Second Martini Euphoria

“Color-field reacted against the juicy, muscular styles of Willem de Kooning and his many followers, which Greenberg deemed spurious and passé. It won that scrap, in the court of uptown galleries, but soon succumbed to the juggernauts of Pop art and minimalism, which had behind them forces of more than rarefied aesthetic theory: by 1962, Andy Warhol’s silk-screened works equalled the formal strength of color-field and surpassed its éclat, with the added bonus of Marilyn Monroe. Greenberg’s dialectic made color-field sound formidable, but the art proved lightweight in practice, a genteel sort of taste—the visual equivalent of second-Martini euphoria. Still, some gifted artists espoused it, none better than Frankenthaler, its effective inventor, and Louis, its sternest reductionist.
…the “Veils,” which he painted between about 1954 and 1960: mostly large canvases that he tilted to soak with layered, broad runs of translucent acrylic, their downward course narrowing slightly from top to bottom. Like the man himself, by all accounts, the motif is clenched and taciturn, even glum, though given over to delectations of the eye in nearly infinitely variegated chords of color.
Despite the liberty implied in letting gravity make a picture, the “Veils” evince something like the steely control of scientific experimentation. The cumulative, blushing colors are kept within tight ranges of hue and saturation, and of warm and cool. There is a remarkable effect of liquid depths snugged up to dust-dry surfaces, as optical pushes and pulls attain an exquisite equilibrium.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Morris Louis]

“Might I suggest to Schjeldahl that in the future he should do his best to avoid the epithet “lightweight”? It so perfectly expresses the level of his thinking and perception. Note, for a start, the appeal to the concept of “formal strength” on the part of a critic who would never for a moment subscribe to any version of “formalism.” But what, then, does “formal strength” mean? Would Schjeldahl seriously suggest that a Warhol, any Warhol at all, could stand up to the test of being hung next to a first-rate Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Olitski, or Poons? And note, too, the continued hostility to Clement Greenberg, who died twenty years ago yet continues to haunt the diatribes of critics like Schjeldahl, who sense rightly that they would have been powerless to match their convictions about art with his during his lifetime—hence the posthumous revenge they never tire of taking against a caricature of his thought and writing.
…As it happens, Louis was one of the first new abstract painters who attracted my attention, to put it mildly, when I returned to New York after three years in England in the fall of 1962. In fact, Louis died of cancer roughly a week after my return; I had seen just a few paintings by him up to that point, and in the year that followed I saw more, but the great revelation as to the magnitude of his achievement came in September 1963, when an exhibition of seventeen paintings from various phases of his mature career, organized by Lawrence Alloway, opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The exhibition was stunning; what I remember most vividly is the experience of discovering, in the lower room off the spiral (the Guggenheim’s holy of holies), a ravishing Unfurled, the first I had ever seen—a moment comparable to my first encounter with Anthony Caro’s Midday in his courtyard in the fall of 1961.” [Michael Fried on Peter Schjeldahl & Morris Louis]

This new language concerning the opticality of abstract painting related to several elements visible in the works, such as the use of colour, engagement with the scale of the work (as related to the optical ‘field’ of viewers’ own perceptions) and technique. Each of these material elements underwent investigation by Greenberg’s writing, and by the 1950s resulted in a particular set of criteria used to assess the quality of abstract painting. At this point, opticality came to be opposed to various ‘traditional’ notions of space, which Greenberg termed ‘sculptural’ or ‘tactile’. With this theory of opticality beginning to take shape, Greenberg was forced to reassess some of the ideas that he had previously upheld. Specifically, the issue of ‘gesture’ within the context of opticality needed to be reconsidered.
… Greenberg therefore began to widen his perception of ‘avant–garde’ art beyond the context of New York. As we have seen throughout this thesis, Greenberg’s turn against New York painting was spurred primarily by decline in the regard for opticality in the work of several major New York–based artists in the early 1950s. At this time, opticality became more crucially linked with the issue of ‘quality’ than ever before. As a result, Greenberg’s writing delved more deeply into confirming that the pursuit of ‘quality’ works of art were inextricably linked with artists’ pursuits of opticality. This meant that a definite disengagement with notions of expression and gesture, which had previously been highly regarded for opening the space of painting from traditional forms of representation, was required in order to assert the purity of abstraction. Greenberg’s refinement of opticality came through in his re–writing of essays during the period, most prominently, “‘American–Type” Painting’ (1955), which had indicated the historical context, and therefore importance, of the work of many of the abstract artists in New York. When he re– wrote “‘American–Type” Painting’ in 1958, Greenberg was evidently inspired to reconfirm some of the elements of optical painting, and in doing so opened the way for his discussion of alternative artists outside of the New York context, particularly artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.” [Donna McColm on Morris Louis]

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