PRINT Summer 1974

Painting Becomes Cyclorama

IN HER WHITNEY MUSEUM exhibition Joan Mitchell has included a small, rather simple painting called Plage. Two separate canvases, each about 75 inches square, are butted together side by side and bound by a single frame. On the left-hand canvas are five swathes of painting, each a different color, applied by the flat pressure of a broad brush: three filling the top half with vertical slats of dark green, blue, and pale lavender; the other two aligning themselves horizontally along the bottom edge. On the right panel, the paint marks ice the lower half of the field with thick encrustations—the drag of color through color reporting the erratic but primarily circular gesture of the hand that gauged and knifed the swirls of pigment.

As the title announces, the painting is a landscape. Under a sky of leaden primer, surf rolls leftward toward the physical shoreline that rifts the two panels of the work. On the other side, the flatness of the beach, patterned by a motley of towels laid upon it, orients itself to an eye that looks down on it from above. Along the actual split between the two panels, there seems to be, then, a phenomenological rotation—as one side of the painting addresses itself to the upright viewer, while the other swivels into alignment with the ground that is under his feet. The two different stances of the landscape given to the viewer declare the two different modalities through which paint operates on canvas: succeeding layers of color or nuances of tone radiating backward into a simulacrum of depth; contrasted to an opaque surface through which there is no imagined passage but only the stated application of one material to another.

In this painting one finds a small-scale and tender evocation of those feelings about both landscape and painting that were the combined discoveries of Impressionism. Which is to say that there is a rehearsal of those feelings of the magical that are elicited by the paintmark’s capacity to declare and then transcend its own inert physicality. The daub of burnt umber that can be seen transforming itself into a patch of shadow or a rough outcropping of stone has about it an almost endless power to astonish us with its continual performance of metamorphosis. This quality of magic is at the same time daunted by a recognition that nature totally outdistances one’s capacities to describe or imitate it: the scale and luminosity of nature being essentially inimitable. This series of recognitions, promoted by the best of landscape painting, leaves one both trapped in and consoled by an apprehension of the limitations of consciousness. These feelings are elicited by Monet’s beaches at St. Addresse and they are prompted by Joan Mitchell’s Plage. Nothing much separates the two instances except a lot of art history—enough to urge Mitchell to make the image more declaratively schizoid and more apparently abstract.

Three things happened in the years 1956–57 which are relevant to all this. In 1956 Louis Finkelstein wrote an article called “Abstract-Impressionism.” That same year Ad Reinhardt printed one of his art-scene cartoons which he titled “Portent of the Artist as a Young Mandala.” And in 1957, Art News and Irving Sandler testified that “Joan Mitchell Paints a Picture.”

In Sandler’s essay Mitchell is, in fact, described as painting two pictures: one called The Bridge; and another a beachscape inspired by the memory of the artist’s dog swimming one cold day in Long Island Sound. Describing the relationship between patches and shafts of paint and the naturalistic conceptions which inspired their order, Sandler repeats the artist’s admonition that the picture must do more than just “work as a painting”; it must, he cautions, have a soul. “In such transformations, the bridge leads to the Gates of Paradise,” he declares, “and the beach rims a lake in The Garden of Eden, the instant before the Fall.”

In that particular move in the game of critical interpretation, Sandler pushes the humble ambitions of plein-air painting to the square on the big board called “Apocalypse.” He thereby makes the connection between Finkelstein’s identification of second generationAbstract Expressionism as devoted to landscape and Reinhardt’s depiction of it as a landscape of devotion. For the distaste Reinhardt exhibits through the irony of his art-world diagram is directed at a kind of pretentious mysticism then being invoked by the second wave of New York School painting. The mandala he refers to accurately describes those centroidal arrangements of marks that characterized the work of Guston and Tworkov in the early 1950s and were made into a kind of formula to be reused by Mitchell, Goldberg, Hartigan and others.

The structure of these pictures was profoundly similar; and in being so similar it was profoundly suspect. It was a structure that took Impressionist space and transformed it into a pantheist (and because pantheist, religious) emblem. The canvas was understood to be a radiant and luminous field whose center became more densely precise in terms of volume wrought by layers of depicted substance. At the same time, this thickened center asserted its identity as a flattened—because material—encrustation of painted planes. As such, it read as a kind of emblematic shield contrasted to the glowing and undefined space behind it. In its ability to read as both mandalalike and flat, and layered, and descriptively deep, this central area could seem to swing solemnly between those two modalities of the paintmark like a censer at a mass—swaying continually and leaving behind it a trail of ritual smoke.

Thus, for all their purported roots in and allegiances to the work of de Kooning, this second generation proceeded to modify significantly the structure of their original model. De Kooning painting had insisted on an even spread of figurative emphasis and a unity achieved through the overall density of material. The mandala structure created rifts in that unity—separating the newer works into recessive landscape space in front of which hovered the centralized emblematic figure.

From the beginning, much of what was best in Abstract Expressionism had depended on a pictorial quality that can be described as emblematic. In defiance of those laws of picture-making that had been enunciated by the various stages of Cubism and had been codified by Hofmann’s prescription of “push and pull,” artists like Rothko, Motherwell, Kline, Gottlieb, Still, and Newman had moved toward unalloyed frontality and a nearly unqualified separation between figure and ground. They had simply suspended shapes against a neutral field—leaving them hanging, as it were. They had not hedged their bets by rutting the ground into a tonal map of rising and falling planes that could reabsorb those highly contrasting configurations of black on white or color on color. Nor were those profiles of black or colored shape anchored, according to the strictures of late Cubist design, to the painting’s edges. When those works succeed, particularly the ones of Motherwell, Kline, Still, and Gottlieb, it is on the grounds of a truculent resistance to the descriptive terms of Western picture-making—in which objects are constantly being related to one another across the implicit space of landscape or interior. What those works assimilate themselves to instead has none of the qualities of description that we associate to the picture. Rather, it has the mode of direct address that we think of in relation to emblems centered on the fields of banners, or signs suspended on blank surfaces—pictorially neutral and innocent.

We are constantly being reminded that these artists were not simply slopping and smearing paint on canvas and leaving it at that. We are told, over and over, that they were determined to make good painting, work that could stand the test of continual reexamination. Yet the only critical language we have to characterize good abstract painting is a set of terms derived from Cubism which can describe the kind of space a picture’s elements will open up and control, or the kind of relationship those elements will manifest to the picture’s regularizing format. So we think that the quality of these paintings consists in the way that in the end they allow for the applicability of that language and those terms. But in the end they do not.

Insofar as those Abstract Expressionist works succeed it is by turning away from the description of landscape space to become something big enough and literal enough to displace that space in their own right. Because they are not descriptive, the surfaces of those paintings achieve an absolute scale—a one-to-one relationship between themselves and the real size of things in the world. They risk the complete inertness of being taken literally. And they overcome it by the emblematic, or signlike, quality of the shape they deploy. It is a quality that identifies the marks or configurations at the surface of these paintings as purposive, even while it resists the billow and swell of pictorial movement. Shape, in the art of this wing of Abstract Expressionism, is thus identified with emblem or sign. It is resistant to the good offices of the ambivalent paintmark, which can simultaneously bind an object to the surface of the canvas and enmesh it in the depths of a fictive space.

Of the 20 or so paintings that have been assembled from Joan Mitchell’s recent work to form the Whitney exhibition, nine are monumental—averaging 9 by 20 feet—while a half-dozen others approach the wall-size dimensions of 10 by 12 feet. In almost every case the works structure that amount of running wall surface by subdividing into panels, each panel in turn regulated by one or more large frontal planes. Although these planar shapes possess the discreteness and flatness of the emblematic forms of early Abstract Expressionism, they are surrounded and engulfed by the kind of landscape sensibility that has always operated in Mitchell’s work. So that instead of functioning in a kind of parity with other objects in the viewer’s space, the compacted planes are made to equivocate in terms of scale and placement. They are made to appear as if shifting backward and forward with the illusionistic expanse of a monumental panorama. No matter how big these shapes become, no matter how assertive are the brushstrokes that form them, there is no way that these forms can find a resolution at the surface of the painting and identify their solid frontality with the picture’s own equivalent frontal condition. If early Abstract Expressionism had used emblematic shapes as a way of declaring the equality of pictorial scale and literal size, Mitchell uses these forms as a pretext for inflating the absolute size of the picture until it is big enough to reabsorb these emblematic integers into the enveloping context of landscape—with the result that the painting becomes a species of cyclorama.

For the point about landscape painting is that it acknowledge the impossibility of a picture’s replacing the space of nature. It is a point that is tied to the issue of scale—the disparity between the natural and the artificial one being part of the content of scene painting. By taking a vocabulary of shape used originally in the context of a pictorial displacement of space, and importing it for reuse in an illusionistic game of replacement (a full-size painting of nature replaces a piece of nature), Mitchell has made a set of monumental works that seem both grandiose and dry.

Rosalind Krauss