PRINT Summer 1968

Evaluations and Re-Evaluations

The precursor can have no imitators: he is always sui generis, while the rebel appears in crowds because the way of the rebel is easily imitated. The precursor shapes a new civilization; the rebel defines the edges of a disintegrating one.
George Kubler, The Shape of Time

DURING THE PAST SEASON or so a number of exhibitions that I thought had merit or interest have gone unreviewed in Artforum. Others provoked critical comment which overlooked aspects that seemed to me fascinating if not profound, though the implication of any incidental illumination grows in profundity upon reflection. I propose to discuss some of these refusée exhibitions and incidental insights now and, in addition, take this opportunity to revise, in part, my opinion of Jackson Pollock, on the basis of certain insights into the related problems of shape, scale and decoration.

I have also, in the past few years, come to a greater understanding of color, especially as employed by such “color painters” as Louis, Noland, Olitski and Poons. Color, too, is related to the problematical nature of shape in recent art, and, by extension, scale and the decorative (structural) element. For color as employed by our American colorists is that of hue independent of discrete shape, compelling a structure based on optimal openness. It is this type of structure and “shape,” or “non-shape,” that I feel is under attack now by the minimalists who, whether painter or sculptor, want to visualize art again in terms of discrete but minimal units without returning to traditional figure and ground relationships or simple monolithic statuary.

One of the fascinating things, therefore, about the exhibitions early in the past season by Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski was the way in which their new work fulfilled the implications of their early work, Noland releasing the chromatic force of his early target pictures by breaking out of the circle and, inferentially, the more recent chevron form, Olitski completing the dematerialization of mass that he began in the late fifties when he painted like an Abstract Expressionist Fautrier. Both artists have now achieved an unprecedented degree of saturated color by freeing it utterly from symbolic shape. This represents to me an apex of the Abstract Expressionist, and therefore painterly, impulse and, as such, identifies an image of art that all of the new art since Pop is conceptually, if not morally, antagonistic to.

In the beginning, both Noland’s circles and Olitski’s impastoed masses were “minimal” shapes of a kind. In Olitski’s case there was the complication of a vestigial chiaroscuro that is still perceptible in his immense fields of what at first appears to be a single color. The “prettiness” of these pictures is due, in fact, to their residual value harmonies, shading the surfaces even as color pins them down. It is this value function of Olitski’s hues that creates, I think, the oblique, as opposed to the frontal, effect of his color surfaces, an effect astutely brought out by Rosalind Krauss in the catalog essay that she prepared for a recent Olitski exhibition that was shown in Philadelphia and Boston. In any event, where Noland sought to efface contour with color, preventing inertness, Olitski strove to overwhelm, to inundate, as it finally transpired, shape with waves of intense color. It seems to me now that the work of both artists between their earliest and latest has to be regarded as transitional, though Olitski has undergone a more traceable evolution.

A further interesting facet of the two exhibitions has to do with scale, which I shall explain first in terms of Noland. Noland has always demanded more “liney-ness” in his color, and the tiered bands of his recent works capitalize on the same tension of the “contoured” color as his targets while overcoming their limits in terms of scale, limits due to the circles whose concentricity restrained the centrifugal force urged upon them by color. The new bands—opened circles—seem less discrete as parts (shapes), yet permit a paradoxical accomplishment—an increase of scale despite greater minimalization of the shape of the areas designated to carry the individual hues. The same holds true for Olitski; that is, the greater the release of color, the greater release of scale. The sheer splendor of these late works depends to a great extent on this enlarged scale.

It therefore seems to me that in his larger works Olitski is much less conscious of the edge of the canvas, of which so much has been made, and is more involved with the internal expansion of color, for which the framing edge becomes simply a sensed limit. Whereas in the smaller pictures, the framing edge is a more evident factor and evokes, however remotely, the sense of shape whose destruction is the function of color as color. Olitski’s early sprayed paintings exhibited this discrepancy as an excess of atmosphere created by cropping the field relative to shape rather than hue. The edges that are most important in Olitski’s paintings are the ones he lays in at the perimeter of his fields. They are another kind of mass, just the opposite of a line that is another kind of shape. After this it is a matter of proportion in the smaller canvases, and again, this refers to a kind of drawing that is usually incompatible with chromatic breadth.

There is still, as I said in my article, Scale and The Future of Modernism,1 a limit on scale when depicted shapes are absent. Yet I must admit that the large Olitskis and Nolands are larger than I thought they could be.

THE MATTER OF JACKSON POLLOCK must come next because the “peace” that I have made with his work, and, ultimately, with post-painterly abstraction, derives directly from the kind of thinking employed in the foregoing. That is, as I became more conscious of the preeminently visual values of what I now believe to be misnamed post-painterly abstraction, I became more aware of Pollock’s acute sensitivity to surface unity and the profound decorative weight and import of this surface. (Actually a revision of my opinion of Gottlieb preceded my change of heart with respect to Pollock; so I came to Pollock via color.) I still find Pollock’s ultimate decorativeness at odds with his expressive means, forcing me to ignore, as I do with Van Gogh, either one or the other when looking at works which I once described as “ballets danced in Dismal Swamp.” But paintings such as One (1950) and Lavender Mist (1950) seem to me to anticipate the profoundly pulverized color surfaces of recent Olitskis. However, a painting such as the Whitney’s No. 27 (again 1950) seems more comparable to an Olitski in its consanguinity of paint, color and pictorial surface. Laced, as I recall, with black, silver, white and pink, it possesses a surface simply choked with paint. This density destroys the residual descriptiveness of line, permitting the paint and therefore the color an autonomy that brings the surface right up into their coagulated richness. Significantly it loses much of its linearity (a painterly linearity) to color, one of the few Pollocks that do this.

It is of course this consanguinity of paint, color and surface that is the issue of any decorative sensibility. And by decorative, I should repeat, I refer to a kind of structure which is oriented towards the retention of surface qualities. Thus the wall upon which a mural is painted is implicated in the pictorial design. It has not been clearly understood that the much vaunted flatness of modernist art is related to monumental design and that to the extent that it is exceptionally conscious of surface unity, modernist art is perforce a decorative art. As this flatness was worked out entirely as an easel art, growing scale has rendered its development problematical.

NOTHING COULD PRESENT MORE of a contrast to these weighty considerations than those raised by the work of Leon Hartl, an ageless octogenarian who came to the United States from France in 1912 and was for a while in some sort of business with Marcel Duchamp. For Hartl, who showed this past season at the Zabriskie Gallery, is a painter of immense charm, and charm has been neither the ambition nor the pretense of virtually all modern art. Charm rejects the general and the monumental, relying as it does on particular effects, or rather a sense of the particular that suffuses the general effect in a particular way. Charm, in other words, is an aspect of the picturesque. It therefore presupposes a bias for the illustrative. As modernist art long ago named illustration the enemy of style, it follows that it finds charm equally odious. Consequently, no major modernist attempts the intimate, though it is no longer certain that he has a choice in the matter, that indeed, he is not now compelled to be impersonal.

Over the years, therefore, sophisticated critics have felt obliged to explain their unanimous pleasure (Hartl seems not to have had an unfavorable review, when he was reviewed, in the forty years or so since he began to show) in work as seemingly unmodern as Hartl’s. They invariably conclude that he is something of a primitive. Bosh. Hartl is merely a preponderantly illustrative artist. If there is anything naive about him, it is his simple faith in art as a craft. He practices it deliberately and painstakingly, thinking, drawing and then painting the still lifes, landscapes and flower pieces which exude a terrific integrity that vitalizes their nostalgic old world charm. Hartl knows painting and paintings; he under stands light, atmosphere and tactility. He can evoke heat and wetness and make the still lifes for which he is best known recurrently fresh meditations on charm that soften an essentially Puritan attitude towards form. Hartl is in fact a caretaker of the fading lyrical estate of Watteau and the bourgeois Renoir. In his latest show Hartl exhibited a number of exquisite landscape drawings that proved that most of what is commonly called illustration today has sacrificed its graphic integrity to sophistication and taste. I have never seen a great illustration that did not have particular charm.

I HAD TO AGREE WITH THOSE who thought the last Whitney survey of American painting its best such exhibition in years, but only because second and third rate art is better than fifth rate art. There is more of the former to choose today, slick and easy but pleasant to look at, and besides the Whitney has finally found the will to reject much of the very bad art to which it had been so loyal for so long. The unfortunate thing is that this sudden zeal came off as cruel rather than courageous because the Whitney had no precedent for it, or for a good corporate eye. It has always been too kind. There was poetic justice in the fact, then, that in implementing a sudden desire to “swing” with the times, the Whitney could only come up with a good second-rate show. “Swinging” is always second-rate when it shows. Indeed, there was some thing ultimately repellent about the voracious eclecticism and the dumb modishness of it all.

However, the lack of imagination was most evident in the handling of figurative art. A morbid fear of the academic seems to have dictated the general selection which rejected virtually all more or less straightforward representation unless it was painted in recognizably Franco-American, largely pre-Cubist terms or had some sensational aspect that seemed to qualify the reactionary implications, such as the sheer size of the Leslie and the obsessively impersonal personality of the Pearlstein (which was not the best of Pearlsteins, by the way). Surrealist and Pop mutants were also acceptable. In other words, the more remote it is from what are now deemed academic conventions, the more likely figurative art is to be “understood.”

But this, upon reflection, turns out to mean that the abstractionist work had to be similarly “safe.” That is, the fear of the academic in figurative art virtually assures the acceptance of the academic in abstractionist art because establishmentarian taste is type conscious rather than quality conscious and proceeds from a priori assumptions about style. There were exceptions in the Whitney to this general rule in both figurative and abstractionist idioms, but as luck rather than discrimination would have it. Otherwise a decidedly academic flavor was evident in a majority of the work which, like academic art traditionally, was frequently impressively executed.

The implication is that to misunderstand figurative art today is to risk a fundamental misinterpretation of art at this time. It is just such a misinterpretation that is, I think, at least latent in Michael Fried’s assumption that all but the most ambitious abstractionist art pursues “different enterprises.” Figurative art of the kind I believe to be in development certainly does. Mr. Fried simply fails to grasp its implication, just as he and his passionate emulators fail to grasp the implication of Pop art and minimal art, apparently accepting Satchel Paige’s dictum, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

Mr. Fried’s position is one which has come to be known as the “formalist” view, whose linear view of art history necessarily interprets art in terms of a mainstream that issues from constantly evolving solutions to a formal problem. As the mainstream is by definition also the best art, i.e., major, all other art must pursue other enterprises for which reason it is minor—if that. Formalism, then, does not so much interpret history as it interprets quality, or rather it sees the history of art as the history of quality. Now I happen to agree with just about all of this, as the earlier sections of this paper should confirm—but not all of the time. History is whatever version happens to be the going one, and it is periodically revised. There is just too much of the sort of art that is not supposed to be probable today according to determinist mainstream esthetics. The fact is that, given his prejudice, were the most militant Mr. Fried, even more than Clement Greenberg, alive and writing in the Madrid of the 1770s when the Baroque Tiepolo, the neo-classic Mengs and the proto-Romantic Goya were simultaneously active in crucially different stages of their careers, he probably would have missed, that is, ignored, the latter two. Yet, though not yet major and though Mengs is now almost forgotten, they were forerunners of the struggle between Ingres and Delacroix; they were already symptoms of a divided sensibility that only David proved to be able to handle with any significant success. The moral of the tale is, if it is not yet time to embrace figurative art unequivocally, it is far too soon to reject it. But it isn’t minor because it is still—I am amazed to say the word—experimental.

As for the Whitney, such subtleties are beyond the scope of the management. The truth is, and it brings the history of modern art full circle, that any art they do not understand scares the hell out of them.

Gabriel Laderman’s last exhibition was held at the Schoelkopf Gallery a year ago last April. At the very least it helped to illustrate the equivocal relationship between figurative art and present criticism, since somehow Artforum, which knows better, failed to review it, while Hilton Kramer of the New York Times used it as the basis of a lengthy position paper on figurative art. Laderman, he concluded, “has aimed for the big leagues and he is not alone in failing.” As my own exhibition happened to follow Laderman’s at the same gallery, and since my critical advocacy of figurative art was also the unstated target of Mr. Kramer’s Laderman review, I got the message ahead of time.

Yet Laderman is to my mind among the most promising new figurative painters in America. He is interestingly complex. He paints from nature, yet is a painter of ideas—of ideated forms—rather than sensations (a distinction I believe Mr. Kramer does not make or understand). It is not surprising then that Laderman has a mannerist feeling for space but a classical feeling for volume, that while he evokes recession through linear perspective, his forms overlap cancelling out much of that depth. Correspondingly, his muted but high keyed tonalities, painted unbrokenly, attest to a latent planarity, but their values evoke credible atmosphere. Talent is not enough to control such contrariety. It requires intelligence . . . mind.

Logically, such a sensibility seeks its fulfillment in a mastery of the figure, or rather a mastery of the more complex geometry of the figure which is the visual cognate of more complex feelings than those evoked by buildings or bottles. This is currently the area of Mr. Laderman’s personal crisis, and historically the one whose solution will be most relevant to the essentially idealistic aims of the new figurative art.

Mr. Kramer does not understand this idealistic view, partly because it reminds him, as it did the Whitney, only of academic art, partly because he somehow equates intellectual probity with abstraction and an almost unmanly failure to experience. Five weeks after the Laderman review appeared, Mr. Kramer lavishly praised Herman Rose, who is peacefully immured in a hamish kind of post-Impressionism, in the following pointed terms:

Mr. Rose is not an artist who has settled on representation as an intellectual program or a conceptual device––which is to say that he is very far from regarding realism as an extension of abstract ion by other means. Everything about his painting suggests that it is rooted in experience rather than in theories or programs.

Mr. Kramer writes as if art began in the 19th century.

And there’s the rub. A critical vision of what the crucial problems in art are is inconceivable when historical focus is lacking. I obviously believe this historical focus to be lacking in art criticism today. Formalism makes no allowances for the natural variability of style in crisis; anti-formalism, usually more hysterical than historical, is a symptom of a corresponding crisis in criticism rather than a really new theory of criticism or history. The misunderstanding of figurative art is, then, only the most dramatic illustration of a greater problem.

A final note. The National Academy of Design held its annual exhibition late last February. It was its 143rd. There was a statue of a polar bear in the sculpture section. Otherwise there was a surprising lack of delusion. On the other hand, there seemed to be no illusions either. The academy, it seems, must exist elsewhere.

Sidney Tillim



1. Artforum, October, 1967