PRINT Summer 1966

A Preview of the 1966 Venice Biennale

IDEALLY A BIENNALE IS MORE than an international exhibition of current art events. It is a research laboratory, to which the artists from each participating country bring their latest findings. It has been proven again and again over the years that art movements of real vitality are more than national; they leap borders and often linger abroad with great effect before and after they are valued at home. While the great burden of transmitting the news in the world of art is on the traveling exhibition, the traveling artist and the art magazines, the Biennales also do their part. When they have been more successful in canonization than in discovery, they have fulfilled an important public function. When they have brought new talent to light, another function, more private and delicate, has been exercised.

The representation at a Biennale should serve a double purpose, to honor achievement at home and to present quality abroad. It is a testimony to the richness and vitality of recent American painting that even after eight of our most inventive and accomplished artists represented the United States at Venice in 1964, and six more at São Paulo in 1965, it remains possible to present this year four American painters of the highest quality, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Jules Olitski. These painters are not linked together by a single style or manner, and no single idea dominates their work. They are a varied group of middle-generation Americans each of whom has invented a singular way of handling paint, making available his personal vision to all who are willing to do the hard work of looking at advanced paintings.

If artists as different as Frankenthaler, Kelly, Lichtenstein and Olitski can all be termed advanced, such an inclusive concept must be defined. These painters are advanced because they all experiment and work at the outer edges of their achievement and accomplishment. They continue to paint “difficult” paintings; that is, new pictures that a thorough knowledge of the history of art, including recent 33 work, doesn’t quite prepare us for, paintings for which the critical apparatus is not yet invented or ready.

Why, then, send difficult paintings abroad to represent us at an international exhibition? Why not send our acknowledged masters who have been tried and tested and passed into history? This notion of two streams running concurrently does not apply to contemporary American art. Whatever gap there once existed between advanced painting, painting ahead of its audience, and generally acknowledged classic contemporary painting, has narrowed to the point where the two are identical. This is true not because painting has become less radical. Frankenthaler, Kelly, Lichtenstein and Olitski are at the same time advanced and historical because the audience in large part understands the process of art history and is willing to accept pictures which are still somewhat impenetrable and verbally elusive. The Museum of Modern Art and its publications, the art magazines, the university art history courses, and still other forces (the Biennales among them) have prepared many thousands of interested viewers to look for the new and to evaluate it intelligently. While this art is by no means yet popular (dictionary: accepted among the people) the works have their audience and the audience is large and growing.

Robert Motherwell in 1960 summed up the attitude, the state of mind of those who remain open to the new experience of advanced art. He was speaking of the artist, but what he wrote also indicates the heavy demands made on the new audience, “. . . I think that it is impossible to be deeply in touch with one’s feelings and, looking at the world squarely, not to become revolutionary, not to want to change—in relation to imagined new possibilities—the areas of which one is aware. To create is not to repeat, but to discover, critically and radically and freshly.” The difficulties and the rewards of an understanding of advanced art are clear.

Frankenthaler, Kelly, Lichtenstein and Olitski, in their uniqueness and in their interconnections, are indicators of the tremendous range and variety, the openness and energy of avant-garde American painting. Within this group of artists there are, of course, stylistic links. In the way Roy Lichtenstein shapes his forms, in his flat use of color, in the clear and hard delineation of his edges, he is significantly closer to Ellsworth Kelly than to artists such as Andy Warhol and Jim Rosenquist, who deal with similar subject matter. Kelly and Lichtenstein share a common heritage; they both derive in part from or are aware of Leger, the late Matisse, Stuart Davis, in short, the 20th-century tradition of hardedge, urban, industrial painting, the invented form and the chemical color.

It is the habit of writers on art, especially in the popular press, to create categories and compartments in which to slip not only individual artists but entire movements. Fortunately, as in the case of Lichtenstein and Kelly, these divisions are and always must be blurred. The actual confrontation with works of art most often makes nonsense of these idiot mnemonic devices, these catchwords and trick names.

Roy Lichtenstein’s formal vocabulary is reminiscent (as noted above) of Leger and Stuart Davis; but his specific content, whether the American comic strip, or the hugely blown up brushstroke of “Big Painting” (94 inches by 129 inches) is new in painting. And, as we learned from the Surrealists, new and mind-stretching subject matter can be served in familiar containers and remain exciting and fresh for a very long time. The shock of previously unthought of, unorthodox content in art is great, and a first response is often to reject it. Lichtenstein’s subject matter (for instance his Ben Day Picasso “Woman with Flowered Hat”) is in advance of much of the audience that knows what it expects a painting to be about.

Ellsworth Kelly’s work is an advance in presentation and construction. The colors are fewer, the forms more simple and repetitive than would seem possible in a rich and rewarding work of art. Yet the effect is compelling and complex. Even in terms of Kelly’s own history of minimal forms and shapes and colors, the new work does exactly enough with astonishingly little.

Radically different as their work is, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski also share stylistic characteristics. They both project their pictorial images through the agency of bleeding, floating, soaked in, blending color, color that becomes the form and the message of the painting.

Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings in the early 1950s (for example, “Mountain and Sea”) took off from a thorough understanding of Jackson Pollock. She was the first and only artist to make an art both personal and significant from elements in Pollock’s example. But it has been her gesture, her color and her formal vocabulary which have made her a tremendously influential painter. In the past fifteen years her work has continued to change within the framework of a personal vision in such a profound way that she has remained well in advance of the audience that thinks it knows what a Frankenthaler looks like. Lately she has, by subtracting forms from her earlier paintings, denied the expected dominant color field. The new paintings, in their vast emptiness, have greater suggestive power. In retrospect there is always unity and continuity in her work. But the most recent pictures always push us beyond the last in a surprising way, as with the overall gestural coherence of “Mountain and Sea,” and in the apparent blankness of the largely unpainted “ Five Color Space” of 1966.

In the most recent Frankenthalers it is the absence of color, the blank canvas, edged and spotted with color, that carries the painting. Olitski soaks and saturates the canvas in acrylic color, then, adding color to color, he sprays the surface and the result is color, as nearly unstructured, as “inform,” as anything in painting.

It is in their very formlessness that Jules Olitski’s most recent sprayed paintings are radical. The paintings are pulled through a trough of paint on the studio floor and are thoroughly impregnated with color. Additional colors are sprayed on, often while the canvas is still wet. In intermediate stages a long rectangle of waste canvas is sometimes used to mask some or most of the painting from the spray, providing the only structural or linear elements in the paintings.

The gleam of color in these insistently vertical paintings is something new and memorable in art. And their very memorableness belies the metaphor of formlessness they tempt one to use; it is truly impossible to hold a formless painting in our memory. It is clear that Olitski has invented a form that only appears formless. He has given us, as much as anyone ever has, color itself.

Whatever coherence the four artists in the American Pavilion at the thirty-third Venice Biennale present is in their common pursuit, in both form and content, of that which was, until they did it, unlikely or impossible in art. But their work is more than that, more than a mere search for the new for its own sake. Their experiments are successful. They paint beautiful pictures.

Henry Geldzahler

The essay above is a slightly revised version of the catalog essay for the 1966 Venice Biennale.