a kind of double dumbbell, a vaguely biomorphic, double lima bean shape, and it goes with the Playboy bunny and Madame Torso. Taatfe's idea of putting the Playboy bunny and Madame Torso together in this form is not simply to create a standoff but an orgy. That is, parts come together in a squirming, compacted way—a snarky reference, I think, to the masculinity of the Playboy bunny as opposed to Madame Torso. The cartoonish serendipity of the Arp, out of the tradition of modernism, is now made to look the same as the calculated formal economy of the commercial logo. Lichtenstein's dual interest in reductiveness on the commercial side and reductiveness on the inventive and personal side is shared by Taaffe, but with an ambition now to produce from their sum a third quality, decorativeness, which is Taaffe's hallmark. Taaffe is nothing if not forthright in his accusations against abstract art. His 1985 painting We Are Not Afraid is a direct riplique to
Newman's Who's Afraid of Red\Yellow, and Blue II of 1967. The response to Newman in a certain sense is, "Hey, lighten up." By producing a work of the same size and scale, he is saying, "That isn't too hard, Newman. For all of your arguments about the sublime, I'm going to take this 'zip,' this idea of verticality, along with its anthropomorphic associations—that is, the vertical member representing the spirit of human nature, the one place in color-field painting that renders a human dimension to the flat field of the picture—and instead make it a kind of braid, which suggests not only that I am violating the flat space you are so proud of, Newman, but I'm going to say that this is a mechanical sense of what's decorative." Whereas Halley's argument is that the power of abstraction like Newman's is sinister, that his geometric idealism is imprisoning, Taaffe's critique is that it is empty, at base simply decoration.

Taaffe puts to work the idea of revisiting high decoration with an intent to make it low decoration. For example, he takes an Ellsworth Kelly of 1962 called Blue Green  and remakes it in his own Blue Green of 1987, sticking decals on it and drawing lines over it, as if to exorcise its power. Taaffe's is a snide, graffiti-like disfigurement of what he dislikes here; he wants to be seen sticking a pin in its balloon. Taaffe, it seems to me, is preparing the stage for something that is more personal to him, namely, highly optical decoration.

Another of Taaffe's riffs in the 1980s is op art and Bridget Riley. One might think of this appropriation not as an act of vandalism, or as a simple act of quotation, but rather as an argument for one Matisse over another. Taaffe is looking at Kelly's Blue Green and thinking of the simplicity of Matisse's cutouts as part of Kelly's legacy, the high organization of large, strong forms; he is not thinking about the Interior with Eggplants that we looked at earlier and Matisse's interest in vibrant, allover patterning. Yet that is ultimately the direction Taaffe's art is headed. Just as we saw Halley's work getting more complicated in the 1990s, so too does Taaffe's. His Kharraqan of 1998-99 is a grab bag of world decoration—Persian, parts of the Alhambra, Japanese sword guards, Bridget Riley at the top—a whole amalgam to produce an optical overload of sheer visual pleasure, a riot of decoration, which is Taaffe's more direct side. But he needs to get to it by first slaying the dragon of abstraction, whose idealism and pretensions stand in the way of its role, as he sees it, as decoration; he empties out the idealism in order to get at the empty rhythms and beautiful patterns that he so admires as the energy of abstract art.

I want to turn now to an older generation of artists and how they wrestled with the issues that plague Taaffe and Halley and other young artists of the 1980s—the issues of an ironic relationship to abstraction, of a relationship to a powerful precedent. Taaffe and Halley, for example, inherited the world of pop art, of Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, of popular culture and its relationship to the real, made world. These young artists looked back beyond pop to the abstraction of the 1950s, to Kelly and Newman, as pure outsiders looking across a wall at something in which they did not take part. What is more interesting to me are those few artists who return to abstraction having rejected it, who lived in the shadow of high abstract art. I am referring to the Pollock generation, about whom I talked at the beginning of these lectures, who renounced and then came back to abstraction through the experience of minimalism and other aspects of 1960s and 1970s art.

I am thinking here particularly of three artists who are what you might call part-time abstractionists. (What a strange concept, really. Prior to World War II, abstraction was an end-point. It was something you arrived at after you had tried everything else. It was the absolute.) The three painters I have in mind are
Richter Gerhard, Cy Twombfy, and Johns Jasper.

Of these three, certainly
Richter is the most programmatic in his gambits between abstraction and representation. He began doing social realism in the Eastern bloc, then, when he came to the West, was immediately taken up by the onslaught of pop art from America, but he consistently throughout his career painted abstractions-—of a very particular kind. Consider Richter's Un-Painting (Gray) of 1972, and his Gray Streaks of 1968. Imagine in your mind a comparison between Un-Painting and Lichtenstein's Composition II or between Gray Streaks and Lichtenstein's Large Spool. Certainly Gray Streaks refers to Stella's black stripe paintings of 1959. And just as certainly Un-Painting refers to gestural, all-over abstraction in the model of Pollock. But what a difference!

Lichtenstein's ironic relationship to abstraction impels him to make work that is more graphic and clarified, work that is reduced to clear, hard, crude black-and-white lines, simple commercial patterns devoid of mystery and ambiguity.
Richter's instinct is the opposite: you might say that he literally waters down Stella, that Stella becomes grayer, blurred, more aqueous, and wobbly. The whole sense of order and strictness becomes tentative, shaky. And the Pollock vocabulary of Un-Painting becomes messier, thicker, more congealed, and clotted. Richter is not a painter of clarification but a painter of doubt, one who constantly lives with "yes, but." Like Warhol, he is involved simultaneously with representation and the nagging ghost of abstraction. But unlike Warhol, he works into abstraction from the inside, as an absolute abstract painter, and shuttles between a form of photographic realism and a form of abstraction. He comes to his abstraction from a climate of dead cynicism and irony.

One does not look to Richter's abstraction for comfort or idealism. In fact two of his partners in crime in the 1960s and 1970s are
Polke Sigmar and an artist friend who uses the pseudonym Blinky Palermo, both of them also known for their dry, heartless cynicism about the choices and ambiguities of high abstract painting. Richter's Abstract Painting of 1985 and his 1024 Colors of 1973 show him working both sides of the street-—geometric abstraction and gestural, painterly abstraction. He is equally debasing of both. The titles themselves suggest generic painting, and the pictures are, in the tradition of Palermo and Polke in a certain sense, heartless about their mechanical nature. These are very difficult pictures to love. There is something acidulous and chilling about the colors of Abstract Painting, and both works bespeak an extremely tough-minded relationship to abstraction that is matched in intensity by Richter's obvious interest in romantic landscape. His Waterfall of 1997 looks so close to the real thing that one wants to believe it belongs in the tradition of Caspar David Friedrich.

But the slight photographic blur, the unevenness of the surface, the collapse of the space, and the lack of definition betray a clearly modernist interest in photographic codes (similar to Warhol) that distance, chill, and intermediate. By so doing, Richter creates rich expectations and casts seeds of doubt at the same time. This constant destabilization seems to be what so much of Richter's knowing, calculating art is about.

One would think
Richter's work an extremely unpromising source of what has in fact become some of the most important history painting and equally some of the most important abstraction of the last half of the century. Within one year of each other, for example, two series of large paintings by Richter demonstrate his powerful conflation of abstraction and representation. In 1988, from the found photographs in police riles and tabloids, Richter culled an utterly noncommittal—in fact, maddeningly noncommittal—vision of a series of incidents in the life and demise of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a left-wing guerrilla group active in West Germany between 1968 and 1977.

This amazing cycle of pictures, ruminations on the alleged suicide/death/police murder of the remaining gang members in prison in 1978, was acquired for MoMA by Robert Storr, curator of the wonderful Richter retrospective that showed during 2002 and 2003 at the Modern and the Hirschhorn among other museums. This was a great coup for both Storr and the Modern. Richter had wanted this important series shown outside of Germany so that it would not be seen in the black-and-white terms of political polarization but rather, I think, in terms and on grounds that would allow its deep ambiguity to blossom.

One has only to compare a work from this series with
Warhol's disaster pictures to see the full graphic power of Warhol's use of photographic grain and polarization as contrasted with Richter's operations in the gray zone, in the blur and smear that obfuscates rather than makes things graphically clear. The emotional range of one's fears, repugnance, esteem, or empathy vis-a-vis the Baader-Meinhof Gang is forever left in suspension by the cool, deadpan, noncommittal nature of the engagement with the subject and the distance from the subject.

Same thing, I think, might be said about Richter's large landscape abstractions, and I think particularly about his so-called squeegee abstractions, November, December, and January, all of 1989. These huge pictures— they measure about three by four meters—were made by dragging a hard bar repeatedly across the surface. The whole idea of making a picture by means of accident, which was after all about Pollock, the idea of letting material determine the image and form of the making, seems filtered in Richter's case through Johns and something we talked about in the fourth lecture, which is the idea that destroying order is the same thing as producing it, that art has a kind of cruelty to it. The raked and ruined surface of a picture like November recalls Johns' mordant acceptance of the idea of ruination in the scraping, pulling, and messing. The other two canvases from this series have a similar power. Richter is not the producer of a clear cycle of completion; this is not a series of "Four Seasons." Only winter is represented in this world, with its different colors peppering through like the glow of fire beneath a frozen surface. These are incredibly rich, complex, layers of surface incident, deeply worked.

For all of their impersonality, for the feeling that they exist only by a gesture of effacement, of defacement, or negation, I for one find Richter infinitely satisfying and interesting! I encourage you to think about his pictures next to something like Clyfford Still's similarly scaled untitled painting of 1957 from the Whitney. Here, with Still, is one of abstract expressionism's paradigms of sincerity, good faith, and idealism. And here, on the same scale;

Richter, the man of doubt, the man of irony, and the man of negation. Tons to look at, deeply moving, powerful. I would sit and look at the Richter at least as long as I would look at Still's picture. In fact, I would gladly trade fifty-two yards of Still's formulaic pony-hide surface for a square foot of Richter's surface.

The second of this triad I want to consider is Twombly, whose relationship to abstract expressionism, unlike
Richter's, comes directly out of the language of De Kooning and Pollock. In a picture such as Unfitted of 1956, instead of the continuous liquid skein of Pollock, or the big, juicy brushstrokes of De Kooning, Twombly produces a fragmented, broken, straw-like scratching and scrawling. As Peter Schjeldahl once said, it is like what a dog does when he's getting ready to lie down. Twombly is destroying the surface, scarring it, dragging pencils through it. His is an act of desecration, vandalization, of bringing the language of abstract expressionism out of the realm of personal expression and into the world of writing and language, of shared signs and pictograms. At any given moment, the piece seems about to break into a set of words, a set of pictograms, a set of letters that is going to spell out a message. His forms no longer have an independent role outside the body; instead their physicality is filered through the public language of signs and writing. By the time he gets to a very juicy and liquid art, as in his Untitled of 1962—by the time the picture begins to spurt and leap and splatter—it is through common signs for phalluses, buttocks, and fecal material. Everything about its gushiness, its expression, is filtered again through the idea of defacement and negation. This is not the cool, beautiful continuity of abstract expressionism, but a rather jerky, hesitant, intermittent negotiation of a set of signs.

This kind of work in the early 1960s puts Twombly deeply out of step, as one can imagine, with pop and minimalism. It is only in the mid-1960s, after he undergoes a crisis, that he returns for the only time in his career to pure abstraction. In a group of paintings known as the blackboard pictures, he turns away from the world of language, if not from the world of writing itself, and begins writing in a preliminary sense, much like the exercises promoted by the Palmer method of handwriting, where simple rolls are repeated in order to exercise the hand. This willful distraction of writing precludes meaning and communication, and exists as a purposely mindless run-on gesture that never has any accumulation in letters or words and has no pictographic component. The creamy gushiness of Twombly's early work is here stripped back to a minimal black and white, into something decidedly austere, even bleak, in its repetitiveness and distillation. These blackboard pictures are not actually done in chalk, but in a kind of white oil stick. Twombly uses this format to encounter in 1970 Henry Geldzahler's great show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Forty Years of New York School Painting, in which he sees a room of Pollock's. He goes back to Rome after seeing this and produces two amazing pictures. Each of these is about five meters wide. One is an amazing picture, now in the Menil Collection, that has a Wagnerian quality to it and a great tumbleweed at the bottom. Instead of the automatic roll, Twombly expands this repetitive gesture to the scale that Pollock had, where you have to stride into the picture. He begins to produce what resembles a roll of tangled barbed wire that has a series of breaks or inflections; these rolls speak not just about the wrist and repetition but about the elbow, about the step, and this produces a characteristic awkwardness of Twombly's work. Everything that seems to be easily repeated and reflexive—-that has a "my kid could do it" quality—also has a slight clumsiness that saves the work from being merely virtuosic or facile.

Look at the difference between two 1970 works from the series, the untitled Menil picture and the picture that the Museum of Modern Art owns, which is utterly noncumulative and, I think, more challenging as a result. While the Menil is more narrative—moving from a tentative distant thunder at the top to a giant thundering roll at the bottom—the Modern is more abstract in its refusal to narrate, to tell any story, even by implication. Purer in its unendingness—who knows where it starts, where it will end, in the Pollock sense of alloverness—and yet created not from an ambitious scrawl, but with that simple roll. Over and over, again and again. How many times can I do this? And that is in fact an interesting question: how do you make a painting like this that is nearly four meters tall? In the most artisanal fashion: Twombly sat on the shoulders of one of his friends and was carried, like a giant typewriter carriage, across the top of the picture and then returned to the next row and the next, until he could stand on the floor to do the bottom. Roll after roll after roll. Nothing but the simplest, most mindless gesture, until it built up, in skein after skein, into these amazing, frenetic clouds. This is a picture—and I would never say this lightly—that I would look at in the company of Pollock's Number 1,1950. Everything that Twombly achieves, he achieves by the negation, by the ironic distancing of himself from Pollock, by the exact inversion of what Pollock is. Everything that is liquid is turned dry. Everything that is light is turned dark. Everything that is simple and spontaneous and athletic is turned obsessive, repetitive, self-conscious in Twombly. By means of this pressure and negation, he rerealizes, on a completely different scale and terms, the intense transmission of energy that Pollock conveyed to canvas. Twombly has translated— through writing, through self-consciousness, through irony—Pollock's amazing present-tense literalness and immediacy into an entirely different kind of abstraction.

Johns Jasper is my final example today. Johns too, it seems to me, takes a sardonic swipe at Pollock in a picture such as Scent of 1973-74. He is well aware of the overall appeal of a large unstructured field, and yet he wants to structure it, and he does so in 1973 in the most radical break with his own career, even more radical than Twombly's return to abstraction in the mid-1960s. Johns, you recall, is the artist of the flags and targets, the man who made his living debunking abstraction, the man who made his name by driving a spike through the heart of Pollock, the man who established himself as the antichrist of abstraction. In 1973 he turns back, for seven full years, to painting nothing but abstract pictures along the mindlessly simple model of Scent's system of Crosshatch marks. It is a system that finds its first realization in a "manifesto" work, Untitled No. 1—4, of 1972, four panels where body parts— like the target with body parts—are found with a pattern of flagstones, something taken from popular culture, and on the left, what appears to be a purely invented thatch pattern. Johns has said he saw something like this painted on a car, and that provided the original accent, the original inspiration for the picture.

What is clear about the picture is that it is a systematization of the idea of gestural abstraction. Its complexity can be reduced to modular form. Just as Twombly's repetition speaks of expressionism filtered through minimalism, so
Johns' repetition is about gesturahsm filtered through modularity. For all of its complexity of color, Scent is still extremely crisp in its ordering, and it is clearly planned. If you look at the scheme of Scent, you will see that it is structured as a series of panels that repeats itself; the edge on the right is exactly the same as the edge on the left; it is centered on one panel, which has on either side of it repeats. You can see how the pattern A-B-C overlaps itself and moves to C-D-E, and then overlaps itself again and moves to E-F before it comes back around to the circularity. It is a calculated program, quite the opposite of Pollock's sense of automatic release. You do not need a roadmap to recognize that there is an order to this picture; you understand that it is fragmented, not continuous, and that it is plotted. You feel it in the way that Johns, I think, must have had in mind when he titled it Scent, which is not only the title of one of Pollock's last paintings, but shares a familiarity with Picasso's statement that there was reality in cubism, but it was there like a perfume or odor in the picture. There is an order in Scent, but it is something one intuits, or picks up as a trace.

The idea of Scent, by the way, and I don't mean to subscribe to it, is important to the thinking about Johns' series of Crosshatch pictures, because dealing with their meaning has often involved a kind of title mania. There is nothing else to go on in these arrangements of hatch marks. And while it seems to me extremely important that they be meaningless marks, Johns gave these pictures provocative titles. For example, art scholars have spent a good deal of time on titles such as Corpse and Mirror, with the idea of the exquisite corpse and surrealism, and with what the mirror has to do with doubling. It seems much more interesting to me to look at what becomes of this simple pattern of Scent, how it becomes a metaphor for order and its collapse or annulment. What is so interesting in
Johns, and we saw it in his Device, is that he has to establish a system in order to cancel or bury it. The important thing about order for Johns is that it be degradable. The order itself is hardly as important as the demonstration of its vulnerability or fragility. The light and crisp gestural quality in Scent becomes slightly more turgid in Corpse and Mirror. We note first of all an austerity-—in the reduction in color—and a meatiness, especially to the cancellation on the right. As Johns works with this utterly meaningless, mindless gesture, as simple-minded as Twombly's scroll, it becomes extremely personal. So that by 1978 one sees Johns remaking those five hatch marks directly with his hand, the hand that had often been like a print in his work, a print of his own body in the work, now becoming the trace of his mark, like a series of caresses. For all of its teeming, knotted, congestedness, it is stroked, as one strokes repeatedly the surface of the skin, for example. The notion of surface and skin is of continual interest in Johns' work.

The personal nature of the pattern is never clearer than in the choice of Johns' lithograph of 1970-71 as the poster for his later retrospective at the Whitney. This remarkable image, Savarin, demonstrates three things about
Johns' self-identification. The print of the red arm at the bottom is certainly a direct take from Edvard Munch's self-portrait. Johns was interested in Munch as an expressionist, in the morbidity of his work, and in the way in which Munch represented his mortality with a skeletal arm at the bottom of his portrait. The Savarin coffee can in the center is Johns' own sculpture, a remnant of his studio, the can he stuffed with brushes, which has be-come a self-emblem—other artists have used a palette—for his practice as an artist. And not least important is the cross-hatching in the background, reminiscent of Picasso's using the diamond pattern of the harlequin's costume in the background of the Girl Before the Mirror to project his own presence—the harlequin as Picasso's avatar—as the ground on which his mistress exists. In Johns' lithograph, then, we have the biological fact of his existence at the bottom, the tools of his trade in the middle, and his creations—the mindless pattern of his marks—behind him. Each one is an extremely important component of his personality, integral, not to a complete and whole soul in the way that expressionist painting works, but to the levels of existence that Johns uses to create a composite self-portrait.

Further on in the 1970s, as he continues to do nothing but abstract paintings of this pattern, is a series of pictures called Usuyuki (Japanese for a light snow, for something that vanishes or melts in a hurry; a metaphor in Japan for fleeting life or beauty). One from the Cleveland museum is a tall collage and painting in which there is a steady murmur of potential meaning in the newspaper clippings beneath the strokes. This thatch of babbling, cut-up meaning is suppressed and supplanted—again, the idea of burying or cancelling. Here the crisp and aerated order in Scent has turned thick, gooey, and molten. Title mania aside, one clearly sees that as this work has become personal for
Johns, it has gotten thicker and denser. It has gone from the relatively light feeling of surface and flatness in Scent to a realm of greater density where the order is not simply cancelled on one side, as it was in Corpse and Mirror, but cancelled in the process of being made! The gesture itself is the gesture of both making and burying. This comes through even more strongly, I think, toward the end of the series, just before Johns gives up the Crosshatch pictures in 1980, with Dancers on a Plane I. Compared to Scent, Dancers has a compact bristling nature. The central spine of this picture divides it into regislers, and along each one of these spines the patterns now begin to duplicate, and you get weird things like birds' faces, for example, with screaming eyes and pointed beaks. And then if you look harder, you think you see jigging arms and legs, as if in some contorted exercise. One gets the feeling that this pattern has been packed in, that it is so pregnant, it is about to crack open and yield up something.

Perhaps the great picture of this series, and the one I will end with, is
Johns' Weeping Women of 1975. Let's deal with the title first. It is certainly based on the idea of Picasso's weeping women, a series of pictures that led up to Guernica, of which the most famous is a 1937 picture of pure anguish and distortion. There was a showing of Picasso's series around the time that Johns made this picture, and while I don't believe that in any sense the title for the Johns precedes the picture, the idea for the picture may have been "baptized" in the river of anguish that pervades Picasso's series. Is it an homage to Picasso, an artist always hugely meaningful to Johns, not only for the Weeping Woman but for cubism, for the systematic organization of cubism, that constantly haunts Johns? In fact, in Johns' markings and cross-hatching, there is a definite evocation of the Africanizing relationship between scarification and systematic cubic order that you get in pictures like Picasso's Woman in Bed of 1907, right after the Demoiselles.

But forget
Picasso, forget the title. Just look at the picture. Look at the violation of the picture in the one note of external reality that comes into it, the inclusion of a merely pragmatic item from his studio: not the Savarin can as before, but the iron that he uses to heat the encaustic wax. This tool brands the picture in four places. You can see that there are two irons on a string in the center panel, and then two irons beneath them. As David Sylvester has said, in some senses all of Johns' art is a continual crucifixion. And planted into the central panel of this triptych is this anthropomorphic symbol—the irons—-as if arms are stretched across and things fall down. But more than that symbol, what strikes us is the actuality of what happens when that iron hits the surface of the picture, creating a pressure against it and a destruction of the order. Think Richter. Think the idea of scraping that initially, I think, emerged from Johns' desire to create an order out of destruction. Look at the incredible richness of the drip when the encaustic gives way and runs over the scrape and the scratch it creates beneath it. Johns obsessively worked the surface with his personal marks: the circles impressed all over the picture are the bottoms of the ale cans that were Johns' signature sculpture, and this was his way of covertly, almost fetishistically, imprinting personal meaning into this unyielding system of abstract lines. And then the lines themselves! Look at the scale of this picture—and the rhetoric—how it has changed from Scent. Next to this, Scent seems like a placid landscape. The scale of the marks in relation to the picture—and the picture itself is 2.5 meters wide—is still in proportion to the body, but now built up; the marks can no longer be hand marks; they have an enormity in their scale and in their collapse.

One could spend an endless amount of time looking at the sheer complexity of layering on the surface, an enormous investment of energy. Think about the feeling from that Twombly. Start with a mindless program, fust draw scrawls and see what it gives you. Think about Johns starting with the idea of just hatching, just drawing five bars at a time, then drawing them again in oil, drawing them again in encaustic, then scraping them down, then trying again, then coming back again with blood, with night, with white, again and again.

Is this abstract art? Is the Twombly abstract art? Are
Richter's big pictures abstract art? Are they art about abstract art? Certainly on one level of meaning, they are art about art. Their relationship to the tradition of Pollock is tantamount to what they are. One level of their meaning is their knowing relationship to that tradition, and that relationship is ironic. It is a relationship of negation: of providing structure to the unstructured, drying out the liquid, making dark the light. It is a relationship to tradition that involves chastisement, that involves the acceptance of tradition's constraints at the same time that it subverts and reacts against them. And yet this is, it seems to me, extremely powerful abstract art. The standard history of abstraction, and the one that the satirists and ironists of the 1980s would write, smugly and in self-congratulation, is a history of faith and its loss, a history of illusions replaced by knowing, of dreams dispelled by reality. Here, however, in Twombly, in Johns, and in Richter, you have an abstraction saturated with skepticism, saturated with knowing, an abstraction that proves that abstraction can be knowing and still have meaning. And that meaning is something that adds to, not just draws on, what we know.

 

 

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