In the 20th century, up to and including abstract expressionism no great artists were formalists. Formalism was a creation of critics, not artists. Many artists in the 20th century found the need to put together books which conveyed their view of the art world, or of how to teach art. Some of those authors were Amedee Ozenfant, John Graham, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and Andre Derain. Klee’s longest book, which he may not have intended to publish, was published posthumously as The Thinking Eye, and Derain’s monograph was published incomplete, as he left it, in the Georgia Review, translated by the very young Roseanna Warren. Some important artists statements were published in “Possibilities 1,”. S. W. Hayters “New Ways of Gravure” has much invented material about the origins and practice of art mixed in with no-nonsense instruction in various media. All of these artists describe the practice of art as a metaphoric activity. With Derain, one of the as-ifs is to paint in a style which embodies the personality you have conceived of as immediately germane to the subject matter you have chosen. With Klee, a degree of animation is assigned to the forms which are themselves able to produce the work. Or, in other words, the artist identifies with a forming methodology as though it were in charge of making the work of art. Hayter believed that from within his process, which entailed automatic drawing, he could discover ways of proceeding beyond his current preoccupations. Remaining where he was would be the equivalent of sitting in a comfortable armchair as it grew older and finally applying doilies to all the spots which he had worn out. Although Rothko never clearly said this in words which have been preserved for us, he was aiming at a distillation of the grandest, heroic stance of the Greek epic. Mondrian, a utopian, wanted his paintings to serve as a calming union of life and death: intense but permanently at peace.
Art historians have willfully misinterpreted works which contained specific tropes, as masterworks of formalist constructions. One of these is Matisse’s “The Conversation.” Some twenty years or so ago, the three panels which made up that painting were first exhibited together again, as they had been hung in the Russian collector’s home, who originally bought them from Matisse. The central panel, showing Matisse and his wife at opposite ends of a large interior with a dark blue background and a window with a pleasant sunny landscape between them, had been painted as a central panel of the triptych. It had heretofore been shown by itself, only, as though it was the whole work. But, following the original installation photograph, it was shown at the Met as part of the triptych. This had been impossible in the USSR because the two side panels had been given to the Leningrad museum and the central panel to Moscow. The left panel shows a sculptor’s modeling stand with a female figure on it in front of Matisse’s large painting, now at the MOMA, “La Danse”. There is another version of this painting in the Met. The right hand painting as its major form has a series of clay flowerpots sitting on each other, which make up, roughly a female figure. Behind the pot which would be the head, the leaves of a plant in bloom, with red blossoms next to every green leaf cascade down and to our left. The message from Matisse is simple. His wife sees herself as the eternal feminine, fecund like a plant and inherently beautiful in her nature. Together with her represented figure, in the central panel, she means to draw Matisse to herself, and, he presents her as a natural force, more than as merely a person, in her desires. Matisse, on the contrary is the artist, sculptor and painter who needs to spend his time with the models from whom he works in sculpture and in painting in order to accomplish his work, which involves the experience of drawing, sculpting and painting from them. The argument was about the degree to which he was involved sexually with his models, from his wife’s viewpoint, to the detriment of their marriage, and herself. The tropes are very clear even if you didn’t know that he was involved with his models beyond their immediate use as source of the forms in his work. There is no attempt made to hide any of this material. But a formalist will willfully not find it when he looks. Not every work by a modernist artist will have this obvious clarity and directness on a symbolic level, but understanding a great deal of modernist art does need a mind looking out for that material. For one thing, Mondrian was not the only artist of his generation or a later one to come to the painting with an idea about it that derived from Burke'C, and later Kant’s, ideas of the symbolic significance of the composition of forms in a landscape painting. Burke’s Sublime was basic to an understanding of Barnett Newman’s work, and had an effect on Mark Rothko’s work as well. Newman, in his first lecture at the Artist’s Club made it clear that he wanted viewers of his paintings to achieve the experience to be found when seeing and walking around Great Snake Mound in Ohio. That mound is constructed so that the viewer gets a sense of its great length, because walking along side it one does not get a sense of an ending but of further continuation. One of Burke’s categories was the painting which goes on and on and is not ended by the ends of the canvas on the left and right. Courbet’s beach-scapes are painted with this experience in mind. Newman’s work can be thought of as diagrams of the Burkean Sublime. It is not merely my idea that his paintings are about that, it was his idea, and very well stated, too in both words and paint.
But is there not a time when specific tropes become stale? Beginning with Malevitch and Mondrian, haven’t modern abstract painters taken Burke and Kant about as far as they can go? Can more painters come by and make wonderful work with those same forms and similar compositions? That is the problem of contemporary abstract painting. This has been an exceptionally rich century for abstract art. From almost the beginning of the century until now, most of the best minds and the finest sensibilities were producing abstract art. Some of the imagery came from Burke’s sublime and in other instances, the beginning point was symbolism and the works of artists like Odilon Redon. Klee, for example who worked within complete abstraction and also with a variety of images and signs [like the arrow, the exclamation point], and also with generic accounts, both graphic and painterly of subject matter sources, like his late written landscapes [painted as though they were written in calligraphy].
How does a new abstract painter go about his work? Well, for one thing he must eschew all the old and now stale abstractions of his predecessors. Instead of the work, he should be influenced by the idea that he can go and invent his own images by finding his own sources for imagery and compositions which he has developed or intuited or dreamt himself. To be an abstract painter means not only taking a place in the ongoing tradition, it also means taking such a place that you can find your own forms and construct your own new takes on that tradition. For my eyes there has been no living abstract artist who has done this since the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Thinking of our tradition as one firmly rooted in the art of early centuries through the mid twentieth century, of course believing in the kind of forming and ideology to be found in the grand tradition of the twentieth century including Duchamp through the Glass but not his model later on, we come to a location which is stale and the artist needs to invent new forms. But they can no longer can be invented by tearing an abstraction to a passion and arriving at something which is ineluctably your own, as did the first AE generation. Each time they did that, all of them still in the shadow cast by Mondrian and Arp, they patented a compositional scheme, and a particular process to get to it. All the patents are still valid. There is no way for a young abstract painter to go into that world with so much already decided by artists who arrived at their prime decisions in the 1950s at the very latest. Those ideas and processes which were not patented, are of very limited strength and little freshness. They will be doomed, at best to be minor followers, and at worst to produce incoherent works of little value. What an abstract painter needs to do is find something in perception, history, biology, physics, poetry, mathematics, anthropology, or philosophy [and many other aspects of human thought and striving] which engages him in an activity which requires specific actions and choices, and keep on with it until he produces work of quality and independence.
It is harder now, to be an abstract painter, than it is to be a figurative painter. There are so many success images, and so many of those are spurious. The success in the world substitutes for success in the work. Even if the works have quality, are they freshly seen and can they hold future development? The problem is that a whole group of late modernists learned, in art school, not how to be artists in the first sense of the word- that is creators who will find wonderful forms for themselves and their viewers, but artists in the sense of people who know how to make those gestures in their work over a long period which simulate a fine modern artist’s development. They have learned, in fact, only how to be careerists. They can fool the critics, curators, dealers and the cognoscenti, without providing either enduring work, or work which is not trite.
On the other hand figurative painters have a problem, too.
Many, in fact, became figurative in recoil from the later stages of the
modernist movement or from post modernism. Despising what they see around them
as sham, their response was to work from the motif in some version of what
looked like premodernism. Some of these people can make wonderful simulations
of the style of Rembrandt, or of Bouguereau, or Carvaggio. They have emphasized
representation, and being of normal intelligence, and digital abilities, they
have found it easy, over several or many years to learn a great deal about how
to represent nature, the landscape, the figure, still life or all of these.
Unfortunately, these reactionaries have by no means also learned how to
manipulate the forms of painting which even a second rate academic like
Bouguereau could do. All of the French 19th century academics had a
much more modernist view of the act of painting and pictorial construction in
paint than do these modern old fogies. Any one who looks at the catalog of the
exhibition of the French Prix D’Rome paintings, their sketches and preparatory
work, is seeing better work than contemporaries who mean to be in that tradition
can produce. The year Bouguereau won his gold another artist also won it, and
later became famous and successful in Paris. The subject which was set for them
was “The finding of the dead body of Queen Zenobia.” Unlike Bouguereau’s
painting which has no clear metaphoric content, that other artist produced a
work in which the horizontality of the Queen, found dead on the banks of a
river is worked into the composition which means to commemorate her death
through its construction. It also does have a spatial arabesque, so in more
ways than one, it is the work of a
knowledgeable artist. It is no masterpiece because the style was already pretty
cut and dried and lacking in rich potential already. But we cannot assume that
academic 19th century artists as a group were know-nothings, just as
we can no longer assume that 20th century pseudo avant-gardistes are
knowledgeable, and not dealing in clichés in their work. It should be stressed that both Bouguereau and his colleague understood spatial arabesque and that their paintings were composed through using it. Spatial arabesque is what Hans Hofmann is famous for having taught in a modernist context. And it is something most of the new fogies never heard of. In fact it was so common in the late 19th century that the Nabis [a group which included both Bonnard and Vuillard] had in their credo the thought that they would forego that bourgeouis shibboleth and not use it unless or until it forced itself on them out of the composition and structure of the motif in the painting. Although, they both embraced it in the context of their later work.
So it is my contention that the character of painting and the sources of meaningful compositions both must change for artists to be contributing some thing worthwhile to our culture. For that matter, they have to change so that artists are doing something worthwhile for themselves, too. Every serious artist wants to do something worth his/her time and effort. And, since artists must work for quite a while developing something worth while, it would be a shame to work very hard and come up with very little. Among serious artists at a moment which should properly be one of confusion and regrouping, it is not a time for a boy or girl wonder to arrive with a new word at a young age. Despite the fact that the establishment thinks it has such people it has only people playing with trite images and ideas in establishment style. It is going to take anyone worth their salt a decade or two to have some thing worthwhile to offer. To be able to see around the problems facing us, it is merely sufficient to have worked for some decades in getting to a worthwhile location. This demands not only intelligence but stubbornness, a lack of willingness to follow the main chance, and even more, a lack of willingness to produce trite work, as so many of those around us are doing. No one formal constructional method is enough to produce for any artist the potential for good and personal work. We know that the Nabis rejected spatial arabesque as trite in the 1890s just as Leland Bell and his friends rejoiced in it as something real and necessary in good work in the period from 1950 through to 2000. But I have seen lots of work which I could read, as Leland did, which is not marvelous and not rich, and which is full of trite and tawdry gestures. So I no longer believe that spatial arabesque is enough. I certainly taught it to all of my students, and were I teaching again I would still teach it, but I think we need more than that.
I also believe Andre Derain’s unfinished theoretical manual is full of fine thoughts like the one in which he recommends that an artist decide what style a painting should be painted in. He thinks that seeing the motif and painting it well is not enough, so the artist who is painting a farm scene might decide to paint it as a village sign painter would have gone about it in the last century, for example. Then his brush, representing his artist’s personality would be the major connection between the painting and himself, and not the style. This was an attempt to get out of the avant garde trap. And it is an interesting one. The problem with it is that Derain was not good enough to break out of the trap himself. With all the good will in the world I am afraid that I have seen very few large works by Derain which make much sense. His best works, aside from his still lifes and a few landscapes, are all the very small sketches. The ones in the Pierre Levy collection seem to me marvelous no matter what style they are painted in. They are what we have, to fulfill his theoretical dicta. Most of the larger paintings [say at least 30 inches in one direction or larger] are failures in his own terms. This is only untrue for the still lifes which all seem to have been wonderful for him to paint and for us to see.
The way he analyzed the problem, Leland needed a great Derain as a forerunner. I don’t think we do. For one thing all of us have both Leland and Ulla, and also his friend Al Kresch. All of them represent a development out of the grand figurative tradition of modernist Paris, as well as a return to figuration by well trained and gifted abstract painters.
Actually, I don’t think they are the only avenues towards renewed and fine figurative painting. Between them, they represent one healthy direction. This is a moment when many painters have learned how to paint from nature with only designed surface principles to differentiate their work from book and magazine illustration. Most figurative work we see is not formed in any way. This is even true of people who mean to form, but do not fulfill their own forms often enough to produce successful work. Unlike Leland, I don’t think that everyone who does not form is necessarily a scoundrel. There are failures of imagination, art school educations, and misapplications of design as seen by Arthur Wesley Dow through the Bauhaus. Klee, whom I revere as one of the fullest, most original sensibilities of the century, never produced even one student who could be called his equal. I would not mind being thought of as less than some of my pupils, but then I am not in Klee’s league. Then, all that teaching of mine would have been worthwhile. The good thing about Klee is that he left his teaching notes behind, and he can still have pupils from their study. [The Thinking Eye] So he may yet get the pupils he deserves.
Have any of you stopped to figure out what di Chirico was doing in his early great work? He didn’t do it until after he saw analytic cubist paintings. And what he did was re-visualize as images the broken down forms of cubism. He did not throw away the pictorial movements and tensions in his best work. Although he has turned cubism back into things, the things still move in space and over the canvas as the cubist paintings did. He was inspired to do peculiar work by having a remarkable take on something wonderful and the most abstract we had yet become. For some reason he was not able to keep it up, but Morandi who had visited Cezanne and cubism before he made his metaphysical paintings was able to keep it up for several decades. I think, though, that in between Morandi and Hopper there no longer is any way that tense figure ground relationships in a sharp side light can have that same poetry again. Perhaps that is why in his late work Morandi forced the negative shapes to overpower his forms, none of which read as volumes any more.
So, without historical references, let me say again what kind of art we need, and where it might come from. From figurative artists we do not need repetitions of academic models; repetitions of Cezanne; repetitions of late Matisse; expressionism, not based on personal weird or cultural dissatisfaction, but based on prominent 20th century examples like Soutine. We need figurative painters to go to work, beginning with influences which leave room for development even if you start very close to the master or masters involved. I think Nice Matisse fulfills that, and also Marquet, after the height of the Fauve movement. Looking at the late Dufy interiors and also the late black Braque interiors has room for more development.[looking at both of them]. Many of Picasso’s synthetic cubist influenced still-lives done in the 1920s and 1930s have ideas which he did not entirely fulfill. The peculiarity of the best Courbets and some of the best Corots has never been full faced up to. The portrait of Jo at the Met, or of the Ingres, Comtesse d’Haussonville at the Frick are fully developed non academic paintings, although without a really sharp eye, they may be misunderstood as academic painting. I think that Seurat can still be a major model if one looks at all of his largest paintings and thinks about how much he changed from one to the other. Some of the middle sized landscape and city views are very worth learning fully, too. Now, what about works from other centuries? Can we be inspired by them, too? The most important thing is to make art history into a personal response rather than a dogmatic historical approach. The back of the Duccio Maesta, as it should be seen, with each painting cheek by jowl up against the other was very influential on the great 15th century Sienese retardataire artists like Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo. But since that time, as Timothy Hyman correctly intuits, it has been the Florentines all the way. So there they are, together with the Lorenzetti and Simone Martini, neglected masters with a radically different approach to subject matter, story telling, than the Florentines had. The Ambrogio Lorenzetti Results of Good and Bad Government has had little influence, despite its great celebrity. Ambrogio was , of all things, a metaphoric painter through his forming. That is really a very modern concern. I don’t mean to say that all of his forms had metaphoric content, in closely related fashion; they had it in very different ways, because their content required changes in forming. He sounds more like Paul Klee, or perhaps Andre Masson, than he does like a fourteenth century Sienese. But, that is what he was. So, one of the places we can look, as figurative painters, for a personal approach is at the works of past masters. And masters who were not in the highest odor might, if they speak to us, be full of startling potential for innovation. [The words, "The Highest Odor mean not of the highrest reputation".]This is especially true of those masters who became part of the scenery, as some other spot was self-elected for greatness.
Once we begin to believe in our own right to construct our own present, it is not necessarily to look only at historic art from our own culture, or only at art. There are other sources for pictorial construction which may become metaphoric. Alfred Russell has been working with more than three dimensional spaces and forms, and situating normative figures in them for about 30 or 40 years. His source was a book written by a mathematician written for Physicists.
While the figurative tradition was not broken completely by late modernism, because a number of the original group continued to use the forming of modernist painting, this forming was in a direct line with 19th century figurative work, and early representational painters. So one could use the pictorial analysis common to modernist work to get back into earlier work like the French and Venetian tradition, and much farther back. But, post modernism, which has over the past 60 years become more and more important in the teaching of studio artists and of art history, does completely break with the past, and affords any artist who has not known something else no springboard to intelligently get into issues involved in baroque or renaissance painting, for example. There is no pictorial connection. These young artists are as lacking in any approach that would lead them to profit by studying that art as most art historians. The art historians in the past century usually had no practical art experiences under their belts. They could not draw or paint, and this was responsible for loads of absurd writing about things which they did not understand. But now, it is not only art historians, but a whole generation or two of young artists who are in the dark.
So, what are the issues? The necessity in one’s own work to make a connection between our understanding and some part of the heritage of artistic concerns and capabilities which is all over our past, before 1950. We must also make connections with the processes of conscious metaphoric construction. Knowing it when we see it is not enough. We have to be able, ourselves to make up procedures for developing it in our work. Old metaphors that have been around for a hundred years or so, and can be found everywhere, are stale metaphors. If we realize that and either try to revivify them, or find some new ones, we will have a chance at really good work. If we stay within them, not aware that they are stale, we will whether we want to or not, produce stale work. Well, I think the compositions which Burke came up with in his sublime, are now quite stale. The sublime is not so sublime. We know the potential processes for identifying metaphor. We have had many examples of it. We should be able to find some others. It should be clear that L’Art informel in Europe and Abstract expressionism in the USA is also stale. But the way out is not to do something disgusting or frivolous which makes us seem the true avant gardistes of the next wave. All of the avant gardistes of any new wave will be clearly affected, insipid and lacking in anything worthwhile to offer. The Avant Garde, now, is a sham. It is work culled from the newest by the art eaters who need it to improve their social status, and validate their money. And it has been painless. The art has often gone up tremendously in value, and even made a profit for its buyers. That does not mean that any of it is any good, it just means our society has been fooled into validating it. The establishment critics are not people who love art, or who understand it on a deep level. The best of them just understand what is fulfilling to an aesthetic developed by looking at the establishment since AE. All of which is based on the disabling new historical scheme with Duchamp as the Poppa.