Georges Seuat’s work is generally categorized as Neo-Impressionist and not Impressionist. The source of the disagreement is a complicated issue. In spite of the complicated arguments against it, the sixty-seven and a half square foot canvas, La Grande Jatte, (1884-86) and other works by Seurat (and Pissaro) were displayed at the last Impressionist Group Show of 1886, in a back room. The exhibition of La Grande Jatte marked the end of the Impressionist Rebellion.
Seurat’s links to the past have been noted by many critics. The Impressionists were influenced by Delacroix’s use of color. Seurat and Signac adopted this “free” use of color from the Impressionists, but they systematized their applications of the color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Seurat had studied with a student of Ingres named Lehmann, who stressed Ingres’ fascination for the classical line. This fascination is perceived in Seurat’s system. Most significantly, Seurat observed and adapted the geometric patterns of Puvis’ “classical-decorative style” and imposed similar pattens onto the Impressionists’ scenes of everyday life (Canaday 11). The combination of these influences, created images cast in a language of a monumental antiquity that described what Signac would later relate to Matisse as a “future Golden age” (Hughes 135).
In spite of this “web of influences” (Canaday 7), or because of them, Seurat’s approach shocked Monet and Renoir into a refusal to exhibit at the Salon. Pissaro, one of the leaders of the Impressionists’ old guard, argued in Seurat’s defense, but Matisse and Renoir would not be persuaded.
The basis of Pissaro’s defense was that Seurat’s work “should be shown under the auspices of this organization that had always stood for the artist’s right to paint as he pleased” (Canaday 5). Seurat was regarded as a cold, calculating, soulless curiosity. Renoir, Monet and Canaday saw such a complete departure from Impressionism, that Seurat’s work was regarded by them as “something of a proclamation against it” (5). Pissaro’s defense of Seurat was made when Pissaro’s work had taken a similar Post-Impressionist turn—with less than convincing results (5). Canaday implied that Pissaro was really defending himself, in an attempt to breathe new life into his halting rebellion.
All of the Impressionists broke color into streaks and smears of contrasting colors (or component hues—Divisionism) to achieve atmospheric effects, and the spontaneity that was characteristic of Impressionism. Canaday reminded us that the techniques employed by Seurat inspired controversy, even in naming it. The terms he mentioned in his essay were: “Divisionist;” “Post-Impressionist,” in a general sense; “Pointilist,” the application of uniform dots of color; and the lugubrious “Chromo-Luminarism”—a term intended to cover both Divisionism and Pointilism. These terms were listed by Canaday as possible, yet contending names for the techniques and also for attempts at a historical periodization (7).
Hughes provides another disconsolate example when he refers to signs of “Seurat’s Divisionism” in Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupte (1904-5) (135). The pathos the example illustrates is that thirteen years after his death, and partly though Signac’s influence, other artists are still wrestling with Seurat’s accomplishments. In the context of the above discussion, Hughes’ phrase is an indictment of the difficulty with which Seurat’s La Grande Jatte is reconciled with the movement that fostered its creation. The term itself implies that each of the Impressionists might employ his or her own version of Impressionism. In this light, periodization is less than meaningful.
Seurat’s system is based on the relatively new science of color optics and how color is perceived. What the mind blends it can also abstract into component parts. What is so unusual about Seurat’s work is the calculating way he set out to do it. His system, Hughes says, is “based on the dot” (114).
More precisely, Seurat’s system is based on the theory of optics advanced by Eugene Chevreul. Colored dots are perceived by the eye as if surrounded by a halo of the contrasting color: red surrounded by green; blue with orange; and purple by yellow. What creates perceivable color is an almost imaginary, certainly vibrant and elusive plane of perception in which these exigencies interact. Whether this interaction takes place in the eye, in the mind, or on the surface of the objects perceived, Seurat determined to make Chevreul’s theories “explicit” (Hughes 114).
This is not a definition of Impressionism as practiced by Seurat, or by anyone else, yet. This is only a theory of the perception of colored dots. From an analysis of the dot-as-metaphor, as it is used in La Grande Jatte, a definition of Impressionism can be approximated. Seurat contrived to build meaning into his pictures. The dot covers a mathematically small, but definite empty set, with meaning. As colored dots are added, their corresponding halos resonate together to suggest, or inhabit the geometric complexities of Puvis’ forms, laid along Ingres’ lines, to give the viewer a promise of Poussin’s Arcadia—not today, but in some “golden future.” In Seurat’s system, meaning is brought about with staggering inefficiency—one dot at a time.
By systematizing his approach Seurat violated the only organizing principle of the Impressionist movement. “Impressionism has no governing system beyond the acuity of the artist’s eye and the sensuous efficiency of his brush-strokes, knitting their pattern swiftly across the canvas” (Hughes 113). In this efficiency, Hughes finds the popularity that Impressionist paintings enjoy even today.
Canaday argues that the “grinding hours of” the labor itself, and an otherwise weak constitution, were enough to account for Seurat’s death at the age of only thirty-two (8). Whether or not this is true, his system of dots is certainly enough to earn him a reputation for being exhaustive and calculating in his art—scientific, but not efficient.
Canaday also remarks that Seurat’s art is not as successful in its overall impact as are works created by other artists of the period—Degas or Lautrec, for example. Canaday shows Lautrec’s In the Circus Fernando: The Ring Master (1888), and Seurat’s The Circus (1891) side by side, to prove his point (Canaday 10-11). For Canaday, Lautrec’s composition, his colors, and the sweep of his lines, are more effective in evoking the feeling of the circus (8). Seurat’s picture—Canaday admits that it is unfinished—“doesn’t work. All the ingredients are present, but rule has triumphed in a frozen image” (8). At the heart of Canaday’s contrast is an opposition of expression or feeling, and the “rule” of reason or science. In Canaday’s comparison at least, the former is lauded and the latter is disparaged.
Hughes takes the view that Seurat was the best of the new young painters (114). Hughes shows a genuine regard for the technique exploited by Seurat, in his pursuit of the timeless, monumental feeling of Delacroix (color) Puvis and Poussin (geometric form and Arcadian monumentalism). Hughes also suggests the conjunctions that are integral to an appreciation of Seurat’s work and that of subsequent artists and art theorists like Kandinsky and Smithson.
Hughes raises three important points. The first has already been mentioned, a sense of art as monumental in its scope or theme; the second, a view that regards the artist as an autonomous individual, capable of creating his work of art, and the language in which it is described; the third point, peculiar to modernism, is the concept of irony as it applies to both art and the artist.
In his discussion of Seurat’s Port of Gravelines Channel (1890) Hughes’ wording is precise and applies to La Grande Jatte as well:
“There is a perfect spareness in which the haze and luminosity of the …air are scrupulously translated into form (not just evoked by colour). The lack of incident in the painting…coaxes the eye back to reflect on that analysis of light, as its essential subject. It would be hard to find another image that displayed itself more subtly as a landscape of thought” (Hughes 114).
The ideas of “a perfect spareness…of the air” in which the qualities of the “air” its “haze” and “luminosity” are “translated into form,” endow for Hughes a “landscape of thought”. The dot is perfected as metaphor. An “analysis of light” is the “essential subject” of the painting. The qualities Hughes described have form, not just “colour.” As a “landscape of thought,” composed as it is by thousands of dots, the meaning of the painting is reducible to the dot as metaphor. The painting is transformed (by Hughes’ analysis and Seurat’s flawless execution) into an ironic expression of its own nature, as composed and defined as “infinite divisions of its own unity” (118).
The metaphor most appropriate to understanding how art achieves monumental expression—and for later artists and theorists as well—is suggested by Hughes, “translated”. The metaphor the dot participates in, is a metaphor for language:
“The irony is part of Seurat’s modernity. Precisely because it is a distanced painting, a surface, not a window, it makes one pause and reflect on its semantics. The spectacle of art as a language fascinated Seurat. It fascinates all artists; but before 1880, it had not often been made the subject of the work. Seurat had grasped that there is something atomized, divided, and analytical about modernist awareness, and his work predicted the way in which art would come more and more to refer to itself. To build a unified meaning, in this state of extreme self-consciousness, meant that the subject had to be broken down into molecules and then reassembled under the eye of formal order” (Hughes 118).
Irony is one of two legacies from the Romantics, inherited by the moderns. The other legacy is the autonomy of the artist. Here, Hughes mentions an “extreme self-consciousness,” and combines a sense of irony with artistic autonomy. By juxtaposing the ideas of “unity” and “extreme self-consciousness” and the idea of “painting increasingly referring only to itself,” Hughes is connecting the “Post-Impressionist” sensibility of Seurat with the dead, but now memorialized—and defined—Impressionist movement. As Hughes says,
“reality became permanent when it was displayed as a web of tiny, distinct stillnesses. That, ultimately, was what La Grande Jatte was about: infinite division, infinite relationships, and the struggle to render them visible—even at the expense of ‘real life’” (Hughes 118).
The dot is the infinite division that first defined, and then ended Impressionism.
In La Grande Jatte, Seurat not only defined Impressionism, but he turned Neo-Impressionism into a “form of creation by recipe” (Canaday 9). This recipe allowed Neo-Impressionism to build a large following, but even Seurat did not see this as a positive development. He saw the swelling numbers of adherents as parasites feeding on the “theories he developed with such pain” (9). After Seurat died in 1891, Signac took over the group they formed together, but other groups soon captured the imagination of the public.
Hughes sees in the metaphorical transformation of the subject by the colored dot, a need for syntax, an “eye of formal order” under whose watchful gaze the subject may be reassembled. Hughes leads his discussion to the Expressionists and eventually to Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky pushed the formal “object” of the painting even further out of the picture. Kandinsky postulated an experience of color that takes place in the same way that music is experienced. He also leads the viewer to an experience of a transcendent “pure form” (Hughes 299). Kandinsky and another evangelist of Expressionism, van Gogh, are said by Hughes to “[attribute] human feelings to what was not human” (300).
The direction their art leads is not toward the same bourgeois golden future of Seurat and Signac, but to the end of history in millennial “rapture”. Kandinsky’s “abstract language of colour” is more demanding than Seurat’s— or van Gogh’s—as it is based on his personal visual reactions that few artists or ordinary viewers could share (Hughes 300). These experiences are also the basis of Kandinsky’s spiritualism that is suspicious of matter, because everyone will be able to “hear” colors and “see” sounds (299-300).
In her 1946 introduction to Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Nina Kandinsky quoted from her husband’s writings:
“He wrote in his notebook, a propos Claude Monet’s ‘Haystack’ –‘But I had the impression that here painting itself comes into the foreground; I wonder if it would not be possible to go further in this direction. From then on I looked at the art of Ikons with different eyes; it meant that I had ‘got eyes’ for the abstract in art’” (10).
Kandinsky commemorated the moment of the artist’s conversion to the spiritual. His theology of the new spirituality was given a historical perspective. He identified the influence with a new appreciation for another great influence on his work, the tradition of Russian religious iconography. Writing in his notebook, he ascertained a confluence of the two elements and its importance to him.
Nina Kandinsky remarked the same occasion as significant to her husband’s developing awareness of his place in art history. She related a more effusive demonstration of her husband’s understanding that the existence of progress in art links history to spiritual necessity: “To each spiritual epoch corresponds a new spiritual content, which that epoch expresses by forms that are new, unexpected, surprising and in this way aggressive” (11).
The “new eyes” with which Kandinsky claimed to see Monet’s work were an investiture significant of an overall spiritual process that was revealing “itself” in time—to him. The artist was the expressive agent of his spiritual epoch. Kandinsky sees himself as the interpretive emissary of his spiritual epoch.
Both Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Smithson believed that art history could only point to the past and not the future: “The most advanced principle of aesthetics can never be of value to the future, but only to the past” (Kandinsky 31). Smithson’s view was characteristically cynical “that massive deception ‘the art history of the recent past’” (qtd in Shapiro 50). In a theosophical view of the artistic paradigm, Armageddon might be represented by Kandinsky’s optimism and Smithson’s cynicism fighting together to oppose Chaos. The reconciliation of apparent opposites or enemies is a common theme of millennial writings that portray endless variations of Biblical lions and lambs in equipoise. The Arcadian vision of Seurat and Poussin was displaced not just by their Revelation, but with a freshet of words.
Kandinsky saw the role of the artist as an agent of spiritual revelation. Smithson saw a similar role for the artist as an intermediary, but in the field of historical dialectic. Both artists relied on the written word as integral to their work. The debates that attended the Impressionist rebellion, now accompanied the works of art themselves in a proliferation of cahiers d’art. The artist’s notebook, as provenance, may have first been perfected by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, but now, provenance has been formalized as a didactic reiteration of the “extreme self consciousness of the artist’ as suggested by Hughes and demonstrated by Nina Kandinsky (Le Targat 26). Nina Kandinsky summarized admirably the development of her husband’s work and illustrated several points that were often made by other interpreters, regarding his overt references to abstraction, reality and nature:
“The development of his painting was very organic. He started with realistic painting which French Impressionism helped him to discard; he progressively retired from the representation of the real world. In his landscapes after 1908, one already sees the beginnings of abstract form; the landscape remains only as a theme, and the forms (lines, strokes of color, etc.), have an abstract character. In 1910 he painted his first work entirely detached from an object. With this a new epoch in art started, the epoch of non-objective art [her emphasis]” (11).
The epigrammatic nature of Wassily Kandinsky’s writing and painting polarized critics from the start. Robert Altshuler notes the comments of art historian and member of the “New Artists’ Association of Munich,” Otto Fischer: “A painting without object is senseless…. These are fallacies of empty fanatics and imposters. These confused individuals may talk about the spiritual—but spirit makes for clarity not confusion…” (Altshuler 48). Fischer’s comments and Nina Kandinsky’s defense of her husband’s work, suggest the controversy centered on whether or not he worked from an intuition of “spiritual” origins”: “All his works prove that actually he was guided by intuition, by his “internal voice…” (10).
Nina Kandinsky’s defense appealed to her husband’s writings as evidence in support of her claims for his work. She made herself a party to the critical controversy. In her own day, her authority may have been limited to her association to Kandinsky by marriage, yet her arguments are not limited to the merely anecdotal; they reveal more analytical criteria as well.
Pissaro defended Seurat’s work, insisting that it be included in the 1886 Salon, for personal reasons. His argument was emotional, sentimental, even nostalgic and based on principles that “have always held” the group together, and on which the Impressionist movement was founded. Kandinsky had made his wife’s task somewhat easier by carefully documenting his career from the beginning, including meticulous records of correspondence, the costs of materials and rents paid for various lodgings throughout his career (Le Targat 11, 18). Nonetheless, Nina Kandinsky’s defense of her husband’s work is far from sentimental and provides insight into the origins of “his” Expressionism”.
Kandinsky’s exegesis of his paintings was stated in summary form, late in his career, and was excerpted by his wife in her introduction for the 1947 edition of Concerning the Spiritual in Art: “’This art creates along side the real world a new world which has nothing to do externally [his emphasis] with reality. It is subordinate internally to cosmic laws,’ Kandinsky wrote (in the magazine XXme. Siecle, 1938)” (10). Kandinsky posited a resolution to the question of the spiritual and intuitive origins of his paintings. He suggested that the new world of the spiritual, and the art that creates it, is only subordinate to cosmic laws. A painting is only the external sign that represents a spiritual-internal truth, as it is revealed to the artist. An extreme over-simplification might determine that the special relationship the artist enjoys with the cosmic law, places abstract or “absolute” art beyond the reach of criticism entirely.
Language plays a dual role: as the language of criticism—science or reason; and as the language of color intuited or “heard” by the artist—feeling or intuition. The internal, spiritual voice of the artist proves that his “voice” is the expression, in art, of cosmic law. This abstract, absolute or “pure” art exists as an externally ironic parallel to an external, mundane reality. Hughes’ “eye of formal order” is not the “rule of reason,” it is the “all seeing eye” of an other-worldly order, that can only be apprehended by poets and prophets.
Kandinsky’s art is “very organic” yet “has nothing to do with external reality.” Much of the text of Concerning the Spiritual in Art is written in a complicated jargon of axiomatic ironies, that confuse as much as they explain. Rather than unravel “ordinary meanings” from his text, it is possible to view his work as a complicated spiritual poem. The “hero” of his poem is beset by various “obstacles” as he goes through the world, to the end of historical time. But Kandinsky is not the hero of the poem, each of his paintings is.
Kandinsky’s paintings have been understood as poems—in his construction, as prophecy—to be read as both text and context. Le Targat wrote, “the one word to be borne in mind when pondering Kandinsky is ‘poet.’ The work of Kandinsky is eminently poetical, and it is thus that we should approach it, without burdening ourselves with theories” (27). As a poet, Kandinsky evokes the Romantic image of the extremely self-conscious, autonomous artist, the monumental fulfillment of self-educed prophecy.
Kandinsky’s logical, mathematical, geometric prescriptions that permeate Concerning the Spiritual in Art, contrast with the semi-mystical insinuations of color that is removed from the objects that incite his paintings. Pure form is displaced to the spiritual realm; lines that once defined, now gesture vaguely. Kandinsky provides a new tradition of “immaterialism” (Kandinsky 32).
As Hughes wrote:
“One can see three scratchy black peaks, which may be mountains, in the top half of Black Lines, No. 189, 1913….but these hardly count as a subject. What does count is the sense of well-being, springlike joy, induced by the bloom and transparency of its primary color patches –red, blue, yellow, white—softly expanding towards the eye like halation-patterns in fog. Such works represent Kandinsky at his best, and their conviction as painting rises above the eager fatuities of Kandinsky’s own philosophizing” (Hughes 301).
Black Lines, No. 189 is not about what it may represent as a “subject” even for Hughes. The painting is a symbolic dialogue that is expressed from “eye” to “eye.” The eye of formal order, the All Seeing Eye, communicates with the viewer through the artist as prophet and poet. Part of the message conveyed is—precisely—not to be fooled into thinking that forms are being represented. As has been noted, matter hides pure form, and is to be regarded with suspicion. One must listen carefully to the “halation-patterns in the fog.”
Kandinsky, in his role as poet, presents his language of color within a grammar of words and paint. Specifically, the repetition of certain words, as in poetry that he refers to in Concerning the Spiritual in Art has meaning for colors too:
“The apt use of a word (in its poetical sense), its repetition, twice, three times, or even more frequently, according to the need of the poem, …[will]…intensify the internal structure…[and]…bring out unsuspecting spiritual properties in the word itself…Pure sound exercises a direct impression on the soul” (Kandinsky 36).
Just as words are intimations of “pure sound”; colors are intimations of “pure feelings” (63). The color red is repeated in Black Lines, for example, in what Kandinsky refers to as “shades of color…[that] awaken in the soul emotions too fine to be expressed in prose. In this impossibility of expressing color in words…[Kandinsky sees] the possibility of a monumental art” (63-4). In this possibility, we are returned to the three important conjunctions derived from Hughes at the outset: Monumental scope or theme in art helps to define it, and provides the sense of the historic required by meaningful periodization.
Words as described in their dual function provide the sense of irony required by modernism. Words are fundamental to the establishment of Kandinsky’s Expressionism and in the end help to define it for him— if only by their inability to impart “pure meaning.” When words fail, Black Lines takes over at least by implication; when words fail, spiritual content is provided by Kandinsky—through his intuition. Intuition is not reducible to writing, except as a poetic re-telling of the ironic elements he sees in the spiritual as “unexpected” and “aggressive.” It is possible to interpret “aggressive” as “combative,” in order to fit the rhetoric of Theosophy, and presage the requisite heroes of the impending Apocalypse.
Altshuler reminds us, the “theme of the Apocalypse…[recurs] in his work through the Blaue Reiter years” (46) [No italics were added]. This Apocalypse will usher in the new spiritual age, and requires a new spiritual language of art. The new art is to be precursor to, and testament of the inevitable truths of the immaterial world that is to be, after the great cataclysm foretold by Theosophy has been concluded. His new art defies malediction, but requires conflict (Kandinsky 30-3).
For Kandinsky “the theory of Neo-Impressionism is to put on the canvas the whole glitter and brilliance of nature, and not only in isolated aspects” (36). Kandinsky’s development follows from Seurat’s. He extends the metaphor established by Seurat, of the dot that covers meaninglessness. The dot is intuitively transformed by Kandinsky into a line. This “line” evokes both the mathematical precision of Seurat, and the lines of the written word. His “lines” are fully realized as a statement of the inter-dependent subject-duality of art. (Kandinsky titled a second manifesto Point and Line on Plane.)
Altshuler details the events that led to the foundation of The Blue Rider Almanac and the first exhibit sponsored by its editors. In correspondence with Franz Marc, Kandinsky described his proposal for the yearbook: “A kind of almanac…with reproductions and articles …and a chronicle!! [his emphasis] that is, reports on exhibitions reviewed by artists, and artists alone. In the book the entire year must be reflected; and a link to the past as well as a ray to the future must give this mirror its full life…” (Altshuler 46). Kandinsky emphasizes that the criticism presented in the almanac is to be written by artists only, because only artists can understand the new art. To further ensure the unity of vision, he and Marc will serve as editors (46).
The founding of the Almanac led to Kandinsky and Marc’s break with the New Artists’ Association in Munich. Kandinsky was the chair of the otherwise conservative group. Yet in spite of his leadership there was a predominant feeling among the other members, that the art of “pure abstraction,” and Kandinsky’s “pluralistic views” on art in general, were too extreme. The break was orchestrated by Kandinsky and Marc to launch the new publication, and the “pure art” that was reflected in their new yearbook (Altshuler 47-8). Marc wrote of the break to his brother Paul: “The die is cast, Kandinsky and I …have left the association… Now it is the two of us who must continue to fight! The Editors of the Blaue Reiter will now be the starting point for new exhibitions….We will try to become the center of the modern movement” (Altshuler 50).
The “First Exhibition of the Editors of The Blaue Reiter” opened only sixteen days after the date of the letter. The exhibition included “over forty-three works by fourteen artists from eight cities,” and was mounted in the same gallery, in different rooms, as was the show sponsored by the New Artists’ Association of Munich (50). The show was designed to demonstrate the principles of internal (spiritual) versus external (material) in art. “The arrangement [of the works] displayed the same kind of contrast and juxtaposition devised for the Almanac (50). The first battle of the apocalypse was apparently to be fought on the walls of Thannhauser’s Gallery, somewhat discretely, in rooms 4-6.
The eclecticism of the exhibit was only a small reflection of the influences that affected Kandinsky’s Black Lines: Russian religious icons, folk art, children’s art, Russian peasant weavings, Bavarian votive glass paintings, Moslem tiles and textiles—and their extremely abstract patterns; all of these inspired Kandinsky’s work. Black Lines is not the embodiment of any of these influences; it is a political treatise written in the spiritual (internal) language of color, for those who are able to hear it. Like Composition V, (the center of the controversy that facilitated the split with the New Artists’ Association of Munich) Black Lines is intended to stand in emblematic opposition to—what Nina Kandinsky calls—“art that is purely decorative, dead and sad” (Le Targat 24). As the words and music of Kandinsky’s “pure art,” Black Lines and Concerning the Spiritual in Art, achieve the kind of monumental status he sought, even if only in irony.
The web of influence that Canaday and Hughes recited began with Delacroix. It wound through Divisionism into an elegiac molecular language coined by Seurat. Later it dispelled itself around two grammars of form and color, and the morphology of Kandinsky. Influence, history, and monument temporarily settled on the eulogistic rhetorician Robert Smithson. For that particular moment the thread was arrested; caught within it, was a glint of historical insight. For Smithson, the monumental in art, was the opposite pole of an artist’s conversation with the Earth.
Spiral Jetty (1970) is Smithson’s statement of history, memory, and time, the forces that act on “subjects” in the “real world.” Distances are crossed, but on a mathematical plane described by Zeno, not the geometry of Kandinsky (Shapiro 37). The experience itself cannot be fathomed. It is a mystery transacted, but not one that can be transcended. For Smithson it is not so easy to escape history, by stepping out of time (Shapiro 37). A perception of autonomy creates the artist as theorist, but a cult of autonomy seasons the theorist as an ironic iconographer.
Gary Shapiro, in Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art after Babel, argues: “There is no pure Spiral Jetty, no work uncontaminated by language or other supposedly non-sculptural media” (7). Shapiro reminds us of the film and essay to which Smithson gave the same name, and for which he claims a status of artistic “simultaneity” that all three works participate in equally (7). This co-equal standing of the Spiral’s three ambient factors is reminiscent of Kandinsky’s effusions of the Almanac, the exhibit he sponsored with Marc, and the publication of his book—as his art. The question of the existence of Spiral Jetty, apart from the film or the essay is central to the nature of Earthworks as art. In general, Earthworks rely heavily on documentation, but Shapiro suggests that the documentation is fully a part of the artwork and not ancillary to it (7).
The Spiral Jetty refers directly to disparate elements drawn from myth, archeology, primitive cosmology and the found-object “alchemy” of Marcel Duchamp (Shapiro 194). Themes of decay and entropy drift through Shapiro’s account of Smithson’s work. Shapiro’s analysis imparts a pall of gloom over both past and future, as seen through Smithson’s laconic eye. Smithson’s concerns are as obvious as any artist’s preoccupation with genre, importance and “voice.” Shapiro views these concerns through the lenses of art history and aesthetic philosophy. In comparison with the precedents established by Kandinsky and Seurat, Smithson’s concerns may be restricted to a small set of dialectical oppositions that emerge from his Spiral and can reconcile his themes. Of Earthworks as a genre, Shapiro remarked that:
“Earth plays two roles in Smithson’s art and thought; it is both the unrepresentable or surd dimension of things and the object of ‘man’s’ desire to cultivate a relationship with his environing context, in which case it often becomes ‘Mother Earth’ …These two tendencies can be associated respectively with two key words in Smithson’s thought: ‘entropy’ is the concept used to reject anthropomorphic notions of representation and limited historical perspectives, while ‘dialectic’ is deployed to suggest the possibility of a real relationship between the artist and nature…that could be extended through the artist to other people. Entropy would be associated with sublime and dialectic with the picturesque”(151).
We see from Shapiro’s summary that “entropy,” is the “unrepresentable” the dimension of the “surd”; and “dialectic” is a notion of an impermanent relationship (“desire”) with the earth, one of the juxtapositions central to Smithson’s thought. Entropy and dialectic are in Smithson’s view then adjectives for some greater reality that he as an artist is trying to express. Entropy must exist only in reference to or as a part of a larger unobservable context. Dialectic, on the other hand, seems not only observable, but adaptable to the purposes of the artist. Dialectic can be represented, while entropy cannot be.
Smithson, as quoted by Shapiro, provides the names of the chief combatants in a struggle that seems to recall the cosmic war foretold by Kandinsky. He styles the names after theological concepts: “logos” –the power of the word, and “alogos” –the “without power” of the word. Unlike Kandinsky, Smithson does not see what may come after this struggle:
“In the Spiral Jetty the surd takes over and leads one into a world that cannot be expressed by number or rationality. Ambiguities are admitted rather than rejected, contradictions are increased rather than decreased—the alogos undermines the logos. Purity is put in jeopardy” (qtd. in Shapiro 8).
Even when we apply Shapiro’s insight to Smithson’s analysis we fall short of understanding the inner mystery he is trying to fathom. Shapiro acknowledges this as a struggle that Smithson may be having with his own beliefs. The conflict can be resolved, according to Shapiro by “a more explicit reflection on the artist’s language” (152). His reflection on Smithson’s language is justified because he sees it to be “both a dimension of his art and the arena with which these thoughts and desires become manifest, and to his concern with his own place and origins to the way in which he inscribes himself into his works, that is, with his signature” (152). We need not rehearse Shapiro’s entire discussion in order to determine that he will suggest the resolution of the conflict cited by Smithson between logos and alogos as “signature.”
Shapiro’s analysis may be partly summarized. One of the problems for Smithson as an artist who is interested in the “monumental,” is how to “sign” his work (191-2). As an artist he is influenced by Duchamp. What unites the two artists is not the interplay centering on their ironic play with signatures—“R. Mutt,” that effaces Duchamp’s Fountain, 1914; and a “press release” by Smithson, that bears the signature “Eton Corrasable” (194). Shapiro concludes that: “In the case of both Smithson and Duchamp, the gesture appears to point to the inevitable presence of the artist, even in his ironic denial of himself or the art world….” (194). Shapiro continues his analysis by pointing to the central problem apparent in Smithson’s thought and art. The monuments of his art cannot point to either pre history or post history; and still bear his signature; even if he doesn’t sign them he has claimed them. Two paradoxes emerge: “The gesture of inscription that might first appear to be a way of asserting the autonomy of the signatory becomes a form of sacrifice or self-loss when the name becomes part of the work” (204). –and— “His activity is always double, divided between a writing that is obviously signed and a series of works that ostensibly escape the modern fetishism of the name” (205).
The first statement of the paradox is notable because it implies that the artist’s autonomy is at stake. The very act of signing the work will make it, symbolically him, subject to entropy, death and decay. This recalls Kandinsky’s heroic paintings. Unlike Kandinsky’s artist, Smithson’s is martyred to an unknowable, “unrepresentable” and is perhaps the unwitting victim of the very dialectic only he can interpret or “extend to others.” The signature of the artist does not mean immortality then, but death.
The second statement of the paradox seems uniquely suited to the artist as theorist whose work, like Kandinsky’s and Smithson’s, consists of written text as art, and art—monument—as text. If a written work is unsigned it is anonymous, but a documented work –a monument—that is in essence, un-sign-able, and that should be anonymous to be authentic, is never anonymous.
Smithson’s works are encountered in the ironic underworld of Egypt or of Greece. Shades glide by and impart no secret of their history. Others walk upside down and speak softly in riddles. If one wishes to travel here, one must first answer their questions. If one answers the questions wrong, one is devoured and consigned to oblivion. Smithson reminds us that the second home of the god Dionysos—the god who presides at the banquet table of Irony and Madness, is the Underworld.
Smithson says that “monuments cause us to forget the future” (Shapiro 25). This is of course another paradox an inverted circum-linear truth that questions those who hear it. Lines of Dionysian controversy swell into Kandinsky’s language of color sounds, only to become resident in the infinitely divided unity of Seurat’s metaphorical dots. “New” lines converge on Smithson’s monuments, they fall like shadows and perpetuate his moment of artistic arrest.
A. David Napier writing in Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology argues an opposing view:
“What the glib inevitability of the art world’s acceptance of entropy suggests is more our unwillingness to consider other ways of thinking than our arrival at anything like an absolute objective statement. If anything, a focusing on entropy indicates our unwillingness as a culture to accept the preconditions of other ways of thinking. Nor, therefore, are we likely to accept that our unwillingness to imagine other ways of thinking is the consequence of our Platonic obsession with the inferiority of materialized images” (48-9).
For Napier, the paradoxes of Modernist sensibilities amount to an intellectual obstinacy. This obstinacy insists that once the idea is realized in material form, it no longer has value. The opposites of paradox do not resolve into a viewpoint of the autonomous “I” of the artist. Nor does paradox inform a spiritual indoctrination. The paradox, if entropy is admitted, results only in death. Smithson admits this, in reflections on his own work, in the light of Poussin’s painted inscription from Arcadian Shepherds: “The unnameable tonalities of blue that were once square tide pools of sky have vanished into the camera, and now rest in the cemetery of the printed page—Ancora in Arcadia morte” (Shapiro 215).
The “unnameable tonalities of blue” recalls Kandinsky’s understanding of the inability of words to delimit colors. The Golden Ages of Seurat and of Kandinsky are presented in the mocking language of Dionysian parody: “square tide pools of sky” describes the line between two points, linking heaven and earth; it is only a trick of the light, a dual vanishing point. His camera becomes a tomb, the printed page, an ossuary, and both are monumental extremes. As in the Poussin painting, these two monuments bear a single inscription, with a double meaning (Shapiro 21). The inscription is a riddle about life, death and the promise of Arcadia. As is often the case in Smithson’s irony, the writing changes now, even though it was written in stone. One reading points to the future, and the other points to the past. Smithson’s version lies somewhere in between and he concludes: “Hope is dead in Arcadia.”
Altschuler, Bruce. The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: The New Art in the 20th Century. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1994.
Canaday, John. Metropolitan Seminars in Art: Great Periods in Painting. “Porfolio K: Painting in Transition: Precursors of Modern Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1960.
Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New, 2nd ed. New York: MeGraw-Hill, Inc., 1991.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947.
Kandinsky, Nina. “Some Notes on the Development of Kandinsky’s Painting.” Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Wassily Kandinsky. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947.
Le Targat, Francois. Kandinsky. Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, S.A., 1986.
Napier, A. David. Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.
Shapiro, Gary. Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art After Babel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Marcel Duchamp: Chance, Irony, Influence….
A Dinner with Tremalchio
“Ironically enough, L.H.O.O.Q. also set in motion a vast critical apparatus that would eventually discover many close affinities between Duchamp and Leonardo da Vinci. That most elusive and mysterious of Renaissance masters was enjoying a tremendous vogue in 1919, which happened to be the four hundredth anniversary of his death. According to Roger Shattuck, “no other human being, historical or imaginary, appears to have received so much systematic and such widely disseminated attention from western culture” during those years” (Tomkins, pp. 221-222).
[L’entrée: Hors d’oeuvres et charcuterie]
L. H. O.O. Q. (1919, Marcel Duchamp, pencil on print of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. 7 ¾” x 4 ¼”, private collection.) has been described as an act of derision—the “supreme dada gesture” (p.221). Duchamp himself admitted that “the Giaconda was so universally known and admired, it was very tempting to use it for scandal” (p.222). This “assisted” ready-made dates from October of 1919. Given Leonardo’s popularity among the later Surrealists, Duchamp’s gesture could also be read as a statement of artistic affinity. The two artists had many interests in common, especially alchemy and tinkering. Probably the most important interest shared by Leonardo and Duchamp, referenced by Tomkins and mentioned in the above discussion (more than once) was the belief that art “should not be just a visual or ‘retinal’ experience but rather ‘una cosa mentale’ in Leonardo’s famous phrase: a thing of the mind” (p.222). Duchamp later commented about the prank, “…the curious thing about that moustache an d goatee is that when you look at the Mona Lisa it becomes a man… It is not a woman disguised as a man; it is a real man, and that was my discovery, without realizing it at the time” (qtd in Tomkins, p.222).
Duchamp’s gesture might also have been a sentimental act, commemorating the anniversary of his brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s death, October 7th the previous year. Duchamp probably did not want to be in France at all. He had told his sometime patron and friend Walter Arensberg, and others that he would not stay long. In fact his preoccupation with unfinished business abroad lead to the creation of at least one of the other two works completed during his Paris stay: The Tzank Check, (1919); and 50 cc of Paris Air, (1919). The latter was a glass ampoule obtained from a pharmacist, emptied of its contents and otherwise “filled”, it was given as a gift to the Arensbergs, who “had everything else” (p.223). Duchamp had organized, with his surviving brother Jacques Villon nineteen of Duchamp-Villon’s works for a memorial at the Salon d’Automne.
In the fall of 1919, Duchamp also spent time (somewhat reluctantly) in the company of one of his other patrons, Katherine Dreier. Dreier (with the financial backing of her sisters and wealthy friends) the following year, would devote herself to establishing a museum of modern art. Duchamp served for a time as the President, and later remained on the Board of Directors. Duchamp acquired works for the museum’s exhibitions from among his friends and colleagues in the avant-garde. The Societe Anonyme, (est. 1920) was made redundant by Man Ray’s poor understanding of French and the addition of “Inc.” by a clerk in the Secretary of State’s office. The name appealed to Duchamp and to Dreier [i.e., “Incorporated, Inc.”]
The Societe Anonyme, Inc. persisted for twenty years and helped to foster an appreciation for “advanced modern art” in America—and nearly bankrupted the Dreier sisters (Tomkins, pp. 225-227). The Societe gave many European artists their first one-man shows in America, and “could and did claim precedence,,, as the first museum anywhere in the world that was devoted exclusively to modern art” (p.227). In many ways Dreier helped pave the way for the Museum of Modern Art in New York (est. 1929).
Dreier was an avid theosophist (like Kandinsky) she believed “in a spiritual reality that was available to certain individuals who had attained—either through natural clairvoyance or by means of long meditation and study—a high degree of self-awareness” (p. 287). In Dreier’s view, Duchamp was such a person.
In spite of the cynicism and the sometimes wayward behavior of her “adopted son,” she truly believed him to be in touch with spiritual insights of the highest order, insights that had allowed him to turn his back on fame, material goods, and every other distraction in order to pursue his own way in the world, which was the way of self knowledge (p. 287).
Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. has been read literally as “Look”, vituperatively as “Le Hook” or pronounced letter by letter in French “elle a chaud au cul”. Only the last of these was deliberate; [the phrase translates to “she has a hot ass”; for some reason Sayre translates it as “roughly…’she’s hot in the pants’” (Sayre, p. 504). Sayre’s translation not only spoils the joke—it simply doesn’t make sense!] the first two “interpretations” are perhaps straining irrelevancies; [although some scholars have tried to make an association with the second “reading” and Duchamp’s “Hook, Line and Cinquer” from Wanted /$2,000 Reward, (1923)—it seems unlikely.] Duchamp urged, in an interview promoting the Societe, that American audiences, in particular should be encouraged to see the humor in modern art. He argued that when the avant-garde first arrived in America that they were taken very seriously because they seemed to take themselves very seriously (Tomkins, p. 226). He concluded that many of the works of art were intended to be humorous. All three of his ready-mades from the 1919 trip to France seem to argue for a more light-hearted view of the avant-garde in art.
Andre Breton was another “high-minded” idealist, and like Dreier, if only in two respects: he thought that art should serve his particular cause—the “betterment of mankind”; and he admired Duchamp. Breton called Duchamp the “most singular man alive, as well as the most elusive and deceptive” (p. 291). Breton was, with Tristan Tzara [Samuel Rosenstock or Rosenstein—depending on the source] one of the self-proclaimed leaders of the dada movement. [dada is never an “ism” or and “ist”—it is not capitalized if one can help it.] Duchamp’s small set of puns, circulated under the name “Rrose Selavy” [fr. Arroser—“to sprinkle” and “c’est la vie”; the double “r” was a later addition by Duchamp to link the verb arroser to Picabia’s name—presumably in a less than savory way…. The alter-ego was created with the help of Man Ray. –see had convinced Breton, in spite of the latter’s utter lack of and disregard for humor, that “nothing more remarkable ha[d] happened in poetry for many years” (Qtd in Tomkins, p. 248). Duchamp’s creation of Rrose Selavy was perhaps a theatrical gesture to reassure critics and audiences alike that he had not intended any disrespect to Leonardo. Writing in Unpacking Duchamp: Art in Transit, Dalia Judovitz (1995) explained:
The portrait functions here in the literal sense of pour and traire (forth and draw); that is, as a drawing forth of several images (imprints) from what appears to be a single image…. Trait …can also mean stroke of genius or of witticism, as well as currency, a bank bill, or draft. [as in Tzank Check] Just as the word trait can acquire very different meanings depending on context, so the Mona Lisa, as an image, reveals itself as a repository not only of different but even of mutually exclusive images…. The gesture of portraying is translated, therefore, into a drawing forth of other likenesses that differentially inhabit the same image (p.144).
Judovitz sees the altered ready-made as a “rediscovery within Leonardo’s work” that rather than negating it, redefined it as a “set of gestures that make possible his own [Duchamp’s] appropriation and reinscription” of the Mona Lisa and his creation of Rrose Selavy. Taken together they can be regarded as a disruption of “the notion of artistic identity by reducing it to a set of signs and conventions that can be manipulated” (p.144). The manipulation that Judovitz sees is “drawn forth” again by Duchamp in L.H. O.O.Q., Shaved, (1965). [Duchamp. Ready-made reproduction of the Mona Lisa, 3 ½” x 2 7/16”, New York, Walter and Louise Arensberg Collection] (p. 146). Duchamp returned La Gioconda to the art world, but in a forever altered form. As Robert Hughes (1991) noted in The Shock of the New:
How many people by now can say that their experience of the Mona Lisa as a painting is more vivid than their memory of it as a post card?… To most people the painting is a green subaqueous ghost, a dimly perceived mould from which all the millions of replicated smiles are run off. Its “uniqueness” is a function of its ability to multiply images of itself (p.325).
Judovitz takes a slightly different tack,
Duchamp reveals how the process of reproduction itself fundamentally alters the concept of artistic value…. This apparent dependence of the original on the copy is not entirely fictitious however, insofar as the spectator’s experience of Mona Lisa is, in fact invariably mediated through its reproduction (p. 146).
For Judovitz, the spectator is to notice the “fragile interval between art and nonart” (p. 147). Judowitz allows the involvement of the spectator in creating a “contextual authority” for the work of art, by recognizing in its “counterfeit” –its image—the sum of artistic gestures that created the whole; it is in this “contextualization process” that Duchamp and Leonardo’s “onlookers” can participate in the creative acts that constitute the “original” work of art (p.149).
Duchamp’s “supreme dada gesture” was an affectation intended to affirm art, tradition and the venerable; the ironic backdrop against which his act took place, was the approval or disapproval –the responses—of his peers who misread his gesture as transgressive and iconoclastic. Duchamp argued for an ongoing dialogue between the artist and the spectator. According to Judovitz, “the notion of artistic value emerges as an index not of the work but instead of the exchanges that it can generate between work and spectator” (p.148). Art was for Duchamp, “a strategic medium, and the artist [is] a transitional figure whose role is to restage both the terms and the conventions defining artistic practice” (p. 157). For this reason, Duchamp could claim with all sincerity, that he “gave up” art for chess (Judovitz, pp. 5, 35-37).
[Les plats principaux]
Joan Miro, in an acknowledgement of his affinity, appropriated Leonardo’s advice to young artists, to describe his own working method, by stating that he found inspiration in the hallucinations brought on by hunger and by staring at the cracks in plaster (Hughes, pp. 225, 235). Hughes points out the contradictions between Miro’s claim and the images he created:
Miro claimed that the hallucinations brought on by hunger staring at the cracks in the plaster during those lean Paris years helped to loosen his imagery, as mescaline might. But the creatures that swarm and buss in The Harlequin’s Carnival are too consistent to be entirely the product of reverie, for they emerge from the very specific, dense and playful sense of nature that only a rural childhood can give (p.325).
When compared with Hughes’ earlier restatement of Leonardo’s advice to young artists, Miro’s affectation (or at least exaggeration) becomes apparent, deliberate and even somewhat theatrical:
When you look at a wall spotted with stains, or with a mixture of stones, if you have to devise some scene you may discover a resemblance to various landscapes … or again, you may see battles and figures in action, or strange faces and costumes, or an endless variety of objects, which you could reduce to complete and well drawn forms. And these appear on such walls promiscuously…. (Leonardo, qtd in Hughes, p. 225).
To be completely fair to Miro, the Maestro did instruct that the images be “reduced to complete and well drawn forms”—and Hughes has challenged Miro’s claim precisely because the images were “too consistent to be entirely the product of reverie”. Perhaps Miro was simply a better student than Hughes would like to admit….
Duchamp resisted painting, as did Miro, and later Jasper Johns, although of the three Duchamp was the only one to actually “give it up” altogether. While Johns’ “restagings” were suffused with references to Duchamp, Miro’s work referred mostly to itself. The works of all three artists were curiously theatrical. In fact at different times and in very different ways, each of these artists was drawn to the stage as an almost inevitable extension of his innate theatricality. Duchamp declared in a letter to Arensberg, that he wanted to go to Hollywood, not to be an actor but as an assistant camera man; Duchamp had also made a brief appearance on stage, nude, as “Adam” in a tableau for the final scene of Cine Sketch (1924, with Bronia Perimutter as “Eve”) a sex farce devised by Picabia and Rene Clair. Miro designed sets and costumes for the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo’s Jeux d’Enfents (1932, at the Theater de Monte Carlo); Miro also designed the monstrous puppets for the Ubu-esque parody Mori el Merma, (1977-78, Teatre Principal, Palma)—the latter production was also the subject of a BBC short film interview, with Roland Penrose (1978) [referenced here as found in Carolyn Lanchner’s monograph for the Museum of Modern Art (1993) but also as the actual interview with Penrose in the video Joan Miro: Theatre of Dreams. London: RM Arts/BBC Films/ BBC Television Production Company (1978)] (Lanchner, pp. 329, 344). As Richard Kostelanetz (1962) reported in The Theater of Mixed Means, Jasper Johns succeeded Robert Rauschenberg as Artistic Director for Merce Cunningham, who introduced him [Johns] to John Cage; Johns also collaborated with Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely, and David Tudor on a concert in Paris (1961) and also on Kenneth Koch’s The Construction of Boston (1962) (Kostelanetz, p. 80).
[The contents of all of the above notations are substantially correct; the forms may or may not have been given according to APA notation style. I suggest that you correct them and send the amended MS back to me as soon as possible. I know that footnotes are no longer in vogue—they are too distracting; no one reads endnotes, so I decided to cram it all in here, and hope for the best…]
The BBC film Joan Miro: Theatre of Dreams, (1978) offered a sentimental and inoffensive look at the artist as was in 1978. The film shows “cut-aways” of the artist at work on yet another series of paintings in his Palma studio. Miro also sat comfortably in conversation with Penrose, an old friend and journalist, and reflected on his life and work; Miro the designer thoughtfully, energetically “supervised” the actors and puppeteers as they prepared for their performance of Mori el Merma. Much of the dialogue is in Catalan and French, and all of it is without subtitles. Even without the benefit of an English translation, the subtext is clear, Miro is at home. He smiles; he nods encouragement to the performers; he claps his hands in approval. It is as though the beings that once only inhabited the landscapes of his paintings have been allowed for the moment, a life beyond the canvas. Penrose narrates as if to summarize the proceedings, but it is quite unnecessary. Miro, the alchemist, has finally succeeded in freeing his images to pursue lives of their own.
Hughes, as he described the metamorphosis of The Tilled Field, (1923-24) [Miro, oil on canvas, 26” x 36 ½”. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.] vaguely employs the language of the stage, but stops short of calling the work “theatrical”:
Miro began The Farm in Spain and finished it in Paris, but its images continued to fascinate him; the same encounter of a lizard and a snail, for instance, crops up in The Tilled Field, 1923-24 …but by now the work of metamorphosis is well underway. The eucalyptus in the barnyard at Montroig has grown an eye and an ear; the chicken seems to have plucked itself, ready for roasting; French tricleurs flutter from an enlarged aloe plant, and the body of the cock that crows from its stalk has merged with a cloud behind it. Everything in this landscape has the power to become something else, and this mutability of existence—its ability to change masks under the pressure of an insistent, animal vitality –recommended Miro’s work to the Surrealists…. In 1924 he took part in the first surrealist group show (232).
Carolyn Lanchner (1993) discusses Miro’s fascination for his own images in greater depth:
Perhaps the most frequently remarked aspect of Miro’s oeuvre is its reserve of pictographic signs used with the interchangeability of alphabetic letters in a vast range of permutations. As the context of each work alters the semantic charge of a sign, so the participation of that work in a series governs the formal manner of the sign’s presentation. But in 1924 and 1925, while signs were still being formulated, Miro’s different ways of working were spilling into each other….(pp. 35-36).
Miro brings about the “contextual metamorphosis” of his pictorial vocabulary with a virtuosity that displays his “fascination with his own activity, his insistence upon directing attention to materials and process…at least as great as that of any other leading modernist” (p.34). Lanchner describes in painstaking detail the processes and excesses to which Miro’s fascination led him. What Miro would have us believe to be the hunger-induced reverie, inspired by staring at the cracks in a plaster wall in fact emerges, under Lanchner’s scrutiny as an ordering of the world of the subconscious mind, that conformed to meticulous calculations of balance and composition. The painting was laid out according to three vertical markers; these principles of organization are strictly observed in the right side of the painting, “and just as deliberately modified in the left” (22). They are a
…diagrammatic means of deciding just how to distribute the elements of his composition… His decision to move the base of the fig tree’s trunk off-plumb re-establishes equilibrium in the narrow middle band of the three that divide the picture laterally: In that thin yellow strip, where water separates earth from sky, the forking branch of the fig tree, now aligned with the bottom marker, balances in virtually perfect spatial equipoise with the left edge of the chimney and the middle of the pine tree (p. 22).
Lanchner summarized her structural analysis of The Tilled Field by noting that Miro’s painting “abounds with other careful structural calibrations, and the rhythms these set up are complimented by robust rhymes of geometric an biomorphic forms in a play of color that makes dramatic use of black” (p.22). She also related that Miro’s handling of the paint at times resembles “appliqué” and that although the following year Miro would “exploit with relish the pictorial effects of pentimenti” –even advanced conservation techniques could not reverse Miro’s claim that all of his work from 1923 was without this effect and “finished without retouching” (23).
Lanchner turns her discussion to a comparison between the drawings in the Montroig Notebook, to continue her point that Miro was involved in a process of refinements of images, interrelationships and motifs. Two of Lanchner’s conclusions from her discussion of the drawings are important to note: First, that the “motifs of The Tilled Field drawings become so stylized in the painting that their relationship to their studies is, at most, elliptical” ; and second, that the drawings “help clarify Miro’s claim that his art was based on reality” (23). These points are important here, because they support Lanchner’s argument concerning Miro’s art as a series of processes, refinements of similar elements continually restaged by the artist, in new and unexpected ways:
If The Farm can be thought of as symbolic of Miro’s own person, The Tilled Field is more depersonalized. Where the earlier picture gave us a self-contained world of interrelations, the later one shows that world not as self-contained, but rather as synedochic of a surrounding cosmos, in which analogy governs…. After The Tilled Field, Miro’s art abides in the domain of metaphor…” (pp.23-24).
Once Miro was engaged by the metaphor, his series of processes resolved into a series of series, that Lanchner related by analogy to the series of Cezanne, Monet and Mondrian—and to “latter day practitioners of ‘serial imagery,’ including Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Kenneth Noland…” (29). Lanchner was careful to point out the risks involved with associating the notion of “seriality” with Miro’s work; she also suggested that she would prefer “a more neutral term” (29). Miro’s work was like Duchamp’s, to be grouped conceptually. Miro saw his own growth as an artist as a rejection of his early attention to detail, “I reacted violently to all that, and I wanted to go beyond painting” (28). In striving to “go beyond painting” Miro paralleled Duchamp’s rejection of painting and equaled the perception that Duchamp “lived his life as art”; this idea could also be more directly (perhaps too vulgarly) expressed as a “life lived on stage”.
Lanchner came close to describing a sense of the theatrical in Miro’s work as she discussed his exploitation of the stretcher bar as a “frame” or a “window” that offered the viewer “an implicit invitation to a transparent ‘beyond,’ yet combined with an ultimate, obdurate opacity of surface” (43). Unlike Duchamp, who invited all comers to his play, Miro seems to reserve his stage to the particular performers who inhabit it, sometimes seen and sometimes unseen, yet always conceptually present by analogy: “…like the hand in The Kerosene Lamp, or the one in Duchamp’s Tu M’, the stretcher-bar trace is a pointer directing you, the viewer, to pay attention to me, the object before you” (43).
[Two quick notes: Miro’s The Kerosene Lamp (1924) charcoal and red conte, et cetera on canvas—more than that you should look up—On the other hand, Duchamp’s Tu M’ (1918) is over ten feet long and otherwise difficult to describe—it includes oil on stretched canvas, a variety of “ready— mades” including a hand painted commercial sign-signed by the sign-painter, and a bottle brush. Duchamp made it as a painting to put an end to all painting– but for our purposes the title is especially important: Tu M’ …is a phrase—the verb has been omitted by the artist; but it is generally thought that Duchamp intended it to be read as Tu M’emmerde –or–“You Bore the Shit Out of Me!”; and it is also thought of, as the last painting he ever did. –I promise—next time, footnotes—er—end notes! Now back to Lanchner….]
Lanchner offers two points in her conclusion, with regard to Miro’s art: Miro sought to “deflect expectation”; and that he believed “that to ‘make it new’ had no meaning beyond revealing an unsuspected dimension in the familiar” (p.74). As has been shown, these ideas are also important in an approach to understanding Duchamp’s work. One of Duchamp’s stated goals, was to “delay the eye”; this he achieved in part by controlling the amount of information available to the viewer, in pieces like the Large Glass, for example. [The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: Delay in Glass, (1915-23). Oil, varnish, lead foil, wire and dust on glass mounted between two glass panels. 9’ x 1 ¼” x 5’ 9 ¼”. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Katherine S. Dreier Bequest.]
The title gives the viewer an expectation of seeing a variety of images—but only as delayed by their presentation, and by the medium itself: “A bride stripped bare,” “her bachelors,” and an “atypical wedding”; an abduction scene perhaps—or even a rape. We are told by Duchamp (in another related work) that we are the Temoins Oculists (1920) [Pencil on the reverse of a carbon paper, 19 ¾” x 14 ¾”, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection] the “eye witnesses.” Yet the action described, our participation in it, what we see, and our reactions to it, are all our attempts to “consume” the work of art—acts that have been indefinitely delayed by the strategies of the artist. The artist has in fact foreseen and predicted, as one possible set of outcomes The Large Glass—the very work of art we are looking at! The action described by the title of the piece, our witnessing of it, and our reactions to it, all play a part in it. The artist has made a record of his pre-emptive strategy to our responses (to a scene he has not yet created) in glass, to reveal both the intricacies of his strategy, and the fragility of his predicament.
Duchamp saw himself as an art maker and chess master; and the audience, his viewers were and still are his opponents; they were entangled in a (retinal) game of chess. Since Duchamp’s strategy was to delay, it may be assumed that he must have thought that his opponent was winning–unless of course something unforeseen and unaccounted for, happened. The cracks and multiple breaks that the artist mended carefully (after an alleged, tragic delivery mishap) remind the viewer even today—that “chance” dominated everything concerning The Large Glass—except perhaps for the final outcome.
[An outcome known only to the artist; hidden from the public, delayed until after the artists death—and eventually assembled by others, from directions set down in notebooks by the artist over many years—delay. But that—as they say— is another story, for another time…. Etant Donnes:…—or— “Given”….]
Tomkins and others make many of the same points given above, often arriving at similar conclusions. Judovitz’s argument is considerably more thorough, and occupies the largest part of her book. It is summarized here, to help to establish another point concerning the nature of modernism, and the artist’s reliance on concepts like “delay,” “witnessing,” art “making” and “chance”. To conclude her examination of Duchamp’s work, Judovitz offers some important distinctions:
Duchamp’s postmodernity lies precisely in his discovery that Modernism would exhaust itself were it to simply conceive of itself in terms of vanguardism, seeking shock value for its own sake. Instead, Duchamp devises a strategic approach, one that “draws” on previous traditions, only to uncover within them new forms of artistic appropriation…. To discover the world in the modality of the ready-made is to confront the condition of postmodernity, not as a development in a historical progression but as a premise whose history is already posted in Modernism itself (p.240).
Postmodernism then, for Judovitz, springs fully-grown from the modality of the ready-made. Modernism necessarily preceded Postmodernism, not of historical necessity but only as a matter of semantics. Duchamp is able to stand in both traditions, simultaneously, for his own “artistic” purposes. Irony requires (in the formal sense of literary criticism) a frame of reference against which it may be seen as “ironic”; Judovitz suggests that the relationship between Postmodernism and Modernism is that of eiron to alazon—the true irony lies in the fact that it does not really matter which we regard as which.
The ready-made is not a postmodernist “invention”; it is a non-artifact that has not been sanctified yet by either scholarship or antiquity. In this view, which is also Duchamp’s view, the artist does not sanction or choose the object either, any more than the artist “makes” art. [“Art” derives from a Sanskrit root word meaning “make” or “made”—Duchamp reasoned then that all art must be already made.] The artist initiates a process “between” himself and the object that is then continued by an observer. This occurs—not in the eyes of the observer (retinal) but in the minds of the art maker and the observer in a “conversation” between the two. To “explain” his concept of “delaying” the retinal impact of art, Duchamp gave up art for chess, and allowed forty-six years to elapse between L.H. O. O. Q. (1919) and L.H.O.O.Q., Shaved, (1965). The amount of time that passed was determined by chance, a coincidence, or an analogy—and it was an extended metaphor.
Tomkins quotes John Cage’s reaction to the Abstract Expressionists’ belief that art should emphasize the artist’s “personal touch” and “deepest feelings”: “The purpose of art [is] ‘purposeless play… not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation…but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord’” (p. 408). Poised between the egoless art of Cage (p. 410) and the deepest feelings of Abstract Expressionism, is the “highly cerebral” art of Jasper Johns (p. 413). Duchamp had no disciples as such, but his influence on Johns is nonetheless remarkable.
Johns’ work is often summarized as paintings of “the targets, the stenciled words and numbers, the flags, the rulers, the fragments of human anatomy” (Hughes, p. 337). These, he argued are “things the mind already knows” (Tomkins, p.410; Hughes, p.337). Hughes says of these motifs that they are “things so well known that they were not well seen” (p. 337). By choosing such subjects for his paintings, Johns was free to “work on other levels” (p.337). Johns put aside his emotions in making his objects, only to see them re-emerge in his viewer and so re-visited the idea of Duchamp’s ideal dialogue. Art is a thing of the mind. The target has a bull, but the value is as arbitrary as the nine fragments of body parts above it, forever captured by plaster and paint. They are illusions that refer to both sculpture and to painting, but are in themselves neither. It is as if Johns the artist is self consciously checking over his shoulder, to see if anyone will make a conscious connection back to Duchamp. Tomkins points out that at the time that Johns and Rauschenberg met Duchamp and “Teeny” –Alexina—in 1960, they (Duchamp and Teeny–Duchamp’s wife; she was formerly married to the art dealer, Pierre Matisse, the son of Henri Matisse) only owned one major example of Duchamp’s work. It was installed in their apartment over the fireplace “on the second floor of a fine old nineteenth century townhouse”: 9 Malic Moulds (Tomkins, p.411).
[Teeny brought to the marriage and to the décor of the apartment several paintings by Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Balthus—not his real name— and many others that she received in the divorce settlement from Pierre Matisse. In fact it was she who had bought the 9 Malic Moulds (1914-15) a few years before in 1957 (p. 411) I only mention the dates 1957 and 1960—never mind… it will be obvious soon….Seriously—endnotes! Definitely—next time I’ll use endnotes…. ]
Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts (1955) [Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects 51” x 44”. Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.] was, of course created well before Johns’ first meeting with Duchamp. The nine plaster casts, and the nine “boxes” that contain them, only evoke something of the spirit of Duchampian irony. Even though Judovitz finds that Duchamp was obsessed with molds (216) and cites Female Fig Leaf (1950), Dart-Object (Objet-Dard) (1951) and Wedge of Chastity, (1954) (pp. 216-217) as proof, the link between Duchamp’s use of molds and Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts is tenuous at best. Duchamp was obsessed with puns and walked through the series mentally leading his viewers along as he digressed through an accompanying series of requisite delays: a female “fig leaf” that presented both interior and exterior forms—where one explicitly describes or hides the other; a phallus that is irreversibly bent, or hinged; and a metaphor for chastity that means “broken open” or “driven in” (Judovitz, p. 215-217) —not to mention the intentional association with the Latin root cuneas or “wedge” [which is probably best relegated to or buried in the endnotes….in its more “familiar” four- letter form.]
Johns’ penis was cast in the same light, or with the same emotional weight, as was his nose, his ear or his foot. The “Target” was much more carefully wrought, and was perhaps the star of his “presentation.” Encaustic as a medium, however, does recall Lanchner’s comment about Miro’s paint being “like appliqué”. Johns created “surfaces” or “different skins” for his works, which suggests that the true meaning of the subjects or objects represented may lie beneath what can be seen. This interpretation enhances the sense of “having gone beyond retinal boundaries, ‘into a field where language, thought and vision act upon one another…’” (Tomkins, p. 413). This latter statement approximates what Johns wrote in an essay reflecting on Duchamp’s art (p. 413). Certainly he may have seen himself, to the extent possible, working in a similar vein toward a new “tradition.” Like Duchamp and Miro before him, “Johns’ strategy involved the fact that the art of painting is to delay the eye” (Hughes, p. 340).
In the work of all three artists there is a “defense of painting in the face of a mass-culture environment” (Hughes, p. 341). How this defense was carried out varied greatly but all three artists started with the same premise: that the purpose of painting and of art, was to delay the eye. All three artists exploited their materials as a craftsman might, relying on technical virtuosity as well as thematic content to prove their work before the unseen audience, of whom they were acutely aware. None of these artists seems to embody any of the themes that could properly identify them solely with Modernism. As Hughes described it:
Being tied to the educational system, institutional modernism produced versions of art history that could easily be taught, stressing a banal narrative of “Progress,” “Innovation,” and “Movements,” this version of modernist priorities was to become as dogmatical and rigid as the pieties of official culture a century before…. Where did this new academy begin? At its origins, the avant-garde myth had held the artist to be a precursor; the significant work is the one that prepares the future. The cult of the precursor ended by cluttering the landscape with prophetic claims (p.372).
We find no such idealism in the works of Duchamp, Miro and Johns. Breton and Kandinsky (and Dreier) had looked forward to a “New Age,” an age in which man would be perfected—or at least “improved”—by art. Duchamp, Miro and Johns made no such claims. For them perhaps, “Modern” is only a temporal distinction, and “Art” being timeless, is therefore ironically juxtaposed to time.
Miro, in an interview with James Johnson Sweeney, (1947) compared his work not to the abstractions of the Cubists, but to the primitive Catalan church paintings. He described how he had to balance the elements of his painting to “a millimeter” to achieve an equilibrium: “It was this need for discipline which forced me to simplify in painting things from nature just as the Catalan primitives did” (Miro in Chipp, p. 432). This is hardly the statement of an innovator. Miro sees himself standing in a long line of traditionalists, pressed to change the forms of nature to conform to conservative sensibilities of those who preceded him.
Duchamp, also in an interview with Sweeney, (1946) spoke preemptively to Hughes’ idea of the cult of the precursor” with characteristic self-contradiction:
Usually a painter confesses he has his landmarks. He goes from landmark to landmark. Actually he is a slave to landmarks—even to contemporary ones. [and] …The only thing that brings admiration from my innermost being—something completely independent—nothing to do with the great names or influences…[and] it was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my glass, La Mariee mise a nu par ses celibataires, meme. From his Impressions d’Afrique I got the general approach. This play of his which I saw with Apollinaire helped me greatly on one side of my expression. I saw at once I could use Roussel as an influence (Duchamp in Chipp, pp. 394-395).
The ironies here are manifold, but not complicated. Duchamp at once, expresses his greatest admiration for those who are completely without external influences, and then acknowledges that nothing or no one is completely without external influences. In fact most of the interview was spent giving contexts for his work, as well as for Cubism and dada as extreme reactions against the “physical paintings” of Courbet—who prided himself on, and was generally known for his extreme individualism. Duchamp ended the interview with the only phrase in which we can have complete confidence: “I am sick of the expression ‘bete comme un peintre’ –stupid as a painter” (Duchamp in Chipp, p. 395).
Hughes referred to Courbet as “the first avant- garde artist, in the full sense of the word, offering both newness and confrontation…in whom the image of the artist-against-the-system was rounded out” (p.373). Duchamp, at least, was not a “Courbetist.” But in the broadest sense, and with very few exceptions, perhaps every artist since 1880 (to borrow Hughes’ date) has been:
From 1880 on, modern art would thus be more gratuitous, ironic, and self-sufficient than ever. It looked esoteric because it was. To see how a Cubist Braque or Picasso from 1911-1912 connected to the realities of modern life, with its quick shuttle of multiple viewpoints, its play between solids and transparencies, its odd tension between explicit signs (words, numbers, real textures of wall paper, or oilcloth) on the one hand and extreme painterly ambiguity on the other, demanded the kind of sympathetic attention that very few people were prepared to bestow on it (p. 375).
A far stronger point (invective) advanced by Hughes lies in the relationship he sees between Modernism and the American appetite for change. He says in fact that “the American ethos itself dispelled the adversarial role of the avant-garde” (p. 375). “Advanced art” became converted by the utilitarian marketplace to nothing more than a “radical therapy,” and was stripped of its deeper meanings by egalitarian simplicities. The “shock” of finding the “marvelous” in things, gave way to concerns over adequate parking, under-funding, over-funding, staff qualifications and dinner reservations made on cell phones while rushing from one event to another. Modernism—however it was defined—in its final ironic act, consumed itself.
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Adams, L.S. (2005) A History of Western Art, 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.
Benton, J. R., DiYanni, R. (2002). Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, Combined ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bishop, P.E. (2005). Adventures in the Human Spirit, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Bohm-Duchen, M. (1992). Themes in Art: The Nude. London: Scala Publications.
Chipp, H. B. (1968) Theories of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics with Contributions by Peter Selz and Joshua C. Taylor. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cunningham, L.S., Reich, J. J. (2006). Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities, 6th ed. Alternate Volume, Instructors’ ed. Belmont, California: Thomson Wadsworth.
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“Excerpts from Civilisation by Kenneth Clark” (n.d.) Accessed 21 April, 2010. http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth200/clark_civilisation.html
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Hughes, R. S. (1991). The Shock of the New: The Hundred Year History of Modern Art, Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall (2nd Ed.). New York, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Marquardt, J., Eskilson, S. (2005). Frames of Reference: Art, History and the World. New York: McGraw Hill.
Perry, M., Baker, W., & Pfeiffer-Hollinger, P. (2003). The Humanities in the Western Tradition: Ideas and Aesthetics, Vol 2. Renaissance to Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Sayre, H.M. (2010) A World of Art, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Stiles, K., Selz, P. eds. (1996) Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Stokstad, Marilyn (1999). Art History, Revised ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Tomkins, C. (1996) Duchamp: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
There were arguably three artists in the last Century who did more to advance the cause of non-representational Abstract Art than any others. They are not among my favorites, but they are among the most important simply because their visions prevailed. As I have maintained elsewhere, all art is “abstract”; some abstract art is representational and some is non-representational. Just as there is a lot of bad representational art “out there” there is also (considerably more) bad non-representational art as well.
Although some of us would prefer to believe that the differences between good art and bad are to be determined objectively according to universal rules or principles. While there may be rules and principles that are more or less universal, the problem is there is little agreement about them: what they are, and how they should be applied to art. Generally speaking most people who don’t know any better (but perhaps they mean well anyway) think that non-representational artists and thus their works transgress against “all the rules”. There are some artists, who believe that as long as they are applying these rules to their work that they are creating art. A fair assessment and compromise might suggest that all art consists in certain elements; all of the elements of art can be described as either conforming to or transgressing against certain principles that are fundamental to their existence.
I’ll go get some warm milk and a little coffee while you go back and read the last paragraph. If you get tired part way through, I suggest that you give up and join a pilates class.
So (although others will disagree with me) i recognize five elements and five principles of design. (I am irreligious when it comes to most things and refuse to even pretend to spiritualism of any kind–i am very Old Testament when it comes to Art and Design: Much as the Old Testament gave us five do and five don’t commandments, i give you five elements and five principles for art and design. The elements are Line, Shape, Mass, Texture and Color; the five principles are Contrast, Balance, Unity, Rhythm and Proportion. (The mnemonic devices i give my students are to take the first letter of each word and contrive some silly little sentence that will at least point you to the first letter of each word: for elements “L”ousy “S”ex “M”akes “T”ina “C”ranky; and for Principles “C” or “See” principal “BURP”. If you don’t know Tina, and or you never had a High School principal, you’re on your own.)
Line is the same here as it was in Math class, the thing that connects two or more points. Lines are descriptive of shapes in that all shapes can be reduced to component lines. Mass is a kind of volumetric displacement of a given space defined or described by a given shape or shapes. Texture is something that can be felt through the senses, especially sight and touch; but i would like to think that there are rough and smooth smells, sounds and tastes as well–but that could just be me. Color is perhaps the most subjective of all of the elements of design and therefore of art; no two people experience the same color as the “same”. The best way to explain color, is to use the examples of black and white. There are no true blacks or whites, there are only infinite variations of darker and lighter grays. (If you have any doubts about this fact, you need only to look in my closet and my sock and underwear drawers.)
Principles of design are somewhat less straightforward than their elementary counterparts: Contrast can mean a contrast of color, lines, textures, sizes and so forth; but basically a contrast presents two or more elements or principles each relative to the other so that it may be said that one is this, and the other is not this but is that. Balance is the presence or absence of some quality shared by two or more things in relatively equal amounts. (There are eight black squares and eight white squares on a black and white chess board. If your chess board is of any other colors than black and white–throw it out and buy a black and white one, so that this may still be said to be true in the generations yet to come–I’m very Old Testament about these things.) Unity is related to balance; whereas balance moves toward equality or parity, Unity moves toward sameness; balance is more quantitative and unity is more qualitative. Breasts may be of different sizes but they are all still breasts (you use your examples, i’ll use mine….).
Rhythm is an analogy of (in visual arts) on shape to another. A shape that tends to repeat is said to create a visual rhythm: for example the vertical lines and spaces that are and are between the slats of a picket fence. Proportion is probably the easiest principle to recognize but also the most difficult to interpret. Proportion can be the size of one thing relative to another; disproportion can be the absence or presence of one thing relative to another; we sometimes need to question the artist or her work to discover why things in her work are the way they are? Why does Michelangelo’s David have a large head, hands and feet, but a small penis? I don’t know–that must be a New Testament sort of thing….
These Elements and Principles were and are used by both Representational and Non-Representational artists, not necessarily through the Artist’s intention, but because the elements and principles inhere in our understanding of the nature of the world around us. Our three Non-Representational Artists: Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, all argued that their arrangement of the elements of design and art (in their works) adhered not just to the physical principles that are immediately apprehended by the mind, but also, somehow to greater spiritual “truths” or “realities” as well.
Kandinsky’s best known book is in fact called “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” Kandinsky was of course a product of the late Nineteenth Century which consumed most of Europe and the United States in a kind of maelstrom of Spiritual huckster-“ism”s. Jackson Pollock was a product of American Early Twentieth Century psychological huckster-ism, Art School, alcohol and his own bad temper. Mark Rothko was a product of the New York School (not really a “school” at all) Judeo-Christian guilt and huckster-ism and a misguided sense of anachronistic mysticism mixed with alcohol, tobacco and psychosis. And yet as tragic as the lives of these three men were, they were possessed of (perhaps by) a curious sense of hope and optimism that marked them squarely as the descendants of the Romantics. As we will see, contrary to popular opinion, Non – Representational (Abstract Expressionist) art is not a progressive movement, but a conservative backlash with (pretensions toward) “spiritual” overtones.
Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. (1866.) He was trained in Law and Economics; he taught law for a while and then moved to Berlin, where inexplicably he turned to the study of Art. Most famously, he co-founded the Blue Rider (mostly a series of written manifestos that were influential but not a fully-fledged art movement;) and he taught art and architecture at the Bauhaus until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933. He became a French Citizen in 1936 or 1939–and lived the rest of his life in France. [ In an interesting side note, his apartment in France was found for him by Marcel Duchamp.] He died in 1944 of what has been called a cerebro-vascular disease. The tragedy in his life was not the age at which he died, nor the cause of his death. The real tragedy was that he led his entire artistic life suffering under the delusion that the non-sensical platitudes of Theo-sophistry had something to do with reality in general and art in particular.
While art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and whereas anything can suggest or inspire art, Kandinsky set about trying to prove an almost mechanical correspondence between the elements of art and the emotions they arouse in us: as if to say “all blues are cool and recede from our view”, all “yellows are hot and advance toward the viewer”, “curves are soothing” and “all acute angles are angry”; if one were to properly order the elements predictable emotions would occur quite apart from a subject but none of this is true. “Black Lines” is a partially descriptive title of one of his works. And the work does have some black lines in it. So the title is at least partly descriptive. “Improvisation” a partial title of many of his works is misleading at best. His “Improvisations” were the result of numerous studies that one can only presume, even he felt failed to meet the result he desired.
Nor could these improvisations meet Kandinsky’s expectations. Our assessments of art and our responses to it, emotional and otherwise are entirely subjective. As we have seen previously the elements and principles of design, and therefore of art inhere not in the things themselves, but in our perceptions of things. They are observationally defined not intrinsic to the referent object: be it a point, a line, a plane, a color a shape or whatever. Theosophy and the theories that Kandinsky and others derived from it proved yet again that no matter how enthusiastically one embraces or espouses a positivist-ic philosophy one’s enthusiasm alone is not enough to prove it true. [A positivist-ic philosophy is one that merely asserts the truths of things without actually investigating them–like Pre-Socratic Philosophy or Republican Social policies.] I suppose in the end that what Kandinsky taught us was that art itself can be a proper subject for art making and art makers. I can’t help but wonder though, what he might have created had he not been so obsessed with proving his theories. Oh well, like most of us, sometimes he hit the nail, sometimes he hit the board–but all too often he just hit his thumb.
Jackson Pollock’s story is perhaps quintessentially a Post Modern American Tragedy. The model he chose for his art grew out of his manias and his attempts to assuage them. He saw “action painting” as an end in itself and not as a means to create art. He likened the process to the sand paintings of the Native Americans of the southwest. The Shaman enters another realm, with his patient that is expressed by the fashioning of a mandala with sand. When the painting is finished it is swept away and the patient is cured. The action of painting is only a metaphor for the actions one undertakes in one’s life–as are the images created in colored sand by the Shaman.
Pollock located himself “inside” his painting in what i have elsewhere referred to as the “gestic” moment of the painting. He is both the Shaman and the patient. Pollock was “treated” or at least diagnosed as a manic depressive and an alcoholic; unfortunately for him his Psychiatrist probably knew less about his affliction than Pollock had intuited for himself, and was even further baffled as to the cure. Pollock succumbed to his disease in a single car accident that was reportedly alcohol related at the young age of forty four. He can truly be said to have died too young. His mistress died in the accident with him; a family friend survived the crash; and his wife Lee Krasner who was not in the accident lived for another forty years and did much to advance his work and the work of their foundation.
Pollock’s legacy doesn’t really flow from the paintings he created, nor from the tragedy that ended his life. His true legacy is in the idea of the gestic moment of creation where the act of creation becomes the created. This idea was picked up by Performance Artists like Allan Kaprow and John Cage. Pollock coined a new vocabulary for artists who strove to create a new art form. What Kandinsky could not do convincingly because his approach was mechanistic, Pollock achieved through organic means.
Mark Rothko was a New York Russian Jew who rejected formal religion and formal “contemporary” art. Many critics have commented on his Russian-ness or his Jewish-ness as important to understanding his art. I don’t believe this to be so in either case. I think that Rothko understood his spirituality to be located in a more Zen like apprehension of the silence that accompanies sound than in the sounds themselves. [Indeed one of the tenets of the New York School’s Manifestos, published in 1943 in the New York Times was “Silence is so accurate” [If this program would allow me to add emphasis without turning the whole rest of the article into italics i would emphasize the word “accurate”.] How can silence be accurate? Isn’t silence there by being absent–a non-registered observation of privation and not of fulfillment? “Silence is so accurate” is a Koan. One is not meant to understand it rationally–if one tries, one necessarily fails because it exists only in a realm where logic no longer applies and the only possible point of reference is the still point (“immovable spot”) from which the Buddha could not be moved.
Rothko’s great masterpiece, some might argue his only masterpiece is the chapel that bears his name in Texas. (1964-1967 or perhaps 1969.) The fourteen panels are all over-sized perhaps intended to be black rectangles–that are intentionally not black (although they are composed of colors that suggest black in combination, and most experiences of the chapel would lead one to believe that the panels were black at some point but had faded– suggesting that Religious truths that were once “black and white” have now faded–that’s just my reading of them.)
Rothko, ironically, was not healthy enough to work on the panels himself, instead he hired two assistants to grind and mix pigments and lay in the carefully controlled color washes. The circumstances surrounding the commission of the chapel, its completion, eventual installation and dedication are still hotly discussed among art history scholars. Some points of agreement have been reached however: Rothko intended it to be a Roman Catholic Chapel, based on a Byzantine predecessor; and that the chapel would not be dedicated or consecrated as a Catholic chapel because Rothko committed suicide. I generally end my discussions of “the Post Modern” era with Rothko’s suicide. He was found by an assistant on his kitchen floor, lying next to a razor in a pool of blood with slashes on both arms, February 25, 1970, he was 63. His chapel was dedicated February 28th the following year as a non-denominational chapel perhaps consecrated to “the accuracy” of Silence.
[I would here like to reiterate my previous objections to drawing a conclusion or summing up this article; as before, I prefer to leave that task to my readers. If I have any readers, I am sure that they will be happy to draw the through-lines and connect the proverbial dots. I still haven’t gotten that sandwich!]
This is me—oh yeah—well, I look a lot older in person—