PRINT November 1979

Joseph Glasco: Painting Under Construction

Humanism is the result of the cultural animi, of an attitude that knows how to take care and preserve and admire the things of the world. As such, it has the task of arbitrating and mediating between the purely political and the purely fabricating activities, which are opposed to each other in many ways.
—Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

IT IS SUPPOSED THAT MODERNIST painting is difficult to understand except in purely pictorial terms. Obviously, this poses less of a problem for the artist than it does for those who would have art address “specific audiences beyond a purely art world audience . . . ”1 When there is a problem here it seems to indicate a frustration with one’s own ability to penetrate style and abstract content, implying that a work of art is not necessarily what it seems as much as it is what it is interpreted to mean according to some hidden dialectic of appearance and extrapolation. But the question “For Whom the Bell Tolls” receives the same answer in art: for thee.

One difficulty is that the content of abstract art is not “read” as one expects to read a book, for painting and sculpture are not essentially literary. One would not normally take up a novel to read in a foreign language that one did not know, but one might well seek out a translation of a foreign text, and then find oneself in the position of grasping for the story-line alone, conscious that the specific qualities of the original language are beyond esthetic reach. But certain modern writers have built up out of this very limitation poems and plays that are “stripped” of any story or plot, and that exist through the sound and disenfranchised word alone. Similarly, we find in visual art the modernistic notion of stripping the work of any reference outside of the artist’s creation itself.

In a self-referential art, the media, or the material elements, from which art is forged become content with the persona of the artist as active organizer. It is possible, therefore, for art to need no other interpretation than the true perception of its elements. In his article “Mentalism versus Painting” (Artforum, February 1979), Ross Neher discusses art as being concretely metaphorical, with the arena of “fictive” space assigned to the canvas, where the activity of painting and paint determine transcendent value. The mastery of the medium of expression is the work of a lifetime, each painting over that lifetime reflecting integers of the artist’s progressive mastery. An analysis of such “integers,” marking points in a career at which works of art come into being, may provide us with insight into qualitative content.

In the early summer of 1951, Joseph Glasco went to Jackson Pollock’s house in The Springs, Long Island, to see his most recent paintings. Pollock later wrote that Glasco, he thought, “really liked them.”2 In looking at Glasco’s own present work one can readily feel the impact of Pollock in terms of an allover, and in a sense “gestural,” approach to art-making. It is less that Glasco’s work looks like Pollock’s than that it seems to have analyzed, and come to grips with Pollock’s way of pressing the limits of his materials. Ironically, in 1951, Pollock had begun to work away from his allover style and was reinvestigating the pictorial potential of figurative imagery, although still practicing the same energetic laying down of the paint, and still maintaining flatness and an equilibrium between form and field, while Glasco, at this stage in his life work, was abandoning the figure and certain Cubistic tendencies toward volumetric illusionism. Pollock’s breakthrough into a highly personal means of identification between material (paint) and subject matter (subjective content) led Glasco—as it did other artists—into a similar search for such a personal means.

Joseph Glasco works on stretched canvas with the same technique as his papier collé drawings. There are actually two stages of separate and special activity that ultimately perform as a whole, forming the final crust of the work. The surface, whether of unprimed canvas or paper, is first subjected to a quick and intense gestural prolegomenon in paint. The work at this point, as well as its final collage form, is highly expressionistic, which hardly detracts from its existential qualities—insofar as “action painting” emphasizes painting as an act. Using the traditional means of applying the paint with brushes (as opposed to rollers, squeegies, trowels or anything else), Glasco does allow for controlled accident and the sensuous intermixing of the vehicle as he works across the surface. This initial attack must, in and of itself, constitute a successful “plastic” creation, the entire development of the ensuing work being dependent, at each stage, upon the quality of what has gone before, and upon the interaction of parts to the whole, and vice versa. This insistence that each stage be conceptually complete, throughout the evolution of the painting, is not here a matter of cold logic or an insularity of anticipated failure, or a fear of emotional exposure. To paint with a teleological sensitivity toward the final result in this particular manner is the very opposite of goal-obsession. The decision to keep on working the painting has to be one in which the painter dedicates himself to the fullest possible exploration of all the qualities of the means of expression; stopping short of this extreme would render the work, if nothing else, dishonest. The moral imperative in Glasco’s work proceeds from the equating of process with product, as the individual integers of “real” activity within the development of an individual painting gradually accrue and come to constitute the created object.

“Depth,” as Hans Hofmann has written, “is not created on a flat surface as an illusion, but as a plastic reality.”3 Although planar carriers dominate the movement in Glasco’s collages, the quality of drawing (including the drawn in elements) equally controls the pictorial space: broken lines, dots and vector indicators account for the “drawn” qualities. At the second stage, pieces of already partly painted canvas are tacked onto the painted surface in a seemingly random but inspired manner. Vortices of planes, lines, dots and dashes of the original skin are now partially obscured. Here Glasco’s rationale for allowing certain areas of the original white canvas to remain unpainted becomes clearly a decision to allow the final surface some “breathing” room, as well as to provide connective visual stimulation between the “first” and “last” skins, whose area is also described by the raw canvas. The positioning of his “scraps” of canvas reinforces the allover quality of the undercoat, and although physically functioning as planar elements, the colored lines and dashes, as well as the edges that are created as canvas meets canvas (the ability of the torn edges of canvas to function as linear drawing elements as they lie abutted on the picture plane has been explored by Conrad Marca-Relli), unify our perception of the self-sufficiently pictorial, rather than illusionistically “real,” space of our painting.

This second stage of the work is very much a matter of painting over or into a surface, with the collage elements performing a reductive, as well as additive function. Glasco juxtaposes strong primary colors, mostly as stripes or broken trajectories, painted onto the fragmented canvas patches. These colored areas are the most direct and least ambiguous aspect of the work, and Glasco’s bright-colored form is reminiscent of Léger. The purity of the colored areas sets up a vibrating field of its own in which another dimension would be invoked, were it not for the kinship in color value of the first painted area and the final skin of collage. The unification of the surface is offered to us as a process that is tentative, implied and open-ended.

What these works do achieve touches on the profound modernist belief that plastic creation on a flat surface is possible without the invasion/destruction of the two-dimensional nature of the surface itself. Invocations of a third or even fourth dimension have ultimately a life of purely mental phenomena. A highly textured surface, whether through the build-up of paint alone or via the build-up of material collage processes, similarly refers us to the two-dimensionality of the picture plane: the criteria are the same. Tactility is inevitable in the construction of any surface made by man and not by machine, but whether that surface can profoundly move us depends upon the ability of the artist to imprint his/her personality through the confrontation with the materials that supply the tactility.

If there are grids or pattern in these works, I have not been able to discover them. The collage elements of the last layer are each unique in size, shape and position. Only color is repeated, and the only color-key relation is the size of the paintbrush, the width of the brush being the same throughout for a given color. For its total obliviousness to systematically organized visual content, Glasco’s painting makes the same general esthetic point as Mondrian: art is a “question of determining the [mutual] relations [of forms];” “forms exist only for the creation of relationships; . . . forms create relations and . . . relations create forms. In this duality of forms and their relations neither takes precedence.”4

The quality of repetition, for Mondrian, was something that one encountered in nature and not in art. No matter how sensitively approached, the recurrent imposition upon a figured ground of a fixed pattern asks the viewer to believe that human psychological states are predetermined, which may be true in obsessive behavior alone. If art is a form of human behavior, a homogenous art, however abstract, would in some way be “naturalistic.” Confidence in the capacity of our real perceptions of our own dynamic internal states (emotions) finds its analogue in the intuited abstract composition that cannot be mannered.

Glasco’s painting does not amount to the search by an artist for a formula. His extreme sensitivity to the “breathing life” of the canvas surface makes it more than a restatement of the painting as object/motif. Figure and ground, as in pattern painting, lie upon the same plane; however, in Glasco’s work there is a confident spontaneity of placement. Purely through the development of the materials, and through the relentlessly intuited composition, does the eye move from area to area. The powerful impact of this body of work derives from an overwhelming affirmation of the ability of the psyche to survive, and to survive intact, in an unstructured and chaotically free universe.

Vered Lieb



1. Peter Fuller, “American Painting Since the Last War,” Art Monthly, (London), Nos. 27–28, 1979.

2. B.H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, New York, 1972, p. 174; Pollock’s letter dated June 7, 1951.

3. Hans Hofmann, “Search for the Real,” Cambridge, Mass., 1967, p. 44.

4. Piet Mondrian, “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art,” in Modern Artists on Art; Ten Unabridged Essays, ed. Robert L. Herbert, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964, p. 115.

#image 4#