ABSTRACT PLEASURE, DEEP ROOTED EXPRESSIONISM

Surrealism remained a powerful element in bohemian art and culture long after it had lost its novelty, shine and new car smell. It remained an attractive option for leftist artists and writers who were ill at ease with the post-Trotsky Soviet Union cultural model.And with good reason to distrust ”Uncle Joe ”. Surrealist poetry and culture were definitely read by young people in the 1950s and 60s, who were searching for an alternative to the Rationalism of their time which was symbolized by automobile tailfins, the H-Bomb, conformity, and Madison Avenue for all practical purposes; The world of American Graffiti and Opie doing paint by numbers on Mayberry R.I.P. As surrealist poetry and writing lived on in this fashion, so did surrealist art even if it went through permutations.

As a main editor of the surrealist magazine VVV,  Robert Motherwell,  became a leading figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. As well as painting, Motherwell was an  articulate and tireless public speaker and his engaging and lucid writings on ”The New York School”  helped facilitate the transition between surrealism and abstract expressionism into a relatively seamless act. Scholar Harold Rosenburg called the field ” action painting”. Although the latter school eschewed figurative elements, even in the off-kilter manner of a Magritte or a Dali, it retained the obsession with psychoanalysis. Where a surrealist painting might tend toward an open representation of Oedipal themes, for example, the abstract expressionist would dispense with the symbols and concentrate more on the raw energy generated by an inescapable neurosis.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic

Many American painters had read Freud and Jung. Jackson Pollack spent two years in psychoanalysis ( 1939-1941). The deep interest that early abstract expressionism showed in pre-conscious and unconscious images as the very root of art was not a simple mimicking of surrealism. The surrealist enemy from within, Andre Masson was an influence on the younger American abstract painters. He had tried to close the cultural gap between the illusions of urban modern man and the ancient murky imagery of prehistoric cultures . The recurrent content of myth from the caves of France to the native American legends of the Navajo; mythical imagery based on the dynamic of love-hate. Masson linked the view that all histories from post-modern to antiquity are essentially myths of progress that misleadingly imply that humanity is bound and destined for a messianic deliverance through a collective fate.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

The lesson implied being that humankind’s recurring calamities, whether Rwanda or a Wall Street collapse, are never of a metaphysical nature, but rather a consequence of particular events. In fact, thinkers like Masson imparted to the Abstracts the view that we have always been living in the end of days, probably since day 1 in year 3 and don’t trust anyone who says… ”( J.C. ) told us to be watching. He didn’t tell us to set a date, but he did give us clear signs, and we see clearer signs than we did one year ago and the signs have increased tremendously since….” Thus,in the extreme view, most action can be traumatic, endlessly meaningless, and time seems to stand still; resolution is endlessly deferred and no progress can ever be made. We wait without hope.

Willem De Kooning, Woman, 1950-52

Willem De Kooning, Woman, 1950-52

Mark Rothko in 1943 declared his belief that ” the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless” He was appealing to the kind of archetypical imagery that Masson’s paintings of massacres, labyrinths,  totems and denial of the other, had involved since the end of the 1920’s. This was D.H. lawrence’s ”knowledge of the blood” given pictorial form.”Whereas Conrad despairs at the loss of an underlying unity that would illuminate daily life, and whereas Woolf relies heavily on immediate sensory experience, Lawrence glimpses something beyond the mind that knowledge cannot reveal but that intuition-residing in the blood, “where we have our strongest self-knowledge…For Lawrence, to be one with this darkness that grounds human existence is to turn the mind away from itself and back toward the body from which the mind arose before it became conscious of itself.”

Mark Rothko, Rites of Lilith, 1945

Mark Rothko, Rites of Lilith, 1945

Robert Hughes: ”Pollack’s drip technique used to be treated as a joke, as though he was out of control, but he wasn’t. The drips of paint were spontaneous but they fell just where he wanted them, building the surface into a web of skeins and subtle energies working across the whole canvas. Pollack once declared that he wanted to become nature. What did he mean? That he wanted to work parallel with its variety, its unpredictability and above all its vitality. He had a very light hand. Sometimes, as in Blue Poles, you might be looking at a sort of abstract Tiepolo, the same kind of airy light and spritely drawing. This nervous energy of Pollack’s expanding under strict control seems to refute the picture of him as a rip-roaring wildcatter from middle America. Only intelligence, allied to a deep sense of the natural world, can produce work like this.”

In light of WWII and the Nazi atrocities,Robert Hughes stated by the war’s end, when the entire world realized the extent of the death camps, that there was a belief and there was no testimony that art could give that could rival the evidence of the photograph. Any distortion of the human body that an artist might make after 1945 was going to have to bear comparison with what the Nazis had done to real bodies, and very few expressionist paintings could stand this strain.

”Ever since Theodor Adorno argued that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” all kinds of artists, not just poets, have been debating whether or not one can depict life optimistically. The Holocaust certainly questions how one can believe that every event ultimately serves some divine purpose. Although the problem of evil is certainly not new, Adorno argued it imposed limits on morally conscientious art. Whether it was Adorno’s influence or not,these days Dickensian endings do seem dishonest to a lot of people.” ( Dominick LaCapra )

Andre Masson, Le Labyrinthe,1938

Andre Masson, Le Labyrinthe,1938

What we understand about the Holocaust we get from writing and photography, but art had very little to contribute, almost nothing of importance. The effects of this failure are still with us because after the war there were very few people who believed that art could carry the burden of major social meanings any more. Its efforts to construct utopias, it ability to confirm or reject the status quo and its interpetation of pleasure have all been put into question or relegated to market forces and popular reproduction. ” There would be no more Goyas and Courbets. In the death camps the only product, as far as art was concerned, was silence. ”

Goya, ''The Dog''

Goya, ''The Dog''

Abstract expressionism may have been the only coherent response to the barbarity of Auschwitz. The black paintings of Mark Rothko did fix the victims and their irresolvable state of trauma, eternal torment and conditions of incomprehensible pain in a representative articulation. The concept of pleasure as the basis of appreciation in art was put into question. ” The holocaust tends to be viewed as the ‘paradise lost’ naarative of the 20 th century, with no hint of a ‘paradise regained’ narrative to follow. This results in hopeless nostalgic longing. LaCapra connects the desire to sustain this kind of trauma with post modern aesthetics.”

Goya, Black Paintings

Goya, Black Paintings

However the Rothko and Pollocks were not dissimilar to Goya’s Black Paintings. In particular, Rothko’s mysterious Grey and Blacks painted before his suicide and Goya’s posthumously titled The Dog ( 1820 ) Goya’s untitled works which began in 1819, reflected his embittered  and outraged attitude towards the possibilities of human society in light of the Napoleonic Wars and subsequent Civil bloodshed in Spain.”The Black Paintings… are in effect the most extreme manifestation of the growing misunderstanding and estrangement between modern society and the artist”.  Goya’s intense disturbing images gave rise to the same shocked silence and frightful awe of abstract expressionistic art after the holocaust.

Goya, Black Paintings

Goya, Black Paintings

Oddly enough, for all its hostility to bourgeois civilization, the very hand it would bite has adopted surrealism in a way it probably never would have anticipated. One cannot watch more than a few television commercials or look through the pages of a fashion magazine without seeing some element of surrealism.In hailing Andre Breton’s heroic attempt to strike a blow for freedom through a highly personalized art based on fetishes and dreams, Trotsky could not have anticipated the final outcome of this aesthetic in glitzy TV and magazine ads. Neither could the Trotskyists of the 1940s around Partisan Review have anticipated the evolution of abstract expressionism into a kind of official art of US imperialism as made in America cultural export.

Mark Rothko, Blackgrey,1968-69

Mark Rothko, Blackgrey,1968-69

The art world described in Robert Hughes, ”Shock of the New” in 1981, is basically a community morphed into a commodity fetish and its concomitant baggage of hubris,money and celebrity; the quick fix that mimics hyper-mediatized states which requires a steady diet of product to sustain itself. According to Hughes, namely dull academic conceptualism, and facile ideological statements. There is a difference between slow-art and the ”democratized” pop phenomenon that has little to do with high art and ”much ado about nothing”, namely rhetoric trumping form, trumping content. Success is based on a world of judgement which is off kilter. The categorization of ”good” is based in the minds of people who run the art world, whom critics like Robert Hughes regard as shallow hucksters peddling empty rhetoric, or at least certainly appropriating in unimaginable fashion the axiom that pleasure is the root of all appreciation in art.

” Styles come and go, movements briefly coalesce (or fail to, more likely), but there has been one huge and dominant reality overshadowing Anglo-Euro-American art in the past 25 years, and The Shock of the New came out too early to take account of its full effects. This is the growing and tyrannous power of the market itself, which has its ups and downs but has so hugely distorted nearly everyone’s relationship with aesthetics. That’s why we decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida.” …The art world is now so swollen with currency and the vanity of inflated reputation that it is taking on some of the less creditable aspects of showbiz. Hollywood doesn’t want critics, it wants PR folk and profile-writers. Showbiz controls journalism by controlling access. The art world hopes to do the same, though on a more piddly level. …There will be a renewed interest – not for everyone, of course, but for those who actually know and care about the issues – in slow art: art that takes time to develop on the retina and in the mind, that sees instant communication as the empty fraud it is, that relates strongly to its own traditions.( Robert Hughes, Guardian )

This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Feature Article, Miscellaneous, Modern Arts/Craft, Visual Art/Sculpture/etc. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *