PRINT April 1978

Milton Resnick and the Search for the Whole

A grey patina has mucked our skin
Curdled in sedimentation
And the habits that are giving in
Now amount to a poor ration.
Yet see there—An altar whipping past
And not on the lam

And steeled to last

A courteous and circumspect
Vision; it searches the Elect
That might yet reach a pale weightless stage
Poised for one hard diameter
To make them as strong as ethics were
Or ethereal as Boehme’s age.
If only we’d turn back to clay
From business, we might learn a way.

ACCORDING TO CONVENTIONAL ART HISTORY, the postwar period was marked by the emergence of the new American nonobjective painting and that problem child, (W) Holism. Both gestated in Jackson Pollock’s career, but whereas Pollock fully realized his visceral impulse and its abstract expression, he only started the holistic enterprise on its course. In the drip paintings he seems to have explored that mode and its expressive capacities to the limit, to a point where every post-Pollock drip painting must now appear derivative. However, it is more significant to the artist now to see what new possibilities Pollock did not exhaust, in this case the possibilities of allover painting. Here Pollock’s truncated career is truly epochal for painters. We shall see how it is important for the theorist/critic as well.

Holism has always been an implicit possibility in painting. But until its ascendency, some 30 years ago, it was generally limited to manipulating Wölfflinian formalist “oppositions” through painting history.

But in discussing Pollock’s oeuvre, the critic Carter Ratcliff effectively dispenses with Heinrich (Principles of Art History) Wölfflin’s formalist vocabulary. He characterizes its argot as inadequate and/or inappropriate in dealing with American abstraction of the postwar period. Ratcliff’s thesis is that Wölfflin’s “oppositions”—particularly those of “linear/painterly” and the “clear/unclear” (although Ratcliff interrogates other dyadic types)—while useful in describing compositional work, are of little use in the noncompositional realm. The “linear” and “painterly” elements relate necessarily to the edge, a relationship that dictates pictorial clarity or ambiguity as well. But if the edge in Pollock’s work is no longer the hard schoolmaster of composition, then a new space has been declared. In judging the evidence, Ratcliff refuses to rehash the architectural sympathies of composition governed by the “rectangle-on-the-wall.” He posits the existence of a “sublime space,” created by the direct application of paint on the canvas itself. The “linear/painterly” opposition is circumvented by the “painted,” and “clarity/ambiguity” antinomies become uselessly relativistic toeholds.

However, our argument does not end with Ratcliff’s; for “sublime space” is not holistic space. Pollock’s invention, and that of his acknowledged descendants, is, rather, the depicted space of light quanta pulsing before or beyond the edge, freeing our vision from the tyranny of the quadrilateral. Allover painters after Pollock—like Jules Olitski and Larry Poonsdefuse the edge of its mandated power, allowing for new interiors to be explored. (Significantly, it does not seem possible simply to destroy the edge.) Aware of this apparent freedom from the dictates of the picture support, holistic painting can reconfront the “rectangle-on-the-wall” on its own terms. It seeks not to dodge it or circumvent it, but to “use” the edge for the deliberate purposes of the work.

If one could summarize painting problems in some crypto-cybernetic fashion, one would still not automatically synthesize a holistic painting. Composition, consistent brushwork, consonant tones and values and their implied opposites, all finely quantified, could still not invoke the total affect. Indeed, it is precisely this fact of the noncodifiability of holistic vision (or vision in general) that illuminates such “oppositions.” Their invocation of the holistic painting is as “total parts“ rather than as “component parts.” They lead us, by virtue of their envelopment in larger meanings, to the Whole, while remaining historically and semiologically autonomous. In familiar ways, an epic of several thousand couplets can reveal the hidden eidos (ideal-image) of one-word/one-poem austerity. The lifeworks of a philosopher can similarly articulate the search for a single metaphysic, by which all else is derived, and thereby rendered meaningless.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “total part” is integral to this development of the holistic vision. It deals in teleology rather than etiology: parts graduate to their wholes. The meanings of the part are found in its relation to the whole, and lying fertile in each part is the germ of the totality. In biology, cellular DNA strands bear all the genetic data necessary for the reproduction of the entire organism. Fundamental to chemistry and physics is the reflection of the atomic configuration in the larger molecular structure, and vice versa. Likewise the conventions in Titian implicate all the forms and their encompassment-cum-resolution.

Dare we say that the Aristotelian tendency toward the Whole in nature (i.e., potency) is equally prevalent in man? Surely the histories of scientific discovery, religion, philosophy and the arts speak to this apparent human urgency. Only in the educated hindsight of so many years of “fine art” can we finally appreciate this human impulse in direct relation to a holistic painting. Certainly abstraction was the necessary final ingredient in the slow liberation that is the history of painting. That, however, does not mean that abstract painters are effectively freer than Dürer or Rubens. Modern painters have come to understand more of what limits and binds them, and are thereby freer to contemplate fewer things. The beachhead of this liberation was the break from empirical pluralism grounded in the contemplation of a world of (disparate) things. Only through nonobjective abstraction could holism as an urge be answered. This might seem too obvious. After all, holism must be, by definition, abstract. Yet a colossal dismantling of cultural architectonics had to be undertaken in the studios, and of course in the minds of artists, before such an at once simple and sophisticated conception could be realized.

What, in fact, is (W)Holistic painting?

What have been its peripheral tendencies?

Why is it of any importance to an ambitious painter?

We would consider the holistic image to be that initiated by the work of Jackson Pollock after 1946 and upon which Pollock’s current reputation rests. Nonhierarchical paintings as varied as Mondrian’s, Newman’s or de Kooning’s (see his 1950s Excavation) are not holistic by comparison with Pollock, for holistic painting is painting largely without any cutting edge except the literal perimeter of the canvas, the edge of painting being the only edge that is. This is the formalist definition that gained favor over the last generation. The extension of a matrix system across a surface can also be eliminated in this regard—first, on account of its divisionary function, and, secondly, for its inevitably atavistic qualities.

Lawrence Alloway remarked 25 years after Pollock’s first drip paintings that “the vocabulary of art criticism is weak in terms for allover surfaces” (Artforum, January 1974). If we think of “abstract” in the worldly sense of hermetic, then we see that in the late 1940s, Pollock’s painting seemed not only the most abstract art of its time, but the most abstract art that it was (or ever would be?) possible to make. Of course, Pollock’s paintings were not inherently more abstract than Mondrian’s of 1928; his work merely adhered to an unfamiliar understanding (or logos). Pollock’s paintings showed a pictoral density that seemed irrational (perhaps prerational) and less explicable—and hence, to the untutored, more abstract—than Mondrian’s. We can sympathize with this to the extent that Mondrian, at his most abstract, still carried forth a tradition espoused by Alberti which conceived composition as an operation of the understanding. Even far-out romantics regarded the idea of inspired “composition” as being a matter of inspired “conception.” But now, in a time of pared-down alternatives, the only really stable imperative seems to be that a painting must have edges—that is, a literal perimeter. Now one might begin to question the precise function of edges when the interior goings-on approach the animate stasis of Milton Resnick’s recent paintings.

In the past, pictorial incidents were gauged by the artist in reference to the edges. All the proportions which lend hierarchy to these incidents were related to the width and the length of the edges through 400 years of painting. Yet Barnett Newman, whether the positions of his “zips” were intuited or measured out to the eighth of an inch (as Thomas B. Hess claims), painted out of this tradition as well. If Newman did emulate the God of Genesis wrenching the light from the dark, then before this primal act he must have asked himself “Where? . . . there!” The positioning of his “zips” was never a small matter to Newman, and it does not take extraordinary visual sophistication to appreciate the counter-position and cross-relation of intervals in his work. Leaving the issue of Newman’s metaphysics aside (which cannot be argued into the painting in any case), Newman must be seen as an extension of Mondrian in that placement is never a secondary concern.

A 1966 argument between Clement Greenberg and Daniel Robbins (then a curator at the Guggenheim Museum) centered on almost identical questions regarding the paintings of Morris Louis. The issue was whether the painter’s decisions to crop were of precise determination, or if they were, as Robbins maintained, of singular unconcern to the artist. Of course interior incidents do receive “placement” as a consequence of cropping. Whether the paint runs the length of a foot or a yard is only an issue in Louis’ striped paintings, where one cannot argue in an occult mathematics, as one can with Newman. Louis intuited the length of his stripes just as he did their width, their progression of colors and their proximity to the edges. The viewer is left either to recognize the intuition as precise, or to contemplate the flaccidity of misallowance. We are drawn into a connoisseurship of measurement, where only the sentient viewer can decide if the painting measures up (or if the audience doesn’t). This is a recent development in the manufacture of pictures (Larry Poons is a more recent, well-known, practitioner of this sort of composition-by-exterior-adjustment).

Still, we are participating in a conventional architecture of thought, a dualism of the pictorial and the literal. The edge is seen alternately as a boundary to be traversed or as a retaining wall, which are different sides of the same problem. Some of the more savvy painters are more acutely conscious of these conventions and have attacked them systematically. Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella have taken the cue from Newman and echoed the edge—the pictorial aping the literal. Olitski, a more elegant and ingratiating painter, has educated his audience to the niceties of play between pictorial and literal. But all of these painters, from Mondrian to Newman to Olitski, adhere to an esthetic which merely continues the Impressionist reaction to the system of preparatory sketch and the legacy of the atelier. This entreats us to a “modernist painting”; that is, a painting intuited, hard won and of precarious balance. It proposes an esthetic of fine tuning.

The first generation American abstract painters after the war embraced this value to an unparalleled degree. Great potential for chaos was thought to prove a painting’s wholeness and stability; however, as precariousness threatens the pictorial, even the most self-confident painter must question where the perilous and the dubious meet.

Freud tells us that beneath the vista of conscious life lies a fathomless depth of unconscious activity. Phenomenology conceives a world of ubiquitous meaning in which the most arcane, marginal activity counts. Yet this understanding is something the artist must argue into himself and work out in the making of his art, If it counts—this stroke, this smudge—does it count enough? How much is enough? This is the hub of painting as an activity. Pollock seemed to realize this very early but he eventually shrank from its extreme conclusions.

Like all other painters, Pollock worked in the dialectic of pictorial and literal edge, subordinate to the larger dialectic of part and whole. The literal edge was conceived as a container. It is difficult to imagine Pollock turning from his holistic principle for what seems the implied option—a vision cut from an infinite web of skeins and ganglions. The flirtations of Olitski were neither in Pollock’s makeup nor his heritage. Pollock was not so much interested in fussing with the conventions of picture-making as in attempting to make his paintings the purveyors of awesome, undifferentiated emotion (or at least the adumbration of such emotion as was possible). It is by this sustaining of emotion up to the picture’s edge that a Pollock must be judged.

Previously we referred to holistic painting as involving “empowered form.” Surely such painting has to fit further requirements beyond the definitive ones of holism itself to be so classified. Of course, great paintings create their own requirements; but, in order to speak of holistic painting as having more than a mere genre interest (yet not a metaphysical vagary), a description of its expectations and bounds is in order.

Perhaps a convincing way to do this is through the recent work of Milton Resnick. His paintings of the last few years evidence the holistic impulse to such a degree that one could probably not find a better example of this type of painting. Yet to some extent, Resnick’s canvases defy the treatment being applied here: first because they are relatively new in conception while they nevertheless engage old and proven forms; second, because they appear in a virtual vacuum, having little to do with any painting on the “scene.” Unfortunately, reproductions do not convey much of what these paintings are about. But analogous gropings in philosophy and phenomena in the physical world may suggest a reasonable idea of what these paintings look like and what they do.

Gestalt ideas are here not as helpful as one might think. “Figure/field” complexes are of little use when the “figure” seeks a sovereignty that is not merely relative to its “field.” For Resnick’s paintings often enter the epi-perceptual dimension of what Henri Wallon had called the “ultra-thing.” The coin we hold close up against the nighttime sky might be large enough to blot the moon from our sight, but there is little question as to which is bigger. Walton calls the moon an “ultra-thing,” something not measurable in strict gestalt terms against the field of the cosmos, but suspended in a second sight that intuits its autonomous majesty.

In this experience, we are close to the Pre-Socratics who assigned transcendence to the four elements of antiquity in pursuit of the archai (the primary constituent substance of Being). When gazing at the full moon, we must try to understand the noontime sun, a rushing river, a lit fire or the bleeding stem of a flower—the prerational awe that Anaxagoras or Heraclitus must have felt upon the contemplation of these same phenomena. Since their time our vision has been colored and complicated by scientific knowledge and cultural presupposition. Nevertheless, the contemplative gaze upon the natural pageant often brings us back to this same wonder.

But painting the sea as if water were the archai (as Thales said) is at best a secondary act of creation. Milton Resnick finds primordial constituting properties in paint itself, bidding for the metaphysical plunge. The extreme danger, of course, would be to construe that holistic paintings from Resnick’s hand were mere imaginative depictions of Parmenides’ “boundless,” Leibniz’s monad or Heidegger’s Sein. This is certainly not the case. Such a reductionist, “painting-as-philosophy” criticism is perhaps better suited to Barnett Newman (qua Pythagoras) or Ad Reinhardt (qua Nietzsche). Resnick conjures the intuitive experience of the Whole and the One, that which great thinkers must have felt in writing potent metaphysics, but which they could not equal, except as their words approached poetry. Surely the dwelling-place is the same: the choice of entrance makes all the difference.

When Heraclitus awakens us to never-ending change, or Hegel to God’s face as the “Face of History,” we enjoy an oceanic charge that reason allows. When a painter dwells in similarly primal regions, we are not given such explicit questions or such pointed answers. These matters are those of language and its logic. When abstract painting is good, it lends us an esthetic experience that resounds in a like chamber, one as wide and as deep; but it still does not allow for the specificity of sentences and phrases. Good modern painting defies the reader’s scrutiny (perhaps that is why so few men of letters have an eye for abstraction). It is this very defiance that lifts the “ultra-thing” from isoperimetric concerns. Resnick’s paintings pose a like resistance.

There is no purpose in our arguing spheres of influence with regard to Pollock and Resnick: we can leave that to the genealogists of art. Milton Resnick maintains the separate aspirations of his work within, what seems to the outsider, a drastic reduction of possibilities. These ambitions seek to wrest meaning from the paint itself without any intermediate configurations. The crusty surface of his canvas sustains an earthy, monadic existence, while flecks of light allude to the many corners of a dark potential. Even the pictorial incidents invoke the entirety, like Democritus’ sharp atoms constituting the sour taste of a lemon. There is no resolution into a monochrome, yet an aura, a color pulse, is achieved, and that is what comes first to our sight.

By, so to speak, keeping his nose in the paint, Resnick urges us to a consideration of primordial ambivalences of being: the one and the many, being and becoming, stasis and flux, closed and open. The stuff of the paint is fully exploited—mashed, splayed and coaxed gently, always with the brush, to reveal its specific chthonian character. Color is a protracted affair, the contingent element that gives the surface its breathing quality. Color serves an entirely different end here from its place in the dégagé optics of Impressionism. However, to describe Resnick’s work in its specifics is to inquire into these very same ambivalences of being. Specifics begin to separate themselves, particularly from the concerns of “placement,” as we rethink the terms of the precarious balance witnessed in three decades of postwar painting.

In classical art “place” was a locus in picture space, and perspective was the vehicle for the placement of solids within a coherent spatial order. It is one of Cézanne’s great achievements that he dispensed with mechanics of this sort and, through what appear to be strictly painterly means, provided a perceptual “home” for his solids. The word “home” is rather critical here, in separating “place” from mere “placement”: not home in a nostalgic sense, but in the carnal meaning of the body as “home” for the self. It is worth asking why painting at this juncture begins to be read across rather than into, and how mass becomes possible without precise demarcations between solids. Of course, it is a long historical haul from the fictive weight of a Cézanne peach to the “rain of weight” of Resnick.

A conventional approach to Resnick’s allover image calls “place” itself into question. In what sense can the eye be said to be “here, not there?” Proximity too, as a consequence of “place,” loses definition. The painter is thrust into “the Open,” not so much in the physical sense as in the poetic sense of something not being blocked off—unconcealment. In discussing “the Open,” Rilke touches upon the painter’s feeling that when he is “in” the painting he lacks self-awareness:

By the “Open” therefore I do not mean sky, air and space; they too are “object” and thus “opaque,” and closed to the man who observes and judges. The animal, the flower, presumably is all that, without accounting to itself and therefore has before itself and above itself that indescribably open freedom which perhaps has its (extremely fleeting) equivalents among us only in those first moments of love when one human being sees his own vastness in another, his beloved, and in man’s elevation towards God.

By the same token, painting becomes the antithesis of the popular conception of Abstract Expressionism as “personality painting” or egoism. The awareness becomes more that of an animal. Rilke does not refer to a mere spatial Open—like a vast expanse of sky or distance—but to the metaphysical Open anterior to human consciousness.

Pollock hoped to get at this by painting on the floor, physically aping immersion. It is an effort to avoid opposition, in Pollock’s case giving the act its flinging quality and its venturesomeness or, in Resnick’s case, its tentative groping. In Resnick’s paintings the painting manipulations must also be expansive; they may usher the viewer into glades or dens, but they never let him linger too long. Neither should the painting permit utter meandering or “swimming” (the kinetic equivalents of absolute stasis). The eyes are to be led by the strokes into the plenum of world. “Place” loses its there-ness, true; but a more initial place is substituted, namely, where one happens to be. The paint makes a place for itself paralleling Bergson’s hand in the iron filings: a single gesture renders the configuration that will at the same time make a place for it. “Home” becomes a roving in the Open by the eye, devoid of any rootedness other than the brush.

The resultant new precariousness is of a different sort from that of most contemporary abstraction. It has the peril of intention and sight in the Open, yet without displacing any of the viewer’s resources. The eye is both challenged by unfamiliarity and yet guided, in a sort of odd comfort. Resnick’s paintings carry this ambiguity, which has the quality of a meditation—that which dwells in the Open yet retains a secure glimpse of its own origins.

Viewing this sort of painting is very rewarding. The ambiguities already touched upon are wonderfully pregnant, and lasting. As in Pollock’s best work, Resnick sustains emotion precisely to the edge with no indications of overspill. Unlike Pollock, the emotion is less motor, less visceral, and more tentative and human; and because of its refusal to “place,” it tends to reveal itself slowly yet commandingly. In a way this is not a “modern” art. There is no recognition of the one-shot ethos generic to much modernism today. A Resnick appears to have been painted in a sentient, painstaking manner and its results are indicatively sentient and fulfilling. Its significance to the ambitious painter is in the postmodern return it requires to more meditative and deeply esthetic values. Hence it is holistic painting in its “most empowered form.”

Geoffrey and David Dorfman