PRINT September 1963

“Transformation” in Cézanne and Lichtenstein

THE TIME HAS ARRIVED for trying to make some serious studies of the role, the purpose, the accom­plishments of Pop Art. Too many curators of too many major museums, too many critics, too many collectors, seriously interested in art, have invested too much libido and capital to make it possible any longer to deny the dynamic effect that Pop Art has already had. One curious feature of this explosion in the art world, in my own experience, is that I have not talked with one major artist, particularly in New York, nor have I heard of one, who believes that Pop Art is great and serious art. We are continually being reminded that the Abstract Expressionists met with the same hostile reception. This claim that Pop Art is rejected by re­actionaries for the same reasons that Abstract art and Abstract Expressionism was rejected, is the cruelest hoax in all the range of arguments put forth by the promoters of Pop Art. Who rejected Abstract art and Abstract Expressionism? The New York Times critic, Time and Life and all the Caspar Milquetoasts of the land; not the serious artists. Abstract Expressionism was certainly disturbing and the bold possibilities that Hans Hofmann’s teaching and painting held out for emulation and further development by painters like Jackson Pollock, to be specific in one case, con­stituted a major revolution in 20th Century art. It was not easy to take then. It is not easy to take even now. But depth and richness of human experience and in­tuition will always be difficult for superficial ob­servers. Abstract Expressionism has explored virtual continents of unknown meaning and symbol. Never before in the history of art has there been such a clearly intentional release of the deep unconscious feelings and impulses of man. Primitive art also ex­pressed man’s unconscious desires and fears but the primitive artist had no personal responsibility for the images he made. The tribe, the chief, the priest, the elders, dictated with cruel authoritarianism what the artist was permitted to make. Deviation from established style laws and orthodox iconography could even bring death to the artist.

The modern artist has been free to a degree un­known in earlier times. Nothing has ever before so gloriously demonstrated the true meaning of free democracy, particularly in America, as the work of the Abstract Expressionists has done. It is not out of mere peasant philistinism that the Soviet leaders pave for­bidden artists to express their rage, their secret pleasures, their violent aggressions, in the form of free abstractions. It could set off a chain reaction that might destroy their society as it is now organized. The man in the street might get the idea that he too could do and say what he pleased. The artists have been free in this country all right, but our freedom also includes the right to starve. Many serious critics have written movingly about the early years of strug­gle the artists went through after the W.P.A. when out of desperation they gave up the possibility of being accepted by museums and collectors and painted with a despair and fury that had never been seen in art before. These paintings were monuments to the human spirit, to the search for a new artistic reality. As Professor Goldwater has said, Abstract Expression­ism “has lived a history, germinated a mythology and produced a hagiology (lives of saints).” The great re­spect and admiration that American abstract paint­ing has won internationally makes us wonder why so many dealers and museum curators should apparently be so willing to ditch the whole movement. Now it is to be thrown away—and for what? For copies and enlargements of “funny pitchers”?

But I seem to have fallen into a trap here. Nothing could be more removed from my personal convictions than the wish to maintain the status quo in art or politics: The one thing about art in the Western world that we can be sure of is that it will change—continually. Even though we may have come to the end of a phase in pure abstraction there is little reason to believe that the artist’s idealism and fascination with the unknown, the obscure and the strange has now been satisfied for good. The symbol, the myth, the letting go of unconscious drives—all such deep emotional forces are still likely to be the greatest motivating impetus for the creative spirit in man. A six foot tomato can or comic strip, copied with per­fection, has nothing to do with such drives. It has made art easy to grasp, though. Now the casual ob­server can say “at last I can understand what it is,” or “at last I can see what they mean.”

Specifically, the reason we cannot accept soup can painting as art is that it contains no transformation; ironically, transformation is the very touchstone used by promoters and critics of Pop Art to prove that it is art. A copy of anything, even when blown up to the monumental size of a billboard, is still a copy. Copies are not transformations. A glance at the two reproduc­tions, Plates I and II, makes it clear that the one by Roy Lichtenstein has been copied from my own Dia­gram on p. 85 of “Cézanne’s Composition.” (It is main­ly photographic distortion that makes Lichtenstein’s outlines thinner toward the top.) The Ben Day dots in the background of Lichtenstein’s copy of my diagram of the great Cézanne portrait, Plates III and IV, which appears on p. 91 of “Cézanne’s Composition,” ruins the value of my original drawing. It pushes the back­ground away from the figure of the man instead of integrating the two.

It is interesting that the concept of transformation has become so widely accepted as the necessary in­gredient of a work of art. Naturally it was the abstract painters, early in the century, who so firmly establish­ed the idea. Later the Abstract Expressionists carried the concept far beyond the process of transforming nature and we have made paintings that derive from no conscious source but have an identity and imagery that is autonomous. Such paintings may well be among the most advanced products of the human mind, comparable in some ways to achievements in physics and chemistry. Strangely enough, even dreams and fantasies must be transformed and that is why so many of Dali’s paintings are no more than mere photographs, of his unconscious.

The whole subject of transformation goes back to that fountainhead of 20th Century ideas in art: Cézanne. Cézanne’s painting which can be so con­veniently traced back to its origins, with photographs of his motifs, gives us the most perfect and literal example of what transformation means. Looking at his subject, instead of imitating its appearance, he takes pieces of color (color planes) and puts them together by a slow and painful process until rela­tional meaning can be felt. It is a process that takes place in the mind and hand of the artist. It can rarely be predicted; the type of silhouette outline that Lich­tenstein has copied from my diagrammatic reductions could only have been made from a finished painting. Cézanne’s unfinished oils and watercolors could not be diagrammed in the same way. The Picasso por­trait, “Woman in Gray,” owned by Mr. and Mrs. Alex L. Hillman, New York, is a perfect example of the type of closed form which Mr. Lichtenstein could predictably trace from a slide projector. (See his “Femme au Chapeau,” 68 x 56, p. 43, “Metro 8.”)

But something good will come of it in the end. The question for American art to face now is whether the New is automatically good or interesting or valuable or what we should try to figure out as being art. Per­haps there has been enough of softness, vagueness and amorphous form in Abstract art. The articulation and sharpening of forms, the development of more meaningful personal imagery may well be stimulated by the challenge the harsh mechanical forms of Pop Art has pushed to the fore. Such a development could be understood as a process of concretizing the uncon­scious. The crassness, the vulgarity, the depressing tawdriness of modern advertising art is no answer to man’s need for stimulation and spiritual refreshment. Serious, ennobling art means too much to man in this automated world. He needs the look and the feel of something sensitively made, by hand. Pop Art will have a healthy effect in making these simple things apparent. It is forcing more and more artists and critics and curators to show their hand. It will make us say what we really think and believe. It may en­courage man’s eternal search for the myths of the soul.

Erle Loran