PRINT September 1963

Anti-Sensibility Painting

THE AMERICAN URBAN LANDSCAPE is fantastically ugly. Detroit is a fine example. The packaged horror of the super shopping center inspires at its worst (or best) a degree of revulsion instructive to the open eye. All others flee to Venice.

The Common Image Artist observes the landscape with its accoutrements and provokes a consummately generous view of a generally monstrous spectacle. His philosophy is that all things are beautiful, but some things are more beautiful than others. What is “more” beautiful is imbued with the glorious nimbus of reve­lation. This is his subject. At its best Common Image Art violates various established sentiments of the ar­tist. By rendering visible the despicable without sen­sibility, it sets aside the precept that the means may justify the subject. The poetry is invisible. It is the fact of the picture itself which is the poetry. There is no startling pictorial apparatus employed to seduce the eye. The forms are locked into place and the col­ors are bright. The design is simple, almost simple minded. But the simple mindedness is vicious. It grates against the nerves.

The greatest art is unfriendly to begin with. Com­mon Image Art is downright hostile. Its characters and objects are unabashedly egotistical and self-re­liant. They do not invite contemplation. The style is happily retrograde and thrillingly insensitive (a curi­ous advance). Red, Yellow, and Blue have been seen before for all they are worth. In Common Image Art they are seen once again. It is too much to endure, like a steel fist pressing in the face.

The formulations of the commercial artist are deeply antagonistic to the fine arts. In his manipula­tions of significant form the tricky, commercial con­ventions accrue. These conventions are a despoila­tion of inspired invention. But they are, in the distillations of profound observations, a fecund fund for insight into the style that represents an epoch. In Common Image Painting a particular and certainly peculiar moment in time is perfectly revealed in a strangely timeless mode by encompassing the con­ventions of commercial and cartoon imagery. Thus it engages the total panorama of visible evidence. The worthy subject is struck down once and for all. Nothing that is seen is too base to look at, as every form and space is suddenly interconnected. The mer­ciless matchbook is lying in a vernal meadow, beside a brook near a frozen custard stand and funny papers on the chair in a house full of paintings by Inness.

Why Common Image Painting is remarkable at this time is because it proceeds from the artist’s ecstasy of vision. The best of recent abstract painting, the works of Louis, Noland, Kelly, result from a total in­ward turning, a blindness to the spectacle, and in that they are excessively effete, refined, and genteel. Noland’s recent show in New York was elegant and lean; the grandeur was missing. The vortex and target are, like the suspension bridge, infallible as form. But Noland’s targets have crossed all their rivers. The paintings of Louis are not a civilization. For all the exquisite tonalites, expansiveness, and scale, the works are timorous and kindly. Art without fierceness is only restful. It never agitates or beckons. Even Claude is fierce. When the painter eschews the expe­rience of wonderment at the spectacle he becomes a nervous pattern maker. Kelly’s paintings are a gran­diose rearrangement of small, neat discoveries which derive from the inward turning against the pain and pleasure of the spectacle. Abstract Art at the moment is onanistic, an art of special effects. The artist uses his vision after the picture is made. The paintings of Pollock, Kline, and de Kooning begin with astonish­ment at something outside the self; they are of the phenomena and the energy of the environment. Euro­pean art is tired because the landscape and spectacle are depleted of interest for the painter.

Common Image painting, in extracting, amplifying, and re-poising the conventions of the commercial arts, reveals the psychological and stylistic temperament of an age before it is visible. Nostalgia becomes in­stantaneous. Lichtenstein paints popular subjects of the forties and fifties which is, as an age, still invisi­ble without Lichtenstein. The “Yellow Girl” is timeless in her horror. In her conceit and vacuity she is hateful forever. In “No Nox,” the Gas Station Attendant is a symbol of himself, vile in his uninvolved stupidity. He is created of hard, cold lines that do not derive from abstraction; a severe classicism, no sensitivity, no poetics, no mush. Rosenquist depicts the Gothic of the Thirties in vomity tones and brilliant, cruel com­positions. The toast is stale and the smile is not for us. Although he manifests a certain artfulness that is akin to surrealism, the distance of his subjects from the viewer sustains the nice, cold, signboard clarity. Wesselman’s subjects are the present moment in com­mercial art. At his best he is bright and brutal, like the aluminum jackets of cheap skyscrapers. The jux­tapositions are crucial. He has proven with a subtle maneuver that the immense vulgarity of advertising color and form, separated from their natural habitat, is sufficient to reveal its hidden charms. The giant economy size can of Del Monte asparagus is a glory unto itself. The plastic corn with butter induces nau­sea and trembling. These objects are ghastly and won­derful at once, too horrible for words, a fearful joy. Warhol’s art is that of innocent wonderment. When he avoids lyricism his repetitions achieve a grave sim­plicity. The “Electric Chair” painting in silver is an apogee of violence. It has no literary content. (The “Silence” sign insists.) The vertical zone on the right is numb and reflective, an abstraction of the image on the left.

Sensitivity is a bore. Common Image painting is an art of calm, profound observation and humorous won­derment without sensibility. It does not criticize. It only records. The attitude of the Common Image paint­er is whimsical and slightly ironical. The environment is overwhelming, and thus he observes it. He must maintain the sense of the monumentally bizarre with­out surrealism or else he will defeat his art, just as Abstract Expressionism was winded by lyricism. The Abstract painters are obliged to locate the timeless symbols from their environment before they can con­ceive a revolutionary vitality akin to Common Image Art. The purging of poetic sensations in painting for an aggressive classicism marks the end of Impres­sionist oozings. For all the perversities, horrors, and doomist regalia in the excellent private works of Lind­ner, Samaras, Bontecou, and Conner, the American ar­tists are inclined to bold affirmations. Rauschenberg’s art is the ideal symptom of these high spirits. He is a prince of imagination, that critical ingredient, and bountiful source of inspiration. Common Image paint­ing is an affirmation of the pleasure of seeing, and although it was supposed to have expired at five o’clock on a Friday a long time ago, it will surely con­tinue until a petty academy vetoes its puissance. Already it is a monument and possibly a bridge to a splendid new Romanticism.

Ivan C. Karp