OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 6: Mythic/Expressive Representation and Ruthless Abstraction: An Unresolvable Dialectic: The Sixth Decade
The aim of art, so far as one can speak of an aim at all, has always been the same; the blending of experience gained in life with the natural qualities of the art medium.
The difference between art produced by children and great works of art is that one is approached through the purely subconscious and emotional, and the other retains a consciousness of experience as the work develops and is emotionally enlarged through the greater command of the expression-medium.
The aporia of art, pulled between regression to literal magic or surrender of the mimetic impulse to thinglike rationality, dictates its law of motion; the aporia cannot be eliminated. The depth of the process, which every artwork is, is excavated by the irreconcilability of these elements; it must be imported into the idea of art as an image of reconciliation.
Whereas art opposes society, it is nevertheless unable to take up a position beyond it; it achieves opposition only through identification with that against which it remonstrates.
The former is almost mechanically organized, indeed, spatially coherent for all the oceanic grandeur of the over-all space -- the work is clearly a triptych, as the vertical dividers indicate, with a central square and flanking rectangles -- while the latter verges on chaos, however subliminally rhythmic it seems to be, an effect generated by the repetitive character of the linear streaks, although the repetition is unpredictable and irregular. Newman's painting is somewhat staid, its stasis overcome only by the color contrasts -- the thin white, blue and yellow verticals are throbbing veins in the red plane, showing that it is inwardly alive, however outwardly inert -- while Pollock's hypermanic gestures continue into the space beyond the painting, suggesting the irrelevance of the frame, thus carrying to an extreme what began in Kandinsky's first abstract work, made only 40 years earlier. Newman's painting is clearly geometrical, with a trace of gesture in the vertical zip, while Pollock's painting is gestural, with a hint of geometry in the lines. They at times criss-cross, in a false crescendo, as though they were the rotten beams of a helter-skelter hatching, an abandoned or aborted blueprint, or else the raw material of the cohesive structure of self that Pollock could never build.
But for all their ostensible difference -- however "formal" the Newman, and "informal" the Pollock -- their paintings have something in common: not only their evocation of the infinite, an effect of their sublime, awe-inspiring scale -- Newman's painting is wider and higher, but both are cosmic spaces -- but the absence of recognizable content. Newman strips his triptych of traditional religious content, Pollock strips his gestural landscape of the primordial figures that haunted his works in the early '40s. Mimetic narrative -- the representation, however skewed, of some sort of human story and experience -- seems missing in both paintings.
Yet mythic representations of the figure are implicit in their ruthless abstraction: Newman's dramatic zips and Pollock's vehement lines -- both punctuate the surface, with a certain disruptive insistence -- are the final, abstract residue of the sacred primordial figure (sacred because it is primordial, that is, emotionally primitive), an ongoing theme in 20th-century avant-garde art from its Cubist as well as Expressionist beginnings. They are in effect stick figures, stripped even of their limbs, as though these would distract from their essential presence. Newman's figures may be upright totems, Pollock's may be fallen idols (the viewer can identify with both states), but both distill what Edward O. Wilson has called the "human esthetic" that is the archetypal fundament of art. The human is embedded -- sedimented, in Pollock's case -- in these paintings, however unrecognizable to conventional perception. The human is inescapable, even in pure painting.
But that doesn't mean pure painting and the human are easily reconciled, however much the human is represented in abstract terms -- as though to concentrate it into an essence -- and the abstract acquires a human resonance by reason of its evocative power. In fact, I want to suggest that, in their different ways, Newman's and Pollock's paintings demonstrate the irreconcilability of mythic representation of the human and abstraction at its most ruthless.
For all their efforts to integrate the opposites, and apparent successes at doing so, these artists are stuck with the old dilemma of the ambiguous relationship between figure and ground. The struggle to reconcile them is unending, for their relationship can never be adequately defined, since it is inherently indefinite. Every attempt to fix them in space or to make one space out of them subtly fails, confirming their irreconcilability. The tension between them intensifies, so that they come to seem at odds, at least in unconscious perception. The effort to integrate figure and ground unexpectedly exposes the flaw built into every representation. It is an inner fault line; outwardly the representation looks stable, inwardly it is unstable. It is always in danger of collapsing into abstract fragments, a potential loss of wholeness that nonetheless makes it all the more expressive. Catastrophe is always implicit in representation, but without catastrophe it would lack abstract power -- artistic power.
The figure symbolizes human experience and the ground that contextualizes the figure symbolizes the autonomy art acquires by keeping its distance from human experience. Mimetic mirroring cannot help but establish a certain distance from its object, however empathic the mirroring; the absolute distance called abstraction is implicit in the mirror of art. Kandinsky's path from impression to improvisation -- external necessity to internal necessity, that is, physical to "metaphysical" distance, or relative to absolute distance -- makes this clear. The discrepancy between figure and ground, however formally overcome, as seems to occur in the Newman and Pollock paintings -- both render what might be called the latent figure in terms of the manifest ground -- cannot be emotionally overcome. Thus, their works remain equivocal: overtly abstract but covertly mythic/expressive -- artistically sophisticated on the surface but inwardly childlike in their feeling for the cosmos. Indeed, Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Lavender Mist are magically expressive -- they mythically represent profound emotional experience -- because of their heroic command of the medium of paint. They are triumphs of spiritual or depth representation because they triumph over the physical medium by giving it esthetic resonance. Nonetheless, they are opposite poles in the dialectic of painting and the dialectic of feeling. Painting embodies feeling even as feeling informs painting, implying that feeling doesn't work without a fluid means of representation that conveys its own fluidity. The dialectic of rough and smooth, to use Adrian Stokes' terms -- of Pollock and Newman -- is ultimately a dialectic of primitive feeling and civilizing art.
Thus the unity of mythic/expressive representation and ruthless abstraction is always ironic: each unwittingly becomes the other's instrument. One is always subsumed in a goal alien to its own perfection. The grand climax of avant-garde painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Lavender Mist reveal the split identity of the avant-garde artist: He is torn between his urge to mythically represent and express his experience of life and the obsession with his medium that is "proof" of his autonomy. He is torn between impure life intention and pure artistic intention -- between pressing unconscious need for self-expression and conscious aspiration to what is ineffably beyond the self, a serenely selfless beyond that is at once evoked and embodied by pure art. We pay special attention to these paintings because they seem to reconcile these intentions while revealing their fundamental difference. Their ability to suggest both at once makes them powerful masterpieces -- truly unique. Similarly, immersed in the cosmic space that Newman and Pollock make oppressively immediate, the viewer grasps his own paradoxical identity. In the flash of self-understanding and existential insight inseparable from esthetic consciousness, he experiences his doubleness. He discovers that he is simultaneously a historical product and an original existence -- an incidental consequence of his environment and an autonomous individual, seemingly self-created -- and that the two are inextricable yet at odds.
Sublime space does not resolve the figure/ground, individual/environment, autonomy/dependence dilemma, but forces it underground. Indeed, it intensifies the problem, as Caspar David Friedrich's paintings make clear. Friedrich's small, finite figure is explicitly at odds with the grand space that is its infinite ground and context. In Newman's and Pollock's paintings the figures -- now primordially abstract rather than conventionally familiar -- merge with the spatial ground, becoming a part of it, yet also standing out, as though independent of it. They hold their own in both paintings, however troubled in Pollock's painting. Thus the figure/ground, life/art relationship in both works is emotionally unresolved, however sublimely resolved.
In a sense, the tendency to "reductive" abstraction -- the reduction of complex figure and ground to comparatively simple abstract elements -- is an attempt to force the parallel lines of life and art to meet in sublime infinity. If the meeting is emotionally as well as formally convincing -- humanly as well as esthetically frictionless -- then the "eureka" moment of the merger lifts the self to new heights of awareness. It achieves esthetic awareness of life, which makes it aware of the way it conceives the world -- the way the self works on the world and the world works on it. Such esthetic consciousness is a prelude to pure consciousness, that is, consciousness at its most sublime -- consciousness that has become its own object. In esthetic consciousness, the world is no longer an impingement on the self, but an abstract delight in consciousness as such. Newman's and Pollock's works are not only about the polar possibilities of painting -- about radically different uses of the medium of painting (to sharply different, if superficially overlapping, expressive effect: Newman is transcendental, Pollock is descendental, that is, the former evokes higher consciousness, the latter evokes the unconscious) -- but pictures of a certain experience of life, the former idealistic in tone, the latter conveying the feeling of being violated. Indeed, their abstract paintings grow on one because of what they seem to tell us about life rather than because of what they have materially achieved with the medium. Each is a tour de force of abstraction -- the Newman of minimalist concentration within maximalist space, the Pollock of painterly process undermining metronomic regularity, thus suggesting that the amorphous duration which is the perpetual motion of painting can last forever -- but also vital experiences.
Their stature has as much to do with their existential import as their inventive art. Newman's extravagantly red painting evokes pure Eros. Pollock's turbulent painting -- it carries the realistic seastorms of the nineteenth century American painters Albert Ryder Pinkham and Winslow Homer to an absurd, abstract extreme (Pollock admitted to the influence of the former) -- evokes pure Thanatos. Both painters intuitively realize that traditional rationalizing means of personification are no longer adequate -- if they ever were -- to the task of representing the ultimate irrational forces that inform existence. They show Eros and Thanatos as the engulfing environments they emotionally are. They make the instinctive substratum of life esthetically memorable as surface. The greatest works of abstract art are sedimentations of existentially profound life experiences. They have the mythological quality of autonomy and inevitability because they are discontinuous with everyday contingent appearances. They commemorate a certain state of consciousness -- and unconsciousness -- by using the formal fundamentals of art to mythologize it. They hold elemental existence in memorable suspense by candidly asserting the ultimate primacy of the art that is alien to it.
The exemplary artist of the '50s is the sculptor David Smith. His works reveal, with excruciating clarity, the dialectic basic to avant-garde art since Symbolism, perhaps avant-garde art's true beginning. I have characterized it as the conflict between mythic/expressive representation -- ingrained human imagination, most evident in the tortured poetry of the dream -- and the ambition to create completely pure or absolute art, that is, art without the slightest trace of life experience. Smith's development, more than Newman's or Pollock's, shows that every attempt to cut the Gordian knot that unites these opposites fails, however sharp the artistic sword. The imaginative rendering of existentially urgent life experience and the pursuit of pure art -- art conceived as an end in itself, and thus necessarily abstract -- are inseparable however separate they come to seem. The dialectic reached an ironical climax in Smith's sculpture: As the opposites reconciled, their irreconcilability became glaring. It became transparently clear that every effort to isolate them by apotheosizing them was creative self-deception. Imagination and purity unavoidably inform each other, however subliminally -- in the unconscious of the work, as it were.
Even more intriguing, Smith's sculpture makes it clear that the struggle between gesture and geometry that shaped abstract art from its beginning -- evident in the difference between Kandinsky and Malevich, contemporaries in spirit but not in formal practice -- conveys the dialectic of imagination and purity in a kind of formal nutshell. Expressive gesture epitomizes the temporality of experience, stable geometry epitomizes the eternality of pure art, that is, art not conditioned by unstable temporal experience. Gesture is art acknowledging its own temporality, geometry is art asserting its eternality. In his most consummate works, Smith gesturalized geometry and geometricized gesture, but without losing their difference. He showed that they had to be reconciled in formal practice even if they couldn't be reconciled in life, at least if one wanted art that was a living experience rather than a naive illustration of a philosophical truism. Art is not an intricate philosophical discourse about the mysterious relationship of time and eternity -- the seeming immanence of eternity in art limited by its times and history, the unexpected timeliness or contemporaneity of eternal art -- but the esthetic display of the tensions that constitute existence. Art conveys their emotional urgency even as it creates the illusion of comprehending them by making their latent dialectic esthetically manifest.
Smith's art begins with historical experience emotionally amplified, as the Medals for Dishonor (1938-40) make clear. Violent sex suffuses these "Anti-war Medallions," as he called them. The cannons are explicitly phallic, a point made glaringly clear in related sketches, collages, and such later sculptures as Atrocity (1943), The Rape (1945) and War Landscape (1947). Whatever their historical associations, these works reveal Smith's sadomasochism. They mythically express his confused passions. Smith's convulsive representations are an inadequate defense against unmasterable emotions, but they also reveal his deep roots in European Surrealistic Expressionism. And in painting. As he wrote, he began as a painter, and even though he began to make steel sculpture in 1933, he continued to paint many of his sculptures, as Cathedral (1950) and Zig IV July 7, 1961 (1961) show. Even unpainted works have a vivid painterly texture, as the stainless steel "Cubi" series (1964-65) show. Their lively surface scrambles light, giving the structure gestural intensity. Each work is, in fact, composed of geometrical elements handled with gestural agility. They are geometrical gestures juggled to form an eccentric construction, which for all its abstract purity seems like an imaginative expression of the human figure.
Smith in fact remained bound to the figure, however mythic/expressively conceived, as the "Tanktotem" series (1955-56) and "Sentinel" series (1957) indicate. Social and emotional violence are implicit in these constructions, as their titles suggest, but now the violence has been geometrically structured -- suggesting that it is under control -- rather than organically expressed and rampant. The male figure is not exactly its perpetrator; he seems to stand guard against it. He may be a stoic survivor of emotional assaults, as the fragmented structure suggests.
But it is in Smith's landscapes that the tension between mythic/expressive imagination and emotionally detached -- not to say existentially muted -- pure art becomes clearest, even though it looks formally resolved. Hudson River Landscape (1951) is the classic example of this. Where the earlier Helmholtzian Landscape (1946) tilts toward the mythic/expressive -- and is painted, adding to its expressivity -- and the "Zig" series seems ruthlessly abstract, as though eschewing experience, Hudson River Landscape deftly integrates the two. The work is at once an imaginative rendering of an experienced landscape and an ingenious geometrical construction made of linear gestures. The transparency of the sculpture turns it into a mirage or dream, confirming that it remains poetic for all its purity. The moment doesn't last. Smith, unstable in his development, remains divided against himself, now veering toward imaginative primitivism, as in Australia (1951), now toward rationalist abstraction, as in the "Voltri-Bolton" series (1963). Perhaps his most engaging works are those in which the crudely primitive becomes awkwardly elegant -- as in Birdheads -- and in which civilized shapes become oddly primitive, as in The Letter.
Both sculptures were made in 1950, suggesting that it was a turning point, but Smith never completed the turn from the imaginative to the pure, remaining indecisive -- and thus uncanny -- until the end. It is the aporia of art -- magical immersion in the medium and imaginative mimesis of life experience -- that gives his work depth. It was his primitive gracelessness that in the end saved him from empty formalism, which unfortunately became de rigeur in the strangely shallow '60s.
The combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns -- they were a team during the late '50s (while Johns' works are not usually thought of as combine paintings, they also combine found objects and pseudo-expressive paint) -- are the decisive event in the shift. It was one of method as well as attitude -- away from emotionally charged paint toward collage and manufactured imagery. There was more than a touch of Surrealism, and even Dadaism, alongside rundown Expressionism. Johns wrote a little essay in praise of Duchamp's "hilarity" and Rauschenberg, equally nihilistic, said that once you recognize "the canvas. . . is simply another rag then it doesn't matter whether you use stuffed chickens or electric light bulbs or pure form."(5) In their found imagery -- largely mechanically reproducible photography -- things appear self-same, and thus conventionally recognizable and rationally given, however blurred by paint into hallucinatory text, giving them unconscious resonance, if not exactly mythic/expressive significance. Rauschenberg wanted you to "recognize an object when you're looking at it," which meant you weren't thinking of its choice as a sign of the artist's subjectivity. There was really nothing behind its everyday givenness. Thus, the beginning of "what you see is what you get," as Warhol and Stella said. Art here is on the way to becoming surface without depth, which means radically shallow -- shallow objectivity as well as failed subjectivity.
The shift was away from subtle subjectivity toward blunt objectivity, whatever painterly vestiges of subjectivity remained -- away from unconsciousness and self-consciousness toward impersonal social consciousness, however contaminated by the illusion of unconsciousness and self-consciousness -- but the socially scavenged imagery was rarely if ever questioned, even if its transformation for seemingly personal purposes seemed to bring it into question. There was no critical consciousness of its manipulative purpose -- it framed reality according to a predetermined collective script (socially correct visual thinking, as it were) -- only ironic appropriation of it for seemingly artistic purposes. "Seemingly," because it was a shift from the hard-won esthetic to the facile anti-esthetic which brought the idea of artistic transformation -- and re-creative mimesis, repairing the world in the act of representing it -- into question, however unwittingly. The shift from mythic/expressive representation to socially fabricated representation of everyday reality -- in effect, from personal creativity to entertaining appearances, in acknowledgement of the abundance of information images meant for idle consumption -- implicitly acknowledged the limitations of art, for it was now explicitly dependent on the social environment. It would become almost totally -- abjectly -- dependent with Pop art, sacrificing creative nonconformity and imaginative intuition for social acceptance and conformity. In most Pop art there was little or no effort to imaginatively transform social material; it was only re-designed, which left it fundamentally unchanged. Socially dominant imagery was fatalistically accepted in the act of being cleverly reproduced. The fundament of Pop art was faithful copying, as though in celebration of the dominance of mechanical reproduction. Copying was devotion to mass culture -- an apotheosis of its visual products in which the pretense of individual originality was lost.
In a sense, Pop art regressed to Social Realism, however ironically conceived (and it is debatable just how ironical Pop art is), and like Social Realism, it is less esthetically and emotionally compelling than Abstract Expressionism. Mythic/expressive representation was diluted (poisoned?) by representations of banal things -- sometimes quite upfront, as in Rauschenberg's Canyon (1959), sometimes ingeniously incorporated in the texture of the work, as in Johns' Target with Plaster Casts (1955) -- and abstraction became less ruthless, to the extent that gesture lost force and geometry became matter-of-fact. It was as though gesture and geometry were no longer personal ideas and spontaneously created -- visceral expressions of the True Self -- the way they seemed to be in Pollock and Newman, and for that matter in Kandinsky and Malevich. Rather, they seemed mimicked. The infusion of banality was supposed to be enlivening -- but why does high art need an accommodating touch of banality to make it acceptable to mass society, or, to ask this another way, why must it be amusing to be believable? (Why must it stoop to conquer?) -- but it in fact was deadening. The banal images hang like dead weights in their painterly shroud. In short, with Rauschenberg and Johns, American art began to become more prosaic and less poetic, however much their '50s works can be read as prose poetry.
Rauschenberg famously described the artist as "part of the density of an uncensored continuum that neither begins nor ends with any action of his,"(6) privileging the uncensored continuum of everyday imagery -- but it is naive to think that the continuum of popular culture images is uncensored, and that the artist is more than a veneer on its density -- over the artist's imaginative transformation of it. Perhaps "action" is the important word, for Rauschenberg was clearly aware of action painting, but for him it is the lifeworld's actions, each represented in a mechanical image, that has much more import and importance than the artist's actions. Like Allan Kaprow's happenings, Rauschenberg's actions are parasitic on everyday action, and blur art and life -- obscuring the difference between them -- to use Kaprow's famous phrase.
There seems to be a certain humility in this -- the artist realizes that the world is bigger than his art -- but there is also a failure of creative nerve. There is something more: When Rauschenberg said that he didn't "want my personality to come out through. . . my paintings," but wanted them "to be reflections of life,"(7) he is saying that his life is not worth reflecting in his painting. He may need the exciting life outside himself to feel inwardly alive. "Your self-visualization is a reflection of your surroundings," which implies that the self is a mindless mirror mechanically recording the social environment. Such a naive idea of the self -- and of mimesis -- suggests bankruptcy and emptiness. Rauschenberg had to fill himself from the trough of social imagery to become full of himself. His appropriated images may be collective memories, but they are also social stuffing -- imagistic straw in scarecrow works, peculiarly hollow for all the abundance of images and materials that fill them. They are trash that has been turned into artistic illusion, but unlike Schwitters' collages -- also made of social trash -- Rauschenberg's lack esthetic nuance, however nominally haunting. With a flair for spectacle, Rauschenberg exhibits discarded remnants of life without adequately synthesizing them into esthetically convincing art as Schwitters does, thus making it clear than art and life are not the same, however much art may look like leftover life. Rauschenberg often veils his imagery with paint, making it atmospheric, ghostly, mysterious and as such emotionally engaging, but the veil does not re-create the object represented in mythic/expressive terms, so that it becomes a full-fledged symbol of an internal state. It remains all too objective, if no longer exactly naively and "naturally" given.
Rauschenberg was "put. . . off" by "the self-confession and self-confusion of abstract expressionism -- as though the man and the work were the same," and moved "in the opposite direction." He did not want his imagery and material to be "an illustration of my will, but more like an unbiased documentation of what I observed. . . the area of feeling and meaning [would] take care of itself."(8) However impossible it is to deny the subject -- the wish to do so is itself a sign of subjectivity -- Rauschenberg's wish to do so, perhaps most evident in his absurd belief that he could be unbiased in his observations, suggests an identity crisis. Like Warhol later, he turned to the social environment to escape from himself, without realizing that documenting the environment would reflect his sense of himself. That is, he could not help but project himself into his imagery and material. He found his identity in every passing image, which means he had no stable identity. He also did not realize that the environment could not help him solve his problems, which is why his work became more and more shallow, as did Warhol's. The environment only distracted him from himself and short-circuited his development. Like Warhol, he never fully matured as an artist, but remained bound to youth culture. Like Warhol, his works lacked the wisdom of Old Master art. His self eventually withered on the vine of his environmental imagery and material medium. They took over his art completely, depriving him of what imagination he initially had.
Rauschenberg's 1959-60 illustrations for Dante's Inferno are perhaps his most imaginatively successful works, but they are also imaginative failures in that they do not transform his everyday sources into mythic/expressive symbols as Dante did. Perhaps this is because he lacked the faith that rescued Dante from the depression which led him to journey through hell and purgatory to paradise. There is little or no sense of narrative continuity between particular images, not only because the illustrations endorse standard modern discontinuity and fragmentation -- discontinuity of contemporary experience and fragmentation of artistic form -- but because Rauschenberg has nowhere to go. Certainly not upward, the way the Dante did, painfully repenting his sins. Rauschenberg has said that "the details should not be taken in at one glance, that you should be able to look from place to place without feeling the bigger image,"(9) but there is no bigger image -- no grand synthesis and over-all purpose, such as Dante had. Rauschenberg's Inferno illustrations are visionary failures, however superficially visionary and technically novel. Soaking magazine reproductions in lighter fluid he transferred them to paper by rubbing their backs with an empty ballpoint pen -- a technique reminiscent of Ernst's frottage, but without the same startling results and evocative power. We seem to be in a hallucinatory limbo, neither entirely dream nor reality, but we don't know what we're doing there -- there's no sensuous surprise, no imaginative manifestation of latent content, no expressive intensity, no mythic import. Rauschenberg's illustrations offer a proto-Pop sense of mystery: outwardly mysterious, they lack inner interest. Just as there is no human mystery at the core of Warhol's images of human beings (nor much artistic mystery to his work), so there is no human mystery at the core of Rauschenberg's images of human beings, although there is a certain artistic mystery to their making. The issue of masculinity is addressed -- the end of Rauschenberg's intimate relationship with Johns seems to be at issue -- but it remains unresolved. Indeed, the dialectic of heroic athletic types and fragile artistic types -- potency and impotence, dominance and submission? -- is the most significant aspect of the illustrations. Rauschenberg seems to have become stuck in limbo, as the hallucinatory haze around the figures suggests, but Paolo and Francesca were at odds rather than at one. They abandoned God for each other, but it may be that Rauschenberg and Johns abandoned each other for the god of art.
"Painting relates to both art and life. . . . I try to act in that gap between the two." But Rauschenberg was acting in the gap between the hand and mechanical reproduction, which was the gap between mythic/expressive representation of the self and demythologizing mediation of social appearances. It was the difference between naive verisimilitude, extracting facts from human process, and idolizing them as the gospel truth -- an example of what Alfred North Whitehead called "misplaced concreteness" -- and the articulation and communication of human process through the sophisticated transformation of appearances into esthetic phenomena, a transformation which emphasized the art in art, that is, which veered toward pure art or ruthless abstraction. More simply, it was the difference between the traditional idea that art was made by an individual hand, and thus inherently and uniquely expressive -- especially because the hand's energy-filled movements registered psychosomatic tensions (the movements were their vector outcome, given esthetic purpose and personal resonance by the artist) -- and the modern idea that the representation of the world by mechanical means was more accurate than, and thus ostensibly superior to, any representation that could ever be made by hand. This idea came into being with the invention of photography. But it assumed that recording external appearances -- which did not necessarily mean understanding external reality -- was more important than externalizing internal reality. Resembling a seismograph, the sensitive hand was the instrument of doing so.
In such works as Charlene (1954), Rauschenberg shows the sensitivity of his hand. Mass produced images had not yet become the underpinning of the work. Rauschenberg remained uncertainly between the restless hand and mechanical imagery, affording a kind of smooth resting place on the otherwise crude surface. The imagery afforded security within the otherwise insecure painterly act. Indeed, Rauschenberg, something of an Icarian figure -- the painterly Bed (1955), the phallic Coca-Cola Plan (1958), and the scapegoat Monogram (1959), all ironical self-portraits, make this clear -- always hoped to make a smooth artistic landing, even though he invariably made a rough one. His Icarian awareness -- great ambition, undermined by over-reaching, resulting in self-defeat -- is evident in Axle (1964), which juxtaposes President Kennedy, assassinated a year earlier, and the first astronaut, parachuting to a safe landing, that same year. Allegorizing the mechanical images, Rauschenberg states the dilemma of his identity, and perhaps the split artistic identity in general. Both figures took risks by soaring to the heights -- Kennedy by means of deceptive art (he made a good appearance, whatever his reality), the astronaut by means of science and technology (in the mid '60s, Rauschenberg started a short-lived organization called Experiments in Art and Technology) -- but one fell to a violent death, while the other gracefully descended from his adventure, safely returning to everyday life. Rauschenberg's art sometimes seemed like a form of public relations designed to hide his private sense of failure.
Certainly his nihilistic Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) suggests envy of his Abstract Expressionistic betters. It was in effect a soul murder. Destroying de Kooning's work, Rauschenberg symbolically destroyed de Kooning, already a famous artist. This gave Rauschenberg the mental room to make his own art, and even pretend that he was as creative as de Kooning. But where art was self-expression for de Kooning -- indeed, self-creation, as Harold Rosenberg said -- for Rauschenberg it was suicidal expression, however unwittingly, for it was a means of losing what self he had in society. He hid his sense of creative inadequacy by appropriating social imagery that looked self-created and adequate in itself. The supply of mechanical reproductions was limitless, suggesting that he would never run out of creative resources, but also suggesting how mechanical his creativity was. The images, strewn around his work, are so many Icarian feathers from wings that could fly far in the world but never to the heights -- or for that matter, depths -- of the self.
Sexual symbolism abounds in Odalisque (1955-58), but the punning Duchampian title mocks woman, as the piece -- a box mounted on a pillow with a stuffed white rooster on top -- does. Sex has been dumbed down, as it were, to slang terms. Woman has become a jerry-built, shabby construction of image and paint litter -- like the work of art itself. It's a long way downhill from Ingres' elegantly painted Grand Odalisque. Woman as well as art has been de-estheticized -- de-beautified, one might say. Rauschenberg's work is a frontal assault on both in the best Dadaist spirit. Indeed, all of Rauschenberg's combine paintings have a shabby, thrown-together Dadaist look, full of would-be portents. The pillow and another stuffed bird -- this time a black eagle -- reappear in Canyon, another quasi-dramatic work. In the '60s, Rauschenberg became heavily involved in performance, suggesting the performative character of his combine paintings. But what seems most important about them is that they show a man still struggling with his psyche -- trying to "object-ify" it, to comprehend its mystery. He succeeded to an extent, but the result was self-defeating -- rather than self-creating -- for Rauschenberg showed that he was a hodgepodge -- shambles? -- of incoherent fragments. Rauschenberg was in a hurry to know himself, but he ended up hurrying along with the world. The extroverted combine paintings are full of the flotsam and jetsam of daily life and art -- a rowdy ocean of junk with islands of clarity and meaning. They are of dubious documentary value; their images seem to be randomly chosen and arranged, however much they can be read as a stream of free associations, and often obscured -- even annihilated -- by pseudo-atmospheric paint, giving them a moodiness that confirms their unconscious import. This is why they are staccato masterpieces of aborted selfhood rather than imaginative records of American society.
Johns had a stronger, more discreet sense of self, but it was also a more limited, introspective self -- less wide-ranging, however many socially recognizable images he also appropriated. But he turned them into signifiers with no significance, except whatever significance art conferred on them -- and that was not clear. The American flag and the map of the United States dwindled into painterly occasions, however arch Johns' painterliness -- full of fake risk and arty recklessness, as False Start (1959) makes clear. More crucially, where Rauschenberg's paintings alluded to himself, however indirectly, Johns' paintings alluded to painting itself, as a substitute for the self. Nonetheless, Target with Plaster Casts (1955) can be understood as a self-portrait -- an allegory of the self, as it were. The bull's-eye is the core self, holding its own in the void, and existing apart from the body, a heap of incoherent fragments, suggestive of part objects, which is the destructive way things are seen in what Melanie Klein calls the paranoid-schizoid position. (Is the bull's-eye the idealized self-object, the body what Wilfred Bion calls a bizarre object?) The circle in Device Circle (1959) is a more attenuated version of the core self -- the artistic self holding its own against the objects it uses. It also alludes to Duchamp's "devices," especially the "measuring" ones, just as the bull's-eye alludes to Duchamp's rotary devices. Johns' mechanical device holds its own against the onslaught of paint, each quasi-impulsive gesture a fragment of animal expression -- which is what Duchamp thought painting was -- indifferently flung in emotionally empty space. Like Duchamp, Johns is determined to maintain the mind/body distinction, however much he seems to establish a dialectic between them. Thus, where Rauschenberg tried to integrate life and art -- the former was signified by the world of objects, the latter by seemingly self-expressive paint, and the Rabelesian Rauschenberg had an indiscriminate hunger for both -- the more ascetic, inhibited Johns epitomizes the tense conflict between them. If brevity is the soul of wit, then Johns' works are witty, but it is the wit of black humor.
Like Rauschenberg, Johns strips paint of the personal meaning it had for the Abstract Expressionists, replacing it with the ironical referencing of paint within a painting. In False Start, the names of colors are stenciled on colors with different names, which are painted rather than printed (made with the aid of a mechanical "device," suggesting that the work as a whole is manufactured), for example, the word red on a painterly yellow gesture, the word blue on an amorphous orange gesture. Sometimes the name and the color are the same yet ironically unrelated, for example, the word yellow is stenciled in blue and placed on yellow paint, the word red is printed in red and stuck on yellow paint. The mechanically printed and placed label and the lively painterly color it labels are almost always at odds, however obliquely related. The discrepancy -- it is at its most intense in Johns' number paintings -- makes for a certain ambiguity and absurdity. The bad fit between the verbal and the visual objectifies the difference between abstract language and physical reality. At the same time, the incommensurate parts are forced together in the painting -- a perverse conjunction with erotic implications, as the libidinous splashes of primary colors suggest. It is gesture as discharge, an idea that mocks the machismo of the Abstract Expressionists, as Painting with Two Balls (1960) wittily does. In this mock painterly work, the animated all-over surface is literally disrupted by the two inert found objects -- they are stuck between the upper two of the three canvases that form the work -- and further subverted by the title mechanically stenciled at the bottom of the painting. It all seems very literal and matter-of-fact, but the physicality of the work is fraught with innuendo, suggesting that the painting has unconscious implications for all its self-consciousness as painting.
Even when Johns presents what seem like straightforward objects, such as his sculpture Flashlight (1960), the cruddy texture gives the object expressive resonance. The nature of the object itself -- a flashlight, presumably shining in the surrounding darkness (thus an insult to the viewer, that is, a typically Johnsian joke) -- adds to the aura of suggestiveness enriching the object. For Johns, the work is a joke on the viewer which states that the viewer doesn't get the joke. Target with Four Faces (1955) incorporates the anonymous viewer's redundant face, blind to the painting below it and Johns' presence in the painting, for the bull's-eye represents Johns' eye (more broadly, the mind's eye, which is the eye with which Johns asks the viewer to look at his works). The bull's-eye is in metaphorical fact an abstract rendering of the eye that literally appears in several Surrealist works. (Like the flashlight, Johns' bulls-eyes are encrusted -- with encaustic -- also giving them an expressive look, if not expressive substance.) Johns' bull's-eye seems to invite the viewer to take aim (potshots?) at the work, that is, hit the bull's-eye even as its geometrical perfection suggests that the work hits the bull's-eye. But its circular redundancy and insularity conveys Johns' indifference to the viewer, as well as the ironically circular character of painting for him. It comically incorporates the spectator, ironically completing its self-referentiality.
Johns has Americanized Duchamp's ironical indifference to the viewer -- and the esthetic indifference of the work itself -- by staging it as an intellectually titillating vaudeville act, as its ironical "little theater" look suggests. Where Rauschenberg's combine paintings are swashbuckling theater verging on folk opera, Johns' combine paintings are ironically intimate tête-à-têtes between a coy performer and a mystified viewer. They are subtly tragic epistemological puzzles, for they bring the relationship between work and viewer into question even as they show that the work itself is as incongruous as the relationship, thus bringing it in question. In contrast, Rauschenberg's combine paintings seem robustly comic, whatever their tragic implications -- for American society as well as the artist's self, which remain subliminally at odds in them.
Johns seems to be suggesting that there's nothing outside the painting, anticipating Jacques Derrida's idea -- also ironical, as has not been sufficiently noted -- that nothing exists outside the text. Johns' '50s works can also be understood as aborted Wittgensteinean language games -- a game between the ordinary visual language of painting and the ordinary verbal language of writing and speech. There is no winner -- it is a kind of intellectual stalemate. Indeed, like Duchamp, Johns plays chess with himself, and like Duchamp, his art game is a dead-end, for the life has been taken out of the art -- the life Wittgenstein thought was basic to the language game, in effect a fragmentary representation of life. Johns and Duchamp seem to dismiss both art and life, suggesting the hollowness of the self, while in Rauschenberg they are weighed in a social balance, suggesting that the self is the uncertain byproduct of their relationship. Johns's Field Painting (1964) makes this transparently clear -- art is mocked by being reduced to a lifeless object -- just as Rauschenberg's Buffalo (also 1964) does, for Kennedy is the symbol of a self weighed in the social balance and found wanting, however great his achievements, represented, once again, by the astronaut (Kennedy is Rauschenberg's self-object, and the astronaut his ego ideal).
Rauschenberg and Johns have parted ways by this time, perhaps in part because Johns became obsessed with art at the expense of life -- which is perhaps why his art becomes increasingly empty emotionally -- while Rauschenberg remains obsessed with life and the self, which is why his art, for all its shortcomings, remains emotionally engaging and evocative. He may be what has been called a saturated self -- a self that gets its emotional density by communicating the social events with which it identifies - and, as such, a self with no core, such as Johns has. Where Rauschenberg's work involves histrionic excess, Johns' work is schizoid, using painterly irony to withdraw from the world of objects the existence of which it mechanically -- that is to say, barely -- acknowledges. Johns thus conveys a sense of abstinent selfhood by way of pseudo-fullness and pseudo-expressivity, while Rauschenberg achieves real fullness without a fully realized self.
There is an air of desperate urgency to the European work that the American works lack, for all their intensity. Larry Rivers' realistic Double Portrait of Birdie (1955) can't hold an emotional candle to Francis Bacon's horrific Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), nor, for that matter to Lucian Freud's 1952 weirdly realistic portrait of Bacon. The surfaces of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, however diaphanously beautiful, lack the emotional force of those of Pierre Alechinsky and Asjer Jorn. Similarly, the surfaces of Grace Hartigan and Fairfield Porter look tame -- even emotionally vacuous -- in comparison. There is a streak of insanity -- a sense of the emotionally bizarre -- in the figures and surfaces of the European masters that is a long way from the American figures of Elmer Bischoff and David Park. In their work, expressionistic surface has become meditative and solemn. Their figures are sedate compared to the nightmarish figures of the European painters.
Perhaps because their paint was informed by the violence and destructiveness of World War II -- they came into their own in its aftermath -- they were able to experience and articulate what Bion calls the stubbornly psychotic core in every human being. This is why their work, whether figural or expressionistically abstract -- the abstract was used to express the inner morbidity of the figure -- is ultimately more emotionally convincing than American Abstract Expressionism. In the European work, life experience and art fuse, while American Abstract Expressionism ultimately seems more about art than life experience, which always seem to be at second hand. The European expressionists, however different their means, convey a sense of first-hand, lived experience, while the American Abstract Expressionists distill experience into artistic form -- experience that in the first place was not literally life-threatening nor deeply felt (it was meditated by art before it could sink in), however much the Americans believe their art is also a matter of life and death, and as such just as existential.
Appel famously declared that art was based on madness, and Dubuffet made a cult of the art of the insane. Excited by the images in Dr. Hans Prinzhorn's famous Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1923), Dubuffet began making his own collection of the art of the insane after visiting Swiss psychiatric hospitals in 1945. In July 1948, he founded the Compagnie de l'Art Brut, and in 1976, his collection became the basis of the first public museum devoted to the art of the insane (in Lausanne). Repudiating what he called "asphyxiating cultural art," "the activity of a very specific clan of career intellectuals," Dubuffet declared: "Other artists identified with da Vinci or Michelangelo -- in my head I had the names Wölfli and Müller etc. It was these artists whom I loved and admired. I was never influenced directly by Art Brut. I was influenced by the freedom, the liberty. . . ."(10) Going out on a theoretical limb, he wrote: "I believe that this art brut, this art which has never ceased to be made in Europe parallel to the other, this savage art to which no one has paid attention, and which often enough itself failed to recognize that it was art, that it is here that one can, on the contrary, discover the true and living art of Europe."(11) Finally, in what amounts to a credo, he asserted that art's "true function" is not "arranging forms and colors for an imagined pleasure of the eyes," but to communicate "instinct, passion, caprice, violence, insanity."(12) To reject "with the condescending label 'art of children, of primitives and of the insane'. . . conveys a very false idea of awkward or aberrant stammerings standing at the very beginning of the great road which culminates in 'cultural art'". . . These works have nothing in common except a rejection of the narrow rut within which ordinary art is confined, and a tendency to trace freely their own pathways in the immense territory which the high road of culture has allowed to fall into disuse to the point of forgetting that other possibilities exist."(13)
Dubuffet's postwar revival of what he called "the values of the savage" -- one can't help thinking of Gauguin's description of his art as "savage" -- is not just another exploitation of outlandish, bizarre imagery, disturbing to Western eyes and emotions, which is what early 20th century primitivism is sometimes understood to be, but rather an attempt to articulate the roots of art, and more crucially to demonstrate that art is rooted in and expresses human nature. As John MacGregor writes, the two essential criteria of Art Brut are "intensity of expression, and freedom from cultural influence."(14) The latter makes possible and the former conveys what Dubuffet variously called "intimate internal events occurring within the depths of the artist"(15) and "spiritual states of a truly original kind,"(16) suggesting that the artist could plunge into the psychic depths, bringing back a pearl of original art. Appel's Psychopathological Drawings make this point decisively clear: They are perhaps the most original expressions of the madness in artistic creativity.
I have argued that art and madness are closer in European art informel than in American Abstract Expressionism, not simply to support my contention that the former is expressively more profound and more powerful than the latter, but to argue that authentic intensity of expression and total freedom from cultural influence, however much they are incompletely realizable ideals, are only possible when civilization has, in principle as well as practice, destroyed itself. It did this in Europe in World War II, and before that in World War I. The death instinct is clearly very powerful in 20th century Europe, and its eruptions necessarily affected and made themselves felt in European art informel -- a post-civilized art as distinct from a stylish neo-primitivist art.
The European artist was more able to plunge the psychic depths than the American artist because the depths were exposed in all their starkness and ugliness. War destroyed the facade of high culture and civilized behavior, nakedly revealing the savagery of human beings. American Abstract Expressionism was full of subliminally morbid fantasy and outspoken feeling -- fantasies of destruction and attempts to "wear the heart on the sleeve," in Winnicott's telling phrase about the True Self -- but it was compromised by its claim to be high culture. It was more cultural art than art brut.
The American Abstract Expressionists -- and their critic-supporters, particularly Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg -- wanted to carry on what Rosenberg called the "tradition of the new" that originated in Europe. But above all, they wanted to give America the authentically modern art it deserved, now that it was victorious and seemingly omnipotent, and perhaps above all the most modern country in the world. They wanted to make a modern art worthy of a modern country -- a modern art that expressed the inner dynamic of modernity itself as well as of triumphant modern America. I am suggesting that free expression was compromised by a peculiarly American version of art for the sake of art -- art that, at bottom, was more concerned with "arranging forms and colors for an imagined pleasure of the eye," to recall Dubuffet's words, than with becoming emotionally convincing. The optically oriented Hofmann was the guiding spirit of '50s American art, while the visceral Dubuffet was the guiding spirit of '50s European art.
In fact, whenever Pollock and Smith were emotionally convincing, Greenberg thought that their art failed as art, which is also what he said about the emotionally powerful art of Soutine and van Gogh. He did not appreciate an art of emotional -- not to say painterly -- excess, which is why he did not fully appreciate de Kooning. His point of view was profoundly influential, perhaps because American artists were never as terrorized by history and their emotions as the European artists. How could an American make emotionally convincing art when he did not suffer the collapse of civilization, and when, in general, Americans did not know how to use and appreciate the suffering innate to being human?
The problem was signaled by Johns' ironically expressionistic -- not to say quasi-expressionistic -- paintings: Paint was used to signify itself rather than to communicate deep, "original," intimate feelings. There is no emotion in Johns' all-too-calculated, ironically civilized art. Irony is a civilized way of dealing with a civilization -- and with insane feelings -- one doesn't like, but it inhibits intensity of expression and self-discovery. This is why American painting had to fall back on figural representation: However much the figure is realized through paint, the paint is secondary to the representation. It is the emotions associated with the figure that matter rather than the primary emotions paint can express.
In contrast, for the Europeans, the paint subsumes the figure, the way the existentially original and savagely insane subsume the social.
(1) Quoted in Chipp, p. 539
(3) Theodor W. Adorno, Esthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 54
(4) Ibid., p. 133
(5) Quoted in Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000, 2nd ed.),
(6) Quoted in Lawrence Alloway, American Pop Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974)
(7) Quoted in Fineberg, p. 178
(8) Ibid., p. 179
(9) Ibid., p. 183
(10) Quoted in John M. MacGregor, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 297
(11) Ibid., p. 301
(12) Ibid., p. 300
(13) Ibid., p. 296
(14) Ibid., p. 301
(15) Ibid., p. 298
(16) Ibid., p. 301
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here