PRINT September 1965

The Biomorphic Forties

Bio: “a combining form denoting relation to, or connection with, life, vital phenomena, or living organisms.”

Morphology: “the features, collectively, comprised in the form and structure of an organism or any of its parts.”

THE MOVEMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY ART, to the extent that they began with artists’ acts of self-identification, in opposition either to another group of artists or against a public made grandiose and threatening as the Philistines, tend to stay monolithic. Efforts are made to unify these discrete movements, like different shaped beads on a string of “the classical spirit” or “the expressionist temperament,” but obviously this delivers very little, except an illusion of mastery to the users of cliché. More is needed than a revival of the exhausted classical/romantic antithesis, which leaves the movements to be united sequentially undisturbed. Modern art tends to be written about by the artists and their friends, in the first case, and by generalizers and popularizers after that, with the result that the mosaic of movements has remained largely unaffected, to the detriment of unorganized artists and traditions. For example, there is a line of biomorphic art (which combines various forms in evocative organic wholes), that, to the extent that it is discussed in the usual framework, could only be viewed as a part of Surrealism. What failed to fit would come under such headings as Precursors of, or The Inheritance of, Surrealism, or, maybe, just plain Independents (as if the artists were eccentrics, or nuts, off the main-line).

Biomorphism, so far as Surrealism goes, is a painterly equivalent of the transcriptual puzzles and combinations of objects of Magritte and Dali. However, the main painters of biomorphism have been merely affiliated to Surrealism, or Shanghai-ed into it, as is the case with Arp and Miró; Masson alone, for much of his career, was an official Surrealist. Biomorphism, with its invention of analogies of human forms in nature and other organisms, has wide connections, for example, with Art Nouveau (in which the human body shares a promiscuous linear flow with all created objects) and with Redon, whose ambiguous imagery is born of reverie.

In New York in the mid-40s biomorphism was of the greatest importance and one of its sources was certainly Surrealism. However, we must also account for the position of an artist like Baziotes whose Moon World, 1951, (Fig. 1) is very close to the bland sack of Brancusi’s marble seal, Le Miracle, 1936. Another example of the pervasiveness of biomorphism apart from the influence of Surrealism, is the late work of Kandinsky. After 1934 there is a persistent use of waving tendrils and squirming free forms, but dried out when compared with the juiciness of Miró, or the ripeness of Arp. These irregular radiating or flattened forms, however parched, are fully characteristic of biomorphism’s inventory of organic form. In the visual arts it is a cultural reflex to regard nature as landscape. However, in biomorphic art, nature can also be a single organic form, or a group of such forms (like Baziotes’  Moon World.) Or they can be presented in swarms, tangling with one another. Barnett Newman, writing about Stamos, indicates the importance of nature to him, as to other biomorphic artists: “His ideograph captures the moment of totemic affinity with the rock and the mushroom, the crayfish and the seaweed. He redefines the pastoral experience as one of participation with the inner life of the natural phenomenon.”1

In addition to the flat, more-or-less placid, and (as it were) one-cell biomorphs, another aspect of organic imagery is important. This is linear-based (as opposed to painterly and planar) biomorphism, with the canvas or paper swarming like the jungle which exists below the ordinary scale of human vision. (Hence the importance of microscopy, either as a direct visual influence, or, more usually, as conceptual backing to justify an artist’s working assumption of “endless worlds,” extensions of consciousness beyond the proportionate contour of classical arid Renaissance art.)

Proliferating biomorphism is the analogue of manic activity in the artist, whose muscular activity issues in the marks which we interpret as a self-discovering subject. The graphic preliminaries of the artist suggest forms out of which conflations of human, floral, animal, and insect-like forms can be developed. Crowded and manic biomorphism is directly linked to automatism, which was cultivated by the Surrealists as a means of direct access to the Unconscious mind. The ideal of direct action was most clearly recognized in drawing, except for phases of Masson’s and Ernst’s painting. In New York in the ’40s automatism was pressed as a cause by Matta, who influenced Motherwell and Baziotes. Pollock too, expressed interest in its procedures. Referring to “European moderns” Pollock said: “I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious.”2 There is an unbroken link between automatic processes in art (working at speed, encouraging accidents) and belief, often of a rather nonchalant and expedient sort, in the unconscious.

The unconscious, in its turn, is linked to mythology which, after a lively influence on 20th-century culture, reached a climax in the ’40s, and nowhere more than in New York. The appeal of myth must have had something to do with the fact that it offered a control mechanism by which all data, all experiences, could be handled. It was not myth as a body of precise allusions as, say, in 17th-century poetry, but myth as a kind of “manna.” Myths, absorbed more or less automatically in our education, updated by Freud and Jung, revealed ubiquitous patterns that tied in the personal psyche with the greatest events, new or old. Revealing of this aspect is “A Special Issue on Myth,” published by the magazine Chimera in 1946.3 Here is a partial name-list from its 88 pages: Alcestis, John Buchan, Columbus, Dante, Earwicker, Faustus, Gluck, Hitler, and so on to Veblen and John Wesley; subjects discussed include witches and warlocks, Hegel’s spirit, the Siegfried cycle, and Walpole’s “Castle of Otranto.” This should be enough to show that in the ’40s, mythology was seriously regarded as a key to the psycho-social order we share with world culture. (Adolph Gottlieb remembers that he had a copy which he kept for about ten years.) Mythology, used like this, turned the whole world into an intimate and organic spectacle. Thus, an artist with an interest in mythology could discover its enduring and fantastic patterns in his art and, at the same time, project his personal patterns out into the world. The pleasure taken in pre-history, as subject and title, in Rothko and Stamos, for example, is indicative of this quest for unplumbed humanity, with the remote in time as a metaphor of psychological depth.

At a moment when abstract artists were turning from existing geometric styles, mythology gave to evocative and suggestive, but not precisely decodable, signs, the appropriate atmosphere and ideal context. Of the biomorphists, Baziotes, Gottlieb, Pollock, and Rothko used myth-conferring titles, and so did Gorky in the sense of binding his paintings to personal desire and memory. There is a psycho-sexual content in biomorphic art, which abounds in visceral lyricism full of body allusions (Fig. 2). Gorky, in this respect comparable to Baziotes and Rothko, creates a kind of polymorphous fabulism. Particular cases of resemblance are not interesting: the point is the identity of everything with its simultaneous phases of seeding, sprouting, growing, loving, fighting, decaying, rebirth. The impression is at a natural and personal abundance, in opposition to geometric art (urban or platonic) or figurative art (bound to particular cases). The desire for a nuanced and subjective imagery was manifested in paintings that did not subordinate the artist’s use of paint to a tidy and cleaned up end-state. On the contrary, rich meanings were located within the creative act itself, so that the processing record itself is sensitized. Biomorphic art depends in part (1) on the depiction of beings and places, but also (2) on the enactment of the work itself. The artist’s gestures are image-making and keep their identity as physical improvisation beyond the point of completion. Gorky’s and Pollock’s linearism, Rothko’s liquidity, Baziotes’ scumbled haze of color, were all technical devices fused with permissive meanings.

Thus biomorphic art emerged in New York as the result of a cluster of ideas about nature, automatism, mythology, and the unconscious. These elements fed one another to make a loop out of which this evocative art developed. It made possible, too, the continuation of aspects of biomorphism familiar in European art (especially Miró and Klee) although native artists like Arthur G. Dove, with his uterine landscapes, may have helped predispose American artists to the ambiguous mode. If it was the conjunction of these varied elements that was fruitful in New York for biomorphism, considerable latitude in its forms is to be expected. This, in fact, is the case, and assuming that a tradition is validated more by how far it can be stretched than by how narrowly it can be administered, it is a sign of biomorphic art’s historical appropriateness that so much could be made of it. One aspect of its diversity is seen in Still’s biomorphism which is at the border of his abstract art, and hence ambiguously interpretable as abstract. His paintings of circa 1938 to circa 1946 are rocky and troll-like; a stickily dragged paint creates a Northern melodrama of thrones and presences, like Mount Rushmore as the statue of the Commander.

A checklist of American biomorphists in the ’40s would be unmanageable if it were comprehensive, but it is possible to indicate the central groupings. Pollock, in drawings of the late ’30s (Fig. 3) made what are virtually straight biomorphic exercises. These chain-reactions of repetitive and transforming imagery, are presumably the type of drawing that he discussed with his Jungian analyst in 1939. Pollock’s paintings were not stylistically kin with these fluent drawings, however: his biomorphic paintings of 1943–46 set the human or totemic passages in a late Cubist framework.4 Composition (Fig 4) is a turbulent extension of Picasso’s so-called “Surrealist” Three Dancers, 1925, in the direction of more direct passion and fuller human traces. It was not until 1951 that he revived the iconography of these periods, ambiguously human, fully biomorphic, in the black paintings, without any Cubist bracing. Gorky’s early metamorphic scenes also derive from Cubism; in the ’30s he made what Alfred Barr called Curvilinear Cubism, as undulant as cartoons of well-stacked girls or rippling biceps. In a way, Gorky’s development parallels André Masson’s, who, from being a Cubist, and friend of Gris, expanded Cubist subject-matter, and then relinquished its forms entirely for organic and improvisatory work. However, Gorky’s sexy Cubism was only a preliminary for the full biomorphism of the three “Garden in Sochi” paintings (1940–41), with their conspicuous adaptation of Miró, leading into linear twists and folds, washed with transparent color and flecks of clear hue (like a parted orifice) of The Pirate 1, 1942. Gorky influenced de Kooning, but biomorphism in de Kooning (circa 1945–48, 1949–50), no matter how many breasts and slits jerk and ripple, in forms like ghosts made out of sheets in old-fashioned cartoons (Fig. 5), is implicitly urban. His mannequins piled in a warehouse are a rationalized version of the pastoral bacchanals of Gorky.

Four artists were particularly occupied with the evocation of the primal, using pre-history and marine biology. Rothko, between circa 1945 and 1947, paints an imagined ocean floor in which linear organisms wriggle as his wrist moves, creating animate forms transparent to their misty backgrounds. A 1945 painting was entitled Birth of Cephalopods, which are a class of Mollusca “characterized by a distinct head with ‘arms’ of tentacles attached to it; comprising Cuttlefishes, the Nautilus, etc., and numerous fossil species.” (OED). Alien but beguiling, disembodied but sexual forms drift, hover, and coalesce (Figs. 6, 7). Stamos stated the theme clearly in 1946 (after hesitant moves in the preceding year). Omen (Fig. 8) and Nautical Warrior, (Fig. 9) both of 1946, present marine forms animated in ways to imply combat, encounter, self-awareness and contact. Biological low life is the analogue of human feeling and order. Gottlieb’s pictographs, begun in 1941, have a biomorphic potential as when the artist speaks of using “hand, nose, arms” as details in painting “often separating them from their associations as anatomy.”5 Beyond this, however, is the frequent appearance in paintings of 1946–47 of fleshy marine forms, as in Return of the Mariner, 1946 (Fig. 10). Baziotes evolved in 1947 (after a period in 1942 when he was occupied by the promises of automatism) a biomorphic style that was the base of all his subsequent work. He used, in that year, rudimentary human contours which assimilated references to a dwarf, Cyclops, an armless and legless veteran of World War I, a heavy female contour. These elements were not opposed, but subsumed to unified images. Other interests of Baziotes’ were “lizards and prehistoric animals,”6 not to mention the zoo and the aquarium.

To conclude: a description of biomorphic art cannot be restricted to a Surrealist ambience, although this was certainly a stimulus. It is important to stress that several of the American artists contacted earlier, original traditions which Surrealism had adapted and rigidified. Thus, Baziotes went around “behind” Surrealism to a form of reverie more like Redon’s than, say, Dali’s: in Baziotes flora and fauna lyrically oscillate but within a formal canon of unperturbed refinement. When he wrote “it is the mysterious I love in painting. It is the stillness and the silence,”7 he raised unmistakably the symbolist canon of inert and strange beauties. Gorky, too, can be connected behind André Breton, who helped with his titles, to a broader style, the tradition of the Grotesque. Vitruvius, who objected to this capricious ornamental style, described it well by writing against it: “How can a tender shoot carry a human figure, and how can bastard forms composed of flowers and human bodies grow out of roots and tendrils?”8 Several aspects of biomorphic imagery can be considered as an incorporation into easel painting of the monstrous fusions and calligraphic energy of the Grotesque. Other connections could be made back to traditional iconographies of herbal, bacchana and paradise, which combine pastoral scene with erotic act. However, enough has been said to show that biomorphism is a continuation of extensive traditions of fantasy, as well as the product of a particular historical situation in New York in the ’40s.

Lawrence Alloway



(This essay incorporates brief passages from two other pieces by the author: the introduction to William Baziotes, A Memorial Exhibition, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1965, and “Gorky,” Artforum, Vol. 1, No. 9, March, 1963.)

1. “Theodoros Stamos.” Exhibition Catalog, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, March 1947.

2. Quoted from “Arts and Architecture,” February, 1944 in: New York School, The First Generation, Los Angeles County Museum, 1965.

3. “Chimera,” New York vol. 4, no. 3, Spring 1946.

4. According to Lee Krasner Pollock, “Untitled Painting” (in her collection) dates from circa 1937, but it is hard to envisage this work preceding the heavily Picassoid “Masque Image,” 1938, and structurally it is closer to such works as “Night Dancer” (Green), 1944.

5. Quoted from “Limited Edition,” 1945 in: “New York School. The First Generation,” Los Angeles County Museum, 1965.

The Tiger’s Eye, 2, 1947 (a magazine that Barnett Newman was an associate editor of) included an anthology of poetic writing and painting on the theme of “The Sea” (pp. 65–100). It included a Milton Avery beach scene, two fully biomorphic Stamos paintings of circa 1946, and Baziotes’ patterned cubist “Florida Seascape” 1945. Elsewhere in the magazine Stamos wrote (in “The Ides of Art”): “I am concerned with the Ancestral Image which is a journey through the shells and webbed entanglements of the phenomenon.” (my emphasis).

6. For these quotations, and others, see: William Baziotes, A Memorial Exhibition, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1965.

7. Baziotes, Ibid.

8. Quoted by Wolfgang Kayser: The Grotesque in Art and Literature, Indiana University Press, 1963.