For skeptical postmodernists, history, if it exists at all, is a humble discipline, dependent on the present. . . . The contemporary is the time frame that counts most. . . . History is important only to the extent that its traces have an impact on the present . . . it is sufficient to let "the present interrogate the past."
The spread of historicism as a faith that history is the main road to wisdom in human affairs has naturally encountered much opposition. Within the Christian tradition there has never been wanting the insistence that the Kingdom of Heaven is not of this earth and cannot be realized except in the spirit or in a world beyond this early scene. . . . There is [also] the distrust of historicism on the "practical" ground that it tends to subordinate the present to the past, that antiquarian delving in the graves of dead records is an evasion of the duty to face the living present and to exercise our energies upon it. . . . The literary fraternity regards minute study of the past as exemplifying an Alexandrian decline in intellectual creativity.
[Authenticity] is a word of ominous import. As we use it in reference to human existence, its province is the museum, where persons expert in such matters test whether objects of art are what they appear to be or are claimed to be, and therefore worth the price that is asked for them—or, if this has already been paid, worth the admiration they are being given. That the word has become part of the moral slang of our day points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences. An eighteenth-century aesthetician states our concern succinctly—"Born Originals," Edward Young said, "how comes it to pass that we die Copies?"
I am authentic when I somehow present my thoughts and feelings in an accurate way and reveal myself spontaneously. What feels "right" somehow suits the interpersonal context and my internal emotional context. Feeling not right or inauthentic refers to feeling contrived -- out of sync both interpersonally and internally.
John Millei’s "Maritime" paintings (2004–07) and "White Squalls" (2005) are enormous, magnificent paintings, mural-like in their panoramic scope and imposing scale, and executed in what can only be called a grand Abstract-Expressionistic manner. Full of the raw, turbulent energy characteristic of what Harold Rosenberg called "action painting," they have its famously "unfinished" look, suggestive of unfinished revolutionary business -- the "revolution against the given, in the self and the world," bringing with it a sense of "open possibility," which he thought was the substance of avant-garde art.(5) For Rosenberg action painting is its climactic statement -- a final Sturm und Drang enactment of primordial emotion breaking through the social facade, an instinctive cri de coeur against indifference, a release from everyday conventions of communication to express the incommunicado core of the self. Action painting is rebellious romanticism carried to its existential conclusion. It is a plea for authenticity in the midst of inauthenticity. Kandinsky, the first abstract expressionist painter, said that it was an assertion of spiritual freedom in a world that had become a materialistic prison, a rejection of its naive objectivity in the name of the radical subjectivity that he called "inner necessity, the all-important spark of inner life."(6)
Rosenberg’s essay "The American Action Painters" was written at the midpoint of the 20th century (1959), and Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art was written at the beginning of the century (1912). But Millei’s "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls" were made at the beginning of the 21st century. The times have clearly changed; action painting is no longer the visionary innovation it was when Kandinsky inaugurated it, nor is it the heroic abstract stand against American social realism that it became in post–World War II New York. It has been reified by history; once "advanced," it has become academic. Abstract-Expressionism has become "signature painting," as Rosenberg called it -- that is, another style that the painter wields like a rubber stamp, making a seemingly personal mark, but without making much esthetic and emotional difference. Without such difference there is no authenticity, in Michael St. Clair’s sense: no genuine spontaneity, no sense of emotional rightness, no integration of feeling and thought in sublime self-revelation, no unique identity.
Rosenberg thought that Abstract-Expressionism reflected apocalyptic modernity -- to live in apocalyptic times is to expect the worst, to believe that the world and self will be annihilated, with no conviction that they can and will be rebuilt, while realizing that unless they collapse in crisis they can never substantially change (genuine apocalyptics are interested more in the destruction of the old, as soon as possible, than in the promise of the new, which has the remoteness of utopia) -- but that it was in danger of losing its apocalyptic thrust. He felt that by the late 1950s it had become safe "wallpaper," a repetitive pattern that had lost its expressive power and critical meaning. No longer an artistic rebellion against the given in the world and the self, Abstract-Expressionism had become the given -- the new orthodoxy bespeaking the fact that rebellious nonconformity had become a cliché, another banal fact of social life.
Various attempts to rekindle expressionistic excitement and restore expressionistic wildness -- especially the paintings of the German Neo-Expressionists, which gained international attention in the 1980s partly because they reflected the apocalypse that broke Germany’s spirit in World War II -- failed to make their point, at least in the United States, where they quickly became a new taste sensation or, more cynically, updated radical chic. Expressionism, abstract or figurative, was no longer convincing in the United States. Pop art ridiculed expressionism, instead turning to media-derived imagery as a source material and "cool" irony as an alternative to "hot" expression -- Roy Lichtenstein’s parodies of Jackson Pollock’s brushstrokes, turning them into media illustrations, make the point succinctly -- while conceptual art dismissed Abstract-Expressionism as a mutation of what Marcel Duchamp called "animal expression," in contrast to its own supposedly intellectual high-mindedness, not to say its pseudo-philosophical view of art. Abstract-Expressionism had become unfashionable, and 1980s European expressionism was a threatening import, like the expressionistic Art Informel (Cobra, Art Brut) that appeared in Europe shortly after World War II as a reassertion of individual expression in a society that had been subdued by collective fascism. Both challenged American hegemony and were rejected with the same vehemence. Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg denigrated French Art Informel, and the later generation of October magazine critics denigrated what they regarded as a regressive German version of Art Informel.
Post–World War II German Neo-Expressionism has been understood as a reprise of pre–World War I German Expressionism -- the restoration, with a certain amount of irony, of what the Nazis trashed as "degenerate art," turning the tables on them by making an even more complexly subjective expressionism, reminding us that they, with their simplistic Aryan objectivity, were the degenerates. More subtly, the German Neo-Expressionists flew in the face of the bourgeois materialism of postwar Germany’s "economic miracle," suggesting that it was another form of degeneracy, which is why they were initially rejected in their homeland. In short, they extended Kandinsky’s critique of pre–World War I German materialism into contemporary Germany. The spirit of Der Blaue Reiter -- and the anxiety of Die Brücke -- was alive in their art, however influenced it was by American Abstract-Expressionism (as they acknowledged), with its mural format and uncompromising abstraction. But the Neo-Expressionist cultural critique fell on deaf ears: ironically expressionism had become bourgeois; it had become an institutional norm and as such decadent. However lively it remained on the surface, where it often seemed like idle gestural play, it had lost the depth of consciousness that once informed it, giving it a critical edge. In 1925 Kandinsky wrote, "I want people to see what finally lies behind my paintings,"(7) but for many critics there seemed to be nothing "behind" Neo-Expressionist painting.
Apocalyptic Abstraction: The Return of Repressed Art History
And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. . . . I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name.
-- Revelation 14.2, 15.1–2
All the new thinking, like all the old thinking, agrees that there is something catastrophic about being a person. The catastrophe is located in various places: in our being born at all, in our being condemned to death; in our vulnerability as organisms, or in our cruel injustices as political animals; in the scarcity of our natural resources, or in our greedy depredation of them; in our Fall, or in our hubris.
-- Adam Phillips(8)
The issue of John Millei’s "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls" -— of his painting in general -— is how to address the historicizing of Abstract-Expressionism and, more broadly, the decadence of avant-garde art. How to get out of the bind of reification and not paint reprises of past history -- that is the problem that his postmodern expressionist paintings successfully solve, with a good deal of conceptual subtlety. In a unique way, Millei revives the spirit of Abstract-Expressionism, restoring its original meaning and force without succumbing to its dead letter. If the only way to have new growth is get to the roots of the old growth by cutting it away, then Millei’s ingenious recapitulation of Abstract-Expressionism is the only way of rescuing it from decadence.
Millei renews Abstract-Expressionism by restoring the archetypal import the New York school forfeited in the course of becoming fashionable and, more crucially, because it claimed to be sui generis rather than rooted in ancient tradition. His accomplishment was made possible by postmodernism. He shares its historicist consciousness: postmodernists realize that the only way to move beyond modernist decadence is by returning to premodern art, in the most meaningful sense -- traditional art as a source not just of signs but of insights. Traditional worldviews that seem obsolete because they have been discredited by Enlightenment thinking, and thus are poor guides to understanding the contemporary world, survive in the memorable art of the past, where they continue to have unconscious impact on us. Indeed, traditional art becomes memorable in part because the worldview that informs it rings emotionally true, and even begins to make cognitive sense, once one realizes that there is an inner continuity between the historical and contemporary worlds, whatever their ostensible differences.
Whatever else it may be, postmodern art has been understood as a decadent reductio ad absurdum of modern art. As Daniel Bell writes, "Modernism is exhausted and the various kinds of post-modernism. . . are simply the decomposition of the self in an effort to erase individual ego"(9) -- the individual ego that Rosenberg celebrated when he described the American Abstract-Expressionists as "sharpshooting individuals" going "against the prevailing style or [working] apart from it." But what does one do when sharpshooting individualism has become the prevailing style? How does one get out of the impasse created by the historical fact that "‘free’ abstract expression"(10) had become just another "style," and perhaps a provincial (New York) one at that? Rosenberg himself had no answer.
But decadence is not always what it seems.(11) The French decadents showed that it is not necessarily Alexandrian -- that is, an inevitable leveling off and finally a loss of creativity, the banalization of what at its inception was a daring mode of art making. Paradoxically, decadence can be regenerative: a creative return to origins in unconscious response to entropic exhaustion. The result is paradoxically innovative: seriously decadent art is ironically avant-garde because it looks for inspiration to the traditional art and worldview that avant-garde art repudiated to stake its claim to radical originality -- and to the originality of the modern worldview. The decadent postmodern way of revitalizing avant-garde art is to restore the spiritual worldview of the art it discredited when it became avant-garde, which is what Millei’s "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls" do. The paintings do this by restoring the apocalyptic meaning Abstract-Expressionism had for Kandinsky -- Wieland Schmidt and Donald Gordon agree that his paintings are "apocalyptic landscapes" -- and that is implicit in the avant-garde outlook in general, as Renato Poggioli has argued.(12) And, more profoundly, by returning to the apocalyptic landscapes of medieval art, which were Kandinsky’s hidden source, Millei’s paintings restore it to originality and, with that, renew its emotional depth and intellectual credibility. They remind us that the apocalypse is, now and forever, always on the horizon of our thinking, however unsuperstitious we may think we are. Signs of it abound in the contemporary world, if one knows how to read them -- the Holocaust has been said to be one, and what many regard as inevitable nuclear and environmental holocausts are others -- as our unconscious does. Avant-garde art is a way of "smiling through the apocalypse," to use Harold Hayes’s phrase, but the apocalypse -- always an announcement of decadence -- can no longer be shrugged off with an ironical smile.
"Post-Modernists are still partly Modern in terms of sensibility," Charles Jencks writes, adding that "a highly developed taste for paradox is characteristic of our time and sensibility."(12) This might be understood as a retort to Bell, but it is also a reminder that there is no escaping the past -- and, as Millei makes clear by using the Angers Apocalypse (1375–81) as his gestural as well as conceptual point of departure for the "Maritime" paintings, drawing on the remote medieval past as well as the recent expressionistic past. Millei implies that the Angers Apocalypse -- and the idea of the apocalypse in general -- remains emotionally intimate despite our temporal and cultural distance from it, because it conveys -- with an esthetic directness, imagistic boldness and intellectual conviction that instantly impact our psyches -- the most primordial and traumatic of all our terrors: annihilative anxiety, the feeling of impending doom, the sense that we will be destroyed by some cosmic force or, perhaps more disturbingly, that we will destroy ourselves. The Angers Apocalypse openly pictures what we unconsciously fear.
It is a "fear of breakdown," in Donald Winnicott’s sense of the term: regression to the "primitive agony" that "has already been," the feeling of "non-existence" with which we begin existing and into which we can always relapse, "emptiness. . . that is feared, yet compulsively sought," for without it there can be no fullness of existence.(14) Ironically, emptiness and fullness are equally evident -- dialectically entangled -- in Millei’s apocalyptic paintings. Apocalyptic agony involves what Kurt Goldstein called a "catastrophic reaction" to the existing world and self, entailing what Wilfred Bion called "catastrophic change" involving "subversion of the [existing] system [world-order]" by way of the self’s rebellious "violence,"(15) which, like all revolution, ends in self-destructive terror. Order is eventually restored, but the new order is just as rigid and repressive as the old one. Millei’s apocalyptic abstractions reveal the ironical regression involved in catastrophic breakdown, the transcendence of destroying a system of world and self experienced as oppressive and unfacilitative of creativity and life. Thus, abstract expressionist regression to primordial chaos -- dare one say insanity, which is the ultimate rebellion against the status quo -- is ironically experienced as inner freedom.
The emotional complexity of Millei’s apocalyptic paintings goes hand in hand with their artistic complexity -- the apocalyptic chaos and creative freedom of postmodernism. As Jencks makes clear, it is a catastrophic reaction to modernism involving a catastrophic change in art values. Millei is an exemplary postmodernist: regressing to the art of the past to make artistic progress, he reminds us that in postmodernism all art belongs to the past: modern art has become as historical and traditional as the old master art it attacked. Modernism has been overthrown, and in its place is the whole history of art to pick and choose one’s influences from. In 1908 the futurist F.T. Marinetti said, "To admire an old picture is to pour our sentiment into a funeral urn instead of hurling it forth in violent gushes of action,"(16) but after a century of violent gushes of action, the avant-garde has run out of steam. It has become a funeral urn for dead feelings, while old pictures look more alive and fresh with feeling than ever. With no mode of art more privileged and insightful than any other -- with the collapse of the idea that modern art is an esthetic, cognitive and expressive "advance" over traditional art -- the entire history of art becomes available as a resource for contemporary creativity. Postmodernism is inseparable from the explosion of information made possible by the development of communication technology: as more and more visual information becomes easily accessible, it becomes harder and harder to establish a hierarchy of visual value, even as there is more opportunity for the "radical eclecticism" that Jencks celebrated as the triumph of postmodernism. Radical eclecticism is what we find in Millei’s apocalyptic paintings, as his conceptual use of the Angers Apocalypse makes clear.
Perhaps what most deeply unites Millei’s "Maritime" paintings and the Angers Apocalypse is that they both openly show the death instinct in action. As with all masterpieces, their visual and psychic precision, forthrightness and emotional vehemence give them a haunting power that New York Abstract-Expressionism, for all its gestural intensity and mythopoetic connotations, was unable to sustain, as Rosenberg suggests. Perhaps this is because both Millei and Hennequin de Bruges -- the medieval master who drew the cartoons for the Angers Apocalypse -- implicate us in the apocalypse in a way that we are rarely implicated in New York Abstract-Expressionism. This is explicit in the medieval representation, with its human presences, and implicit in Millei’s representation, with its doomed ship. Here we have a chance to save our souls -- confess our sins and prepare for death -- whereas the waves have already engulfed us in Pollock’s allover paintings. There is no hope in Pollock’s Abstract-Expressionist turbulence, while the suspended animation of the waves, bringing with it a sense of impending but not inevitable doom, in the Angers Apocalypse -- the waves are remembered in several of Millei’s "Maritime" paintings -- affords the pause necessary to pray.
And even at its most destructive and disintegrative -- not only in Pollock’s paintings but also in Willem de Kooning’s brutal "Women" paintings and, perhaps most tellingly for Millei, in Franz Kline’s bizarrely collapsing structures -- one suspects, on the evidence of its Surrealist heritage, that New York Abstract-Expressionism is generally irrational rather than specifically apocalyptic. The explicitness of the Angers Apocalypse and the forcefulness of Millei’s apocalyptic images remind us that the end is always near, that God’s judgment is constant. In New York Abstract-Expressionism the apocalypse is never more than implicit, suggesting that what we are witnessing may simply be a display of temperament and self-indulgent instinct. Perhaps New York Abstract-Expressionism is only an esthetic apocalypse -- the final stage in the disintegrative collapse of representation (stable conscious imagery) into abstraction (restless unconscious expression) that began with Kandinsky’s German abstract Expressionism -- while in the Angers Apocalypse and Millei’s apocalypse the worldly self is about to dissolve forever, liberating the unworldly soul, for better or worse.
Millei’s postmodern vision of the apocalypse -- it is inseparable from his postmodern rethinking of Abstract-Expressionism -- brilliantly integrates the medieval eschatological worldview, the belief that art should serve faith and that its subject matter is the mysterious will of God, and the contemporary psychoanalytic worldview, in which the unconscious is the new Deus absconditus, replacing the old transcendental God. The latter worldview has led to the belief that the cathartic expression of the unconscious, whether in abstract or representational terms, is the goal of art and is emotionally healing, however morbid the unconscious contents. Where medieval sacred representational art deals with the difficult ascent to the upper world -- once one reaches it, one doesn’t have to return to the everyday world -- modern secular expressionistic art deals with the dangerous descent into the underworld, a necessary emotional voyage from which there may be no return, as R. D. Laing makes clear.(17) Millei’s Maritime #14 (The Under World) clearly deals with this apocalyptic descent and its world- and self-shattering character.
Charles Baudelaire’s view that imagination "creates a new world. . . in accordance with rules whose origins one cannot find save in the furthest depths of the soul"(18) inaugurated the modern idea of unconsciously expressive art. Odilon Redon’s idea of "suggestive art," which he "likened to the energy emitted by objects in a dream,"(19) consolidated it -- he explicitly stated that the artist must wait upon the unconscious for inspiration -- and Pollock’s assertion that he was the unconscious is perhaps its grand climax. This romantic modern idea of art as visionary, introspective exploration and expression of the psychic depths became antiquated -- quaintly "medieval" -- with pop art. It preferred media-manufactured imagery to unconscious phantasy, collective representation with commercial import to individual expression with universal import, however many unconscious concerns may underpin such invented imagery.
Dialectically associating the seemingly obsolete, incompatible medieval and modern worldviews, Millei demonstrates that they are subliminally related and far from obsolete. This compatibility is formal as well as conceptual, as his abstract expressionistic "re-vision" of the Angers Apocalypse’s stylized waves in Maritime #5 (The Evening of the Deluge), Maritime #10 (Deluge), and Maritime #14 (The Under World) shows. Not only do they represent the death instinct, as I have suggested, but their insistent rhythm conveys its inescapability. Like the Angers Apocalypse, the "Maritime" paintings track the course of the apocalypse. As the series progresses, the waves unravel, releasing their energy like a spring, explosively lashing out like a flagellant’s whip. According to the Revelation of Saint John the Younger, which concludes the New Testament, the apocalypse unfolded in seven stages. They are depicted in the seven sections of the Angers Apocalypse. Each shows one of the seven angels inflicting one of the seven plagues on humankind. Millei’s series has more than seven stages -- the apocalypse seems to be condensed in each painting, giving the works a hallucinatory, nightmarish intensity -- but it has the same import: the chaotic deluge suggests doubt about existence. From a religious point of view, only God can make the engulfing cosmic chaos meaningful, but there is no hint of God in Millei’s secular apocalypse, in contrast to the Angers Apocalypse, with its belief in the possibility of redemption. Perhaps this is why Millei’s apocalyptic storm rages interminably and seems more violent and bleak than the deluge in the Angers Apocalypse. After all, there are no angels in Millei’s images, signifying eternity even as they bring death. Death -- always apocalyptic -- is not the end of existence in medieval religious thinking, but a passage to eternal existence, be it in hell or heaven.
Maritime #4 (View from the Deck) makes it clear that we are on a ship, surveying the stormy sea as we sink in it. The White Squalls convey the same desperate situation. Millei’s ship may not sink -- it may weather the storm -- but it is likely to be wrecked on hidden emotional reefs and dragged out to sea by the undertow of the unconscious. But his apocalypse may be staged -- a Hollywood spectacle in abstract expressionist terms -- as Maritime #17 (HMS Bounty) suggests. Is Millei acknowledging the influence of the various Hollywood films about the mutiny on the Bounty? The fact that he lives in Los Angeles, the center of the film industry, suggests as much. So does the movie-screen monumentality of the "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls." How could Hollywood mass consciousness not influence him, as it does everyone else, knowingly or unknowingly? Is Millei suggesting that there is no escape from the society of the spectacle, as many thinkers argue, except through critical consciousness of it? Is he acknowledging, as artists as different as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol have realized, that the only way to get the public’s attention is to be entertaining and that only "spectacular" art will be taken "seriously" (whatever that may mean in a media society)? Or is Millei ironically endorsing Hollywood sensationalism, which seems to have infiltrated every corner of our society and consciousness, and thus following, unexpectedly, in the footsteps of pop art? Does he also suppress the ultimate existential consciousness signaled by the apocalypse, even as he conveys it? Is he paradoxically authentic and inauthentic -- high art and Hollywood -- at once? The reference to HMS Bounty implies that there is a deep conflict at the core of Millei’s apocalyptic paintings, even as it suggests the truth of Jencks’ assertion that postmodern art is invariably "double-coded."(20) It is a double bind -- the dialectical contradictoriness -- of authentic creativity.
But something else is involved in what I take to be Millei’s conceptual reference to Hollywood-style representation. The traditional mural wall served the same function as the modern movie screen does today, if with a no doubt major difference: secular contemporary narratives are projected on the latter the way timeless religious narratives were painted on the former. Can one say that Millei’s narrative of the apocalypse is at once profane and sacred: the Hollywood worldview and the sacred unconscious seem to have joined forces, resulting in the "hybrid" look, as Jencks calls it? Both the mural wall and the movie screen are two-dimensional spaces of spectacle, like the large, flat canvases on which Millei paints. The physical scale of the mural wall, the movie screen, and his canvas guarantees the grandeur of whatever forms and images are exhibited on them. In contrast to the mural wall, the Angers tapestry (which is in principle a mural), Millei’s giant canvases, and the mural-like movie screen are made of comparatively soft material. Flexibility is built into the material, as it were, so that what appears on its surface often quivers with uncanny life, giving it a more intimate presence than it would have on a hard wall. I am suggesting that the "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls" bring together what the avant-garde challenge to and break with tradition -- however anxiously dependent on Old Master art, as Picasso’s "takes" on such masterpieces as Velázquez’s Las Meninas make clear -- separated: consciousness of eternity and consciousness of the contemporary.
Modern movies typically represent contemporary phenomena, in whatever thin disguise, often sensationalizing them in lieu of deeply understanding them. Events keep moving, and the movies move with them. Transience is built into the contemporary, and into the movies, which convey it by their movement. This is why old movies seem contemporary however different the clothing and expressive style of their actors. The contemporary is always on the move, and the faster events move, the more inherently contemporary the movies seem. We associate rapid movement with contemporaneity -- the liveliness conveyed by transience depends on the speed with which it occurs -- which is why avant-garde art, from Futurism to Abstract-Expressionism, has been obsessed with rapid, endlessly accelerating movement. It is emblematic of modernity; art must be fast -- hyperbolically dynamic -- to be modern.
In contrast, traditional religious art is slow and "ec-static." Even the waves in the Angers Apocalypse are frozen in time, giving them eternal presence. The religious point is to reveal the eternal in and through the transient, often by integrating them. Contemporary persons play eternal roles in the archetypal drama, as many religious masterpieces show. The eternally necessary becomes manifest through contingent contemporaneity. The aura of reflective stillness in the Angers Apocalypse shows that we are in eternal space. The figures, in their contemporary medieval clothing, exist to mediate God’s eternal truth. In the movies contemporary appearances are presented without the slightest suggestion that they have eternal meaning: the everyday has driven out the eternal. By ironically combining a movie sensibility and an expressionist sensibility -- the Hollywood construction of transient contemporary life, the expressionist construction of the timeless dynamics of the apocalyptic unconscious -- Millei not only undoes the decadence of Abstract-Expressionism but also reminds us that apocalypses have occurred in the past, as the Angers Apocalypse shows, and invariably usher in a new millennium, as the Bible tells us. The apocalypse is not just an unconscious phantasy.
The actors and scenes in contemporary movie narratives and traditional religious narratives are both stereotyped. The movie theater has become a kind of church -- perhaps not one for praying to God, but certainly one for self-contemplation, for it is ourselves that we are watching on the screen. Both narratives are made for the mass audience, forming its psyches -- the collective unconscious, as it were. Both convey desire and fear: in the religious dream we desire and fear God; in the movie dream we desire and fear ourselves. The mutiny on the Bounty was an apocalypse of sorts; the mutineers burned the ship when they thought they had reached the insular safety of paradise (where they continued to suffer from the paranoid fear that the British navy would find them). Millei’s association of the HMS Bounty -- a maritime disaster -- with an Abstract-Expressionistic apocalypse serves the same conceptual purpose as his association of the Angers Apocalypse with it: it is a postmodern way of giving new significance -- and unfamiliarity -- to old, all-too-familiar modernist gestures. However dramatic the gestures of Kandinsky and Pollock continue to be, they have lost their "emanation," as Duchamp called it, observing that in modernity entropy overtakes every work of art after a few decades.
In an act of what can be called conceptual surrealism, Millei unites incongruous versions of the apocalypse and incommensurate styles. Medieval, Abstract-Expressionist, and movie vision -- all three involve spectacle, and the moving picture and the moving Abstract-Expressionist painting developed more or less simultaneously -- converge to give a certain theatrical grandness, and an emotional appeal, to manic, seemingly crazed gestures. A popular Hollywood film is much more likely than the Angers Apocalypse to grab the contemporary public -- the latter’s style seems anachronistic, and the horror it represents seems absurd and ridiculous (we prefer our absurdity, paranoia, terror and ridiculousness in the form of King Kong, Jaws and horror movies). A medieval tapestry in a museum can appeal only to connoisseurs and specialists, not to say elitist art historians, collectors of rare esoterica, and curious intellectuals. Millei wants to lure audiences of both kinds -- let us recall that the Angers tapestries had their origins in elite circles: they were commissioned by Louis I of Anjou, brother of King Charles V, to decorate his castle at Angers, and the king lent Hennequin, his court painter, to Louis -- and he succeeds in getting them, all the more so because his titles graft right onto his works. If postmodernism involves the editing and splicing of incommensurate meanings and styles, then Millei is a masterful editor and splicer -- and a brilliant scholar.
For Millei, the apocalyptic storm is clearly a bad dream, a psychotic hallucination, from which we can never awaken. Blackness -- sometimes as a background for luminous waves, sometimes foregrounded in massive, bold gestures reminiscent of those in Kline’s black-and-white paintings -- conflicts with an often grayish luminous ground. The eerie glow is a morbid mix of unearthly radiance and underworld darkness. We are almost completely engulfed by darkness in Maritime #20 (Early Navigation). Just as Dante found himself in a dark forest, so Millei finds himself in a dark storm. Both are emblematic of the dark night of the soul. Light and dark are often dramatically at odds, suggesting that we are in the twilight zone between waking and sleeping -- and between insight and blindness,(21) for as it becomes harder and harder to see our way in the darkness, we gain more and more insight into our state of mind and plight. Indeed, Millei’s paintings are about the artist’s visionary blindness -- in contrast to the blindness of those who never saw the apocalypse coming, let alone realized that it was foreordained. The upright shadows can also be read as their hadean traces. Are they also the ghostly residue of the angels of death who appear in the Angers Apocalypse?
Millei’s "Maritime" paintings are process paintings, as is clear from their brisk gestures -- sometimes dense and broad, sometimes fragile and thin, as though evaporating -- but they are also imaginative structures, suggesting not only ships, with their riggings, as the titles indicate, but also the girders of towering bridges. Looking at Maritime #4, with its archlike structure -- ascending diagonals converge slightly off-center at the top of the painting, forming an asymmetrical triangle -- I could not help thinking of Hart Crane’s Bridge (1930), a long poem celebrating the Brooklyn Bridge, with its Gothic arches. There is an aura of suspense in Millei’s painting -- a kind of film noir expectation of danger and morbidity. Its focus seems to be in the pair of sturdy, pierlike, oddly figurative upright shadows cut off at the base. Suspended in the void, precariously defying gravity, they are symbols of existential despair, liable to break at any moment, dropping one into the abyss of nothingness. Or one can lose one’s balance, as Millei’s ironically unbalanced structure suggests. Thus the upward aspiration of his structure -- it is clearly architectural in import -- is undercut by its groundlessness. There is no terra firma beneath it. Lacking self-certainty and a secure foundation, like the proverbial castle built in thin air, it becomes a futile fantasy. Or is it futility in fantastic abstract form?
Creatively integrating modern technology and medieval transcendence -- the former indicative of practical ambition, the latter of spiritual ambition -- the Brooklyn Bridge is a successful attempt, like Millei’s "Maritime" paintings, to seamlessly unite historical and expressive, intellectual and emotional, opposites. The Brooklyn Bridge and the Gothic cathedral both have Gothic arches supported by massive piers, but otherwise they are worlds apart. Is the Brooklyn Bridge postmodern -- a prescient example of what Jencks called the "radical eclecticism" of the best postmodern architecture -- before postmodernism was thought of? Millei’s "Maritime" paintings are radically eclectic -- conceptually eclectic, one might say -- making them sublimely postmodern. It seems noteworthy that Crane committed suicide by jumping off a ship and drowning. The Bridge has been read as a failed search for transcendental meaning -- sublimity -- in the modern world, while desperately proclaiming its necessity. Are we looking at the collapse or construction of the sublime in Millei’s paintings? The hovering structure in Maritime #4 soars upward, but the dialectic of the diagonals is unresolved, implying that the construction is tentative and improvised and thus fated to collapse. Millei works and reworks it, brilliantly choreographing his gestures each time, indicating the depth of his emotional and intellectual investment in them -- I am reminded of W. B. Yeats’ suggestion that in the best art it becomes impossible to tell the dancer from the dance -- but doom is in the air, for the darkness is more forceful than the light, which is almost always bleak and agitated, and soiled by gray. We are deluged with blackness in Maritime #20, where the light is reduced to a tired trace.
Are Millei’s paintings Icarian -- do they hint at the modern artist’s personal apocalypse, first acknowledged by Albrecht Dürer in Melencolia I (1514),(22) even as they prophesy the apocalypse of the world order? Kandinsky’s abstract Expressionist paintings have a similar prophetic purpose: his prediction of a new future for art, which he believed his abstract paintings would inaugurate, was his way out of his personal creative crisis, as he acknowledged.(23) He created a new landscape of art by destroying the old landscape, thus saving himself from what he regarded as a fate worse than death—obsolescence and meaninglessness. His apocalyptic abstractions make the best of his homelessness; the old landscape of art had been his childhood home, and as he admitted, he attempted to resurrect it in memorable abstract form. The apocalyptic plot ideally climaxes in resurrection, preceded by ruthless self-judgment, often verging on self-destruction. Kandinsky obviously thought of himself as an Icarus who had landed safely after a difficult ordeal. The mythical Icarus learned the art of flight, but -- not heeding his father’s warnings, perhaps because he was elated by flying -- flew too close to the sun, which melted his wings. He fell into the sea and drowned. His father was Daedalus, the first sculptor and builder of the labyrinth, indicating that Icarus was also destined to be an artist. Lacking his father’s cunning and wisdom, however, he failed in his first artistic flight. The fact that Millei’s structure is in a state of suspended animation -- like the apocalyptic waves in Maritime #5, Maritime #10 and Maritime #14 -- suggests that it symbolizes the moment just before Icarus’s wings melted.
"Everything solid melts in modernity," Marx famously wrote, and Millei shows this melting with a fresh vehemence. Again and again we see the elemental, gnostic clash that heralds the final catastrophe, in which one either sees the light or succumbs to darkness—or, as I think is the case with Millei, sees the light while succumbing to darkness. The light is framed by darkness in Maritime #7 (Set & Drift), Maritime #8 (Navigation and Commerce), Maritime #11 (Navigator), and Maritime #12 (Les Travailleurs de la Mer), however different the frames. It seems to break through the darkness in Maritime #4 and Maritime #6 (Ship’s Deck) For Manet, or at least seems to be holding its own against it. Millei seems to be describing aspects of the deck of an old-fashioned sailing ship. His use of Alan Villiers’s photographs from 1928–33 of the activity on board such a ship -- particularly of shadowy, anonymous sailors climbing the rigging and of others standing high up on a crossbeam, both starkly silhouetted against the gray sky -- make this clear (these action shots confirm the Hollywood aspect of Millei’s paintings, for the photographs look like stills from a film) -- but the point of his painting is the contrast between darkness and light, the latter reflecting, as though in a distorting mirror, the structure of the former. Formally Millei has brilliantly integrated grid and gesture -- constructed a broken grid out of vivid gestures. He has personalized the impersonal grid, undermining its uniformity by making it expressive. He has turned it into the tortured space of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s traumatic dungeon. For Millei darkness and light form a torture chamber of conflicted feeling, from which death is the only escape. Rosenberg’s avant-garde revolution against the world and the self has become, predictably, destructive of both.
And authentically religious, as I want to insist. Again and again Millei’s "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls" assert that a new millennium is preceded by an apocalypse that destroys the old millennium. The old must make way for the new, the past must make way for the future, however fearful the transitional present, as descriptions of the apocalyptic expectations in the year 1000 make clear. Time is reborn from eternity -- given new presence -- by the mechanism of apocalypse. Modern society is hardly as religious as medieval society, but we still believe in the apocalypse, however subliminally. The universal celebrations of the arrival of 2000 imply this: we greet the new millennium with manic relief, defending against our depression at the death of the old one. The new millennium, and hopefully a new consciousness, have arrived safely, and the exhausted old millennium, with its old way of thinking and feeling, is dead and buried once and for all time and thus will never haunt us. But of course the ghost of the past always stalks us, as all Millei’s paintings make clear.
Millei’s new millennium paintings remind us of the profound dread that always accompanies the labor pains of the seriously different. They are emotional as well as art historical paradoxes, making explicit the repressed meaning of the abstractly expressed feelings evident in Abstract-Expressionism, ironically restoring them to credibility by returning to their historicized representation. Thus Millei reminds us that they are age-old, which makes them seem all the more uncanny when we experience them through his paintings.
Turner’s sea paintings, often featuring shipwrecks, and Abstract-Expressionism, which is the creation of shipwrecked modern artists, are major treatments of the apocalypse theme. But before them was Dürer’s Apocalypse (1496–98), a series of images that have both medieval abstract and modern naturalistic features, the former conveying eternal necessity, the latter everyday contingency. To this day they remain the most expressively compelling and cognitively complex renderings of the apocalypse, and Millei’s apocalyptic paintings return us to their synthesizing method. Both Dürer and Millei have less in common with Kandinsky, for they are populist as well as elitist. Erich Auerbach’s distinction between the elite preaching style of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the populist preaching style of Saint Francis of Assisi can be applied to the distinction between the intellectually elite abstract style of Kandinsky and the styles of Dürer and Millei, which combine elite and populist rhetorical devices, thus making them more emotionally arousing and cognitively convincing.(25) Both Dürer and Millei deal with the old mystical Christian "antithesis humilitas-sublimitas" -- the apocalypse teaches us humility, thus preparing us for the sublime -- while Kandinsky deals with sublimity exclusively: no humility for him. For all its grandeur, the Abstract-Expressionistic apocalypse, whether in Kandinsky’s version or Pollock’s, lacks human resonance because, as I have suggested, there is no sign of its human victims -- all doomed, whatever their occupation and class (the apocalypse is the absolute triumph of death) -- as there is in Dürer, Millei, and the Angers Apocalypse. Without such human presence -- vestigial, as in Millei, or overt, as in Dürer and the Angers Apocalypse -- there is nothing but formless chaos, whatever detritus of form aimlessly floats in it. For all their forcefulness, the abstract apocalypses of Kandinsky and Pollock miss the apocalypse’s human point, while Dürer’s pictures make it explicit, and Millei’s gestural images convey it in a veiled way, making it more ominous and, unexpectedly, immediate and pressing -- an interior event.
We eternally return to the same turbulent image in Millei’s apocalyptic paintings, indicating that there is no way of avoiding the apocalypse. It is as insistent as his rhythmic waves. Their form is fated and seals our fate. Nonetheless, we are not yet immersed in the waves, as I have noted: we are standing on the deck watching them approach our ship of fools. There is thus a moment of sane awareness -- a kind of temporary emotional clarity -- in an insane scene, as there rarely is in Kandinsky and Pollock. There is the suggestion of an observing ego, despite the assault of the "id-iosyncratic" sea. Is that the saving grace? Apocalyptic ocean and observation deck are halves of the same psyche. Millei’s "Maritime" paintings unite them, suggesting that it is possible to navigate in the storm -- this is how they differ from the typical abstract expressionist painting, which seems to have lost its rudder -- if not to ride it out and survive, which the "White Squalls" suggest is impossible. Dürer’s sequence of images is obviously a narrative following the biblical account in Revelation, while Millei’s series gives narrative form to the tension between madness and sanity implicit in Revelation: John, the biblical narrator, does not go mad, however much he thinks he is mad, but carefully observes, with wide-open eyes, what he sees -- he records his vision in excruciating detail -- which is what keeps him sane. He is a witness as much as a victim, perhaps unlike Kandinsky and Pollock.
The last chapter of Revelation opens with the words: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city [the new Jerusalem]. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing 12 crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations" (22.1–2). In Millei’s paintings there is a tantalizing glimpse of the healing river of the crystal clear water of life -- the hidden silvery current in the stormy sea of glass mixed with fire: salvation is foreordained for some, even as the apocalypse is foreordained for all. God’s grace is implicit in Millei’s light, even as his wrath is evident in its blinding intensity: the beastly world -- Babylon, as the Bible says -- will be destroyed by a heavenly fire, and replaced by the radiant glory of a "new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away" (Revelation 21.1). "I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God," John continues, and Millei sees the sublime light emanating from the New Jerusalem. But he is unable to enter it, just as Moses was unable to enter the promised land. No modern or postmodern is. Kandinsky’s apocalyptic paintings represent his crisis of faith (in art as well as God): he could "realize" the apocalypse -- his world was ripe for it (his works have been understood as a premonition of World War I) -- but he could not envision the New Jerusalem that would be built on its ruins, a divine place where "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (21.4)
The modernist Kandinsky, and virtually all subsequent abstract expressionists, focused on the trauma of the passing away and could not see beyond it, while Millei, led to a new revelation by old art, evokes the New Jerusalem -- a postmodern step beyond modernism. He intimates it in the mist but cannot bring it into focus, unlike Saint John the Younger, who sees it clearly. The saint takes every step of the apocalypse, never faltering, for he has the faith that permits him to communicate with God that no contemporary has. This is why God grants him the gift of prophetic revelation, finally revealing the New Jerusalem to him, indicating that the deluge is a means to an end, not an end in itself, as it is for those of little or no faith.
Millei’s obsession with the deluge suggests that he is uncertain of his faith, although his deep faith in painting shows that he believes in its special power of revelation. Painting is supposedly inauthentic in the age of mechanical reproduction, but Millei subsumes mechanical reproduction, as his painterly finessing of Villiers’s maritime photographs shows. He drowns them in a deluge of painterliness, turning them into shipwrecked images. Nor does Millei make "paintings that mourn for painting," as some ironical theorists have said of all contemporary painting. Rather he demonstrates that painting continues to have the visionary vitality and expressive staying power it has in the best Old Master paintings. His neo-sublime seascapes are authentic revelations of the Deus absconditus -- the invisible almighty power -- lurking in the in-your-face visibility of apocalyptic violence.
"I am making everything new!" God exclaims in Revelation (21.5), but for Kandinsky only art could be made new, while for Millei the new abstract art has become old and can be made new only by seeing the eternal truth in and through it -- mediating it so that it seems immediate. This has been the task of art from prehistoric times. It has served to reinforce and confirm faith, to show that faith makes sense however senseless and faithless the world seems. For a good part of its history art has been associated with religion -- in modern times art itself has been regarded as a religion, especially abstract art, as Jacques Barzun and other scholars have shown -- and Millei reminds us that abstract art is grounded in religious revelation. His paintings restore the aura of revelatory numinosity(26) that it lost as it became conventional. New York abstract expressionism, with its crude power and touch of vulgarity, as de Kooning said, seems the properly profane way of evoking the sacred in a society in which it has lost the concreteness and immediacy it had for the author of Revelation. When gritty gestures mediate the Holy Ghost, the apocalypse is surely at hand.
Mimesis and Memory: The Organic Reproduction of Art Memes
The term "meme" was introduced. . . by the British biologist Richard Dawkins, who used it to describe a unit of cultural information comparable in its effects on society to those of the chemically coded instructions contained in the gene on the human organism. The name harks back to the Greek word mimesis, or imitation, for as Dawkins pointed out, cultural instructions are passed on from one generation to the next by example and imitation, rather than by the shuffling of genes that occurs between sperm and ova. . . . The information we generate has a life of its own, and its existence is sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic, relative to ours. In Dawkins’s words: "A meme has its own opportunities for replication, and its own phenotypic effects [concrete manifestations], and there is no reason why success in a meme should have any connection whatever with genetic success.
-- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi(27)
The figures -- as on the sarcophagi of late antiquity -- are placed side by side paratactically. They no longer have any reality, they have only signification.
-- Erich Auerbach(28)
Recollection without affect almost invariably produces no results. . . . These [hallucinations] were clothed in imaginative shape, but were mainly formulated in stereotyped images rather than elaborated into poetic productions.
-- Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud(29)
But even in him the past to which he returns is fugitive, ever on the point of escaping him, as though his backward turning memory were thwarted by the other, more natural memory, of which the forward movement bears him on to action and life.
-- Henri Bergson(30)
Millei’s conceptual paintings abound with allusions to the art of the past -- art that has become historical and thus seems to have lost its resonance or emanation. It has become a sign without substance -- a codification of lost experience. As Millei acknowledges, the "No Reason" paintings (1990) are derived from Jasper Johns’s 0 through 9 (1960); the "Flower Power" paintings (1989), from Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1964); the "Stoma" paintings (1997), from Carroll Dunham’s Green Demon (1993–94); the "Annus Mundi" paintings (1999–2000), from Sigmar Polke’s Mother of Pearl (1983); the "Real Life of Flowers" paintings (2002), from an untitled 1994 painting by Christopher Wool; the "Voodoo" paintings (2002), from Roy Lichtenstein’s Composition (1982); the "Maritime" paintings, from Edouard Manet’s Ship’s Deck (1868), an untitled 1970 painting by Cy Twombly, a 1690 maritime painting by Willem van de Velde the Younger, Francis Kline’s Black Iris (1961), as well as the Villiers photographs already mentioned; and the "Procession" paintings (2003–05) from Giotto’s fresco Nuptial Procession of the Virgin in the Arena Chapel (1304–06), a 1954 still life by Giorgio Morandi, and Philip Guston’s The Three (1970).
Why these choices? Most are late modern, a few are early modern, and fewer are premodern. Do they have anything in common, at least from Millei’s point of view? Or is the choice gratuitous -- a matter of personal taste. As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste, even when it seems wildly eclectic, as Millei’s does. Has he simply thrown a dart at the map of art history, using whatever it hit as the starting point for his own art? The distinction between traditional and avant-garde art, and between major and minor art, seems to make no sense for Millei. It is irrelevant in postmodernism; today all art seems credible because submitting to a canon of art -- a universal hierarchy of absolute artistic value -- has become a hindrance to creativity. The canon is a limited, closed system; in postmodernity art history has become a limitless, open system. However different from one another they may be, these works all belong to the same universal art culture. The so-called ash heap of history is rich with interesting gleanings, and Millei seems to have picked and chosen among them at random, a connoisseur building his own cabinet of curiosities. They inform his paintings, which nevertheless look quite different from his sources. Is that the whole point: simply to make a difference while acknowledging a debt to the past?
Or is Millei doing something else, as I will argue: esthetically radicalizing them? For him the old picture is what Freud calls a "hyperaesthetic memory" rather than a formal corpse. The question then becomes why the particular historical works to which Millei seemingly freely associates become hyperesthetic memories that stimulate his creativity. They are found objects that he "creates into," to use Winnicott’s wonderful idea of creativity,(31) thus resubjectifying and re-estheticizing them, as it were. But however much Millei’s own subjectivity and sensibility are at work, he is responding to what is universally subjective and esthetic in them. This inner universality makes them memorable, which is why Millei chooses them: he wants to reveal the secret universality that allows them to transcend contemporaneity.
In other words, Millei’s problem is recollection -- perhaps the "anxiety of influence" of which so much has been made or perhaps a Proustian remembrance of things past. More broadly, however, I think his problem is to use what Bergson called "backward turning memory" as "natural memory" carrying him forward into artistic action. Only then can his recollection of the past have productive results for the future. Only then can art that seems more hallucinatory than real because it belongs to the past be restored to imaginative significance. Only then can images that have been stereotyped by history be elaborated into poetic productions. And, perhaps most importantly, by allowing what Freud called "strangulated affect" -- affect strangulated by history (and theory) -- "to find a way out" through hyperesthetic paint, Millei allows the art of the past to breathe spontaneously, as it once did. He in effect restores its emanation by repainting it -- not by ironically copying it, as the typical postmodern appropriation artist does, thus confirming its meaninglessness, its lack of presence and creative emptiness -- in the most materially intense way possible. He "re-forms" old art from the ground up, showing that it was never painted by formula, as it seems to have been once it becomes historical. Thus Millei recovers its expressive "originality." His is a revolutionary act of active recollection.
In short, Millei’s personal archive is composed of works that were once original, but which seem to have lost their originality because we have become habituated to them by history. They have lost their expressive power and with that their emotional impact and existential meaningfulness. They no longer seem insightful, and their "interpretation" of existence seems antiquated. Millei delves into these "dead records," however, in order to show their relevance to "the living present," to use Morris Cohen’s words -- the living artistic as well as human present. For art has become of questionable existential use -- it retains mass importance as entertaining novelty, that is, as part of what Saul Bellow called the "distraction society," although it is hardly as entertaining for the masses as movies, especially in comparison with science and technology. Indeed, the less existential value art has, the more it seems to grow in economic importance, no doubt a capitalist inevitability. In recollecting the past, Millei shows his faith in art’s existential power, and the manner of his recollection shows his faith in hyperesthetics.
Perhaps the works that make Millei’s hyperesthetic method of repainting the past most evident -- that assert the value of the past by making it live in the present, thus confirming its indispensable place in cultural memory -- are his Imperfection of Memory paintings (1996). Imperfection of Memory #12 seems to be a perverse "take" on Picasso’s Reclining Nude with a Man Playing the Guitar (1970), a sort of abstract turning of the tables on Picasso’s representational painting. But Millei’s treatment of Picasso’s erotic fantasy is less ironically imperfect and absurd -- and, for that matter, irreverent and nihilistic (an obscuring erasure of Picasso on the order of Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of a de Kooning drawing) -- than it may seem at first glance. Millei’s painting reconciles matter and mimesis, medium and image -- a perpetual problem for all art -- in a way that Picasso’s painting does not. Picasso thought that it was impossible to make a completely abstract painting; Millei suggests that not only is it possible but, moreover, that a completely abstract painting achieves something esthetically that a representational painting rarely does.
But there is much more to the hyperesthetic process: the "alchemical" use of painterly matter to bring a historical meme to life by making it abstract also evokes the emotional dynamic that gave the work its original emanation -- the esthetic aura that announces its emotional originality -- thus restoring its intrinsic value. Picasso’s picture once again becomes, in Millei’s abstract form, the seductive "magnetic vessel" -- to use the Surrealist idea of a convincing work of art -- that it was before it became a historical meme. (Aura is an indication of authenticity. The work of art has aura only when it is a product of both unconscious and conscious processes, which are subtly equilibrated -- even seamlessly integrated -- in the creative act. Aura -- the inner radiance or esthetic sublimity of the authentic work of art, made elusively visible in Millei’s "Quicksilver" paintings  -- confirms that the work will outlast the time of its creation and address and move unborn audiences. This postcontemporaneity confirms its authenticity. An authentic work of art never loses its esthetic aura -- ultimately the numinosity that connects it with the mystery of creation, which is, as Alfred North Whitehead suggests, an esthetic mystery. Aura can be denied by history, but it inevitably reasserts itself through the eyes of the authentic viewer, that is, the viewer in search of his own authenticity.)
According to Theodor Adorno, the modern task of art is to make the inarticulate articulate. But in postmodernity the task of art is to restore the emotional and esthetic power of historically overarticulated and thus expressively impotent art. Such overobjectified art invariably loses all subjective resonance, all the more so when it becomes canonical (as Picasso and most of the other artists -- Manet, Johns, Warhol -- that Millei engages have). It is so idealized that it is impossible to internalize. One is supposed to be dumbstruck by canonical artists, worship them in awed admiration, rather than complexly and personally -- ambivalently and critically -- feel and analyze and thus seriously experience their art. Millei is not given to idol worship: refusing to humble himself before the historical given, he instead remakes it so that it becomes more vital than it ever was. Millei’s abstract redoing of representational art is a critical act of responsive love, in Stendhal’s sense:(32) no blind obeisance to the object of his intellectual affection for him. Such organic transformation is a much more authentic response and imaginative homage to the influential masterpieces of the past than the mechanical imitation or ironical reproduction of them evident in appropriation art.
Let’s get more particular. The colors and brushwork in Millei’s painting are essentially the same as those in Picasso’s painting, but they have been regrouped, as it were, and made more convulsive. The orange outline of the guitar becomes an expansive series of intense gestures in Millei’s painting. Clumped together in a seemingly shapeless plane, they nonetheless form a rather large body, as their little brown legs suggest (a surreal animal? the chair on which the man sits?). This peculiarly surreal amorphous body impinges on the nude’s body, which Millei squeezes into a somewhat smaller gestural space. Picasso’s atmospheric gray-blue shadows, planar patches and linear gestures remain, but they have been concentrated and intensified in Millei’s painting, even as they are also broadened into dynamic planes, sometimes heavy and dense, sometimes atmospherically lyric. They appear to exist autonomously, even as they respond, with painterly dexterity, to Picasso’s painting. Millei has radically changed it, not only because he has made it abstract but also because he has restaged its elements. Given abrupt presentational immediacy, to use Whitehead’s concept, they become more expressive than they are in the Picasso. Indeed, Picasso’s colorful forms look lethargic compared with Millei’s.
What’s the message? Is Millei suggesting that the guitar -- the male artist’s instrument in more ways than one -- is more important than the nude, who is an incidental accompaniment to the strident music of the colors and bizarre interplay of the shapes? Is the covert point of Millei’s transformation of Picasso’s painting to suggest the dominance and consequence of the man and the submission and inconsequence of the woman? But let’s not forget that Picasso’s guitar is shaped like a female body, suggesting that when the man plays it he is copulating with the nude in unconscious fantasy. He is after all playing the guitar to seduce her. Also, the guitar’s opening has become a surreal hole-nipple, suggesting that it is a dream condensation of the female body, and also an abstract condensation of concave and convex forms. The guitar’s long, fretted neck is clearly suggestive of the penis, suggesting that the guitar is also a dream condensation of heterosexual intercourse. But playing the guitar may mean that making art is masturbating and is thus fundamentally narcissistic, whatever the accompanying fantasy of a stimulating woman. As Hanna Segal suggests, to make good art is to make beautiful music with oneself, while to have good sex is to make beautiful music with someone else.(33) This again affirms the primary importance of the actively playing male artist and the secondary importance of the passively reclining female nude, even if she physically occupies more of Picasso’s painting than he does.
But I think Millei’s transformation has more to do with the nude than with the man: it epitomizes her voluptuousness in the course of articulating her fleshiness. It distills her sensuality into sensuous paint. Millei fuses the man’s guitar and nude’s body into one tantalizing abstraction, tightening the space between them so that they seem to flow together. The orange male shape touches the colorful female curves, closing the gap that Picasso left between guitarist and odalisque. Millei also reverses their positions: the orange shape is in front of the colorful curves, but a yellow curve touches the orange shape even as an orange curve reaches up to the yellow curve from below, like a snake. Thus the male and female converge in Millei’s paintings, while they remain apart in Picasso’s representation -- indeed, the nude seems unmoved by the man’s music, suggesting her indifference to him -- and his art. In Millei’s painting, however, she is clearly on the move. She may be an obscene odalisque in Picasso, as her exposed genitalia suggest, but in Millei she is an elemental force, liberated from nature -- from the representation of her body -- and thus all the more erotically potent. If, like the dream, art is substitute gratification, as Freud said, then Millei has sublimated the sexual frustration Picasso pictures -- the stand-off between the guitarist and the odalisque (implicitly the artist and his model) -- into esthetic pleasure, all the more consummate because Picasso’s man and woman have melted into traces of hyperesthetic paint.
To summarize, Millei deconstructs, or as I prefer to say destablizes, Picasso’s representation by reducing it to its basic hyperesthetic painterly terms. Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the medium becomes the message applies as much to "hot" modernist painting as to "cool" media art.(34) Millei regenerates the representation by hyperestheticizing it, which in effect essentializes it. One might say that he carries Picasso’s idea that his Cubist works are a sum of destructions to its abstract expressionistic conclusion by apocalyptically annihilating Picasso’s representation. Millei cuts away its representational flowering to reveal its aesthetic roots.
It is worth noting that Picasso’s transformation of Velázquez’s Las Meninas -- I think Picasso’s remakes of traditional masterpieces are implicitly the model for Millei’s remakes of (mostly) modern masterpieces (which is why I dwell on Imperfection of Memory #12) -- re-represents it in modernist terms. Picasso turns Velázquez’s rounded figures, with their somber colors, and his complex space, with its steep perspective, into flat, boldly colored planes that seem casually slapped together, thus replacing the earlier artist’s contemplative perspective, inviting viewers into the scene while keeping them at an intellectual distance, with a confrontational flatness. But for all its bizarre character, Picasso’s transformation of Las Meninas is less radical -- and annihilative -- than Millei’s transformation of Picasso’s painting. Picasso incorporated all kinds of influences into his works, taking them for granted as creative starting points, while Millei, in true postmodern spirit, interrogates his influences, searching for their inner esthetic necessity while making dialectical use of them. It is also worth noting that Picasso regarded his treatment of Velazquez as the grand climax of his ambition to paint like a child, which he retrospectively realized began with Cubism. In contrast, Millei implies that representational art is esthetically immature compared with abstract art.
In Millei’s painting, the nude becomes more erotically raw than she is in Picasso’s painting. Picasso’s man almost touches the red flesh of the nude with the gray hand -- it’s clearly a May/December relationship -- that plays the guitar. It’s a tentative, accidental touch, suggesting that the man is uncertain whether the woman will welcome his attention. But Millei’s painting is all touch, a vibrant fusion of the optic and haptic in gesturing colors. The difference between the smooth, creamy ground and the more textured handling of the figurative elements suggests that felt touch is more important than seen image for Millei, reminding us of Freud’s idea that all sensing is an extension and mode of touching. Touching is more fundamentally erotic than seeing, which, as Aristotle suggested, has more to do with conscious knowing than with unconscious feeling. (This is how Kandinsky thought of the difference between representation and abstraction.) Erotic touch is blatant in Millei’s painting, while it is compromised by its descriptive purpose in Picasso’s painting. The material medium is secondary for Picasso, while it is primary for Millei, which is why Picasso fails to bring out its expressive potential the way Millei does. I am suggesting that the dehistoricizing of the representational art of the past means making the material medium subsumed in the representation self-evident -- asserting its presence in a way that is rare in the typical representation. Paradoxically, this makes the representation’s inner meaning more emotionally evident -- more unconsciously felt -- than it can ever be in the representation.
In short, Millei invests representations that have become "funeral urns," to recall Marinetti’s words, with fresh physiognomic character by making them dramatically material. Works that history has dematerialized into signs -- which is the ironical fate of every cultural product that becomes memorable -- are rematerialized into living presences by Millei’s expressionistic transformation of them into hyperesthetic abstractions. In a sense, he is plumbing their hyperesthetic depths by stripping them of their representational surface. He may have a dialectical dependence on certain predecessors, as artists always have, but in metabolizing their works, he shows his independence. Ridding their works of the dross of representation, he discloses the pure gold of expressive material, giving them a new esthetic authenticity. In their works material and mimesis are inextricable, but Millei shows that art can dispense with conscious mimesis and remain subliminally mimetic, for conscious art can make the material medium dance to unconscious music.
To my mind, Millei’s "Flower Power" paintings are among his most "spiritually" interesting "remembrances," for they transform Warhol’s Pop art flower into an abstract expressionist mandala. The flowers become even more explosively expressionistic in the "If Flowers Could Dream/Porn Star" paintings (2001), but Millei’s purpose remains the same: reconciling the flat surface and artificial look of mechanically reproducible populist imagery -- one may recall that the first major Pop art exhibition was in Los Angeles -- with the textured surface and natural look of handmade painting. The "Real Life of Flowers" paintings (2002) -- an untitled 1994 Christopher Wool flower painting is their point of departure -- are Millei’s most consummate organic reproductions of a mechanical reproduction. Working through the historical meme that Wool’s flower quickly became -- however startling the black-and-white contrast, Wool’s image is a thinly painted reproduction of a found flower pattern and as such an ironical replay of Warhol’s Flowers, made exactly 30 years earlier -- Millei transforms it into an even more extravagantly blossoming flower than appears in the two earlier series.
Millei’s flower paintings are particularly important because they take on, with a certain whimsical but unmistakable aggression, the artificiality and glamour of the commercial popular culture epitomized by Hollywood. From the beginning of his career Millei has had to deal with the esthetic, emotional and moral values of Hollywood culture -- all the more so because it flourished in his own backyard -- to find his own identity and values. By incorporating Hollywood "vision," they ironically suggest that it is more imaginative and existential than it is, thus mocking Hollywood’s claims to artistic significance and creative apperception. It may have the technology, but it doesn’t have the creativity, even though the technology suggests that it does. In fact, as Adorno has shown, it borrows heavily from the avant-garde -- diluting its innovations in the course of popularizing them -- for its "vision."
The flower paintings go much further: they trash Hollywood artificiality and glamour -- for Warhol’s flowers are artificial rather than natural, glamorous contrivances rather than spontaneous growths -- by idealizing the flowers beyond everyday esthetic, emotional and moral recognition. Informed by authentic instinct -- in contrast to the simulated and stereotyped aggressive and sexual instincts pictured in Hollywood movies, which typically blur the difference between the authentic and inauthentic -- Warhol’s commercial icons become transcendental icons. In Millei’s hands, Warhol’s and Wool’s flowers are no longer cleverly glamorized common-denominator flowers, but forceful expressions of gnostic truth, as indicated by their expressionistic extremes of luminosity and demiurgic darkness, laced with colors that resemble fragments from a broken rainbow.
The flowers made from paint that Millei uses in the "Real Life of Flowers" series make the point succinctly. Petrified in paint, the simplistic flowers become uncannily sublime, even as they remain banal found objects (all the more banal because they have become historical artifacts -- collective memes). To say this another way, they harden into archetypal clarity, becoming meditational devices -- sort of surreal mandalas. They are hypostasized hallucinations, as it were -- cultural illusions that seem to be one’s own imaginative inventions. One can’t help associating them with hallucinogenic drugs, good luck charms, and other self-hypnotizing visionary stimulants. "Flower power" was indeed a metaphor for drug power and youth power in the 1960s -- the defiant power the youth culture showed when it put flowers in the rifles of soldiers in peaceful protest against the Vietnam War, and when it experimented with psychedelic drugs. It was when the ever-hip hipster Warhol made his flower works. Like all such "en-trancing" devices, they involve magical thinking and fantasies of omniscience. Arranged in a gridlike formation, the flowers implicitly repeat themselves infinitely, confirming the uniformity and unity (inward harmony) of the cosmos, and extend in all directions of the compass, confirming their universal reach. The square and the circle -- the antipodes of eternal geometry -- deliriously unite in the flower’s vertiginous, wheel-like form. C. G. Jung notes that "the protective circle, the mandala, is the traditional antidote for chaotic states of mind"(35) -- such as those in Millei’s apocalyptic abstractions, with their extreme contrasts of light and dark, suggesting a divided consciousness on the verge of disintegration.
The flower is a universal object of sublime contemplation in many traditional and modernist still lifes -- it is life at its most obviously flourishing and fascinating (and also sexually explicit, all the more so because the flower is a hermaphrodite; looking into a beautiful flower, we look into the abyss where its genitalia grow, which is what the female pistil and male stamens are, suggesting that the petals are the labia of an enclosing womb) -- and Millei restores the contemplative and emotional depth it lost in Warhol’s shallow use of it. But Millei’s flowers can also be sinister, as his use of them in Medusa #1 (2002) indicates. It is one of his most brilliant paintings, all the more so because of its ingenious use of cutout flowers that Millei fabricates from acrylic paint. Grand gestures -- mostly white, many yellow, and some gray -- emerge from a central white flower -- one can’t help thinking of the radiant if melancholy theosophical flowers Mondrian painted -- and race to the four corners and sides of Millei’s black canvas. The gestures end in white flowers, ambiguously mystical and pop -- perhaps pop mysticism, or mysticism popularized. Technically the important thing is that Millei applies his cutout flowers to the painting as climactic moments, putting to good use their ironically "elevated" pictorial flatness. The low-relief flowers ecstatically stand out against the bleak background.
Medusa #1 is a masterpiece of ironical dialectic -- a synthesis in which the opposites retain their separate identities: the abstract gestures representationally flower, as it were, while remaining dynamically entangled, as befits the squirming vipers that are Medusa’s mythical hair. Hair, of course, is a symbol of sensuality. Millei’s reference to the dangerous, monstrous Medusa is crucial for an understanding of his work: it suggests that he is the new Perseus, cutting off the head of Medusa, which he can look at without turning to stone because he sees its reflection in the mirror of art.(36) It is clearly a distorting mirror, for Medusa’s head is apocalyptically -- and apotropaically -- transformed into an abstraction, indicating that Millei’s (and every man’s) fear of woman and her seductive power, bringing with it the need to keep a certain emotional distance from her (as Samson, another hero from an ancient culture, didn’t do), can be ironically overcome: she, rather than he, has been castrated.
It has been said that a convincing abstract expressionist gesture must seamlessly integrate the aggressive and sexual instincts the way they are integrated in sexual intercourse, according to Freud, and Millei’s gestural rendering of Medusa’s snakes is instinctively convincing. I think that in Medusa #1 Millei comes to ironical terms with his ambivalence toward woman, not to say sexual anxiety, already evident in his choice of Picasso’s Reclining Nude with a Man Playing the Guitar as the starting point for one of his "Imperfection of Memory" paintings. One’s memory of the sexual act is always imperfect, for it is fraught with terror as well as pleasure -- threat as well as ecstasy -- and its instinctive character is invariably repressed once the act has been accomplished. Similarly, once the artistic act has been accomplished, its instinctiveness fades from memory, although a residue of it must remain if the work of art is to register emotionally and excite the perceiver, convincing him of its human as well as esthetic value. I am convinced of the greatness of Medusa #1. It is a superb demonstration of the emotional richness and metaphoric complexity -- the many levels of meaning and feeling -- of Millei’s paintings, and of the dialectical esthetics and ingenious techniques of postmodern abstract painting at its best.
Coda: The Terra Incognita of the Quicksilver Screen
According to the old view, Mercurius is duplex, i.e., he is himself an antithesis. Mercurius or Hermes is a magician and god of magicians. As Hermes Trismegistus he is the patriarch of alchemy. His magician’s wand, the caduceus, is entwined by two snakes. The same attribute distinguishes Asklepios, the god of physicians. . . . But in our case the snake symbol of Mercurius is replaced by a sort of pseudo-physicistic notion of a field of vibrating molecules of quicksilver . . . the band of quicksilver that, as Mercurius vulgaris, "veils the true personality."
-- C. G. Jung37
That wholly peculiar feeling which arises in us if, for example, in the noise and tumult of a modern street we should come across an ancient relic -- the Corinthean capital of a walled-in column, or a fragment of inscription. Just a moment ago we were given over to the noisy ephemeral life of the present, when something very far away and strange appears to us, which turns our attention to things of another order; a glimpse away from the incoherent multiplicity of the present to a higher coherence in history.
-- C. G. Jung(38)
The world is weary of the past,
Oh, might it die or rest at last!
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hellas
This offers us a picture . . . of modern life, lived like a hermit crab in the grand carapace of ancient Rome—a touching comment on the process of history; private life lived in the ruins of a great empire.
-- Sara Stephenson(39)
Millei’s "Quicksilver" paintings and "Matador" paintings, both from 1991, and "Terra Incognita" paintings and "Silver Terra" paintings, both from 1999, are clearly the ancestors of the "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls." The former were made in the last decade of the old millennium, the latter in the first decade of the new millennium, ambiguously conveying their continuity and discontinuity. All have a mercurial quality, evoking the alchemical, magical associations of mercury: they are oracular embodiments of antithesis. Mercury was the messenger of the gods, and their messages tended to be equivocal and ironical and thus subject to misunderstanding. Ordinary people took them at face value (not to do so was sacrilegious), while the insightful individual -- that is, the individual who questions group thinking -- intuited their secret meaning and paid the price for it.
The story of the Trojan high priest Laocoön is the classic example. The gods sent the Leviathan -- "the dragon in the sea," a symbol of the devil, as Jung notes(40) to destroy him. He had warned the Trojans against bringing the huge wooden horse the Greeks left behind -- they appeared to have withdrawn in frustration at the failure of their siege of Troy -- into the city. The Trojans assumed that the destruction of Laocoön by the world-snake that ruled the world-encircling ocean was a sign that he was wrong -- what clearer sign could there be? -- and pulled the horse into Troy. But Laocoön was right, and the rest -- the destruction of the city by the deceptive Greeks, who used a cunning trick to enter its protective walls -- is history. Laocoön’s experience was a bad dream come true, reminding us that Mercury was also known as a trickster who brought dreams just when everything seemed to be going well in reality -- that is, he brought messages from the underworld as well as the higher world. Even more mercurially, Millei’s painterly quicksilver conflates them.
Millei’s use of quicksilver shows his alchemical originality, for quicksilver is not only an unpredictably changeable yet heavy metal -- paradoxically lyric and epic at once and thus the ironically ideal material medium for emotionally "heavy" yet physically flighty abstract paintings -- but also an apocalyptic material. A drop of mercury shatters into an infinite number of drops, each with the same force as the original drop. Mercury also registers changes in temperature and pressure, which is why it is used in thermometers and barometers. It is also toxic and used in mirror surfaces and thus has metaphorical associations with the poisonous silver screen of Hollywood. (This group-think mural dwarfs the individualistic abstract expressionist mural in our populist society, all the more so because group think fears its unconscious undertow, that is, its mystical depth of feeling, brooding power, and quixotic identity -- all visionary "abnormalities" that threaten the stereotyped identities normal in mass society.) Quicksilver is a laboratory catalyst; Millei’s "Quicksilver" paintings -- their surfaces are invariably mercurial, whatever their colors -- are laboratories where he experiments with explosive feelings, thus reminding us that avant-garde art was originally an "experimental art," as Ernst Gombrich and many pioneering avant-garde artists have said.
I think Millei’s quicksilver offers us a taste of the healing water of life mentioned in the last chapter of Revelation even as it plunges us into the "darkness. . . over the surface of the deep" mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis. Everything begins and ends in mercurial amorphousness. Millei’s amorphous surface is the mercurial creativity of the beginning, when all is "formless and empty" (Genesis 1.1), and the apocalyptic creativity of the end, when "Babylon, the Great Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abomination of the Earth" is "brought to ruin. . . in one hour" (Revelation 17.5, 18.19). At the end of time the "city of power" is pulverized into formless dust, and the "Holy City, the New Jerusalem" miraculously appears in the amorphous light (Revelation 18.10, 21.2). It is similar to the way the water of eternal life sprang from dead stone to lift the spirits of the children of Israel when they were wandering in the desert. Millei, one might say, is wandering in the desert of past creativity in search of fresh water to make a new artistic beginning. Even more: Genesis (1.1) tells us that "the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters," and Millei hopes that the spirit of God -- the creativity of God (reminding us that since antiquity the artist has been described as "enthusiastic," that is, full of divine madness) -- will hover over his waters. Clearly there is some sort of brooding spirit in them, be it devilish or divine. God’s first creative act was to separate light, which he saw was good, from darkness, which was implicitly bad. Millei’s "Quicksilver" paintings struggle with this primary creative act. He returns to it again and again, as if to renew his creative power. The earthy, edgy look of the Stoma paintings and the "Annus Mundi" paintings suggests that they rise from the amorphous depths of the "Quicksilver" paintings the way the Netherlands were created from the North Sea. Where the "Quicksilver" paintings show Millei brooding upon the waters of the deep -- a terra incognita of creativity to which the apocalyptic abstractions return with a vengeance -- his other paintings show him looking to eros for inspiration, perhaps with the unconscious hope that it will reunite the light and darkness that God separated in the primordial act of creativity -- and thus undo and usurp God’s creativity, which means that eros’s creativity is devilish.
The paradoxical point -- for if libido unites and the death instinct separates, as Freud emphasized, then to suggest that libido is devilish (insidiously destructive) and the death instinct divine (unexpectedly creative) is paradoxical -- seems to be clearly made by Carroll Dunham’s Green Demon, the source for the Stoma paintings. Dunham’s perverse figure is a surreal hermaphrodite, as the penises and vaginas (including vagina dentatas) that grow on its body indicate, and as such a devil, as the painting’s title acknowledges. God separated man and woman, permitting them to briefly reunite to reproduce, but the devil draws them together with the fantasy that they can become inseparable. In separating the light teeth from the demon’s dark flesh in Stoma #2 and Stoma #4, Millei shows the divine side of his creativity, while in showing the white teeth completely surrounded by the demon’s dark flesh -- swallowed up the way Jonah was by the whale, or the way that a small light of inspiration unexpectedly appears in the indifferent darkness -- shows the devilish side of his creativity. Perhaps Millei’s amorphous demon is the imp of the perverse that inspired Poe -- the grotesque faces, formed of white pearls, that precipitate out of the formless black in a "Terra Incognita" painting suggest as much -- nd as such the elusive incarnation of his demiurgic creativity.
My biblical interpretation (in part) of Millei’s paintings may seem far-fetched and forced. It is unavoidable, however, in view of the recurrence of the apocalyptic theme and, above all, because of his repeated apocalyptic destruction of the art of the past -- indeed, the relegation of even the art of the immediate past to the ash heap of history -- through his apocalyptic re-creation of it in resolutely abstract terms. For Millei the creative act is necessarily apocalyptic if it is to be authentic. The biblical reference also makes sense in view of his Procession paintings, which, as I have noted, take Giotto’s Nuptial Procession of the Virgin as their main point of departure. Millei essentializes and integrates Giotto’s figures, the "figures" in a 1954 still life by Morandi, and the sinister, comic figures in Guston’s The Three (1970) in his abstract composition -- a perfect postmodern reconciliation and condensation of premodern and modern visions of art. Millei is clearly suggesting that their works lead up to his more advanced abstract painting -- a deceptively simple climax that seems remote from his apocalyptic abstractions. Has Millei mellowed? Not exactly: the paintings have an atmospheric background, sometimes gray and melancholy, sometimes luminous and colorful. Sometimes the anonymous forms are paired like lovers; sometimes they move in solemn procession. There is an air of stateliness and intimacy in these small, tense paintings, as there is in Millei’s abstract expressionist paintings, with their more obvious tensions. And death rears its apocalyptic head, as Procession #100 (The Death of Robert Creeley) (2005) makes clear. And rebirth -- the miracle of sacred birth -- is also implicit in Giotto’s wedding procession. Thus the apocalyptic cycle is complete in one concentrated painting. The reference to Creeley makes it clear that Millei’s paintings are conceptual poems.
The gnostic tension between formlessness and form, unconsciousness and consciousness -- for both Genesis and Revelation are narratives describing the rise of God’s clear consciousness out of unconscious chaos or murky amorphousness -- inherent in the theme is perhaps most majestically evident in Silver Terra #10, in which pearls of light (Seurat’s points of color purified?) take elusive form in an amorphous field. At the moment of mystical illumination the stars glow like jewels, as many mystics write. Clearly we have come a long way from Barnett Newman’s transcendental Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1951) or, for that matter, from Pollock’s demonic allover paintings of the late 1940s, for we are now in the twilight zone between upper world and underworld -- gnostic clarity and demiurgic power -- rather than one or the other. It is an enviable position, for Millei can enter both at once.
One might say that abstract expressionism has become empty "rhetoric" -- "a monotonous formula of antitheses," to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase -- in postmodernity. But, as Eliot said, there is "rhetoric [that] is a vice of manner" and "a rhetoric of substance also, which is right because it issues from what it has to express."(41) But in the "museum without walls" that all known art -- or everything that is institutionalized as art and thus "known" as art -- inhabits in postmodernity, every kind of art seems like a rhetorical flourish or vice of manner, certainly when seen as one petite perception in a global continuum of art with no spatial and temporal boundaries. Not only has the highly selective canon of avant-garde art that emerged in modernity become meaningless -- avant-garde styles and ideas have become rhetorical mannerisms, their ulterior ideological motives more evident than their expressive originality -- but a general incoherence has overtaken the whole history of art. The "higher coherence of history," which Jung believed in, and the view that "history is the main road to wisdom in human affairs," which Cohen believed in, seem like impossible dreams. History has become suspect because there is too much of it -- everything seems to have already been expressed is perhaps another way of saying the same thing -- which is probably one reason for the avant-garde’s often destructive transformation and sometimes outright rejection of it. But now that the avant-garde has itself become historical and neutralized, it too has lost expressive resonance and become rhetorical.
Millei’s problem is to show that modes of art that have become standard mannerisms can become substantial expressions. This means that they must be made to express substantial existential concerns -- and that the artist must have such concerns. Eliot assumes as much: rhetoric "must take genuine and substantial human emotions" as its theme. It must express "emotions. . . significant enough to endure full daylight." The result is "poetic drama" -- in which the drama is conscious, he adds.(42) In a sense, Johns’s O through 9 -- the source of Millei’s "No Reason" paintings -- is a frivolous painting. It is more prosaic than poetic. Numbers lack existential substance. One doesn’t have significant emotions about them, unless, perhaps, one is an accountant or a child learning to count. Millei’s "No Reason" paintings complete the apocalyptic obfuscation that Johns’ painterliness began, but they do not issue from an attempt to express apocalyptic feelings. It is paradoxically only when Millei is overtly apocalyptic -- consciously engaging the significant emotions that the thought of the apocalypse (personal and social) arouse -- that his abstract expressionism becomes an authentic rhetoric of substance rather than a mannered modernist painting. Lichtenstein’s Composition (1980), with its parody of Abstract-Expressionistic brushstrokes, reducing them to inauthentic illustrations and mock gestures, is such a painting. The voodoo magic Millei performs on Lichtenstein’s pseudo–Abstract-Expressionist brush strokes in his "Voodoo" paintings (2002) restores their expressionistic intensity. One may recall that the Abstract-Expressionist paintings Lichtenstein made before he became a Pop artist had none. Unable to become a dramatic poet, he made group-think painting with just enough individuality, in the form of irony, to maintain his self-respect. Lichtenstein dared not venture into the terra incognita of the apocalypse, and for good reason: it arouses our most basic existential fear and hope. It brings with it awareness of the brutal darkness of death and the hope for an eternal afterlife, in whatever elusive luminous form. This is the poetic drama inherent in life.
Millei is a longtime surfer, and his series "For Surfing" (2001–2) is his homage to a friend who died in a surfing accident. The paintings are clearly apocalyptic: there are the waves from the Angers Apocalypse, doing their dramatic thing, and the gnostic tension of darkness and light, both tinged with the seductive blue of the ocean and sky. More subtly, they imply -- and I agree -- that surfing is an existential art (like abstract expressionist painting). It is a balancing act over the abyss. Like the authentic artist, the surfer takes existential risks. For all his technical skill, his art may not work. He will then fall from the surfboard into the water, possibly losing his life, the way Icarus (whose ambitious flight was also an artistic adventure) fell from the sky. Recognition of the risks of surfing and art making -- unconsciously equivalent for Millei -- leads to the observation that the apocalyptic waves he surfs in his abstract expressionist paintings are much more muscular than those in the Angers Apocalypse. They have a formulaic redundancy that diminishes their expressive power, while the flexible muscularity of Millei’s gestural waves, which twist and turn, bob and weave, the way a surfer might -- thus, again, the dancer and the dance become indistinguishable in good art -- indicate that they are somewhat more expressively fit. I am provocatively suggesting that Millei gives a new Michelangelesque twist to abstract expressionism. Strange as it may seem to say so, his apocalyptic wave is as paradoxically strong and tormented -- powerful and troubled -- as the serpentine figures on Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel tombs. Millei’s apocalyptic wave is a complex meme integrating manneristic dynamics and sacred iconography.
Michelangelo’s reclining figures are in the throes of death -- disturbed by very bad dreams indeed -- and the apocalyptic wave is a portent of death. It is obvious that fear of death haunts Millei’s imagination -- his apocalyptic abstractions are anxiety dreams responding to its inevitability and the doubts about life that it brings with it -- but I have perhaps not made it sufficiently clear that it is the fear of the death of art as well as of the extinguishing of life, which point to the meaninglessness of both art and life. Procession #100 (The Death of Robert Creeley) implies as much, but the larger point is that Millei’s rummaging through the art of the past suggests that he has doubts about the future of art. The museum without walls is a necropolis, an empire of dead art and artists. More subtly, it is the empire of art as commercial emporium. The art in it comes alive only when it is mechanically reproduced for the masses, but such mechanical reproductions deaden it for the individual. Mass consumption undermines the individuality of art, which is the hard-won original product of a complex individuation process. It extinguishes whatever expressive life remains in the original work.
How is a contemporary artist to escape from the cemetery -- the cemetery where old works of art are laid to rest as though they have lost all life and the cemetery of mechanical reproductions that perpetuate them, in corrupt form, in the popular mind? It seems impossible to rise above the barren memory of the reproduction to the expressive originality that was once the organically alive work of art. Mechanically mummified in a reproduction, it becomes all external reality, thus losing its power to evoke internal reality. To put this another way, how is a post–art history artist to make new clothes for the emperor of art -- for "imperial" works of art that have lost their expressive grandeur, all the more so because they have been ironically enshrined and deified in reproductions? How is a contemporary artist to live in the ruins of the empire of art, to refer to the Stephenson epigraph, without living in them like a hermit crab, scuttling from one tomb to another? Is that what Millei does? Does he have a parasitic relationship with the past? Is he another postmodern scavenger of the past, like the typical appropriation artist?
I have tried to show that Millei’s relationship with the past is symbiotic rather than parasitic: he gives it the only authentic life it can have in the present -- the breath of life it acquires by being reborn in abstract form -- while it gives him the spiritual life and meaning it once had. One might say that he builds a new chapel in the religion of art from fragments of past art the way medieval cathedrals were built from the ruins of pagan temples -- or, if one wants, that he weaves new clothes for the emperor of art that reveal him in all his existential nakedness. Turning known artistic territory into a terra incognita of abstraction, he restores art’s existential mystery. Millei’s apocalyptic wind of abstraction resembles Shelley’s west wind. "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!" Shelley wrote, and Millei’s powerful wind drives the withered leaves of dead artistic thoughts to quicken a new birth -- clearly of feeling and meaning as well as of art and creativity.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
1. Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 64.
2. Morris R. Cohen, The Meaning of Human History (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1961), 17.
3. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 92.
4. Michael St. Clair, Object Relations and Self Psychology, 3rd ed. (Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks-Cole, 1996), 178.
5. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," in The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 32. All subsequent quotations from Rosenberg are from this source unless otherwise noted.
6. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Dover, 1977), 1.
7. Wassily Kandinsky to Will Grohmann, 1925.
8. Adam Phillips, Going Sane: Maps of Happiness (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 91–92.
9. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 28–29.
10. Harold Rosenberg, "Parable of American Painting," in Tradition of the New, 15.
11. For a discussion of the ironies of decadence, see my book The Dialectic of Decadence: Between Advance and Decline in Art (New York: Allworth Press, 2000).
12. See particularly Donald E. Gordon, Expressionism: Art and Idea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 42–43. In The Theory of the Avant-garde (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), Renato Poggioli describes avant-garde art as an apocalyptic devolution of art by way of activism and antagonism to nihilism and agonism. Agonism, Poggioli writes, "represents the deepest psychological motivation not only behind the decadent movement, but also behind the general currents culminating in that particular movement and not exhausted by it, since they were destined to outlive decadence and reach back in time to romanticism itself." He adds: "the agonistic attitude is not . . . exclusively dominated by a sense of imminent catastrophe; on the contrary, it strives to transform the catastrophe into a miracle. . . . Through its very failure, it tends toward a result justifying and transcending itself." Finally, "Agonism means tension: the pathos of a Laocoon struggling in his ultimate spasm to make his own suffering immortal and fecund. In short, agonism . . . is a paradoxical and positive form of spiritual defeatism."
13. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 4th ed. (New York: Rizzoli, 1984), 5.
14. D. W. Winnicott, "Fear of Breakdown" (1963?), in Psycho-analytic Explorations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 90, 95.
15. Gérard Bléandonu, Wilfred Bion: His Life and Works, 1897–1979 (London: Free Association Books; New York: Guilford, 1994), 198, 283.
16. Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 287.
17. "Small wonder," writes Laing, "that the list of artists, in say the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked on these reefs is so long -- Hölderlin, John Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud" (The Politics of Experience [New York: Ballantine, 1967], 141).
18. Charles Baudelaire, "The Salon of 1859," in The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1956), 235.
19. Quoted in Henri Dorra, ed., Symbolist Art Theories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 55.
20. Jencks, Language of Post-Modern Architecture, 5.
21. The myth of the artist-seer who is literally blind but "sees" the truth about life and the world can be traced to the Greek visionary Tiresias. He appears in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland. In both he alone understands the reason for the plague that the gods have inflicted on the world.
22. Dürer’s Melencolia I is an allegorical representation of artist’s melancholy, as creative block was called in the Renaissance. According to Erwin Panofsky, it takes a Neoplatonic perspective on the artist’s suffering: he is melancholy because he is stuck between heaven and earth, acutely aware of both yet comfortable in neither. He aspires to make sublime works of eternal art but cannot help making works that reflect his contingent existence on earth, with all its turbulent feelings. What is particularly noteworthy in Dürer’s image is that the winged figure -- a condensation of artist and muse in one symbol -- is immobilized: the androgynous figure has wings but is unable to fly, implying that it is a fallen or at least grounded angel. Ironically, an apocalyptic bat -- an angel of death, bringing the plague -- flies in the sky instead, indicating that the artist-angel’s wings have been clipped by the devil. Melencolia I raises the question of whether the artist has run out of creative fuel, resulting in a decadent art, suggesting the futility of art and, more broadly, the problematic character of creativity, for it is unable to offer the transcendence it promised.
23. For a discussion of Kandinsky’s creative-spiritual crisis, and that of other original abstract painters, see my essay "Abstract Painting and the Spiritual Unconscious," in The Rebirth of Painting in the Late Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 62–75.
24. Turner’s companion paintings Dido Building Carthage (or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, 1815) and The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) make the ambiguity of apocalyptic romanticism explicit. Turner wrote epic poetry to accompany his epic paintings, suggesting that he wanted to integrate poetic drama and visual drama. He held the traditional view ut pictura poesis even as he was a major influence in the development of musical painting. Millei wants to reconcile traditional poetic painting with modernist musical painting -- a postmodern ambition. Millei’s "Maritime" paintings and "White Squalls" seem particularly indebted to Turner’s Snowstorm, Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), clearly an apocalyptic image. In general, Millei’s painting can be regarded as an extension of romantic visionary painting into hitherto unknown abstract territory -- fantastic territory he invents and maps. It is as though Millei is redoing John Martin’s Fall of Babylon (1831) or Karl Briullov’s Last Day of Pompeii (1830–33) in abstract expressionist terms in order to bring out the universal emotional import of decadence and the apocalypse that puts an end to it.
25. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 152. Auerbach notes that where Saint Bernard’s "elevated style" is omnitemporal, Saint Francis’s populist style was simultaneously omnitemporal and contemporary. If abstract expressionist style is omnitemporal, and movie style is contemporary, then Millei’s apocalyptic abstractions can be understood as an attempt to form a new alliance between them.
26. See Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 5–8, for a discussion of "numen" and the "numinous.’" Otto discusses "the element of awefulness, the element of ‘overpoweringness,’ the element of ‘energy’ or urgency" in the numinous revelation of the "mysterium tremendum." Millei’s apocalyptic abstractions clearly have all three elements. Indeed, the apocalypse is the mysterium tremendum in awe-inspiring action.
27. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 120–21.
28. Auerbach, Mimesis, 116.
29. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria (1893–95; New York: Basic Books, 1957), 6, 31.
30. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1911), 94.
31. D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1976).
32. In his book On Love Stendhal compares falling in love with placing a dead branch in a salt mine. When one retrieves it, it is covered with lovely crystals, radiant in the light. Unfortunately, they melt when the branch is exposed to too much sunlight. The salt mine has been understood as a metaphor for the unconscious. In the light of day, which brings consciousness with it, the beloved object loses its unconscious radiance and attractiveness, becoming once again another dead thing. Millei manages to keep his lovely gestural surface from melting and revealing the representation it covers, even as his gestural surface has melted it.
33. Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy, and Art (London: Tavistock, 1991), 83.
34. See chapter 3, "Identification with the Medium: The Consolation of Matter," in my Psychostrategies of Avant-garde Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 122–48.
35. C. G. Jung, "Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious," in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), 10.
36. The complex meaning of Medusa’s head is demonstrated by Freud. In the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, he remarks that it "can be traced back to the . . . motif of fright at castration" (Standard Edition [London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1964], vol. 22, 24). In his essay "Infantile Genital Organization," he writes that it symbolizes "the mother’s genitals," all the more reason why it is a "mythological symbol of horror": "Athene, who carries Medusa’s head on her armour, becomes in consequence the unapproachable woman, the sight of whom extinguishes all thought of a sexual approach" (Standard Edition , vol. 19, 144).
37. Jung, "A Study in the Process of Individuation," 311, 345.
38. C. G. Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1944), 3.
39. Sara Stevenson and Duncan Forbes, A Companion Guide to Photography in the National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2001), 66.
40. Jung, "Study in the Process of Individuation," 316.
41. T. S. Eliot, "‘Rhetoric’ and Poetic Drama," in The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1920), 79.
42. Ibid., 84.