Houston

Houston

various locations

George Ade, America’s great humorist from the Midwest, used to capitalize all words that were suspiciously capable of multiple meanings or innuendoes. This caution leads to difficult typography, but it provides a good. model for art criticism. We can write with an easy conscience about “Abstract Expressionism” by thinking of it as “AE” in capitals, even though critics have long realized that some of the major painters associated with the movement may be neither/nor. Perhaps the most successful effort to bypass the problem of terminology came from Harold Rosenberg, who suggested “Action Painting” in 1952. (There has been considerable discussion since as to whether Pollock or de Kooning were the original models for the term.) Willem de Kooning’s painting can almost always be related to one of the three categories of Western painting: still life, landscape, or the figure; he is never “abstract” in the same way as are Pollock, Guston, Rothko or Kline. On the other hand, Kline, Rothko and Guston are in some ways perhaps not “Expressionist” artists at all. Or if they are, then we may have to include Piet Mondrian along with them.

This is precisely the course followed by the University of St. Thomas at Houston, Texas, in the recent exhibition of paintings and drawings by these six artists. The intriguing juxtaposition of work was incisively selected by Morton Feldman, the contemporary composer who knew and worked with many of the artists in the New York of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It provides an important point of post-Pop perspective for the beginning of a major critical reassessment and historical reinterpretation of Abstract Expressionism.

Franz Kline’s work supports objections to the conventional implications of “expression” and “action.” Especially in the drawings included in the St. Thomas exhibition, we can see how he carefully constructed compositions for larger paintings. Kline had an acute visual memory, and after establishing his formal statement through drawings and collages of other drawings, he would often use a scale drawing to transpose the composition to the format for a large painting. A drawing, Black and White (1954), clearly relates to the painting Accent Grave (1955). At the innovative stage Kline did draw fast enough to fill up telephone books, some pages of which are fine works in themselves. In his basic attitudes though, Kline reflected a heavy commitment to the Slade School of Art tradition and the academic stance. This may have been the case even when Kline would gather his “students” around him at such places as the Cedar St. Tavern.

In a highly intellectualized, heavily theoretical approach to painting such as that of Piet Mondrian, there is nothing antithetical to a basic mysticism. That Mondrian also deserves to be considered in the tradition of Expressionism, as a “Subjective Hero,” was already suggested by John Coplans Artforum, March 1965). Mondrian’s intense involvement with the plus-minus, positive-negative, male-female, black-white, horizontal-vertical polarities of de Stijl Neo-Platonism are beautifully manifest in a drawing at St. Thomas, Composition (1914). Stylistically, it is this period of Mondrian’s work that relates most closely to the painting of Philip Guston (who was born just one year before Composition). Guston’s intense, rich brushwork is highly structured in strokes and dashes, even though he probably paints more rapidly—with more real “action”—than any of the other artists in the exhibition. These qualities come out clearly in Guston’s drawing, the strength and orderliness of which evokes not only Mondrian, but also Guston’s hero (as unlikely as we may like to think it for an AE painter), Piero della Francesca.

In such company, of course, it becomes no problem to include a painter such as Mark Rothko. His huge, space-enveloping field paintings almost literally involve the perceiver, as Pollock’s paintings physically involved their creator. But with his concern for qualities of diffuse light and subtle, engrossing color, Rothko’s artistic prototype is Rembrandt, in a way that Piero serves for Guston, and Michelangelo for Pollock—or the academic tradition for Kline, and the sense of history for de Kooning. The interest in physical scale itself did not dramatically enter Rothko’s work until after contact with the West Coast. Yet it is possible to mark the beginnings of these concerns already in the work of the late 1940s. Astral Image, an important painting executed prior to 1947 and now in the MacAgy Collection of the University of St. Thomas, expresses these spatial implications in its title as well as in its vague floating forms. In other ways (particularly in details along the left-hand side of the canvas) this painting is a prefiguration of later works with blocks and bands of color.

Paradoxically, AE painting becomes most historically significant when it points the way to the “21st century” with its non-Expressionist, even anti-Expressionist, cool, detached, impersonal statements. These works are cool in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of the term, in that they require us to participate, to enter into them, before they can be fully and effectively perceived. As such, AE leads away from the conventional “19th century” orientation of art as a presented ego-statement, a series of identity manifestations complete as given or shown (hence “hot”). One of the artists who best sums up this ideal is Pablo Picasso—maybe he is the real Expressionist artist, who stands for everything Art means, or used to mean before AE. For in many ways, AE is the last “movement” of the century—Rosenberg noticed right at the beginning that it couldn’t possibly be a “school.” Pablo Picasso then stands in an important place at the movement’s origins. He appears throughout Pollock’s early work, as in one of his first fully abstract paintings, Blue Unconscious (1946). Directly, or via Gorky, he pervades the other early AE work, to the extent that Picasso and Cubism represent the foil against which AE opposed itself. As Morton Feldman has suggested, Pollock spent enormous energies trying to paint his way out of the situation Picasso had achieved. The Abstract Expressionist artists were sort of like heroic rats, trying to fight their way out of the maze of Fine Art.

––Kurt Von Meier