PRINT November 1975

On Contemporary Primitivism

ONE CAN SEE THAT “THE ’60s” have taken on a symbolic meaning against which certain contemporary artists are reacting. As a symbol, “the ’60s” refers to a short period—roughly 1963–1968—when the orthodoxies of color field painting were constantly challenging and being challenged by the orthodoxies of Minimalism.

Toward the end of the decade, there was a variety of reactions against coolness and rationality. Most of them had counterparts outside the art world. The late-’60s revival of painterly painting was guided as much by “youth culture’s” taste for amorphous color as by memories of first-generation New York abstraction. Natural, “unprocessed” materials began to appear in the work of certain young artists at a time when widespread ecological concerns were leading to rural communes and an ideal of organic purity. Both in and outside the art world, a deep suspicion of Western technology—and “Western rationality”—showed in stylistic borrowings from preindustrial periods, from the American Indians and from traditions of the occult. No doubt all these borrowings found support in a revulsion against American “theory” and practice in Viet Nam. A bit later, certain feminist artists began to identify rationality and coolness as masculine traits to be rejected in favor of openly emotional, openly personal expressiveness. Some of them shared with male artists the use of assemblage, a medium which was widely employed in the ’60s but unable then to gain much critical sanction.

These antirational, antitechnological, anti-“formalist” tendencies have precedents throughout the history of Western culture. In recent decades, scholars have grouped them under the label “primitivism.” Primitivism is never—or is never intended to be—simply primitive. It is a self-conscious, often very sophisticated, use of or reference to that which is deemed primitive, i. e. unspoiled by excessive rationalization, standardization or tastefulness. Primitivism is an attempt, made within the confines of “high culture,” to enjoy the supposed benefits of “low” or alien culture.

Last May, an undergraduate exhibition seminar at Vassar organized a group show, “Primitive Presence in the ’70’s,” to illustrate primitive developments in contemporary American art. Under the direction of Peter Morrin of the Vassar College Art Gallery, and with the guidance of Robert Goldwater’s Primitivism in Modern Art, the seminar made an illuminating, though of course not comprehensive, selection of recent work that might extend the theme. Goldwater divided primitivism as follows:

Psychological primitivism employs emotions and states of consciousness somehow “deeper” than ordinary ones, either as the content of art or as formative agents in producing art. The two uses often overlap.

Historical primitivism takes an earlier period (real or imagined) as its subject matter, draws on an earlier style, or does both at once. The assumption is that certain aspects of our own culture’s past are in some respect preferable to their contemporary counterparts.

Cultural primitivism can reach toward non-Western cultures for preferred styles, subjects or materials; or it can reach toward areas of contemporary Western culture previously ignored or despised. This primitivism is easily confused with the historical kind.1

Esthetic primitivism is, for Goldwater, a “simplification of form, and an accompanying expansion of emotional meaning, that has its own primitivist connotations without benefit of any exotic associations.”2 He tries to limit it to the modern period, which is especially difficult to do: esthetic primitivism appears whenever an artist of any period intends to work with formal “essentials,” either to establish the fundamentals of his medium or to engage perception at the deepest levels.

All four varieties of primitivism can be seen operating in most periods of Western culture. Similarly, all four have been adapted to each other. By that I mean artists often bring two or more of them together in a single work—as William T. Wiley does in Thank You Hide, 1971, and related drawings included in the “Primitive Presence” exhibition. Wiley offers an amalgam of Dada and Surrealist influences. Dada’s primitivism can be seen as a combination of the cultural and the historical. To apply disruptive pressures to the bourgeois inheritance was to reveal its decrepit foundations and to destroy them. The hope (not always held in the best of faith, perhaps) was that history would be reinaugurated: a Golden Age was to emerge out of a cultural tabula rasa. The Surrealists’ primitivism was psychological, but only as a corollary to its cultural primitivism. Certain methods were to restructure the personality, and a revolution in cultural structures would follow.

Wiley, like so many Americans who have drawn on Dada and Surrealism in the last twenty years, is not as ambitious as his models were. Rather than attempt to plumb psychological, historical or cultural depths, he is satisfied to make odd juxtapositions which throw ordinary objects into a whimsically questioning light. In Thank You Hide, the large leather scrap is hung from an unfinished wooden shelf bearing, among other things, an artificial fishing lure labeled “fresh bait,” and a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil labeled “Nietzsche.” We recognize the paperback edition of this book (Vintage) and the fishing lure as equally whimsical talismans. Their juxtaposition may have deep meaning for Wiley—but we do not feel a strong primitivist charge bearing us far beneath the surface of ordinary values.

Wiley blends his mild echoes of Dada and Surrealism with historical primitivism in the form of nostalgia for the style of an indigenous American figure: the roleless trans-Mississippian drifter. Wiley’s version of Rousseau’s natural man is attributed with an “aw shucks” attitude toward high culture (the use of Nietzsche); a propensity for tall tales (the rambling, colloquial, nonsensical story of how the artist got the Thank You Hide, which appears in captions to the drawings accompanying the work); and a sentimental sympathy for those other roleless Americans, the Indians (this comes across in the Thank You Hide story, in the whimsical iconization of the hide itself, and in Wiley’s use of bark and branches).

Catalogue notes indicate that Karen Canner Moss was included in the Vassar show on the strength of her stated interest in Wiley’s draughtsmanship and in Micronesian navigational maps made of branches.3 Her air-brushed acrylic images of twigs laid in roughly square patterns have a finicky precision that recalls some of Wiley’s more crowded drawings, but the resemblance is slight. The reference to Micronesian artifacts is deliberately attenuated—it isn’t really meant to count as cultural primitivism. One can try to read esthetic primitivism into Moss’s work, but the effort is strained. Her images are too finished, too free of ambiguity to bring the viewer to any deeper-than-usual self-consciousness of the experience of seeing.

Nancy Graves makes a stronger bid here. She was represented at Vassar by six gouaches showing her high-keyed “pointillist” touch: spots of color float amid wiry, sometimes spotted lines to produce images of Dighton Rock, Taunton, Mass.; Archeological Fragments; Palimpsest on Fairy Rock, Nova Scotia; and so on. Cultural and historical primitivism are claimed by these titles, yet the works themselves have more meaning as attempts to bring a freshness, a primitivizing directness to one’s perception of the relationships between eye and image, image and referent.

The surface beneath which Graves wants to reach is evidently offered by the conventions of recent, so-called formalist painting. She says that her work is intended to show “an antiformalist structuring.” Her sources are topographical charts, diagrams and photos. She makes them over by hand, inserting her own touch into their impersonalities. The result is to combine “the realities of nature, science and art.” Presumably this combination is somehow more real than the reality of nature, science or (formalist) art taken separately. Graves claims the viewer’s experience of this new reality can be found in a “physicality of perception . . . demanded through the creation of motion in still form.”4

There are two problems. Graves’s images don’t create “motion in still form” to any greater degree than other compositionally or texturally active works. And even if they did, this wouldn’t necessarily bring a new and more profoundly real “physicality” to vision. There is a link between her “pointillism” and the esthetic primitivism of certain Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. However, it’s difficult for me to see her work as more than an attractive (and, in content, updated) variation on results achieved before 1900.

Alan Shields, like Wiley, blends various primitivisms. Unlike Wiley, he restricts himself to American sources. His painterliness derives from the postwar New York kind. As seen in de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell and others, painterliness broke free of Surrealist automatism, transforming itself into an indigenous attempt to arrive at psychological depths through authenticity in the use of materials. “Truth to materials” was esthetic primitivism for the sake of psychological primitivism. There is, then, an obsession with personal and formal integrity at the source of Shields’s stylistic finesse, but its impress is very faint in his work. As if to make up for this superficiality, he adds cultural primitivism in the form of strung beads. The reference is to native American art. In addition, Shields’s experiments with format (his tents, his hoganlike shapes, even the open grid of Poems Needed, 1971, included in the Vassar show) refer to Indian culture. But none of this, even his pretty imitations of Indian artifacts, is enough to rescue his painterly touch from an enervated decorativeness.

For most of his career, Frank Viner has worked against formal and iconographical clarity. His fringed, stitched and pierced sculptures of the early ’60s play off hard, irregularly geometric shapes against soft, hanging materials. His sculpture got even softer and more nearly shapeless with the addition of such “despised” materials as thread, strings and rags to acceptable ones such as vinyl and muslin. This vague cultural primitivism has been focused in the last several years. Fetishlike presences have appeared, as in the Spirit Traps, 1974, included in the Vassar show. Animism is hardly absent from our culture, but Viner’s reference is clearly to non-Western varieties. He has continued at the same time to reach across “high-art” boundaries to excluded aspects of our own experience: portions of the Spirit Traps are knitted, that is, produced by an indigenous craft or “low-art” process.

Viner has taken some time to come to an overtly primitivist stance. One might see him as an artist whose position has been brought to clarity on the wave of the current primitivist reaction against “the ’60s.” Viner’s references to other cultures have some of the formal qualities of his earlier work. His Spirit Traps have a soft shagginess which recalls the amorphousness of his sculpture from the previous decade.

Though primitivism is strongly associated with certain styles—thanks in part to Goldwater’s book—it is not a stylistic trait. Nor does the word point to a stable iconographic cluster. Primitivism seems to be a combination of style and iconography intended to plunge beyond them both toward newly discovered (or rediscovered) certainties, truths, essences, or intensities of feeling, insight or perception.

Given the tenuous links between style and primitivism, it’s not surprising to find that the Vassar show included three artists quite disparate stylistically who, nonetheless, combine esthetic and cultural primitivism in similar ways. Judson Fine’s Ayers Analog, 1974, is a low steel table bearing a chicken-wire model of Ayers Rock, the landmark around which the culture of the Pitjandjara aborigines developed. Fine etched a statement about the meaning of the piece on the upper surface of the table. This statement is obscure, even eccentric. It supports, in an oblique way, the conclusion that the artist has intentionally joined a symbol of a unified, non-Western culture to a late Minimalist form—the table. The point of this becomes clear when it is remembered that Minimalism attempted to “offer a maximum resistance to perceptual separation.”5 In other words, Minimalism was a variety of esthetic primitivism, an attempt to bring new unity and clarity to perception. Fine bolsters one of the most recent Western efforts to purify perceptual experience with a reference to the presumed purities of a non-Western culture.

In Ree Morton’s See-Saw, 1971, a horizontal plank ten feet long is balanced on a tree stump three feet high. Small, roughly finished boards are attached to the ends of the plank; attached to the boards are diagrams which refer to the structure of the work in an oblique way. The plank swivels. The path of its rotation is marked by small lengths of painted wood placed on the floor in a circle. The air of private ritual is strong here. Yet, just as strong is the formal and mechanical simplicity of this work—a late instance of Minimalist clarity. Morton has overlaid esthetic primitivism with a flavor of the occult, which may refer to underground aspects of our culture (witchcraft, astrology—the pattern of See-Saw suggests a private zodiac) or to non-Western ritual.

Patsy Norvell’s untitled work of 1973 shows a similar blending of primitivisms—though it makes no reference beyond our culture. The regularity of serial patterning—Minimalist clarity—is established with parallel strips of Scotch tape. This material allows her to fill the pattern with a nonart material: curls of human hair. Formal simplicity of a kind certified acceptable by Sol LeWitt and others is enhanced by the presence of a substance which belongs traditionally to the extra-artistic aspects of our experience. The difficulty with found materials is that once they are used in “serious” art, they often lose their charge of cultural primitivism.

In all three of these works, formal and perceptual clarities of a familiar kind are bolstered by the exotic, the occult, or the (mild) shock of a usually discarded material. The hope is that newly intense feelings and states of consciousness will result—hence these artists can be seen as psychological primitivizers. A psychological concern is more direct in the work of Charles Simonds. He was represented in the “Primitive Presence” exhibition by a cliff dwelling for his “Little People,” which was executed on the side of an abandoned building in Poughkeepsie. Goldwater’s notion of “The Child Cult” bears strongly on Simonds’s work. His miniature dwellings have a scale and a meticulousness of detail which recall the ambitions (if not the performance) of children working in clay. Further, these works are successful in interesting children, who often—as in this case—make additions to them. Adults, too, find them engaging. The response of this latter audience, which is returned to an earlier stage of its life, makes Simonds’s psychological primitivism obvious.

There is also something a bit primitive in his hope that the response to his work can be converted into significant political power.6 Yet his decision to construct these dwellings outside galleries must be recognized as a form of cultural primitivism with strong political overtones. Simonds implies that the gallery system is an alienating force. Refusing to be constrained by it, he makes contact with an audience outside the art world. Such contact is assumed to be somehow more authentically meaningful than that provided by gallery-goers. This is a populist stance. However, the full import of his art can be understood only within the “elitist” art world he partially rejects. His preferred audience is thus by definition uninformed about the nature of his strategies for dealing with the cultural and political issues raised by his work. As a consequence, he is like most populist innovators: he prizes a condition in his prospective followers—that of being uninformed—which he does not intend to share with them.

There is another sort of cultural primitivism in Simonds’s dwellings for “Little People.” They refer to the adobe houses of Southwestern Indians. More generally, they refer to any non-Western culture in which it seems that the relative simplicity of building styles is a sign of closeness to the earth, of beliefs and values more profound than those prevailing in contemporary Western life. There is something close to 18th-century sentimentality about the noble savage in Simonds’s work. Primitivism in all its varieties is particularly prone to turning sentimental. After all, the primitivist is a member of Western “high culture.” His reference is always to things which are put at a distance by the nature of his role—and things in the distance very often become magnets for sentimentality.

Sentimentality is employed to blur the hard outlines of an impossible situation. Not all primitivism is sentimental, but all of it is indeed faced with an impossibility. Each manifestation of this impulse offers a new stylistic and iconographic mix intended to solve problems created by Western culture’s apparently endless capacity to generate highly rationalized, finally brittle and inadequate systems, methods and styles. If one could only plunge beneath the overly rationalized, overly stylized surface, one might reach a core of ultimate value that would bring everything else into perspective. The trouble is that any primitivist’s sense of this possibility is conditioned by the particular surface beyond which he wants to reach. The style and iconography he employs to make his plunge no doubt seem adequate—or at least on the right track —at the time he makes it, but then new “superficialities” are generated to which his primitivism makes no address. He might even find himself part of the problem later primitivists want to solve. For example, the clarity of line sought by David’s pupils, the Primitifs, was intended to reveal a formal essence thought to have been smothered by Rococo frothiness. Nonetheless, the art of this radical group typified a classicizing formalism that was to be supplanted by the warm, painterly touch of the succeeding Romantics.

Primitivism is subject to an abiding plight: nothing in its history suggests that there are any ultimate truths or meanings to which it might attain. As unanticipated “superficialities” and “overrefinements” appear, new primitivisms are devised. These cast serious doubts on the claims of earlier ones. At present, each primitivist innovation raises such doubts about itself even before it is superseded. In other words, the failure of primitivism to achieve its goals alerts one to the likelihood that the entire tradition is a long series of “merely” stylistic and iconographic developments of the sort that the plunge toward ultimate values is supposed to leave behind.

Failed attempts to reach ultimates led certain Expressionists and Surrealists to grandeur, or at least grandiloquence. Most of the work in the Vassar show is intimately personal—as if reducing the risk of a grand failure would make success more likely. This is an engagingly popular move, but it only hides the problem. The absolutist claims traditional to primitivism are still being made, however modestly. Rather, modesty—sometimes carried to the point of coy eccentricity—has become a foundation of such claims by contemporary primitivists: essential meaning is to be found within the compass of an intimate, even privatist use of alien or despised sources and materials. Scaled-down emotional intimacies are being offered (in opposition to the large-scale theoretical impersonalities of “the ’60s”) as newly discovered means to authentically ultimate values. These reduced intentions go as completely unfulfilled as their grander counterparts in earlier primitivism. This is a stubborn fact, which is often hidden beneath an overlay of the whimsical, the sentimental, or both—an overlay which makes it impossible for most contemporary primitivists to respond to the historical, social and political issues raised by the use to which they put their sources.

Contemporary primitivism is “soft,” to use Lovejoy’s and Boas’s word for the impulse to look back to lost Golden Ages or across cultural boundaries to happy or noble non-Westerners. There is, however, a “hard” primitivism which has roots in antiquity7—and one of its extremely unsentimental proponents in contemporary art is Rafael Ferrer. His art is best seen in his own installations. These parody ethnological museums by presenting his works as the art and artifacts of non-Western peoples or, at the least, of peoples in the West who have not felt the “benefits” of colonialism. The works themselves are parodies—sardonic mixtures of Western and non-Western, “high” and “low” materials, iconographies and styles. The metal and leather Kayak #2, 1973, included in the Vassar show, effectively evokes a real kayak, but at the same time aggressively underlines his intercultural ambiguities. He is a Westerner, after all, whose work must have its meaning within the art world from which so many, even in this culture, are excluded.

Ferrer appears to have gained his sense of the limits surrounding the world of advanced art in 1968–1970, when he took part in the development of Process art out of Minimalism. He has since rejected his contribution to this development in favor of art that refers directly to his own Puerto Rican background. Yet these references were not of the sort one might have expected. Puerto Rico—with its history of class and colonial struggle, its combination of black, Indian and Spanish culture—did not become for him a Caribbean equivalent of Arcadia. Rather, it became the source of imagery from which he could draw the alternative to primitivism’s traditionally idealized and/or sentimentalized use of the alien and the despised. In recent years, he has drawn on other cultures as well—Tierra del Fuegian, Eskimo, Oceanic, African. He makes no attempt to disguise the fact that the style of his “artifacts” is in part derived from the primitivism of earlier avant-garde movements—Expressionism chiefly, but also Dada and Surrealism. On the contrary, he insists on this fact. The strong implication is that we cannot make imaginative contact with non-Western or “low” cultures except on terms provided by our own “high culture.”

The following scenario is instructive: we go to the Museum of Primitive Art—a real ethnological museum—to look at an African mask. It is totally incomprehensible at first. Finally, we attribute certain qualities to it, we respond to those qualities, we feel we have experienced the mask “esthetically.” If we are not careful, we assume that we have understood the mask, that we have made imaginative contact with its meaning. If we are more conscious of what we have done, we realize that we have simply attributed alien—i.e. Western—qualities to it.8 Ferrer’s parodies of primitivizing avant-garde attempts to transcend Western modes of response make this cultural dilemma part of the subject-matter of his art. Looking at one of his masks, one might see an Afro-Expressionist hybrid which insists on the primacy of the Western style. The latter works as a filter through which any hint of Africanness must pass and, in doing so, be transformed.

This reverses the premise of cultural primitivism, which has traditionally been the impulse to employ non-Western or despised sources to make contact with ultimate meanings thought to exist only beyond the boundaries of Western “high culture.” Ferrer uses cultural primitivism to demand a consciousness of those boundaries. At the same time, the violence of his parodies expresses sardonic rage at the political power of the West, one of the effects of which is to preserve those boundaries intact. Ferrer reverses the premises of historical primitivism as well. His works evoke the heroism of colonial expansion, only to parody it as a form of hubris. We idealize the hardiness and primeval emotions of the “noble savage” at the same time we exploit his actual counterpart. Thus Ferrer always tinges his evocations of this mythological figure with the manic ironies of his stylistic and iconographic mixtures: Kayak #2 is an homage to the stalwart Eskimo, yes—but the absurd metal hull and the parody of “craft skills” employed in the work’s construction bring us face to face with the terms on which we know of Eskimos and the way we, as an economic power, have treated them. Thus Ferrer’s historical primitivism does not idealize the past. Rather, it brings up the point that ethnological museums—as well as the primitivisms which have drawn on their contents—are made possible only by a brutal history of colonial conflict. When Ferrer evokes despised or ignored aspects of Western culture, there is usually a reference to internal—i. e. class—conflict.

Ferrer’s emotional tone is enough to set him apart from most contemporary primitivists. His art is too manic to be called whimsical, and it certainly isn’t bland or sentimental. The tone of his art is of course set by the nature of his attitude toward the difficult political issues raised by primitivism. Ferrer leaps at those issues, completely ignoring the traditional primitivist urge to find consolingly ultimate truths and meanings. His contemporaries maintain that urge, hoping that it might be fulfilled by a retreat into an intimately personal mode. This doesn’t necessarily entail naiveté about the politics surrounding their sources and the uses they make of them. Yet their traditional aspirations, as well as the reduced scale at which these are pursued, underplay difficulties.

Harmony Hammond’s work, to be sure, is extremely personal. Presence III and Presence VI, both included in the Vassar show, are acrylic-splashed pieces made of rags, thread and hair. They have an autobiographical quality which might have been reduced to privatism. Yet their almost aggressively shaggy and forlorn look gives them a somberness, even a desperation, which makes them effective vehicles for a political concern. Hammond is a feminist. Her Presences are clearly female in shape and in materials: their rags are torn from dresses; thread and long strands of hair are traditionally “feminine” attributes. Nevertheless, Hammond’s work denies the stereotype of feminine beauty. These are female presences insofar as they reflect the sensibility of a woman, not because they fit standard expectations of what the female presence should be. The clarity with which Hammond conveys her feminist (hence embattled) sensibility frees these works from sentimentality. She engages her own political concerns as directly as Ferrer engages his, and, like him, she is not in search of primitivism’s dubious ultimates and essences.

She is, however, a primitivist. Her Presences show historical primitivism insofar as they evoke a “connection to [the artist’s] female ancestors.” This connection can be read as culturally primitivizing if one sees it, along with Hammond, as “an ethnographic content.” She reaches into ignored areas of the past, insisting that the despised materials and images she finds be read culturally as well as historically. There is psychological primitivism in her attempt to use these works “to contact a whole tradition of woman’s feelings.” And, lastly, there is esthetic primitivism in her desire to "break down the distances between painting and sculpture, between art and ’woman’s work,’ and between art in craft and craft in art,”9 presumably to arrive at possibilities more profound than these distinctions permit. Primitivism in all its varieties has been adapted to nearly every significant cultural development in the West. Feminism is, beyond doubt, a development of full-scale importance. One sign of this is to be seen in work such as Hammond’s, which offers a rich future to primitivism shorn of sentimentality and the yearning after unattainable absolutes .

Carter Ratcliff, a poet, teaches at The School of Visual Arts; he contributes frequently to Artforum and other art journals.



1. Goldwater never clearly distinguishes cultural from historical primitivism—see Primitivism in Modern Art (1938, revised 1965), New York,1967, p. 251. However, Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas demonstrate the importance of this distinction throughout Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (1935), New York, 1965.

2. Goldwater, p. 164.

3. Primitive Presence in the ’70’s, Vassar College Art Gallery, 1975, p. 14.

4. Nancy Graves in Miriam Schapiro, ed., Art: A Woman’s Sensibility, Feminist Art Program, California Institute of the Arts, 1975, p. 25.

5. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part I,” Artforum, Feb., 1966; reprinted in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York, 1968, p. 226.

6. Charles Simonds, “Microcosm to Macrocosm,” Artforum, Feb., 1974, pp. 36–39.

7. The distinction between “hard” and “soft” primitivism is discussed in Lovejoy and Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity.

8. See my “American Indian Masterworks,” Art International, Feb., 1974, pp. 28–29, 52.

9. Harmony Hammond in Art: A Woman’s Sensibility, p. 29.