Vision – Provocation

Clement Greenberg BBC Interview – double click to play

In the surprisingly candid and touching video above Clement Greenberg mentions that many of the artists of the time did not see Pollock as a proper painter. And at the beginning of the clip you might see why. Pollock used paint differently, as a way to record his involvement in the moment, like a captured experience in time – almost like a photograph. Now I want to be very clear about one thing most American painters don’t think about when we stand before our canvases. We do not acknowledge that America does not have a tradition of painting. We do not have that kind of visual history in our genetic makeup. Painters are an afterthought. Even as AbEx fever raged in the minds of the small group of committed painters on 10th Street, even as America proclaimed it’s coming of artistic age in paint – we still weren’t painters. Truth is most of the AbExers had come from Europe or were taught by Europeans that were steeped in the philosophies, aesthetics and politics of old Europa. Whatever AbEx was it wasn’t a strictly American movement. What we had to do in order to take the cultural stage and declare our readiness to overtake Paris as the art world center was to inherit, or better, steal the idea of Modernism – depending on your viewpoint. And Modernism, the flowering of 20th century culture, was all about the history of painting.

At that time America was not yet the “Super Power” it would become. Our art was still considered provincial and unformed by the rest of the world. But after the international success of the Americanization of Modernism America began to export the Art that truly reflected our own culture, that came from our own experiences. And why not? America was the new super power, the new empire, and like any empire, it began to erect its own distinct culture everywhere it found a foothold. We didn’t need European visual history to make the point of our cultural power. We had our own. Paint and painting is just not all that interesting to us, it’s never defined us the way it once defined Europe’s Culture. It never represented life in America. And the younger generation of American artists that rushed to the fore after AbEx made their mark on the art world’s stage through other means and in other ways. True, some were “painters” but they did not approach painting as the Europeans had done. Instead these artists relied on and embodied American corporate values like productivity, quantification and electronic imagery – all of which come from Hollywood, TV, advertising and manufacturing. Think of Stella, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Judd, Rosenquist and Andre – the artists of the early Postmodern years. And most all of that art, most all of our truly American art, was formed and documented through the use of the lens, formed by what lenses could do and how those lenses defined and fashioned us. Our avant garde never gave a good god damn for painting, for seeing like painters, for making images, spaces and light like the great European painters once did. No. Painting was as old, outdated and passé as the war torn history of Europe. We had something far more “real”, something far more “true to life” humming through our culture. And it had absolutely NOTHING to do with painting.

America’s Forgotten Old Man

We begin this provocation at the moment that America began to form itself into the nation we experience today. Matthew Brady was America’s first great imagist, its first great Avant Garde Artist, its first great provocateur. And in his work you can see all the future of American (Post) Modernism, from 291 to 10th Street right into Warhol’s Silver Studio. From portraiture to landscape Brady set the tone for how Americans would confront European visual traditions. From his studios in Washington and New York Brady formed a vision of America that played between two intellectual opposites. On the one hand he photographed the powerful, rich and famous in highly stylized and mannered portraits. In these works he was carrying on the visual traditions of Europe and creating something that would become our Hollywood culture, the culture of fame, glamor and celebrity that is still prevalent in every media outlet in America. On the other he and his studio documented the harsh realities and unfortunate incidences of the lives of everyday Americans. What we see in this disparate body of work is the interior and exterior, the studio and the world, artifice and nature. His art captured the speed and violence engendered by a growing mechanized culture as it defined the ethos of this new nation. And in doing so he reformulated an old critique, an old problem that had faced painters through the centuries – artifice or reality? But Brady did this through the new lens/machine, the democratic eye, rather than in paint. In Brady’s photos as in American culture – reality and artifice become one.

The contact sheet of America’s most famous President (the analog precursor to the thumbnail archive) is stunning. First because of the prescience and collaboration between the sitter and the artist. Lincoln was one of the first Presidents to understand the power of image, the star power that mass produced images can bestow. He sat for Brady many times and his face, as Brady fashioned it, is still to this day etched forever in the minds of every American. That face, or rather Brady’s images of Lincoln are as ubiquitous as the Mona Lisa and just as mysteriously fascinating. Yet we don’t often think of these images in that way, we don’t “see” Lincoln as an art historical watershed. They don’t matter as Art because we have all been continuously fed these sorts of images every day of our lives. It’s how we communicate with one another. That face based on Brady’s image is on our fucking currency. We forget sometimes about the mind behind the image. Brady used the lens in clever ways. In many of the photographs of Lincoln, especially the close ups, Brady played with the depth of field, strongly focusing on Lincoln’s face and allowing the rest of his head to slightly blur. He was making sure that this face would register strongly in our unconscious, that this sculpted vision of Lincoln would remain with us like a dream, emerging from the ground and lodging into our collective memories. We take it for granted today, the ubiquity of these kind of images, of manipulative close ups and focus, especially in photographic images, but at the time of the civil war, this kind of encounter, this visual intimacy with a “life-like” image was a new experience for the American public. We have craved and coveted this kind of intimacy with fame ever since.

Second is the amazing structure and composition of the contact sheet itself. Though Brady would never present the work in this way (at least I don’t think he did) this contact sheet is a Postmodern miracle. From Warhol to your computer screen, most of the faux antiqued modernism and quantified structures that we see looks and acts in our minds exactly like this contact sheet, and in fact, most every contact sheet that came after Brady – taped, grease penciled, unregistered, collaged, repeated, delightfully fucked up. The composition not only speaks of the intimacy within the image, but the intimacy within the processes of the photographer. We see a double capture, something we Americans prize in everything we experience – reality as artifice presented as experience. The composition in this contact sheet is classic Warhol and classic late 20th Century. And even more telling in the processes of the contact sheet is the fact that this offhand quantification and explication also mimics the way artists had for centuries made drawings, worked out ideas in their sketch books. Only now these processes were being done through the machine. For the American this kind of process, this working method is what we prefer to engage with: the unfinished, the unmade, and the undone. It allows us to find the piece, to bond with the subject, to discover ourselves within it, to be a part of the finish and to make the thing great. It means WE must experience the process, we PARTICIPATE rather than have the thing arrive as a full blown vision before us. Like most things in America that is what we crave. You see this in our reality TV shows, our political talk shows and in the myths and biographies of our famous citizens. In this way we can see the experience not as a product of genius, but as a democratic event, an elected leader, as one of us. And that means we get to choose, to feel that our opinion counts, just as our speech has been promised to us, just like a Coke and a smile.

I have to say that I’ve always been fascinated by the disparate nature of Brady’s body of photographs especially as it concerns the “real” life of Americans. Brady ran a massive project during the Civil War photographing and documenting that conflict. This was a first for art in this country and you can imagine the logistics involved. Because of the nature of the tools the teams of photographers capturing the images could not “shoot” the work on the fly. The camera had to be stationary, and so we have a kind of before and after experience in the work. For instance there are the posed shots of the battle commanders around a campsite and then there are the disastrous found images taken in the aftermath of a battle. When Brady first showed these photos the American public was horrified. They had not seen death presented in such a baldfaced and vile manner before. There was none of the heroism, none of the great cause. Liberty was not leading the People over the barricades. All that was there was a “true to life” moment captured by the machine. This reality was empty of virtue, clean of drama and vicious in depiction. There wasn’t any of the painterly space or dramatized narration that the art going public expected to see in Art. Rather they were confronted with a different experience – the violence of process, the all consuming ground.

The truth about the lens/machine is that it conflates artifice and objective imagery. That distance between the abstraction of the “image” (the focus and framing that happens in the machine) and the “reality” of existence (the world outside that framing) is fraught with all the questions that the coming American Century would wrangle with over and over again. Questions regarding our participation in society, in relationships, context – what defines individualism, romantic engagement, Manifest Destiny, country, wealth, class, sex and race – public issues with which we are STILL and ALWAYS coming to terms. Our visual avant garde began right here – NOT with the early Parisian Modernists and their struggle to paint in the face of a vast and powerful history. Painters in Europe were still engaging with the magic of the newly reproduced photographic image and how to incorporate that “reality” into painting. Americans had none of the visual tradition of this European legacy, and we found that we could easily do away with the problem that faced the painted image. And that is exactly what we did. We became Sunday painters and avant garde photographers. We Americans don’t see, we experience (which is why many Europeans don’t “get” us,) and the lens machine was the best, quickest and easiest way to achieve that “experience” for our Art. Inherent in the use of lens images are many other thornier questions about reality and imagery that Brady’s work also brings up. They are questions of authorship, reproduction, replication, appropriation, copyright, and just about any of the current “problems” that preoccupy today’s art world. Of course when we look at Brady’s work today it looks naive and dated, but it also brings with it the nostalgia and sentiment that defines so much of the art we make and encounter today.

Death is an overrated literary idea…

“Two attitudes underlie this presumption that anything in the world is material for the camera. One finds that there is beauty or at least interest in everything, seen with an acute enough eye. (And the aestheticizing of reality that makes everything, anything, available to the camera is what also permits the co-opting of any phtograph, even one of an utterly practical sort, as art.) The other treats everything as the object of some present or future use, as matter for estimates, decisions, and predictions.” Susan Sontag “The Image-World” On Photography

Greenberg was onto something important in that interview. For the American painter the old ways of seeing and painting didn’t make sense. This difference in understanding vision and culture put Pollock in the Cedar Street Tavern in the last year of his life. These drunken bouts speak to his nagging uncertainty and his loneliness in the face of his achievement. It also exacerbated Pollock’s Romantic inclination for a literary death. The old man makes clear that Pollock wanted to return to the Impressionists, to learn from them. And for me this points to our own continuing conundrum about painting. Pollock wanted to learn about painterly vision in Nature, about the way the Impressionists would see and paint through time instead of seeing and painting in time – visual culture versus experiential culture. His palette, composition, techniques and light and space would have had to change. And you can see this renewed struggle with European painting in his last “failed” works. He had stripped out the color, he had reclaimed the brush and reintroduced the figure. Another great push was on the way. In a telling gesture Pollock’s very last painting was entitled “Search.” In that painting he’s back to the clotted surfaces and chunky imagery of his younger work, like he’s working back toward something, trying to remember something he had forgotten. But in reality, that memory was something he may never have had access to, something that he had never really experienced first hand. Maybe a new kind of hybrid vision would have come from Pollock’s need to look at the Impressionists. What would have happened if Pollock spent some time in Paris? Who knows what l’Orangerie would have meant to Pollock?

You can see this struggle take root in many of the more prescient Postmodern painters as well. Frank Stella’s Working Space is all about the visual anxiety that American painters feel when confronted with the European visual traditions. He writes of finding volumetric space and light for a new kind of abstraction. He’s seeking a kind of hybridization of vision just as Pollock did those years ago. David Hockney approaches the same issues from a different perspective through his Secret Knowledge – which turns out to be a historical account of the lens in painting. David Reed begins with the Baroque and tries to marry European vision into American abstraction – light, hue, value, flatness, objectness – it’s all there. But for the most part we painters still ignore the conundrum, we still find it too difficult to confront. We keep replaying the recent past. I think the thing Greenberg was lamenting in Pollock’s need to reconnect with Europe is what we’ve been discussing here. We painters have to approach our history differently, we have to understand it differently in order to form better questions, find other solutions, and work our way out from under the Postmodern morass in which we find ourselves. If we are honest about our past as painters we might find our future a bit more interesting and a bit more relevant in our time.

Final Part to come…

8 thoughts on “Vision – Provocation

  1. brilliant writing here. locating the genesis of postmodern american state while linking it to the appearance of a technocratic image as its corollary is genius. the establishment of corporate personhood precedes the outbreak of the civil war by about forty years, and the recent citizens united decision consolidates its ‘voice’ under the first amendment. painting has never mattered for much in american culture, as its relationship to the viewer is found within the dynamics of this question which perpetuates the myth of the individual while protecting the rights of private property and the security state. this is the fundamental reason american art made since the end of the second world war looks and operates the way it does. bravo, mark.

  2. Pollock certainly. Not for his paintings, but the way he made paintings, the way he changed the game of vision. The second generation of AbEx painters all came from De Kooning’s brush and they failed. They could not top the master and AbEx fizzled. Pollock’s struggle with vision continues all through Postmodern America, but unfortunately for us painters, not in paint. As I tried to make clear, it’s not in our nature to paint, to see like painters. Our current path was determined through the lens/machine, the electronic world, through Hollywood and the explosion of singular “isms” that came with Postmodernism. That collaborative film by Namuth of Pollock painting lays out (once again) a plethora of aesthetic issues and theoretical questions that artists would have to face over the next forty years. Even today we see this same kind of engagement in the documentation of process, the extended field, relational aesthetics and even the life of the studio careerist and the art fair. All of it comes from Pollock. His beautiful paintings remain inscrutable. We can not take from them nor can we “see” them. We can only experience them.
    But again the triumph of American-type painting has for many of us created the uneasy feeling that some important part of us as painters has been lost. It did for Pollock and it has for the artists that I mention in the post – Stella, Hockney and Reed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not lamenting the change, nor am I nostalgic for days gone by. What we are in the process of doing today is creating something new from these realizations, laying the groundwork for a more involved and complex kind of seeing. We’ll have more to say about that in our final post in this series. Thanks for your comment Brian!

  3. as an aside, let’s not forget it was lincoln’s demand act of 1862 that authorized salmon chase to print the ‘greenbacks’ that funded the civil war, a first step towards the fiat currency colloquially known today as ‘dead presidents’. you’ve broken some very interesting ground here sir, with an almost subconscious archeology of the american corporate image, from brady to warhol, as a picture of disaster and displacement.

  4. Thanks anon, you’re very kind! I have to say that I was a bit taken aback by the strong theoretical similarities between Brady and Warhol. Granted there’s a 100 years and an electronic matrix between them, but basically they are covering the same beat so to speak – the presentation and glorification of the celebrity classes and the infamy and disasters born by the ordinary citizenry. I felt this entrenchment of visual theoretics was important to bring up as it opens the conversation on a host of other broader societal issues in addition to the aesthetic ones. It seems we are still living through the consequences and outcomes of the civil war – the beginnings of a corporatized government and the formation of a different kind of artistic avant garde. Both have been and still are fascinated with the power of mechanization, quantification and replication.

  5. If I may add, Mark: Pollock’s achievement was such that he couldn’t “reside” in it, really; and who could? Not even analysts had gone as far – and it may have been only Greenberg who “got” it.
    But I think the very tensions between the European background and American newness of the AbEx period were what helped to produce great work. Art needs those tensions…
    And searching, now, is not a problem – it is a path, of course.
    Your writing about Brady is inspired, and answers many latent questions for me. These are views that should be published – they will have a lasting effect on the discourse.
    But I must add, I am leery of the implications of linking national power and art; great art is sometimes stimulated by periods of wealth and power, but not always.
    Many thanks, Mark!

  6. Thanks George – as always you’re very kind!

    I think you’re right about Greenberg being one of the few to get Pollock’s real achievement, but ironically, Pollock also complained that Greenberg did not get his work. I guess that goes to show how alone he must have felt. There’s something about those years and something in the American character that produced that kind of problematic anxiety in its artists. The generation that followed was much more gregarious and cosmopolitan. They had a confidence and insouciance about themselves and their Art that the AbExers did not have. Different times and circumstances create different solutions! I would like to agree that art should be larger than the Nations that produce it, but I find that my views align with the historical examples. As power rises for a nation so does the art around it. A nation will export that culture to other nations – that is how Empires are formed. In America’s case our Art quickly fell in line with the Corporate model. America is unique, historically, in its disposition toward business. Our Nation was formed FOR business interests rather than business forming out of the Nation’s interest. Still, I’m of the opinion that Nations are a relic of an older dialog. Today the true power, those institutions that wield power, are the Multinational Corporations – Energy, Technology, Pharmaceutical, Financial, Weaponry, AeroSpace, etc. Nations tend to serve the needs of those Corporations, and I think the Global Depression that we are still experiencing has made that point clear again and again. And the Art that we see, the Art that we experience in the fairs, galleries and media tends to affirm Corporate values like production, replication, reproduction, outsourcing, technology etc.

    This weekend in the Times there was a photographic essay on Jeffrey Deitch’s house in Hollywood. He’s made the mansion over into an installation gallery space in order to conduct business while “entertaining.” The photos lead one to believe that he’s promoting a kind of monetized Corporate Surrealism that provides an experience of Art for the well to do Museum Contributor/Collector. It’s pure marketing genius – Cary Grant’s bachelor pad (Hollywood glamour) decked out in 21st Century Art Fair Luxury Goods (the current institutional style.) Money, Power and Art all colliding in one pure experience of KapitalKulture in the Living Room of a Museum Director. The melding of corporate gallery and corporate institution is complete. I don’t mean to sound cyncial because I’m not trying to be, but the Cultural winners of any age are those that manage to mix with Power, that manage to convince those with access that the work they are doing explains and glorifies the age that they are living in. These artists quickly become an adjunct to those power classes – like Jeff Koons, Richard Serra or Gerhard Richter.
    I happen to think there are other interesting things going on in painting and in Art. Things that others are not necessarily seeing and not necessarily discussing.

    By the way to any readers that may be following this comment thread – check out George’s new works! Amazing, exciting and difficult work!

  7. I doubt that few people “got” Pollock at the time – and, as we agree, that made his life very difficult. That far out is very isolating, and who wants to go the distance with you?
    Re power and art: I think you have to decide if you are talking about aesthetic power or cultural power. These don’t always coincide, obviously: is Bernini a greater artist than Duccio, or Rubens than Breughel? And what of the genius of an obscure printmaker, Herkules Seghers, unknown to almost all – compared to Rembrandt? Of course sometimes things come together: Velasquez at the height of Spain – but maybe that is more the exception than the rule. Great art is not bound to periods of cultural power, I don’t think, and in recent times Pollock and artists like Gottlieb perfectly illustrate how separate these can be.

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