PRINT September 1965

The Figure in Abstract Expressionism

THE SUBJECT OF THIS ESSAY—the fate of the figure in Abstract Expressionism (or action painting)—is conceivable only in the light of post-Abstract Expressionist developments. Five years ago it was unthinkable. Abstract Expressionism was still popularly believed to deal in apocalyptic “acts,” the resulting imagery of which was at best a secondary presence. The total work was felt to have presence and the artist’s identity was said to be behind it. The only Abstract Expressionist of note still working with the figure—de Kooning—was relieved of guilt by association by interpreting his imploded portraits of women as “bitch goddesses,” assimilable by Freudian interpolation to the mythology of “crisis” which had grown up around the movement so pervasive became this association of art with crisis that when, in 1962, the Museum of Modern Art in New York finally recognized a renewed interest in figurative painting, it recognized only the “figure,” and then a rather grim one—mutilated, deprived and not always visible. Thus the continuation of the esthetics or crisis was assured. The “figure” in other words kept things pretty general—and “modern.”

The situation is quite different now. Abstract Expressionism, no longer the dominant style, is just one of several directions, though generally believed to be the one with fewer or even no further possibilities. A mixture of permissiveness, doctrinalism and reaction pervading the scene has shattered completely the complacency which finally settled around post-war abstractionist art. So it is only now that the undiscussed aspects of Abstract Expressionism can be detached from the orthodoxy which held them to be violations of doctrine. It is only now that they are meaningful in an added sense. (For instance, when a new realism was being discussed as a possibility a few years ago, Art News declared that Abstract Expressionism anticipated it all along.)

Actually the presence of the figure in Abstract Expressionism, though not a universal one, should not be that startling an idea. Abstract Expressionism was never that abstract. When it emerged from its symbolist phase in the forties it immediately engaged metaphor. It had, and has, in the abstract works of Rothko, Kline, Still, Reinhardt, Newman and Motherwell (not to mention the overt figuration of Gorky, Pollock and de Kooning) the air of allusion to nature if not literal illusion. Lesser Abstract Expressionists, however, seized on landscape connotations to support weak plastic conceptions while popularizers sought to attach landscape as a permanent feature of action painting. The Whitney Museum even put on a show called “Nature In Abstraction.” When the middle-brow finally assimilated, or was reconciled to, Abstract Expressionism, that is, when Life Magazine made peace with the avant-garde, analogies were drawn between the steel skeleton of the urban skyscraper and the black scaffolds of Kline, between the landscape of the American Northwest and the cosmic “prairies” of Clyfford Still, between sunsets and landscape fragments and the color clouds of Rothko, or the torn surfaces of de Kooning. Abstract Expressionism lost, then, much of its momentum the more it was taken over as a new landscape painting, even when de Kooning was doing some of the taking over.

Abstract Expressionism had too much sensual pressure behind it to be “pure.” “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure,” de Kooning declared in one of the more intelligible passages of a well-known statement he made in 1951. Which was logical. After all, Surrealism was crucial to the revolt against Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism was opposed to the closed “classical” structure of Cubist geometry, an eclectic variant of which occupied the American avant-garde during the late thirties when it was still an underground movement. Surrealism had a radical effect on Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning (and Motherwell, who, it appears, was its intellectual spokesman in America). Surrealism was, however, not only an attack on Cubism but a protest against its drift to abstraction. It was probably the first of the “manque” experiments with figuration (if not outright representation) in post-Cubist art, even though Synthetic Cubism, which was the Cubism most favored in America, being the latest, also rejected its prior “analytical” phase. The thing about Surrealism, however, was that it permitted, even encouraged, representationalism of a type that could not be judged by traditional standards because it occurred in unfixed space that was neither perspectival nor two-dimensional. Consequently, when Americans accepted Surrealism as an antidote to the repressive Cubist idiom, they inherited the contraband representationalism that came with it.

The tension of Abstract Expressionism was, then, that created by the antagonism between Surrealism and Cubism, between fluid space and incipient figuration on the one hand, increasing formalism and reductive pictorial means on the other. The principal characteristic of Abstract Expressionist figuration was—it correspondingly developed—the deprivation of volume and depth by the flat Cubist plane. Gorky compensated by devising a sagging space without a horizon that violated “the integrity of the picture plane” but failed to “open” it. Pollock was the most violent, of course, splashing complex linear mazes on the surface to avoid determinate, plane-bound drawing. With de Kooning, however, there was simply a collision of a voluptuous volume with the Cubist scrim, the results of which are history. In recent years the problem of opening up the surface without regressing to perspectival space has been dramatized by an artist like Fontana who simply punctured the picture plane with a blunt instrument. Most optical artists are similarly trying to outwit geometric closure; thus their dependency on optical illusion. Approaching the problem from a different direction, artists working in the new structured or shaped canvas and “hard object” idioms are forcing the plane to move out in real space as autonomous shapes. In sum, and in retrospect, the figure in the context of Abstract Expressionism becomes a symbol of the equivocation between art and nature, between abstraction and illusion.

The expressionism in action painting arises directly from this dilemma. De Kooning may be expressing an attitude towards women by cutting them up so wildly, but only insofar as his style reflects tensions that may be present in his relationship with women in general. In other words, he would paint an apple the same way. But it is significant that Pollock, Gorky and de Kooning, the principal figure-conscious action painters painted in the most turbulent styles, the patina of elegance of Gorky’s style notwithstanding. The rest worked with large unbroken planes or shapes in which the surreptitious illusionism of light implies nature without actually depicting it. But Gorky’s eroticism, Pollock’s anguished webs and de Kooning’s ambivalent figuration are explicit references to feelings about art and life, rejecting the idea that art alone can carry the entire burden of meaning and feeling. Gorky, the most removed from Cubist space, committed himself to manifest content to an extent that was frankly literary, as had two of his gods, Miró and Matta. This is not to say that agitated surfaces or imagery are proof of greater “feeling” than suave and more colorful canvases, but it does suggest that there was less detachment, either voluntary or involuntary.

Still, the figure had no “role” in Abstract Expressionism as it would have today in a post-Abstract Expressionist realism where its visibility and discreteness are revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary, as the case may be. The function of the figure in action painting was to illustrate and bear witness to its own fate—destruction by the tensions of style and disenfranchisement as a focal image. If the act, according to Harold Rosenberg, made the artist the subject of his painting, then the uneasiness that hangs over the act and its “homeless representation” (Greenberg) is that of a sensuous humanism greatly divided and even repressed. Abstract Expressionism did not then contribute to the dehumanization of art. It was an all too human art, competing with itself.

All Abstract Expressionist painting was not involved with the figure. In fact, eventually most of it was not. The reason why is crucial to an appreciation of all post-war art down to the present. The Abstract Expressionists were also interested in scale, and by the twentieth century, if not earlier, the figure had completely lost its capacity to convey the transcendent aspiration which informed the scale of past art. It was wanting in the nobility for which the middle and latter half of the nineteenth century hoped to substitute piety and sentimentality—the Pre-Raphaelites, for instance. “The want of a feeling for aristocracy, among the rich as well as the poor, among intelligentsia and among artists constitutes the most signal failure of the American spirit,” wrote Oscar Mandel* who meant by a “feeling for” aristocracy the will to idealize. To modern artists who had lived through one, and, in some cases, two wars and a Depression, the view was an impossible one. Art instead became the new idealism and a way of life in which the appearances of nature were simply redundant. Thus, outside of the triumvirate of Gorky, Pollock and de Kooning (Gottlieb’s pictographs, incidentally, do not qualify as figurative in the Western sense, being sentimentally archaic), what Abstract Expressionism gained in style and decorative majesty it lost in terms of sensuous and emotional commitment.

The abstractionist art of the moment, the new “precisionist” abstraction, is nonetheless opposed to what it deems the sentimentality of Abstract Expressionism and the painterliness that accompanied it. But it may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater by failing to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality. The latter is a distortion through excess of the former which is the truth of whatever is seen, felt or experienced. Sentiment is present in sentimentality, but sentimentality is not present in sentiment. To abandon sentimentality then is to abandon the risk of it—sentiment—for a theoretical integrity. But there is no guarantee of integrity; in fact integrity is something that has been greatly romanticized in our time.

Consequently, the “integrity” of the new abstraction runs the risk of an even greater sentimentality—the sentimentality of that very “integrity” which it seeks to achieve by a rejection of all cultivated tradition. Specifically, it regards mechanical forms and structures as more “honest” than those achieved with paint and illusion. “I find that the camera never lies but I do,” a friend remarked to me once, explaining her defection from poetry (to which she has since returned). But technology, which is implicit in the new plainness of structure-art, is no longer the “primitive” thing it once was, but rather a subtle, extremely sophisticated business that is not to be assimilated by the utilization of plastics and power tools. Nor is the spirit of simplicity to be revived by a style which, in point of fact, is acutely conscious of the historical development of modern art and self conscious in its rejection of the intellectual tradition in art.

It is interesting then that the most significant Abstract Expressionists are the ones who were most involved with the figure at one time or another. At least Gorky, Pollock and de Kooning are action painting’s most charismatic personalities. And they are different from each other in a way that their colleagues were not. Not that Motherwell, Newman, Still, Gottlieb or even James Brooks are indistinguishable from each other, but they all have certain forced qualities in common—a compulsion to bigness that expresses little more than ambition itself. At least none of it has the integrated decorative quality of the early works of Morris Louis, a slightly younger artist who domesticated the impulse unearthed by Pollock. Rather, a valid idea (any idea is “valid”) has been made to become the experience rather than encompassing other experience with the idea. Kline had a different obsession—power—but it came to the same thing, an unwarranted inflation of scale, as his futile attempts to justify it with color show. His more sophisticated contemporaries chose refinement and an attenuated elegance instead (relieved in Gottlieb’s case by a new mastery of color), outdistancing “crisis” with ever greater generalization. It is ironic that the nonfigurative Expressionists should in the end come full circle to a new purism. There are probably no more dogmatic esthetic personalities on the scene than Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman; and it even seems a certain rigidity threatens that most impressionable of Abstract Expressionists, Robert Motherwell.

AT THE SAME TIME IT HAS to be recognized that the figure was a curse as well as a blessing to the seminal artists of the New American Painting. It was possessive of their imagination through its link to tradition. Formerly it presented them with closed monolithic forms which resisted their bravura impulses to destroy it. Until Cubism, bravura tended to bounce off forms rather than get inside them. Cubism made mass consanguine with the picture plane but encased painterliness in a geometric straitjacket. A reaction against Cubism meant a return to bravura while yet attempting to maintain a unified two dimensional surface, the problem then being to “open” form and bring the surface inside it. (At this point certain sculptors had already anticipated the painters.) But de Kooning, for instance, never really got the hang of over-all painting that was achieved by Pollock, because he still thought in terms of figure and ground and center of interest. In the forties he liberated contour from mass and created extraordinarily mobile compositions, but the space is not completely integrated with the drawing; that is, the drawing does not create a space that is tonal and atmospheric rather than linear, despite its shallowness. In a way, Poussin had a similar problem.

Gorky, however, was protected from the counterrevolutionary implications of the figure because Surrealism was a compromise with illusionistic space to begin with. So rather than having to struggle with the polarity of opposing figurative and abstractionist impulses, he had only to devise pictorial means which defined his imagery, yet which left it free to exploit ambiguous space. In the end he achieved translucent shapes that floated on the surface and revealed depth at the same time. But at times, and in what are regarded as some of his major compositions, he grouped forms in a too-naturalistic order and even colored them somewhat impressionistically, especially in certain “landscapes.”

Pollock simply could not tolerate ambiguity, which he saw as the enemy of style and decorative unity. But when he finally abandoned the figure, only to return to it when his impulse weakened, he was unable to develop his unprecedented over-all style. Correspondingly, he failed to recognize its spatial significance for his subsequent figuration. Instead, he more or less relapsed to a conventional Surrealism distinguished largely by his technique and scale.

It was once pointed out to me that the ambiguity of Abstract Expressionism might be considered a virtue rather than a flaw. The point was well made, but it depends on what period of work is referred to. Throughout Gorky’s career, and early in the careers of Pollock and de Kooning, ambiguity was a vital spur to the imagination, quickening their efforts to resolve it. (Not that resolution is necessary, but the effort of it is; otherwise, there would be no imagination.) But eventually ambiguity in the case of de Kooning became a manner, and landscape crept in as a crutch. In Pollock the reality of ambiguity was unbearable when he returned to it after a spell of “liberation.”



*Oscar Mandel, “Nobility and The United States,” The American Scholar, Spring, 1958, 197–212.