mercredi 9 mai 2012
A New Kind of Cubisme
31.5 in. x 31.5 in.
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There can be no doubt that abstract art has been a dominant movement in this country for the past seventy years, or that, of its many varieties, the kind known as abstract expressionism has been the most influential. This movement will be discussed more fully in the next chapter, but two of its pioneers-Arshile Gorky and Hans Hofmann--belong in these pages, as well as one of its leading figures, Willem de Kooning, who has never bound himself to a purely abstract form of expression. Indeed abstraction has become so much a part of the modern artist's vocabulary that many of our painters make use of its techniques and devices even when they are dealing with a concrete imagery.
Although the dividing line between invented forms and forms derived from nature has become increasingly shadowy, there is, nevertheless, a real difference, which goes deeper than the mere look of the picture. Total abstraction speaks a language which is either purely aesthetic or purely introspective. The moment that imagery enters, associations are established which relate the artist's experience to the forces of nature and to the experiences of other men. The danger, from the abstract artist's point of view, is that such associations may dilute the qualities he seeks--whether they are formal beauty or the intensity of self-examination. It was Gorky's difficult achievement to find a precarious point of balance between these elements.
In nature he found patterns of procreation, growth, and decay, and these set up complex memory associations which he permitted to mix freely in pictures quite consciously designed aesthetically. The Betrothal, II, his biographer Ethel Schwabacher points out, is concerned with the interpretation of a sexual cycle, as the shape and union of forms suggests, but it also seems to have acquired some of its character from the early Renaissance painting by Paolo Uccello The Battle of San Romano, a print of which hung on Gorky's wall. Beyond these probably subconscious associations, The Betrothal, II is a painting in which sharp line and blotted, amorphous shapes work together in a counterpoint that is both delicate and full of vitality.
At about the same time that Gorky was developing his mature style (in the early 1940's), Hofmann began to move away from the limits of subject matter in a manner that was to add a new dimension to abstract expressionism. Hofmann's contribution might, with a little exaggeration, be called muscular. His art has a spontaneous, explosive quality, which comes from exuberance rather than introspection, and which led him to a slashing brushwork, a spattering of paint, and occasionally to the exploitation of accidental effects. While these devices were put to very different uses by other "action painters," Hofmann himself has always maintained a direct and joyful relation with the sensuous world, as he did in Magenta and Blue, of which he says, "Nature was my starting point; a full-scale palette my inspiration."
It is perhaps not too wide of the mark to see in Willem de Kooning's work the union of Hofmann's energy (though more savage than exuberant) and Gorky's self-probing. Like Hofmann, he has made of paint and its application a primary means of expression; the brush strokes have a ferocity of their own, and even when they describe an image, as in Woman and Bicycle, they go far to determine its character. (He told Peter Selz that his women had large breasts more because his arm moved naturally in ample curves than for any psychological reasons.) Nevertheless, the psychological content of this frightening apparition is undeniable. And if it is partly humorous in intention, as he has indicated, and a lampoon on the cult of the pretty girl in American life, it also seems drawn from a deeply personal reservoir of feeling.
William Baziotes is another artist who has sometimes been associated with abstract expressionism, but the connection seems tenuous except for the fact that he apparently permits his images to grow on the canvas without being fully conscious of where they will lead him or what other images they will attract to themselves--a method not unlike Gorky's. The Beach, for instance, grew in part from a trip to Florida where he was repelled by the heat, the dryness, the fossils on the shore. These are all suggested in the strange shapes of the foreground, while behind them is the shadowy outline of the rolling hills in his native Pennsylvania, where he retreated after his depressing Florida experience Jon Schueler's very romantic landscapes of Scotland, like Snow Cloud and Blue Sky, may also owe a small debt to abstract expressionism, although in his case it is limited to the bold technical handling of paint and has nothing to do with the spirit of the work, for Schueler is a lineal descendant of Turner and is directly concerned with the glories and the poetry of nature.
Much of our semi-abstract painting today has even less connection with the abstract-expressionist movement and is sometimes actively opposed to it. Balcomb Greene is a leading figure in the revolt against a purely introspective and abstract approach, although he started his career as a geometrical abstractionist. Since 1943, however, landscape and the human figure have slowly found their way back into his work. That they have done so rather ambiguously may be due in part to his search for a means to express the wholeness of life--the inseparability of flesh and spirit, of light and matter--a search that has led him to a kind of interpenetration of forms that seems more abstract than it is.
Other artists have found still other reasons for using a combination of abstraction and imagery in their work. An effective symbolism almost always involves such a method because it requires an object with associations as symbol, yet must raise it out of its pedestrian, daily context to make it symbolically potent. Thus Charles Schucker says, "What concerns me is the human condition, man's constant effort to keep his equilibrium in a universe awesome in its potentiality and scope.
The Bridge is symbolic of the effort to span this infinity." And he paints it in an essentially abstract way, unanchored to the banks of reality. Similarly, George Mueller has created, in The Study, a brooding room which, by the severity of the design and its somber colors, creates a kind of metaphysical atmosphere. To him it might be "inhabited by one given to severe introspection, a philosopher, a physicist" and seems to symbolize an ascetic skepticism.
Historically, semi-abstraction is the oldest of all art forms and one of the most persistent. It stretches from cave man to cubist (the latter, of course, strongly influenced by primitive art). Today the expressive possibilities of its past manifestations continue to fascinate artists; in addition to its more contemporary guises, we find Robert Goodnough experimenting with a new kind of cubist organization and Joseph Glasco spontaneously adopting a direct and childlike imagery, which he himself has called an almost completely primitive form of expression. In the broadest sense semi-abstraction is not a style or trend at all, but simply a mid-point at which many styles have met visual reality and bent it to their own purposes.