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

 



ABSTRACT ART NOW
 


Willem de Kooning
Gotham news

 

We have come to the last installment, the sixth of six Mellon Lectures. I am so painfully aware of how much has gone unsaid, and how much I would still like to say. It reminds me of Ridley Scott's wonderful film Blade Runner, in which Roy Batty, the blond leader of the androids— who, you remember, are trying desperately to extend their shelf life, to get some reprieve on their expiration date—whomps Harrison Ford in a rather epic fight, and then slumps down on a rainsoaked balcony. He realizes, as his warn¬ing light is flashing, that his time is coming to an end. And he says, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

While I do not have anything nearly as exotic left in my holster, 1 do have so many stories that I have not told! I would like to refer briefly to those stories, because they reinforce some of the points I have been making. When I talked about art in the 1980s and abstraction, I regret not having had time to include de Kooning, es¬pecially his wonderful late work. These beautiful, aerated, ribbon like pictures strongly bolster the history that I have been constructing here. The unbroken line between, say, de Kooning's Excavation in 1950 and his 1984 Untitled IV—the direct link between a set of forms that evolved in the 1940s and those spelled out in the 1980s—belies any notion that history can be constructed neatly in packages, or that abstraction is a sequence of innovations passed like a baton from one artist to the next. Instead it reinforces the idea that abstraction can be a lifetime pursuit, that it can be deeply sustaining into old age. Moreover, in de Kooning, abstraction gives rise to a late-in-life style characterized not by density and failure but by a fresh sense of aeration, a new kind of life that is amazing and wonderful to those who knew him and under-stood the compacting of his early work.

Looking at de Kooning's 1984 painting, there is a strong sense of the artist at play in his old age with the forms that he had inherited. He would project slides of his earlier drawings and trace over them to produce these riotous pictures, pictures that are, for all we know, beyond intention, because when he made them he had lost the ability to communicate in any other fashion. He was incapable of carrying on a strong conversation or of sustained recall; by many definitions, he was non-compos mentis. And yet the pictorial intelligence, the sustained memory of the abstractions he had made over the years, is palpably strong. De Kooning's work in the 1980s also belies the dichotomy between abstraction and representation. The constant slip-sliding of bodily references that we see in this work—the bellies and breasts and curves and tongues that lubriciously slide in and out of each other—insists that the division of abstraction and representation is a question of artistic practice and pragmatics.
It is pragmatic praxis that defends the borders between abstraction and representation, not some theoretical purity of odd lines that can be drawn vigorously. Remember that Pollock talked about self-censorship in his work: whenever he saw anything recognizable emerging, he rubbed it out. One could not comprehend de Kooning's career—the Women, the early figurations, the recurrent push toward a corporeal art his sculpture in the 1970s—without under-standing that the border between abstraction and representation is not something holy but something labile, permutable, and transgressive, like these pictures.

I also did not have time to talk about Agnes Martin, whose thin, beautiful executions in graphite and pale oil paint are the opposite of what we were fust looking at in de Kooning. Her 1963 canvas and the 1978 watercolor are utterly incorporeal: they have no body—no tongues, no breasts, no sag, no slip, no slide. They are at the other end of abstraction, and yet not at all cerebral. Despite their seeming asceticism, they could make the same point as the de Kooning's about the necessary sensuality of abstraction: namely, that the kind of abstraction I am describing in these lectures is never about absolutes but often about nuances. Martin's work is all about a delicacy of touch and tint, about the recovering of pale moonlight, of desert beiges and tans, and this draws upon and is thoroughly dependent on sensory and sensual experience. In order to understand this art, you have to be there to feel the touch of the pencil, the lightness with which it hits the surface, to feel the subtlety of the tint. Martin's art is all about experience—on the part of both the artist and the observer.

Robert Ryman, whom I barely nodded to earlier, presents us with yet a different experience. Ryman in his maturity is an artist who paints nothing but varieties of white canvases, and for that reason his work is often described as ethereal or removed. In order to show that in fact Ryman is not a desert mystic, like Martin, but a Matisse-loving urbanite, his work needs to be seen close up, which I have tried to simulate in a full view of Bond. For everything that is pale and thin and precise about Martin, there is an unctuous and idiosyncratic counterpoint in Ryman's work. For all the rigor and restriction of the path that he set himself, Ryman indulges in a kind of fetishistic precision about the fasteners with which the picture goes on the wall, about the thickness of the stretchers, about the size of the brush he uses, about the unit of the brush stroke—in short, about the stuff of painting. His is an art of constant restlessness, an art that despite its pure appearance, is never in fact about perfection.

Ryman is all about painting; he is an abstractionist who is interested in imagery and in the nature of painting. But he is the opposite of an essentialist. Unlike Clement Greenberg, who believed there was an essence of painting, Ryman is sure that there is no essence at the bottom, that painting constantly needs to be changed and experimented with, that every aspect of it leaves open a new vista of possibility for him. And if I cannot prove my point about Ryman with slides, I can at least send you to look at the two beautiful Rymans—untitled paintings of 1965-66 and 1961— that now belong to the National Gallery, thanks to Jeffrey Weiss's promotion of them. These two signal acquisitions are typical of some of the greatest work of Ryman's career.

Looking at these paintings, you will grasp the perversity of my mission to talk about abstraction using reproductions. As I cautioned at the outset of these lectures, the less there is to look at, the more you have to look, the more you have to be in the picture. Perhaps by temperament I am guilty of having been overly attentive to abstraction's noisy, declarative protagonists. I have surely not paid enough attention to that quarter of contemporary abstraction that is about whispers, innuendo, confidences exchanged intimately rather than publicly declared. But in part I have done this because, as we have just seen, it is technically difficult to render this quieter art. References to Ryman and Martin are useful, however, because they demonstrate again that the history of abstraction is not, as popularly conceived, a history of libertinism, a history of playing tennis without a net, of allowing oneself every possible freedom. In fact, quite the opposite! Abstraction is to be seen more as a history of denials, of self-imposed rigors and purposely narrowed concentration. Thus its history is not, as often represented, a line of cumulative gains or cumulative reductions, an inverted pyramidal progression pointing down toward the black square, the ultimate end, the effort to produce the last painting. A better model for abstraction is perhaps the hypertext, where the line between A and B goes out in a million possible and ever more complex directions, where artists along the line from A to B find lhat A or A" IS a window opening onto an entire universe. Brice Marden is another artist whose work I admire and about whom I could have talked more had there been time. At the outset of these lectures you will recall that I set Pollock at one pole as the culmination of one kind of abstraction and Johns at the other as the vanguard of a new counterpoint to abstraction. Although I made use of that polarization as a structure, we have seen again and again throughout this series that the most interesting work tends to be a hybrid of these two things, and that the polarization is spurious. Indeed, one of the defining efforts of contemporary abstraction, particularly (but not only) in painting, is the constant effort to pull
Johns and Pollock together, and Marden's work is a good demonstration of that effort. His encaustic, Grove Group /of 1973, has everything to do with the fact that Marden was a guard at the Jewish Museum during Johns' first show in the 1960s. Vine, on the other hand, has all to do with the recovery of Pollock's legacy, perhaps directly through de Kooning's ribbonlike pictures of the 1980s that we have just been discussing. Again, purity, absolutes, and barriers are not the issue. Artists such as Marden try to live with the legacies of Pollock as a great abstract artist and Johns as a representative painter by mixing and blending what Pollock and Johns stand for: instinct versus intelligence, commitment versus wariness, immediacy versus reserve, lyricism versus reticence.

One could look beyond Marden to younger artists like Terry Winters for further evidence. In Winters' 1996 Parallel Rendering I it seems to me he is trying to remake Pollock's space in all of its complexity but with
Johns' touch and the cerebral notion of system. He is looking beyond the landscape of Pollock, through the systems of minimalism, for new metaphors of density and complexity that have as much to do with mental constructs and geometry as they have to do with birds' nests and a thatch-work of natural richness and complexity.

These are just nods in the direction of all the stories I had hoped to complete in the span of these lectures. But let me at least return to some of the promises I made in the opening lecture. You will remember that I brought onstage in the first lecture Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion, an intellectual landmark of the mid-1950s that made a powerful case for illusionist realism as the great triumph of Western culture. I wondered out loud whether there might be an argument for abstraction that was as good as Gombrich's for illusionism—that is, an argument for abstraction as a legitimate part of both our cognitive process and our nature as a modern liberal society. I took on this challenge not just in the manner of one scholar having an in-house academic disagreement with another, but as a way to give all the skeptics in the house—and I bet there are still plenty of you out there who, like Gombrich, dislike abstraction—a more than respectable stand-in.

The core of my disagreement with Gombrich over these past weeks might be summed up by comparing Gombrich's "logo," the duck/rabbit drawing, to Andy Warhol's Rorschach blot of 1984. Gombrich liked the drawing so much because it pointed up the active role of the viewer in puzzling out representation: you can either see it as a duck or as a rabbit, but you can never see it as anything in between or as both. As a viewer, you have to make up your mind. Gombrich's belief that representation is a matter of solving dilemmas— that you have to posit a question or a schema in order to get an answer, that making comes before recognition—is neatly summarized in this drawing. In contrast, it is famously known that there is no controlling what one might see in a Rorschach blot; there is no either/or, no correct interpretation of the Rorschach. Isn't the idea behind the Rorschach test—and Warhol's point in painting these big Rorschach blots on canvas—that abstraction has everything to do with what the viewer brings to it and nothing to do with what is there before us, that it is entirely a matter of projection? What is crucial perhaps for Gombrich and many others is that the Rorschach stands for the fact that there is no intention, that these abstract shapes are produced by pure chance, and therefore how can we possibly read meaning into them?

This comparison brings us back to one of the great difficulties of abstraction, of getting something to be purely abstract. Looking again at Warhol's painting, we are aware that it is not just a blot we are seeing but a blot with symmetry that we recognize as a Rorschach blot, and by recognizing it as such we know where it belongs in the history of culture and something about what system of meaning it belongs to. Finding something that temporarily defies meaning—in a society in which even blots, squares, cubes, and grids have been colonized by culture and history—is not in fact easy (playing tennis without a net) because we are meaning-makers, not just image-makers. It is not just that we recognize images, that we find ducks or rabbits; it is that we are constructed to make meaning out of things, and that we learn from others how to do it.

The cartoon of the little dancer that Gombrich uses in his book was meant to speak humorously to the history of style but suggests to me a whole bunch of students trying to get it right, trying to render their subject correctly. Whereas the little dancer thinks she is a flower, she is thought by her various classmates to be a bird, an octopus, a tree, and so forth. Gombrich's interests seem to be primarily in rendering, whereas my interests have been primarily in interpreting. For Gombrich, and for many who believe strongly in the nature of visual representation and realism, art is one subset of the class of the representation of the visible. What I have been trying to argue, inversely, is that representation of the visual world is simply one subset of what art is, or can be, and that intention is not discernible or limiting within that idea of art.

Suppose, for example, that the dance the little girl is doing was the dance that Pollock does over his canvas. And suppose that, instead of the little girl dancing it, the only clues we had to understand what she had been doing and what she had meant by it were the scratches on the floor. If that were the dance and Jackson Pollock's Number I, 1950 were the result, then we might, if we were
Andre Carl in the 1960s, think that the principal thing being communicated was a demolition of hierarchies and the creation of a new field of possibilities. Among the old hierarchies and new possibilities might be the following ideas: verticality was over; painting on the floor and throwing paint down led to a new kind of physicality, a new way of contending with gravity; ordered composition was destroyed and in its place was an argument for an allover evenness; here was a new kind of art that hugged the floor and invited participation. Andre had one vision of that new allover evenness—-an order of equal units—but as we saw earlier, Robert Morris at the same time had another idea. For Morris, Pollock was primarily about chance, the idea that a work could be stored in a can and simply poured on the floor. For him Pollock was an invitation to shapelessness, to contingency, to mutation, to chance and chaos as a new form of imagery.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the dance that Pollock does is in fact the dance itself. We can see that this is true for Yves Klein in 1960, when he stages a performance, Anthropometries, in which the act of painting on the floor with bodies is the main event, and the paintings are only the residue . Not only does the performance take its signal from Pollock's dance, but it perhaps also speaks of a fineness in Pollock's line, to which Klein responds with a particularly French elegance and precision—orchestra playing, guests in tuxedoes, and so forth.

Just as the spun gossamer quality of Pollock perhaps finds one translation in Klein, it finds a completely different translation when Richard Serra in 1969 flings not paint onto a canvas but hot lead into a corner. Everything that was chic and refined in Klein's interpretation becomes laborious, dangerous, and industrial with Serra. What leads Serra into a new territory of industrial strength may be the black house paint that Pollock is using, with its unrefined grittiness and power.

Yet if you compare with this what Eva Hesse is doing at about the same time, you would think that what Serra derived from Pollock was a downward thrust—a collision with the ground, the same kind of interest in gravity that was so important to Morris and
Andre. Hesse looks at the same pictures and seizes on the importance of their being taken up off the floor and hung vertically on the walls, so that everything that had been falling down comes back up, as if it were being aerated. Hesse hangs these fiberglass-covered strings and ropes, producing a personal vocabulary of aeration and elevation, and at the same time a kind of sag that brings the body and gravity back in a different way. Hesse's rope pieces have the gossamer, thin quality and elegance of the Klein, but now with a glutinous and clotted aspect, the result of her material clinging to the ropes in a very personal and tactile way.

Robert
Smithson's sense of material in Asphalt Rundown of 1969 shows him thinking about Pollock's pouring act in yet another way, as one of spillage or defoliation. Smithson is interested, in the context of the late 1960s, in the question of pollution, in the imagery of Pollock as one of excess, a combination of power and exuberance that connects with defilement and spillage at the same time. This provides him with the impetus for a new set of metaphors about American society at the time of an oil crisis and the Vietnam War.

The notion of spillage in a more personal sense might lead to Warhol's oxidation paintings and their specific reference to Pollock's pouring technique. You will remember that
Warhol produced the so-called piss paintings by having his assistants join him in urinating on copper-sensitive canvases. These paintings have an entirely different relationship to the body than the big tarry discharge of Smithson's Asphalt Rundown. In place of Smithson's reference to an asphalt spill, Warhol uses the spill of human fluids to effect an alchemical transformation on his materials.

We looked at Cy Twombly looking at Pollock's linearity and overall organization in 1970 and coming up with a kind of furious scribbling that amounts to a giant, aerated, cosmic cloud, while his coeval Jasper
Johns in 1975 takes the same inspiration—that is, Pollock filtered through the austerity of minimalism— and comes up with something compacted and having to do with the body. The surface of Johns' Weeping Women, unlike Twombly's run-on, clouded, and smeared surface, is searing from the impress of irons onto the flesh of the picture and bleeding with the sense of congestion.

Marden, as we have seen, could look to Pollock and find a link to ancient calligraphy, so that his realization of Pollock's linearity is through the medium, in the Cold Mountain series of 1989-91, of a particular Chinese calligrapher. He relates the history of calligraphy and writing to Pollock in a completely different way than Twombly remade Pollock as writing. And finally, we see Winters in the late 1990s attempting to marry Pollock's space with the idea of a contemporary cyber-pattern in a painting appropriately titled Color and Information .

The many meanings that we have seen un-packed from Jackson Pollock—and there are more I could cite—underline what I said earlier about the paucity and narrowness of intention as a reference point. We have seen how the same form—in this case, Pollock's poured painting— provided a new set of foci and associations for artists of different sensibilities, who found different truths within this form. We have also seen repeatedly in this series how different meanings and ambitions gravitate toward the same form. The narrow intention of what brings an artist to the canvas does not control meaning nearly as much as does the material existence of the picture itself. This is why I have stressed during these lectures that the experiential dimensions of abstract art—its scale, materials, method of fabrication, social context, and tradition—are crucially important to our understanding of it. Using Pollock as a fixed point of reference for the art that follows it yields one, but only one, important level of insight into the meaning of the work we have been discussing. It is our dependence on the material and experiential dimension of art to yield meaning that sets it apart so sharply from other symbolic systems that we use, most notably language. For a long time now art has been analyzed in terms of semiotics, a symbol system akin to language, wherein arbitrary phonemes and symbols are pulled together to construct meaning. But what semiotics ignores is the fact that shapes, unlike phonemes, can never be completely arbitrary; they are immediately invaded with meaning by the things people make or have made, by shapes in nature, and so forth. Characteristic of so much of the art that we have looked at over the course of these six lectures is a resistance to metaphysics and idealism and a swing toward pragmatic literalism and immediacy. (Remember
Stella's insistence that "what you see is what you see," and Judd's "goodbye" to rationality?

We just want what's there. We want specific objects.) A resistance to everything that represented the old humanism is couched in this artwork, including resistance to the standard idea of touch in the fabrication of a work of art, resistance to the standard idea of style, and resistance to inherited notions of composition. In the descent from Pollock, work is not idealistic but literal, in just the same way that Judd declared: "The poured paint in Pollock's work is poured paint, first and foremost." Therefore, by virtue of this materialism, it is also not spiritual in the sense that we have traditionally associated with abstraction. We commonly think about prewar abstraction—about Malevich and Mondrian, for example-—that it is idealistic, and that in some sense it is spiritual. What we have been looking at is pointedly not spiritual and it insists not on empyreans far away but on the immediacy of present-tense engagement with the stuff of what is in front of us. It wants to escape from traditional categories and metaphysics in order to force an engagement with the "thereness" and "thingness" of the work in front of us. Thus what we see in this art is a constant pulse or pursuit toward honesty in (udd's sense: the rejection of illusion because it is dishonest, a kind of blank certainty that can come from the use of repeti-tion and sequence, for example, and that always wants transparency in the way things are made. In this pursuit of honesty, there is no sense of mystery, just an absolute declaration of the way things are done, a literalism. The artists' materials are not transformed but raw, and they often prefer not to use fine art materials.
The motto of these artists and this art—not ideal, not spiritual, involved in the pursuit of honesty—is "we hold these truths to be self-evident." They are there, and there is no denying them. They take no referents. And yet it has been the pulse between that self-evidence—between that pursuit of a chimerical certainty, honesty, factuality—and the attachment to and invasion of ambiguity, association, and metaphor that has shaped this discussion. While idealism on the level of
Mondrian or Malevich is gone from this type of work, there is a similar Utopian aspect to the dream of minimalists and others, which is to defer knowing, to avoid categories of understanding, to step outside the "glueyness" of both history and interpretation, and to deal with a dream world of point-blank and immediate response. In fact, we cannot escape, as I said in one of these lectures, either from the realm of interpretation or from the realm of history.

Everything I have said about art since Pollock and its rejection of idealism gives an "after the fall" ring to its different kind of spirituality, its dream of immediacy and truth. In fact, it is standard to describe the era in these terms. In the prewar world that Greenberg describes, there used to be idealism, there used to be essentialism. Art had a linear teleology, a goal. One knew where one was going. Art was absolutist, and it involved pure things in the search for purity. But we live in the world of the ironic, the openended, and the fragmented, where there is resistance to any one narrative. We uphold relativism as opposed to absolutism, and the love of the impure and the heterogeneous as opposed to the pure. In this framing of history, word has it that we are bereft, but a hell of a lot smarter than they were.

In our loss of illusions we have gained a kind of bleak savvy. You could trace it, for example, if you compared
Mondrian to Kelly. We looked at Kelly's Colors for a Large Wall of 1951. In Mondrian, we saw the idea of a theosophical or platonic balance of vertical and horizontal and the Ur-principles of the universe, with pure complementary colors, as the reductive demonstration of absolutes in the optical world. All of Mondrian's idealism is chucked out the window by Kelly, who inspired by Arp and Cage, instead plays with the stochastic, with chance, with the roll of the dice in organizing this seemingly random beat of nonprimary colors that refer to his experience of the Mediterranean. And this has an altogether lightweight, upbeat kind of impersonality in which the subjectivity of balance so important to Mondrian—the construction of an order of oppositions and of relationships of small to large, big areas to small areas, thick lines to thin lines— is gone in favor of the grid, the depersonalized if not deuniversalized form in Kelly's work.

It does not stop with Kelly, however.
Richter in his 1024 Colors of 1973 says, in essence to Kelly—at a time when I think he is as yet completely unaware of Kelly—-You want anonymous colors? You want impersonality? You want anti-idealism? Don't give me this upbeat, random chance, sense of Mediterranean colors. Give me the Winsor-Newton catalogue! Give me Canal Street. I'll show you standardization. I'll show you what color is. Color is existing on a grid, like things you buy. It is absolutely deper-sonalized. I can be more impersonal than you are, and colder still. And I am going to achieve utter neutrality. This is going to be as nonsubjective and purely cold and neutral as you can get.

When we arrive at the 1990s,
Richter is reminded that there is no such thing, that history and association invade the supposedly neutral with a work like Byron Kim's Synecdoche.of 1991-92. The term "synecdoche" is used in literary studies or rhetoric to indicate the use of the part for the whole, the smaller part standing for the total. Each of the squares in Kim's work is a painting of an individual human being, people of different races and skin tones, and a small part of the anatomy of that human being—under the arm, the back of the thigh, the buttocks, and so on—and each painting is labeled on the back as to the part of the body represented and the particular person represented. Far from being impersonal, Kim wants to insist that color is not neutral, color cannot be a thing divorced from the world, but color has everything to do with ethnicity and individuality.

This point is driven further home, in response to
Richter by the artist Rachel Lachowicz from California in a 1993 picture, a color chart made entirely out of tints of eye shadow. Lachowicz insists, as a feminist artist, that the cold impersonality of Richter is by definition masculine and that in fact color has everything to do with vanity, not simply.

 

 

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