Abstract Expressionism

Irony and Sarcasm in Art by Chris Hall

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I recently read a couple of interesting articles in the Remodernist Review and on Salon on the use of irony in the art world, and I felt compelled to share with you some of my thoughts as well.  In the Remodernist Review, Richard Bledsoe quotes a line from Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot:  “I don't like irony. . . it indicates a small soul.”  I have to agree with this sentiment.  Irony is born out of pessimism.  It is something I can understand very well.  I have frequent bouts of pessimism in my life, and irony sometimes rears it's ugly head in my art-making.  But I believe it is something we should try to transcend.  We can do better than this.

In Bledsoe's article, he writes, “To embrace irony is to strike a pose of groundless superiority, to think social status is demonstrated by a jaded attitude.”  Bledsoe continues:

Irony is the philosophy of sour grapes.  Those who feel incapable of producing something with skill, meaning and significance like to act like they don’t want those achievements manifested in their works.  But even worse, and more treacherous, to preserve their facade they must suppress and undermine the works of others who are striving towards some higher purpose or accomplishment.  Sophisticated poseurs can tolerate no reminder of their own shortcomings. Irony is a form of passive-aggressive envy. . .  

Those are harsh accusations, but accusations that just might float.  It is true that a lot of bad contemporary art is justified by impenetrable theory and text, theory and text that is ironic and pessimistic in nature.  It just might be that the use of irony might be more than a crutch, but a purposeful obfuscation of the weakness of their argument and art. 

Irony, along with sarcasm, has infected our culture.  Not only is too readily apparent in contemporary art, it has also manifested itself in the way we interact with other people.  Going through the personals on dating websites (yes, ladies, I'm single) I frequently come upon a variation of the addendum “must like sarcasm.”  I see it so often that it has become a turn off.  To me, “must like sarcasm” is code for “I am so smart, so much smarter than you, that I can allow myself to be insulting and smug about it.”  Sarcasm is a form of detached, jaded insincerity.  It bespeaks a lack of curiosity, a closed mind, an unwillingness to learn, and a shallow personality.  Perhaps in small doses, it is OK, we all go there sometimes, but as a personality trait, I'm not interested.  Although contemporary art is filled with irony and sarcasm, I don't blame art for our culture's smug opinion of itself (today's art world is as insular and elitist as ever – not much of an influence on our cultural zeitgeist), instead I think the blame can safely be placed on the pop culture medium of television.  I also think that contemporary art, which draws from pop culture trends as much as it does from pessimistic critical theory, has followed suit.  The critical detachment of watching a train wreck and ironically discussing its aesthetic merits and flaws or political implications is not the environment with which I want to produce art work.  Remember the last two episodes of Seinfeld where the gang are jailed after watching, recording, and laughing as a man is carjacked at gunpoint in front of them?  It is a damning criticism of where I think our culture is now, the whole better you than me attitude.  Everyone laughs, and nobody stops to help.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no saint.  Sometimes I, too, can be jaded, smug, etc., but I always try to treat others with sincerity and respect.  I think my use of sarcasm and irony can be traced to my sometimes excessive sense of pride.  Pride is perhaps the strongest of my faults (that, and Anger – which often stems from my impatience and disappointment at seeing the world fail to live up to my ideals and expectations).  I try to keep my faults in check whenever they appear, and while I am more successful at keeping Pride in check, Anger, being more of an emotion than an attitude, is sometimes harder to control.  Humility is the key . . . recognizing that there have been, are presently, and will be people more talented and intelligent than you is but one step on the path toward achieving the peace that comes with wisdom.  But this is hard in the Ego driven world, where success is often measured proportionately with how much Ego you have, and how much you brag about yourself.  I have no time for Egotism in my life.  There is always so much more to work on, to make better, and to learn.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

Obviously written by someone who has a high opinion of themself.

One of the reasons Postmodern and contemporary art critics give as to why sincerity and passion is bad for art and the world is addressed in Matt Ashby's and Brendan Carroll's article in Salon.  In it they write:  

Skeptics reject sincerity because they worry blind belief can lead to such evils as the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism. They think strong conviction implies vulnerability to emotional rhetoric and lack of critical awareness. But the goal of great art is the same whether one approaches it seriously or dubiously. To make something new, to transcend, one must have an honest relationship with what is: history, context, form, tradition, oneself.

Today the critical default is skepticism and pessimism.  Skepticism and pessimism in critical theory was partially born out of the use of art and aesthetics to inspire blind devotion in Nazi Germany.  Pessimistic critical theory gained further appeal with the failure of art to spark a world wide revolution in 1968.  But I believe with all my heart that we can not just lay there at the bottom of the hill, licking our wounds, laughing as others also fall down.  If optimism isn't your thing, then call it something else, like Schopenhauer's animalistic “Will” to carry on.  The only thing that matters is that we've got to get up and try again!  It is OK to aspire to great things and to stand up for your ideals.  Somebody's got to be the hero, and if its not going to be you, if you are not going to even try, then I may as well have a crack at it.  I know the odds are stacked against me, and that I may very well fail, but I know that I will at least be the better human being for having been brave enough to try.

In the Salon article, Ashby and Carroll ask some important questions:

So, to be more nuanced about what’s at stake: In the present moment, where does art rise above ironic ridicule and aspire to greatness, in terms of challenging convention and elevating the human spirit? Where does art build on the best of human creation and also open possibilities for the future? What does inspired art-making look like?

One might be tempted to look toward the recent past, towards Modernism for examples of “inspired art,” but we don't have to.  There are plenty of people working in contemporary art, exiles still working on the edges of the officially sanctioned art world institutions, waiting for their time to come.  These artists, whether they are aware of it or not, are part of a growing art movement called Remodernism.  Truly inspired artists, once scattered to the winds in the contemporary art wasteland, are now starting to find each other, banding together for strength in numbers, and they are starting to challenge the status quo and stir things up a bit.  My hope is that the movement will continue to grow and gain momentum.  Richard Bledsoe closes out his article in his blog Remodernist Review with the following:

It’s an exciting time to be an artist, and help the world move past the self-serving decadence the self-proclaimed elites cultivate.  It’s time to call the bluffs, stand up to the bullying, and put the perpetrators to the test.  Can their art survive outside the privileged cloisters they huddle in?

It is hard to know exactly what art and the world will be like in the future.  We can only speculate based on current circumstances and past examples in art history.  In art history we know that Modernism rescued art from the stale clutches of 19th century Academic art, and that there was a spiritual revival in art (Abstract Expressionism) following the comparatively more decadent period of art between the two world wars and the fascist aesthetics of the mid-1930's.  Today it seems that there are a few loud voices of dissent operating on the margins of the art world, while a large group of hard-line Postmodernists remain burrowed in the skin of our art institutions like ticks, sucking in as much blood as they can before they die off.  And they are dying off.  By far the largest group of people in the art world are the ambivalents.  They may go either way.  While some may be flat out opportunists, I feel the vast majority of these people are truly getting tired of all the irony and sarcasm.  They are just looking for something to believe in again.  They want something better.  The Postmodern parasites will, no doubt, promote successors who share a similar philosophical background.  There is not much we can do about that.  What we can do is make our voices loud and our message clear, and promote an attractive alternative agenda to replace what is currently being offered by our art institutions.  Perhaps someday our ranks will grow large enough where we can properly challenge those who now hold power in the art world institutions.  Perhaps someday it will not all be in vain.

Lee Krasner by Chris Hall

Lee Krasner (1908 - 1984) was an influential American painter among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists known as the New York School.  Not only is she an iconoclast by being a part of this vanguard movement in American art, she is doubly so, as the movement was at first a kind of men's club.  For this reason I have mad respect for both her and her artwork.  She is one of the few women artists to have had a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art, held posthumously in 2008.  

Krasner was born in Brooklyn, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents from Bessarabia in Odessa.  Growing up, she had little interest in Judaism, as she could not accept or understand the way the faith minimalized and marginalized women.  Soon she announced to her parents that she was done with religion, and enrolled herself in a secular public high school.  Born Lena Krasner, she decided to call herself by the more gentile sounding name, Lenore.

After high school, Krasner moved on to study art at Cooper Union.  At Cooper Union, men and women were strictly segregated, even entering the building through separate entrances.  Outside of a few female instructors in interior and fashion design, the faculty was entirely male.  While at Cooper Union, Krasner grew tired of the name Lenore and once again changed it, to the more androgynous sounding Lee, so that those looking at her artwork would not know if she was a man or woman.  Cooper Union was not a pleasant experience for Krasner, and she decided to enroll at the National Academy of Art.  To gain admittance, she began working on an large self-portrait, facilitated by a mirror which she nailed to a tree outside her parent's modest home on Long Island.  The National Academy of Art accepted her for a free seven month period.

Soon after arriving, Krasner found life at the National Academy not much better than at Cooper Union.  At the Academy, fish were kept in the basement for still life paintings, but women were not allowed downstairs.  Krasner described the faculty as being “worried by the French,” and as being stuck in the old, traditionalist ways.  Her report card read, “This student is always a bother . . . insists upon having her own way despite school rules.”  Despite the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show, where European avant-garde art was first introduced, American art remained in long isolation.  Later, with the influx of European artists immigrating to America to escape the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, things would change very quickly.  Meanwhile, in 1928, the students at the National Academy of Art were getting their first glimpse of French Impressionist work, some 60 years after the movement had began!  Krasner and her classmate's work shifted direction in dramatic fashion.  Disgusted by the “new” art, one instructor even hurled his brushes against the wall, shouting, “I can't teach you people anything!”  Later, Krasner would describe the effect Impressionist paintings had on her, saying, “Seeing those French paintings stirred my anger against any form of provincialism.”

From 1935 to 1943, Krasner worked on the WPA Federal Art Project, in the Mural Arts Division.  She met Jackson Pollock for the first time at an Artists Union dance in 1936.  Her first impression of him was not great.  Deeply inebriated, he cut in on her dance partner, only to ask, “Do you like to fuck?”  Krasner was fired and rehired from the Federal Art Project, and then permanently let go, when a policy of terminating everyone who had worked more than 18 months was enacted.  Shortly thereafter, she was dumped by her boyfriend though the mail.  Finding herself in a low point in her life, she moved to a cheaper apartment, where she would write on the wall Rimbaud's words:  

To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast must one adore? What holy image attack? What hearts shall I break? What lie must I maintain? In what blood must I walk?


Starting in 1937, Krasner took courses from the German emigre Hans Hofmann, who taught the principles of Cubism.  Hofmann was impressed with Krasner's work, saying, “This is so good you would not know it was painted by a woman."  Nevertheless, Hofmann would be a big influence on Krasner's work.  In 1940, she started showing her new abstract work with the American Abstract Artists group, and in 1942, she met Pollock again, under better circumstances, as they were both preparing to exhibit their work in the same show.  Krasner and Pollock would later marry in 1945.

While Krasner would continue her own work in her own studio, she dedicated a lot her time promoting Pollock's work.  It could be argued that Pollock would not have been as much of a success in the art world without Krasner's support.  Artistically, Krasner and Pollock treated each other as equals, and she would lend her critical eye by helping Pollock develop his work.  They would also give each other reassurance and support in the early days, when neither of their work was well-appreciated.  Krasner's marriage to Pollock, while it did have its peaceful times, would become strained due to Pollock's troubles and alcoholism.  Their marriage would come to an abrupt end in 1956, when Pollock died in an alcohol related single car crash.

After Pollock's death, Krasner had a difficult time getting her work shown.  “People treated me as Pollock's wife, not as a painter,” she said in an 1981 interview.  “Someone like (Clement) Greenberg, because I didn't hand over to him the Pollock estate, did his job well to make sure I didn't come through as a painter.  He had power.”  Although Greenberg had been closely acquainted with Krasner for decades – he even met Pollock through her – he never once wrote a word in support of her art.  Krasner would often cut apart her own drawings and paintings to create collages, and, at times revised and discarded entire series of work.  As a result, her surviving body of work is quite small.

After Krasner's death in 1981, her East Hampton property became the Pollock-Krasner House and Studio.  It is now open to the public.  In 1985, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation was established, functioning as the official Estate for both Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.  As stated in her will, the foundation serves “to assist individual working artists of merit with financial need.”

Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler by Chris Hall

Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981

Joan Mitchell

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Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) was a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist painter and printmaker, born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of a dermatologist and a poet.  She studied at Smith College in Massachusetts and The Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her BFA (1947) and her MFA (1950), respectively.  After moving to Manhattan in 1947, she had wanted to study at Han Hofmann's school, but after attending only one class she left, declaring, "I couldn't understand a word he said so I left, terrified."  With a $2,000 travel fellowship, she also studied in Paris and Provence, France, where she would spend much of her later life.

In 1949, Mitchell married the American publisher Barney Rosset, in Paris.  Rosset is, perhaps, best known as the man who published the controversial and sexually charged novel Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller.  Mitchell and Rosset soon divorced in 1952.  Mitchell would remain active in the burgeoning art scene of 1950's New York, despite the increasing amount of time she would spend traveling and working in France.  In 1955, Mitchell severed her ties to America, and moved to France to join the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she would have a long, tumultuous relationship (1955 to 1979).  They would maintain separate homes and studios, but would meet everyday for dinner and drinks.

Joan Mitchell,  No Birds , 1987 - 1988

Joan Mitchell, No Birds, 1987 - 1988

In her early years as a painter, she was influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Wassily Kandinsky, and later by the works of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.  Mitchell's work, like that of her Abstact Expressionist peers, are expansive, and usually made up of two panels.  The landscape was a primary influence on her subject matter.  Like fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler, Mitchell would sometimes paint on unprimed canvas, but with gestural and sometimes violent brushwork.  She has described painting as, “an organism that turns in space.”

Beginning in the early 1980's, Mitchell's health began to fail, and it impacted her work significantly.  In 1984, She was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer and was she was advised to have jaw completely removed.  After a second opinion, radiation therapy was pursued, and her jaw was saved (although it would leave her jawbone dead).  Her health continued to fail, however, and she fell into a crippling depression complicated with anxiety.  While Mitchell had quit smoking, but she would remain a heavy drinker for the rest of her life.  With the help of a psychoanalyst, Mitchell returned to painting.  Long an admirer of Vincent van Gogh's work, Mitchell began to look at what is perhaps his final painting, his Wheatfield with Crows (1890) as a kind of suicide note, filled with hopelessness, despair, and death.  Mitchell made a painting entitled No Birds (1988) as a response and homage.  Like Van Gogh, Mitchell also began to investigate the subject of sunflowers, saying she wanted her paintings “to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower.”

Mitchell was also a great admirer of Henri Matisse, favoring his vivid use of color and the vivacity of his line.  She once claimed that, “If I could paint like Matisse, I'd be in heaven.”  In October of 1992, Mitchell flew to New York to visit a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  Upon her arrival, she was taken to a doctor and diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.  Mitchell returned to France on October 22, and entered the American Hospital of Paris.  Mitchell died on the morning of October 30, 1992.

Helen Frankenthaler 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) was a “Second Generation” American Abstract Expressionist painter.  She began exhibiting her large-scale paintings in galleries and museums in the early 1950's and is also labeled as being a Color Field Post-Painterly Abstraction artist.  Frankenthaler was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg.  Post-Painterly artists generally set themselves apart from the “First Generation” of Abstract Expressionists by eliminating the emotional, mythic, and religious content from their work and for eliminating the highly personal, gestural, and painterly application of paint.

Growing up in Manhattan's Upper East Side, in a progressive Jewish family under privileged circumstances (her father Alfred Frankenthaler was a respected New York State Supreme Court judge), the Frankenthaler family encouraged Helen in her pursuit of art.  Frankenthaler found herself influenced by Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock's paintings, and by the critic Clement Greenberg.

Frankenthaler studied art at the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo, and also at Bennington College in Vermont.  Upon graduation, she continued taking private studies with Hans Hofmann, in 1950, who she met through Clement Greenberg (with whom she would have a five year relationship).  Also in 1950, Frankenthaler saw Pollock's paintings for the first time (Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 and Number One - Lavender Mist, 1950) at Betty Parsons Gallery.  Of the works, Frankenthaler said, “It was all there.  I waned to live in this land.  I had to live there, and master the language.”  In 1958, Frankenthaler married “First Generation” Abstract Expressionist, Robert Motherwell, though they would divorce in 1971.  Because both Frankenthaler and Motherwell were both born to wealthy parents, and were known to host lavish parties, the pair became known as “the golden couple.”  Frankenthaler never considered herself a feminist, saying “For me, being a 'lady painter' was never an issue.  I don't resent being a female painter.  I don't exploit it.  I paint.”

Frankenthaler, like her Abstract Expressionist peers, is known for her large scale paintings with simplified abstract compositions emphasizing spontaneity, which she would make by laying her canvas out on the floor, a technique inspired by Jackson Pollock.  She once stated that, “A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once.”  Although she painted in many different abstract styles and used a variety of techniques over her 60 year career, she is best known for her color field painting using a “soak stain” technique, where she would heavily dilute her oil paint in turpentine which she would us to soak and stain her unprimed canvas.   While the technique produces a beautiful result, resembling the translucent application of watercolor, the major disadvantage of this method, however, is that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.

During the course of her life, Frankenthaler would be a faculty member of Hunter College and, in 1989, would be one of the few women artists to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

A common criticism of Frankenthaler's work, along with that her “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist peers, was that it was “merely beautiful,” and without much substance, aping the style pioneered by “First Generation.”  But we do need beautiful things in the world, to give us pause in our lives.  Beauty is good medicine, good for the soul.  It heals.  Asclepius had five daughters who helped him in his practice of medicine:  Hygieia (Hygiene),  Iaso (Recuperation), Aceso (Healing), Panacea (Universal Remedy), and Aglaea (Beauty).  “Art,” Picasso reminds us, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Grace Glueck's obituary in The New York Times summed up Frankenthaler's career thus:
“Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."

Three Painters from Across the Pond: Hodgkin, Walker, and Scully by Chris Hall

Howard Hodgkin,  Learning About Russian Music , 1999.

Howard Hodgkin, Learning About Russian Music, 1999.

Sir Howard Hodgkin

Sir Howard Hodgkin (1932 - ) is a British painter and printmaker.  Despite often being small in size and deceptively simple,  Hodgkin spends a considerable amount of time with each work, some taking years to complete.  Hodgkin's work are associated with abstraction, in its original understanding, as he abstracts from nature.  His paintings are rich in color, and are often compared with the work of Henri Matisse.  In 1984, Hodgkin represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and in 1985 he won the Turner Prize (a reminder that the Turner Prize was once painter friendly and not so favored toward conceptual art).  In 1992 Hodgkin was knighted.  In 2003 he was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II as a Companion of Honour, as if the title “Sir” wasn't fancy enough.  In September, 2010, Hodgkin and five other British artists including John Walker (who I will discuss next) participated in an exhibition entitled The Independent Eye: Contemporary British Art From the Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie, at the Yale Center for British Art. 
 


John Walker

John Walker (1939 - ) is a British painter and printmaker whose earliest works are inspired by Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction.  Rendered in acrylic paint, they often combine three dimensional elements with flatter elements.  Starting in the late 70's Walker moved to using thick impasto oil paints, while making pictorial allusions and quotations from earlier painters, such as Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, and Henri Matisse.  During this time Walker also started to collage pre-painted canvas cut-outs to his work.  After spending time in Australia, Walker got a position teaching at Victoria College of Art in Melbourne.  It was during this time that he produced his Oceania series, incorporating elements of native Oceanic art.  Walker won the 1976 John Moores Painting Prize in 1976, and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985, which went Howard Hodgkin instead.  Walker is currently the head of the graduate painting program at Boston University.  

Sean Scully

Sean Scully (1945 - )  is an Irish-born painter and printmaker, raised in South London, but who now lives in the United States.  He was nominated for the Turner Prize twice, in 1989 and in 1993.  Scully's paintings are often made up of a number of panels, which when assembled, form an abstract pattern.  Painted in thick layers of oil paint, his colorful works have heavily textured surfaces which need to be seen in order to be properly appreciated.  In an 2005 interview Sean Scully had this to say of his work:

“I hold to a very Romantic ideal of what's possible in art, and I hold to the idea of the 'personal universal.' This is a complex agenda. My project is complicated in this way, and in that sense I'm out of fashion. I'm going against the current trend towards bizarreness, oddness; as you just called it, the 'esoteric', which of course was around in the 1930s. That's what is being revisited now. In between the two great wars, there was a very strong period, particularly in Europe, of a strange, bizarre, distorted and perverse kind of figuration, with freaks in the paintings. Very disturbing twins, subjects like that. These paintings were mostly coming out of Italy and Germany. Now we have a return to that—again in a strange period, after the end of Modernism."

Scully's statement is interesting to me, and I think it is a fair assessment of art between the World Wars, and also the current state of contemporary art.  Personally, I look upon Hodgkin, Walker, and Scully's works as an ideal.  Somehow they transcend the nasty, ugly, cold, and soulless work being produced today.  But every work has a place and purpose, and every age gets the art it deserves.  The nasty, ugly, cold, and soulless work is a reflection of our times.  Ah, but to escape!

Jackson Pollock and the CIA by Chris Hall

Jackson Pollock's  No. 5  (detail), 1948 and Fyodor Savvich Shurpin's   Morning of Our Motherland  (detail), 1946-48.

Jackson Pollock's No. 5 (detail), 1948 and Fyodor Savvich Shurpin's  Morning of Our Motherland (detail), 1946-48.

In 1958 and 1959, Jackson Pollock's paintings toured Basel, Milan, Madrid, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London as part of the 81 work exhibition The New American Painting, featuring the work of many of his Abstract Expressionist peers.  The exhibit was sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a front organization for the CIA.  It was not the first time, or the last, that CIA spooks would use Abstract Expressionist work as propaganda, dropping the A-Bomb, the Aesthetic-Bomb, on unsuspecting Communists of the Eastern Bloc.  

Pollock's work, and that of his peers, was raw, wild, powerful stuff.  Abstract Expressionism didn't just break the rules, it seemed completely ruleless, especially when compared with the art coming out of the Soviet Union, which favored Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism can best be described as staid, true depictions of wholesome farmers and productive workers, politically tinged art bordering on gross propaganda.  Pollock's work, and that of the Abstract Expressionists, is a highly individualistic, rough and tumble mode of expression blasted onto canvases as large as open fields of amber waves of grain.  Compared with the confines of Socialist Realism, Pollock's work feels absolutely liberated; it screams freedom.  And the CIA thought it was American as hell.  America!  Fuck yeah!

For years it was rumored that the CIA had covertly sponsored Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, but it wasn't until just recently, when former CIA spook Donald Jameson stepped out of the shadows and broke silence, that the full extent of their involvement in making Abstract Expressionist art a weapon of the Cold War has been revealed.   At first, it would seem the connection between the CIA and Abstract Expressionist art would be improbable.  At the time, the 1950's and 1960's, many Americans despised Modern Art, and many of the artists themselves were ex-communists, barely acceptable in the era of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare.  This isn't supposed to be the kind of art to receive backing from the U.S. Government.  And that was the consensus when  the State Department initially made open attempts to support the new American art.  In 1947 the State Department organized and paid for a touring international exhibition entitled Advancing American Art, with the goal being to rebut Soviet suggestions that America was a cultural wasteland.  The show was controversial at home, prompting President Harry Truman to remark, “If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot,” and one bitter congressman to declared, “I am just a dumb American who pays taxes for this kind of trash.”  The tour of Advancing American Art had to be canceled.  The State Department now faced a dilemma.  The government's philistinism, along with Joseph McCarthy's hysterical denunciations of anything avant-garde or unorthodox, was deeply embarrassing.  It betrayed the idea that America was a sophisticated and culturally rich democracy, and it also prevented the consolidation of cultural supremacy, which began shifting away from Paris to New York City in the 1930's, due to emigration of artists fleeing Europe during the Second World War.  To resolve this dilemma, the CIA was brought in. 

Their secretive nature aside, the CIA, at the time, was the perfect choice to carry out the clandestine art project.  The newly formed agency, born out of the OSS in 1947, was staffed with Ivy League graduates and connoisseurs of Modern Art.  Compared with the Cold War hyperbolics of  Joseph McCarthy and J Edgar Hoover's conservative FBI, the CIA was a haven of liberalism.  If anyone was prepared to secretly champion a bunch of hard drinking ex-Communists, it was the CIA.  The CIA set to work at influencing culture as soon as it was set up in 1947.  Dismayed at the appeal Communism still had on Western artists and intellectuals, the CIA formed the Propaganda Assets Inventory, which at its peak could influence over 800 newspapers, magazines, and public information organizations.  Next, the CIA set up the International Organizations Division, directed by Tom Braden.  The International Organizations Division subsidized the animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, and sponsored tours of American Jazz artists, opera productions, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  They had agents in the film industry, publishing houses, and even had writers working with Fodor's Travel Guides.  It was seem almost inevitable, then, that the CIA would begin promoting the anarchic Modern Art movement, Abstract Expressionism.

“Regarding Abstract Expressionism, I'd love to be able to say that the CIA invented it just to see what happens in New York and downtown SoHo tomorrow!  But I think that what we did really was to recognize the difference.  It was recognized that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was.  And that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions. . .  In a way our understanding was helped because Moscow in those days was very vicious in its denunciation of any kind of non-conformity to its own very rigid patterns.  And so one could quite adequately and accurately reason that anything they criticized that much and that heavy- handedly was worth support one way or another.”  Donald Jameson, quoted in Frances Stonor Saunders' article, “Modern Art was a CIA Weapon” for The Independent, October 22 1995.

To pursue its underground interest in American leftist avant-garde art, the CIA had to be sure that its patronage could not be discovered.  They conducted “Long Leash” operations, working two, sometimes three steps removed, influencing culture from a distance.  The central office for the CIA campaign to sponsor Abstract Expressionism was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a fake foundation and clearing house for the CIA's black budget for the arts.  At its height, the Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines.  These magazines would be staffed with critics favorable to Abstract Expressionism.  Using the Congress of Cultural Freedom as a front, the CIA funneled millions of dollars, secretly sponsoring a variety of artists, and no one, not even the artists, would be any wiser.   

"We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War."  Tom Braden (head of the CIA's International Organizations Division), quoted in Frances Stonor Saunders' article, “Modern Art was a CIA Weapon” for The Independent, October 22 1995.

Would Abstract Expressionism have been the dominant art movement of the post-war years without this patronage?  Yes, I still think so.  There is something essential about the movement that really tapped into the zeitgeist of the time (and, I would argue, still has some relevance today).  Equally, it would be wrong to suggest that when you look at an Abstract Expressionist painting, you are being duped by the CIA.  Pollock's work may have been used as propaganda, but it is decidedly not propaganda.  Everything we have learned about the movement still holds true, the spiritual depth, the myth-making, etc.  It just seems that now the movement had an unusual secret patron in the CIA.  If the CIA had any lasting effect on Art history, however, it might be that their programing to champion Abstract Expressionists (the first generation of which were known as the New York School) helped consolidate the intellectual and economic center of the art world in New York City, after it had shifted from Paris following the Second World War, but even this is up for debate.

Today, those critical of Abstract Expressionism say that because the movement was so essentially apolitical, that it allowed the work to be easily co-opted and used by the government, against the intent of the artists.  Yes, I agree that a more figurative and politically transparent work would not have been so easily used, but I challenge the idea that art must always be in the service of radical politics.  Making politically motivated art is a good thing (so long as it doesn't become so rigid and confined as the Socialist Realist art of the Eastern Bloc), but it is also important to realize that there are some things, some subjects, that in their proper time and place, trump politics.  This is proven today by the surviving strength of Abstract Expressionist work, even as the politics of the Cold War that surrounded its creation, has vanished.  The world needs spiritual nourishment equally as much as it needs political art motivations.  

Jackson Pollock Part Two by Chris Hall

From Triumph to Tragedy

When the WPA closed in 1943, Pollock was forced to take work as a custodian for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum).  It was here that he met Peggy Guggenheim, who encouraged him to submit work to her gallery Art of This Century.  Pollock signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim in July 1943.  He received the commission to create Mural (1943), which measures roughly 8 feet tall by 20 feet long, for the entry to her new townhouse. At the suggestion of her friend and advisor Marcel Duchamp, Pollock painted the work on canvas, rather than the wall, so that it would be portable.  After seeing Mural, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: "I took one look at it and I thought, 'Now that's great art,' and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced."  Mural would prove important in Pollock's transition from a style shaped by murals, Native American art, and European modernism towards his mature drip technique. 

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.”  Jackson Pollock.

In October 1945, Pollock married the American painter Lee Krasner.  In November they escaped from what Pollock called the “wear and tear” of New York City to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island.  With the help of a down-payment loaned by Peggy Guggenheim, they bought a wood-frame house and barn at 830 Springs Fireplace Road.  Pollock converted the barn into a studio.  Life was almost idyllic for Pollock and Krasner at Springs.  Pollock expanded his family to include a dog, Gyp, and a crow, Caw-Caw.  He was also able to quit drinking for two years, 1949-50, and he became very productive.  For example, in 1945 he painted only 20 canvases, but in 1949, when he was on the wagon, he painted twice as many.  In 1950, his most productive year, he painted nearly 50.  

In the studio at Springs, Pollock perfected his big "drip" technique of working with paint, with which he would become permanently identified.  In the following years his style became more boldly abstract still, and he produced works like Shimmering Substance (1946).  The following year he finally hit on the idea of flinging and pouring paint, and thus found the means to create the light, airy and apparently endless webs of color that he was reaching towards.  Masterpieces such as Full Fathom Five (1947) were the result. 

Drip paintings (1947- 1950)

“New needs need new techniques.  And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements . . . the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”  Jackson Pollock.

The famous 'drip paintings' that he began to produce in the late 1940s represent one of the most original bodies of work of the century.  At times they could suggest the life-force in nature itself, at others they could evoke man's entrapment - in the body, in the anxious mind, and in the newly frightening modern world.  Sometimes Pollock's work suggests the obliteration of the figure, the shattered and fragmented self as the modern condition.  At other times it suggests a peaceful destruction, as inner bleeds into outer, the self exploding into the universe, where there is unity, harmony, and wholeness.

Pollock first tried the drip technique in 1936, in a New York experimental art workshop run by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  He also knew about the Surrealists’ experiments with spontaneously applied paint, and used it himself off and on throughout the early to mid 1940s.  He later used paint pouring as one of several techniques on canvases of the early 1940s, such as Male and Female, Composition with Pouring I and Composition with Pouring II.  By 1947 he had perfected the technique of pouring, flinging and spattering liquid paint, and could control its flow to achieve the effects he was after. 

Pollock started using synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, which, at that time, was a novel medium.  Pollock described this use of household paints, instead of artist’s paints, as "a natural growth out of a need.”  He used hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes as paint applicators.  Pollock's technique of pouring and dripping paint is thought to be one of the origins of the term “Action Painting.”  The term “Action Painting” was coined by American art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952.  This style of painting focuses on art as a process rather than just a finished product.  The act of creation itself is the point and not just the painting alone.  By defying the convention of painting on an upright surface, Pollock added a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions.  While painting this way, Pollock moved away from figurative representation and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush.  Pollock used the force of his whole body to paint, which was expressed on the large canvases.  In 1956, Time magazine dubbed Pollock "Jack the Dripper," due to his painting style.  

"My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.  When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well."
—Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956

James Joyce describes his work Finnegans Wake as being a “chaosmos.”  I think this description would be applicable to Jackson Pollock's paintings of 1947 to 1950 as well.  His drip works have no hierarchical organization, no figure ground relationships, no focal point, no perspective.  Everything is obliterated, everything but the All.  Pollock's art making process seems to me like he is channeling the forces of nature while working in a Shaman's ritual trance state.  Flinging, dripping, pouring, and spattering, he would move energetically around the canvas, almost as if in a dance, and would not stop until he saw what he wanted to see.  Pollock observed American Indian sand painting demonstrations in the early 1940s.  Referring to his style of painting on the floor, Pollock stated, “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk round it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  This is akin to the methods of the Indian sand painters of the West.”   

While it was a mixture of controllable and uncontrollable factors, Pollock denied reliance on "the accident"; he usually had an idea of how he wanted a particular piece to appear. His technique combined the movement of his body, over which he had control, the viscous flow of paint, the force of gravity, and the absorption of paint into the canvas.  

In the 21st century, the physicists Richard Taylor, Adam Micolich and David Jonas studied Pollock's works and technique. They determined that some works display the properties of mathematical fractals although this could not be replicated by others.  They assert that the works expressed more fractal qualities as Pollock progressed in his career.  The authors speculate that Pollock may have had an intuition of the nature of chaotic motion, and tried to express mathematical chaos, more than ten years before "Chaos Theory" was proposed.  Their work was used in trying to evaluate the authenticity of some works that were represented as Pollock's. 

Pollock's most famous paintings were made during the "drip period" between 1947 and 1950.  He rocketed to fame following an August 8, 1949 four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"  In 1950, he had a successful solo exhibition, and, along with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, was selected by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the Venice Biennale.  Pollock also signed the open letter protesting The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition American Painting Today – 1950, for its exclusion of Abstract Expressionist artists.  The 18 signers became known as “The Irascibles” and Life magazine published an article of the affair along with the now famous photograph of the group, which included artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell.

The Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg Film

In 1950, Pollock was at the pinnacle of his career, but by the end of the year he was drinking again.  In July 1950, Hans Namuth approached Pollock and asked to photograph the artist working in his studio.  Encouraged by his wife, Lee Krasner, who was aware of the importance of media coverage, Pollock agreed.  Not satisfied with black and white stills, Namuth wanted to create a color film that managed to focus on Pollock and his painting at the same time, partially because he found more interest in Pollock's image than in his art.  His solution was to have Pollock paint on a large sheet of glass as Namuth filmed from underneath the work.  As Namuth could not afford professional lighting, the film was shot outside Pollock's Long Island home.  This documentary (co-produced with Paul Falkenberg) is considered one of the most influential documentary films on an artist ever made. 

 

In November 1950, Namuth and Pollock's relationship came to an abrupt conclusion.  Jeffrey Potter, a close friend of Pollock's, described Namuth as commanding, frequently telling Pollock when to start and stop painting.  According to Potter, Pollock "felt what was happening was phony."  Namuth himself describes Pollock as being "very nervous and very self-conscious" of the filming at the time.  After coming in from the cold-weather shoot of the glass painting, Pollock, who had been in treatment since 1938 for alcoholism, poured himself a tumbler of bourbon whiskey after having been sober for two years.  An argument between Namuth and Pollock ensued with each calling the other a "phony,” culminating in Pollock overturning a table of food and dinnerware in front of several guests.  From then on, Pollock reverted to a more figure-oriented style of painting, leading some to say that Namuth's sessions robbed Pollock of his rawness.  Some have argued that Namuth made Pollock feel disingenuous about his drip technique, which he had previously done spontaneously, but in the film seemed coerced. 

During his time with Pollock, Hans Namuth had created two films and captured more than 500 photographs of the artist.  These photos have also allowed art historians to dissect the details of Pollock's method.  For example, art historian Pepe Karmel found that Pollock's painting in Namuth's first black-and-white film began with several careful drippings forming two humanoid figures and a wolf before being covered beneath several layers of paint. 

The Late Works (1951 - 1956)

“I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.  But when you're painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”  Jackson Pollock.

At the peak of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned the drip style.  After a brief period of producing dark, monochromatic works, he returned to using color and reintroduced figurative elements.  The new paintings were badly received when Pollock first exhibited them, but he continued to work on them right through 1953, his last productive year of work.  During this period, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice and Pollock's gallery, Art of This Century had closed.  Gallery owner Betty Parsons had taken over his contract.  There was great demand for his work from collectors, but critics were giving him bad reviews for returning to more figurative art.  In response to this pressure, along with personal frustration, his alcoholism deepened.   

His personal troubles only increased in his later years.  He left Betty Parsons Gallery, and, as his reputation preceded him, he struggled to find another gallery.  He painted little in 1954, claiming that he had nothing left to say.  In 1955, Pollock painted Scent and Search, his last two paintings.  He did not paint at all in 1956, but was making sculptures at Tony Smith’s home: constructions of wire, gauze, and plaster.  Shaped by sand-casting, they have heavily textured surfaces similar to what Pollock often created in his paintings.  In the summer of 1956, Krasner took a trip to Europe to get some distance from Pollock, and soon after the painter began a relationship with 25 year old art-star groupie Ruth Kligman, who he had met at the Cedar Bar.  On August 11, 1956, at 10:15 pm, Pollock, age 44, died in a single-car crash in his green 1950 Oldsmobile convertible while driving under the influence of alcohol.  Pollock lost control of the car on a curve and he plunged into the woods at 60 or 70 miles an hour.  One of the passengers, Edith Metzger, was also killed in the accident, which occurred less than a mile from Pollock's home.  The other passenger, Ruth Kligman, miraculously survived. 

For the rest of her life, Pollock's widow Lee Krasner managed his estate and ensured that Pollock's reputation remained strong despite changing art world trends.  Lee Krasner died in 1984.  They are buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs with a large boulder marking his grave and a smaller one marking hers. 

Jackson Pollock Part One by Chris Hall

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art.  He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism.  His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today.  Pollock is best known for his unique style of drip painting.  Regarded as reclusive, he had a volatile personality, and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life.  In 1945, he married the artist Lee Krasner, who became an important influence on his career and on his legacy.  Some have argued that the troubled and reclusive Pollock would not have been successful without Krasner's tireless efforts to promote him.  Pollock died at age 44.  Along with other American celebrities who died before their time, such as Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, his life has become mythologized and become a part of American collective identity.  

Pollock's Shift from Radical Politics to Mythic Visionary

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five sons.  He grew up in Arizona and in Chico, California.  While living in Echo Park, California, he enrolled at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled for protesting the  school's special treatment of athletics and the ROTC.  During his early life, Pollock explored Native American culture while on surveying trips with his father.  Pollock would count Native American art as his first and primary influence.

Growing up in California, Pollock's interest in art was supported by his father, Roy Pollock.  Jackson became interested in the work Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Another influence was his art teacher at Manual Arts High School, Frederick Schwankovsky.  Schwankovsky, who was a Communist Party member, would go with Pollock to Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles and to spiritualist Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, where he learned about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics and perhaps gained an interest in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.  

In 1930, Pollock followed his older brother Charles, and moved to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.  Benton's rural American subject matter, know as Regionalism, would have little lasting influence on Pollock's work, but his rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence were more lasting.  Benton used Pollock as a model for a steel worker in his mural America Today (1930 – 1931) in the New School for Social Research.  While Benton was not a Communist, he was sympathetic to leftist and progressive politics.  His art champions the working class and many parallels can be drawn between his work and Socialist Realism.  During the Great Depression, a lot more people were open to radical politics as a possible solution out of economic woe.  Pollock recalled his father frequently defended the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Pollock, who grew up in a left leaning family, found in Benton a surrogate father figure.    

1933 was a watershed year for Pollock, America, and the world at large.  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, and Pollock watched as Diego Rivera painted his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.  Soon, Pollock's taste for avant-garde art and radical politics led him to break away from Benton.  Pollock was becoming more interested in the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.  All three were known for their radical politics, with Rivera and Siqueiros being active members of the Communist Party.  

In 1936, Pollock attended Siqueiros' political art workshop and quickly became a part of his inner circle.  Siqueiros was a Stalinist and would later attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940.  Pollock collaborated with Siqueiros and his entourage in creating a float for the May Day Parade which featured a Wall Street capitalist holding a donkey and elephant, indicating that both parties were controlled by big money and thus were enemies to the people, and a large ticker-tape machine being smashed by a hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.  When the Great Depression began to ease, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal and his WPA programs, many people, including Pollock, began turning away from radical politics.  Siqueiros's experimental techniques, however, (such as pouring liquid paint) would have a lasting impact on Pollock's art.

From 1935 to 1943 Pollock worked for Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, the visual arts arts arm of the Work Projects Administration.  The FAP's primary goal was to employ out of work artists.  These artists were hired to primarily to create art for public spaces.  The FAP was divided into mural arts, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts.  Pollock worked for the easel division.  By 1936, the FAP employed over 6,000 artists.  FAP artists created more than 200,000 works of art.

“I don't paint nature.  I am nature.”  Jackson Pollock.

In 1938, Pollock had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for four months for alcoholism.  Recent historians have speculated that Pollock might have suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Whatever the reason, from 1938 to 1942, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy, first with Dr. Joseph Henderson, and later with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.  When World War II broke out, Pollock's Selective Service status of 4F for medical reasons (neurosis) kept him from being drafted.  Henderson engaged Pollock through his art, encouraging him to make drawings exploring Jungian concepts and archetypes.  These would later feed his paintings and shaped Pollock's understanding that his pictures were not only the outpourings of his own mind, but also, perhaps, the universal expression of mankind's modern condition and the terror of having to live in the shadow of nuclear war.

During this time, Pollock grew more interested in mythology and began using his art and dreams as healing tool and a method to explore the inner self.  Henderson and  Staub de Laszlo had also reawakened Pollock's interest in Native American art.  Some Jungian analysts believe in the controversial theory that a colonizing people inherit the racial memory of the natives they displace.  Henderson and Staub de Laszlo encouraged Pollock's exploration of Native American inspired art.  Pollock began attending demonstrations of Native American sand painting at the Museum of Modern Art and attended a workshop hosted by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist in exile, Wolfgang Paalen (which, incidentally, was also attended by future Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottleib, and William Baziotes).  Paalen was famous for his fumage technique of making images from the smoke produced by candles.  He was also an expert on Native British Columbian Totem art.  Paalen's lengthy article, Totem Art, would later be a significant influence upon Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1936, Pollock had for the first time briefly met Lee Krasner, but the two would not meet again until 1941.  In time, their relationship would bring Pollock some of the few spells of calm and happiness he would ever know.  Despite hs personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art.  Krasner, impressed with Pollock's work, introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann was equally enthusiastic, and a friendship between the two men soon developed.  Once, Hofmann was said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock replied, “I don't paint nature, I am nature.”

Clyfford Still: Uncompromising Artist by Chris Hall

"Still makes the rest of us look academic."  Jackson Pollock.

"How can we live and die and never know the difference?"  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still was an American painter and a member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who made monumental works of art conveying universal aspects of the human condition, such as creation, life, struggle, and death, themes which took on considerable relevance during and immediately following World War II.  He was the first among his peers, namely Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and others, to break free from representational work and into pure, non-objective abstraction.  Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota, and spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington, and on the sprawling, wind swept plains of southern Alberta, Canada.  The harsh conditions in Canada would color Still's disposition and his approach toward art, fostering his need for solitude and an independent lifestyle.  He attended the Art Students League briefly in New York City, but graduated from Spokane University in 1933, and then Washington State College, in 1935.  In 1937, Still co-founded the Nespelem Art Colony, where he produced portraits and landscapes of the people and locales on the Colville Indian Reservation.

In 1941, Still relocated to the San Francisco Bay area where he worked in various war industry work to subsidize his pursuit of painting.  It was here that Still meet Mark Rothko for the first time, and the two became fast friends.  Still would have an influence on both Mark Rothko, and his friend, Barnett Newman, as by this time, Still was already painting pure, non-objective abstract work.  In 1943, Still had his first solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art.  From 1943 to 1945, Still taught at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth College), before moving to New York City.

“I want the spectator to be on his own before the paintings, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul.”  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still lived in New York City for most of the 1950's, at the height of Abstract Expressionism.  Even among his peers, Still was considered an outsider.  During this time, Still became increasingly critical of the art world.  He rejected any attempts by others to explain his art, and began naming his paintings after numbers, letters, and the year made to make interpretation difficult.  Still also distanced himself from European Classical and Modernist traditions, believing them to be decadent and profane, and said he came up with abstraction on his own, without any influence from art history.  In 1952, Still severed ties with commercial galleries, and refused to show in New York City until 1967, as he felt the city was too corrupt for his work.

In 1961 Clyfford Still distanced himself further from the art world when he moved to a 22 acre farm near Westminster, Maryland, where he would paint in the barn during the warmer months.  Five years later, Still would purchase a house eight miles away, in New Windsor, Maryland, where he would live until his death in 1980.

“You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire.”  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still's work, like those of his peers Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, is largely concerned with juxtaposing different colors and surfaces.  Unlike Rothko and Newman, whose work is organized in a relatively simple way (Rothko's rectangular shapes and Newman's single, vertical zip), Still's compositions are less regular, and are, perhaps, more organic.  His jagged flashes of color can leave one with the impression that  one layer of color was torn off the canvas, to reveal the colors underneath.  Still also departs from Rothko and Newman in how he applies his paint.  Rothko and Newman used flat, thinned paints, where Still used thick, impasto paints, often applied with palette knives, causing a subtle variety of shades and sheen which shimmer across the canvas.

Detail from a Clyfford Still painting, attempting to show the thick, impasto paint.

Still's large, mature work recalls natural forms and phenomena; the ancient stalagmites, mysterious caverns, foliage, and canyons bathed in darkness and light give the impression of the poetic sublime.  His vast, expansive canvases seem to go on forever and overwhelm the viewer, and it seems Still could have painted forever, if it were not for the edges of the painting.  Still once remarked that it was "intolerable to be stopped by a frame's edge."  Often Still's work seem to echo the earth tones and open spaces of the Western Plains where he grew up (although Still, true to his irascible nature, would deny any connections between his art and the natural landscape).  

Philosophically, the work might also reveal Still's obsession with the dualism of good and evil, as symbolized through his use of light and dark, although, most likely, Still would deny that, too.  As an artist, Still's difficulty and propensity for being a loner is on par with William Blake and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Like Rothko and some of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, Still believed that his art had a living spirit and that it contained magic.  He believed his art was more than just the sum of their parts.  “I never wanted color to be color.  I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes.  I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.”

Still, like many of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, was not interested in painting the specifics of his time, but instead interested in creating timeless, universal work, appealing to mankind's inner mythologies.  Still distrusted science, technology, and the works of man, especially after the invention of the atomic bomb, and wanted to produce work to counteract the damage done to humanity by them.  "I am not interested in illustrating my time.  A man's "time" limits him, it does not truly liberate him.  Our age - it is one of science, of mechanism, of power and death.  I see no point in adding to its mechanism of power and death. I see no point in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of a graphic homage." 

In his will, written in 1978, two years before his death, Still left a portion of his work and his complete archives to his wife, Patricia, but left the rest any “American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged but are to be retained in the place described above exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”  After Still's death in 1980, the Still collection of approximately 2,400 works was sealed off completely from public and scholarly access for more than two decades.  Finally, in August 2004, the city of Denver, Colorado announced that they would, with Patricia's blessing, receive Still's artworks and build a museum for them.  Patricia also bequeathed her own collection of paintings and the complete archives to the museum as well.  The Clyfford Still Museum opened to the public in 2010.  It contains approximately 3,125 works of art completed between 1920 and 1980, 95 percent of Clyfford Still's lifetime artistic output.

Clyfford Still's art was noble in nature.  He spent his career focused on human aspiration, the personal search for identity, and the liberation of the spirit.  It was a path from which he never strayed.  To me, Clyfford Still's art is emblematic of a life lived with no compromise and the maintenance of personal integrity.  I think more contemporary artists should look to Clyfford Still as an example of an artistic life well lived. 

“I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”  Clyfford Still. 

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

Yayoi Kusama: Queen of Polka-dots by Chris Hall

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My first impression of Yayoi Kusama’s work was not favorable.  What I saw was phenomena art, kind of like Op Art . . . no real substance beyond just what you see.  It seemed to me that her work had a 60’s psychedelic design flavor to it.  I knew she was associated with Pop Art and had exhibited alongside both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, both artists I do not care much for.  I also knew that she had no problem translating her art into pop culture consumer products.  She is shameless promoting her collaborative efforts with Louis Vuitton.  

Then there are the endless self portraits, photographs of her in front of her work.  I thought her art was kind of narcissistic.  Her outlandish clothing blurs into the paintings behind her, and blurs the line between fine art and fashion.  I am not one to really care about fashion and outward appearances, I’ve always been more concerned with what is deeper and inside, nor am I one to care much about cults of personalities.   I’ve always thought her self-portraits literally got in the way of the paintings behind her.

Yayoi Kusama is the Queen of Polka-dots.  Where Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are cold and pharmaceutical, Kusama’s art at least has a celebratory feel to it.  I’ll giver her credit for that.  This is a reflection from the peace and love idealism she embraced in the 60’s.  Still, I could not get past that a lot of her work was reminiscent of a fabric pattern.  

All of these negative things really colored my perspective of both her and her work.  So, it was to my surprise when I discovered that she had once identified with the abstract expressionists, this was before she changed allegiances to Pop Art in the 1960’s.  She made some really good work.  In reading about her, I found she could be really deep and psychically aware.  Here is a really good quote from her concerning one of her paintings, Flower (D.S.P.S.), 1954:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

It is clear that Kusama is sensitive to her surroundings, a signature of a good artist.  Perhaps this sensitivity is why she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital ever since 1977.  What about the polka-dots?  They are more than just decorative elements to her.  This is what she has to say about the dots:

A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.

This might not always translate to me in her work, but I like that in her heart she still has an appreciation for symbolism (many in contemporary art do not).  I have also learned to like some of her recent installation work.  I find that it can be beautiful and even, at times, sublime.  Her work sometimes suggests to me self-obliteration, infinity, losing yourself, and dissolving the ego into the universal void.  There is some spirituality hidden in there!  This is not your average everyday Pop Art!  

It is good to be skeptical . . . just do not allow it to overwhelm your curiosity. I am glad I dug deeper into Kusama's art and gave it another chance.  I've learned to appreciate both the substance and motivation behind some of her work. Unfortunately we do have to be willing to get past work such as her video piece Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010) in order to access it.

The Artist as Seer Shaman Healer Seeker Voyager Pioneer Visionary by Chris Hall

Many artists and art critics today have abandoned the notion that artists are somehow special.  Perhaps they are not special.  Instead, with art in the expanded field, we have artists taking on pedestrian pursuits – artist as scientist, artist as data collector, artist as food service, etc.  These artists do not soar . . . not like the old art heroes of old, anyways.  

What made these old artists special?  They were professional Shaman, Seers, Healers, and Seekers of ecstatic truths.  They were Voyagers, Pioneers, and Visionaries . . . Artists with a capital “A,” in service to the mystery.  The notion of the artist as Seer, in modern Western Art, dates back to the early German Romantics.  Before that it was championed by the Greeks who would use poetry, song, and art for magical and prophetic purposes.  Yes, artists are different from most people, at least that is the way it use to be.

Gordon Onslow-Ford:

The Unknown manifests itself through the open mind.

The closed mind is personal.
The open mind is impersonal.

When the mind opens, something original can come
In.  The open mind is not something that can be
Learned or switched on at will.  It happens naturally.

The Visionary Artist can access what some shamans call the Dreamtime, that is they can access realities where the past, present, and future co-exist simultaneously.   I often see this kind of vision manifested in work of the abstract expressionists.  Many lay people ridicule abstract expressionist work, claiming they can do the work themselves.  This is definitely not so.  It requires a certain type of vision that can not be taught, nor can the artist force the vision onto their work.  It is a gift and it happens, or doesn’t happen, naturally.  

“I say that the true artist seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own human conscience.” J.D. Salinger

If there is a problem with abstract expressionist work, it is that it doesn't always translate to the audience.  Some people are just more sensitive than others.  Painting abstract expressionist work is the recording of an event, of a vision, more than it is a final product.  The modern artist uses the art making process to heal themselves, and if the end result, the finished painting, also heals an audience, so much the better.  The shaman, however, must use their art to heal their community.  Their work must translate their vision to a lay audience.  

The Seer by Alex Grey

From the caves of Altimira
To a New York studio,
The Seer has inspired the artist
With Vision’s unceasing flow.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Magus through ages untold,
Transmuting the lead of matter
Into bullets of spiritual gold.

The ego picks up the weapon of art,
Childlike, it plays with the trigger.
Blowing the head off it’s contracted self,
Awareness is suddenly bigger.
By slaying the ego and stunning
The chatter of thoughts as they rise,
Great art shuts out distractions
Delighting the heart through the eyes.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Revealing the Mystery as form,
Advancing our civilization
By inventing and destroying the norm.
The redemptive Sorceress, Art
Can heal the nausea of being,
Opening vistas of hope and beauty,
Revealing deep patterns of meaning.

The function of art is to stop us
And take us out of our skin,
Unveiling the spirit’s pure nakedness
Without beginning or end.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Gaze fixed on primordial perfection.
Radiance emerges from emptiness,
Each point of light etched with affection.

The boundless Void, open and formless
Is the basis of all creation.
Visions appear and then dissolve
Reinforcing this realization.

From beyond the vision descends
From within the vision arises
Coalescing in the divine imagination,
Source of continual surprises.

The Seer is the soul of the artist
The Maker is the artist’s hand
In the studio their conversations
Translate a timeless command.

These dialogues of Maker and Seer
Weave together matter with soul,
Consecrating the practice of art
As speech of the ineffable.

Art making transforms the artist,
And to any hearts truly under
Creation’s intoxicating spell
The Seer transmits holy wonder.

Search for the Sublime by Chris Hall

I long for a spiritual revival in Contemporary Art.  The last time a formal movement championed this was Abstract Expressionism/Art Informal in the 1940’s and 50’s.  The sublime works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and others was a refreshing antidote to the dead, propagandistic art coming out of the Eastern Bloc at the time (though it was recently declassified that the CIA secretly championed the movement to help attract intellectuals to the freedom of expression tagline, this, despite the fact that many of the artists were radicals and former Communists).  

But in today’s Contemporary Art theory, which is largely Marxist in nature, there is no room for religion or spirituality.  They too often confuse the sins of organized religion with spirituality, which is more personal in nature.  To these critics, spirituality is considered anachronistic and kitsch (not so much dangerous, because danger is sexy and inviting).  I would like to see more spirituality in art, more of the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime, such as described by the philosopher Edmund Burke, but interpreted through a new, contemporary lense.  Humanity needs this nourishment.  We drink eight glasses of water a day and still thirst for the infinite.  

 

Click on the images below for larger size and image details

Anselm Kiefer,  Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior , 2005

Anselm Kiefer, Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior, 2005