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Romanticism in America – Part II

“I have heard what the talkers were talking . . . . the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance . . . . Always substance and increase,
Always a knit of identity . . . . always distinction . . . . always a breed of life.”

Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass” 1855 edition, page 14.

Beginning or End

Our hero is still clad in the same costume, this time poised on the edge of painterly greatness. Years have passed since the jaunty studio photo in our last post. He is older, hopefully wiser, maybe a bit less callow, a little less cocky, but still Romantic in the best sense. You can see that time has taken a toll, the challenge willingly taken has burnished his features and fixed his intentions. The paintings behind him are different, the work has changed dramatically compared to the “classical” portrait of the late 20s. It’s become more abstract, the figure more primitive, the “Expressionism” more visible, the physical act of painting more available. And if you catch it, there over his shoulder, he is no longer alone.

American Type painting was forcing its way to the very surface of the picture plane, moving the paint straight into a confrontation with consciousness. American painters had accepted the idea that abstraction was the new visual language of the 20th Century and they were starting to form new ways to express that language. These painters were relying on the well established precedent in American history of the desire to make something out of nothing, raising oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Americans had honed this “can do” mythology since the establishment of the Republic – the innovator, the inventor and the self made man were all archetypes for practical advancement. In the case of abstract painters let’s call these artists practical aesthetes. They were workers one and all, using workers’ tools, paints and attitudes to fashion an aesthetic experience, or something more, a transcendant moment.

Heaven or Hell

The legacy left to us by the American Romantics has always been tied up with a sense of non-place – the craving for the openness of endless spaces and vast stretches of empty (meaning unsettled) primordial land. Nothing was to be “done,” nothing was to be built in this primeval world. Everything was to remain in flux. The Americans rushed across the continent in search of yet another sea, another vast stretch of surface. Rather than becoming part of the land or actually settling into the land, Americans chose to fetishize an “idea of the land.” There is no permanence, no “civilization” for the American – we erase our histories, we slip in and out of our existences and we slide easily into the ground that we call “America,” a ground made up of corporate enterprises and Hollywood mythologies.

It began with the “pioneers” who made way stations on the road to the sea. Then we developed a network of railways, followed by highways and automobiles. Today, we have fly-overs with a series of landing strips proliferated across this vast space. Our economy, once long ago, man made, has virtually disappeared into the bits and bytes of cyberspace. Our cities and suburbs constantly eradicate themselves creating stretches of endless junk space – the forgotten spaces between points of convergence. And it’s those forgotten spaces that allow us to submerge into the vast ground, a constantly morphing non-space. It has made our contemporary experience of America nothing but a surface of unseen, unexperienced virtual civilization usually encountered from lofty or unexpected vantage points. Even our architecture is an illusion of physical history. It’s designed outside of human perspectives. Americans don’t have, have never had, a father/motherland – we have never come FROM the land, in fact nothing about America comes from the land. We emerge from the staging ground of the Overland – we are a society that exists in the flyover, the crossover, the stopover, the look-over and the holdover. We are never at one with the land, never part of the particulars of a landscape, we never get stuck in so to speak. Rather, Americans have always lived with, on, in and through our vehicles. We are constantly being transported somewhere else.

The Procreant Urge

American Romantics were always after something a bit different than their European counterparts. For the American Romantic, dislocated and disassociated, the continual eradication of self was the preferred endgame that must never be consumated, the conundrum of the rising subject that must never be solved. This is one of the reasons that the finish of an event, the outcome of the moment had become the endless worry of so much painterly work. WHEN something was finished, or rather “unfinished,” had become the focus point for these new painters – work too much and you loose the freshness of the event, work too little and the event never comes together. The painting had to remain open ended so that the interpretation of the event, the endgame, would be continued by the “seekers” that came after – the event of the painting would by our guide. For American Romantics secular religiousity was always the thick pumping bass line keeping time to the drumbeat of salvation. Painting was no different, and it assumed a high stakes game of chance, a concentration of supreme effort, a manifestation of internal belief, an affair of the heart, a seduction of spirit, a confrontation of will, and a pathway to understanding, but it would never, ever promise passionate fulfillment – only the desire to set consciousness free of physical limitations. Abstract Expressionism would become an endless, breathless, fleshless physicality aimed at an optical release of spirit. This idea is, at base, what the Romantic encounter for American painters was shaping up to look like.

In this sort of confrontation one is not looking outward like the European Romantic, one is always looking inward. Americans were not painting what they were seeing, rather they were painting what they were feeling, they were translating their inner yearnings for release into shows of color, form and material. You weren’t supposed to see so much as experience. And so you get the direction by both Rothko and Newman that you are to stand about a foot and a half away from their work in order to understand. You are to be engulfed – the distance required to see and comprehend is to be eradicated. You are to feel not see. Modernism was far too European – too connected to physical vision. European Modernists would not let go, could not let go of the visual past because they were too wrapped up in defining their outward looking freedom. American painters turned the entire enterprise of Modernism inward and they would manifest their interior conflicts through the physical world, through action painting, through materials. The focus was not on the subject, but on the ground. They were trying to make “visual” what was unseen and they were trying to define that place of transference in the ever expanding surface. It’s a step away from Modernism and the beginning of a kind of philosophical dance deconstructing the history of Western vision itself. What does my inner world look like, how can I recreate something EXPERIENCED and not SEEN for someone else? By stripping content down to consciousness, by refashioning the ground as subject somehow, the American Romantic finished the Master Slave dialectic. The other, the rising subject no longer existed and painting for the first time in its long history was busy removing the “artist” from the visual equation.

“Painting could now be reduced to that equipment which the artist needed for an activity that would be an alternative to both utility and idleness. Guided by visual and somatic memories of painting he had seen or made—memories which he did his best to keep from intruding into his consciousness—he gesticulated upon the canvas and watched for what each novelty would declare him and his art to be.
Based on the phenomenon of conversion the new movement is, with the majority of the painters, essentially a religious movement. In almost every case, however, the conversion has been experienced in secular terms. The result has been the creation of private myths.
The tension of the private myth is the content of every painting of this vanguard. The act on the canvas springs from an attempt to resurrect the saving moment in his “story” when the painter first felt himself released from Value—myth of past self-recognition. Or it attempts to initiate a new moment in which the painter will realize his total personality—myth of future self-recognition.” Harold Rosenberg “The American Action Painters

IN the end I have to acknowledge that the connection between Romanticism and Freedom always becomes evident – especially in painting. The Romantic seeks Freedom at any and all costs, and for the American Romantic, that freedom was connected to the idea of and the yearning for transcendence. Willem, however, could not let go entirely of his European self. There is no transcending the limits of his own human nature. There is even less religiousity in his work. Instead he developed a new kind of hand made primitivism which began to take hold in his figures, his work and his life. He remained connected to the culture and life around him. Bits of magazines and newspapers showed up collaged into his work. Places, landscapes and people were all there to grapple with his consciousness. He is the most fleshy of the AbEx painters, and he is always insistently earth bound.

Romanticism continues….

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