New York

Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, and Lucas Samaras

Whitney Museum, Castelli Gallery, and Pace Gallery

It seems fantastic that between, say, 1950 and 1958, that is between Franz Kline’s 40th and 48th year, he was a great painter. Without this interregnum he would have remained a minor urban illustrator on the New York scene of the 1930s. Naturally, the great productions of the early fifties force one to regard the earlier work with a more respectful intensity, as they disclose clues of his later achievement. But, for all that, the beginning is a familiar provincial tale of Cubist, Expressionist, Impressionist and Social Realist conventions, all played out on a very modest scale. At the painful end, constrained even by the very level of excellence of the great black and white series of the fifties, Kline, it seems to me, attempted to reintegrate his early ineptitudes––forced color saturations and self-satisfying pleasure painting––with the reductive and structural accomplishments of his spartan Abstract Expressionist years.

From about 1958 on, the celebrated billboard pictograms of Kline’s Expressionism begin to drag empty passages of color into play without, to my view, any of his former serious structural conviction; the resurgence of landscape formulae, though varied in appearance, again become sensible; the chastened, controlled messiness of Abstract Expressionism becomes merely messy. Not only are the 1958–63 colored pictures open to this view, but the black and white paintings of Kline’s last years as well. They too are fuzzy and stammeringly orotund (if I am to judge properly from curator John Gordon’s assembly), with few exceptions, such as Sabro IV and Riverbed, both of 1961. These major works, it seems to me, are nostalgic yearnings for some of the sureness and clarity that had been his effortlessly in the early fifties.

The chronological and pedagogic hanging of the Klines enforces these impressions––and insofar as it makes one aware of the searching and tectonic character of much of Kline’s major efforts, it is a successful installation. The early rooms begin with Kline’s student-like paintings and drawings. Painting, for Kline, was an extension of the act of drawing––yet he drew very poorly, if one judges him in the light of then contemporary representational aims which today appear so unstomachable. At best, his lyricism and heavy chiaroscuro modulations, such as in his intense self-portraits, make one think less of Delacroix, from whom he descends logically, and more of the drawings of Baudelaire––to whom he is perhaps more easily associated temperamentally. The decorative and expressive aims of the early pictures are unabashed. The figure pieces are laconic and forgettable. There is even a three fold screen of Washington Square.

By 1947 or so, the lyrical and hooked graphism of his style (with its myriad references to Max Weber and Jack Levine––see Chinatown, 1948) at last begins to take precedence over the representationalism and allows the calligraphic flourish a fuller share of vividness, creditable in part to contemporary work by Motherwell and de Kooning. Here at last was a single element to be chastened and “put down,” so to speak. The rarer excursions into color during this period remain fevered and lowbrow. On this score, unlike his achievements in line, he would never rise above the magentas, blues and oranges of his Locomotive of about 1942. The Untitled red-orange job of circa 1949 looks like nothing so much as a Third Avenue art gallery knock-off of Kline himself. And even the striking Red Painting of about 1961 cannot escape this stigmatization.

As is well known, the rapid, softly turned long-haired brushstrokes stiffen up, and grow bristly around 1951. The forms change from the relaxed into rugged and choppy piling configurations. Pressed into the somewhat smaller rooms, these great paintings carry the exhibition. On rounding the final bend, the visitor is exposed to the paucity of Kline’s late paintings. Unfortunately for the balance of the exhibition, there are too many third rate ones from an already discreditable period, and to my view, they are unfeelingly arranged. I say “third rate” on two counts: the color, which has already been referred to, and the over striving scale which is big without being strong.

Curator Gordon’s accompanying catalog presents a short critical evaluation perked up with a range of vacuous appraisals culled from Kline’s career––an attempt to give a kind of historical cachet to the sentimental and eulogistic rah-rah of curator Gordon’s own prose: “large and well-constructed” Kline’s canvases, we are told by way of conclusion, “are symbols of our culture, full of its strength and loneliness.” Such banalities might be said as blankly of shopping carts and trailer camps.

The white paintings are blank canvases, painted flat white, on which the “picture” is continuously being created by elements outside it––by the shadows of people passing back and forth, by light and shade, by countless tiny reflections. Far from echoing Malevich’s famous “White on White,” Rauschenberg’s white paintings have been seen as the purest possible statement of the idea that life (that is to say, environment) can enter directly into art; they have also been seen as definitive proof of the impossibility of creating a void (one might have thought science had already proved this, but art takes nothing for granted); they have even been seen as clarion manifestoes of the right of the artist in our chaotic era to choose to do nothing at all (as that indubitable artist Marcel Duchamp has proved by not painting anything for forty-five years); and, of course, they have been seen as practical jokes––“anti-art” gestures, mere provocations. Rauschenberg does not consider them jokes or gestures of any kind. Moreover, he makes it plain that nothing he has done has ever started with an idea. “I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very––well, hypersensitive,” he said last spring. “So that one could look at them and almost see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast, or what time of day it was.” (Calvin Tomkins, “Moving Out,” The New Yorker, February 29, 1964, pp. 39–105, p. 54, 59).

Castelli’s front room. Four works. A square unit of four smaller white squares: a long horizontal formed of seven vertical units; a horizontal composed of two vertical rectangles and last, a horizontal made up of three vertical rectangles. The vestibule, a white square canvas. Despite the claim at the entrance of the gallery, “Robert Rauschenberg, White Paintings 1951,” these are not the works spoken of in Calvin Tomkins’s paragraph above, but are, in fact, recent reconstructions––reissuings, reproductions, what have you, of the works alluded to––17 years after the fact. With regard to some of the history of the originals: the seven-panel piece, for example, was incorporated into a combine dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Marcel Duchamp (now in the Philadelphia Museum); the three-panel work was shown in turn as a black three-panel work at the old Stable Gallery.

If the pictures at present being exhibited were the ones referred to as the White Paintings of 1951, then they would have been of considerably more consequence than even Mr. Tomkins supposes; they prefigure, or at least appear to, still another option, that of the current minimal mode.

Being reproductions, the recent work brings up a proliferating host of serious questions: on what prototype are they based? If the originals have been lost, cast aside, damaged or reintegrated into subsequent works, are the pictures being reconstructed on the testimony of witnesses, memory, photographs? It is obvious that one may attempt to reproduce any given object––a day later, 17 years later or two millennia after the fact. Consider, for a moment, the enormous complication of the entailing technical problems brought into play––the verisimilitudinous duplication of all the tangible criteria of the prototype––measurements, surfaces, materials, colors, textures, and so on. In the present instance this would be a ticklish enterprise, even granting the continued existence of the materials necessary to such an undertaking, as it must be remembered that the white grounds of the originals were laid on by Rauschenberg’s own hand (as is not the case here). And even were it so, that the grounds were in fact brushed in by Rauschenberg, they would still be different from the original however twin-like they may appear to the eyes of memory for the simple reason that the new mock-up cannot duplicate the emotional necessities and external pressures which brought the initial works into existence. What I contend then, is that some critical portion of a work of art (a measure which to all intents and purposes may even be invisible to us at present) is irretrievably linked to the actual moment in which it was fabricated, current justification in favor of factory method and process esthetic notwithstanding. Oddly enough it is these arguments which are being used to “justify” the present works, that is to “legitimize” a work of art which Rauschenberg appears to present as “finished,” when, in fact, these arguments were devised to formulate an esthetic in which the final object may in fact be of no consequence. In short, we are presented with the demagogic spectacle of a divine-right monarch spouting the egalitarian slogans of a people’s republic. Therefore, one may regard the paintings as either 1) spurious forgeries, or 2) approximations of the original (approximations incidentally which may be more striking than the originals), the intentions of which are of an entirely different order.

I think it unlikely that an artist as sophisticated as Rauschenberg is merely reiterating a familiar Dadaistic tale––that these works, while reproductions, are in fact the works of 1951, because Rauschenberg says they are. One is familiar with the logistics of such baptismal bafflers. Rauschenberg, you see, would have the tradition (to which he has already generously contributed) of the Readymade on his side. Allied paradoxically to this nihilistic syllogism is a touch of updated esthetic justification––the fact that a large portion of artistic production is today transacted on the telephone with various technological and fabricating services which turn out work according to the artists’ specifications.

What would it mean, Rauschenberg may be querying, to reproduce a set of pictures that he created earlier at a later moment? Would, in fact, these pictures be the same? It is unlikely that Rauschenberg is even vaguely concerned with simulacrum––but rather he is testing once again the meaning of art. If this is so, then my contention that an art object is in fact irrevocably allied with its moment of creation would again be confirmed by Rauschenberg’s very stance: the pictures of 1951 are different from those of 1968, not only because they are physically different but more importantly, because they are “seen” differently.

In the long haul, the issue I take with these works is not in terms of whatever esthetic justification that is deployed in their behalf. About such ratiocinations there can really be no contention. The argument is not about the esthetics of the objects but about the works themselves. As works of 1951, their critical aptness to the Dada tradition has already been dilated upon. I also, like Mr. Tomkins, would have been struck by their pertinence to the problem of environment which preoccupied so many artists of major rank of that day. As works of 1968, duplicated for whatever reason (and whatever the date insisted upon by the gallery), I can only view them as another manifestation of what I construe to be a widespread faltering of minimal sensibility––that is, I see them as benign objects in a battery of works arrayed to sustain an argument that has already been forcibly won.

The history of 20th-century art divides into two mainstreams––one which concentrates on form and another which concerns itself with literary considerations. (I know this distinction is merely gross and the confluences are multiform.) Lucas Samaras obviously associates himself with the literary, poetical stream––that is, in terms of “Darwinian” affiliations, he is a grandchild of Dada and Surrealism. Even though this tradition is, in a tremendous number of ways, a linked episode, our Dada and Surrealist forbears were distinct, one from the other, in a great respect––in terms of open-endedness. Dadaist principles are free from constraint and anti-structuralized, in a way almost polarized against the didactic, principle-dominated Surrealist movement. For this reason, the incursions of Dadaistic sensibility are discernible in such seemingly disparate contemporary factions as random, distribution oriented artists and minimal structuralists. The very open-endedness of Dadaism allows a freer assimilation of its gestures by later movements. On the other hand the Surrealist tradition can claim very few, if any, contemporary practitioners of consequence other than Lucas Samaras. Chief among the governing regulations of Surrealism is, of course, the one concerned with the psychic liberation effected by the confrontation of objects coming from different spheres of experience or of unanticipated sensuous qualities. The scarcity of recent Surrealist objects of note—only Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Cup which comes belatedly from 1936—attests to my contentions. Samaras bedecks, therefore, a prepared table. Cued by the writings of Dali (though not his paintings), Samaras’s intensely sexualized common objects attest to an incredibly fertile transmutant sensitivity. Take Scissors, for instance—vicious enough and Freudian to begin with as are, of course, Samaras’s Knives—the Scissors are soft, speckled, pictogrammatic, emblazoned, yarny, warped, plastered, cubified, dotted, roentgen-rayed. Or Flowers—silvered, dactylfractured, cottony, lettered; or Luncheon Services—goppy, aureolated, ici-plastified; or Knives—prickly, rainbowed, coralized, glittery, autoportraited: or Jewelry—cartographic, mirrored, pornographic, pebbled; or Boxes—horned, slithering, electrified, Medusa-like, spectrographic, balancing, pointillist. In every object our anticipated conception of the element has been violated by Samaras’s seemingly sexualizing compulsions. His environmental and furtive all-mirror stairwell is even more intensely a regressive and onanistic fantasy chamber than his comparatively rococo mirror room of two seasons back. The fertility of Samaras’s keen wit, and the acuteness of his sexualizations, means that no object is safe in his view, from those to which we conventionally assign a Freudian import—the so-called “phallic symbol” for example—to the most patently inane and neutral utilitarian device. Samaras bends all of them to a genial and demonic delusory pattern. In short, I think he’s crazy but great crazy.

Robert Pincus-Witten