It’s a cliché that Abstract Expressionism has some kind of similarity to or affinity with Jazz, but I don’t know of any attempt to make this relationship concrete. Are they at all the same, and if so, how? I think that the answer to this question makes clear one of the most important contributions that modernist abstraction has made to our visual culture today, namely that it has given new value to the temporal and placed improvisation at the centre of art.
All aspects of process are fascinating to an artist, but viewers ordinarily only care about the finished product. After all, that’s what they have to live with. One consequence of the static nature of any finished work is that it takes a bit of theory to recapture why process might be important, and therefore a certain amount of confusion gathers around the topic. Allow me to increase that confusion.
In classic modernism, say the work of Cézanne or Matisse, pentimenti and even quite radical changes of direction are usually visible in the work, and they speak to us about the artist’s adventure, how they struggled to arrive at a resolution and a satisfactory pictorial experience. This is the context for the work of artists like Pollock, Mitchell, de Kooning or Motherwell, for example, but they are really doing something very different, which could be called genuine improvisation. Typically, Abstract Expressionism contains nothing that says correction or second thought. The whole work is improvised, so there can’t be any pentimenti – abstraction of this type by definition has no recognizable image, hence no posited goal. There is no limit to test it against as it proceeds, no Mt. Ste. Victoire, no reclining nude. Every artist knows from experience that limits enable expression, and so this is also one of the weaknesses of abstraction in its American incarnation—open-endedness brings the very existence of creative freedom into question, because it forces us to recognize that it can only be measured against convention, and if the convention is that anything is possible there is no limit to exceed. The practical consequence of this dilemma is that finishing is very hard, but if we had a better understanding of what improvisation is, and what it is worth, difficulties of this kind might be solved.
As Allen Ginsberg put it “first thought best thought,” but pragmatically every artist knows that it often doesn’t work out that way. An abstract painter of the free, open-ended sort will often overpaint or rub out but it is impossible after the fact to determine if changes are an improvement. Every thought is a “first thought;” aesthetic decisions may succeed each other in time, but not in importance. This might be a hard fact for many to accept, but an artist like de Kooning had to live it, and it wasn’t easy. Meanwhile, I challenge anyone to prove that the stages of de Kooning’s works demonstrate any progress or improvement. He could have stopped anywhere and the result would have been as good.
Having said that I have to pause and revise—it may not immediately be apparent that the changes were improvements or that the final stage was the best and a necessary end. This is one of the most important aspects of the temporality of abstraction in our time, that works are made to be evaluated in the future, and the best present response to any work is a suspension of judgement. Past art worked toward a recognized standard of quality, discoverable in already existing art, in the canonical masterpieces. The new art aims to invent its own standards of quality, and this is how improvisation acquires superlative importance. For the most ambitious art there is no other method, because no other method can ensure an unknown result. The problem reduces to the relation between beginnings and ends. The improvised work can only be recognized by its end, but its end is by definition unknown, even to the artist—especially to the artist. If the end is known, then nothing new can appear, so much is obvious, but improvised art also tries to take a distance from known beginnings. Is this even possible? Logically, maybe not, but it can be done.
Having said that, I would like to pause for further revision. Improvisation does not mean pulling art out of thin air. It is a congerie of techniques that enable the possibility that the new will appear, the foremost of which is repetition—at least that’s what we can learn from Jazz. The Jazz musician/composer aims to create a music, and it is built gradually, over time, by constantly working through a set of motifs, repertoires, devices, mannerisms, techniques, so that the relation between the elements is incrementally changed until the whole edifice, a life’s work, stands apart—a unique construction. This is an eminently pragmatic and realistic approach, because it doesn’t set impossible standards of extempore achievement. Improvisation is more akin to normal living than it is to flights of virtuoso artistic skill. And yet, great improvisers usually are virtuosos, it’s just that they have set their own standards of skill. It turns out that skills are best learned in the act of creation, and so one’s artistic beginnings can be set by—education ceases to be determining. Beautiful and highly individual musical idioms may be based on unusual fingerings or “incorrect” voicings which have been mastered beyond habit.
But having noted all this I need to make yet further revision and observe that creation can happen ex nihilo, and such is the unspecifiable goal of improvisation. Luckily there is a way to resolve this paradox, and science can help. Science has shown definitively that something does come out of nothing, and even if quantum fluctuation—the random appearance of particles in empty space—has no direct relevance to anything human we should at least take encouragement that miracles do exist, and not be embarrassed to say so. Criticism will track every manifestation back to an antecedent form, but that is not a disproof of the new, it’s just a retrospective construction. Science has also found a way to get us from the cosmic to the human, through what is called “emergent properties of complex systems.” Without getting too technical, or repeating what should be evident in the language itself, a complex system—say a living organism for example—can have properties or behaviours that could not be predicted by an analysis of its parts.
At this point I remind myself that I am talking mostly to artists, so there is no need to belabour the obvious. The new is a qualitative distinction, and we musn’t let our reason, which cannot recognize the same, to argue it away. And yet the path of art is to work the material until the qualitatively new is objectively measurable. This might be the limit that improvisation cannot exceed, namely that in our culture novelty is not negotiable. There are too many artists and too much art—small moves won’t do. Improvisation has to be bold, and that is the qualitative distinction that matters. At least in the American idiom.