PRINT March 1980

Towards a Theory/Practice of Painting

IT IS PERHAPS NOT OUT of place at the beginning of an essay on modern and contemporary painting to ask what exactly is entailed in this encounter between the written word and the visual. Despite the repeated and no doubt attractively over-simplified assertion that we can learn about art only from direct experience, as soon as the question of contemporary art is raised, a crowd of critical texts imposes itself on our attention as if to efface the presence of the works. Of course, an equally attractive explanation for these critical texts is readily available—that they perform the valuable task of elucidation—but experience should forewarn us to distrust the facile explanation in matters of contemporary art. On the contrary, if the contemporary work of art provides the viewer with a problem of sense, I would suggest that criticism, which never fails to offer its intercessionary services, presents him with more nonsense.

What is it, then, in the mysterious silence of the contemporary painting which provokes the eager chatter of critical discourse? If this first frontal approach makes the answer seem elusive, we might well shift our attention to a secondary and consequent stage of the process, in which the initial critical response to painting is gradually rewritten in historical account. The adventure of modern art, which we may agree takes its point of departure in the Impressionist experiment, has run its course for over a hundred years, and this has proved to be a sufficient period of time for the initial outrage of the avant-garde movements of art, and the misunderstanding with which they were initially received by their contemporaries, to be replaced by a clear and coherent evolutionary historical account. So simple and persuasive is this account that it has become virtually identified with its object of study, to the extent that today, when we try to consider what is involved in modern art, a linear reading of its history automatically defuses much of further speculation.

Every history possesses a set of fundamental propositions. In the history of modern art two immediately spring to mind: first, a teleological sense of progressing towards some ultimately determined goal (of perfection?) and, second, a conviction that art is an autonomy which contains in itself all the elements necessary for its realization. The history of art is therefore portrayed as a tranquil and complacent progression along the path of its own idiosyncratic preoccupations, neither receiving nor reflecting any influence with a more broadly defined base of culture. What is striking is that while the history of modern art gives the impression of steady and confident progress, the broader definition of recent history (that which embraces all aspects of social life) documents disastrous collapse and regression: the two world wars. Are those two historical accounts nevertheless descriptive of the same world? At what point then do these two histories touch each other? What effect did the wars have on the development of modern art? I would like to suggest that they had the effect of producing a silence, a sense of shock, a suspension of language. If I am not mistaken, we have, in a circuitous way, answered our original question of what provokes the clamor of critical response to modern art. This silence makes a hole in our thinking; it creates an anguish which the critical institution rushes to fill with the first notions that come to mind. In this affair of writing and reading about art we are ready to do all and everything but look for the buried significance of modern art.

Let us look at these histories a little more closely. At the same time we should keep in mind that the broader historical account has been obliged, through force of circumstances, to accommodate a paradox which can best be characterized as a silence, while the narrower history of art is resolved at all costs to deny this embarrassing interruption in its discourse. The most general observation which emerges from a rapid glance at the history of 20th-century art is that, at the point of the Second World War and the years immediately following it, its course was abruptly deflected westward, establishing New York in place of Paris as the center of the art world.1 What can be said immediately is that modern art, which, up until this date had been an exclusively European affair, from then on became overly determined by the still unformed culture of the New World. American artists had been following developments in the European art world for a number of decades, but the direct instrument of the transfer was the presence of a large group of distinguished European artists in New York as a result of the war, among whom the Surrealists were most prominent.

The important issue to be stressed regarding the presence of Surrealists in New York and the potential influence which they may have had on American artists is that Surrealism was first and foremost a literary movement and the vehicle of a discourse on the arts which belonged to the outlook of the old prewar European culture. Breton himself insisted on this when he wrote in 1953: “Today it is notoriously well known that Surrealism, insofar as it was an organized movement, came into being by virtue of a far-reaching operation regarding language.”2

The exact character of Surrealism’s attitude to language, to operate a critique of the dominant positivist ideology of pre-First World War Europe, remains ambiguous.

Springing from its origins in the Dada movement and the cultural shock of the First War, Surrealism used the concept of “psychic automatism” as a device for effecting a rupture with established literary form and, by extension, with the established sense of language. In the words of Breton, “For Surrealism the whole issue was to convince oneself that one had taken hold of the ‘raw material’ (in the alchemical sense of the term) of language.” This desire to reach beyond literature to the crude material of language which was symptomatic in Dada and Surrealism of an urge to dissolve moral and cultural values, once again refers back to the experience that I have characterized above as a silence, this time impelled by the fiasco of the 1914–18 war. However, Surrealism’s position on this issue is far from clear: the Surrealist painting technique which, while starting out from a practice of automatism, continued by elaborating images from the preconscious mind in quite conventional artistic forms. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of the attempt to base an art—or the pretension to go beyond art—on the (ironically enough) positivist illusion of a “raw material.” To return to the definition of Surrealism as a discourse on art with a decidedly prewar outlook the important question remains: to see what role such a discourse would play once transplanted to the United States. Here, immediately, we notice a striking contrast with the role it was destined to play once Breton and his colleagues returned to Europe after the end of the war.

In Europe the shock of the war was such that, once it was over, there was a strong impulse to repress the experience and continue on with a prewar outlook as if nothing had happened. Insofar as the arts were concerned, this confirmed the reestablishment of the Surrealist discourse and esthetic. In America, however, the reaction to Surrealism was very different. Indeed every account agrees that American artists showed little interest in the explicit form of Surrealist art; they preferred instead to concentrate on the concept of “psychic automatism” as a means of generating a new understanding of art practice. But the significance of this preference remains to be investigated.

In this connection we might look again at William Rubin’s statement that “what Pollock really took from Surrealism, was an idea—automatism—rather than a manner.”3 It was hardly the idea of automatism that Americans took from the Surrealists, since it should be clear that their refusal of Surrealist form was above all a refusal of the literary dominance of Surrealism on the plastic arts. The attitude of the American painters was much more radical than the mere borrowing of an idea would imply; their intention was rather to extract a gesture from what the Surrealists had to offer. This gesture repudiated the whole basis of the prevailing European art discourse and in doing so referred directly to the suspension of language, in other words, to the silence. In extracting this gesture and in embracing this silence, in refusing the archaic art discourse which came from prewar Europe, they laid the ground work for a whole artistic exploration, later to be known as Abstract Expressionism.

If the years succeeding the war were determined by this distinction—in America, the extraction of a gesture from Surrealism by the Abstract Expressionist painters and, in Europe, the reestablishment of the dominance of a Surrealist discourse—it should be clear that from then on the artists of the two continents faced immediately different problems. In American art this gesture is nothing other than the negative of Surrealist discourse, and through adopting it the American painters opened up the possibility of exploring the crucial questions of the specific practice of painting.4 No longer hindered by an anachronistic discourse, the Abstract Expressionist painters were able to effect a spectacular breakthrough, and this explains the remarkable vitality of American painting during the late ’40s and ’50s. But they could only do so, and here is the crucial issue which determines the consequent experience of American art, through depriving themselves of a discourse of art practice. The American Abstract Expressionist painters were the first to be aware of this problem. They searched with considerable desperation for a genuine modern discourse based on a genuine contemporary frame of reference in the other artistic and intellectual disciplines, though through force of circumstances this discourse continued to elude them. (Today it is exactly this discourse which still remains to be established.)

In contrast, the painters who were working in Europe found themselves faced with an extremely articulate and elegant Surrealist discourse (in the case of Breton one could even say florid), and their discourse presented itself to them as a barrier which had to be surmounted. But again, and this is the crucial point for later developments in painting in Europe, it was constrained to search for the solutions to its specific practice at the level of that discourse—in other words at the level of thought. This is not to suggest that painting was to take its inspiration from literary form or that the writing of texts should replace painting (although the development of a literary discourse on art would play on important role), but rather that a way of painting was going to be developed which would be vehicle for a process of thought which could only be identified concretely with the passage of the painting act itself.

If Surrealism played such an important determining role in this history of modern art, what position did it occupy in the development of artistic and intellectual thought? We find ourselves obliged to move outside the traditional linear course of history, and in doing so we are able to clarify, perhaps, certain misapprehensions derived from historical perspective. The curious paradox is that the Surrealist esthetic mediated between the classical conception of art (which situates the figure in an illusionist, three-dimensional spatial setting) and its own project for an art of the future (which would no longer be based on a positivist conception of reality), while at the same time it undertook a critique of the early avant-garde movements of the 20th century, reinvesting them with a reference to reality which had been lost in their accentuation of formal elements. The majestic result of course is Surreality—a grandiose synthesis in which history runs with a double movement, in both directions simultaneously. The impact of Surrealism derives exactly from having drawn attention to the very point of weakness in this epistemological transition, a split which we may say divides the 19th and 20th centuries, and this paradoxical interpretation of the historical process comes nearer than the usual progressive model to understanding the uneven and incomplete development of contemporary artistic and cultural life.

If we are to understand the character of the propositions made by Surrealists, we must first ask from what intellectual standpoint Breton and the others mounted their critique of 19th-century positivist ideology and its inadequate or incomplete transformation into the avant-garde art movements of the beginning of the 20th century. Breton himself furnishes the answer to this question without any ambiguity when he acknowledges his debt to Freud in the First Surrealist Manifesto. Using psychoanalysis, with its concepts of the unconscious and the dream, alongside the Surrealist concept of “psychic automatism,” which was also elaborated from Freud, Breton embarked on his (re)creation of (sur)reality. In the work of Freud, Breton had hit upon the essential frame of reference for a genuine contemporary discourse on modern art and culture, and it is perhaps a measure of the dimension and potential of this encounter between the new science of psychoanalysis and the practice of modern art that Breton himself was only able to exploit it in misunderstanding and confusion.

Regarding Breton’s fundamental misunderstanding of the Freudian discovery and the effect this had on the development of Surrealism (and the whole history of modern art after the war), there exist already two quite decisive texts by Marcelin Pleynet: “De la culture moderne” and “La peinture et le surréalisme et la peinture”, both collected in Art et Littérature—in which he refers to the translation and commentary of a letter from Freud to Breton by Jean-Louis Houdebine, published in Promesse no. 32, 1972. In reply to Breton’s invitation to contribute to a collection of dreams, Freud writes:

I would ask you to kindly take note of the fact that the literal utterance of the dream, or what I have termed the “manifest” dream, has not the slightest interest for me. I have applied myself to the job of finding “the latent content of the dream” which can be extracted from the manifest dream through analytic interpretation. A collection of dreams, without their associations and without a knowledge of the circumstances in which they took place—such a collection means absolutely nothing to me and I can hardly imagine what it could mean for others.

In other words, the Surrealist project was advocating the replacement of the positivistic description of external reality, maintained in the 19th century, by an equally descriptive investigation of the internal reality of the dream. Such a proposition, as Freud so acutely pointed out, ignored the very analytic technique which Freud had developed for examining dreams. In this way Surrealism developed its bizarre anthology of imagery which transgresses external reality in a game of transcendent sur-reality while at the same time leaving the realist code intact.

It is interesting that in the dream context Breton avoids the important questions raised by Freud’s investigation of sexuality by insisting on the quality of the “marvelous” in the dream and by relating it directly to beauty—in other words to the concept of sublimation. In the First Manifesto, after making the declaration of faith, “I believe in the future resolution of these two seemingly so contradictory states, the dream and reality, in a sort of absolute reality, or surreality,” Breton writes that “the marvelous in all its shapes and forms is always beautiful. In fact only the marvelous is beautiful.” Houdebine analyzes that in the Surrealist position:

It is precisely in effacing the distinction “unconscious/preconscious”—the destruction of the “unconscious material of the id” under the weight of the “pre-conscious thoughts”—that Breton (and Surrealism in general) make most of the mistakes regarding Freudian theory.

To this Pleynet adds his commentary:

Clearly we have here, if I may say so, the key to the Surrealist dream which objectivizes a metaphysical phantasmagoria destined through its phenomenological recovery to repress the real which molds it. And so the Surrealist attitude represses the unconscious material which is at work in the dreamer, through objectivizing the distortions of the dream. Human activity, which is severed from every dialectical relation with its vehicle of history and language, becomes a fantastic surreal illusion of the dominant ideology.

(This is precisely the positivist ideology which Breton had set out to counter). The result of this surreal illusion in the practice of painting can be seen from the following remarks on Magritte:

In the same way that the academic painter represents the reality of his realist code, Magritte represents the transgressed reality of this same code. Programmed entirely in terms of the academic law, whose spatial structure (that is ideological structure) it scrupulously reproduces, Magritte’s painting plays on the literary narration of transgressions which founded that law; . . . We remain inside the space of the academic norm to the extent that we remain inside a speculation of the arbitrary element which underlies this norm . . . since the form of the transgression remains the same (academic perspective) as that of the seemingly transgressed law.

And further:

We can see clearly how, for example with Magritte, the problem of academic naturalist painting is confused with the symptom of naturalism and representation, which from then on is invested with all kinds of more or less transgressive metamorphoses and transformations, while the formal representation of the ideology of naturalist painting (the situation of the figure in an ideologically ordered space) remained invisible and found itself yet further repressed.

Here we have, clearly defined, the barrier which Surrealism was to present for the painters working in Europe after the war.

Painting as practice.

In spite of its obvious clumsiness, I have adhered to this formula of “painters working in Europe” for specific reasons. The argument which I plan to develop in this essay has everything to lose from a narrow nationalist interpretation. It is for this—for reasons which go far beyond superficial considerations of personal choice—that the three painters who will be discussed, while having in common that they have all worked in the area of Paris, come from very different, and by no means specifically European, national backgrounds. Two, Simon Hantaï and Judit Reigl, were born in Hungary in 1922 and 1923 and came as émigrés and self-imposed exiles to Paris in 1949 and 1950 respectively. The third is an American, James Bishop, who was born in 1927 and first installed himself in Paris in 1959. For political reasons neither Hantauï nor Reigl have ever returned to their country of origin, while Bishop has maintained a strong contact with the United States by dividing his time between New York and Paris. At the same time, all three have been profoundly marked by their experiences of a European culture which they have been led to from elsewhere.

I have already suggested that postwar painting in France was determined by two factors—first, the great breakthrough at the specific level of painting practice which took place in New York during and in the years immediately following the war and, second, the barrier of an archaic Surrealist discourse which had reestablished its position of dominance on Breton’s return from the United States. This signal coalescence of cultural, intellectual and artistic forces provided those working in France with a different perspective from that adopted by the Americans—a perspective of discourse. But does this mean to say that the painters working in France were able to think through the achievement of their great American colleagues? I am not going to examine the question of exactly how and when knowledge of American painting spread to Europe. No doubt it was particular to the individual artist. I will simply note that Pollock’s first exhibition in Paris was held in 1952 and that between 1953 and 1959 three major group exhibitions were organized, under the patronage of the United States Embassy, in which works by all the great Abstract Expressionists could be seen. What can be said, however, is that the three artists I discuss in this essay were perhaps more open to the vital influence of the Americans due to their origins.

I do not have the space to deal with each stage in the individual careers of these painters. I will simply insist that for Hantaï and Reigl, arrival in Paris from Hungary at the end of the ’40s and the beginning of the ’50s implied an encounter with Surrealism and a period of work under its influence. It is essential to keep in mind that for both painters, as with the Americans, it was the element of psychic automatism that caught their attention in Surrealism. Equally for the two painters, the crucial point in each of their careers came when they abandoned the Surrealist influence (although retaining their interest in the concept of psychic automatism) and moved in another direction. This transition from overtly Surrealist painting to the tendency that informed their later work is generally characterized as a passage toward abstraction, and it is commonly said that the break came with Breton over his refusal to countenance abstract painting, notably American abstract painting.

We might care to ask why it was that André Breton adamantly and categorically refused to envisage abstract painting? Or, in a more general manner, what do we mean when we talk about an abstract work of art? What ideological propositions lie covered under this general and seemingly innocuous category of abstraction? In fact, the term, like many others in the history of art, can mean many different things depending on which of a number of possible interpretations one chooses. But all these questions aside, I would say that it remains a major source of confusion and misunderstanding in modern art.

More precisely, in most historical accounts of modern art it functions as a useful means of repressing the crucial and persistently unresolved question of the figure, and this by one of two alternatives—either the abstract work is attached to an ideological model of science and technology or it is recuperated by a metaphysical doctrine of equivalence. No doubt in this case Breton’s objections are based on a half truth. But Surrealism’s solution, which was intended to redress the disproportionate attention to formal elements in the early avant-garde movements, is equally unsatisfactory, as can be seen from a comparison with, for example, the work of Simon Hantaï.

Breton’s study of the phenomena of dreams led him to stress their marvelous quality and by linking the “marvelous” with beauty, he attached himself and Surrealism to the well-worn theory of art as a sublimational activity. I would like to draw attention to an observation made by William Rubin in an essay on Arshile Gorky: “The Surrealist painters, (except Miro and Masson), had an inbred disdain for paint.”6 This disdain for paint, or for matter, is the key to the sublimational esthetic of transcendence adopted by the Surrealists, and it is equally the issue which divided them from Hantaï, who from the beginning concentrated his attention on the matter of painting.

Following their preference, the Surrealists are led straight to the vulgar transgression of the real which is evident in their imagery and, beyond that, to maintain and indeed reinforce the dominant ideological structure of the object/subject dichotomy. In contrast, Hantaï’s insistence on the matter of his painting is calculated to disrupt this ideological schema, and it is, further, an insistence on matter at the level of matter itself—in other words at the level of the specific practice of painting. (Here we intuit a refusal of the Surrealists’ literary discourse, and this explains my proposal that the painters under consideration have used the practice of painting as a process of thought. It also reveals in an ironic light the frequently heard criticism that modern French painting depends on an intellectual apology for its own visual weakness. Such criticism is far from innocent of ideological intentions which I will no doubt return to as the occasion arises elsewhere.)

It remains to be decided what implications would emerge from Hantaï’s insistence on the matter of his painting. I have stressed before that Hantaï’s interest in Surrealism was specifically centered on the concept of psychic automatism. In the work he did in the second half of the ’50s, we can see an exemplary investigation of the possibilities of this concept. But in his later work, in which the insistence on matter is more explicit, a systematic process of production takes over from the earlier practice of automatism. Automatism is retained in the later work, to be sure, but only as an incorporated element inside a larger process in which the matter of painting imposes itself as the determining factor. I am referring to the technique of folding which appears in Hantaï’s work from 1959–60 onward. Of this technique Hantaï has said:

An interrogation of the gesture imposes itself. The problem was: how to conquer the esthetic privilege of talent, of art etc. . . . How to reduce the exceptional to the banal? How to become exceptionally banal? The folding method originated from nothing. It was simply necessary to put oneself in the place of those who had as yet seen nothing; put oneself in the canvas. . . . 7

What is being described here is a reversal of the traditional artistic creation, in which the work of art is generated by the artist’s conception or sensibility. In a very radical manner, the folding method actually reverses the process, so that the material production of the painting forms the conscious identity of the artist; arid, through forming him according to the material action of the painting practice, it produces an experience of the “subject” which is no longer limited by consciousness but delves down for its vision of the world to forces which escape conscious thought. This is a considerably more sophisticated formula than the one proposed by the concept of automatism, which at best reduces the traditional role of the artist to a zero level, but is incapable of building on that experience and at worst is vulnerable to the kind of recuperation practiced by the majority of Surrealist painters.

Again, I must insist that it is a formula which was worked out in the practice of painting and is not the consequence of an intellectual process of thought in the conventional sense. Evidence for this can be seen in another of Hantaï’s statements on the significance of the folding method: “When I fold [the canvas] I am objective and that allows me to lose myself.”8 (My italics.) I would first of all draw attention to Hantaï’s declared aim to “lose myself,” in other words, to lose the sense of conscious individuality which he inherited from his culture, but I would question the notion of needing to be “objective” to achieve this end. I would argue instead that the conscious, thinking “subject” is never more aware of himself and his identity than when he is exercising the very educated faculty of “objectivity,” since it is this very objectivity which has formed and repeatedly confirms him in its own image. Hantaï’s remark, like so many made by painters who are caught in close confrontation with their work, embodies a certain insight but lacks the means to think it through in language.

Hantaï’s later painting has formed him differently, and, as in the case of Pollock, it is this, and not reasons of formal difficulty or unfamiliarity with the formal development of modern art history, which calls down upon him the ridicule of the public. (If the casual member of the public feels at home in the large halls of the Metropolitan Museum and still relatively in charge of his critical faculties in an exhibition of Surrealism, but feels affronted before one of Hantaï’s large folded works, it is because there is something in this work which resists him and questions the viewer’s identity.)

Pollock is interesting in another connection with Hantaï’s work. Ten years Hantaï’s senior, he had a great influence on the younger painter, but what is striking is the marked difference in the orientations developed in their work. Pollock’s interpretation of psychic automatism allowed him—and this is the radical gesture in Pollock’s work—to project his body into the painting. There is always the impression of energy expressed at the level of the physical. But in a certain manner, Pollock was enclosed inside this relationship with his body. In Hantaï’s work we find the same preoccupations, but presented differently. Hantaï’s canvases do not give the impression of extending beyond themselves into real space but find the same experience in the depth of their color. Hantaï does not impose his body onto the canvas in the manner of Pollock, but, due to his presence in the folding process, he develops a dimension of concrete thought which operates in the matter of his painting.

It remains to ask, what is the motivating force of this process of thought which refuses the act of thinking as we know it? The answer is explicitly given in one of the rare written statements published by Hantaï—“S’exprime ‘Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset’” The pun on the French verb to express oneself is sufficiently clear. For Hantaï it is the drive of sexuality which animates “the passionately and totally lived act of painting” and provides the motive force for this contrary thinking process, which can be seen moving in his canvases. For him the painting is “executed in an afternoon of erotic fascination. Love and painting uniting in orgiastic acts” through a process in which “the canvas reacts sexually to the sexual pressure of the hand.” The act of painting is for him above all an excess, and “this excess is sex.” That sexuality should be the determining force for Hantaï is hardly coincidental in the context of the references on which I have based this essay, if we look back to Breton’s treatment of the dream work, specifically its “marvelous” and, by extension, its “beautiful” quality, it is precisely the Freudian emphasis on the dream’s sexual content which is pushed aside and neglected. When Hantaï allowed himself to be motivated by the force of sexuality (as indeed had the American Abstract Expressionist painters before him), he laid hands on the genuinely radical force of modern culture. But again Hantaï goes further, in that for him this sexual drive does not rest at the level of physiological excitation, but is transformed by the cultural mediation of the painting act into a process of thought, as can be seen from this extraordinary statement: “To see is to block out one’s eyes with one’s fists so as to ignore all forms of seduction and education, to flee towards the conquest of ‘this violet which my mother used to wear.’”9 Rarely is it possible to find such a clear expression of this mysterious communication between the cultural act of painting and the origin of sexuality as it is conveyed through the socially reinforced structure of the child’s relationship with the mother.

It will be necessary to return to the elusive question of “psychic automatism,” as it was first presented in the context of Surrealism, and to evaluate its role in the personal development of another painter, Judit Reigl. Psychic automatism is a crucial issue for both the history of modern art and culture and at the same time it exists outside or evades art and culture. It contains some property which tends to dissolve the values, as we know them, of art and culture. Psychic automatism (paradoxical to what might be expected from the name) introduce the abrupt presence of the body, or what Georges Bataille has called the “valeurs basses,” into modern art and culture. But with this proposition we are far from resolving the enigmatic concept of “psychic automatism.” (Is it not after all nonsense to pretend that the body can enter the specifically symbolic domains of art and culture?) I would suggest that if we want to understand what is involved in the question of “psychic automatism,” we must first of all try to grasp the profound negativity of this proposition which places modern culture in the predicament of not being able to think itself. And yet again, even if we can grasp this concept, we are nevertheless faced with the problem of how the body transforms itself through the concept of psychic automatism into a process of thought which makes art and culture. It is to this question that Judit Reigl has addressed herself in a practice of painting, which extends over a period of more than 25 years.

The issue of psychic automatism first presented itself to Judit Reigl in the form of the Surrealist technique of écriture automatique. Behind Judit Reigl’s decision to then concentrate on a practice of “automatic writing” we can perceive an intelligence which seeks to unite all the elements in the question of our “modernity.” Beyond the problematics of a naturalist reality held in place by a code of descriptive language which acts as its “guarantor,” Judit Reigl introduces a play of lived experience to the sphere of the symbolic, through a practice of the graphic qualities of language. Of course, it is not a regular scriptural form that she chooses to employ, but rather an energetic gesture which overturns the values of conventional discourse and articulates the body for the context of art and culture.

The work itself could not be more eloquent. From 1959 Reigl began work on the series “Ecriture en masse” which seems to both dissolve and energize the structure of representation. Then from 1966 onward, she gradually began to notice the subtle and covert reappearance of a form in this “écriture.” One can easily imagine the painter’s shock of surprise when she discerned, as the tendency was accentuated, the body of a man emerge from her brush stroke. This mutilated, legless, armless, headless man rendered in the expressionist manner was exhibited in Paris in a series entitled “Hommes” and encountered nothing but misunderstanding and silence.

The question of representation, the question of the figure—“psychic automatism,” or more precisely the technique of “automatic writing” had brought Reigl face to face with the fundamental problem which modernist dogma refuses to consider and, in consequence, represses. Her reaction in the next stage of her painting was described in a short published statement of 1973:

I stapled transparent sheets on to these “Hommes.” In veiling them their outlines weakened and they became opaque. On the basis of these negated bodies I drew my conclusions—or rather with the marks and touches of my brush I undid the élan and dynamism of the writing of these tensely composed forms. I decomposed and decoded them, abolishing their black framework and the protective masses of writing which make up this black carcass, whose affirmative weight and absolute contrast against its background of white had for all that been indispensable up until then. I emerged.10

This emergence led to the present phase of her work, one of the finest contemporary practices of painting. In her previous work Judit Reigl had limited herself to the use of black on white (Barnett Newman said about the color black: “Black is what an artist uses . . . when he is trying to break into something new.”11) but in her later work she has explored the process of automatism in the relation of gesture to color. This relationship is very complex, but Judit Reigl has used it in such a way as to introduce a sense of movement which runs from the gesture into color. Similarly, color, which no doubt is the most delicate element in painting, is treated rather in the sense of a movement towards color.

Judit Reigl uses two distinct types of paint in the making of her pictures: first, a thick sticky gloss for the trace and, second, a very diluted matte acrylic, which is soaked from both sides into light canvas in successive coats applied with a brush. The writing trace is inscribed by the painter as she walks along the face of the canvas in a movement which makes sensible the whole organism of the body in rapid energetic touches of the brush. Afterwards, the successive coats of acrylic are applied, building up a pulsating rhythmic depth of color, which takes up the left-to-right passage of the trace and bounces it into a background without a center.

Something of our obsession with the object is being treated here—in a movement of energy, which is baffling in its sense of direction. Something also of time—in the transformation of the body’s rhythmic passage into an experience of time which is no longer temporal (this effect of time which both confronts us with its immediacy and yet continually evades us). Tension is maintained in the painting by the fine balance between writing trace and color, but the interchange of energy is tuned to such a point that a synthesis seems to take place which submerges the original charge of automatism. For a long time this synthesis was achieved by the balance of horizontally moving traces and a depth effect of color. Much depended on the decision of where to stop applying the acrylic coats of color. Over a number of paintings, these layers were gradually multiplied to a point that the weave of the canvas achieved a level of saturation. Recently Reigl has accepted the challenge of going beyond this stage by adding successive coats until the canvas disgorges an excess of liquid, which runs in waves over and alongside the undulating marks of the trace. At this point, the immense variety of the technique which Judit Reigl has chosen to exploit begins to reveal itself, as new levels of movement and color appear in an infinity of possibilities and effects. In this work, psychic automatism, is given a new dimension in a culturally articulated experience which remakes art and culture in ways previously unimagined.

James Bishop, the third transplanted painter previously mentioned, began his career as an “Abstract Expressionist” painter, and then around 1963 began progressively to turn his attention towards a mode of geometric organization of the canvas. Still, his career possesses a striking coherence, which springs from his having been able (perhaps alone among the painters of his generation) to grasp the fundamental problem of postwar American art. This problem could be schematically presented as follows: how to deal with a particular experience in painting, uncovered by the previous generation of Abstract Expressionist painters (which they themselves had been unable to resolve) in the face of an aggressively expansionist and increasingly influential body of contemporary art practice accompanied by a mode of highly persuasive critical articulation, which seemed at all costs determined to avoid that experience. Once again we retrace the fundamental issues which I have tried to raise in this essay. Questions of the relationship of the visual to language, of art practice to thought which has been traditionally defined as separate from practice (and therefore from art), of the history of art to culture and to the broader course of history beyond.

There would seem to be no doubt that the magnificent body of work which belongs to what has been labeled Abstract Expressionism drew its experience from the widest possible encounter with the forces which make art and culture. At the same time, however, due to the conditions under which it was achieved, there is equally no doubt that this work could arrive at the form it did only through accepting a rupture with traditional discourse (a rupture which echoed the cultural shock of the Second World War, defined above as a silence) and in consequence denying itself the benefits of discourse. The effects of this absolutely necessary self-denial were no doubt felt deeply at all levels of the art world in New York—certainly by the painters themselves but also by the critics and writers who were preoccupied with this art. This no doubt explains why the critical establishment, in a second instance, reacted to the stimulus of the new painting by developing an extremely dynamic and fertile mode of criticism. But the immense impact of Abstract Expressionist painting, linked intimately as it was to a broader context, had the result of attaching that criticism to a mere symptom of the Abstract Expressionist experience—in other words, to certain formal propositions in the painting.

If we look closely at this situation we can see something quite remarkable taking place. In this exchange between painting and criticism—at the precise moment when painting practice was with great difficulty struggling to develop new modes which would no longer be dependent on the representational model; that is, on an objective copy of a natural scene—criticism began to renew its advocacy of a methodological technique which had its basis in the eye’s appreciation of the work of art as object. In other words, at the very moment when the 19th-century system of positivism was being challenged in the arts at the level of representation, we find this system being renewed in the mode of criticism which intended to articulate the new painting in language and thought. It is easy to see how, in consequence, a certain implicit hostility grew up between the Abstract Expressionists and critics of art. (This can be distinguished in certain of the major texts of the period and especially in recorded remarks and published statements made by the artists themselves.) And it can easily be seen, as well, how the fundamental insight of Abstract Expressionist painting slipped further and further beyond the reach of succeeding generations of artists.

When I said earlier that James Bishop grasped the fundamental problem of postwar American painting, I was insisting on the intelligence of a painter who was able to understand what was genuinely at stake in this complicated situation and who was also able to apply his understanding in practice. Equally, it is the measure of a painter like James Bishop that one immediately finds oneself confronted by the full dimension of all these issues upon considering his work. James Bishop’s painting is so fully informed by the major issues in the practice of painting that it automatically provokes a whole complex of speculations which the work of a lesser painter does not.

It would be tempting to speculate that James Bishop came to Europe precisely to begin a lifelong firsthand acquaintance with European culture. How can one be indifferent to the striking coincidence that while his contemporaries were preoccupied with the rationalist and empiricist dogmas of the famous “modernist reduction,” James Bishop was pursuing his studies in the history of art and visiting the great museums and galleries of Europe? It should be added that it must have been far from evident in those years that this was the essential step towards preparing a career in avant-garde painting. Although it would be extremely difficult and dangerous to try tracing the influence of such studies and such an interest on the work of a contemporary painter, we can hardly escape the reflection that they cannot have been without effect in the formation of his point of view. The acquisition of such a vastly extended frame of reference must have given him the possibility of at least establishing contact with the cultural foundation capable of renewing a discourse of art practice which one could call genuinely contemporary.

James Bishop’s position, as an American knowing first hand Abstract Expressionist painting and the problem of painting after Abstract Expressionism and as an émigré with an extended frame of reference in European culture was the determining force in the work which he has since achieved. His assessment of Abstract Expressionism together with the artistic context in which he was working no doubt caused him to adopt a geometrically derived organization of the canvas and to pursue an investigation of color as the basis of his art. But, and this is what distinguishes him from so many of his colleagues of the same generation, instead of following a ratio-logical mode of thinking, which dictates systematic reductionism and which is foreign to the matter of painting, James Bishop used color as a transgression of the canvas’ geometric boundaries. Using an extremely discreet register of color, James Bishop worked in the opposite direction from so many of his colleagues—towards an expansion of painting means.

This ambition is marked by his return to oils, with their comparatively richer effects, from acrylics and by his beginning to mix color in direct opposition to the dogma of pure tones. But more significant is his general attitude and sensibility towards color. In the paintings of James Bishop, color is not treated as an isolated element with preconstituted properties of its own which it is the painter’s job to manipulate with detachment; it is instead held in the delicate relationship of its liquid matter to gesture, a gesture which links color back to the artist’s sensibility and intelligence. (This can be seen in his technique of pouring liquid puddles of paint onto the canvas, which is then tilted so as to allow the paint to flow in a search of its own boundaries where it then dries, leaving the discreetly energized trace of the passage of its movement.) Color is related to gesture in a manner which embraces a whole complex of artistic and cultural experience (traded through Matisse and the Abstract Expressionists) and which, of course, is intimately linked to the question of the figure. Color is established as the vehicle for the impulses of a subject12 which can no longer be enclosed inside the artistic device of the figure.

If the search for this subject has been the major adventure of the art of this century, as I would argue it has, then the work of James Bishop occupies an altogether pivotal position within it. He has opened up an infinity of experience for a practice of art which had been in danger of shrinking to the level of the mediocre and the banal.

As we begin to break deeper into the last quarter of the 20th century, the moment is perhaps well chosen to attempt grasping the underlying implications of this strange project known to us by the name of modern art. What relationship does modern art maintain with culture in the broadest definition of this term? What is the inherent significance of modern art? The almost reckless adventurism and innovation of the-first three-quarters of the century have seemed to indicate a search for a radically different experience of culture, but this same adventurism and innovation have also served to distract even those most directly experiments of the early avant-garde movements.

It was perhaps the great achievement of Surrealism, the offspring of these avante-garde movements, to have realized this problem and to have proposed a solution in the literary project of attempting to establish the relationship between modern art practice and a contemporary frame of reference in Freudianism. After all, any consideration of the cultural significance of modern art cannot ignore the admittedly problematic relationship between the visual and language, and I would even go so far as to say that it is in constructing the elusive link between the visual arts and language that art accedes to cultural significance. However, Surrealism failed to carry out its project through the inability of Breton and his colleagues to grasp the radical possibilities of Freud’s theories. From then on, Surrealism accentuated formal effects derived from the manifest content of the dream—thereby, losing itself to the charm of surface appearance. It then became just another name in the long list of avant-garde movements.

Mention of the question of appearance is crucial here, since isn’t it the refusal of appearance which characterizes the whole enterprise of modern art from its inception? If this is so, 20th-century art should be seen in the broader context of an epistemological “crisis” of value and meaning, because criticism of the artist’s knowledge and experience is based primarily on appearance. Once again, we are left with the problem of how to develop modes of seeing and experiencing which are not based on appearance. We find ourselves back at the center of the problem which Surrealism failed to resolve and which remains the focal point for any new approach to modern art.

This failure on the part of Surrealism, which is essentially a failure in its reading of Freud, has overly determined the development of modern art ever since, and it has laid the foundations for the numerous misunderstandings of contemporary art criticism. As this essay has already argued, we find, for example, that at the moment when art practice repudiated representational appearance, the bulk of contemporary criticism adopted the evaluation of formal elements as a self-sufficient end in itself. Very quickly a process of trivialization set in whereby the role of language as a link between the visual arts and their social context was broken, and art became divorced from culture. In the same manner, in the late ’60s we became highly aware of this problem and developed a conceptual critique of art practice without realizing that such a critique was nothing other than an extension of, or at best a postscript to, modernist esthetics. These are issues which will have to be taken up elsewhere, but I might conclude by questioning whether an exclusively sociological approach to art is any real solution as so many in the ’70s seem to have felt. By necessity it fails to encounter the contemporary artwork itself. I would suggest, rather, that we go back to the fundamental problem of Surrealism’s failure to develop a genuine contemporary discourse for art practice. This is the impasse at which the Abstract Expressionists installed themselves in a stubborn silence that has resisted later criticism, yet seems to wait expectantly for a discourse capable of articulating its experience. And this is the impasse from which each of the three painters discussed above started out to raise the practice of painting to new levels of eloquence.

Paul Rodgers is a writer living in Paris. This essay is his second concerning the relationship of modern painting to the development of a contemporary discourse on the arts (The previous essay appeared in Artforum, April, 1979).



1. This phenomenon has been explored in an important text by Marcelin Pleynet, “De la culture moderne,” which is included in his collection of essays, Art et Littérature, Le Seuil, Paris, 1977.

2. André Breton, “Du Surréalisme en ses oeuvres vives,” Manifestes du Surréalisme, Pauvert, Paris, 1972.

3. William Rubin, “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition,” Part 4, Artforum, April, 1967.

4. See discussion of the figure in Abstract Expressionism in my “Procès du Sujet de l’artiste,” Documents Sur 4/5, Paris, 1979.

5. André Breton, Manifestes du Surréalisme.

6. William Rubin. “Arshile Gorky, Surrealism and the New Painting,” Art International VII, no. 2, 1963.

7. Simon Hantaï, quoted by Marcelin Pleynet, “La Levee de l’interpretation des signes,” Art et Littérature, Op. cit.

8. Simon Hantaï, quoted by Franco se Mathey, catalogue Maeght Foundation, 1969.

9. Simon Hantaï, Ibid.

10. Judd Reigl, Statement, 1973.

11. Barnett Newman, quoted by Eliza Rathbone, American Art at Mid-Century, “The Subjects of the Artist,” Washington, 1978.

12. I have already briefly opened a discussion of this question in an earlier article (Artforum, April, 1979). The concept of the “subject” in this context comes from the writings of the eminent French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, and has been given a major theoretical extension in the study of contemporary art and literature by the Paris-based Tel Quel groups, notably in the writings of Julia Kristeva.