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Pollock, De Kooning, The "Irascibles" (and, as a farcical footnote, Body Art) [by David Lehman]

Blast by Ad Gottlieb

There was a strong element of doubt as well as risk in the Abstract Expressionist enterprise, and this is bound up with the quasi-religious impulse that one often feels in a Pollock or a Rothko. Among the most audacious things about Abstract Expressionism was that these artists did not shrink from the challenge of the philosophers who had declared god dead. If it was to be expected of art that it provide the religious imagery for a godless age, the painters were ready to oblige with their abstract affirmations of a personal order and a personal spiritual journey.

John Ashbery explained the religious parallel in a lecture he gave at Yale in the late 1960s. "A painter like Pollock for instance was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America, for if he wasn't, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter. It must have often occurred to Pollock that there was just a possibility that he wasn't an artist at all, that he had spent his life `toiling up the wrong road to art,' as Flaubert said of Zola. But this very real possibility is paradoxically just what makes the tremendous excitement in his work. It is a gamble against terrific odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?"[i]

Franz Kline and paintingAbstract art turned out to be a particularly effective religion-substitute. The artists had emptied their canvases of conventional religious imagery and renounced nature, the model, the human form divine. Yet their work seemed to express a spiritual aspiration in a pure form, divorced from all empirical contigencies. The Romantic poets in the early nineteenth century -- as M. H. Abrams explains in his magisterial study Natural Supernaturalism (1971) -- had translated theological ideas into secular ones, trading in the supernatural for the natural world. In Paradise Lost John Milton had situated the great Christian epic in the biblical Garden of Eden; in The Prelude William Wordsworth substituted the myth of the individual self -- "the growth of a poet's mind," his own in particular, in its encounters with the natural world. Milton had delineated the expulsion from paradise, and now Wordsworth meant to pick up where Milton had left off; he would narrate the life of the blessed babe who has been expelled from the Eden of childhood and is forever haunted by faint but persistent memories of it. There was an inevitable melancholy in the transition from a epic system promising a redemptive afterlife to one in which the best that could be hoped for was a pensive hour on a couch recollecting a host of golden daffodils. Since nothing could bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we were wise to find strength in the primal sympathy and faith that remained behind.

Pollock  Blue PolesWhere the Romantic poets cast a religious allegory into natural terms, the Abstract Expressionists went one step further in the secularization process -- they repudiated nature itself (that is, nature considered as external to the self). They translated the sublime natural imagery of romantic landscape painting into purely abstract forces and forms. Yet these raw exhibitions of primal energy make the viewer feel as loftily intimidated as if by a raging waterfall or thunderous sunset. As Robert Rosenblum analyzed it, a Clyfford Still abstract turns the viewer into "a visitor touring the Grand Canyon," a Rothko turns the viewer into "a monk before the sea," while a Pollock captures "superhuman turbulence more literally" than does Turner's Snowstorm. Rosenblum went so far as it argue that "a quartet of the largest canvases by Newman, Still, Rothko, and Pollock might well be interpreted as a post-World-War-II myth of Genesis."[i] In an important sense, the Abstract Expressionists completed the Romantic revolution. There would still be a sublime, and it would still have a religious dimension, but its value would be derived not from theology but from art itself.

Joan MitchellThat a religious subtext could be found in Abstract Expressionist paintings was not an unmixed blessing. It is asking much of art -- perhaps too much -- to expect it to fulfill all the spiritual exigencies that religion used to address. The magnitude of the task may overwhelm the artist, particularly the artist who went from living the life of jeopardy and failure to the sudden hyperbolic acclaim of critics and other people in the know. The fatalities among the Abstract Expressionists – several of whom committed suicide (Gorky, Rothko), while others perished in car crashes (Pollock, David Smith) -- speak to the danger of elevating art-for-art's-sake into a brand of atheistic theology ripe for the nuclear age. Still, the myth of the avant-garde had given the artist not only something to believe in but something to gamble on. And it had also validated a new social role: the alienated rebel or outcast living in a converted warehouse loft in lower Manhattan. Years before Marlon Brando and James Dean glamorized the image of the rebel in his blue jeans and leather jacket, the New York painters lived that rebellion. They were lifelong underdogs. They drank too much. But unlike the misunderstood adolescent personified by Dean, they were rebels with a cause. The New York Herald Tribune called them "the Irascibles," because of their implacable and articulate opposition to the artistic establishment. RothkoWhen the Metropolitan Museum of Art planned a national exhibition of contemporary American painting in 1950, the painters fired off an angry letter announcing their intention to boycott it.[ii] Acting as the self-appointed spokesmen for “advanced art,” Pollock, de Kooning, and company charged that the Met's directors -- one of whom was on record calling the abstract artists “flat-chested” pelicans “strutting upon the intellectual wastelands” -- were “notoriously hostile to advanced art.”[iii] Back then, few observers on either side of the Atlantic would have predicted that the same institutions that had shunned the Irascibles would someday fall all over themselves to woo them. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted its centennial exhibition to the New York School in 1970, it was the ultimate confirmation that the infidels had been converted. "New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970," which was curated by the late Henry Geldzahler, was a great triumph not only for Abstract Expressionism but for the Met and for Geldzahler personally, who had had to overcome resistance from the Museum's trustees.[iv]

Besides an unsympathetic museum establishment, the abstract painters had gone up against a public weaned on sentiment and ease when what they had to offer was difficulty and rigor. Abstract art seemed to fly in the face of good old American horse-sense. The standard response to a reproduction of a Pollock was, "Why, my five-year-old could do that." Or, “It looks like inedible spagheti.”

De Kooning and Woman (Green)To this day, the works of the Abstract Expressionists retain their power to disturb if one measure of that power is the still-widespread impulse to mock them. In the movie An Unmarried Woman (1978), Alan Bates playing a famous New York painter tells Jill Clayburgh that when he was six his mother threw a pickled herring at his father. It missed its target and splattered against the wall. “At that moment I became an Abstract Expressionist,” Bates says, to which Clayburgh replies that his work does resemble pickled herring. That occurs in a movie sympathetic to the myth of the Abstract Expressionism. There are less friendly ways of responding. A prizewinning biography of Jackson Pollock maintains that his “drip” paintings originated in the haunting boyhood memory of standing on a flat rock beside his father urinating. Pollock is supposed to have said to himself, “When I grow up, am I ever going to do that!”[v] Others have tried to put that reductive psychonalaytic theory into practice. At a show at Ace Contemporary Exhibitions in Los Angeles in 1995, a painter by the name of Keith Boadwee presented fifty pieces of so-called body art that he had produced by giving himself enemas of egg tempura paints and then squatting over canvases. Boadwee had the Abstract Expressionists in mind. ”I wanted to prove that I can make just as good a painting as they can, with my butthole,” he said.[vi]

-- 1995

Pictures: reproductions of paintings by Adolph Gottlieb ("Blast"), Franz Kline with one of his black and white compositions, Jackson Pollock ("Blue Poles"), Joan Mitchell among her canvases, a late Rothko, and Willem de Kooning with "Woman (Geen)."

[i]. John Ashbery, "The Invisible Avant-Garde," in Reported Sightings by John Ashbery, ed. David Bergman (New York: Knopf, 1989), pp. 390-391.

[i]. Robert Rosenblum, "The Abstract Sublime," in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross (New York: Harry Abrams, 1990), pp. 273-278.

[ii]. In an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the artists announced their intention to boycott the exhibition because its jury was hostile to "advanced art," even though "for roughly a hundred years, only advanced art has made any consequential contribution to civilization." The open letter appears in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross (New York: Abrams), pp. 226-227.

[iii]. "Flat-chested pelicans": Life, January 15, 1951. "Notoriously hostile to advanced art": Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross (New York: Abrams), p. 226.

[iv]. From Geldzahler's obituary in the New York Times: "His intense involvement in the 1960's art scene irritated some trustees, but ultimately focused considerable attention on the Met, especially when the huge centennial exhibition, widely referred to as `Henry's show,' became the talk of the town." Paul Goldberger, "Henry Geldzahler, 59, Critic, Public Official and Contemporary Art's Champion, Is Dead," New York Times, August 17, 1994.

[v]. See Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Life (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1989), for an alaborate version of this theory.

[vi]. Above the paintings in the gallery were TV monitors showing videotapes of Boadwee in action, including his squatting nude over canvases. Buzz, August 1995; Art in America, October 1995.

Click here for Lehman's essay on Mark Tansey's "The Triumph of the New York School"

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