PRINT Summer 2011


“The Irascibles,” New York, 1950. Front row, from left: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James C. Brooks, Mark Rothko. Middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin. Back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne. Photo: Nina Leen/Getty Images.

ABSTRACT: LITERALLY, “TO PULL AWAY.” EXPRESS: “TO PUSH FORTH.” Did Robert Coates, the critic who gave Abstract Expressionism its current usage in 1946 (it had previously been applied to the work of Kandinsky), sense the etymological contradiction? Probably not. Was it a coincidence that he was reviewing the paintings of Hans Hofmann, known for his “push-pull” theory of composition? Probably. For Coates, the term was simply more “polite” than “spatter-and-daub school of painting.”

The Abstract Expressionists often insisted that their work had a subject, which meant that it was neither abstract (in the sense of being nonrepresentational, purely formal) nor expressive (in the sense of being immediate, crylike). The term must have seemed as misguided to them as Cubism had to Picasso, who responded by adding bouillon cubes to his work. It may be preferable to Harold Rosenberg’s existentialist action painting, Clement Greenberg’s nationalist “American-type” painting (don’t forget the scare quotes), or somebody’s urbanist New York School—but not much. At least spatter-and-daub (-and-scrape-and-swipe-and-pour-and . . . ) makes material sense.

But perhaps the self-contradiction of AbEx is inspired: The term might well stand for a riven movement. I don’t mean the familiar split between the Color Field painters (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still) and the gesture painters (Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline)—a false distinction if ever there was one—but rather some real contradictions, sharp enough to hurt. And deep enough to preoccupy artists to this day. Here are ten:

1. The band of selves. The famous Life magazine photo of “The Irascibles” says it all. Fifteen painters and not a single look or gesture of connection between them. They hold their cigarettes, themselves, or both. In 1950, having worked hard to carve out individual manners, they are a lot more concerned with the risks of appearing together in Life magazine than with the undeniable benefits. How embarrassing.

2. The nonteaching academy. A related antinomy. In 1948, Rothko, Still, Robert Motherwell, David Hare, and William Baziotes set up the Subjects of the Artist School. The program was based, it seems, on an intense desire not to be Hofmann, presiding superbly over his atelier. No, they would be a “group of painters, each visiting the center one afternoon a week, each an entity different from the others, each free to teach in whatever way he chose or free to stay away,” as Still put it. He never showed up—big surprise—and the school dissolved after a year.

3. The conviction of doubt. “Our moods do not believe in each other,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Circles.” “I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” The emotional roller coaster of the Irascibles might seem overwrought to us now, but it ran deep. You can’t kill Picasso and Matisse without a lot of faith and a lot of doubt. But more than that, they actually had faith in doubt. To borrow de Kooning’s phrase, they were all “slipping glimpsers.”

4. Undead nature. (They tried to kill it, but it kept coming back.) When Hofmann made the challenging observation that Pollock did not paint from nature, the latter reportedly responded, “I am nature.” Arshile Gorky hunkered down, drawing his weeds and thistles point-blank. De Kooning rode his bike. The AbExers devised various strategies to dislodge a picturesque relationship to the world—and yet, like a bad perfume, it hung around. Greenberg, a Sunday landscape painter, dubbed one of Pollock’s works Lavender Mist, and it stuck.

5. The controlled accident. “I don’t use the accident—’cause I deny the accident,” said Pollock. He was not protesting too much! The more you look at Hans Namuth’s films, the less trancelike the painter seems. (Question: Who said, “When I am not conscious of what I am doing, it’s a complete success”? Answer: Matisse.) Kline and Motherwell enlarged their slightest gestures; Pollock and de Kooning shed randomness all over the place, carefully.

6. The unfinished masterpiece. “When is a painting finished?” was one of the great questions of the day, often kicked around The Club. Short answer, which would have saved a lot of breath: When it is not.

7. The silent word. Rothko all but stopped writing around 1948—that annus mirabilis in which he, Pollock, and Newman all found their signature devices—because, I suspect, he came to regard painting as speech. The same is true of many of his cohort. Too bad, because painting isn’t speech, certainly not abstract painting, whose marks have no dictionary. Realizing this, Adolph Gottlieb stayed fairly legible, whether his tragedies were Greek (Eyes of Oedipus, 1941) or atomic (the “Bursts,” 1957–74). The others staked all on cryptic glyphs, ambiguous gestures.

Jackson Pollock’s studio, East Hampton, NY, 1975. Photo: Susan Wood/Getty Images.

8. The mural on the easel. Much as they disdained the “painter’s ass” (Dutch ezel, “donkey”), much as they strove for the expansive public statement, they kept making, and eventually started selling, what Greenberg in 1948 succinctly called “the movable picture hung on a wall.”

9. Apocalyptic wallpaper (Rosenberg, 1952). An oldie but a goodie, capturing the full yin-yang of the sublime and the ridiculous. Decoration as the only possible postnuclear history painting. ’Nuff said.

10. The cosmic ego. How do you transcend self via a signature style? Robert Frost nailed it in a lilting, self-mocking poem about peering past his reflection in the bottom of a well and finally seeing, “[t]hrough the picture, a something white, uncertain / . . . . / Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”

It is marvelous how much of contemporary art seems dedicated to taking these contradictions and rendering them still sharper. (Or perhaps not so marvelous: Without the retrospective lens of contemporary practice, perhaps many of them would not have been visible in the first place.) Just think of the visually overwhelming wallpapers—the opposite of polite backgrounds—produced by Andy Warhol, or the silently screaming words of Christopher Wool’s stenciled paintings, or the uncanny reanimation of nature at the hands of Matthew Barney, or the near parody of self-doubt personified by a Martin Kippenberger, or the conflation of aesthetic control and sensory chaos in the work of Christian Marclay, or Josh Smith’s brushy abstractions of his own name, which make the phrase signature style explicit. Perhaps the most influential contradiction of all can be laid at the doorstep of the Subjects of the Artist, for its abdication of pedagogy virtually defines today’s model of what we call art school. As I heard Matthew Ritchie remark in a lecture at the Phillips Collection the other day, “You can’t teach art, but you can learn it.”

And yet all this ambiguous homage does not do the trick for me, does not bring back what I imagine or fantasize to be the ethos of the AbEx era. I miss the old contradictions (as opposed to their latter-day cartoon versions), the loose ends, the overreaching. The agony of victory and the thrill of defeat. Painting today (forgive me) is too stylish, too self-conscious. Give me more of what Philip Guston, in one of his rare essays, called “Faith, Hope, and Impossibility” (1965). If possible. That would be a nice legacy.

Harry Cooper is the curator of modern and contemporary art at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.