Romanticism in America

Sith thou misdeem’st so much of things in sight?
What though the sea with waues continuall
Doe eate the earth, it is no more at all:
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought,
For whatsoeuer from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide vnto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.
Edmund Spencer The Faerie Queene: Book 5 Canto 2

We begin to search for our Romantics with a bit of history…
When De Kooning jumped ship in 1926 into the land of opportunity there was little thought about the baggage that he was bringing with him. There was only the thought of finding something new, something bigger and brighter in a new country. Most immigrants that came to the United States had similar hopes and dreams – a fresh start, a new chance at life, a do-over. But the real truth is that one can never truly leave oneself behind. Caravaggio ran, Gauguin fled and De Kooning jumped, but their histories and their memories persisted. It comes out in the work…always. At the time America was a cultural backwater. There were a few Modernists, progressive bohemians, political left-leaning firebrands and free-love experimentalists roaming Greenwich Village to be sure. Art for that small group was a cultural imperative, a lubricant for social intercourse. But America, that America that stretched beyond NYC, was an unforgiving, suspicious and provincial world. Foreigners were not liked, and as many foreigners came to understand, they also were not welcome. There was a price to pay in the land of opportunity. Three years after De Kooning made himself “illegal” the stock market would crash and nearly one quarter of the population would become unemployed, hungry and angry. After that punishing decade of economic hardship the European fascist dystopia began to burn down the world. The hopes and dreams of America’s new immigrants would have to be put on hold.


I really enjoy looking at this picture of the young De Kooning in his studio. It’s like seeing an old friend full of naivety and bluster. The photo is actually a double self portrait. If you compare the face in the painting and De Kooning’s own you can see a distinct similarity. But if you contrast the staid, “classical” pose portrayed in that painting with the artist’s own jaunty stance you begin to see something else happening. Hands in pocket – check! Shirt open at the neck – check! Smirk on face – check! For me that painting of the “hero” and that pictured “hero” don’t match up. The Romantic is way ahead of the painting on view. We all know the history. The work to be done and the promise of the ambition in Willem’s stance would only be realized after a long, hard slog in crap studios, endless dark nights of the soul, difficult love affairs and toiling hand to mouth survival. De Kooning, whether knowingly or not, was declaring his intention to assume the mantle of a Romantic artist. And like many American artists of the time he was looking to European traditions as his guide – Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Manet – the list is long. Today, the institutional Postmodern machine has changed the nature of this artists’ “guide”. What I mean is that in this photo Willem wasn’t applying for a job, angling for an exhibition, or marketing a publicity moment in the way that we Postmoderns go about promoting our productions with videos, jpegs, blogs and web pages. No, our hero was making a statement of fact about his intentions as a painter, and in an even deeper way, as an avant garde artist. It was a statement of purpose, an inelegant boast, an acceptance of a challenge, a true Romantic gesture of rebellion.

Times of Grousing and Ferment

IN the early years of the 20th Century rich American collectors were buying up the work of European Modernists and Masters on the cheap, assembling large holdings of the School of Paris. There was absolutely no market for contemporary art made by home grown artists and that was like nails on a chalk board to ambitious painters. It felt as if American artists didn’t have the “stuff” to make great art, that America would remain a shallow circus populated by unsophisticated rubes. Most of the 57th Street Galleries, where money actually changed hands for art were slanted toward the School of Paris, European Modernism and the new Surrealists. Sure there was the 291 crowd and they got reviewed, sold their work now and again, but for the most part progressive artists could forget about making a living from their work. As you can imagine it was hardly a welcoming place for new ideas or new artists. However, in the 1930s government sponsored work programs began employing loads of these hungry, unemployed artists. They were tasked with helping to build and decorate the new public buildings going up across the country. Inadvertantly, the US Government had funded the basis for a new community of artist painters. Hell, it wasn’t the left bank or Montmartre, it certainly wasn’t professional in the sense we’ve come to expect, but it provided some economic relief, vital friendships and artistic possibilities for a struggling community of ambitious artists.

“Many of the painters were “Marxists” (WPA unions, artists’ congresses); they had been trying to paint Society. Others had been trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism) – it amounts to the same thing. 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, esthetic, moral.”
Harold Rosenberg “The American Action Painters”

The days of the Great Depression were also the beginning days of Expressionism, to be more precise, Abstract Expressionism as it came to be called. This crafty moniker would later be used to separate new American painting from its historic European antecedents and lay the groundwork for an entirely new way to make and sell art. How? In two ways – one economic, the other aesthetic.

The first huge problem confronting American Painters was entrenched American Provincialism. Our populace always had, and for that matter, still has, a suspicious and problematic relationship with ANY intellectual ferment that does not reaffirm and reassure the selective historical memory of the American people. In the 20th Century if that intellectual ferment was perceived as being pink, or worse, red in color and flavor, there was no hope of it passing into the larger culture. And at that time of Depression, Labor Rebellion and World War, most artists in America were considered at least shocking pink with many of the more vocal ones heating up into a bright fiery shade of scarlet. For those of you that don’t happen to have the United States Color Chart of American Political Affiliations (or the USCCAPA) – Pinks are socialists and Reds are outright commie bastards – it actually states that on the bottom left legend of the chart. God forbid that any American Artist should espouse European political or intellectual doctrines – particularly any that actually leaned Marxist, or worse, Leninist. (Many artists found out about the fear engendered by these sorts of affiliations after the war when McCarthy came calling.) It was clear that artists would have to find a new way to an art market. Industry is what America is comfortable with and our art – the production of it, the promotion of it and the enjoyment of it – would have to emulate the economic processes of our capitalist comfortable culture. This new fine art industry would have to be as All-American as GM, Ford, and US Steel. Abstract Expressionism as a “new” art movement in America would have NO overt political connections and its content would avoid any outright political catechisms. In that way a new class of corporate collector could feel comfortable displaying these works in the institutions and offices proliferating all throughout the United States. These were American Artists, goddammit, and they made shiny, beautiful art about and for Americans.

“The aesthetic effect of extensiveness is also entirely different from that of particular shapes. Some things appeal to us by their surfaces, others by the lines that limit those surfaces. And this effect of surface is not necessarily an effect of material or colour; the evenness, monotony, and vastness of a great curtain of colour produce an effect which is that of the extreme of uniformity in the extreme of multiplicity; the eye wanders over a fluid infinity of unrecognizable positions, and the sense of their numberlessness and continuity is precisely the source of the emotion of extent. The emotion is primary and has undoubtedly a physiological ground, while the idea of size is secondary and involves associations and inferences…The value of size becomes immediate only when we are at close quarters with the object; then the surfaces really subtend a large angle in the field of vision, and the sense of vastness establishes its standard, which can afterwards be applied to other objects by analogy and contrast. There is also, to be sure, a moral and practical import in the known size of objects, which, by association, determines their dignity; but the pure sense of extension, based upon the attack of the object upon the apperceptive resources of the eye, is the truly aesthetic value which it concerns us to point out here, as the most rudimentary example of form.”
George Santayana The Sense of Beauty 1896

The second and more vital part in breaking with Europe involved throwing over the harder and deeper tradition fueling Modernism itself – changing the focus of the Romantic visual tradition. The art and criticism of ABEX, at first, leaned heavily on the European Romantic tradition, especially on the idea of the confrontation with the Sublime. This appropriation would be used as a springboard to break with Europe and define a new American visual canon underwritten by process, materials, production, and mostly, by a specific, personal experience directed at the viewer. The idea of the sublime, especially in American traditions, is about power and the terrible beauty of an overwhelming force. It is part and parcel of our American mythology. This myth is, even today, ubiquitous in the American vernacular, in American legend, and it STILL informs the desires, fears and expectations of our society. From “Mushroom Clouds” to “End Times” to “Shock and Awe” you can see our incessant preoccupation with apocalyptic overpowering forces eradicating our existence, our history, our memory. Behind much of this Sturm und Drang, whether whipped up for political, economic or cultural ends, is the simple idea of transformative annihilation, and that idea would fuel much of the “subject matter” in the work of the Abstract Expressionists. What we’re talking about is a kind of work designed to create a confrontation between an overwhelming visual presence and a singular consciousness, the eradication of the visual Self. For me it’s the first instance where an all encompassing ground begins to define and direct visual experience. It is also the birth of a new kind of Romantic engagement, one that would be quickly deconstructed and discarded with the inception of Postmodernism. You all know the history and the aesthetic success of the ABEX painters and we’ll discuss these ideas further in another part of this series. But unlike the other American painters, our hero De Kooning, the naturalized American, always remained tied to the European visual tradition, to the life around him and the confrontation with the rising subject in ways that the other ABEXers did not. Because of these things our hero was decidedly Un-American. And that will be of interest to us as well….

In this new series we’ll follow De Kooning, who was an embodiment of both the European Romantic and the new American Romantic and we’ll see where he leads us. We’ll also find ourselves confronting the beginnings of Corporate Art, contemporary Postmodernism and finally our own studio lives here in the 21st Century….

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