PRINT April 1963


Dore Ashton’s The Unknown Shore

Dore Ashton, The Unknown Shore (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown & Co., 1962), 265 pages, Illus.

ALTHOUGH DORE ASHTON HAS BEEN closely involved with avant-garde American painting for many years—particularly as a critic for the New York Times—it should be borne in mind that this book comes late. Almost two decades have passed since the emergence of the great painters of the New York School, and a good deal of critical analysis has seen its way to print. Still another analysis, coming this late, would be expected to be less breathless, less sketchy, would have to justify its existence, would have, at least, to offer answers where previously the careful posing of questions was sufficient. Ten or fifteen years ago, the sympathetic critical mind might have written of Franz Kline:

. . . Kline’s reality is spelled out in the alphabet of shooting forms he has evolved . . . They are symbols of tensions, taut and excited, but tensions between what polar entities? His art is too immediate, too instinctual for us to be able to name them.

Kline is dead; his art has been available to Miss Ashton for almost twenty years. If she is not, yet ready to even take a guess at what those “polar entities” might be—why come out with still another book about those “tensions, taut and excited”? The fact is that in those areas of contemporary painting which have been written about extensively before, Miss Ashton has nothing new to say. About those areas which have not been explored very thoroughly, she is incomprehensible.

“The Unknown Shore” is divided into three sections. The first consists of a sketchy history of the development of the New York School, the second of a discussion of European developments during the same period, and the third of a series of more generalized essays on such subjects as “Irony in Modern Art,” “Music and Painting,” “Science, Art and Intuition.” The first section traverses, for the most part, very well-worn ground. The tale of the rejection, in the early forties, by such artists as Pollock, Gorky, Rothko and Baziotes of specific subject matter in favor of a search, surrealist-influenced, for a “sign,” abstract, totemic, and charged with myth, followed, in the late forties and early fifties by a breakthrough to the unique, personal imagery most characteristic of the New York School, is told again, and badly. Any expectation readers might have entertained about a more serious, specific, deeper confrontation of those early totemic paintings is completely disappointed. Any expectation of a richer, more lucid discussion of the later work is also disappointed. If the word “symbolic,” for example, has been kicked around in discussing Rothko’s later work, this will be Miss Ashton’s 1962 contribution:

There can be no doubt that his colors, intuitively selected I’m sure, are symbolic. His blacks . . . are intended to express forbidding, wracking emotions. His purples . . . are more melancholy than the most melancholy ruminations of figurative painters.

If there has been discussion of the influence of Existential thought on Rothko’s work, Miss Ashton will illuminate: “There are Existentialist echoes in Rothko’s words and in his attitude toward his own works,” but the paintings themselves “remain transcendent symbols”:

Unlike the Existentialist, he does not feel compelled to invent a choice at each moment. He has worked out a greater scheme (his series of very similar compositions) within which he alters his composition according to his mood. ‘Small pictures are like tales,’ he has said, ‘Large pictures are like dramas.’

No series, if you want to be an Existentialist.

The little quotation at the end, which does not quite tie in, is typical of a maddening habit of Miss Ashton’s, of making a statement about an artist, and following it with a little quotation which is intended to support the statement, but which is either completely irrelevant or at best, ambiguous:

Feldman’s (a contemporary composer) direct relationship to the painters has, by his own admission, influenced his music. ‘I have always been interested in touch rather than musical forms.’

Of a meditative temperament, Tworkov had long pondered the history of art and was deeply steeped in mythology. ‘A painter is reliving all the things that Homer and Dante are about,’ he once said.

. . . de Kooning is quite capable of admiring Mondrian and of rediscovering some submerged aspect of himself in a style that previously alienated him. Perhaps the most telling public remark he ever made was when he said in 1951 that ‘some painters, including myself, do not care what chair they are sitting on. It does not even have to be a comfortable one. They are too nervous to find out where they ought to sit.’

Dubuffet’s overt ironies . . . are not nearly so telling as those he conceals in his series tending toward abstraction. ‘I am pleased to see life in trouble,’ he says, implying with supreme confidence that he can put it to rights.

(In this last, the reader is twice bedeviled: first to see what the quotation has to do with Dubuffet’s ironies and second to see how it implies at all what Miss Ashton thinks it implies “with supreme confidence.”)

As one reads the essays in the third section of the book, the growing suspicion that logic is not Miss Ashton’s strong-point, and that coherence is not one of her major values becomes confirmed; it is clear that her ideal of order in an essay is the Tinguely machine. The essay on irony creates more confusion than could possibly have existed before it was written; a highly abstract literary concept to begin with, Miss Ashton, starting with an inexact definition, applies it to the plastic arts with a brutal insensitivity to the nuances of its meaning. The essay on science may be better to those who find it comprehensible, but lines like “The unpredictability of phenomena being demonstrated now by scientific experiment has long been known to artists,” set one’s teeth on edge. Can Miss Ashton be serious in pretending not to understand the different orders of knowledge involved here?

The essay called “Music and Art” is hardly that. It is hardly even “Contemporary Music and Art,” since it contains but one mention, in passing, of Schoenberg, none of Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Berg, or Webern. To the extent that the essay is a discussion of music and art at all, it is a pointing-out of certain interesting correspondences in the work of a few avant-garde New York composers with some aspects of abstract expressionism. Again, any idea the reader may have had that here might be some serious attempt to relate in a meaningful way developments in the two arts during our century will be disappointed. We will instead be told that “In the paintings of Rothko, extensions of a single color sustained like the reverberating chords in a symphony correspond to the long held note in music.” We will be told that when a New York Times music reviewer uses the phrase “abstract expressionism” in a review “the reference to ‘abstract expressionism’ in a music review can only have come about because of the recent contacts between painter and composer.” (Other documentation of this “increasing concourse” is that “concerts by unorthodox composers are attended by painters” and “I know of at least one instance where a painter commissioned a musical composition . . .”) And, lastly, we will be given great chunks of garbled analogies and sense-defying paragraphs, which we will have to handle as well as we can:

His (Feldman’s) music—hesitant, reticent, disembodied and non-symbolic in the sense that the sounds have no reference to anything but themselves—refuses the architectural tradition of music and aligns itself with the expansive space of contemporary painting. Still, though his music is supposed to be totally abstract due to his use of ‘unpredictability, chance and spontaneity’ in his graphings, or scoring, he himself describes the effect of one of his pieces ‘as if you’re not listening but looking at something in nature.’ By giving the performers great latitude, the composer brings about a diminution of his own choices, just as a painter diminishes his choices when he allows a rill of paint to slide down the canvas’s surface unimpeded. Where Wolpe would say that one should mix surprise with enigma, magic and shock, intelligence and abandon, form and anti form, Feldman would probably take the transcendental attitude that the voice of music—as opposed to noise—is like the first breath of a human, pure and exquisite, uncontaminated by the multiplicity of experience.

There is simply no field left, except art criticism, in which this sort of thing could pass.

Philip Leider