TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1966

Distillation

THE YOUNG ARTISTS PRESENTED IN the joint exhibition entitled Distillation at the Stable and Tibor de Nagy gal­leries are working close to the core of the continuing process which is 20th century art. That process, at work in other areas as well, is one of distillation. As such, it has put more and more limitations on the mannerist and psychological escape routes avail­able to anyone hoping to make a satisfactory work of art in our time. Increasingly, the demand has been for an honest, direct, unadulterated experience in art (any art), minus sym­bolism, minus messages, and minus personal exhibitionism.

There have been, of course, con­tinuous reactions to this process, none of which have been able to supplant it because they were more dependent on it than it on them. Dadaism, Surrealism, “action paint­ing,” Pop, the New Realism, etc. could almost be called “applied art” since they have used the tough-­minded, hard-won accomplishments of the core art without making direct contributions to its development. This is not to say that they have con­tributed nothing at all. At the very least, by their often shrill opposition, catering to a slow-moving popular taste, they have helped to identify negatively the real direction and ne­cessity of the stylistic backbone. That backbone has been created by indi­vidual artists whose work cannot be classified in any strict way.

A list of such key artists, until re­cently dominated by painters, would include those as apparently separate and individualistic as Kandinsky, the later Monet, Matisse, O’Keeffe, Dove, Stuart Davis, Mondrian, Still, Pollock, Newman, Kelly, Feeley, Louis, Stella and Noland. Thus, to untutored eyes it would seem that the 20th century had neither a tradition nor a process. Yet the effective art of the immediate present must have come from some­where and it obviously did not come from the movements or the “schools.” It is possible, however, to find a principle of unity in the work of the above artists. In every case the evidence of the work reveals a drive to simplify the pictorial means and to eliminate the extraneous, particularly those ideas and props generated out­side art itself which had led to the adulteration of forms within it. Chronologically, each of them has left essentially less of the baggage of past art for the rest to deal with. This has not been, however, a process of diminution, but of intentional distil­lation aimed at more potent results.

The distillation process, of course, puts more strain on the artist and his means. No wonder that we have wit­nessed every form of evasion, every imaginable distraction dragged across the scene. And no wonder that most of these herrings smell of the literary swamp that has overwhelmed west­ern sensibilities since the Renaissance. It will probably take the rest of this century to find out what this essen­tialization has meant to the history of style as a whole. One thing we can see now is that this process is part of art’s search for total control over it­self for the first time in western his­tory. Attached to the dignity of that sit­uation, however, go responsibilities.

Although the painters shown in this exhibition share a common sense of the contemporary situation, each ap­proaches it from a slightly different direction and with different results.

Rosemarie Castoro’s paintings, which at first seem to be color fields broken by odd random shapes of an­other color, gradually reveal the source of their cohesion in an under­lying structure. It is from within this structure, rational and plotted, that an immense variety of related shapes have been retrieved, and it is the ra­tionality of these shapes which leaves her free to explore the sensuous pos­sibilities of color.

In his circular paintings Terrence Syverson may seem to be echoing an early Jasper Johns target, or those of Kenneth Noland. However, Syverson has liberated the form from the rec­tangle and presented it, not as a pic­ture of a situation but as a concrete fact. In this move the painter is close to accepting the breakdown of the conventional rectangle, which has led to the interbreeding of painting and sculpture. But since these circles in their absoluteness, undenied by the form and the colors within, are still not far from the absoluteness of the four ninety-degree angles of the rec­tangle, they remain within the per­imeter of easel painting.

Perhaps Robert Barry is pushing his art farther to the edge of the painting­-sculpture struggle than Syverson. By lapping the ends of his canvases with color he is beginning to ask us to see them in the round. He is certainly dealing with literal as well as lateral space. The solution however still seems to be that of a painter, for the emphasis is on the color and its rhythmic spacing across the whole expanse rather than on the physical shape it follows.

Patricia Johanson, following paint­ing’s logical reduction of itself into color disposed upon a two-dimen­sional surface, has even attempted to eliminate the distinction of shape. The intention of her colored line is not to act as a linear division of the surface nor as the edge of form, but simply to place its color directly be­fore us in a field of space. She is able to bring about different kinds of experiences of color by controlling the physical extent of the neutral space field. The ultimate experience de­pends upon the judgment and taste involved rather than the rationale.

Since sculpture has continued to follow the lead of painting through the first half of this century there have been few sculptors outside of Brancusi who have been engaged in the direct distillation of that art. Rep­resentationalism and pictorialism contaminated even the most abstract works of Picasso, Giacometti and Da­vid Smith. Even Brancusi had to pilfer architecture, another art (his Endless Column is a Roumanian house-post) to assuage a conscience trained to think of nature as the starting point. Duchamp, too, could not invent his sculpture, but had to find it in the world of functional objects.

Nor has the interbreeding of sculp­ture and painting in recent years par­ticularly assisted sculpture in keeping up with painting. The rush to employ painting-type color in sculpture, as refreshing as it might momentarily seem, has more often than not re­moved the possibility of the sculp­tural experience from the work at hand. Moreover, all the radiant color in the world cannot camouflage weak form. And the tendency toward in­tentional camouflage is tantamount to a return to illusionism.

Yet that kind of painting engaged in the reductive process has by ex­ample afforded sculpture a standard of value and, hopefully, the courage to affirm that the sculptural experience by itself is more than enough. The problem now is to try to dis­tinguish between display art and its salesmanship and a basically true piece of sculpture. Newness of form is not nearly so important as some of the younger British and American sculptors seem to think it is. (Proof of this is immediately evident in the work of Anthony Smith.) Our long deprivation of true sculpture has left us with a weak sense of real form. We need the shock of the real, not the adulterated version.

The young sculptor whose work is included in this exhibition, Antoni Milkowski, has simply driven away the haunting images of mannerism, pictorialism and display art. He is content, for the time at least, with the classic colors associated with his material. He works primarily in steel, a permanent substance which will prevent his work from becoming merely a short-term happening. The scale and directness of his large pieces allow them to compete with, rather than inhabit, architecture, and keep them from falling into the cate­gory of more objects in a world of objects. He occasionally comes close to, but avoids the balancing acts which commonly load inferior works with structural uneasiness and psy­chological tensions. To a degree his work is programmatic, constructed from basic modular units, but their articulation saves them from static repetition. This work is as yet mono­lithic but suggests that it is sitting at the center, prepared to move with ease in whatever direction the artist desires to take it.

The fact that 20th-century art has reached the point where its underly­ing principles have become clearer does not mean we are in for a bout with academic art. The process is still at work. Despite the accepted limita­tion of means, and ends, it is clear from the work of such young artists as these that there is ample room for variety and individual responses to the challenge. Each has submitted his vision to the alembic and reduced it to its best essence. They prove that there is no “less” or “more” in art. Whatever it takes to do it, whether it is the seventeen syllables of the haiku or the twelve books of the Aeneid, is what it takes. A work of art cannot be subjected to quantitative analysis. It is not the time it takes to read it that counts, but the time it takes to forget it.

––E.C. Goossen