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 removing this mock hero, has re-evoked the naked heroic gesture. Hanging his powerful line on and over pure space, he has succeeded in freeing himself from this hero, so that the gestures of his images move in free splendor, thus enabling each of us to fill the open masses with our bulky selves to become our own personal heroes. Ferber’s skeletal line, by the majesty of its abstract freedom, touches the heroic base of each man’s own nature.1

There is some reason to think, if one considers Ferber’s naive sculpture of the period, that Newman is doing the best he can for a friend and that perhaps the real subject is Newman’s own work. Certainly in his paintings the bands of color seem to have a comparable symbolic function, indicating in terms of verticality the basic human posture. In addition, an important group of large paintings includes bands that are literally close to human scale. The term “gestural” is commonly applied to Abstract Expressionism with reference to conspicuous brushwork, but the term is also applicable to those of Newman’s paintings in which the whole work has a gestural function. The tall lines and the man-sized area are a kind of gestural condensation of “the naked heroic gesture.”

In 1948 Newman wrote: “we are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, and what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting.”2 In later statements Rothko and Still confirmed the renunciatory mode. Rothko rejected “memory, history, or geometry,”3 and Still dismissed “outworn myths and contemporary alibis.”4 Common to these three artists in the late ’40s is, therefore, an idea of art as the outcome of essentializing doctrine: art is what is left when surface detail and secondary ideas have been scraped away. These statements have been taken pretty much at face value, but actually there is more to be said.

For instance, it is notable that the renunciations demanded have a definite cultural context. Newman wrote “that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it.”5 This can be compared to Still’s statement: “the fog has been thickened, not lifted, by those who, out of weakness or for positions of power, looked hack to the Old World for means to extend their authority in this newer land.”6 These statements clearly set the renunciations of the artist into the traditional contrast of two continents, which originated in the 19th century as part of the attempt to encourage national arts in America. The typology includes contrasts of dedication (America) and exhaustion (Europe), vitality and elegance, honesty and learning. As Benjamin T. Spencer has pointed out, when writing about America “Emerson resorted to metaphors which implied primal energies rather than mature ideologies,” such as “a colossal youth” or a “brood of Titans.”7 It is significant that the claim to be free of the (European) past should be argued in terms of a 19-century (American) idea.

What is the meaning of this old defense of newness? It relates to a dominant theme of Newman’s early writing, namely, the connection between primitive art and American art. In 1944 he wrote about Pre-Columbian stone carving and on “The Arts of the South Seas” exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art.8 In each case Newman takes a primitive art form that is associated with America, or, is at least non-European. In addition, he takes early, if not the first, artists and discusses their work as part of “the metaphysical pattern of life.”9 Contemporaneously with his Indian and Pacific pieces, he applied notions derived from primitive art to the work of his contemporaries. In the catalogue The Ideographic Picture, he defines “a new force in American painting that is the modern counterpart of the primitive art impulse.”10 Of the eight artists in the show, four were Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Rothko, and Still. (American-ness here is identified with primal energies and should not be confused with the later artist-as-coonskinner image of Harold Rosenberg which trivialized the theme of national identity.) The exhibition that followed “The Ideographic Picture” at Betty Parsons’ Gallery was by Theodoros Stamos, and again Newman wrote the catalogue.

Stamos is on the same fundamental ground as the primitive artist who never portrayed the phenomenon as an object of romance and sentiment, but always as an expression of the original noumenistic mystery in which rock and man are equal. Stamos is able, therefore, to catch not only the glow of an object is all its splendor but its inner life with all its dramatic implications of terror and mystery.11

Thus, America is both newer than Europe and older: to the extent that it is newer it is free from a late culture’s habits of elaboration and attenuation; but it is older because artists have not lost their access to primal (i.e., young) energies and intuitions. These ideas, securely based on 19th-century precedents, suggest that the tablet of the Abstract Expressionists had not been wiped as clear as was supposed. A similar situation exists in these artists’ treatment of mythology. As early as 1943 Rothko stated: “if our titles recall the known myths of antiquity, we have used them again because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas.”12 And, again, “we seek the primeval and atavistic roots of the idea rather than their graceful classical version,” renewing in oneself “the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring.”13 On the same occasion, Gottlieb said that he was aware of “denying modern art” by placing “so much emphasis on subject matter” but “the mechanics of picture making has been carried far enough.”14 (At the time of the broadcast at which they spoke Gottlieb was in the third year of his pictographic period.)

Four years later, Clement Greenberg wrote, apropos of the pictographs: “Gottlieb is perhaps the leading exponent of a new indigenous school of symbolism which includes among others Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Benedict Newman.”15 Here then are several open avowals of the mythology that marked one group of Abstract Expressionists in the ’40s before it was subsumed into less explicit forms. Gottlieb’s “denial of modern art” as a formal system has the same basis as Newman’s polemic against geometry. Writing in 1958, he declared: “Only an art free from any kind of the geometry principles of World War I, only an art of no-geometry can be a new beginning.”16 What he was after, for himself and on behalf of American painters, was “a new image based on new principles. . . . It is precisely this death image, the grip of geometry that has to be confronted.”17 Malevich is expressly mentioned as representative of the limits that American artists, strengthened by their primitive roots, had to transcend.

Greenberg’s description, though he soon dropped it, of New York painting as “a new indigenous school of symbolism” is very much to the point. Abstract Expressionism achieved a new alignment of the existing styles of modern art and found a way of painting that maintained flatness without any diminishment of signification. If it is not evident from the art, though I believe it is, there is ample verbal evidence in the written and recorded statements of the artists of their conviction that art was a projection of their humanity. Art’s value was to be derived from its success in embodying great thoughts and enduring themes. However, the sententious aspect of Abstract Expressionism was gradually lost sight of and as early as 1959 E. C. Goossen, referring to Gottlieb, discussed “how then to keep the physical presence of the painted surface alive, sensually immediate and materially present, while wielding the immateriality and illusion of space behind it.”18 This expressed well the pictorial problem of reconciling the picture plane with the spatial implications of color, but it confers prime value on this matter. What has happened is that Gottlieb is being interpreted in terms of “the mechanics of picture making.” It is true that by this time Gottlieb was out of his pictographs, so that the evocation of universal patterns and motifs was reduced. Beyond this however, Goossen’s language is typical of the estheticizing analysis of Greenberg himself, whom Goossen is following, and the later writing of William Rubin and Michael Fried.

Goossen’s stress on syntax at the expense of signification reveals a bias that characterizes American criticism at large. As the imagery of the myth-makers became flatter and larger, with fewer internal episodes, the level of symbolism was less and less discussed. What had been an antiabstract art was turned into another kind of abstract art, but one with a coloristic rather than a geometric base. The abstract potential of Newman, Rothko, and Still was exaggerated at the expense of other readings, including connections between their earlier and later work. It is crucial to remember in this respect that these three artists were late starters; though they began weakly, their early work is far from being student work. It may be clumsy, but it is not empty or uninformed. Newman’s and Rothko’s biomorphic imagery and Still’s troglodytic imagery, for example, were the product of men who had reached their forties. Though there are real morphological changes in their work of the late 1940s, the Abstract Expressionists can hardly be expected to have started entirely anew at that time of their lives. As suggested above, even the topic of renewal by renunciation should not be taken literally but as a cultural reflex. Thus the tendency of criticism to concentrate exclusively on the later work has led to a neglect of its sources. The problem to consider is whether the reductive mode, initiated in New York 1947-50, necessarily acts to exclude meanings or whether the declared concerns of the early ’40s may not persist in condensed and elliptical forms.

Newman wrote his article on the Sublime in the same year that he painted the first and second pictures called Onement. The verbal and pictorial statements coincide exactly, but not all the ideas in the article have their origin at that moment. Aspects of Newman’s primitivism are certainly carried into this fresh context. Similarly with Still, the chronology of his work is obscure but it is at least clear that he had painted numerous fully characteristic paintings by 1952 when he made the rejective statement quoted above. Rothko’s statement dates from 1949, the year in which he established his mature format of stacked edge-to-edge forms, but the original article in The Tiger’s Eye is not illustrated by such work. The accompanying illustrations show patchy, free-form paintings, with internal incidents and vertical divisions as well as horizontal.19 The announced rejection of “memory, history, or geometry” therefore does riot necessarily entail the high level of unity of the mature work as has been assumed.

It is possible that the stress on renunciation may have been intended to cool some of the more ardent of the mythological references, but, in fact, this could only be a secondary motive. The subjects of renunciation and rebirth have their iconographical value, as in a text Rothko wrote for Still’s first exhibition in New York in 1946.

It is significant that Still, working out West, and alone, has arrived at pictorial conclusions so allied to those of the small hand of Myth Makers who have emerged here during the war. The fact that his is a completely new facet of this idea, using unprecedented forms and completely personal methods, attests further to the vitality of this movement.

Bypassing the current preoccupation with genre and the nuances of formal arrangements, Still expresses the tragic-religious drama which is generic to all Myths at all times, no matter where they occur. He is creating new counterparts to replace the old mythological hybrids who have lost their pertinence in the intervening centuries. For me, Still’s pictorial dramas are an extension of the Greek Persephone Myth. As he himself has expressed it his paintings are “of the Earth, the Damned, and of the Recreated.”

Every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting the multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things. To me they form a theogony of the most elementary consciousness, hardly aware of itself before the will to live—a profound and moving experience.20

As the paintings of Newman, Rothko, and Still became simpler in format they did not lose in complexity of content. Although various elements were dispensed with, what remained was a great deal more than nothing. The parts that they kept were, in fact, maximized and presented emphatically. The more art is simplified the more potent what is kept can become; this is obvious but the rhetoric of 20th-century art gives more prestige to the act of giving up than holding on. What characterizes the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the late ’40s on is precisely the significative magnitude of their austerities. I am connecting early texts with later paintings not to circumscribe the paintings by a genetic theory but because I know of no better way to account for their special resonance. If we compare paintings by Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly with those of the Abstract Expressionists, it becomes evident that a dimension of allusion, an aura of content, has been suspended by the later artists. They certainly take off from positions given by Newman and Rothko, but the field of color, the holistic imagery, and the expanded scale of the canvas no longer imply momentous content. The allusions of the Expressionists are not present simply because of the intensity of the older artists’ feelings compared to the reduced passion of the younger generation; the allusions are present as a set of specific cues, to which Newman’s Sublime text is one basic source.21

In the 18th century the Sublime was an additional esthetic category, as was the Picturesque; both were added to the existing criterion of Beauty in recognition of the expanded awareness of the period. Similarly in the 1940s, the Sublime was regarded as an addition to European “modern art” in which geometry was (unfairly) equated with what is known and measurable. In both its 18th- and 20th-century usages Sublimity was an index of the expansion of esthetic limits. Some of the formal properties described by Edmund Burke, to take his Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful as a summarizing text, fit American painting very well.

On “Uniformity” as a cause of the Sublime Burke writes:

if the figures of the parts should be changed, the imagination at every change finds a check; you are presented at every alteration with the termination of one idea, and the beginning of another; by which means it becomes impossible to continue that uninterrupted progression which alone can stamp on bounded objects the character of infinity.22

Appropriate to the Sublime, according to Burke, are “sad, fuscous colors, as black, or brown, or deep purple.”23 Rothko’s mulberry paintings or Still’s black ones come to mind, as well as Newman’s observation on “the revived use of the color brown . . . from the rich tones of orange to the lowest octave of dark browns,”24 colors that connote the “majestic strength of our ties to the earth.”25 The concept of “artificial infinity” as symbolized by uninflected works and color in a somber range does not exhaust the correspondences between the Sublime esthetic and American painting. Burke observed that “extreme light . . . obliterates all objects, so as in its effects to resemble darkness,”26 which is a better way of describing the effect of a dark painting by Rothko than most of his critics have arrived at. And, of course, light itself is part of an expressive tradition that includes the paradox of dark in light described by Burke and radiance as an image of revelation. Rothko’s avoidance of complementary colors and of black-and-white tonal contrasts gives his paintings an other-worldly look, raising Neo-Platonic memories of light as the energy of the Creator. Burke also considered as a source of Sublimity the effect on the spectator’s mind of being dominated by an immense object. This can be related to Newman’s statement, “the large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.”27 Finally, Sublimity, as defined originally by Loginus, was regarded as “the echo of a noble mind.”28 That is to say, the Sublime is not reached by rule; it is a projection of the artist which is not equated with emotional self-expression, a view that accords well with the Abstract Expressionist self-image of the artist’s role in the world.

It is significant that of the Abstract-Expressionist generation, it is the three artists we are concerned with here who have entertained environmental ambitions. Pollock in 1947 may have opened the way with his version of the death-of-easel-painting topic which led him to propose paintings halfway between easel and wall.29 Rothko painted three groups: the first done in 1958–59 for the Four Seasons Restaurant and now in the Tate Gallery; the Harvard murals, 1961–62; and the Rothko Chapel, as it is called, painted 1966–68. Newman painted The Stations of the Cross, 1958–66. Still has riot done any ensembles like these but his exhibitions (Buffalo, 1959; Philadelphia, 1963) are constructed units. Still has written:

These works are a series of acts best comprehended in groups or as a continuity. Except as a created revelation, a new experience, they are without value. It is my desire that they be kept in groups as much as possible and remain so . . . So I am in the strange position of seeking an environment for the work, and the small means wherein I’ll be free to continue the “act.”30

He was referring to an exhibition at the Parsons Gallery when he wrote, but clearly he had in mind cross-referential sequences on larger than gallery scale. These unitary schemes imply content by format, thus ascribing an expressive function to the environmental display itself. For instance, in the Rothko Chapel there are three triptychs, a form of picture with unbreakable associations to Christian art and to number symbolism. The paintings of The Stations of the Cross are not decodable as specific episodes in Christ’s Passion, but they do, as a total of 14 contiguous works, allude to the event as a whole. Incidentally there are 14 paintings in the Rothko Chapel (the three triptychs and five singles) and at one point Rothko contemplated indicating their location on the outside of the Chapel by numbers, a clear reference to The Stations.31

Reviewing a Rothko exhibition in 1961, Robert Goldwater singled out for praise “the small chapel-like room in which have been hung three of the mural series of 1958–59.”32 Later Rothko really painted a chapel: it was first announced as a Roman Catholic chapel for St. Thomas University; subsequent plans changed it to an interdenominational chapel at Rice University; it ended up attached to the Institute of Religion and Human Development, a part of the Texas Medical Center. The Institute combines ecumenical religion and interdisciplinary studies with good works (hospital training and family counseling). The Chapel bears neither the name of the donors (the John de Mends) nor that of a saint: it is named for the artist, as if the Sistine Chapel were to he called the Michaelangelo Chapel. In Newman’s The Stations the number 14 is a symbol as well as a reckoning and there is in addition a sequential pattern. The first six and the Eighth Stations are more related to each other than to the Seventh; the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh are white; The Twelfth and Thirteenth are mainly black; and the last is the whitest. The order of The Stations is the chronological order in which they were painted, suggesting that the subject is not only the biblical event but the artist himself. The Christian hero and the artist as hero are related as type and antitype in the Testaments, a view of The Stations that fits both specific comments by the artist and his exalted notion of the role of the artist. Newman reasoned that

the first pilgrims walked the Via Dolorosa to identify themselves with the original moment, not to reduce it to pious legend; not even to worship the story of one man and his agony, but to stand witness to the story of each man’s agony; the agony that is single, constant, unrelenting, willed—world without end.33

It is Christ’s connection to mankind that Newman stresses. As to Newman’s expectations of the artist, the prime text is his early article, “The First Man Was an Artist”: “Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his helplessness before the void.”34 The artist for Newman is one who renews man’s original act of defiance. In The Stations and in the Rothko Chapel what has happened is that the traditional iconography and layout of Christian art have been usurped by purely artistic values. By this I do not mean an estheticization of religious art so much as an assertion of the heroic stance of the artist within the traditional themes. In Rothko’s case, a certain religiosity is also present which emotionally repeats the motive of the domination of culture by the artist.

The topics that contributed to Abstract Expressionism include mythology, biomorphism, and the heroic state of being an artist. This cluster is often given schematically in the early works, but developed and fused in the later works of Newman, Rothko, and Still. It should perhaps be pointed out that the recognition of a genetic unity in a group does not eliminate the members’ empirical diversity as artists, as men. These artists had in common an avoidance of the basically naturalistic acceptance of the world as it comes that marks de Kooning’s and Kline’s art. The high claims made on behalf of art by Newman, Rothko, and Still are the outcome of personal experience and of a traditional view of the function of art. Art does not reflect life nor is it separated from society, it is conceived as a model of behavior; it has an exemplary moral function. The art of the Sublime painters, or the field painters, is decidedly an art for the educated, both in terms of the social responsibility of being an artist and in terms of the issues to be dealt with as subject matter.

In the use of ideographs and pictographs the artists showed a conscious recognition of the long-term potency of linguistic systems. Signs have a certain persistency that elongates their usage far past their original communication situation. There are many signs learned in our culture and assumed to be almost natural owing to absorption and repetition. These reinforced systems carry meanings and values that we have forgotten learning, as one forgets having had to learn one’s first language. In American art of the ’40s and ’50s these residues of earlier doctrines and ideas included mixed organic imagery,35 an inventory of information systems (such as ideographs), and a rediscovery of the expressive power of size. It is notable that scale is not present as a factor in earlier 20th-century painting, though it entered esthetics in the 18th century. Color, too, in its revelatory aspect, reentered painting, drawn from popular association with religious visions and mysterious light sources. There was, of course, nothing popular about the way this color symbolism was used by the artists, who subjected it to a searching and original reorganization. The presence of these available, historically rooted residues is essential to the continuity of culture. One of the ways in which the artists discussed here are unlike de Kooning and Kline is the fact that their paintings evoke if not a timeless realm, at least one of long duration with a slow rate of change. Witness the continuity of terror as a subject of both primitive and recent artists, for example. Contrary to the notion therefore that these Abstract Expressionist artists started with the minimum, the truth is that they incorporated complex layers of cultural allusion into their art. In a real sense, Newman, Rothko, and Still were History Painters by inclination but Abstract painters by formal inheritance. That is why the work is remarkable, for the diversity of residual signs that are successfully bound into their art.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Barnett B. Newman, Herbert Ferber, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1947.

2. Barnett B. Newman, “The Ides of Art, 6 Opinions on What is Sublime in Art?,” The Tiger’s Eye, 6, 1948, pp. 51–53.

3. Mark Rothko, “Statement,” The Tiger’s Eye, 9, 1949.

4. Clyfford Still, 15 Americans, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1952.

5. Newman, Sublime.

6. Paintings by Clyfford Still, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. 1959.

7. Benjamin T. Spencer, The Quest for National Identify, Syracuse, 1957.

8. Pre-Columbian Slone Sculpture, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1944; Northwest Coast Indian Painting, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1946; “Las Formas Artísticas del Pacífico,” Ambos Mundos, June, 1946, pp. 51–55 (reprinted in Studio International, February, 1970, pp. 70–71.

9. Newman, Northwest Coast Indian Painting.

10. Barnett B. Newman, The Ideographic Picture, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1947.

11. Barnett B. Newman, Theodoros Stamos, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1947. See also Newman’s “La Pintura de Tamayo y Gottlieb,” La Revista Belga, 4, 1945: Gottlieb’s capacity to handle mythology is said to link him with “the North American primitives.”

12. Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, WNYC broadcast, October 13, 1943, on “The Portrait and Modern Art.”

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Clement Greenberg, “Art,” The Nation, December 6, 1947. In 1945 an unsigned note in the catalogue of the Rothko exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery described the artist as occupying “a middle ground between Abstraction and Surrealism.” (The writer was probably Howard Putzel).

16. Barnett B. Newman, The New American Painting, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1959, p. 60.

17. Ibid.

18. E. C. Goossen, Monterey Peninsula Herald, May 12, 1954.

19. Rothko, The Tiger’s Eye, 9.

20. Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Art of This Century Gallery, 1946. Typically Still separated himself, in retrospect, from Rothko, by stating that: “Appropriation by ‘Myth-makers’ group in New York at this time led to misinterpretation of meaning and intent of the painting” (Paintings by Clyfford Still).

21. Newman, Sublime. For a more detailed comparison of Burke and American painting, see my “The American Sublime,” Living Arts, 2, 1963, London, pp. 11–22.

22. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, ix.

23. Burke, II, xiv.

24. Newman, La Revista Belga, 1945.

25. Ibid.

26. Burke, II, xiv.

27. Barnett B. Newman, Typescript, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1951.

28. Longinus, On the Sublime, IX, 2.

29. Francis V. O’Connor, Jackson Pollock, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1967, p. 40.

30. Clyfford Still, Letter to Betty Parsons, September 26, 1949.

31. Information kindly given to me by Jane Dillenberger.

32. Robert Goldwater, “Reflections on the Rothko Exhibition,” Arts, March, 1961.

33. Barnett B. Newman, Statement, The Stations of the Cross, Lema Sabachihani, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966.

34. Barnett B. Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist,” The Tiger’s Eye, 1, October, 1947, pp. 57–60 (reprinted in Guggenheim International Award exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1964, pp. 94–95).

35. See my “The Biomorphic ’40s,” Artforum, September, 1965, pp. 18–22, for comments on the significative aspects of biologically derived images.