Abstract Critical

Letter from New York.

Written by Alan Gouk

A review by painter Alan Gouk of Matisse’s Radical Invention 1913-1917 and Abstract Expressionist New York, both at MOMA, New York, during October 2010, with the latter continuing until April 25th 2011.

Part 1. Matisse.

Picasso infamously said that what he admired in Cézanne was his “anxiety” (rather than any overt characteristics of his art, though these too would have an effect). That anxiety, if such it is, passed directly to Matisse, and accounts for both his ardent competitiveness with other masters (initially Manet and Cézanne and formidably with Picasso too), but also his pursuit of an elusive and demanding criterion of unity and harmony discerned in their art which would require intensive engagement with esoteric aspects of their styles and which were being missed or misinterpreted by most observers. This method of working which became habitual for him probably first developed out of his labours on the sculpture The Serf which preoccupied him between 1900 and 1903, and continued with the even more protracted engagement with the Backs, 1908-1916 and Bathers by a River, 1909-1917.

Nowhere is the depth of concentration of this struggle for greater sensitivity to a transfigured light (for this is what it would become) more evident than in the pictures executed between 1913 and 1917 at the studio on the Quai Saint-Michel, and especially Interior with Goldfish 1914 and Studio,Quai Saint-Michel 1917. The paintings of these years manifest the working out of a consciously imposed pictorial problem superimposed and chiming with the unique circumstances of light afforded by the situation of the room in which they were painted. As Matisse said “the low ceiling gave it a distinctive light, warmed by the reflection of the sun on the walls opposite (the window)” (Prefecture de Police). His painting would have to match the poetics of light registered in the subtle fabric of modulations and adjustments which gave to the paintings of his chosen masters an extra dimension, a gravitas unmatched by swifter and fleeter imaginations, or those in pursuit of an arbitrary complexity for its own sake.

What was required of a picture was not only formal strength (construction) but a task, a struggle to overcome, namely to unflatten the surround to a centralised figure or object, an antithesis to Cubist tangibility (though there are shades of this pursuit in Picasso and Braque too), to render space translucent, not densely, opaquely flat, not tied to the ground, but a floating space which surrounds and envelops the figure (or object) in a warm embrace (as Rubens achieves it in Bathsheba at the Well, Munich), in a cloudy sensuous film. The task is to situate sculpturally articulate volumes or planes in circumambient space such that the space circulates around the “figure” and does not lock it into a closed surface, but one which radiates light and air. And even when the space is defined by “solid” planes parallel to or at an angle to the picture’s surface, these planes, however saturated their colour, should remain luminous and add to the total effect of light being created and required for the completed architecture of the picture, the particular seized light of a unique time of day or evening. Sky, window, wall, glass jar, table-top, mirror, wall picture, would all reflect light and enhance each other.
Earlier, in 1908 in Bathers with a Turtle Matisse had endeavoured to surround his figures with a luminous ambient light, with broad delicately brushed bands of blue and green, but despite intensive efforts to model the green around the figures as if they inhabited one continuous wrap-around space, and despite the disjunctive viewpoint from which each figure is seen, this banding remained resolutely behind the figures, forcing a cut-out silhouette-like prominence whose contours incise the fictive space in which they are situated, more sharply than in Manet and his 17th Century predecessors. The ambition was there, but working against it, the strongly saturated broad areas of colour, however delicately modulated, remained closely identified with the surface of the picture. It was only after a five-year foray into the large murals, The Dance, Music and the first version of The Bathers, where Matisse asserted the primacy of the surround by sheer intensity of chroma, and the Moroccan interlude, where he rediscovered a more naturalistic light, that he was able to see a possible synthesis, and a way to overcome these flattening tendencies, for this is what would become his aim and torment. “I was quite astonished when I saw the decorations in Moscow to see that I had, in applying my colours, played a little game with the brush in varying the thickness of the colour so that the white of the canvas acted more or less transparently, and threw off quite a precious effect of moiré silk.” (Matisse to Romm 1934)

Manet’s so-called playing-card flatness is of course something of a myth; his backgrounds are resonant enough to make such characterisation caricatural1, warranted only by contrast with the relatively atmospheric aerial perspective of some of his Salon contemporaries such as Cavanal – though not Courbet, who is almost as old-masterish as Manet in his assertion of the dual function of the picture’s surface as a springboard for corporeal presentment, matter-of-factly asserted, and as spatial illusion.

Aware of the strength of Manet’s simplifications, and of their ambiguities too, compared to the path of increasing chromatic enrichment taken by the Impressionists, with the “crisis” this had led to by the 1880s, Matisse, like Cézanne from the 1870s onwards, is working away from “flatness”, is working to demonstrate the superiority of a simply declared broad planarity, without destroying the possibility of spatial depth, without the surface closing up into a spaceless wall. And in Bathers with a Turtle, a great picture, he was only half-way to discovering a way to do it. That is the miracle of these Quai Sant-Michel pictures, that there is no symphonic enrichment for its own sake and no self-advertising show of arduous realisation as a fetish of special pleading. The clearly evident difficulty in realisation does not overwhelm or stifle the sheer lucidity and brilliance of the image. The dense, sombre luminosity of Interior with Goldfish with its nacreous Prussian blues glazed over grey and black, achieving a still-wet look especially on the rooftop of the building seen through the glass of the window, is the result of much revision, overpainting and scrapings out. Numerous disjunctions in a baldly declared irrational perspective heavily lined in black point up the fact that though we do not see perspectivally in our orientation to the world of rooms, this flux of spatial sensation needs to be held to the plane of the picture if architecture is to be achieved. A curious arch-like bending of the stems of a potted plant reach through the window to rhyme with a token flight of steps outside, also crudely hatched in black, this movement echoed by an arc of blue hatching (beneath a bridge) which returns outside space to inside, a device which Matisse would repeat in other pictures, notably The Moroccans and Bathers by a River though seldom with such limpid freshness.

In The Piano Lesson 1916, painted not at the Quai, but at Issy-les-Moulineaux, the interior and exterior spaces are completely open to one another, without overemphasis on the suggestion of tangibility of surface. Even the painted inclusion of his own picture Woman on a High Stool is ambiguously located. Is it a painting on the wall, or is it the figure seated in the garden beyond? The perspectival devices induced by the truncation of the window frames at the left and centre serve to dislocate the painting’s surface from the depicted space of the room, continuous with the space beyond the window, so that the eye is led from the narrow space of the room afforded, over the sill into the space of the garden beyond as one continuous spatial experience, as if we were seeing not a painting but space itself. For this to happen, the colour of these spaces had to be a translucent, opalescent grey, tangible yet intangible, asserting the plane, yet rendering it see-through. A similar device occurs with Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1917, at the top right edge of this picture, where the lines designating the cornice above the window exit the picture edge at a different angle from that of the window frame beneath it, accentuating a perspectival dislocation between the plane of the window frame and the implied space of the room within.

There is considerable ambiguity, indeed disagreement, as to the time of day depicted. I’d say that the amber luminosity of the shafts of light on the back wall, figure, floor and curtain, and reflections on the rectangles which indicate hanging pictures (or mirrors) suggest evening, as the sun is lowering in the sky. Others see it differently. And here too, the grey scumbled overpainting of the gold ochre back wall adds a spatial complexity, blurring the location of wall-plane and surface, so that we seem to be seeing air, light and space, rather than wall surfaces, and the sharply accented curvature of a folding curtain at the right-hand edge of the picture creates a Las Meninas-like hierarchy of depths, which I’d guess is an allusion Matisse would have been glad for us to make.

He would no doubt have liked to paint his Las Meninas, but the overwhelming tendency of his aesthetic at this juncture was tied to the unique presence of the spaces in which he chose to paint, his studio rooms, windows and furniture, and his own family, and in the throes of seizing hold of these direct experiences of light and space, he was being led to an emphatic declaring of a “plumb-line” verticality and frontal planarity even when it ran counter to his conscious intentions, which sought a freeing up, a loosening of the formal reins. Hence the “anxiety” and the physical stresses and strains which accompanied these pictures.

Both The Moroccans and Bathers by a River began with lyrically shaded surroundings suggestive of atmospheric naturalistic space, but like all great paintings in the wake of Cubism, and most great paintings before then, in the course of their realisation, this illusionism ceded to a planar conception vertically aligned, not so much as a backdrop to the figures, parallel to the picture’s surface, but interpenetrating the sculpturally shaded modelling of the figures (which achieved a progressive monumentalising projection, like Greek Kouroi seen from different angles, one from directly in front,) and partitioning each figure in a different space relative to each other and the surface of the picture. Even the spatial surrounding which Matisse had achieved in the smaller Quai Saint-Michel pictures had to give way to a more hieratically frontal declaration of planarity, in which the figures stand (or sit) at different depths relative to each other. The left figure, seen from the back in ¾ view, emphatically drawn in black and sculpturally shaded, is most inter-penetrated by its ground, and closely identified with the surface of the picture. The second figure, seated, raised higher, and without feet is slightly reduced in scale, suggesting a greater distance from the plane of the picture but this distance is countered by a bizarre cubistic superimposition of a surface-hugging rectangle (a painting?) which obliterates the figure’s head and shoulders.

The third figure, seen from the side-front in ¾ view, although almost the same height as the first figure, appears to be further away from the datum established by the first, and the fourth figure seen front-on, taller, more elongated, with its ankles and feet cut off by the bottom edge of the canvas seems to exist in a different space from its partner (No. 3) to its left. Most bizarre of all, a snake-like prong, vestige of an earlier more naturalistic stage subtly shaded in three dimensions, and casting a shadow on the scumbled off-white surface representing the ground of figure No. 3 seems to enter the spaces of the picture from outside, linking our situation as viewers with the fictive spaces of the picture. Its curvature is then echoed by cursive black lines linking divisions 2, 3 and 4 in an ascending series of arcs, exiting the picture at the right-hand edge from behind figure No. 4’s back. It seems that having isolated the figures from one another, each in its own space capsule, Matisse felt the need to link the spaces graphically in this way. The Moroccans contains similar devices, but I cannot help feeling that overall, The Moroccans is a more successful picture, perhaps because of its more manageable size.

The completion of, or near completion of Bathers by a River marks the culmination of and brings to an end Matisse’s lengthy covert engagement with Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon. The left hand figure in both pictures acts as a kind of Caryatid, framing and supporting the spaces “within”. But Matisse did not like the restless angularity and crowded surface of the original. Of all the phases of cubist practice echoed in the Bathers, it is this early proto-cubist masterpiece that has influenced it most, even to the pink, grey, blue modelling of the figures. But Matisse has created calm where Picasso had created violent disruption. Most telling of Matisse’s strengths and limitations are the blank ovoid faces. Had he introduced the mask-like stylised features he had adopted for his Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1913 a whole new set of aesthetic dilemmas would have ensued, tilting the picture further into the territory of Picasso’s tour de force. There were certain respects in which he did not wish to compete with Picasso. Of course Matisse could claim antecedence when it comes to the drastic primitivistic mask-like reduction of facial modelling into cursive signs, for his Young Sailor I and II, painted in 1906, had anticipated the Demoiselles masks, and behind both of these artists’ reductions lies the achievement of Gauguin. A question which needs answering is at what dates was “Where do we come from” exhibited in Paris?2 Was it seen in the flesh by either Matisse or Picasso or both, at what date, or was it available in some form of reproduction? There are other Gauguins which might have served, but the emotional register and scale of ambition of this particular picture even if only relayed in hear-say seems to me to have set a challenge which the younger painters had to consider, and which may have prompted these large-scale philosophical figure compositions.3

Both Picasso and Matisse pulled back from the out and out abstraction hinted at in Picasso’s Cadaqués episode in 1910 and at Sorgues in 1912, and in Matisse’s View of Notre Dame 1914, or French Window at Collioure 1914. Were they right to do so? The implications of their nearest to abstract impulses were drawn firstly by Mondrian and then, after the crucial intervention of biomorphic surrealism as practiced by Picasso and Miro, by the inappositely labelled Abstract Expressionists4 with consequences that we are still living with today.


Part 2. Abstract Expressionist New York.

For a few days in early October 2010, the Matisse show “Radical Invention 1913-1917” overlapped with a survey of M.O.M.A’s collection of American Painting of the 1940s,50s and 60s so that it was possible to walk directly from one to the other, and make comparisons. Almost every innovative impulse of the American painters is pre-figured in one or another of the masterpieces of Matisse’s “radical” years, apart from those of Gorky and Pollock, who are more indebted to the surrealism of Picasso and Miro, although it would be hard to find a touch as delicate and brushy as Gorky’s in the Picassos of the period Gorky most admired. He may have been “with” Picasso, but he was learning from the space-conscious Matisse as well.

The Gorky room, being restricted to pictures in the M.O.M.A collection, begins with Garden in Sochi of 1941, thus eliminating what had emerged from the recent Tate show of 2009 as his most fertile years, the 1920s and 1930s, and suppressing Gorky’s considerable achievement as a catalyst and assimilator of diverse strands of influence from the European masters, an injustice perpetrated during his lifetime by critics of the time and only now beginning to be redressed. It has been customary to cite Hans Hofmann as the great assimilator and carrier of the cubist/fauve heritage for an American generation, but Hofmann did not really emerge as a painter of influence until the mid 1940s, after he had been stung into action by Pollock’s first show of biomorphic abstraction at Peggy Guggenheim’s in 1943, which Hoffmann rapidly digested. Prior to that he had been painting still-lives with no surrealist content.

So it was Gorky during the 1920s and 1930s who was doing the hard work with precious little recognition of its significance and import for the future of painting. Critical reaction at the time was at best luke-warm, the charge of derivativeness overstated, for Gorky’s unique temperament is always in evidence through the influences.

Even when Gorky is “with” Picasso or Miro, or De Chirico, or occasionally with all three simultaneously, his own unique subtlety of touch renders the influences of no than passing concern. His pictures are often superior in quality to those of his models (except in the case of Cézanne) simply as paintings. His use of white, lustrous and sparkling, creating light, eclipses Picasso in the very pictures of his Gorky is emulating (such as M.O.M.A’s Painter and Model , 1928). Gorky’s habit of scumbling pale creams and off-whites over darker underpainting, as in The Plough and the Song, 1947 clearly echoes Matisse’s practice, as does his subtle tuning-up of the entire picture surface by this means so that as one looks the whole image blurs in the eye and coalesces as both painted surface and ambiguous spatial illusion.

Although Jackson Pollock is of all the Abstract Expressionists the one least indebted to Matisse (the linear bias of his imagination aligning him with Picasso) in this one respect, of the fusion of surface and spatial illusion, he and Gorky are bedfellows. Pollock had one thing to say (even before he found it, and before he knew what it was) – it is emerging as early as Pasiphae 1943 and Gothic 1944, and he said it with increasing certainty and confidence between 1947 and 1950, culminating in the great pictures of the end of that latter year – a monothematic surge which dissolves the paint surface in a tumescent haze – “shimmering substance”, yet not quite substance, a spaciousness not full but plenteous, not flowing but in flux, a sensation of a swirling (intangible) optical maze that cannot quite be brought to align with the surface of the canvas. With One (No.31) 1950, there is a curious duality in the contrast between the dry encrusted unsensuous micro-climate of surface seen close-up – and the generous ease and coruscating spaciousness of the whole image seen from a distance. The much more encrusted Full Fathom Five 1947, is more all-of-a-piece in this respect, and here the optical maze is a sensation that cannot be captured in words or by any form of reproduction – it has to be experienced there and then.

One (No. 31) 1950, and Autumn Rhythm 1950 (not exhibited), certainly are the apogee of one aspect of great painting – sureness of conception and ampleness of form generated with masterful ease all-of-a-piece with a novel means of applying paint. The large size of these pictures is absolutely justified by the impulse that created them. Its contained and released energy requires large size, and the scale of the final achieved image lives up to it. I had said previously that Pollock was “deeply envious” of Picasso. I was wrong. Picasso always changes course within a painting’s development, or within the journey of a line, often more than once. He seldom if ever completes an impulse without altering its course, seeing another way of reading the image. Pollock, in these 1950 pictures sustains the flow of his imagination in a continuous burst, and the results are fine. If there is any doubt that Pollock is not and never was a Cubist, it is answered here. If Cubism means anything it means dislocation restructured. At best, there is no dislocation between the various layers of a successful Pollock – they flow directly into one another. Indeed, Pollock has been at pains to tie the layers together colouristically, with fawns, greys, whites and browns bridging between the colour of the unprimed ground and filtering through the optical maze. When unsuccessful, one layer, usually the black, sticks out on top of the others. A “sum of destructions” is a way of characterising a Pollock, or sum of erasures, but “destructions” is too strong a word. As Pollock himself said, there is an easy give and take, and everything comes out well.

For an instant I felt myself almost ceding to the heresy that One (No.31) 1950, is a more successful picture than Matisse’s Bathers by a River, momentarily, since these pictures are worlds apart in the preoccupations that gave rise to them.

Compared to One(No.31) 1950, most of the very large format paintings of the other Americans look overblown, too big for their pictorial content, striving for a signalled gravitas and a sublimity that they are unable to fully sustain within the respective means adopted to convey it. The exceptions are Motherwell and Gottlieb, to whom I’ll return, but it would appear to be Clyfford Still who first took up the challenge of the 9 foot high and wider picture, and for whom emptiness became a positive, for an instant at least. His 1944-N No.2 1944, if correctly dated5, measures 8’8” by 7’3” (he would soon expand his formats to some 14 feet in width and wider) and consists of a relatively unmodulated expanse of mattish black, palette-knifed into what looks like unprimed cotton-duck (following Pollock or anticipating Pollock?) within which narrow jagged lightning-bolts of yellow, white and red ochre punctuate the gloom, the red streaking from across the near-top of the canvas right down to the bottom edge in a narrow shaft of light, which must have shaken and stirred Barnett Newman. A little sketch on paper of 1946(?) shows the first hint of what would become Newman’s “zip”. The friendship which existed between Still, Newman and Rothko did not survive their first critical successes, Still soon condemning Rothko for diluting and sentimentalising his innovation, and Rothko accusing Newman of stealing his ideas, saying that he had taught Newman how to paint. And so the sorry saga of signature “concepts” began. For some commentators (Greenberg being one) it was Still’s character that was at fault. For others the very notion of a signature style is anathema. But not Rothko, who himself is quoted as saying “If a thing is worth doing once, it’s worth doing over and over”6

Rothko’s No. 10 1950 carries translucency of surface to an extreme. One feels that one could reach in and put one’s hand right through its vaporous mirage-like opticality. The route to the ethereal delicacy of Rothko’s No. 10 1950 is well charted by the near juxtaposition of two earlier pictures, the surprisingly large biomorphic abstraction of 1944 Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, some 6’3”x7’1”, with an even larger transitional near-abstract No.1 (Untitled), 1948 (8’10”x9’9”) both effectively executed in very large watercolour technique applied to oil paint. Add to this the knowledge that Rothko was a close friend and near disciple of Milton Avery, whose own style is a distillation of certain aspects of Matisse’s later pared-down oil paintings, with fuzzy-edged softly shaded and mottled zones and patches interlocking; the sometimes surprising suddenness of Rothko’s “breakthrough” into his now signature abstraction is explained. The topographical incident in Avery gives way to a few vestigial brushstrokes suggestive of specific ”form”, but the pale insubstantial coloured patches create their own spaces directly out of their interaction with one another and with surface resonance – and a true abstraction is born.

I feel myself, like Patrick Heron all those years ago, to-ing and fro-ing in my enthusiasm for Rothko’s pictures. On the one hand I admire their original and subtly resonant colour, and the nuances of touch which register them. On the other their lack of a firm relationship to the picture surface, (a European desideratum) leaves me yearning for tactility. Every return visit to the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick confirms that with the greatest painters, dealing only with late Baroque masters and beyond, the later Velasquez, Rembrandt, the later Poussin, Vermeer, Goya, Chardin, even Jacques Louis David and the photogenic Ingres, and Manet, every inflection is set in relation to a firmly declared planarity, so that even the “backgrounds” have a tangibility closely identified with the plane of the picture, often sonorous and dark, worked up to a material smooth impasto suggestive of hidden depths (unless depicting a wall surface) to which all the other material depictions, of fabrics, furs, silks, jewels, bottles and jars, armour etc. are keyed in a symphony of touches and delicate scumbles, just as Matisse has it in his Quai Saint-Michel pictures.

This is what one finally misses in Rothko – a clear relationship to the light-bathed tangibility of the visual world. Incidentally the whole English School, with the exception of Constable, is tainted by an air of unreality, or rather, a want of plain honesty, a glamorous but structureless technical brilliance (no question) in which sugary artificiality and rose-tinted naturalism vie for dominance in defiance of the laws of plastic expression. Whereas Goya, for instance, can make great art out of a mound of earth and a mongrel dog. And that Still, Rothko and Newman sought to align their art with the English sublime can only be accounted an unfortunate error of taste.

Of the remaining Abstract Expressionists, only Motherwell and Gottlieb survive the passage of time. De Kooning’s slippery mannerisms and grubby colour, at least in the period covered by M.O.M.A’s collection shown here, cast doubt on the credibility of the imputed rivalry between De Kooning and Pollock for top-dog honours foisted on them by followers of Rosenberg and Greenberg. Greenberg’s reputation as a critic stands or falls by his advocacy of Pollock (for he made errors elsewhere). His devotion to Pollock as the “real deal” is fully justified by this showing.

Motherwell comes out strongly, his early work especially, from this selection. His indebtedness to Matisse is the most obvious of all the main figures, in spite of or perhaps because of his cubistic collage experiments, and attachment to surrealist automatism as advocated by Andre Breton. Thus more pro-European than the others, disdaining the absurd anti-European rhetoric of Still, he was perhaps the first to see the abstraction in Matisse’s “radical” period as pointed up by the juxtaposition of these two shows. Even before Bathers by a River entered the collection of the Chicago Museum of Modern Art in 1953, it had been exhibited firstly in Paris at the gallery of Paul Guillaume who owned the picture, and The Piano Lesson, in 1926, photographed and reproduced in Cahiers D’Art in that year. In 1931 Alfred Barr organised a Matisse retrospective at M.O.M.A. It is not clear from the current catalogue whether Bathers, The Moroccans, or Piano Lesson were exhibited, but they were discussed. In 1940 Piano Lesson was shown at the Chicago Arts Club, and in 1948 the Bathers was shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Bathers had first been shown in New York in 1927 at the Gallery Dudensing along with The Moroccans and Piano Lesson, and again there during the 1930s, and it was from here, according to Clement Greenberg7 that these pictures began to influence the younger American painters. Then came Alfred Barr’s 1951 exhibition at M.O.M.A. – Matisse, His Art and His Public – with its influential accompanying book of the same name.

Whilst working on the Bathers and on Interior with Aubergines 1911 (now in Grenoble) Matisse had begun to attach cut-out paper shapes to the partially completed canvases to try out alternatives of design and colour. There is evidence that Braque began similar experiments leading to papier collé after visiting Matisse in his studio at Collioure where he saw the Aubergines in progress.
Motherwell follows directly on from these experiments, and also applies the armature of black line overpainting visible in Matisse’s View of Notre Dame, 1914, The Window 1916, Head, White and Rose 1915, and many other pictures of the years 1913-17. There are two very striking pictures in this idiom – Western Air 1946-47 and Personage with Yellow Ochre and White, 1947.

The leading Americans are obsessed with ultra-matte surfaces, especially those who are leaning towards colour-field (less so De Kooning and Gottlieb), understandably, since for these large areas of colour to work they will not tolerate eye-stopping incident, disruptive patches differently textured. But this mattness has a wearying effect in time. Again it seems to have been Still who began this trend. Indeed, many of the formats of the colour-field generation can be traced back to Still, who hasn’t had enough credit in this regard, if credit is due. There were two very spectacular Stills at the Metropolitan, some 15 feet in length by 9 feet high; one a towering torn-curtain canyon with Gordale Scar-like grandiloquent crimson jagged peaks above a black field (the sort of thing I used to like); the other a vast curtain of blood-red crimson or carmine palette-knifing bordered in black and ochre, the paint soaked into cotton duck canvas to create a continuously matte surface edge to edge.

Rothko’s No.22 1949, one of his greatest pictures, and one of the largest (117” x 107”) i.e. almost exactly the same size as The Snail of Matisse) has a very thin, brittle distemper and egg tempera-like surface (a nightmare for conservators- it seems to have discoloured and darkened with age)
ultra-matte, into which he has scratched long horizontal incisions in the red band of paint which divides the yellow above and below it. Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis is even more uninflected in its field of red, some 17’9” in width, 8’ in height. I fail to detect signs of the subtle modulations in chroma across its width, and affecting the spatial disposition of the vertical bands, which Greenberg and Darby Bannard insist mark the distinction between a good and a less than good Newman. And the white, or off-white of the climaxing “zip”, (I forgot to check whether the “Zip” is painted or un-painted) seems to me to jump too forcefully out of the surface, a disruptive incident with or without expressive justification, throwing everything else behind it. For me, the best Newmans, Motherwells and Stills are the earliest, when these artists are searching to discover an identity. Something seems to have happened around 1950 causing them to reach not only for much larger sized formats, but a definitive image which was theirs and no-one else’s. Their styles hardened into formulae and insensitivity to finer distinctions, repetition and self-importance.

Even David Smith’s sculpture is affected. Smith is not by nature a monumental artist even though he may have thought he was, and in following this trend to the big gesture, and large scale declaration of pictorial “flatness”, he runs against the grain of his talent, which reveals itself at the optimum in his black-smithing works, culminating with the great Australia and some of the spin-offs of his sojourn at Spoleto (the Voltri-Boltons). The Cubis and the late painted sculptures are almost always a disappointment, and I’m afraid the ultra-glamorous stainless steel Becca 1965 at M.O.M.A. , whose perimeter curiously measures almost exactly the same size as some of Rothko’s paintings, some 9’ 6” x 10’0”, is a disaster. Smith’s stainless steel works with flat plate, disc and bar, the Towers, Sentinels, Books and Apples etc. are usually more successful than the Cubis.

And so we are left with Gottlieb and Hofmann, who once again, due to the bias of M.O.M.A.‘s purchasing policy does not appear until the mid-sixties, at the very end of the show. Gottlieb does not follow the trend to very large formats and acres of matte surface. His techniques are more conventional, painting in oils ( until the 60’s) on traditionally primed linen canvas; his paintings tend to look shiny compared to the others, sometimes unpleasantly shiny. He was a late developer, not approaching anything comparable to a signature style until 1956, though his compartmentalised calligraphic symbols up till then are distinctive. Even as late as 1959 some of his greatest paintings, Counterpoise 1959 (108”x90”) with which he won 1st Prize at the San Paulo Biennale in 1963 and The Crest 1959 have not settled into anything like a formula, indeed he never did. The main picture belonging to M.O.M.A. is Above and Below 1964-5 in which he exploits the spatial implications of a near central horizon between two butted-up areas of close toned colour. Above float three whitish discs; below a variety of broad calligraphic “letters” float over a blurred displaced underpainting. He would explore variations on the spatial potential of these and other arrangements into the 1970s without loss of impetus, a remarkable achievement in itself when one stops to consider the fate of his fellow abstractionists.

I have written extensively about Hofmann over the years. Suffice to say that in this company, and at the very end of the show, once again one is struck by the vibrancy and buoyancy of his colour, in spite of a dense impasto, the relatively small scale of his pictures, even though he has clearly expanded to compete with his younger rivals. He too has worked to create as matte a surface as his impasto would allow, often painting an area or the edges of a block over and over with some broad spreading implement, not always with a brush, (with a protractor, spatula or stiff card?) and with much shading, palette-knifed gradation within the blocks (when present) as in Cathedral and Veluti in Speculum (at the Met)(David Smith seems to have aimed at translating such a picture into sculpture). Memoria in Aeternum 1962 (reminiscent of Magnum Opus 1962) is one of his most felicitous creations. The crafty old conjuror seems to be responding not only to the mood of the 1950s, but to the up-and coming generation of hedonistic colourists who would become identified as post-painterly abstractionists as well. But that is a whole other story.
The wearying effect of what Heron, all those years ago, designated the “over-dry immaculateness” of the New American painting, coupled with the darkening with age of large areas of exposed cotton-duck where present has taken its toll on Pollock’s black paintings of 1952. I find these qualities together with the halos of oil around the bituminous off-black duco paint faintly depressing. There is no sparkle, no vitality to the blacks, and no tuning up of the whites (or rather beiges). All this does not augur well for the future of post painterly abstractionists to come, with their addiction to large areas of unprimed cotton-duck. We shall have to wait until this generation are rehabilitated from the abyss into which current fashion has cast them for an opportunity to form such a comprehensive assessment as this show has allowed.

And the question posed as to whether abstract painting in the wake of the Abstract Expressionists can ever attain the formal strengths and riches of Matisse’s masterpieces of 1913-17 has to be answered in the affirmative by the onward of painting. Previous attempts to approach the architecture of Matisse’s “window” pictures directly (as has Richard Diebenkorn, for instance) have proved misguided. There can be no compromise between representation and abstraction; abstract painting has tasks of its own, dilemmas of its own, or it should have.

Alan Gouk
October 18th 2010

1. What does characterise Manet’s paintings before the advent of impressionistic influence is not “flatness” but a photographer’s studio-like posing with a frontal lighting which comes over the painter’s shoulder directly on to the faces of his sitters, as if the artist is a lens, but one that does not subdue the subject in a single view, but exhibits the composite anti-perspective of perception. And his backgrounds are studio props, scenery flats (literally in Lola de Valence 1862) lowered in at shallow depths.
2. We know that Matisse had shown great interest in “Where do we come from” by 1913, when he wrote to Shchukin and Morosov “concerning the availability” of the picture. Availability for what? Did he wish to acquire it, or wish them to acquire it? But I’m sure that he knew of the picture long before then.
3. We know it was shown at Vollard’s in 1898, but was it shown again in the 1903 exhibition there, or at the large retrospective at the Salon D’Automne in 1906? I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.
4. The label “Abstract Expressionist” is a convenient art-historical fiction and will be retained as a convenient short-hand for this heterogeneous group of painters only a few of whom are expressionist (loosely defined) some of the time. Where there is an inseparable fusion of technical innovation with a new psychological content, as in the best Pollocks and Rothkos, it is doubtful whether the term expressionist is appropriate, since it implies a certain stridency, a warring tension between an exacerbated means and extreme states of feeling in the artist. For instance Schoenberg is only expressionistic when this marriage of form and content is jarring, not when it is perfectly in synch., as in Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand.
5. There is always a certain doubt about these “breakthrough” early Abstract Expressionist pictures – witness the re-dating of Hofmann’s tiny “drip” picture from 1940/42 to now 1944.
6. Page 329 Mark Rothko, a biography by James Breslin. University of Chicago Press 1993
7. Clement Greenberg, Art International 17.9. Nov 1973 – “Influences of Matisse”