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INTRODUCTION

1941 - 1960

 

The New American painting

During the 1940s important new artistic movements began to develop in America, where until then painters had tended to follow European models or assume a provincial stance. The events which led to the Second World War indirectly contributed to this change, insofar as many European artists and intellectuals had been forced by the rise of Fascism to emigrate to the United States, and they soon proved to be a powerful source of inspiration for a younger generation. In New York this included young artists such as Jack-son Pollock, Franz Kline (1910-1962), Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and others; they evolved pictorial styles which drew upon earlier movements, particularly Cubism and Surrealism, but eventually went beyond these precedents in terms of original techniques and vision. The New American painting stressed the manual aspect of art, as well as the intense emotional response which it sought to provoke in the onlooker. One of its central aims was to combine a high degree of abstraction with expressive qualities: it is also therefore described as Abstract Expressionism.

Although individual Abstract Expression-ists established entirely personal manners, they shared the desire to create images with an elemental impact that would challenge the un-certain climate of the wartime period. Initially, there was an interest in the tragic myths and art of primitive or ancient cultures because these were thought to contain a core of universal truth. It did not take long, however, for visual priorities to supersede literary references: in-stead, what came to the fore were dynamic methods of handling paint; the use of simpli-fied forms, and canvases of enormous dimen-sions far exceeding those of the ordinary Euro-pean easel picture. The big formats meant that the scale of the composition required novel attitudes to the application of pigment.

Jackson Pollock took the lead on that issue in 1947 when he extended the Surrealist tech-nique of automatism to surprising limits, by laying his unstretched canvas support on the ground. He could then move rapidly around the picture from all sides and to assist his spontaneous approach he dispensed with brushes. Instead, Pollock poured and dribbled his highly diluted paint directly from the can, or used a stick to fling it on in whiplash strokes.

By such methods Pollock built up a dense web of lines suggesting a visual record of his turbulent, innermost feelings and also a reflection of the violent gestures which had brought the painting into existence. Yet a mea-sure of intuitive control was present beneath this seeming chaos, as he remarked: 'When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of "get acquainted" period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure har-mony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.'

Duet was painted in 1937, at a time when Braque was developing combination of elegance and formal simplification that culminated in a series of Oiseaux done in the 1950s. Braquc's mature work remains within tlie terms of Cubist easel painting. He made the structure of his vibrant surfaces more flexible and fuller, so that the subjects did not endanger the painting's constructive framework.


'I am nature'.
Pollock commented once,as if to say that his incorporation of physical move-ment into the act of painting signaled his own unity with the larger forces of the outside world. Indeed, he would occasionally intro-duce foreign elements - handprints, frag-ments of personal possessions and the like -I into the surface of his compositions. These did not echo the role of the recognizable ingredients of Cubist collages, but were integrated with the pigment as reminders, perhaps, of the organic oneness Pollock felt between him-self, nature and his creations.

Not every American affected by Surrealist automatism, particularly its fascination with chance and the unconscious, followed Pol-locks unconventional extreme. Most did agree, however, that the manual factor about picture-making was of fundamental value, since it was the artist's gestures that were the crucial link between his or her inward experi-ences and how they were externalized on canvas. On the West Coast, Mark Tobey (b 1890) produced networks of pale lines (often in the delicate tempera medium) on a smaller scale than Pollock's, yet they had a similar 'all-over' look: the entire work appeared to have been activated by the swift calligraphic touches of the brush. The results bear comparison with Pollock in their mysterious spatial aura too, because Tobey's Oriental mazes can be seen as both flat and infinitely deep. This impression was enhanced by Tobey's very soft colors, while Pollock sometimes chose the evanes-cence of silvery metallic paints.

The attitude underlying techniques such as those of Pollock and Tobey is usually termed 'gesturalism', denoting how the artist's dexter-ity, attack and physical movements in general contribute to the dynamism of his or her art. To New York painters, most notably de Koon-ing and Kline, gestural methods were ideal for expressing private tensions, the anxieties of modern urban life and the brutal immediacy of their materials. At moments their paintings appeared to have been left uncompleted, or else changes of mind and earlier stages were visible in the end product, which added to this unusually vigorous and aggressive feel.

In contrast to the ancient principle that artis-tic effort should be concealed, the gesturalists made it a tangible virtue. Hence their respect for pentimenti - the evidence that areas of a composition have been overpainted or re-worked. During the early 1940s Pollock - who had yet to abandon brushes - deliberately overpainted the symbolic figures of works such as Pasiphac (1943) with successive layers of abstract markings. The resultant surface has a rich impasto permitting the viewer to dis-cern Pollock, as it were, 'in action' as he pro-gressed from figurative beginnings towards a near-abstract conclusion.

By the time Giorgio Morandi painted his Still Life in 1946 he had perfected his contemplative style o) depicting objects witfi a formal framework. He blurred the edges of the things in his paintings and their form is heavv and full of th essential value of the objects. Morandi's carefully observed everydav objects haae a poetic impulse, but despite this lyricism there is an underlying pessimistic quality about his work. In contrast to Morand's sparse formal arrangement Cezanne cluttered Still Life with Plaster Cast (1895) winth objects which have a slightly eclectic relationslnp with each other, and they are used in a complex spatial way.
The apple Cezanne has placed in the background is the same size as those in the foreground, and has the effect of flattening the surface and halting the recession. While Morandi confined himself to a sober palette, Cezanne use subtly modulated contrasting colours which he applied in interlocking planes.

 

Mark Tobey's Universal Field (1949) is an example of his remarkably powerful way of painting which concentrates on few) expressional means. His style of 'gesturalism' evolved in complementary contrast to tlie emotive action paintings of Pollock and others. Tobey visited China and Japan in 1934 and studied Chinese calligraphy. By tlie next year he had developed his characteristic 'white writing style. In Tobey's very individualistic kind of brush-writing - the calligraphic brush-stroke is considered to be a 'symbol of the spirit' by Zen philosophers - bewildering movements of white overlie dimly discerned suggestions of color beneath.

One influence on the rise of gesturalism, (or Action, Painting, as it. was called by the popu-lar American critic Harold Rosenberg), was the art and teaching of the German-born emigre Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) who re-commended fluent paint handling as an aid to spontaneity. Another starting point can be found in Arshile Gorky's later paintings where the colors are so thinned with medium that their almost liquid drips and washes form labyrinths associated with the mysterious depths of the artist's memory and uncon-scious. De Kooning and Kline, on the other hand, forged a more dramatic style that obser-vers have linked to the violence and alienation of the contemporary American city.

In the 1940s both painters, like Pollock, dealt with the human figure and, through a study of Cubism, de Kooning fragmented it into planes and lines ranging over the entire composition. He simultaneously adopted enamel house-paints, mostly in black and white, because their easy flow enhanced rapid execution and added to the tough 'look' which he sought. These innovations in turn impressed Kline who in 1949 abstracted his figures into enor-mous strokes of black and white resembling magnified details from his previous imagery. Kline employed housepainter's brushes whose broad, flat edge produced marks which seemed to have been made with tremendous speed and forcefulness, particularly when some fail to stop within the edges of the com-position and thus apparently hurtle beyond its boundaries altogether.

Despite the very different means of other Abstract Expressionists, such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and Clyfford Still (1904-1980), all of whom explored relatively static and sublime fields of color, it remained the gesturalist side of the movement that was most widely admired throughout the 1950s. Improvisatory working methods, loaded brushes, big formats and tactile surfaces came to represent the breakthrough of the New American Painting. Its impact caught the mood of the times and was soon felt outside America, although in lesser hands the tech-niques easily became confused with the end result. Following the example of Pollock and his colleagues, painters such as Georges Mathieu (b 1921) in France and the Dane Asger Jorn (1914-1973) brought a fierce intensity and heavy impasto to their work. By stressing the vitality of the manual act of painting. Abstract Expressionism also fos-tered new tendencies that would culminate in happenings and other unconventional approaches of more recent years, where physical performance is an essential and, perhaps, total part of the work of art.

 

Figurative art in Europe

The aftermath of the Second World War caused a resurgence of figurative art in Europe, just as the Great War had played a part in the rise of Expressionism. Anguish and doubt concern-ing human existence again moved many artists to project their unrest through new im-ages of the human which were distorted or threatened by hostile forces. In certain inst-ances, abstraction alone did manage to convey something of this outlook. The Spaniard Antonio Tapies (b 1923) and the Italian Alberto Burri (b 1915) respectively fashioned dark, rock-like reliefs and configurations of torn and burnt cloth that had a deeply pessimistic qual-ity. On the other hand, the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), despite their apparent calm, depict objects whose edges tremble slightly under a light of otherwise unnerving stillness. But the most extreme statements came from those who continued to see the ! figure as a focus of meaning. Existentialist thought justified this since it stressed a per-son's isolation and helpless vulnerability in an absurd universe.

Even those painters who had reached maturity long before the war exhibited a reawakened gravity of style during the mid 1940s. Pablo Picasso, for example, executed his large and unfinished Charnci House (1944- 1945), based on photographs of concentration camp victims, in solemn shades of grey that hark back to the tones of Guernica (1937).

Less overtly horrific, but still fraught with tension were the paintings, mostly portraits, of the Franco-Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). His colors were also li-mited, possibly reflecting a world devoid of human warmth. Moreover, Giacometti was obsessed by the conflict between a person and the space or void that surrounds him or her. In his sculpture Giacometti had implied this emptiness by reducing the figure to very slen-der proportions, as if it were eroded by its sur-roundings and he carried over this practice into oils and graphics after the war.

In England Francis Bacon (b 1909) offered an especially trenchant version of post-war malaise reinforced by a technique that many others have used, although Bacon maintained a pronounced originality. The people in Bacon's works are captured in extreme situa-tions like cornered animals. This may partly explain the importance of photography to his procedures since the camera can record a mo-ment of crisis so abrupt that it could otherwise escape notice. Bacon's major problem has therefore been to translate such perceptions into the substance of oil on canvas. His solution resembles that of the American gestural-ists insofar as it involves quick brushwork and a grasp of how accidents may become positive features on account of their element of surprise. As Bacon noted in 1968: '1 think that you can make ... involuntary marks on the canvas which may suggest much deeper ways by which you can trap the facts you are obsessed by. If anything ever does work in my case it works from that moment when con-sciously I didn't know what I was doing.'

Although essentially a classical artist at a time of upheaval and change, Paul Delvaux painted works with an essential quality of modernity about them. This Sleeping Venus (1944) was one of several versions he painted, after becoming fascinated by two neighboring exhibits, a sleeping Venus and a skeleton, at the Musee Spitzner. This idea of the proximity of love and deatli recurred in many of his works.

Bacon's imagery includes disturbing and unexpected juxtapositions, but it is the visual beauty that he brings to details such as a gap-ing wound or carcasses of meat behind a sitter that affords the greater shock. In this respect his style belongs to the tradition of 'painterly' artists - Velazquez, Rembrandt, Courbet -who have exploited juicy impasto and promi-nent brushwork. Yet if Bacon too celebrates the opulence of his materials,he is nonetheless a painter of this century because of the dis-tinctly modern neuroses which the materials serve.

Jasper Johns began Flag (1955) in enamel or oil paint, then changed to using an encaustic technique. 7 wanted to show what had gone before in a picture, and what was done after. But if you put on a heavy brushstroke in paint and then add another stroke, the second stroke smears the first unless the paint is dry. And paint takes too long to dry ... someone suggested wax. It worked very well: as soon as the wax was cool I could put on another stroke and it would not alter the first.'Johns applied the paint with a brush or with material dipped into the hot medium.

The idea that our place in the universe could no longer be taken for granted similarly affected the Frenchman Jean Dubuffet (b 1901) and his development of what he called art brut, meaning rough or raw, as opposed to 'fine' art. The prototypes for art brut were found in the work of primitives, children and psychotics who all view reality in a different light to that of the supposedly civilized artist. Dubuffet -and to some extent his contemporaries such as Jean Fautrier (1898-1964) and Wols (1913-1951) - admired this lack of sophistication allied to a crude vigor. According to Dubuffet, no dis-tinctions can be drawn between humanity and art and the matter of which they are both, in the last analysis, composed.

Dubuffet consequently chose banal subjects to avoid any pretensions to intellectual refine-ment, but his real discovery was to see paint as no longer depicting light, color or texture. In-stead, its own material reality constituted the true purpose of the painting. To further this end Dubuffet added foreign substances, in-cluding leaves and earth, to his canvases and mixed the pigment with a filler such as plaster. The resultant surfaces are virtually low reliefs into which primitive outlines are scratched. Although art brut proved fairly short-lived, it counteracted the dry academic manner still popular as a legacy of Veristic Surrealism.

 

Post-war developments in the use of color

It is significant that those Europeans who con-tinued to explore the resources of color were almost all from an earlier generation and so had either participated in Fauvism or were aware of its consequences. In France Raoul Duty and Georges Rouault, for example, based their final works upon premises that had been current before the First World War. In Duty's case this meant brilliant primaries and simpli-fied design evolved from his Fauvist years, while Rouault maintained somber glowing shades set within encrusted paint surfaces.

Above all it was Henri Matisse who took the coloristic freedom, established early on by Fauvism, to its most radical conclusions in the last decade of his career. He had always recognized the inherent power of color to transcend its roots in nature. This partly explains the extraordinary liberties Matisse took with his palette from the turn of the century onwards, experimenting with extreme saturation, pure primary tones as well as the most subtle com-binations. He seemed to be able to generate light rather than transpose it realistically into gradual changes from shade to tint. When Matisse reached his seventies, however, ill-ness increasingly prevented his activities in the orthodox medium of oil on canvas. His solution was to use large sheets of paper that had already been colored to his own specifica-tions. These were then cut as desired (hence the term papier decoupe) and pasted on to a sup-port. 'The cut-out paper allows me to draw in color. It is a simplification ... I am drawing directly in color; which will be the more mea-sured as it will not be transposed. This simpli-fication ensures an accuracy in the union of the two means.'

At face value papier decoupe may resemble the Cubist collage technique but, in fact, the two have little in common. The Cubists were far less interested in color and reduction than Matisse was, and regarded papier colle as a means of constructing a complex interplay of meaning and spatial organization. On the contrary, Matisse could now limit every ele-ment of his design to its barest essentials. Col-or was the very substance of each shape. The breadth and directness of Matisse's methods contributed to the return of color as a primary factor in the art of the 1960s.

Yet perhaps an even more influential growth in the awareness of what color can achieve took place after the war in America. Gesturalism did not actually account for the whole of the New American painting, since three of its pioneers - Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman - had created large abstractions where brushstrokes tended to be less pronounced than the overall gran-deur of the color fields. Still's technique was unique because he applied pigment with the palette knife in viscous layers, but Rothko and Newman kept their paint thin and fairly uni-form so that texture did not interfere with the powerful hues. Newman, Still and Pollock in his later works also sometimes left parts of the canvas untouched to allow it to register as an individual color. Rather like Matisse, who had united drawing and color in his cut-outs, this approach permitted imagery to merge with the actual picture surface.

Such discoveries became especially relevant later when American artists reacted against what they considered the unnecessary sensa-tionalism of action painting. They wanted to leave behind the loaded brush effects, turbu-lent composition and restricted palette. The formal beauty that abstract art can attain seemed a more urgent objective than any in-volvement with personal anguish or even the processes leading to the finished work.

Norman Rockwell, probably tfie most widely known contemporary American artist in tlie 1950s, has never received critical acclaim to equal fits popularity. His brand of Ruralism displayed in The Country Agricultural Agent (1948) was reproduced regularly on the cover of the high-circulation weekly magazine the Saturday Evening Post.

 

Assemblage and mixed media approaches

Perhaps the outstanding feature of the 1950s was the growth of the affluent society Television, advertising and the media in general now reproduced images with a speed and insistence that brought visual information into the average person's routine as never before. Economic prosperity meant a surfeit of con-sumer goods and these helped to shape cul-ture packed with an astonishing variety of products, both useful and disposable.

In this brash new climate, the high serious-ness which motivated Abstract Expressionism looked increasingly out of place. Gesturalist art had been born of an era of social crisis and, although it was responsible for many tech-nical innovations, it still upheld the basic assumption - largely unchanged since the Renaissance - that painting was a question of conveying emotion, illusion or ideas through marks on a flat surface. Yet one major alterna-tive to this definition had arisen in the course of modern art. This was the Cubist notion that paper or other foreign materials could be used to construct rather than simply 'paint' a picture. From that realization grew not merely the three-dimensional Cubist construction but [ also the weird assemblages of found objects with which Dada and Surrealism blurred the boundaries of painting and sculpture. At a time when the British artist Peter Blake (bl932) was introducing collage into his painting (which, however, was more akin to the Victorian scrapbook than to any Cubist work), the American Jasper Johns was revita-lizing the notion of painting-sculpture, laun-ching his ironic reply to the drama of action painting in the early 1950s.

Johns established his iconoclastic role on the New York art scene with pictures of dead-pan motifs such as targets, numerals and flags, i A possible key to these works is to interpret them as commentaries on the doctrine that paintings must have a meaning. By choosing signs that are always understood as part of a code - a target points to something, a number is only useful for what it measures - he dep-rived them of such meaning as the sole subject of a picture. Also, Johns depicted his designs with the agitated brushwork of a gesturalist, rather as if some monosyllable were repeated in a highly impassioned voice. To complete the contradictions he adopted the ancient technique of encaustic so that the normal flat-ness of a target, for instance, in fact become a low relief. Here was the start of an important modern tendency, continued by Larry Rivers (b 1923), Robert Rauschenberg (b 1925) and re-cent movements such as Conceptualism.

When Johns added plaster casts and similar artifacts to his compositions in the mid-1950s he anticipated a desire on the part of many artists to go beyond the conventions of the , easel painting and its,derivatives.

In the 1940s Franz Kline was painting conservative canvases which developed into a bolder style based on traditional principles of abstract art. By the late 1940s and earl'y 1950s, this abstraction evolved into a gesturalistic freedom of paint handling and brush-stroke, as well as a certain eastern quality of calligraphy. Clock Face, which he painted in 1950, is a canvas of tremendous boldness with its strong black strokes against a white background. Kline reduced his palette to black and white, and this, combined with his dramatic and enormous brushstrokes, conveyed a sense of the alienation and violence characteristic of the contemporary American city.

 

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