Vol 1 No 4
The American Action Painters
(In discussion of contemporary art, there is probably no term more used than ‘Action Painting’ and certainly none more abused. The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, for example, defines it thus: ‘Splashing and dribbling paint on canvas. The basic assumption is that the Unconscious will take over and produce a work of art. The technique is claimed to go back to Leonardo, who suggested using stains on walls . . . etc., etc.’ It is evident from this sort of thing that the essay by Mr Harold Rosenberg in which the concept was first formulated is known on this side of the Atlantic mainly by hearsay. We have therefore thought it worthwhile to reprint it here. We do so at this late date, not only because it is a classic yet not readily accessible, but because the issues it raises are still very much alive (see, for example, Encounter, June 1961). The text published here is the revised version which appeared in Mr Rosenberg’s volume of collected essays, The Tradition of the New (Horizon Press, New York, 1959).)
‘J’ai fait des gestes blanc parmi les solitudes.’ APOLLINAIRE
‘The American will is easily satisfied in its efforts to realize itself in knowing itself.’ WALLACE STEVENS
What makes any definition of a movement in art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artists in the movement — certainly not as well as, if successful, it does the others. Yet without the definition something essential in those best is bound to be missed. The attempt to define is like a game in which you cannot possibly reach the goal from the starting point but can only close in on it by picking up each time from where the last play landed.
MODERN ART? OR AN ART OF THE MODERN?
Since the war every twentieth-century style in painting is being brought to profusion in the United States: thousands of ‘abstract’ painters — crowded teaching courses in Modern Art — a scattering of new heroes — ambitions stimulated by new galleries, mass exhibitions, reproductions in popular magazines, festivals, appropriations.
Is this the usual catching up of America with European art forms? Or is something new being created? For the question of novelty, a definition would seem indispensable.
Some people deny that there is anything original in the recent American painting. Whatever is being done here now, they claim, was done thirty years ago in Paris. You can trace this painter’s boxes of symbols to Kandinsky, that one’s moony shapes to Miró or even back to Cézanne.
Quantitatively, it is true that most of the symphonies in blue and red rectangles, the wandering pelvises and birdbills, the line constructions and plane suspensions, the virginal dissections of flat areas that crowd the art shows are accretions to the ‘School of Paris’ brought into being by the fact that the mode of production of modern masterpieces has now been all too clearly rationalized. There are styles in the present displays which the painter could have acquired by putting a square inch of a Soutine or a Bonnard under a microscope . . . All this is training based on a new conception of what art is, rather than original work demonstrating what art is about to become.
At the centre of this wide practising of the immediate past, however, the work of some painters has separated itself from the rest by a consciousness of a function for painting different from that of the earlier ‘abstractionists’, both the Europeans themselves and the Americans who joined them in the years of the Great Vanguard.
This new painting does not constitute a School. To form a School in modern times not only is a new painting consciousness needed but a consciousness of that consciousness — and even an insistence on certain formulas. A School is the result of the linkage of practice with terminology — different paintings are affected by the same words. In the American vanguard the words, as we shall see, belong not to the art but to the individual artists. What they think in common is represented only by what they do separately.
GETTING INSIDE THE CANVAS
At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.
It is pointless to argue that Rembrandt or Michelangelo worked in the same way. You don’t get Lucrece with a dagger out of staining a piece of cloth or spontaneously putting forms into motion upon it. She had to exist some place else before she got on the canvas, and paint was Rembrandt’s means for bringing her there, though, of course, a means that would change her by the time she arrived. Now, everything must have been in the tubes, in the painter’s muscles and in the cream-coloured sea into which he dives. If Lucrece should come out she will be among us for the first time — a surprise. To the painter, she must be a surprise. In this mood there is no point to an act if you already know what it contains.
‘B — is not modern,’ one of the leaders of this mode said to me. ‘He works from sketches. That makes him Renaissance.’
Here the principle, and the difference from the old painting, is made into a formula. A sketch is the preliminary form of an image the mind is trying to grasp. To work from sketches arouses the suspicion that the artist still regards the canvas as a place where the mind records its contents—rather than itself the ‘mind’ through which the painter thinks by changing a surface with paint.
If a painting is an action the sketch is one action, the painting that follows it another. The second cannot be ‘better’ or more complete than the first. There is just as much in what one lacks as in what the other has.
Of course, the painter who spoke had no right to assume that his friend had the old mental conception of a sketch. There is no reason why an act cannot be prolonged from a piece of paper to a canvas. Or repeated on another scale and with more control. A sketch can have the function of a skirmish.
Call this painting ‘abstract’ or ‘Expressionist’ or ‘Abstract-Expressionist’, what counts is its special motive for extinguishing the object, which is not the same as in other abstract or Expressionist phases of modern art.
The new American painting is not ‘pure’ art, since the extrusion of the object was not for the sake of the aesthetic. The apples weren’t brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and colour. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting. In this gesturing with materials, the aesthetic, too, has been subordinated. Form, colour, composition, drawing, are auxiliaries, any one of which — or practically all, as has been attempted logically, with unpainted canvases — can be dispensed with. What matters always is the revelation contained in the act. It is to be taken for granted that in the final effect, the image, whatever be or be not in it, will be a tension. (1)
DRAMAS OF AS IF
A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a ‘moment’ in the adulterated mixture of his life — whether ‘moment’ means the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or the entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.
It follows that anything is relevant to it. Anything that has to do with action — psychology, philosophy, history, mythology, hero worship. (2) Anything but art criticism. The painter gets away from art through his act of painting; the critic can’t get away from it. The critic who goes on judging in terms of schools, styles, form — as if the painter were still concerned with producing a certain kind of object (the work of art), instead of living on the canvas — is bound to seem a stranger.
Some painters take advantage of this stranger. Having insisted that their painting is an act, they then claim admiration for the act as art. This turns the act back toward the aesthetic in a petty circle. If the picture is an act, it cannot be justified as an act of genius in a field whose whole measuring apparatus has been sent to the devil. Its value must be found apart from art. Otherwise the ‘act’ gets to be ‘making a painting’ at sufficient speed to meet an exhibition date.
Art — relation of the painting to the works of the past, rightness of colour, texture, balance, etc. — comes back into painting by way of psychology. As Stevens says of poetry, ‘it is a process of the personality of the poet’. But the psychology is the psychology of creation. Not that of the so-called psychological criticism that wants to ‘read’ a painting for clues to the artist’s sexual preferences or debilities. The work, the act, translates the psychologically given into the intentional, into a ‘world’ — and thus transcends it.
With traditional aesthetic references discarded as irrelevant, what gives the canvas its meaning is not psychological data but rôle, the way the artist organizes his emotional and intellectual energy as if he were in a living situation. The interest lies in the kind of act taking place in the four-sided arena, a dramatic interest.
Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction — psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.
‘IT’S NOT THAT, IT’S NOT THAT, IT’S NOT THAT’
With a few important exceptions, most of the artists of this vanguard found their way to their present work by being cut in two. Their type is not a young painter but a reborn one. The man may be over forty, the painter around seven. The diagonal of a grand crisis separates him from his personal and artistic past.
Many of the painters were ‘Marxists’ (WPA unions, artists’ congresses); they had been trying to paint Society. Others had been trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism) — it amounts to the same thing.
The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just to PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value — political, aesthetic, moral.
If the war and the decline of radicalism in America had anything to do with this sudden impatience, there is no evidence of it. About the effects of large issues upon their emotions, Americans tend to be either reticent or unconscious. The French artist thinks of himself as a battleground of history; here one hears only of private Dark Nights. Yet it is strange how many segregated individuals came to a dead stop within the past ten years and abandoned, even physically destroyed, the work they had been doing. A far-off watcher unable to realize that these events were taking place in silence might have assumed they were being directed by a single voice.
At its centre the movement was away from, rather than toward. The Great Works of the Past and the Good Life of the Future became equally nil.
The refusal of values did not take the form of condemnation or defiance of society, as it did after World War I. It was diffident. The lone artist did not want the world to be different, he wanted his canvas to be a world. Liberation from the object meant liberation from the ‘nature’, society and art already there. It was a movement to leave behind the self that wished to choose his future and to nullify its promissory notes to the past.
With the American, heir of the pioneer and the immigrant, the foundering of Art and Society was not experienced as a loss. On the contrary, the end of Art marked the beginning of an optimism regarding himself as an artist.
The American vanguard painter took to the white expanse of the canvas as Melville’s Ishmael took to the sea.
On the one hand, a desperate recognition of moral and intellectual exhaustion; on the other, the exhilaration of an adventure over depths in which he might find reflected the true image of his identity.
Painting could not be reduced to that equipment which the artist needed for an activity that would be an alternative to both utility and idleness. Guided by visual and somatic memories of paintings he had seen or made — memories which he did his best to keep from intruding into his consciousness — he gesticulated upon the canvas and watched for what each novelty would declare him and his art to be.
Based on the phenomenon of conversion the new movement is, with the majority of the painters, essentially a religious movement. In almost every case, however, the conversion has been experienced in secular terms. The result has been the creation of private myths.
The tension of the private myth is the content of every painting of this vanguard. The act on the canvas springs from an attempt to resurrect the saving moment in his ‘story’ when the painter first felt himself released from Value — myth of past self-recognition. Or it attempts to initiate a new moment in which the painter will realize his total personality — myth of future self-recognition.
Some formulate their myth verbally and connect individual works with its episodes. With others, usually deeper, the painting itself is the exclusive formulation, a Sign.
The revolution against the given, in the self and in the world, which since Hegel has provided European vanguard art with theories of a New Reality, has re-entered America in the form of personal revolts. Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating. ‘Except the soul has divested itself of the love of created things . . .’ The artist works in a condition of open possibility, risking, to follow Kierkegaard, the anguish of the aesthetic, which accompanies possibility lacking in reality. To maintain the force to refrain from settling anything, he must exercise in himself a constant No.
APOCALYPSE AND WALLPAPER
The most comfortable intercourse with the void is mysticism, especially a mysticism that avoids ritualizing itself.
Philosophy is not popular among American painters. For most, thinking consists of the various arguments that TO PAINT is something different from, say, to write or to criticize: a mystique of the particular activity. Lacking verbal flexibility, the painters speak of what they are doing in a jargon still involved in the metaphysics of things: ‘My painting is not Art; it’s an Is.’ ‘It’s not a picture of a thing; it’s the thing itself.’ ‘It doesn’t reproduce Nature; it is Nature.’ ‘The painter doesn’t think; he knows.’ Etc, etc. ‘Art is not, not not not not . . .‘ As against this, a few reply, art today is the same as it always has been.
Language has not accustomed itself to a situation in which the act itself is the ‘object’. Along with the philosophy of TO PAINT appear bits of Vedanta
and popular pantheism.
In terms of American tradition, the new painters stand somewhere between Christian Science and Whitman’s ‘gangs of cosmos’. That is, between a discipline of vagueness by which one protests oneself from disturbance while keeping one’s eyes open for benefits; and the discipline of the Open Road of risk that leads to the farther side of the object and the outer spaces of the consciousness.
What made Whitman’s mysticism serious was that he directed his ‘cosmic “I”’ towards a Pike’s-Peak-or-Bust of morality and politics. He wanted the ineffable in all behaviour — he wanted it to win the streets.
The test of any of the new paintings is its seriousness — and the test of its seriousness is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist’s total effort to make over his experience.
A good painting in this mode leaves no doubt concerning its reality as an action and its relaxation to a transforming process in the artist. The canvas has ‘talked back’ to the artist not to quiet him with Sibylline murmurs nor to stun him with Dionysian outcries but to provoke him into a dramatic dialogue. Each stroke had to be a decision and was answered by a new question. By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties. (3)
Weak mysticism, the ‘Christian Science’ side of the new movement, tends in the opposite direction, toward easy painting — never so many unearned masterpieces! Works of this sort lack the dialectical tension of a genuine act, associated with risk and will. When a tube of paint is squeezed by the Absolute, the result can only be a Success. The painter need keep himself on hand solely to collect the benefits of an endless series of strokes of luck. His gesture completes itself without arousing either an opposing movement within itself nor the desire in the artist to make the act more fully his own. Satisfied with wonders that remain safely inside the canvas, the artist accepts the permanence of the commonplace and decorates it with his own daily annihilation. The result is an apocalyptic wallpaper.
The cosmic ‘I’ that turns up to paint pictures, but shudders and departs the moment there is a knock on the studio door, brings to the artist a megalomania which is the opposite of revolutionary. The tremors produced by a few expanses of tone or by the juxtaposition of colours and shapes purposely brought to the verge of bad taste in the manner of Park Avenue shop windows are sufficient cataclysms in many of these happy overthrows of Art. The mystical dissociation of painting as an ineffable event has made it common to mistake for an act the mere sensation of having acted — or of having been acted upon. Since there is nothing to be ‘communicated’, a unique signature comes to seem the equivalent of a new plastic language. In a single stroke the painter exists as a Somebody — at least on a wall. That this Somebody is not he seems beside the point.
Once the difficulties that belong to a real act have been evaded by mysticism, the artist’s experience of transformation is at an end. In that case what is left? Or to put it differently: What is a painting that is not an object, nor the representation of an object, nor the analysis or impression of it, nor whatever else a painting has even been — and which has also ceased to be the emblem of a personal struggle? It is the painter himself changed into a ghost inhabiting The Art World. Here the common phrase, ‘I have bought an O —’ (rather than a painting by O —) becomes literally true. The man who started to remake himself has made himself into a commodity with a trademark.
MILIEU: THE BUSY NO-AUDIENCE
We said that the new painting calls for a new kind of criticism, one that would distinguish the specific qualities of each artist’s act.
Unhappily for an art whose value depends on the authenticity of its mysteries, the new movement appeared at the same moment that Modern Art en masse ‘arrived’ in America: Modern architecture, not only for sophisticated homes, but for corporations, municipalities, synagogues; Modern furniture and crockery in mail-order catalogues; Modern vacuum cleaners, can openers; beer-ad ‘mobiles’ — along with reproductions and articles on advanced painting in big-circulation magazines. Enigmas for everybody. Art in America today is not only nouveau, it’s news.
The new painting came into being fastened to Modern Art and without intellectual allies — in literature everything had found its niche.
From this liaison it has derived certain superstitions comparable to those of a wife with a famous husband. Superiorities, supremacies even, are taken for granted. It is boasted that modern painting in America is not only original but an ‘advance’ in world art (at the same time that one says ‘to hell with world art’).
Everyone knows that the label Modern Art no longer has any relation to the words that compose it. To be Modern Art a work need not be either modern nor art; it need not even be a work. A three-thousand-year-old mask from the South Pacific qualifies as Modern and a piece of wood found on a beach becomes Art.
When they find this out, some people grow extremely enthusiastic, even, oddly enough, proud of themselves; others become infuriated.
These reactions suggest what Modern Art actually is. It is not even a Style. It has nothing to do either with the period when a thing was made nor with the intention of the maker. It is something that someone has had the social power to designate as psychologically, aesthetically or ideologically relevant to our epoch. The question of the driftwood is: Who found it?
Modern Art in America represents a revolution of taste — and serves to identify the caste conducting that revolution. Responses to Modern Art are primarily responses to claims to social leadership. For this reason Modern Art is periodically attacked as snobbish, Red, immoral, etc., by established interests in society, politics, the Church. Comedy of a revolution that restricts itself to weapons of taste — and which at the same time address itself to the masses: Modern-design fabrics in bargain basements, Modern interiors for office girls living alone, Modern milk bottles.
Modern art is educational, not with regard to art but with regard to life. You cannot explain Mondrian’s painting to people who don’t know anything about Vermeer, but you can easily explain the social importance of admiring Mondrian and forgetting about Vermeer.
Through Modern Art the expanding caste of professional enlighteners of the masses — designers, architects, decorators, fashion people, exhibition directors —informs the populace that a supreme Value has emerged in our Time, the Value of the NEW, and that there are persons and things that embody that Value. This Value is a completely fluid one. As we have seen, Modern Art does not have to be actually new; it only has to be new to somebody — to the last lady who found out about the driftwood — and to win neophytes is the chief interest of the caste.
Since the only thing that counts for Modern Art is that a work shall be NEW, and since the question of its newness is determined not by analysis but by social power and pedagogy, the vanguard painter functions in a milieu utterly indifferent to the content of his work.
Unlike the art of nineteenth-century America, advanced paintings today are not bought by the middle class. (4) Nor are they by the populace. Considering the degree to which it is publicized and fêted, vanguard painting is hardly bought at all. It is used in its totality as material for educational and profit-making enterprises: colour, reproductions, design adaptations, human-interest stories. Despite the fact that more people see and hear about works of art than ever before, the vanguard artist has an audience of nobody. An interested individual here and here, but no audience. He creates in an environment not of people but of functions. His paintings are employed not wanted. The public for whose edification he is periodically trotted out accepts the choices made for it as phenomena of The Age of Queer Things.
An action is not a matter of taste.
You don’t let taste decide the firing of a pistol or the building of a maze.
As the marquis de Sade understood, even experiments in sensation, if deliberately repeated, presuppose a morality.
To see in the explosion of shrapnel over No Man’s Land only the opening of a flower of flame, Marinetti had to erase the moral premises of the act of destruction — as Molotov did explicitly when he said that Fascism is a matter of taste. Both M’s were, of course, speaking the driftwood language of the Modern Art International.
Limited to the aesthetic, the taste bureaucracies of Modern Art cannot grasp the human experience involved in the new action paintings. One work is equivalent to another on the basis of resemblances of surface, and the movement as a whole a modish addition to twentieth-century picture making. Examples in every style are packed side by side in annuals and travelling shows and in the heads of newspaper reviewers like canned meats in a chain store — all standard brands.
To counteract the obtuseness, venality and aimlessness of the Art World, American vanguard art needs a genuine audience — not just a market. It needs understanding — not just publicity.
In our form of society, audience and understanding for advanced painting have been produced, both here and abroad, first of all by the tiny circle of poets, musicians, theoreticians, men of letters, who have sensed in their own work the presence of the new creative principle.
So far, the silence of American literature on the new painting all but amounts to a scandal.
(1) ‘With regard to the tensions it is capable of setting up in our bodies the medium of any art is an extension of the physical world; a stroke of pigment, for example, “works” within us in in the same way as a bridge across the Hudson. For the unseen universe that inhibits us an accidental blot or splash of paint may thus assume an equivalence to the profoundest happening.
‘If the ultimate subject matter of all art is the artist’s psychic state or tension (and this may be the case even in nonindividualistic epochs), that state may be represented either through the image of a thing or through an abstract sign. The innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with the representation of the state in favour of enacting it in physical movement. The action on the canvas became its own representation. This was possible because an action, being made of both the psychic and the material, is by its nature a sign — it is the trace of a movement whose beginning and character it does not in itself ever altogether reveal (e.g., Freud’s point about love-making being mistaken in the imagination for an assault); yet the action also exists as a “thing” in that it touches other things and affects them.
‘In turning to action, abstract art abandons its alliance with architecture, as painting had earlier broken with music and with the novel, and offers its hand to pantomime and dance. One thinks of Rilke’s
Dance the orange. The warmer landscape,
fling it out of you, that the ripe one be radiant
in homeland breezes!
‘In painting, the primary agency of physical motion (as distinct from illusionary representation of motions, as with the Futurists) is the line, conceived not as the thinnest of planes, nor as edge, contour or connective but as stroke or figure (in the sense of “figure skating”). In its passage on the canvas each such line can establish the actual movement of the artist’s body as an aesthetic statement. Line, from wiry calligraphy to footwide flaunts of the house painter’s brush, has played the leading part in the technique of Action Painting, though there are others ways besides line of releasing force on canvas.
From ‘Hans Hofmann: Nature into Action’, by HR., Art News, May 1957.
(2) Action cannot be perfected without losing its human subject and being transformed thereby into the mechanics of man-the-machine.
‘Action never perfects itself; but it tends toward perfection and away from the personal. This is the best argument for dropping the term “Abstract Expressionism”, with its associations of ego and personal Schmerz, as a name for the current American painting. Action Painting has to do with self-creation or self-definition or self-transcendence; but this dissociates it from self-expression, which assumes the acceptance of the ego as it is, with its wound and its magic. Action Painting is not “personal”, though its subject matter is the artist’s individual possibilities.’ H.R.: ‘A dialogue with Thomas B. Hess’. Catalogue of the Exhibition: Action Painting, 1958. The Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts.
(3) ‘As other art movements of our time have extracted from painting the element of structure or the element of tone and elevated it into their essence, Action Painting has extracted the element of decision inherent in all art in that the work is not finished at its beginning but has to be carried forward by an accumulation of “right” gestures. In a word, Action Painting is the abstraction of the moral element in art; its mark is moral tension in detachment from moral or aesthetic certainties; and it judges itself morally in declaring that picture to be worthless which is not the incorporation of a genuine struggle, one which could at an point have been lost.’ HR., The Dallas Museum Catalogue, above.
(4) The situation has improved since this essay appeared. Several younger collectors have appeared who are specializing in the new American painting — and to some degree the work of Americans has entered the world art market.
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