Laura Owens, Untitled (2013), Oil, Flashe, charcoal and wheelbarrow wheel on linen, 108 x 84″
I had heard of American painter Laura Owens. I’d seen her name bandied about, but a quick perusal of small reproductions of her paintings did not inspire me to investigate further. Then my latest copy of the New York Review of Books, a publication I take seriously, arrived in the mail. It features an essay by another painter, David Salle, on Laura Owens, whom Salle believes is a major artist[i]. Since David Salle undoubtedly knows a lot more about art in general, and painting in particular, than I do, I decided to read his essay carefully in order to figure out what I’ve been missing in Owens’ art.
The answer is that I don’t think I’m missing anything, which may well mean that I’m now too old to grasp what the younger generations are up to. It may mean something else as well, but if I knew what it is, I’d be less inclined to admit that I can’t think of anything useful to say about Owens’ paintings. So I decided to try to say something about Salle’s essay. Specifically, something about what I think of as the “terms of criticism” used by David Salle in his appreciation of Owens’ paintings.
Pablo Picasso, “Mandoline et Clarinette”, 1913, Musée National Picasso, Paris
In 1971 Clement Greenberg offered nine seminar sessions at Bennington College. In an effort to develop the thoughts expressed at the seminar, Greenberg wrote eight essays that were published in various art magazines between 1972 and 1979. The seminar transcripts and the eight essays are collected in a book published in 1999 called Homemade Esthetics (Oxford, 1999). The essays are less formal than the reviews and essays published in Collected Essays and Criticism, and the focus is different. Rather than dealing with particular artists or trends in the art world, the essays in Homemade Esthetics are polemical and somewhat theoretical, analyzing the nature of esthetic experience and judgment, such as whether esthetic judgments can be “objective”, the nature of intuition and aesthetic value and so on. That is, the essays were written at a time in the recent past when a college student might take courses called “Esthetics” as opposed to, say, “Cultural Studies”.
The details of Greenberg’s views on esthetic experience are, for me, less interesting than the passion with which he articulates them. That passion reflects a lifetime of looking at paintings and sculptures and Greenberg’s commitment to a practice of art criticism that is based not on theories but on the author’s personal experience of particular works of art. It was his faith in the truth of his own intuitions that showed Greenberg the uniqueness and self-sufficiency of esthetic experience, just as a person’s experience of conversion teaches the nature of religious faith; his reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Croce’s Esthetics only confirmed what he already knew – that intuition is the foundation of and provides the data for any genuine esthetic judgment. Although he is popularly known as the inventor and rather dogmatic proponent of a theory of modernism as the self-criticism of an artistic medium, Greenberg was always at his best when describing how particular art works or tendencies in art work on our minds by means of the eye. More than any other 20th century critic, reading Greenberg allows one to come to terms with the fact that in the experience of great art, it is as if the mind functions as an organ of sense and the eye as a source of intellectual conviction.
Kenneth Noland, “That”, 1958-59, acrylic resin on canvas, 81.75 x 81.75 inches. © 1997 Kenneth Noland, licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.
Kenneth Noland’s Discovery
Kenneth Noland famously declared that his breakthrough as a painter occurred when he “discovered the center of the canvas”[i] in the late 1950s. Noland’s “discovery” produced a series of well-known paintings executed between 1958 and 1962 based on the placement of concentric circles of various colors in varying widths radiating out from the exact center toward but never reaching the four edges of the picture, usually comprising a six-foot square.
This essay addresses the question of what exactly Noland can be said to have “discovered” and why the concept of “discovery” is crucial in understanding the nature of modernist painting and sculpture.
Background: The Modernist Situation
In 1962 Clement Greenberg wrote:
“Under the testing of modernism, more and more of the conventions of the art of painting have shown themselves to be dispensable, unessential. By now it has been established, it would seem, that the irreducible essence of pictorial art consists in but two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness; and that the observance of merely these two norms is enough to create an object which can be experienced as a picture: thus, a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily a successful one. (The paradoxical outcome of this reduction has been not to contract, but actually to expand the possibilities of the pictorial: much more than before now lends itself to being experienced pictorially or in meaningful relation to the pictorial: all sorts of large and small items that used to belong entirely to the realm of the arbitrary and the visually meaningless.)”[ii]
However, what Greenberg refers to as a “paradoxical outcome” may not be paradoxical at all: the search for the “irreducible essence of pictorial art” revealed that pictorial art has no irreducible essence at all. This would imply that the distinction between art and non-art is really arbitrary; there is ultimately no meaningful distinction between objects that are considered “art” (for example, in the political economy of a particular market sector) and ordinary objects in the world.
Anthony Caro, “Deep Body Blue”, 1966. Steel painted dark blue, 48 ½ x 101 x 124 inches. Private collection, Harpswell. Courtesy Annely Juda Fine Arts. Photo: John Goldblatt.
Deep Body Blue
Michael Fried is today one of the most interesting and perceptive art historians in the world. In the 1960s however, Fried was, along with his mentor Clement Greenberg, perhaps the most insightful critic of contemporary art in the United States, and certainly the strongest advocate for what was then known as “modernist” painting and sculpture, as epitomized in the work of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella and English sculptor Anthony Caro among others.
Fried’s best art-critical writing was done between 1965 and about 1972 as short reviews of exhibits published in Art International and ArtForum[i]. These short descriptive pieces are for the most part limited to careful descriptions of specific works of art, but at the same time seem to achieve the quality of philosophical prose, although Fried did not set out to write philosophy[ii]. I think that this perception has to do both with Fried’s formidable talents as a viewer of art and with the nature of the objects being described. In this article I will try to convey a sense of what it is about those objects that allows or indeed compels an accurate description of them to be read as philosophical prose.
Before we get there however, I want to take notice of the fact that the kind of evaluative art criticism that Fried practiced during 1966-67 (and before him, Clement Greenberg) no longer exists. The world has changed, the art world has changed, and art itself has changed in such a way that the concepts of aesthetic quality and value (and therefore the evaluative judgments that are based on these concepts) are no longer central or even relevant to the kind of art that had replaced the high modernism of the 1960s. It often seems as if the concepts of quality and value no longer matter in our society. I do not purport to explain why that is the case, but simply to register the fact that something has been lost, and its loss represents a significant turn in our cultural history, for better or (far more likely) for worse.[iii]
Anthony Caro, “Prairie”, painted steel, 1967, Copyright Barford Sculptures
In § 111 of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein wrote: “the problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language, and their significance is as great as the importance of our language. –Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)”[i]
And in § 109: “The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.”
Why do we feel that the meaning of a work of art is something deep – something lying somewhere underneath the surface when after all a painting or a sculpture is really nothing more than surface and shape? Why do we feel as though we need to see beyond and beneath appearances in order to understand a thing that according to its essential nature is appearance? These questions are related to although not identical with the question raised in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, namely, why do we feel as though our ordinary language, hence our ordinary lives, is somehow inadequate, so that we must locate and pursue its “true” meaning elsewhere, for example in a region either below (in the case of language, its underlying logical structure) or above (in the case of ordinary mortal existence, its redemption in heaven) the place where we actually spend the days of our lives?
These remarks reflect the fact that we human beings tend to orient ourselves around a vertical (as opposed to horizontal) axis, literally (as in the fact that we stand) and figuratively (we aspire, reach for the stars, and when we fail, we fall down, are leveled, degraded, and so on). One manifestation of our vertical orientation is the traditional placement of sculptures on pedestals – as if placing them above rather than on the ground helps to secure the meta-physically elevated status of artworks as distinguished from ordinary objects in the world. (The device of the pedestal does for sculpture what the frame does for pre-modernist painting.)