PRINT December 1966



David Bourdon quotes Mondrian: “True art like true life takes a single road.” Many a one will surely find the true truth in this statement. But what if every road has its turning?

In your October issue the subtractionist critics and their followers, the artists, all seem to be moving straight ahead with their history of modernist art; and even poor old Picasso is being separated from the bunch (since 1945).

I can see it now. Old Tom Hess, unmoved since 1960, sends old Harold Rosenberg out on a search. Somewhere far from the crossroads, in the academic jungle near the graves of Le Brun and Bougereau, we hear his hushed voice crackling out, “Eh? Eh? Dr. Greenberg, I presume.”

G. R. Swenson
New York City

While I have no wish to quarrel with Robert Pincus-Witten’s appreciation of Lawrence Alloway’s Systemic Painting exhibition (Artforum, November, 1966 ), I do feel that certain of Mr. Alloway’s critical preconceptions, especially as revealed in his catalog essay, deserve exploration. For Mr. Alloway surely intended the show as illustrative material for a thesis generated within the catalog, a thesis which wishes to prove that painters like Noland, Held, Poons and Zox have in common a radical conception of the enterprise of painting, and that this view which they share produces art which is meaningful in a new way.

Systemic painting, one was told, involves the choice of an image—one which Alloway characterizes as “holistic.” This image is not presented within the painting, but is suggested by the painting’s entire field; it fuses the picture’s character as a divided surface with the picture’s physical character as a complete object. Once the artist has chosen the image, he varies it systematically within a given series of canvases. The image is then, a kind of conceptual blueprint, of which the paintings themselves are the manifestations or examples. But, most important for Mr. Alloway’s thesis, it is by means of the systematic repetition of the images that “formalist” art conveys meaning. For only within a temporal progression, only within the sequential space of a series, can the image gain iconographic power. Art which is non-illusionistic and non-symbolic, Mr. Alloway declared, cannot be meaningful except when seen, first, as the product of human choice, and second, when viewed from within the context of serial development. But one’s encounter with works of art inevitably revolves around single paintings or pieces of sculpture. Indeed Mr. Alloway’s insistence on the importance of systematic variation was in part refuted by an exhibition which limited the viewer’s experience of any one artist to a single painting.

Systemic Painting, which couples work by Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, Neil Williams and Larry Poons, Al Held and Larry Zox, is for Mr. Alloway a special phenomenon within the art of the ’60s, just as Action Painting seemed to him a consistent system within the art of the ’50s. Significantly, his description of Systemic Painting bears a strong resemblance to the attitudes he thought were demonstrated in the earlier style.

For, as one looked at the works assembled at the Guggenheim, and read the catalog which accompanied them, there was a strong sense of deja vu. One had been asked before to understand a group of stylistically heterogeneous works by means of a doctrine that pretended to disclose the single source of their meaning. At that earlier time even the critical argument w as the same. We were told that Action Painting gave rise to meaningful art, not in terms of a single pictorial statement, but as the by-product of creative development. The single canvas was the outcome of a series of choices, made in the act of its creation. Looking at the product of these choices, the viewer was supposed to gain insight into the nature of the creative act itself—and by extension, insight into the hidden character of human expression. If a single canvas was the residue of such human significance, a series of works by a single artist was all the more meaningful. To punctuate the argument, it was noted with solemn portentiousness that artists like Gottlieb and Rothko worked in series.

Mr. Alloway’s view of Action Painting and his more recent view of Systemic Painting have striking parallels. Art is invested with meaning because it is the residue of human behavior—before it represented a deposit of “action,” now it is the visual result of “choice”—and meaning is extended and enforced through time.

Other parallels may also be seen: Alloway resists the idea that artists like Noland and Stella may have developmental connections with the art of the recent past; he prefers instead to jump back to an antecedent style and establish their parentage in Suprematism and De Stijl: “In Malewitch’s book The Non-Objective World, his Suprematist compositions are rendered by pencil drawings, not by reproductions of paintings. The conceptual act of the artist, that is to say, not his physical engagement with a medium, is the central issue.” One is reminded of the insistence, ten years ago, that Action Painting had repudiated late Cubism, in favor of German Expressionism and Kandinsky. And, too, technical questions used as a bridge between artists operated as a critical factor years ago and seem to operate on Alloway’s judgment now. Pollock and de Kooning were coupled because they both used housepaint and loaded it on canvas in ways that were unorthodox; Noland is linked with Mehring because both artists stain with acrylic paint and evolve a succession of pictures in terms of a constant format.

Surely we have come to see the absolute difference between Pollock and de Kooning, between Gottlieb and Newman, and to understand that each artist had something different to teach younger painters. They therefore meant different things; even Mr. Alloway admits as much in his catalog. But he has not been able to see that Al Held is stylistically distant from Frank Stella and that no amount of polemic will bring them together.

Held’s painting in this show was a giant white square, notched with small triangles of color at the midpoints of both the bottom and top edges. The image was like a bloated figure “N” riding the surface of the canvas and seen against a dark background. That the viewer perceived the background-foreground relationship in a kind of double take did not change the nature of the painting as a late Cubist image, in which neither figure nor ground had the power to act upon either one another or the viewer’s sensation of them.

On the other hand, Wolfboro 4, Stella’s work in the exhibition, juxtaposes two geometrical fields, each one bordered by a band of color which acts as an interior frame. Asserting the continuity of the surface, the bands give the observer a physical sense for the way the two object-like parts of the picture are fitted together. But this recognition of the physical evaporates in experiencing the fields themselves. The lower field, a warm brown trapezoid, appears as a square surface seen as foreshortened, as though it were vanishing away from the viewer. Here, if Mr. Alloway wants to refer to Malevich, a connection is possible, for Stella’s motif of an evanescent physical object can be found in a 1916–17 painting by Malevich called Quadrilateral Object. In that work a square, shown in dramatic two-point perspective against a light ground, vanishes into the ground as its color grades off into the illusioned distance. But it is crucial here to realize that Malevich saw this distance as infinity; like Kandinsky, he always resisted any recognition of the flatness of his paintings’ two-dimensional surfaces. The connection between Stella and the earlier artist has nothing to do with debt, or even with art historical ancestry. It has to do with a productively used sense of nostalgia; a nostalgia which comes from a total commitment to the present and its legitimate dialectical ties with a much more recent past, and from the consequent feelings of admiration and loss for what is by now history. If Wolfboro 4 projects a meaning it is certainly located within the viewer’s awareness of the impossibility of Malevich’s infinity. The concept of illusionism resides within the painting’s structure as allusion rather than as portrayal. Within this context the color can be invested with an openness which refers to exterior space but does not represent it, and which denies the physicality of the painting as an enframed object.

Rosalind Krauss
Cambridge, Mass.