PRINT December 1966

Present-Day Styles and Ready-Made Criticism

Black was never a color of Death or Terror for me. I think of it as warm—and generative. But color is what you choose to make it.
—Clyfford Still

THE CRITICAL ESTABLISHMENT HAS largely overlooked the formal contribution of Pop; in the rush to assure that history does not again make a fool of journalism, the impact-innovations (imagery, literary content and the role of the artist) have been proclaimed, and the underlayers of color, space, structure, scale and surface have been left unattended. Art News, scrupulously fair to Pop news in spite of its editorial bias toward Abstract Expressionism, said in an editorial, Pop and Public, that “ . . . it [Pop] has nothing to do with pictorial details or scale (most Pop Art has no scale ).”1 The criticism of Rauschenberg (who is not, in the strict sense, a Pop artist) and Lichtenstein (who is) stands as examples for the whole: Rauschenberg is usually seen as a better/worse reincarnation of Dada, his formal inventions as better/worse means to story-value ends, and Lichtenstein is viewed through the philosophical “why” of his comic-book girls (rather than the esthetic “why” of the hard line, severe shape and metronomic dot).

The Impressionists were hauled in on false charges (decadence); Royal Cortissez saw an immigration threat in the Armory Show (“Ellis Island art”); the Abstract Expressionists were held responsible for any surface with a couple of swatches of Shiva on it being a painting. Pop, however, was almost instantly accepted, but the criteria—Today’s Images for Today’s Times—were just as irrelevant. “Vanguard Audience” notwithstanding, we’ve repeated the error of seeing the issue wrongly, rather than misconcluding. Pop contained new (perhaps not obvious) formal possibilities for painting.

The question of Pop’s formalism involves the deepest elements of style and not merely quickness of fashion or revamping of literature, both of which are periodically desirable and inevitable. “It is fashion alone that can provide the kindling of actuality needed to start a fire.”2 The concept of style in painting has changed since the first of the modernisms; it has, in fact, relocated itself further and further from the specific work. Le Grand Jatte of Seurat is one of the last of the “masterpiece” syndrome—a great/large work defining the style of a particular painter. (A few pictures, e.g., van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, have been able to define whole geographical or chronological styles.) It is a self-explanatory painting, a culmination of working methods, and the style is in the physical surface of the painting. Certain early Analytical Cubist works of Picasso and Braque de-emphasized the totality of the single picture (paintings pointed or developed toward further paintings); style took a step away from the single picture and nested in the transitions between pictures. In Action Painting style logistically receded to the act of picture-making, into Rosenberg’s “arena.” The great art-historical phenomenon of Pop is that it has managed, against a theoretical cul de sac, to nudge style back another notch—to social and esthetic attitudes existing in full form with in the artist before the act of picture-making. Warhol’s style resides in his thinking everybody be like everybody else, that everybody should be a machine. The premise extends to the formalist edge of Pop (certain hard-edge, minimal and hybrid works being Imageless Pop; the whole a Greater Pop): Larry Bell’s foggy glass boxes are operatives of a priori esthetic concepts and contain, in many ways, the more celebrated qualities of party-line Pop—blurring the barriers between art and commerce and industry, austere means, and the absence of “handwriting.” A tremendous categorical difference exists between a simplistic non-figurative work painted more or less under the stylistic auspices of Abstract Expressionism (Kenneth Noland, for instance) and, say, Billy Al Bengston. But there is an area where the two form a continuity, a formalist bridge where the real matter of painting seems capable of an alluvial flow of invention, color and form; this, the crux of the matter, will be returned to after we have examined further changes Pop has made in style.

Greater Pop presided at the burial of “handwriting,” that specific, detailed (and Romantic) physical trace of the artist’s modus operandi: it’s sometimes called a brushstroke. What has replaced “handwriting” as surface style, in a milieu where products are more separable than ever, is a hyper sensitive brand name, “originality.” The content of Salvatore Scarpitta’s racing cars is unique to the work; anyone else doing straight racing cars is a fool, for the claim has been staked and the racing car is the de facto style of Scarpitta. Style and content are at times united within a media extension (Lucas Samaras’s room comes to mind), or the whole question is voided by our love affair with the methods, materials, organization and argot of Strangelovian technology: Larry Bell’s boxes are not particularly special in content (being formalist) and represent more of a technical choice; once the materials are gathered, there is only one way to go about it.

A channel exists, however, between the tenets of Abstract Expressionism and the latent formalist aspects of Pop; this connection has been seen, in part, by a few. Henry Geldzhaler pointed out that Lichtenstein, whose paintings have always seemed directed toward different qualities of line, form and color as formal alternatives to Abstract Expressionism, relates closely to Rothko and Newman in being a painter of big, single images.3 And there is this statement from J. Barry Lord:

The space which Clyfford Still explored, the space in which McKay’s and Rothko’s colour-forms found their uneasy position, the reverberating space which Morris Louis colour-streams, the space of paintings without edges in the dimensional world is the space in which our empty, perverted figures must locate.4

The formalist differences, then, between Abstract Expressionism and Pop are the differences of adjacent, rather than opposed, qualities; one group supplements, rather than negates, the other.

Emblematic color, a color of equal intensities, abutting planes and total frontality has superseded the depth-charged, plastically intuitive pigment of Hofmann, Guston and de Kooning. Emblematic color, a dissonant abstinence from the lettuce hung out on Cubist trellises, seems to seep chemically through the pores of the canvas, to form a narrow, almost recessionless image. It is enlightening to review Warhol’s silk-screen paintings in terms of—say what you will—Mondrian. Hofmann (whose composer was Beethoven—and the epic symphonies at that) stressed “simultaneous contrast,” a complex intuitive esthetic of checks and balances, probes and reactions, in short a visual symphony, whose harmonics were based on musical relationships. Warhol (whose music is supplied by the Velvet Underground) made pictures whose brittle, sour Police Gazette color echoed an electronic dissonance. Although the comparison may appear semantic, the common denominator is color-space and plasticity.

Where the struggle of Abstract Expressionism involved the paradoxical goal of making “real” depth on an emphatically flat picture plane at the expense of the remaining trompe-l’oeil, Pop reintroduced illusionistic imagery to make “real” flatness on a plane with no integrity. While Abstract Expressionism in general managed a sense of overlapping and undercutting, the methods of achieving pictorial space varied: Pollock through action, Brooks through paint skins, Guston through brushmarks, de Kooning through fierce manipulation of planes, and Hofmann through chromatic “push and pull.” Pop—deliberately or not—pushed plasticity further by destroying some of this hard-won empire. The picture plane, a flickering, active element since Cézanne, was suffocated with air-tight color. Overlapping—actual and seeming—was modified to an abrupt colliding of planes. An eclectic lithographic offset image formed a need for unnerving color constancy; mechanical greens, yellows, reds, magentas and dark blues projected in similar brightness emitted a frontality beyond that of Abstract Expressionism; a wholly advancing picture plane denied the depth-through-range of previous painting. The application of paint itself went deadpan. Color became less an immediate means (chosen and deposited in an act rich with chance, subtlety and Romanticism) and more a set of conditions (a dispassionate listing of the artist’s attitudes toward pictorial revolution and the resiliency of the viewer). But hasn’t painting—something of an obsolete term in itself—expanded into multi-planes, source light, sound, sculpture and theater? Perhaps, but the thing will always depend on the puncture and reassembling of the primary picture plane; six or eight surfaces will always depend on one, electric explosions with always depend on quiet canvases, grand psychedelics on natural intimacy. Pop created a new painting space which annotated the Utopian plasticity of Abstract Expressionism, a space which recondensed the spatial limits of painting and heightened the possibilities of the medium.

What this new space is can be described in terms of four characteristics: pre-flattening, archaic symmetry, emblem (mystical sign) and a new scale. Pre-flattening is disassociation from both hole-in-the-wall illusionism and the Romance of an “expanded” picture plane. The surface is flat, shrill, and, above all, arbitrary (a disowning of “natural laws”). Whatever enters a picture (anything is legal) surrenders orthodox abstract esthetics as well as orthodox illusionism; it must be flattened to the brink of destruction, and the whole picture undergoes a similar process. Symmetry can be deadly unless it narrowly misses; the new space avoids both mathematical order and felt, Romantic balances by being, in its not-quite- rightness, archaic. Between bi-symmetry and the Golden Mean lies a path of disharmony, awkwardness—valuable not because of its apparent honesty, but merely because of its narrow, clumsy limits. Beyond pre-flattening and symmetry is scale, an element transformed by the previous two. That Pop has no scale is untenable; on the obvious level of figuration, Rosenquist’s demi-billboards are exercises in the development of scale. In formalist terms, the split with Abstract-Expressionist scale (the modular reach of a man’s arm, a humanist scale) is inherent in the negation of “handwriting.” Images compounded of giant Ben-Day, acidic penetrations of silk-screen, slick, glittering plastic bubbles, frozen couplings of steel and glass are of a technological scale (as small as a miniaturized transistor, as large as a linear reactor) and, given a residue of old associations, a dissonant scale. The emblematic negates passages, depth and connoisseurship; the picture is digested immediately. Brittle color and an intense, shallow space create a simultaneous sign, an emblem. The emblem is not a pre-packaged visual symbol, it is a compactness of state, an unsentimental deployment of means, and a concrete dissonance of total effect.

The color and space of Greater Pop has probed and shifted the space of Abstract Expressionism; it has not destroyed it or abandoned continuous formalist revolution (which it has, according to socio-historical appreciation). What has happened is another step, a strange, angular stride obscured by the easy love-hate titillation of its more superficial aspects. (In the case of Imageless Pop, or minimal art, the obscurity is furnished by the monthly model-change of materials and the self-conscious inertness—an attempt, by self-parody, to eliminate moral responsibility for revolutionary statements.) We are re-examining the gristle of painting: what to do with a surface.

The images we produce are either ritual—derived from socio-political stimuli (one has to be taught that Landseer’s dogs, Audubon’s birds, Dali’s madonnas are art) or plastic, visual/emotional results of the application of the poetic means (say, paint). Pop has made us face the persistence of the ritual image, just as Abstract Expressionism re-established the validity of pure plastic creation. A synthesis will come, but it will not mean the superficial overlay of ritual on plastic (or vice versa) or a full-form birth from the head of another technical innovation. It is impossible to say what the choice will be, but it would seem the issue will be one of dissonance against unity, deliberation against spontaneity. There are, admittedly, many conflicts in this format; what was once spontaneous (Pollock’s sweep, Hofmann’s crisis and Warhol’s wishes) can now only be deliberation in the sense of mannerism. What was ostensibly deliberation (Lichtenstein’s dots) was in fact spontaneity against the prevailing ways. (Fifteen years of retrospect and/or a decade-and-a-half of imitators reveal an orthodoxy in ripe Abstract Expressionism, and the earlier paintings of Still, Motherwell, Gottlieb, Rothko and Tomlin, in which balance was ignored in the search for new form, begin to interest us more.) Then there is color again. Pop reveals there are no constants allowing a certain color here, another there, to make a picture “right” in accordance with the ebb and flow of a universe. Any color next to another is as good as any other color; this leaves the arbitrary the only acceptable working method.

A painting is a pitiable thing, requiring an inordinate amount of care to emit its feeble light in the face of anarchy, but it is, as they say, a candle in the darkness. Our underpinnings of universal plastic harmony have been wrecked by politics (because art is possible only after survival is accomplished; do children suffer in Mondrian’s universe?) and we stand vulnerable to anything neat, shiny and secure. But Pop has contributed an alteration of pictorial space which, addressed to the problem of painting, might yield a new plasticity.

Peter Plagens



1. “Pop and Public,” Art News, November, 1963, p. 23.

2. Schneider, Pierre, “The Singular Present,” Art News Annual, 1966, p. 69.

3. “Symposium on Pop Art,” Arts, Vol. 37, April, 1963, p. 37.

4. Rockman, A., “Superman Comes to the Art Gallery,” Canadian Art, January, 1964, Vol. 21, p. 18–22.

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