MEANING IN ABSTRACT ESPRESSIONISM

 

 

 

What is it about Abstract Expressionism, or the New York School, that makes it both the most important and most difficult art of our time? Its importance I will assume for purposes of this discussion. Only after decades of looking, reading and looking once again, have I come to appreciate it. One has to learn to

see.  A single view is not enough. Behind it must be a knowledge of art history and the study of its masterpieces. It is a process that lasts a lifetime; but it's surely worth the effort. For the gain is one of life's great experiences: what Richard Wollheim would call 'visual delight'. The difficulty of this art, on the other hand, is apparent from the very phrase 'abstract expressionism'. For how can visual abstraction express emotion or represent human experience? Some of its greatest practitioners­ Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb - have made quite ambitious claims for their art:

 

"...There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial...only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess kinship with primitive and archaic art ("Letter to the Editor", The New York Times, June 13, 1943)."

 

Others, like one of its greatest champions, Clement Greenberg, have insisted that our appreciation be limited to its formal qualities, alone. But, as much as I admire Greenberg, I believe we should take these artist's intentions seriously. How far language is able to take us in our quest for meaning, however, has yet to be determined. It is the main purpose of this essay to explore that question. And I believe the best explanation lies in the psychological account of the meaning of art in Richard Wollheim's, Painting as an Art. In it, the author says:

 

"...what a painting means rests upon the experience induced in an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator by looking at the surface of the painting as the intentions of the artist led him to mark it. The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator if the result is to be that the spectator grasps the meaning of the picture (p. 22)..."

 

The author adds that “’intention' best picks out just those desires, thoughts, beliefs, experiences, emotions, commitments, which cause the artist to paint as he does (p. 19)..." That we "...need to make a distinction within intentions between those which are realized or fulfilled in the work and those which, though they contribute to the making of the work, are not realized in it (p. 19)..." And finally, that this is only possible because "...all art...presupposes a universal human nature in which the artist and audience share (p. 8)..."

 

But what if, as in the case of Abstract Expression, the surface is marked with a private sign or format discovered by the artist, himself? How is this meaning conveyed? A similar problem arises in music. That Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata for piano is emotionally powerful and "about" something important is undeniable. But even though Beethoven may have had a program in mind- or even wrote it down in his notebooks- the listener is unlikely to discover it merely by listening (nor, it might be argued, would such a program necessarily enrich his experience). Do we need language to further our experience of Abstract Expressionism; and, if so, how far can it take us toward grasping its meaning? Let us begin with Wollheim's psychological analysis of the meaning of art:

 

 

"There are three fundamental perceptual capacities that the artist relies upon the spectator to have and to use...seeing-in...expressive perception...and the capacity to experience visual delight. Upon these perceptual capacities rest the three basic powers that belong to painting...the power to represent external objects...to express mental or internal phenomena...to induce a special form of pleasure (p. 45).."

 

The first of these perceptual capacities is 'seeing-in':

 

"Seeing-in  is a distinct kind of perception, and it is triggered off by the presence within the field of vision of a differentiated surface...when seeing-in occurs, two things happen: I am visually aware of the surface I look at, and I discern something standing out in front of, or (in certain cases) receding behind, something else. So, for instance, I follow the famous advice of Leonardo da Vinci to an aspirant painter and I look at a stained wall, or I let my eyes wander over a frosty pane of glass and at one and the same time I am visually aware of the wall, or of the glass, and at one and the same time...l recognize a naked boy or dancers (p. 46)...seeing-in appears to be biologically grounded. It is an innate capacity, though, as with all innate capacities, it requires an environment  sufficiently congenial and sufficiently stimulating,

in which to mature (p. 54)..."

 

The next of our perceptual capacities is representation:

 

"Representation arrives, then, when there is imposed upon the natural capacity of seeing-in something that so far it had been without: a standard of correctness and incorrectness. This standard is set- set for each painting- by the intentions of the artist in so far as they are fulfilled (p. 48)..."

 

This account allows us to include abstract expressionist paintings as among those that "represent" through images:

 

"...the connection between representation and seeing-in allows us to reject the contrast, often drawn but quite unwarranted, between representational and abstract painting...Most abstract paintings displays images...And this is true despite the fact that we shall be able to say only in the most general terms what it is that we see in the surface (p. 62)..."

 

Finally, there is the perceptual capacity of expressive perception:

 

"...that capacity we have which enables us, on looking at a painting, to see it as expressing, for instance, melancholy, or turbulence or serenity...perhaps for something that eludes the grasp of language. It is unwarranted to think that, as has often been thought, a painting cannot express an emotion or feeling unless that emotion or feeling can also be caught in language (p. 80)..."

 

Our capacity for expressive perception rests on the psychological mechanism of projection, which is of two kinds:

 

"...With the first kind of experience, the emotion flows from us to what we perceive, and it is correspondingly indifferent to the look of the scene. With the second kind of experience, the emotion flows from what we perceive to us, and it is in consequence responsive to how the external world

 

 

looks...For the relation that holds between some part of the external world- a scene- and an emotion of ours which the scene is capable of invoking by virtue of how it looks, I use a term...adopted by Baudelaire: ...correspondence...it must be the second kind of experience that prefigures expressive perception (p. 82)..."

 

But the mystery of projection, and therefore expressive perception, is: What is it about the world- or a work of art- that enables us to project one emotion onto it rather than another? And this remains a problem for figurative as well as abstract expressionist art:

 

"...the suitability of some part of the world to support projection...becomes apparent only through trial and error, and all kinds of influence, cultural as well as private, may be assumed to stabilize projection...In this way we can posit a slow and gradual transition...between projection and expressive perception (p. 83,84)..."

 

Despite the difficulty of completing this circuit of meaning between artist and viewer, their roles have a

reciprocal relation:

 

"The spectator of an expressive picture, in trying to fit cause to correspondence, has the satisfaction of knowing that what he is trying to do is the mirror-image of what the artist tried to do when he made the picture. For what the artist tried to do was to give the look which the spectator- and here he relied on the spectator in himself- would see as of a piece with the emotion that was currently causing him to paint as he did. In other words, the artist tried to fit the correspondence to the cause (p. 88)..."

 

But for the spectator to grasp the meaning of a painting requires more than visual experience, alone; it takes background information about the history of art and the artist's place within that history:

 

"...a spectator needs a lot of information about how the painting he confronts came to be made...there seems to be only one limitation that should be placed upon what information can be drafted into the spectator's cognitive stock...The information must be such that by drawing upon it the spectator is enabled to experience some part of the content of the picture which otherwise he would have been likely to overlook (p. 89,91)..."

 

Finally, the author presents an ‘evolutionary’ argument’ for the successful transmission of meaning from artist to viewer throughout  art history, and, therefore, for the survival of painting as an art:

 

"...Painting would not go on, it would not have gone on, being practiced as an art, if it did not enjoy some of the success of art. If artists over the centuries had not succeeded in putting across what they wished to convey, they would have turned to some other activity to transmit what they intended. Or their public would have asked them to do so...The strongest argument, then, for the intelligibility of painting...is the survival of painting...Our belief then in the value of painting as something that has...stood the test of time (p. 357)..."

 

 

Let us now examine three artists of the New York School- Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko- in the light of Wollheim's analysis. I have selected the first two artists because they have provided us with the most background information (i.e. writings, interviews and descriptive titles) with which to grasp the meaning of their art. Mark Rothko, on the other hand, made it a practice of avoiding descriptive titles and interpretation. For this reason, his case is far more difficult. But let us preface our discussion with some of the common characteristics of Abstract Expressionism.

 

First, there is the method of automatism, inspired by Surrealism. Motherwell has spoken of this common principle: "...to let the brush take its head and take whatever we could use from the results (p.

44,Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)." Each of the painters of the New York School spent many years of struggle before they discovered their characteristic format or motif. Motherwell suggests that:

 

"...no artist ends up with the style he expected to have when he began...it is only by giving oneself up completely to the painting medium that one finds oneself and one's own style (p. 83,Robert Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio)."

 

"Motherwell painted thirty-three Elegies...before he fully realized what the particular subject was (p. 35, American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST)..."

 

But once that style had been discovered, these artists were able to explore it like a jazz musician improvises on a popular tune. This led to their second common characteristic, the series, or theme and variations:

 

"Gottlieb had found a...form...that did not have to be invented every time he painted. It was a shared problem of abstract artists at this time: how to establish an ambitious style within which it was possible to improvise without any slackening of authentic activity. The necessary motif  was one that could survive painterly variation without loss of legibility (p. 284, Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)."

 

"...Rothko's art is one of theme and variations...his paintings are far more like continuing nuances of one major idea than individual statements to be apprehended in their own right (p. 408, Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)."

 

"...to re-invent painting,  its subject matter and its means, is a task so difficult that one must reduce it to

a very simple concept in order to paint for the sheer joy of painting...variations gives me moments of joy

(Robert Motherwell, p. 33, American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST)."

 

A third common characteristic was scale. Motherwell has remarked "...one of the major American contributions to modern art is sheer size (p. 45,Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)." And Rothko has said of his own work: "...I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however- I think it applies to other painters I know- is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your

 

 

experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing lens...However you paint the larger picture, you are in it (p. 35, American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST)..."

 

Finally, there is the undiluted power of color. Motherwell has explained:

 

"...color has 3 main properties: hue; tone; and intensity...! feel as intensely as children about hue, and like them, often about very intense hue- which has been one of the main recoveries of modern art (p.

81, Robert Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio)..." And Clement Greenberg concluded: "...the most

radical of all the phenomena of "abstract expressionism"- and the most revolutionary move in painting since Mondrian- consists precisely in an effort to repudiate value contrast (i.e. tone) as the basis of pictorial design (p. 99,Robert Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio)..."

 

Let us now examine our three artists of the New York School- Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and

Mark Rothko. Motherwell

The artist began his years of artistic research and discovery employing the method of automatism derived from the surrealists:

 

"Motherwell started with one of the many surrealist automatic devices for initiating a picture; he used "automatism," making a doodle on a sheet of paper...what eventually becomes the essential Elegy motif begins to emerge: a pattern of blackened oval forms contrasted to blackened vertical, rectangular

panels  (p. 94-96,American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST)..."

 

But unlike some of his colleagues - like Rothko, who refused to give descriptive titles to his works ­ Motherwell was eager to reveal his intentions. "Elegy to the Spanish Republic" became the collective title of his most famous series of paintings:

 

"I take an elegy to be a funeral lamentation or funeral song for something one cared about. The

"Spanish Elegies" are not "political" but my private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgotten (p. 127,Robert Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio)..."

 

The Spanish Civil War was as central to the political consciousness of Motherwell's generation as the Vietnam War was to my own. It was the radicalizing event that forced them to confront world capitalism's plunge into depression and fascism, and a rallying cry to fight for a socialist future. E. C. Goosen has observed:

"The Spanish Civil War was fought when Motherwell was in his early twenties. One may assume this was for him that War in which all young men participate either in reality or in spirit. It was the daily topic of his university and, later, his artistic circle. It was a war which suggested the virtue of Cause and the violence of men to a degree not even true of World War II (p. 100, American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBECTS  OF THE ARTIST}."

 

 

We have already mentioned Motherwell's child-like rapture with color:

 

"... I feel as intensely as children about hue, and like them, often about very intense hue (p. 81, Robert

Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio)..."

 

And it should be added that Motherwell (like Franz Kline) had a special regard for black as a color:

 

"(It was only) after a period of painting them (the 1950-1953 pictures) I discovered Black as one of my subjects - and with black, the contrasting white - a  sense of life and death which to me is Spanish (p. 102, American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST)."

 

Others critics have interpreted the Elegies in terms of the ritual of the bullfight, images of architecture or hanging fruit, but we will not pursue those analogies. Motherwell's own thoughts on the meaning of Abstract Expressionism are compatible with those presented here. He describes what we have called the intention of the artist in terms of states of being, processes, and the artist's feeling for his subject:

 

"Traditional drawing's main function- though it also can be aesthetic- was to describe, basically to describe objects...I think my drawing describes, but it doesn't describe objects, it describes states of being (p. 125, Robert Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio}."

 

"...All we abstract expressionists were doing was shifting from object to forces...its emphasis on process

(p. 130, Robert Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio)."

 

"...How interested could Cezanne have been in a mountain?...He spent half his life trying to get the exact equivalent of his feeling about it...It's the same with this motif (Spanish Elegies) for me (p. 143, Robert Motherwell & Black, Stephanie Terenzio)..."

 

Newman

 

Newman took even longer than Motherwell to finally arrive at his mature style, the rectangle field of color divided by one or more vertical bands ("zips", as he called them):

 

"Even if Newman made his "cathedral" out of himself, the subject of his works was revealed only in the process of making them (p. 35, American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST)..."

 

As with Motherwell and Rothko, color (i.e. brilliant hue} was essential to his art. But unlike Rothko's stained technique- with its airy, floating color- Newman's  color has a more enamel-like quality. One critic has described it as being plunged into:

 

"...a sea of vivid, resonant color (p. 344, Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Record}..."

 

Like others of the New York School, Newman often worked on the large scale, so as to draw the spectator into the world of his painting:

 

"There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance (p. 342, Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record)."

 

 

But having exploited the common characteristics of Abstract Expressionism - automatism, undiluted color and large scale - there still remains the question of Newman's subject-matter. As Harold Rosenberg has said:

 

"...the issue is content: are Newman's areas of color, divided by one or more vertical bands, able to convey the themes indicated by the titles of his pictures and by public statements? (p. 344, Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Record)..."

 

In fact, Newman's subject-matter is of the most exalted variety. It might be argued that his main theme was creation, itself: of something from nothing; of light from darkness; and of man and his own creations. Among his most famous titles are the "Be" series, with all the connotations and literary allusions of that word. There is the "Let there be light." of Genesis, the "To be or not to be," of Hamlet, the "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" of the Ethics of the Fathers. Other titles, such as "Genesis", "Primordial Light", "Day One", suggest variations on that same theme. It is of "the mystery of things"- of existence, of light, and of man’s own ability to create that he wishes to present to us the visual "objective correlative" (as T.S. Elliot once said). He might well have argued along the following lines.

 

If a contemporary artist, situated  in this particular place and time in art history, strives to give us the equivalent of the God's creation of Man panel in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, how can he/she do it (assuming that such a thing is possible)? One could duplicate the Sistine Chapel panel (quite a feat in itself), or paint in the style of Michelangelo. But the historic factor in art would prevent such a virtuoso performance from having anything like the effect that Michelangelo's art had in its time. One has to find a way for our time. And the Abstract Expressionists passionately believed that they had found a new way- if not to rival Michelangelo -  at least to aspire to great painting.

 

Rothko

 

Rothko, like most of his colleagues of the New York School, only arrived at his mature format after years of self-exploration:

 

"He has arrived at his characteristic formulation: two or three horizontal, relentlessly frontal rectangles

of disembodied color stacked one above another almost fill the canvas field in which they seem to hover or float (p. 60, Mark Rothko,1903-1970:A  Retrospective, by Diane Waldman)..."

 

But certainly the most ravishing quality of Rothko's art is the sheer power of color. It is what attracts many to his work who might otherwise remain cold to the painting of other members of the New York School. Many have remarked on the peculiar quality of his color:

 

"Absolutely crucial to his color expression is Rothko's paint handling...lt is basically a watercolor technique translated into oil. Paint is soaked into the very fiber of the canvas, so that color seems dematerialized (p. 57, Mark Rothko,1903-1970: A Retrospective, by Diane Waldman)..."

 

 

"What impresses at once is the quality of color. For Rothko to but choose a color means to annex it and to make it inimitably his own...its resonance, intensity, and value have been totally reinvestigated by the artist (p. 409, Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)."

 

The scale of his canvases is also crucial to their ability to draw the viewer into the environment they create:

 

"...I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however -I think it applies to other painters I know- is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience  as a stereopticon view or with a reducing lens...However  you paint the larger picture, you are in it (p. 35, American Art at Mid-Century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST)..."

 

In an illuminating essay on the artist, Max Kozloff has captured the experience  of the transformation that takes place when the viewer  finally "enters" into one of Rothko's paintings:

 

"With Rothko, high luminosity makes of the picture surface a kind of osmotic  membrane...as it were, on huge palpitating screens. For all aesthetic purposes the plane does not exist, and as soon as the spectator himself, growing more intent on the color vibrations, learns to discount  the surface, the whole painting ceases to be, as a concrete  thing. A breakthrough has then been reached, and the apprehensions are flooded  or saturated with one or two extremely vivid but disembodied chromatic sensations. Only when his paintings  can be "entered" in this way does he belie the suspicion that he is but the creator of pigmented containers  of emptiness. To find that lever of consciousness which will change a blank painted fabric into a glow perpetuating itself into the memory is the immediate aim of his art and the fulcrum for experiencing it (p. 411, Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)."

 

Unlike Motherwell and Newman, however, Rothko refused to title his work in ways that would guide the viewer:

"Rothko had no fixed system for naming his canvases: most are either  left untitled or identified with numbers or colors, since  he probably felt that more interpretive or descriptive names would  restrict their meanings (p. 64, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, by Diane Waldman)..."

 

As in the case of Barnett Newman, however, it is even more difficult to connect Rothko's ambitious subject-matter to the purely visual experience of his paintings:

 

"Rothko often spoke of tragedy, Greek and Shakespearean, and of myth and ritual. It is not easy to grasp the connection he had in mind between his mats of color and Orestes or MacBeth (p. 415, Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Record)..."

 

This leaves his subject-matter far more indeterminate, and open to a greater degree of projection on

the part of the viewer:

 

"...The emotional effects of color cannot be calculated precisely (p. 416,Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)."

Abstract Expressionism might very well be the most difficult art of our time. This difficulty is the subject of a famous story about a visitor to a Barnett Newman exhibition, who, after having viewed the paintings,  left with the exasperated cry: "How simple can an artist be and get away with it? (p. 190, American Art at Mid-century: THE SUBJECTS OF THE ARTIST). Clement Greenberg commented on this same quality in a painting of Adolph Gottleib, another  member of the New York School:

 

"What makes such a picture difficult - difficult in the best sense -  is its monumental simplicity, which seems more than the conventions of easel painting can tolerate...these conventions...no longer suffice to contain major painting, and that kind of painting in which we feel this strongly has become the only kind which deserves to be called ambitious (p. 274,Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)..."

 

The argument presented here is that, despite this difficulty, the intentions of the artist may nevertheless be grasped and enrich our view of their art. Or, rather, that it may be grasped to some extent, or to

some degree. But this is a highly individual matter. Wollheim speaks of "...an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator ..." Such a spectator is not only the product of seeing the art over a period of years, but also of reading the relevant art history and criticism. This will invariably mean that some will see more than others. For, in the case of great art, it is ultimately  we rather than the work that is being judged.

 

There is also the question of appreciating some works of an artist and finding others unsuccessful:

 

"...an artist's intended emotional content need not communicate itself in every painting; if it comes across once, the spectator is justified in accepting something like it as the potential content of all the artist's work (p. 416, Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)."

 

And whether or not you grasp the intentions of the artist is not as important as whether it moves you (as it certainly did Clement Greenberg). It is a question of whether it does, not why. Let us leave the last word to Harold Rosenberg:

 

"...Newman left nothing on the canvas that might prevent him (the viewer) from considering the painting an organization of colored planes and lines and nothing else. Newman's canvases and sculptures invite the spectator to pass beyond the aesthetic into an act of belief. By implication, they define a work of art as any image or feeling that the spectator (including the artist as spectator) introduces; the difference between a Giotto and a Newman would lie in the degree of control exercised by the image. To render his grand themes, Newman made himself the master of an emotional

 

indeterminacy in painting in which all effects depend on tensions of quantity, of size and of radiance (p.

344-46, Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Record, edited by David Shapiro and Cecile Shapiro)..." Whether or not you "pass beyond the aesthetic into an act of belief', the crucial thing is that it moves you.

© 2015 By Mark Dickman