PRINT November 1973

Residual Sign Systems in Abstract Expressionism

A PROBLEM THAT RECIPROCALLY INVOLVED both subject matter and formality engaged the Abstract Expressionist painters of the middle and late ’40s. It was how to make paintings that would be powerful signifiers, and this led to decisions as to what signifiers could be properly referred to without compromising (too much) the flatness of the picture plane. The desire for a momentous content was constricted by the spatial requirement of flatness and by the historically influenced need to avoid direct citation of objects. Something of this train of thought can be seen in Barnett Newman’s reflections on the role of the hero image in sculpture. He pointed out that the heroic was no longer directly available to the sculptor and hence, though he does not say so, to the painter. Therefore, he argued, the human gesture, freed of anatomy, could be used to signify the human presence.

Herbert Ferber, by

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