Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series seems to have been initiated as a response to two paintings by Henri Matisse; View of Notre Dame and French Window at Collioure. Both date from 1914 but had never been exhibited before being included in a Matisse retrospective in 1966, organised by the University of California and shown in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston, but not New York.[i] I want to argue that Diebenkorn recognised something important about these paintings. He saw that they introduced and valorised a particular pictorial economy, characterised by simple means and finite quantities.
Despite the difference in age, the works were similar to a kind of painting then being made in America. The same year Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons and Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series were also shown. Anyone who saw the three exhibitions would have faced an interesting triangulation; the Matisses, like the light from a new star arriving fifty years after the event, an ambitious late career statement from a major Abstract Expressionist and a set of unconventionally configured canvases from a 30 year old star of the New York art scene.
These coinciding exhibitions arguably constitute an important cultural moment, and one can imagine the impact on a sample viewer of the combined experience. It would be clear that the terms of a new pictorial economy had been constructed, validated and even historically provisioned, by obviously successful, high net worth examples. It would also have offered evidence for the possibilities of abstraction made under the auspices of this economy. What I want to suggest is that it is impossible to fully understand abstraction’s contemporary potential, and past achievements, without recovering this moment and absorbing an appreciation of the associated pictorial economy into our critical apparatus: So there.
Diebenkorn had established his credentials as a painter well before 1966. He was represented in a mixed show at the Tate in the winter of 1963, and five of his works, including one from the Berkeley series (#48), could have been seen the following year in the highly prestigious 54-64: Painting & Sculpture of a Decade.[ii] I’m not sure about nowadays but to young English painters at that time he seemed to offer something positive; adventurous anti-Euston Road colour, tough, planar structure and an integrated, non-narrative role for the figure. Because so much art education then was based on study of the figure, seeing an exponent of the genre with a less academic, more artistically advanced approach was liberating.[iii]
Man and Woman in Large Room (1957) and Sleeping Woman (1961) had the colour-promoting characteristics of flat paintings, but they were ‘inhabited’. That meant that the eye differentiated between elements that belonged to the occupant(s) and those that did not. Woman in Profile (1958) makes this point quite literally with the shape of the sitter’s nose fusing with the wedge formed by the diagonal in the landscape beyond. While the figures and landscape/interiors are rendered in the same formal terms, there is a different kind of experience with the people. This is hard to account for without importing anthropomorphism, but it seems an unavoidable psychological aspect of the ‘figurative’ genre, not so obviously found in ‘uninhabited’ paintings depicting still-life or the natural world.
Matisse’s French Window at Collioure is technically ‘uninhabited’ but I think the central black area serves a similar function to Diebenkorn’s figures even though it bears no anthropomorphic imprint. The eye projects a particular distinction between the dark rectangle and the tinted uprights to right and left, and assigns the rectangle a psychological or, dare I say, ‘metaphysical’ value. In practical viewing this isn’t a particularly outlandish state of affairs. It just means that vision engages with the black shape as if it could be more important or significant than the other vertical elements. The eye lingers on the area, staring at it with slightly raised intensity, as though there was a reason to do so, and is incidentally rewarded when the darker bits of drawing begin to emerge from the gloom. Though the shapes are equal in ‘formal’ terms, the centre is given priority by virtue of its metaphysical ranking. This is of course partly an illusion, but in the case of simple paintings with relatively few components, all fully exposed, such a raised claim on the viewer’s attention made by an otherwise standard, geometric shape makes a crucial contribution the experience of the work.
I’ve avoided giving a specific interpretation of the black shape in French Window at Collioure, though I doubt it was a prediction of the darkness ahead in the Great War.[iv] It might be plausibly thought of as an effect created by the palpable absence of a figure or landscape in a place where such imagery is usually found. However, because the Matisse is so radically simple and contains few iconographic clues, I want to argue that the ‘metaphysical’ status of the rectangle isn’t dependent on its location in a representational system. The effect can easily be transferred into examples of abstraction that follow a comparable economy.
The problem many commentators seem to have with simple, flat paintings is that they are not complicated deep paintings. They belong to different categories. The pictorial economy of complicated deep paintings depends on producing a swarm of countless small elements, organised into bundles with relatively unstable contours. Passages that appear convex suggest volumes while passages that appear concave suggest space. In the context of a material language of paint and ‘paintedness’, both volume and space might be said to be metaphysical in terms of their visual operation. The ‘swarm’ pictorial economy, developed by Cézanne, who gave the Impressionist dab motility, has been enormously influential in abstraction, especially in the gestural branch of Abstract Expressionism whose lingering influence is legible in Diebenkorn’s Berkeley series. Its main characteristic, apart from motility, is contingency.
When the possibilities of abstraction are being discussed the built-in unpredictability of the ‘swarm’ is regarded as an asset. The hope is, I guess, that some entirely new entity might emerge from mobile complexity, if it’s agitated long enough, and if it doesn’t there’s always that swirling pigment to enjoy and admire while we’re waiting. It is maybe harder to see something surprising coming from the interaction of a small number of relatively inactive planar areas that don’t dig into the picture space. Part of the difficulty is to pick out, from the examples of painting that adopt the simple economy, those manifesting the metaphysical distinction I have been outlining. This is a problematic experience, for both painter and viewer. The danger is that, in material terms, simple paintings can look like décor, which was how many regarded the large canvases produced at the end of the High Modernist period.
That art has been so systematically disregarded that there’s bound to be a movement soon called the ‘Modernist Revival’ (maybe after the big Caro shows later this year). If anyone wants to prepare for that eventuality, and develop a sensibility that will help in fully appreciating the achievements of the original exponents, they have to start by believing that French Window at Collioure is a great painting, probably Matisse’s best work. Diebenkorn was right about that, but he didn’t follow it up and instead relied too much on reiterating the bottom two thirds of View of Notre Dame. One also has to accept, perhaps, that the only thing stopping simple painting from being décor is metaphysics.
Newman, who plainly influenced Stella and Noland, was forever writing about the metaphysical and the sublime, using those terms without embarrassment. His titles like Onement, or Vir, Heroicus, Sublimus underline his interest in appropriating a certain kind of philosophical discourse in the promotion of abstraction. In this respect he is in good company with Kandinsky, Mondrian even Malevich, who also felt the need to speak in metaphysical language when explaining their work. But by 1966 the terminology no longer fitted the world-view of the younger generation of abstractionists. The ‘art of the real’, and ‘what you see is what you get’ were more typical expressions of the period sentiment, as painting did its best to defeat objecthood.
However in the historical moment I’m trying to recover, in 1966, the new pictorial economy came to be recognised at a time when a metaphysical vocabulary no longer featured in critical dialogue. In the same period, art that consisted of simple means and few components was fairly common and, though it could be dismissed as purely retinal, decorative and lacking in content by some, others took it very seriously. Yet the only way an arrangement of flat shapes can be taken seriously is if the work appears to have a metaphysical dimension, like the dark rectangle in French Window or Newman’s fourteenth station. Additionally, I’d like to suggest that a serious view of a simple work is justified if it conveys the sense (or illusion) that things couldn’t be arranged any differently, that the process that brought it into being is governed by fate.
Scattered in the sayings of artists are references to situations in which the practitioner had little choice but to accept how things turned out. Given the importance of creative freedom this may seem perverse or paradoxical attitude. Here a version of Kandinsky’s notion of ‘inner necessity’ is often echoed to describe moments in the working process where moves and decisions seemed to be determined by circumstances rather than freely willed by the practitioner[v]. If the constraints of subject matter or imagery are loosened, as they usually are in abstract painting and sculpture, doing what’s necessary, within the constraints of the medium, guides behaviour even more explicitly. It stops the process being wholly aestheticised or dominated by a concept of good design, or balance, which leads to work where safe taste triumphs.
Although the specific metaphysical claims Newman highlighted in his writing may not be part of current theory, his method of composition, which amounted to deciding where the ‘zips’ would fall, was directed by something resembling internal necessity, or the metaphysics of fate. Because of the horizontal format, each rectangle seems to expand from its left edge advancing rightwards as far as sustainable. The intervals are not informed by a sense of architectural proportion, as in traditional composition, for the areas of colour are generated from relatively indifferent, almost blind, forces inside the process of applying the paint. How big they end up being depends on how much paint is applied, not on geometry. The direction in which the zips move is also determined by the given verticality of the canvas sides, adding to the illusion of pre-destination provided by the axiomatic framing edge.[vi]
The power of the framing silhouette to determine depicted events is taken a step further in Noland and Stella. The elements within the painting echo variations in the canvas shape, ranging from notched rectangle to lozenge, diamond, or combination of different figures in the irregular polygons. Once the stretcher has been built, the pattern of the pictorial structure in fixed. Fried called the structural devices of Newman, Noland and Stella ‘deductive’ but is at pains to contrast the operation of the literal shape of the support with the existence of a pictorial field constituted by the depicted events. This field is enough to stop the painting coming over as an object.
The difference between literal and depicted shape seems metaphysical. But the deductive logic of the paintings, necessarily determining the positions of the forms lying within the boundaries, adds a further metaphysical factor to the experience. For good measure Fried invokes a third consideration, seeing the efforts of Newman, Noland and Stella as a critical response to the art of the recent past, so ‘internal necessity’ is augmented by historical necessity in furtherance of the modernist narrative. A common enough stripe, chevron, square or triangle can be endowed with a triple significance; convincing pictorial status, being dictated by fate, and contributing to the critical history of the medium. [vii]
With the closing of the modernist narrative, and in an era of provisional painting, it may be no longer possible to cite historical necessity as a pertinent factor. On the other hand, if something simple but stunning turns up, commentators may rediscover art history as a source of significance and use it to explain the appeal of an innovative intervention. I think the illusion of a metaphysical dimension found in French Window may still be available to contemporary abstract artists, in a modified form, but the idea of overt metaphysical content, of the sort aspired to by Newman’s titles, may be hard to reconcile with current thinking. That leaves internal necessity or fate to be more fully accounted for, which won’t be easy.
Very occasionally I buy a lottery ticket. I always ask for a lucky dip, the digits on my ticket being generated by some randomised programme. However, the number that is published after the draw takes place is not the result of a random process. The lottery machines physically move the numbered balls inside a transparent chamber. After a flurry of activity, one is selected and placed in a chute, then a second, then a third and so on. They do not come out in numerical order, so have to be re-arranged to fit the sequence on the tickets. The process involves material forces, of a standard Newtonian type, that are beyond human control and the result exists as an extension of these forces, not as the product of chance.[viii] The privileged metaphysical status of the published number shows through most clearly when nobody has a winning ticket. When somebody does win, with either a lucky dip or a row of integers based on birthdays or other personally significant numbers, that is just chance. The paradox is that the event at the heart of the lottery draw isn’t random. Life may be a lottery, but the lottery really isn’t. It’s governed by fate.
The point of all that is this; the significance of the lottery number is not visible. It looks very like those millions that are entered in the draw every week. If we participate we are submitting to fate, to the Newtonian necessity that governs the movement of the spheres, and determines the result. But when the result is known we can tell the difference in experience between looking at the numbers we have on our ticket and the ‘winning’ row. We take the result seriously, our eye dwells on it because we feel that it is, or more likely, that it could have been, significant. Yet it also looks like just a row of numbers.
I have tried to suggest how to deal with paintings with few components, those identifiable by their shared pictorial economy. It’s true that they can easily be dismissed because they look like things that are shallow or lightweight, but they should be taken seriously. If this attitude change could be reinforced by recovering the moment of 1966, when French Window at Collioure, The Stations of the Cross and Moultonboro III, were shown, it might be possible to reset the machinery of appreciation into a more nuanced mode. The bright glare of post modernism, like sodium lighting, has made some things invisible, but as it fades other strategies of vision could come back into play. One tuned to ‘metaphysical’ possibilities, yet committed to materiality, may prove productive, for both painters and viewers.
[i] Henry Matisse, Retrospective, 1966. University of California, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Clement Greenberg wrote ‘Matisse in 1966’ for the Boston Museum Bulletin relating to the exhibition. He mentions neither painting, but I don’t think he actually saw the show.
[ii] Dunn International, Tate Gallery, London, Nov-Dec 1963 and 54-64 Paintings & Sculpture of a Decade, Tate Gallery, London, April-June 1964.
[iii] Having seen his work in both London exhibitions I had a conversation about painting with Diebenkorn in November 1964. I was 19.
[iv] This insight comes from Louis Aragon, many years later, who further thought the rectangle opened onto ‘events to come that will plunge the lives of unknown men and women into darkness, the black future, the inhabited silence of the future.’ From Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master, 2005, p. 162.
[v] For Kandinsky, inner (or internal) necessity seems to relate to obeying a psychological or expressionist imperative. I’m using the term more broadly to include other imperatives.
[vi] Michael Fried, Three American Painters, (1964), in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, (1998) p.233.
[vii] ibid. pp. 213-234.
[viii] The three Fates of Greek mythology have different functions. Clothos is the spinner, who spins the thread, Lachesis who measures each length, and Atropos, who is the cutter. All three are represented in the imagery of the lotto machine.