Skip to comments.Art Appreciation/Education "class" #8: Pollock and Abstract Expressionism.
Posted on 08/22/2005 8:22:58 AM PDT by Republicanprofessor
It is now time to try to wrap up these small lectures on the history of art. Today is the tough day: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, etc. I have to admit that I did not get these works until I was well within graduate school. For Pollock, it took the documentary by Hans Namuth in which I saw him painting. His work is not just a bunch of random splatters; instead, Pollock carefully dances around the canvas, and you can see the evidence of the dance, if you will, on the canvas. (This is the same time that Martha Graham is dancing, and the time of improvisation in jazz, to which Pollock listened a great deal.)
For Rothko, it took a visit to his retrospective at the NYC Guggenheim. At first my reaction was oh no, this block guy. But I wanted to see the architecture of the Guggenheim, so I walked to the top and studied the works on the way down. I was quite moved by the works, especially at the end, when his work became darker and darker. He was suffering from depression, and his dealer was ripping him off, and he ended up committing suicide, even before his chapel in Houston was complete.
Many of these artists died tragically: Pollock and David Smith, the sculptor, in drunk driving accidents; Rothko and Arshile Gorky committed suicide. It was a tragic but also a heroic time.
Now there are several ways to think about the visuals of these works, and their content. Yes, there is deep meaning in all of these works, much deeper than the works that follow them (in Pop Art and Minimal Art). Visually, these artists combine so much of what Ive already discussed: the color and painterly brushwork (often seemingly messy) of the Expressionists (like Matisse, Kandinsky and the other German Expressionists); the broken planes and flat tensions of Cubism; and the reliance upon inner subjectivity, if not the direct dreams, of Surrealism.
In addition, these artists were reacting against the destruction of WWII. They were not very political, although many of them did come from somewhat socialist backgrounds (and many worked for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration). But one of their goals was to dive within themselves and to create art that would be understood by the world over, without a knowledge of Greek mythology, history or whatever narrative often controls the painting. They wanted to create a primitive, world-wide communication that would draw people together in understanding. (Now, Im not saying they succeeded in being instantly understood. My father, who loved New England landscapes with white houses, red barns and mountains, would never have understood a Pollock, no matter how hard I tried.)
Now, can you see what Adolphe Gottlieb (1903-1974) is communicating in this basic pictograph? Can you see the male and female and other symbolic forms? The style is reminiscent of cave paintings, and the piece I wanted to show is called Male and Female, where the male is goggling at a well-endowed woman. Isnt that a timeless theme? In his later works, his burst series, he created opposing circles that could represent heaven and earth, sun and ground, etc.
There are three groups of Abstract Expressionists: the gestural, the color-field and the combined styles. Gottlieb is often one of the latter, because he does use great, emotional gestures in the bottom figures, while his upper levels deal with pulsing colors.
Okay, time to move on to Pollock, (1912-1956). Pollock was also influenced by Carl Jung, a student of Freud, who developed the idea of the collective unconscious: that we all share certain basic, primeval feelings, ideas, dreams. Pollock was a patient of a Jungian psychologist and early in his life executed drawings for his therapy sessions. There is also an element of Existentialism in Abstract Expressionism. This is a pretty complex philosophy (which is not my specialty), but in its essence it has to do with making our own actions and thus our lives. We need not rely upon others, or use others for our excuses, thus complaining that I wasnt allowed to go to college or other whining that doesnt excuse our responsibility for our actions. In terms of painting, the large, powerful strokes exemplify Existentialist action.
Pollock epitomized Action Painting. Now there is a great deal of art theory at this juncture; there is even competition between the theories of Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg. But I will spare you those details. Meanwhile, check out Lavendar Mist and Autumn Rhythm from 1950.
Are these painting shallow or deep? As one can tell from the Namuth documentary and in the Ed Harris Pollock movie (which I highly recommend), Pollock he was in the work as he created it. He was thus into that other, surreal frame of mind as he created his works.
Also note that in his work, there is an obliteration of distinction between line and shape. For centuries, a line always outlined a form, but Kandinsky began to erase this distinction, and Pollock went even further. Find a strong drip, and note how it goes from a thick line into a shape and then back into a line again. These lines are also reminiscent of trees, capturing the energy and web-like quality if not realism per se. Pollock was very inspired by nature, especially after his move to Long Island.
A Kandinsky from the 1910s and Pollocks Convergence from the 1950s. Note how Pollock took Kandinskys ideas a step further.
There is also a great tension or play of flat planes in Pollocks work. I see the paintings as deep, but they can also be seen as simple flat planes layered upon each other. Clement Greenberg (the Clem in the movie) was the great critic of the age. He saw Pollocks work as creating a new kind of oscillating depth. I like the way he phrased this, and Greenbergs criticism in general has opened my mind a great deal for how to look at abstract paintings.
Pollocks paintings can also be seen as showing both microscopic and macroscopic view. These are almost as abstract as looking through a microscope and seeing those textured vision of the world from above. One could say of Pollock that his abstract view is equivalent to how Einstein redefined the world in his abstract terms of relativity; (the only equation I know of Einstein is E=mc squared). Pollock is defining line and shape in new ways; he is also defining gesture in a new way. His paintings reflect his effort and gestures as he danced around the canvas and layered the paint.
Lavendar Mist from around 1950 was actually named by Clement Greenberg. I see it as similar to the mood of a foggy day with melted snow producing that fog. There is no actual lavender in it, but the other colors make it seem like a lavender mist. Many of Pollocks works are like the late waterlilies of Monet. (Greenberg did not appreciate the late works by Monet, created in 1926, until after he had seen Pollocks drip paintings from around 1950).
For the record, Pollock was an alcoholic, mostly because his father got him drunk while he was still a child (and before his father ran out and left the family). But Pollock was on the wagon for the two years, 1950-52, during which he painted his most famous drip works. The scene of when he went off the wagon, after Hans Namuth was filming him (in a seemingly artificial way), is well shown in Harris Pollock.
Franz Kline Painting no. 2 1954
The Abstract Expressionist whose use of gesture I first got is Franz Kline (1910-1962). He uses black and white paint with housepainter-sized brushes and large dynamic Existentialist brushstrokes. The white sometimes paints over the black figure confusing figure and ground. His work has a great deal of power (just try to paint his gestures yourself: you need a large, strong stroke to do so). Sometimes his works look like close-ups of bridges, cranes, etc. One also sees these paintings as a whole image all at once, not as small parts that make up a whole.
The last gestural painter that I need to mention is Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). The action of de Koonings brushstrokes are certainly the epitome of Action Painting. He creates painterly cubist abstractions, especially seen in the Woman paintings. For often his planes are flat, but there are very painterly edges. And his primitive quality comes from an old goddess, the Venus of Willendorf from about 15,000 B.C. which may have inspired his works.
Woman I 1950-52 shows a primeval image of woman as goddess (not as sex goddess by which women have been shown since Venetian painting of the 16th century). Note that she is strong and powerful, with what I see as bowling ball breasts. De Kooning saw these works as humorous, especially their smiles. It has always amused me that one of this series is in Iran; Im sure its hidden in the basement of some museum, shrouded since the downfall of the shah.
The second main group of the Abstract Expressionists is the Color Field painters. Mark Rothko is certainly the best of these.
(Please note that with Rothko, a small image on a computer with (very) inexact colors is nothing like standing before the real painting. I am very dissatisfied with the reproductions available today for this class. Most of his works are quite moving in person. Other works reproduced today are also unsatisfactory; the large, life-size works are much more powerful in person.)
In the 1950s, Rothko wrote a short blurb about his works, with Gottlieb and others as co-authors. One thing that was stressed was that their works dealt with tragic and timeless forms, depicting moods of mythology without the literary story. Rothkos mature works often show large black forms like graves. There is a story, which may or may not be true, but is one that he repeated (and thus it is a story that must have hovered in his mind). Rothko came from Russia to the US at a young age (his name then was Marcus Rothkowitz). At the end of the 19th century, it was said that the czars soldiers came into the (Jewish) town where Rothkos ancestors lived. They were taken to the edge of town, where they dug a large grave, into which they were thrown after being shot. I think this grave-like image not only haunted him but formed the basis for his vision of the afterlife, the doors of which pulse like his blocks.
In his paintings, the large dark forms float unexpectedly, much like the graves that may have been in his mind. Note that in normal designs, a black form would sink to the bottom, but here the heavy forms seem to float. There is a great range of color depicting a similar range of mood. The forms are mostly horizontal forms and thus seem similar to the shape of traditional landscape. Yet the frame is vertical (like figurative paintings) thus blurring the distinction between figure and ground, figure and landscape. When one looks at a Rothko, it is a very different experience from that of a Pollock. In front of a Pollock, I tend to move and twist and follow the lines and drips, almost recreating their energy. In front of a Rothko, I stand still and become more meditative, as the blocks seem to pulse before me.
Rothkos paintings are meant to be seen up close so that they are intimate, so that they are the only thing around you as you look. They are carefully layered, again often confusing figure and ground. With the idea that these might represent graves (in Rothkos unconscious if not literally in his paintings), I see them as pulsing doors to the beyond, with great atmosphere created by the subtle layering of his colors.
Later in his life, he created the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX with large single paintings and triptychs (3 part paintings) that are more monochrome in tone than his other works. The deep purples and colors verge on black. These works lack much of the subtlety of his other works, perhaps because the lighting in NYC, where he worked from a model of the chapel, is more subtle than the bright light of Texas.
Rothko committed suicide before the chapel was finished and open to the public (but after he had finished his works for the chapel).
Barnett Newman is another color field Abstract Expressionist, and I often think his work makes Rothkos look good. He has written volumes about his work, but I dont think that they help with understanding his work.
If you are looking at this work and just see stripes, you are WRONG! They are called zips. (Yeah, right.) Does the painterly edge along his zips create the tragic feeling he sought? He did indeed claim tragic and mythic importance for these minimal pieces.
His work was often done with masking tape. There was a series of 15 paintings of the 14 stations of the cross (plus Be, the final painting) done for the National Galley of Art in D.C. My students seem to have trouble seeing the 14 stations in these black and white zips on unfinished canvas. Does his flat work make Rothkos seem richer?
Newmans first and third Stations of the Cross.
Now, keep your minds open as you read this. I know that most of you will not appreciate this work, nor agree with my ideas, on the first run-through. Keep your eyes open, your mind open, and then let me know your thoughts. Try to be specific about why these works do or do not work for you. And let me know what other works you do like from this time.
Let me know if you want on or off this list.
I plan one more "lecture" on Pop and Minimal art, and how they reacted to the deeper content of Abstract Expressionism, as well as one on postmodernism. Then I may take your requests on other topics.
I know that you wanted to be added to the regular art ping list, but I thought I'd ping you here too in case you wanted to be added to this list as well.
And just in case anyone is just catching this series for the first time, the previous posts are:
class 7: American Modernism: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1440373/posts
class 6: Surrealism: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1427099/posts
class 5: Cubism: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1427099/posts
class 4: Expressionism: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1424087/posts
class 3: Cezanne and van Gogh; http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1419876/posts
class 2: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism; http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/1414727/posts
class 1: Realism: Manet and Homer; http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1410117/posts
You have approached this from something of a historical perspective, citing Jung and other explorers of the "collective unconscious." To that extent, I AGREE with you -- but with a twist.
Most of these works are examples of the collective unconscious . . . but it's yours (and mine), not theirs. Human beings desperately want order, and reason, and explanation, and pattern. Otherwise we despair.
We see the random patterns or the minimal lines and we wish to impose order and explanation on them. Those who are in the field, so to speak, develop elaborate explanations to bring order out of chaos and meaning out of meaninglessness. But the artist is not creating the order or the explanation -- the viewer is. So if there's an artist here, it's the viewer or the professor, not the person who put the paint on the canvas. The closest analogy is perhaps Dr. Rorschach's ink blots -- where the blot is just a blot and the interpretation placed on it by the patient is indicative of his state of mind, not the state of mind of Dr. Rorschach . . .
I have heard art critics explain that this IS art . . . that the artist is providing a valuable service in giving the viewer something to exercise HIS interpretive talents on. But of course what that means in the final analysis is that the artist is NOT interpreting, explaining, or really creating art in any traditional sense. Therefore he is not doing his job.
I wonder if the high rate of tragic deaths and suicides among these painters had anything to do with the realization that their efforts were only a half a creature, so to speak?
Something tells me that your father and I share similar tastes in art.
Pollock's works all look like ugly wallpaper. Most of the color block type painters work looks like bad clothing design. None of this would pass the sofa test.
This is the sort of work that gets the national endowment for the arts into the trouble it always is in. (Beside the fact that it is an unconstitutional expenditure of public funds in the first place) This is all trash. Looks like trash and will always be trash. I'm amazed that some people were actually hoodwinked into paying for this stuff. But then again a sucker is born every minute.
Now that is a great point. Perhaps they aspired to be great artists and saw that they (as evidenced by their works) fell woefully short and couldn't handle their failure.
I have only briefly checked one of your links, but it's enough to know your post is wonderful and is going absorb a lot of my reading today.
Thank you for thinking of us and keep me on that list of yours!
Thanks for these threads. I don't post much, if at all, to them, but I read them all and have learned much.
I don't know if you've ever read neurologist Oliver Sacks's book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but the title story seems applicable here.
Sacks was called in to consult on a very learned professor of music whose wife was concerned about his having developed somewhat bizarre quirks. In conversing with the professor's wife, he commented on the professor's paintings which were displayed on the walls. The earlier paintings were representational, but became progressively more and more abstract, until finally the last ones were mere blobs and splashes of paint. The professor's wife responded to Sacks's guarded criticism of the later paintings with the same defense that is given of Pollock et al. . . . "Oh, you don't understand! He has freed himself from the trammels of representationalism and is expressing pure art!"
Unfortunately, the poor man was suffering from a tumor or degenerative process of the visual centers of his brain . . . he could no longer comprehend what he saw, even common household objects like a glove (or his wife's head). Fortunately, he was still a brilliant musician and music "integrated" his deficiencies and enabled him to function. Sacks had the wit to realize this and recommended that the professor live entirely for his music . . . which he did until he died.
Thank you for posting links to your previous classes. I've got them bookmarked now. I regard them as valuable reference summaries.
Haven't had a chance to read the post yet, but will comment when I do.
I think that everyone is very pleased at your sudden reappearance!
And I also agree that sometimes too much is written to give credence to what is ultimately empty work (and this is definitely true of much minimalism and postmodernism). But the content of Abstract Expressionism still rings true to me, and I believe all that I wrote (although, as I said, it took me some years to see things that way). Just because Pollock did not write about the use of line, planes, etc. doesn't mean that those ideas weren't important in his work. He was notoriously non-verbal.
As for elaborate interpretations of art, check out all the volumes that have been written about Michelangelo and Botticelli involving various levels of theory about their work, including neoplatonic interpretations of the Medici Chapel and Primavera. Many times the artists may not write (or even discuss) these ideas, but others see them, and I think that if artworks can be read on several levels, so much the better.
Have you seen any Pollocks in person? The larger ones are quite energizing, and that's the only way to really see them. I don't think all his works are great, but One and the others of that ilk are awesome.
I knew I would get some disagreement from you. We can always continue this debate....ad infinitum. That's what makes FR such a fun place.
By all means ping me. And thanks.
That's a throwaway line that almost any photographer can tell you is NOT true. The camera does not faithfully depict the real world (although certainly when it first made its appearance artists thought it did and saw it either as a challenge or a threat.) It distorts, it flattens, it emphasizes . . . It can capture a lot of detail in the blink of an eye, but so did the pre-Raphaelites . . .
(I'm no painter, but I was a general factotum and tripod-carrier for a very good photographer in my misspent youth.)
It's plain that Pollock invested a lot of time and thought and energy in what he was doing . . . and that must have some effect on the output. At least I HOPE so because the thought of all that devotion just going to waste is depressing.
The one I REALLY can't stand is Rosetti, because he can neither draw nor handle perspective. More or less a poseur.
But Holman Hunt has his moments.
I don't like the pre-Raphaelites very much; too much detail and distraction for me, I think. Also, I never got how they were like the "primitives" before Raphael. They always seem super-sophisticated to me. Some people swear by them, and there are some good pieces (like Rossetti's Annunciation below). I guess I just like simpler works.
I think the "Brotherhood" was pretty silly, more or less on the level of college secret societies, but maybe a little bit more sophisticated. I also never understood how they considered themselves "primitive" - the last word I would use to describe the lot of them (although Rossetti unfortunately is frequently primitive, especially in his preparatory sketches.) . . . but still, they turned out some good work.
The four pictures in order are "Found" by D.G. Rossetti, in the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington (nobody else wanted it); "May Morning, Magdalen Tower" by W.H. Hunt (showing the May sunrise choral service on top of the college tower at Magdalen (Oxford). What the Parsi is doing there is anybody's guess), Birmingham (ENG not AL) Art Museum; "The Lady of Shallott" also by Hunt, in the Manchester City Art Museum; and "A Street Scene in Cairo (the Lantern-Maker's Courtship)" also by Hunt, and also in Birmingham. The last was painted on his Middle Eastern tour -- he went to gather material for his Biblical paintings like "The Scapegoat" and "Christ Discovered in the Temple."
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room
She saw the water lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide,
The mirror cracked from side to side,
'The Curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Here's another darned odd painting by Hunt - "The Triumph of the Innocents".
On the flight into Egypt, the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod appear to the Holy Family, holding symbols of their martyrdom. The infant Jesus sees them and holds out to them the wheat in the ear (that will become the Bread of the Eucharist). The little globes of water rising from the stream contain images of salvation prophecy. The Virgin's face is painted in two different versions (one in Liverpool, one in the Tate) - in this version, she has the serene and somewhat mysterious look of a pagan goddess.
(kind of a heavy theological burden for one painting, though it's a large one!)
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