Action Painting – Kaufman – American Scholar

What the Mind’s Eye Sees Action painters were postwar exemplars of American individualism Jason Edward Kaufman

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Painting

What the Mind’s Eye Sees

Action painters were postwar exemplars of American individualism

Jason Edward Kaufman

The great leap of modern art in the

early decades of the last century was

the proposition that abstraction could

be the highest form of artistic expression. A

hundred years later, canvases marked only by

paint splashes, slashes, drips, and flows are

now counted among the canonical works of

Western art. The terms “gestural abstraction”

and “action painting” have been used to

describe the sort of abstractions that directly

reflect the action of an artist’s gestures in

applying paint.

An exhibition called Action Painting at

the Beyeler Museum outside Basel, Switzerland

(January 27 to May 12, 2008) has gathered

dozens of examples by artists who

worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Among

the Americans are Jackson Pollock, Clyfford

Still, and Helen Frankenthaler, alongside

Europeans Jean Fautrier and Pierre Soulages,

and European-born artists who worked in the

United States such as Willem de Kooning,

Arshile Gorky, and Hans Hofmann, among

many others. The Action Painting show is not

only an occasion to examine the historical

development of this mode of image making,

but also an opportunity to consider our experience

of the work anew. Take American

action painting, which coalesced into the

dominant school of gestural painting after

World War II. Are these once-radical works—

say, Pollock’s Number 7, 1951 (1951) and de

Kooning’s Valentine (1947), both in the

Museum of Modern Art—visually engaging

and deeply affecting today? Are they of lasting

value? At a time when a painting by Pollock

or de Kooning reportedly commands

$140 million in the private market—more

than any other individual works of art—the

question seems not only moot but verging on

the absurd. But setting aside collectors’

embrace of these abstract expressionist

works, and the critical respect for gestural

painting in general, do these paintings merit

their vaunted status?

The argument against abstraction was

rejected decades ago. Why dredge it up again?

Because the exercise is one that refreshes and

deepens our appreciation of modern art.

Moreover, despite the established position of

mid-20th-century action painters, their celebrated

works remain a mystery to most viewers.

The hackneyed charge “My kid could do

it” has been rebuffed routinely by experts, but

for the general public it remains a lingering

suspicion. Art has always been appreciated by

an elite group of cognoscenti versed in theories

that support the work. For other people,

many forms of art will never have significant

impact. But even among experts there remain

many doubters about abstraction. A celebrated

scholar of Italian Renaissance art,

when asked by a student if he intended to visit

the Morris Louis retrospective then at MoMA,

smiled and replied wearily, “Imagine, all those

shower curtains!”

This anecdote illustrates a broader truth:

action painting mystifies many more people

than one might expect. What do museum

visitors take away from their encounters with

} Jason Edward Kaufman is the New York–based

chief U.S. correspondent for The Art Newspaper.  A

version of this essay appeared in the catalog of the

Beyeler exhibition.

Kaufman Live.qxp 2/27/2008 2:39 PM Page 113

it? Some may find beauty, power, torment, or

calm—just as they do in music. Abstract paintings

may remind them of aspects of nature or

of an inner mood or even of the collective

unconscious, an expression of the symbolic

forms that lie within all of us. I suspect, however,

that more typically they find the works

lightly engaging, inaccessible, or even risible.

That the works hang in a museum where they

are given the imprimatur of the intelligentsia

is cause for discomfort and self-doubt. Unlike

music, which unfolds over time, the experience

of abstract art must be actively created

by its audience. If the viewer does not extract

a meaningful experience from the work, he

bears some of the blame. Those who are

knowledgeable about art can draw on a range

of historical associations to add meaning to

the experience of an abstract work. But perhaps

gestural abstraction is just not intriguing

enough to activate the mind of the

general viewer.

An inquiry into the

value of action painting

necessarily gets at fundamental

questions about

the nature and purpose

of art, topics that the

American action painters

themselves considered

deeply. Indeed,

those artists, including

Pollock, de Kooning,

Gorky, Clyfford Still, and

their followers, have

been credited with having

broken new ground

in aesthetics, thereby

advancing the history of

art. Influenced by European

artists, many of

whom immigrated from

Fascist Europe to America

in the late 1930s and

1940s, the abstract expressionists

who were to

become gestural painters

in the United States

shared the surrealists’

fascination with the possibility

of automatic drawing as a way to reveal

the unconscious. But recognizing the futility

of eliminating the impact of consciousness,

they shifted their interest from the automatic

to the autographic, exploring the possibilities

of unique hand-painted gesture as a vehicle of

expression. Many of the abstract expressionists

remained interested in psychology, particularly

the work of Carl Jung, which postulated

the existence of archetypal images and types

embedded in a collective unconscious. They

continued to look inward, seeking to make

objective the vision of the mind’s eye, and

they fixed on the notion of the signature autographic

gesture as the carrier of their personal

feelings.

Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of

the Museum of Modern Art, wrote in a 1952

article in The New York Times Magazine that

many artists “feel that their painting is a stubborn,

difficult, even desperate effort to discover

the ‘self’ or ‘reality.’” He summarized

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Jackson Pollock in 1950 with Lee Krasner, at work on One: Number 31, 1950

PROLITTERIS, ZURICH/HANS NAMUTH

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the ethos with the quip “I paint therefore I

am.” The abstractions that resulted jettisoned

overt representational imagery and became

fields of marks that the artists and supportive

critics deemed embodiments—sometimes

with symbolic or metaphorical resonance—of

ideas and states of mind. Pollock, in works

like Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949 (1949), laid

his canvas on the floor and dribbled swirls of

paint from his brush in overlapping skeins

that resemble neural networks and astronomic

seas. De Kooning, in works like Valentine,

painted gracefully swooping arcs and

interpenetrating shapes that retained allusions

to the topography of the body. Clyfford

Still, as in his January 1951 (1951), created

fields of somber black, midnight blue, red, or

ocher in which patches of other colors suggest

glimpses of hidden worlds. Franz Kline

brushed muscular black swaths on white backgrounds,

as in the Whitney Museum’s Dahlia

(1959). Morris Louis allowed gravity to pull

liquid color down the canvas in diagonal

bands, resulting in paintings like Omega IV

(1959/60). These works—all of which are in

the Beyeler exhibition—do not require the

same sort of looking as representational art.

They send the viewer inward in search of

meaning and, in doing so, they extend the

trajectory of the preceding five centuries of

Western art.

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y

Gasset, in his brilliant 1925 essay “The Dehumanization

of Art,” posited that the shift in

focus from the observable world to the mind’s

eye was the inexorable course of art since the

Renaissance. After single-point perspective

unified the visual field, baroque art’s thrusting

space projected from the picture plane toward

the eye. The impressionists were less concerned

with describing the contours of objects

and the fullness of space than with the effect

of light as perceived by the retina. The symbolists

passed through the eye to portray

images of the imagination, an approach

extended later by the surrealists. Subjectivity

was further explored through color by the

post-impressionists and expressionists, and the

cubists devised a multi-perspectival means of

presenting objects as seen by the mind over

time. Modernism’s journey into the mind culminated

with various forms of nonobjective

abstraction that either reduced the outer

world to perceived patterns and essences or

abandoned it entirely by turning the gaze

directly inward and producing images of

visionary experience. In this sense, gestural

painting is one of modernism’s purest forms.

The aesthetician Rudolph Arnheim

believed that modernism’s reflexive search is

emblematic of an epistemological revolution.

In his essay “On Inspiration,” which appeared

in ARTnews in 1957, he wrote:

It took the Romantic movement to introduce

the decisive shift that so profoundly

affected our modern thinking—inspiration

is no longer considered to come from

the outside [scripture, the muses, standards

of beauty, etc.] but from the inside,

not from above but from below. . . . In

many ways, this development must please

the psychologists, who have contributed

to putting it on firmer ground. They

helped to redefine these fictitious external

forces as forces of the human mind

itself. They discovered that all human

activities, weighty as well as slight, take

place only partially in the limelight of

consciousness; and they recognized that

the gaps in the observable chain of causes

and effects are filled by complex thought

processes below the level of awareness.

Man’s creative accomplishments must be

attributed to causes inherent somewhere

in man himself.

Abstract expressionism’s leading champion,

the New York critic Clement Greenberg,

acknowledged the difficulty for the public in

appreciating these highly personal works. “The

pictures of some of these Americans startle

because they seem to rely on ungoverned

spontaneity and haphazard effects; or,” he said,

referring to color-field works by Mark Rothko

and Barnett Newman, “because, at the other

extreme, they present surfaces which appear to

be largely devoid of pictorial incident.” But the

abstract expressionist’s individualism was cast

by some commentators as an agent of political

change and seized by the government as an

example of freedom and democracy. In the

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aftermath of the Allied victory in World War II,

and with the European economy and culture

in disarray, America gained a hitherto

unprecedented prominence that the government

exploited. By the 1950s, the U.S. State

Department funded the export of exhibitions

to Europe as a cultural counterpart to the Marshall

Plan. MoMA’s international council,

which shared the government’s opposition to

totalitarianism, sent abstract expressionist

works by Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Still,

Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston and

others to eight European cities in 1956. Gestural

abstraction was seen as the product of an

American society that enshrines the rights of

the individual.

A heavily illustrated article about Pollock

published in Life magazine in 1949 went a long

way to convincing the public that the new art

was to be taken seriously. It presented him as

an individualistic American on an artistic

quest. He and fellow abstract expressionists de

Kooning, Kline, and others were hailed as proponents

of personal and social freedom of a

kind not permitted by fascist and communist

totalitarian regimes. New York critic Harold

Rosenberg, who coined the term action painting,

considered the canvas an arena for individual

action; and the unfettered exercise of

freedom in that arena was, he maintained, a

moral imperative. The sculptor David Smith,

whose welded-metal drawings in space were in

some ways a three-dimensional equivalent to

gestural abstraction, maintained that “the freedom

of man’s mind to celebrate his own feeling

by a work of art parallels his social revolt

from bondage.”

But whereas the act of gestural painting

could be construed as political, the works

themselves are devoid of political content. For

Greenberg they were the forefront of the

avant-garde, an aesthetic assessment he based

on Marxist-inspired notions of historical evolution.

Having noted how the illusion of

depth of field diminished from impressionism

to cubism and other forms of abstraction,

he concluded that painting was headed

toward complete flatness. In his 1955 essay

“‘American-Type’ Painting,” he explained this

as a historical necessity that results from each

medium shedding its extrinsic properties. “It

seems to be a law of modernism—thus one

that applies to almost all art that remains truly

alive in our time—that the conventions not

essential to the viability of a medium be discarded

as soon as they are recognized.” Modernist

painting’s essence consists of “flatness

and the delineation of flatness,” he later

wrote, implicitly urging painters to eliminate

representation, illusion, and stage-like depth

of field as the proper province of literature

and theater. He declared that New York

artists, including Pollock, Kline, Still, Rothko,

and Newman, who emerged during and after

the war, were leaders in reducing pictorial art

to its formal basics. Greenberg wrote that

“their works constitute the first manifestation

of American art to draw a standing protest at

home as well as serious attention from

Europe, where, though deplored more often

than praised, they have already influenced an

important part of the avant-garde.”

Once action painting had been accepted as

a viable mode of art making, its practitioners

were no longer regarded as revolutionaries.

History has relegated the second-generation

abstract expressionists—Motherwell, Morris

Louis, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell—to secondary

status, and many others are considered

insignificant academic followers. And

the art historian Meyer Schapiro has observed

that even the work of first-rank abstract

expressionists devolved into repetition. Their

efforts to create a “freely made . . . ordered

world of its own kind” resulted in a concern

for good composition and the development of

a signature style. Their expressive spontaneity

was reduced to a repeatable trademark.

Artists immediately assailed the abstract

expressionist myth: Robert Rauschenberg

erased a de Kooning drawing in 1953, symbolically

negating the integrity and power of

the artist’s touch. Four years later he duplicated

his own AbEx-style painting Factum I

with Factum II—questioning the authenticity of

the spontaneous mark as a vehicle for unique

feeling. Jasper Johns also punctured abstract

expressionist spontaneity by rendering its gestural

brushwork in rigid encaustic. He mocked

the machismo of abstract expressionist brood-

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ing pathos in deadpan works such as Painting

with Two Balls, a painterly canvas stretched

apart in the middle to create a space into

which he inserted two little balls. Frank Stella

replaced the unpredictability of abstract

expressionism by painting rigid geometric

compositions that anticipated minimalism,

and Lynda Benglis poured fluorescent pigments

onto the floor where they solidified in

colorful “frozen gestures.”

Johns demoted the de rigueur autograph

gesture to a means of depicting flags, maps,

and numerals, and Rauschenberg substituted

photographic images gleaned from the media

for gestural brushwork. Their return to recognizable

subject matter presaged the pop

artists’ wholesale embrace of the world of

mass-produced images and products. The language

of art shifted from individualist selfexpression

to a field in which commonly

encountered images were recombined and

explored—a mode of aesthetic inquiry of

greater relevancy and urgency in our mediadrenched

society. Andy Warhol completely

abandoned the personal and symbolically

gave himself over to mass-produced imagery

and mechanical reproduction, establishing a

critical antipode to gestural abstraction. In

the pluralistic mix of styles today, in which

artists borrow and repurpose imagery and

modes of art-making from the past, the relative

values of abstraction and figuration, the

personal and the commonly shared, the handmade

and the mass-produced, are no longer

hotly debated.

In retrospect, the American action painters’

dream of inventing personal means to

express their inner world has profound

poignancy. Each individual’s body, mind, and

set of experiences are unique and inaccessible

to others. But imagine if we could begin to

know the texture and pace of another’s

thoughts and sensations. When artists seek to

relieve the essential solitude of existence they

serve art’s highest function. The action

painters mastered what they held to be unique

forms of self-expression, but their languages

remain little understood by contemporary

audiences. Critics such as Greenberg and

Rosenberg helped to explain the artists’ intent

by situating the work within formalist or social

theories, but we are left with the raw encounter

with the work of art, which even today is not

well understood.

What is clear is that gestural painting can

be interpreted in various ways and relies on

reflection for meaning to emerge. But

abstract art is not a mirror behind which the

artist remains concealed and in which the

spectator contemplates only himself. The

work of art affects the nature of the viewer’s

response, but the secrets of the psychological

and perceptual transfer of emotion and

meaning remain to be unlocked. Can scientists

develop a neurological map for how certain

formal elements affect thoughts and

moods? How can colors, textures, shapes, and

gestures convey emotions and ideas? Is one

spectator’s response consistent with another’s,

and to what degree does any response correspond

with the artist’s intention? These questions

are part of the legacy that the action

painters have bequeathed. v

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Lynda Benglis

PROLITTERIS, ZURICH; COURTESY CHEIM & READ GALLERY, NEW YORK

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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