“… Like a Tongue to a Loosening Tooth.”
Thoughts in anticipation of the upcoming Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy, 24th September 2016 – 2nd January 2017.
“…It seems that I cannot quite abandon the equation of Art with lyric. Or rather – to shift from an expression of personal preference to a proposal about history – I do not believe that modernism can ever quite escape from such an equation. By “lyric” I mean the illusion in an art work of a singular voice or viewpoint, uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a world of its own. I mean those metaphors of agency, mastery, and self-centredness that enforce our acceptance of the work as the expression of a single subject. This impulse is ineradicable, alas, however hard one strand of modernism may have worked, time after time, to undo or make fun of it. Lyric can not be expunged from modernism, only repressed.
Which is to say that I have sympathy with the wish to do the expunging. For lyric is deeply ludicrous. The deep ludicrousness of lyric is Abstract Expressionism’s subject, to which it returns like a tongue to a loosening tooth.”
TJ Clark, “In Defence of Abstract Expressionism,” Farewell to an Idea.
The RA blockbuster autumn extravaganza promises to seduce us with its knock-out line up of Abstract Expressionist paintings in its lofty neoclassical halls. But scrape beneath the veneer of showtime spectacle and the history of this movement is a battleground of interpretation. It is littered with the burnt out wreckage of a thousand blood-thirsty intellectual engagements between titans of art history from the Left and the Right. By comparison, art making now seems to operate in the uncanny silence that has descended on an ideological no-mans land. But first, please forgive a digression…
I was asked to attend and talk at a symposium on John Hoyland’s legacy earlier in the year. It became clear to me how much of this afore-mentioned ‘wreckage’ I was determined to drag along to the proceedings, whilst other older and younger participants seemed to maintain a much more bright and breezy approach. Older artists and commentators talked of ‘late manners’, younger artists talked of Hoyland’s cosmic dream spaces and the sanctuary of the studio as an escape from the blight of social media. I found myself coming back time and again to the implications of the legacy of Abstract Expressionism and how it had been dealt with by the later generations, but especially by the likes of Gerhard Richter. I think Richter has successfully reinvented history painting via photography. But he has failed to reinvigorate abstract painting to anything like the same degree. Take the Cage paintings for instance. They court the idea of chance and contingency by referencing the name of the avant-guarde composer John Cage. By dragging layers of paint across canvases Richter reduces the tantalising suggestiveness of gallons of oil paint to the vague outcomes of repetitive physical actions with a squeegee. One also has to take the word ‘cage’ on its own terms too. A room of these paintings conjures the sour self referential painterly prison in which the painter whiles away their hours. Painterly invention happens as a byproduct of Richter’s almost forensic investigation via painting of an historical photographic image. Yet in abstract painting, he only seems capable of producing simulations and sometimes beautiful accumulations and debri via his ‘process’. One commentator at the symposium told us that Hoyland lived by the refrain “I paint therefore I am.” That’s all very gung-ho but it was Richter who pointed to a peculiar duality at the core of the endeavour of painting. He focused on the tension between doubt and belief in painting – he once called painting “pure idiocy”. Of course, this quip references Duchamp, who took great pleasure in goading painters. If Hoyland seems to have readily embraced Clark’s “ludicrousness of lyric” (especially in his ‘late manner’) then it’s Richter who personifies the desperate need to ‘expunge’ it.
I mention all this not because I want to imagine Abstract Expressionism somehow magically liberated from the wreckage or the baggage of so many dichotomies, false or otherwise. But we are are so used to the narrative of the terminal downward tail-spin in painting, the ever decreasing conceptual circles and Duchampian conundrums for which Richter is a famous exponent. And we are also used to the clichéd view of painting inspired by Abstract Expressionism as the narcissistic outpourings of some heroic macho individual ego. How do we resist Clark’s attempt to cast the Abstract Expressionists as a mid 20th-century strain of decrepit bourgeoisie, acting like an artistic version of a suicidal aristocracy?
Abstract Expressionism and it new found painterly inventiveness whipped up the original and epoch-defining perfect storm of cultural criticism. But a storm’s energy is driven by the collision and the channeling of opposing physical forces. And this particular mid 20th-century strand of abstraction operated with a myriad of contradictions at its very heart. At once, it seems to pivot on an idea of the trenchant individual, as Clark points out. On another level the work begins to involve the notion of field-painting as an immersive experience aimed at encouraging the active engagement of the viewer’s own physical and psychological projections. For some the very idea of the individual was a welter of opposing desires and drives looking for some kind of revelatory cohesive expression in ‘the here and now’, in the special and peculiar qualities of paint liberated from the strictures of its European heritage. Yet Abstract Expressionism leans on notions of the timeless and mythological, the doom laden and the tragic. At the same time, though, it is supposedly the genius of a thoroughly new nation. Young and naive, its creativity was unhindered by the old world of power-hungry empires. For a while it stood in direct opposition to the perceived deathly grip on art of decadent Eurocentric cultures, enslaved as they were, to inbred and ossifying aristocracies. Greenberg and then Fried argued about points of continuity in art history, the baton of advanced art handed from Paris to New York. Clark talks of rupture and the the distorting effects of American capitalism as a defining characteristic of Abstract Expressionism. Serge Guilbaut explored America as a rising expansionist Empire in its own right, exporting its new art around the world as a ‘soft power’ influence and cultural bulwark against the Soviet threat.
Originally, of course, there was the very public war between Greenberg and Rosenberg over the true meaning and future of Abstract Expressionism, which is almost legendary. But there were other less shrill and possessive voices that are still echoing quietly through history, if one is prepared to listen. If we see this new American art as Meyer Schapiro did during this period then it becomes “….a social bond that furthers in aesthetic terms the process of human self-realization through the non-instrumental refinement of the senses, and through the critical engagement of the intellect…” Schapiro’s Marxism was dialectical and nuanced rather than purely economic and materialist. His anti-Stalinism was shared by many of the Abstract Expressionist who had turned their backs on the Socialist Realist art extolled by America’s ailing Communist party. They refused to reduce society to an oversimplified marxist model of a ‘base’ as purely economic and superstructure as just a cultural add on. They believed culture to be as important and integral to a healthy society as economic stability. Schapiro was also determined to highlight the connections and dialogues between art making and the social realms in which abstract art and artists existed. It is in this spirit that I believe a deeper and complex view of the legacy of Abstract Expressionism can develop. Just maybe, this might be a way forward – a way to embrace these artworks anew. It is easy to see them now as art historical monuments, fetishized and reified – drowned in the gallons of ink spilled in the attempt to apprehend them and bend them to whatever ideological ends. If we see history, like many of the Abstract Expressionists did, as a perpetually contested realm, the future always born of the ferment of these contestations in the making of art – in the living of life – then the artworks that constitute Abstract Expressionism are more than just another brand of formalism or heavy breathing machismo or the “ludicrousness of lyric”. Enjoy the show.