PRINT Summer 2011



Jackson Pollock’s The She-Wolf, 1943, was the first painting one saw on entering “Abstract Expressionist New York” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past winter. As a compendium of signs, this canvas was an apt introduction—practically a manifesto—for a movement dedicated to producing signs that function as distinctive artistic “trademarks” and yet are open to multiple and sometimes infinite optical trajectories. In The She-Wolf, the layers of signification that Pollock would synthesize in his mature style remain distinct. A diagrammatic red arrow that roughly bisects the canvas horizontally, for instance, is encircled by a second sort of sign—the hieroglyphic outline of a wolf, in whose haunches some see a bull’s head transforming the central figure into a two-headed monster. At least two numerals—both sixes—as well as a variety of quasi-calligraphic marks constitute additional semiotic layers populating the canvas (this is even more notable in related works, such as Stenographic Figure, ca. 1942, in which alphabetic and numeric figures float free, detached from any intelligible syntactic unit). Pollock’s manipulation of raw paint, both in passages of muted splatter and in bursts of line, represents yet another type of sign through its self-organization into pattern—foreshadowing what Harold Rosenberg would refer to as “apocalyptic wallpaper.” Such emergent patterns are complemented by a cruder procedure of superimposed masking, by which the figure of the she-wolf is roughly framed on three sides of the canvas with gunmetal-gray pigment in a manner that calls to mind—or perhaps even anticipates—Jasper Johns’s use of stencils.

Diagrammatic, hieroglyphic, alphabetic/numeric, patterned, masked/stenciled: At least five species of sign populate the extraordinary canvases Pollock painted in 1942 and 1943. But his great accomplishment—and also the great accomplishment of Abstract Expressionist painting tout court—was to merge all these semiotic layers into a single convertible sign in works such as One: Number 31, 1950. (Indeed, the numeric contradiction of “One” and “31” can be explained perfectly by understanding “One” as a declaration of the unification of various semiotic layers, while “31” points to the artist’s sequential production.) From a certain perspective—or in a particular mood—One might seem hieroglyphic, as figures emerge from its network of gestural marks; a moment later it could appear as a magisterial patterning, only to reorganize again into a series of masked voids within an array of bounded forms. At other times, Pollock’s lines can appear to have directional motion like a diagram, or a logic of figure-ground oscillation consistent with stenciling. The convertibility of the sign creates a kind of lenticular effect, as various registers come forward or recede in the viewer’s attention. The breakthrough here lies not in envisioning the coexistence of several semiotic levels—as Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss have demonstrated, Picasso and Braque had already done so in their Cubist canvases long before Pollock painted The She-Wolf¹—but in bringing together this multiplicity within a singular, even simplistic painterly procedure. In other words, each element—each line in One, for instance—is always rising and falling through distinct semiotic states that exist simultaneously even if they cannot be perceived all at once. This is what defines a convertible sign.


Responding to the concept of metamorphosis developed around 1930 by German critic Carl Einstein, the art historian Sebastian Zeidler has argued that certain works of Paul Klee function as machines for generating rather than representing form. Zeidler makes a similar claim with regard to Einstein’s understanding of Picasso’s “surrealist” works, in which, he argues, the action of line draws new worlds through its passage across a canvas.² This pertains equally if not more so to the endless process of assertion, regression, reorganization, and regeneration of form in Pollock’s work. As the physical manipulation of paint on a ground, passage is the material operation that allows signs to be convertible, and convertible signs are what make Abstract Expressionist painting dynamic, open-ended, always in a process of becoming. It is an art of polymorphous semiosis unfolding in real time, in which different orders of sign emerge and subside (this is why, as I will argue below, painting lends itself more and more to the temporal arts in the course of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries).

Rather than dwelling on form in isolation, then, I wish to distinguish four “routines” performed by Abstract Expressionism’s convertible signs. Each is exemplified by (though not exclusive to) a canonical figure, and each possesses a particular formal configuration as well as a distinctive time signature. Pollock’s painting possesses the highest degree of optical velocity among his cohort. His mode of passage—his routine—has the shape of a network composed of interchangeable elements (marks) that allow the eye to move swiftly and in multiple directions across its surface. The remaining three Abstract Expressionist routines reduce speed dramatically (with one exception that I will note momentarily). The second, exemplified by Willem de Kooning, retains the human body as a stabilizing figure, albeit one in which limbs and organs are submitted to a slow-motion collapse or fade-out. This is a conservative routine, whose time signature resembles vertigo. De Kooning’s formal technique is nonetheless closely related to a third Abstract Expressionist mode of passage—the tectonic—which Mark Rothko exemplifies. Here, broad fields of color meet at charged zones of heightened visual interest, and like the geologic shifts of tectonic plates, their movement is sublimely slow, recalling the indiscernible progress of enormous clouds on a windless day (or, even harder to comprehend, the drift of landmasses over millennia). Barnett Newman invented the exceptional hybrid routine I alluded to above. His zips have an even greater optical velocity than Pollock’s lines, but they run through fields of color characterized by nearly absolute stasis. He thus effects a perfect synthesis of Abstract Expressionism’s two dominant routines: the network and tectonics. Finally, there is a fourth routine that arises in late Abstract Expressionism: what I call the ingrown mark, and which I associate with Joan Mitchell—or Philip Guston, and later Cy Twombly. Here each gesture is encapsulated as though occupying its own space. Marks remain distinct from a unifying network or field: They coagulate like scabs across the canvas. Because of the proliferation of distinct and largely disconnected passages and disjointed temporalities within such painting, I link their time signature to aphasia.


I doubt that the recent reinvigoration of abstract painting is directly linked to Abstract Expressionism. Passage in the latter is autochthonous: Optical events appear and recede through the pressure, viscosity, color, and velocity of paint applied to a specifically shaped ground. Now painting is dedicated to a different kind of movement: a form of transmission where passage consists of the passage of an image (a quantum of visual content) from one site, which may be virtual or actual, to another; and/or the passage of the viewer from one painting to another within a site-specific installation of works on canvas. In other words, painting now enacts the dislocation or transfer of populations of images: It is, essentially, a broadcast medium. To clarify this assertion, it is helpful to recall a movement not always sufficiently acknowledged in the history of painting: appropriation art of the 1980s. Two important practices of that period laid the groundwork for recent modes of abstraction. The first was that of Sherrie Levine, who in the early ’80s made watercolors after reproductions of modern “masterpieces” by figures such as Joan Miró and Vincent van Gogh. Much has been said about Levine’s attitude toward authorship in these works, but I wish to emphasize instead how her watercolors telescope several possible “states” of a single image—namely, an original, a reproduction, and a reenactment; or, alternatively, oil paint, photographic emulsion, bookplate, and watercolor—into the same material matrix of brushstrokes. In other words, each mark is, as it were, internally divided. And if Levine’s work exemplifies an intensive form of painterly transmission, Allan McCollum’s “Surrogate Paintings,” 1978–82, originating around the same moment, exemplify an extensive mode: The series consists of arrays of small paintings in which colored frames enclose blank, often identically hued fields. In other words, painting is here nothing but transmission—as well as, simultaneously, the transmission of nothing.

If Levine and McCollum developed two structural axes of painterly transmission (the intensive and extensive; the temporal and spatial), they did so by excising content as a meaningful component in their work; to put it more plainly, they rendered the question of content irrelevant by, on the one hand, “merely” repeating it and, on the other, blanking it out. In recent painting, the balance has shifted. Artists such as Thomas Eggerer, Wade Guyton, Jutta Koether, R. H. Quaytman, Amy Sillman, and Cheyney Thompson, as well as many others, paint the very texture of transmission—including the noise that interrupts or impedes it. In the work of many of these artists, screens of several sorts are literally introduced into the process of painting through procedures of photomechanical or digital mediation used to generate a painting’s motif. In some cases, optical or geometric formats that resemble screens are integrated into individual pieces. The Op patterns, for instance, that Quaytman overlays on her (usually photographic) motifs introduce a layer of visual noise akin to signal interference on a video screen or a catastrophic computer crash. In Eggerer’s paintings, a different sort of operation occurs through the representation of windows and other architectural elements that behave as screens. “Abstraction” in such work is positioned in, or as, the intermediate stage of transporting an image from one time or location to another.³ Put another way, the abstract gesture now marks the transfer of information rather than the production of new information itself—which was the territory claimed by Abstract Expressionism.

This shift helps explain why these younger painters, unlike the neo-expressionists of the 1980s, are part of rather than opposed to the traditions of Conceptual art. Among such artists as Koether, Sillman, and Eggerer—who derive their motifs from the history of art, their own drawing, and published photographs, respectively—there is an “expressionist” mood of transmission in which gesture marks the emotional charge and social consequences of the source picture’s dislocation. Whereas Levine had collapsed temporal difference into a single appropriated picture, and McCollum represented transmission as a moment of near repetition, recent painting has acknowledged the space of transmission itself as an opportunity for reenactment (or performance: Koether will on occasion interpret the conditions of making her paintings through live events that frame them). Artforum editor at large Tim Griffin has recently asserted that a loss of information occurs within contemporary art’s procedures of transmission—a loss that may be understood as analogous to the selective reduction of digital compression.⁴ Specifically with regard to painting, however, I think there has been a gain of information through transmission: Significance is accumulated through the reenactment and relocation of the “same” image in different places and times.

In a moment when we all make profiles (on Facebook, Netflix,, etc.) and profiles are made of all of us (through the movements of our iPhones, what we buy at Kmart, our Web-browsing proclivities), the transmission of information is also a charged politicized site. Who has the right—or technology—to know what? Where can information go? How freely should it circulate? (These are of course among the issues in recent revolutionary struggles and human rights demands in the Middle East and China.) All the contemporary artists I have mentioned—and many more besides—use painting to narrate, or to demonstrate phenomenologically, what Arjun Appadurai called the “social life of things.” For contemporary painting, we might speak of the social life of images. Quaytman, for instance, may not literally show us the photographs of Abu Ghraib that were smuggled onto the Internet five years ago, or the pictures of an executed Osama bin Laden that have so far been successfully suppressed by the American government, but through the optical burn that seals her photographically derived “content,” she too enacts the violence of the archive. She makes us feel the constraints (along with the pleasures) of looking in the age of WikiLeaks. “Painting as model” is how Bois once put it; in the case of much recent abstraction, it is a model of how information travels and a method for measuring the distance—geographic, temporal, social, and psychic—between enunciations of the same picture. In painting, the space of transmission can itself be, as Rosenberg contended with regard to Abstract Expressionism, “an arena in which to act.”

David Joselit is Carnegie Professor of the history of art at Yale University.



1. Yve-Alain Bois, “The Semiology of Cubism,” in Lynn Zelevansky, ed., Picasso and Braque: A Symposium (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), 169–208; Rosalind E. Krauss, “The Motivation of the Sign,” in Zelevansky, Picasso and Braque, 261–86; and Krauss, The Picasso Papers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

2. Sebastian Zeidler, “Form as Revolt: Carl Einstein’s Philosophy of the Real and the Work of Paul Klee,” in RES 57/58 (Spring/Autumn 2010): 229–63; and Zeidler, “Life and Death from Babylon to Picasso: Carl Einstein’s Ontology of Art at the Time of Documents,” in Papers of Surrealism, no. 7 (2007). 8

3. I am indebted to Francesco Casetti for his elaboration of the concept of location.

4. Tim Griffin, “Compression,” October 135 (Winter 2011): 3–20.