"J'ai fait des gestes blancs parmi les solitudes."
"The Américan will is easily satisfied
in its efforts to realize itself in knowing itself"
BY HAROLD ROSENBERG
What makes any definition of a movement in a art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artist in the movement - certainly not as well as, if successful , it does the others. Yet without the definition something essential in those best is bound to be missed. The attempt to define is like a game in which you cannot possibly reach the goal from the starting point but can only close in on it by picking up each time from where the last play landed.
MODERN ART ? OR AN ART OF THE MODERN ?
Since the War every twentieth-century style in painting is being brought to profusion in the United States : thousands of "abstract" painters - crowed teaching courses in Modern Art - a scattering of new heroes ambitions stimulated by new galleries, mass exhibitions, reproductions in popular magazines, festivals, appropriations.
In this usual catching up of America with European art forms ? Or is something new being created ? ... For the question of novelty a definition would seem indispensable.
Some people deny that there is anything original in the recent American painting. Whatever is being done here now, they claim, was done thirty years ago in Paris. You can trace this painter's boxes of symbols to Kandinsky, that one's moony shapes to Miro or even back to Cézanne.
Quantitatively, it is true that most of the symphonies on blue and red rectangles, the wandering pelvises and birdcalls, the line constructions and plane suspensions, the virginal dissections of flat areas that crowd the art shows are accretions to the "School of Paris" brought into being by the fact the mode of production of modern masterpieces has now been all too clearly rationalized. There are styles in the present displays which the painter could have acquired by putting a square inch of a Soutine or a Bonnard under a microscope... All this is training based on a new conception of what art is, rather than original work demonstrating what art is about to become.
At the center of this wide practicing of the immediate past, however, the work of some painters has separated itself from the rest by a consciousness of a function for painting different form that of the earlier "abstractionists," both the Europeans themselves and the Americans who joined them in the years of the Great Vanguard.
This new painting does not constitute a School. To form a school in modern times not only is a new painting consciousness needed but a consciousness of what consciousness - and even an insistence on certain formulas. A school is the result of the linkage of practice terminology - different paintings are affected by the same words. In the American vanguard the words, as we shall see, belong not to the art but to the individual artists. What they think in common is represented only by what they do separately.
GETTING INSIDE THE CANVAS
At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act - rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or "express" an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind ; he went up to it with material in front of him. The image would be the result of is encounter.
It is pointless to argue that Rembrandt or Michangelo worked in the same way. You don't get Lucrece with a dagger out of staining a piece of cloth or spontaneously putting forms into motion upon it. She had to exist some place else before she got on the canvas, and the paint was Rembrandt's means for bringing her here. Now, everything must have been in the tubes, in the painter's muscles and in the cream-colored sea into which he dives. If Lucrece should come out she will be among us for the first time - a surprise. To the painter, she must be a surprise. In his mood there is no point in an act if you already know what it contains.
"B. is not modern", one of the leaders of this mode said to me the other day. "He works from sketches. That makes him Renaissance."
Here the principle, and the difference from the old painting, is made into a formula. A sketch is the preliminary form of an image the mind is trying to grasp. To work from sketches arouses the suspicion that the artist still regards the canvas as a place where the minds records its contents - rather than itself the "mind" through which the painter thinks by changing a surface with paint.
If a painting is an action, the sketch is one action, the painting that follows it another. The second cannot be "better" or more complete than the first. There is just a much significance in their difference as their similarity.
Of course, the painter who spoke had no right to assume that the other had the old mental conception of a sketch. There is
no reason why an act cannot be prolonged from a piece of paper to canvas. Or repeated on another scale and with more control. A sketch can have the function of a skirmish.
Call this painting "abstract" or "expressionist" or "Abstract-Expressinist", what counts is its special motive for extinguishing the object, which is not the same as in other abstract or expressionist phases of modern art.
The new American painting is not "pure art", since the extrusion of the object was not for the sake of aesthetic. The applies weren't brushed of the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting. IN this gesturing with materials the aesthetic, too, has been subordinated.
Form, color, composition, drawing, are auxiliaries, any one of which - or practically all, as has been attempted, logically, with unpainted canvases - can be dispensed with. What matters always si the revelation contained in the act. It is to be taken for granted that in the final effect, the image, whatever be or not be in it, will be a tension.
DRAMA OF AS IF
A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a "moment" in the adulterated mixture of his life - whether "moment" means, in one case, the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or, in another, the entire duration of a lucid drama, conducted in sign language. The act-painting is if the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.
It follows that anything is relevant to it. Anything that has to do with action - psychology, philosophy, history, mythology, hero worship. Anything but art criticism. The painter gets away form Art through his act of painting ; the critic can't get away from it. The critic who goes on judging in terms of schools, styles, form, as if the painter were still concerned with producing a certain kind of object (the work of art), instead of living on the canvas, is bound to seem a stranger.
Some painters take advantage of this stranger. Having insisted their painting is an act, they the claim admiration for the act as art. This turns the the act back toward the aesthetic in a petty circle. If the picture is an act, it cannot be justified as an act of genius in a field whose whole measuring apparatus has been sent to the devil. Its value must be found apart from art. Otherwise the "act" gets to be "making a painting" at sufficient speed to meet an exhibition date.
Art -relation of the painting to the works of the past, rightness of color, texture, balance, etc. - comes back into painting by way of psychology. As Steven says of poetry, "it is a process of the personality of the poet". But the psychology os the psychology of creation. Not that of so-called psychological criticism that wants to "read" a painting for clues to the artist's sexual preferences or debilities. The work, the act, translates the psychologically given into the intentional, into a "world" - and thus transcends it.
With traditional aesthetic references discarded as irrelevant, what gives the canvas its meaning is not psychological data but role, the way the artist organizes his emotional and intellectual energy as if he were in a living situation. The interest lies in the kind of act taking place in four-sided arena, a dramatic interest.
Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in tis mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has ti think in a vocabulary of action : its inception, duration, direction - psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.
"IT'S NOT THAT, IT'S NOT THAT, IT'S NOT THAT"
With a few important exceptions, most of the artists of this vanguard found their way to their present work by being cut in two. Their type is not a young painter but a re-born one. The man may be over forty, the painter around seven. The diagonal of a grand crisis separates him form his personal and artistic past.
Many of the painters were "Marxistss" (W.P.A unions, artists" congresses) - they had been trying to paint society. Others had been trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism) - it amounts to shame thing.
The big moment came when it was decided to paint... Just to TO PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, form Value-political, aesthetic, moral.
If the war and the decline of radicalism in America had anything to do with this suddens impatience, there is no evidence of it. About the effects of large issues upon their emotions, Americans tend to be either reticent or unconscious. The French artist thinks of himself as a battle ground of history ; here one hears only private Dark Nights...