“Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.”
“The fact that a work of art has a politically radical content therefore does not assure its revolutionary value. Nor does a non-political content necessarily imply its irrelevance to revolutionary action. It is in the larger context of the social movement and its positive historical results that the practical significance of partisan art has to be judged.”
“If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot.”
Harry S. Truman
I like this photo of Still’s painting at the SF Modern. One feels the presence of that painting. Still was a bit of an outsider to the Abstract Expressionist movement; if one thinks of the big three (or four perhaps) as Pollock, Rothko, and DeKooning, with maybe Franz Kline as the fourth. He was part of the next group, Newman, Motherwell, Gorky and Gottleib. But unlike Gottleib, he was only a visitor to the New York scene. I happen to love Newman, and Still bears some resemblance to Newman, and both inspired in viewers a kind of awe; like the feeling you get looking into the Grand Canyon, as someone wrote. Born in Grandin, North Dakota in 1904, he studied at Washington State and taught on the West Coast mostly, though for a time at VCU, too. Still also painted differently than most of The New York School painters. He applied a thick impasto, and worked with a palette knife, not brush usually, and he created the very largest canvases of any Ab Ex painter. Now I think Still suffers some because he painted a lot of less than great work. In fact more mediocre work than anyone else. And he created a LOT of work. But in his best work there is something undeniably grand, majestic, willfull. Self conscious yes, and with a sort of manufactured heroism and an arrogance, but amid that, Still was a brilliant colorist. I dont think he gets enough credit for that. His blues, reds, yellow, and pinks are wonderous. And they are singularly his. If one sees a Still ‘blue’, you know its a Still blue. He is finally redeemed by his colors.
The painting “1944” is singled out frequently as representative of the work he did during his best period. Still was also influential. Pollock said he was the best of any of the Ab Ex painters (save for himself of course) and Newman clearly borrowed from him.
One sees certain things about many of the Ab Ex painters looking at them now. The first is, as I’ve said before, sincerity. Belief in, it seems, either a spiritual/existential practice, or an unconsicous pursuit of Universal primal truth, or of origins perhaps. The spiritual resolution was best personified by Rothko, and the unconscious Id was Pollock. Newman was a spiritualist, and Still was, too, finally. Kline another Id painter, and DeKooning. Gottleib was a spriritualist. The paradox perhaps is that decades later the sense of collectivity that was the implication of all these painters, had been subsumed by the Clement Greenberg’s invention of Ab Ex as “american individualism” (and thanks in part to the CIA, whose influence while minor, was still not insignificant).
I think its important, actually, to re-think the Abstract Expressionists today. In 1940, Pollock was just getting out of New York State Hospital in Westchester, where he had been treated for severe alcoholism and incapacitating depression. The work he did upon release marked the start of his abstract painting. Pollock suffered depression for the remainder of his life and was only intermittently sober. Donald Kuspit wrote:
“Paradoxically, it is their aura of destructiveness and catastrophe — unrelenting violence — that makes the paintings innovative and gives them staying power. Ironically, Pollock’s art, which gave him a temporary sense of identity — Arloie noted that after a binge, and after enduring another bout of depression, he was able to paint and draw with remarkable concentration and intensity, at least until the cycle of binge and depression recurred — demonstrates his otherwise complete lack of identity, or at least his deep insecurity and annihilative anxiety. It was as though Pollock had been dismembered — or had never come together — in the remote prehistory of his childhood, and that, however much he attempted to put himself together (create himself, as it were), by the creative act of making art, he could only futilely re-enact and ritualistically repeat, in artistic terms, his dismemberment.”
“Abstract Expressionism has been socially assimilated and institutionalized since its heyday, but that does not mean that its transcendental ambition has been understood and appreciated. It is doubtful that American society can tolerate the sense of “silence and solitude” — Rothko’s words — that informs and sustains the best Abstract Expressionist art. Its aura of “human incommunicability,” as Rothko called it, had to be intolerable to a busily communicating society. Abstract Expressionism has been dipped in a sea of ordinary language, as though that could purge it of its ineffability, and make us forget its mystery. But until the incommunicability of what it struggles to communicate is recognized, Abstract Expressionism’s extraordinary character cannot be truly grasped. “
Its worth noting again, that the U.S. Information Service (CIA and State Dept) appropriated the Ab Ex painters and repurposed them as symbols of American individualism and of heroism. Kitsch biographries were invented, and the previously derided New York abstract painters were suddenly on the cover of TIME magazine. None of that changes the essential mystery and almost sacred ritualized project of this relatively small group. This is work that cannot be comprehended; it is difficult and untranslatable. And Gorky and Gottleib both made paintings that looked like hieroglyphs, but in an unknown anti language. The attempted domestication of this art was both successful and unsuccessful. Rothko frequently complained of the art market, Still hated it, and Pollock simply couldn’t deal with any of it. This was magical art, mysticism, and romanticism. But it wasn’t manipulative, and it wasn’t intended for easy consumption. There is no irony.
The cultic quality of *genius* at work was certainly not resisted by any of these artists. There is something theatrical in this work, too, and in the individuals as well. Perhaps nothing quite this monumental and of such hubris has been attempted since. This was myth making, on aesthetic terms, but also in personal terms. Most importantly, this was collectively a radical vision, in all senses of that word.
There is a sexual energy in all of these painters. An erotic dream of fertility and Dionysian granduer. It is counter-Puritan. But there is also a profound and bottomless despair. For the search cannot be fulfilled. That Dionysian urge is obliterated. World wars, and soulless wage slavery. There is something anti social in this work, too. And yet, it is closer to anti materialist, anti capitalist, anti conformist. The personal trauma is made into a reflection of social trauma. Post WW2, post holocaust, post Hiroshima finally, eventually. All of these men were born in the first decade or two of the 20th century. They were the witnesses to mass industrial slaughter, of organized efficient killing. Warhol’s electric chair turns execution into a shiny commodity. The work of Pollock, Gorky, Motherwell, Kline, and the rest was an ‘expression’ of what that electric chair actually means. The social place for capital punishment, for Imperialism, for war can be read in the titles of their work: “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”, “Agony”, “Conflict”, “Stations of the Cross”, “Cataclysm”, “Memoria in Aeterna”, etc. The narrative of Rivera was radical, but the form of the narrative far less so. Here, as Adorno said, it was in the form not the opinions of the work, that radical potential was to be found. These were artists obliterating the idea of form itself.
Pollock’s work is melancholy. It is also angry. All of these painters, even Rothko, the most sublime, expressed anger at an increasingly irrational world. There is nothing ornamental in these paintings. Motherwell said, clearly, it was mysticism. Kline said nothing was meant to be interpreted. Many painted emblems, pictograms, and often repeated ad infinitum the same ur-forms. Like Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, each painting was a biography. But it was not JUST a biography, it was a refusal of biography. Pollock suffered an abusive controlling mother and an absent alcoholic father. His own de-socialization caused he bouts of depression. Many were European Jews, alienated, marginal, others came from prarie or western lands, empty, big sky country, working class and they saw themselves as workers. In today’s fashionable left leaning critics, this is seen as self conscious. Such observations betray more these critics own white bourgeois pretensions when faced with the actual working class. The work was not meant for polite society and it became an enduring irony that Ab Ex painters became so famous, and shown in the most exclusive circles, and today a Clyfford Still would cost you about 7 million dollars. Rothko and Pollock even more. But the actual vision was not elite, it was not a pose, it was the last genuine avant garde moment in western art. There remains hostility not just from the left, but the new populists of post modernism (or faux post modernism?). One article I read interviewed the security guards at a New York museum housing several Barnett Newman works. The guard didnt like them. This is the same call for “ordinary” folk’s opinions, being the more *real* (read Eileen Jones on Gravity), to be given more weight. and this sort of philistinism is rife today. I think it’s true in general that the Ab Ex painters may have been a masculine expression of something. But I’d say its the good masculine, the masculine of honor and integrity and sensitivity, and of a certain male maturity. Bly actually was right about the creeping softness in masculinity today, under cover of sensitivity (and the over compensation of hyper violent expressions of masculinity). So I suspect that this work contains something masculine. That’s how it feels to me anyway. But I see no misogny. DeKooning is accused of that, and there may be some grounds for it. But over all, the crucial questions have to do with what I see as a kind of rejection of this work by many because so much hangs on the wall of Bank headquarters or is auctioned for millions by Christies. Again, this is the irony of this narrative. But these questions extend into other areas. I wrote last posting about the grotesque coverage of the Ukraine situation, and of the US government’s efforts to destablize Venezuela (see Bhaskar Sunkara’s latest at Jacobin for quisling reportage). There is a failure, a breakdown somehow, in actually looking at the world around us today. There is such cruelty directed at the most vulnerable, at animals (unbearable actually) and such wholesale myopia about issues of white privilege that I see again, what Reich termed the ’emotional plague’. The crisis of Euro/North American culture is reaching critical mass. Never before has there been such open racism expressed, such contempt for the poor and suffering. From Israeli attacks on African immigrants, to the 2 million deporations carried out under Obama (termed *removals*). The spikes in homelessness and food insecurity. The brutality of domestic police departments, which now extends to a pandemic of pet shootings. I guess if no black teenagers are around, just shoot the local dog. These issues have aesthetic parallels in the embrace of kitsch, in sentimentality (Bush Jr.’s paintings) and formula. Technology is developed with a goal of furthering numbness. Ambition has replaced curiosity. The dreams of white America seem directed at little more than accumulation and developing their own brand. Talk to 17 year olds and you hear about marketing, about brand.
From an excellent article on critic David Craven:
“Craven insists that among the Abstract Expressionists’ various political beliefs, one of the most forceful was their particular support of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps the most notable evidence of this was the endorsement of the ‘Freedom Rides’ sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE) by Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt and other notable members of the New York School who donated paintings for a sale to raise money for the cause. Another art sale to support Civil Rights was sponsored by the artists’ committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Jacob Lawrence, chair and Ad Reinhardt, vice-chair) benefited from similar contributions.” This article by Brian Winkenweder is very pertinent here. Allow me a couple more quotes.
“Craven emphasizes the abstract artist as a representative of the working classes (even if his/her labour is not disalienated). Craven adopts this position not only from his reading of Mariátegui, but also from his study of Meyer Schapiro, whose Marxist approach enabled this renowned art historian to perceive his New York School contemporaries as engaging in a form of disalienated labour resulting in an ‘immanent critique from within of the overall logic and attendant ideological values of the corporate capitalist mode of production”
“Craven reveals how some artists in Latin America discovered an ‘insurrectionary’ meaning in Abstract Expressionism. This recognition of artistic dissidence ran counter to the government propagandists who sent Abstract Expressionist works abroad through the CIA-financed auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom as signifiers of ‘total freedom’ in the United States in contrast to the repressive policies of the Soviet Union. Craven cites Latin American scholars (largely unread in the US), notably Juan Acha in Peru and Marta Traba in Colombia, who admired the New York School’s oppositional stance to ‘the salient ideological attributes in the West of the corporate capitalist mode of production (specifically its pervasive instrumentalist thinking as manifested in scientism, technophilia, and positivism)”
Abstract Expressionism looked for the role of emptiness. Of what has gone missing in the technocratic corporate neo liberal societies of the West. It strikes me as particularly relevant today. But more than anything, I believe the ernest even naive sincerity of these painters, their belief in their own artistic discipline, to be what bothers many critics, critics who increasingly provide tacit support for U.S. global policy. On the right the fear of abstraction in general is born of a need to validate their own ignorance. Realism is important because it provides ratification of the status quo. That George Bush, who knew he could paint so darn good. For the educated classes it is the sincerity, and the revolt against authority, against mass man, and the soul deadening instrumental world view of academia and bureauractic hegemony that paradoxically foments this affluent class resistance to Ab Ex. These works lack the requisite cleverness. For the hard left, somehow, without a clear message, the earth underfoot becomes too unstable. The collective must be provided moral instruction, and political instruction, for there is no time for introspection.
It is interesting today to examine trends, popularity, and who is selling, who isnt, whose reputation is rising, etc. Neo Expressionism went into a stark decline for a while, but I suspect is resurfacing, and probably it should to some degree. But these labels are problematic, firstly, and secondly the idea today, taken from critics like Hal Foster and the late Craig Owens, is that in fact sincerity is so five minutes ago. In fact they take a position that modernism is and always was overrated. The problem for me is that Cindy Sherman, or Richard Prince, seem very trivial indeed. And I think I am probably arguing for a restoration of what was good in modernism. The Neo Expressionists for example, so passe’ for a while, are no doubt ready to be reclaimed soon by University art departments. I cant believe the best of that work wont survive, even if the large majority of it was indeed quite bad. But the purposes of this post, the anti expressionist stances of critics like Owens and Foster ends in a sort of post modern cul de sac in which irony replaces pretty much all else. When in doubt, be ironic. The self promoting aspect of Ab Ex painters may be worth criticizing, but it shouldnt be confused. It wasnt ‘self promoting individualism’. That again is allowing Greenberg and Rosenberg to set the terms of the discussion. For there are always two levels at work (almost always, and probably almost always five or six more than that) with artworks…basically the reproduction and emotional expression of our own childhood trauma and mental development and maturation, AND the meditation on, and engagement with history, with our civic selves, and the ruins of the collective social past. Those traces are part of what fascinated both Adorno and Benjamin. The use of mass produced banality, in the production of ironic individually created mass banality is in the end only the reproduction of banality. The raw material of mass culture today is its own topic, it is solipsistic, and self referential without historical perspective. What gives a work like the Still, at the very top of this post, a resonance is that is cleary stands as a
totem, a powerful energy beam of uniqueness, and this because of the deep energy that went into its making. The security guards at the Modern may not like it, may not “get it”, but that only speaks to a culture trained NOT TO SEE what is front of them. Its odd because I always hear the voice of FOX news when I think of ordinary white men (sic) — and the seepage of masculine power, potency, and strength as unions and collectivity and community were erased. Roger Ailes is poster boy for the pushing of resentful self loathing narrow minded mental phlegm as news-tainment. But I digress slightly.
I fear the onslaught of electronic corporate media has desenitized the viewer. The loss of education in the arts has erased a heritage of learning, which had become emdedded on a personal level in communities, but those communities are gone. And all that is left is an ever more atomized and isolated and reified collective. One used to and anticipating more banality.
“Matters of this sort could only have been done at two or three removes, so that there wouldn’t be any question of having to clear Jackson Pollock, for example, or do anything that would involve these people in the organisation. And it couldn’t have been any closer, because most of them were people who had very little respect for the government, in particular, and certainly none for the CIA. If you had to use people who considered themselves one way or another to be closer to Moscow than to Washington, well, so much the better perhaps.” Donald Jameson, CIA case officer.
Hugh Wilford and several other critics still see Ab Ex painters as useful to the CIA because, BECAUSE, they were mostly Marxist leaning and displayed non conformist attitudes. (Never mind the artworks, who needs that….) And that somehow the CIA was smart enough to calculate that the leftish bourgeoise of Europe would prefer Rothko to “Roses for Stalin”. This is precisely the problem, in a nutshell. I’ve had different people over the years say to me, “oh its common knowledge the CIA created Abstract Expressionism”, or “The CIA did it to deflect attention away from Diego Rivera the REAL political artists”, and on and on. These same people, and I can think of five or six over the years, also all said their professor had told them this. So here you have another example of bad education. Unsophisticaed junior college instructors, from inferior schools, and even often from up market institutions, relaying a simplistic distorted history, in the name of a sort of insider cool liberalism. And what happens is that great work, transformative and *radical* work is neutralized. This is how the Spectacle handles radical work, today. It markets it as its opposite. Or it just ignores it. For you see its not hard to find the “message” in, say, Diego Rivera, or in Norman Rockwell for that matter, and its far more enjoyable to write about Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, or Damien Hirst, because the material is familier. Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, or Michael Jackson, and seriousness begins to be equated with the U.S. state department. Art cannot be written about anymore as the experience of art, the engagement with it. It is always a strategy. Analyse the message and repackage the message as criticism. Wilford and a host of others view matters from a deeply instrumental pov, and they sort of engage with matters of aesthetics from a Marketer’s logic. Nobody looks at the work. This is what Meyer Shapiro discussed, what Adorno worked so hard to explain. And why dissecting instrumental reason was and is so crucial. If you think like a cop or junior high school principle, or an advertising executive, then yeah, you are going to examine currents at work that effect sales, not aesthetics. And such scenarios always give too much credit to agencies run by people like Allen Dulles. These are not fucking geniuses. Dullus was a wealthy provincial with markedly narrow tastes and interests. Much as today, its important to remember Suzanne Nossel, or Samantha Power, or James Clapper, or Richard Holbrooke, or Marc Grossman, or Susan Rice et al are not any of them very smart. You hear that about Obama,too, oh gee, ran the Harvard Law Review. Again, that requires a certain sort of political acumen, and ability to turn off individual feelings. It is a certain kind of narrow smart. Adaptive. It is the company man. Period. Company men are most often prone to sadism, and we can see that now clearly enough. THAT’s the actual propaganda. Samantha Power is a boot licking rodential little woman who shapes herself to fit the needs and desires of her masters. The real political import, and certainly the spiritual, has to do with the awe, the emotions, the awakening of something resistant to domination, that is the product of engagement. It is the exercise of a refusal to authority, to conformity, and to repression and control. Art doesnt create revolution. But it affects the individuals who make revolutions.