The bestiality of World War II and the onset of the cold war was bringing a dark-but also exciting-pessimism into intellectual life. The social optimism of Marxist intellectuals, eroded by harsh realities of history, could no longer attract strong minds. However, many now turned inward and celebrated the individual who had the courage to face without fear a terminally absurd and corrupt society. The heroes were no longer Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, but rather Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Neitsche and Freud, the great voices of isolation and the inner life. In particular, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who raised nihilism and a sense of absurdity about human matters to the first principle of modern life, attracted attention…As [Harold] Rosenberg wrote, artists did not speak as a group, as they often did in the thirties, but were making “an individual, sensual, psychic, and intellectual effort to live actively in the present.” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan de Kooning An American Master
Here in Rosenberg’s quote about the individual artist is the first indication of what the contemporary Postmodern art world might come to look like. His statement seems to be one of unifying principles, but it is the beginning of the eventual fracturing of art theoretics and practice. The idea behind it is peculiarly American in its use, reaching all the way back to Emerson and the American Trancendentalists. In this philosophy the individual chooses what his life will be, and it is the choice that is imperative. This is also a predominant theme in the mid-century philosophy of Existentialism which was often quoted and used by the ABEX school. The connections between these two schools of thought, Existentialism and American Transcendentalism, is best summed up with Emerson’s quote, “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” In Existentialism this idea of responsibility was taken to new heights by Sartre as he roped the unfettered consciousness of the 19th century philosophers back into its 20th century human skin. For Sartre consciousness was part and parcel of being, and the fact that it could not slip those bonds, that consciousness could never get free of physical limitations, brought a new idea of humanism and responsibility into focus. In its most simplistic state, consciousness is manifest in and through the being in-itself. There is nothing beyond being and being is what you choose to be. This idea of choice sets up the anguish of responsibility, the anguish of freedom all leading back to what you make of yourself. “Once freedom explodes in the human soul God can do nothing against man. God can do nothing against this pillar of granite, this irresistible column, man’s freedom.”
The ABEX painters in the years following the war took these ideas up and made them manifest in their work. Harold Rosenberg asserted, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined.” What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event, a confrontation of choices. This ensured that the Modernist ground would become more than a physical surface to hold a picture. The flat stretch of ground had become the focus of the artist’s attention. Visual meaning, understanding what one was seeing in this instance would have to change dramatically. Vision itself had to become more attuned to the tactile. This way of seeing and understanding a painting in its simplicity as both surface and materiality, would necessarily shift the predominant senses. In order to understand the ABEX painting one had to use one’s eyes as if one were “feeling” the surface, the color, the gesture, the image. One was not looking at the painting or even the surface of the painting, one was experiencing the physicality of the artist, and it’s this difference between seeing and experiencing that defines the end of Modernism. “The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.” In this sentence are the major ideas that govern the end of Modernism and provide a basis for our Postmodern age.
First, the idea that the art work would not be a representation of an image. Now this may seem counterintuitive to an age inundated with representational images, but we Postmoderns do not make our images, nor do we create our images – we find them, we rework them and we appropriate them, we treat them like things, physical evidence. Our images flow through the media, they come full-blown, fully realized through the lens. The implication is that when we find an image we encounter it, we grapple with it, we fold our existence into it. Second, the idea of materiality, that the stuff, the physicality of the process is the engine that drives the work’s creation. The material is the element that documents and recreates the encounter. This sets up the idea that the painting of the image in itself is of secondary importance to the actual “performance” or conception of the work. How you “handle” the image is of more importance than the meaning of the image – in other words presentation or context is the focus and the locus of understanding. Both of these concepts of art will become important in setting up the idea of context in the Postmodern sense. The arena, the surface, the showing space becomes the important thing – the painting, the image, the picture is only of secondary interest. In this idea it becomes apparent that the ground will take precedence and the rising subject will be subsumed by it. Additionally, the idea of documentation is expanded and proliferated in our lens based electronic culture. Delivery systems, how the image arrives, how it is packaged become more important than what is packaged.
But for the ABEX painter working to connect, the artist still grapples with the history of painting, the anxiety of influence, and his need to find an “expression” through the materials. The documentation of this struggle is the painting itself. What we see are the outcomes of the encounter, and through that experience we come to understand the thing in itself and the choices made. We begin to find meaning in that struggle. But the truly difficult idea beneath this encounter is not drawn out immediately in Rosenberg’s famous assertion about the “arena.” What we come to learn later is that the artist does make moral distinctions in the choices he makes even as he tries to move beyond them. It comes down to the moment of determining one’s existence in the act of painting, of creating something new and beautiful out of a physical gesture, out of painterly ugliness that asserts the artist’s humanity and existence. For the ABEX painter these actions determine the philosophic stance of being, the freedom of the painter. “The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just to PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value — political, aesthetic, moral…On the one hand, a desperate recognition of moral and intellectual exhaustion; on the other, the exhilaration of an adventure over depths in which he might find reflected the true image of his identity.” The ABEX painter creates himself as he creates the work. By the time the sixties rolled around these heavy ideas that held painting in stasis, and the uninspired academic ABEX works made by a younger generation did not fit. The world had changed, and art would have to change with it. For those artists who had struggled through the Depression and the War, the ABEX credo was the real deal, but the academy it inspired looked simply like every other style of institutional painting. Painters by 1960 were no longer living that philosophy. Life was not that harsh and studios no longer contained the drama of Being or Nothingness. The Postmoderns understood this and pilloried the pretensions of the old school.
19 Sixty will continue…