New York School Painting, Abstract Expressionism,

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1982)



 After thirty years of often excessive critical acclaim and gallery publicity, what really is the level of artistic merit in the Abstract-Expressionists, Pop artists, Color Field and Hard Edge painters and Minimalists?


 What social and psychological forces shape this art?  What does this art tell us about the artists themselves -- and what does it say about us?


 An exhibition of "The New York School: Four Decades" at the Guggenheim Museum through August 29th, offers an opportunity for a close look at these artists and the questions their work poses.


 Modern art as whole, including the New York School, is a reaction against the stressful conditions of life in this century, war, the breakdown of social and religious traditions, the disruption of ethics and values caused by too rapid change beyond the ability of human beings to cope.


 Science, with concepts of relativity shattering the human need for absolutes, and science's instrument, the machine, were elevated to the position once occupied by religious belief.  The confusion and disillusionment resulting from the ascendancy and failure of the new, mechanized god to create a more fulfilling world -- indeed, making it possible for World War I to be a bigger and better war -- left humanity and its artists struggling with an impossible situation.  Twentieth Century man has never recovered from the shock of that first cataclysm and ensuing ordeals culminating in the present, fear-filled nuclear debate.


 Abstraction, whether of the expressionist or geometric variety, is a turning inward toward an emotional, mystical or cerebral ideal in attempted escape from our disruptive, tormenting world.  One of the prime motivations in the abstraction of Kandinsky and Mondrian, though by diametrically opposed means, was their search for an inner spiritual reality that would offer meaning, hope and respite from a world of excessive materialism and unbearable crisis.


 While this is understandable in human terms, it nonetheless severed ties with the outer world, the world of people and nature which sustains all of us in obvious physical and less apparent spiritual ways.  Thus, this critical severance early in the century was like the cutting of the roots of a vine, which, as time passed, slowly perished for want of nourishment.  


 This is the predicament of the New York School and most art of the last forty years.  Trying to live on the air of theory, without roots in the earth of human experience, it withered; the "tradition" of modern art died.


 The parallel yet divided paths of expressionism and geometric painting, in addition to their art historical and aesthetic lineage (from Van Gogh and Cezanne, respectively), are a manifestation of the split in the 20th Century psyche between the instinctual, intuitional processes of feeling and the rational processes of mind, which psychologists since Freud have worried about.  Not only are values, traditions and social systems fragmented in our time, they are the cause -- or result -- of a similar condition in the psyche of modern man.  A successful integration of the two sides is particularly difficult under such conditions, and is even more difficult when the efficient functioning of a business-oriented, technological society demands the enhancement of an especially narrow rationality and the repression of the emotions and a poetic sensibility.  Though few are untouched, the corporate executive/technocrat can be a classic example of the problem.


 The aridity and coldness of the geometric abstract wing of modern painting is also an equivalent symptom, the work of those unable to resist, whatever the peril to their art and their humanity, these powerful, obvious but unspoken negative social-psychological imperatives.  The passion of the expressionists in technique and color, clearly reflects the emotionality they refuse to allow quashed.  While the abstract geometric painters embrace and support dehumanization, the expressionists fight against it.


 In this context, the emotionalism of the Abstract-Expressionists makes them the most significant artists of the New York School, particularly Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  Both struggle with inner and societal demons, reminding us of all our struggles on the obvious battleground their canvases become.  The gritty, shredded reds and flinty blacks of de Kooning's "Composition," 1955, rage and splutter, expressing the anguish of a conflict the artist has apparently never been able to resolve.


 Pollock's "Ocean Greyness," 1953, a late attempt at recouping a figurative image after his successful drip paintings (not on exhibit) were no longer significant to him, tells of being literally at sea in his unconscious and in life itself, adrift, fragments of eyes and suggested fish parts whirling animatedly but dejectedly in a grey soup.


 Theirs are cries expressing and restating their humanity -- warped as it may be -- in a time of massive pressures inimical to the individual.  "I live," they shout.  "I feel."  If they overstate their case, the drive in America for security at any price following the destruction of Word War II -- a grey flannel suit and a house in the suburbs -- was the context of materialism, "rationality" and limited emotional expectations in which the Abstract-Expressionists fought to maturity.


 Contrary to this art of emotional release, the emphasis on the rectangle in the New York School and in the 20th Century since Cubism and the Bauhaus, through International Style architecture in our own time, points to its power as a symbol of the technology which rules our lives.  The straight, sharp edges and smooth planes of square and cube are the perfect artistic symbols of machine products and processes, and of a frigid, inhuman idealism, if such it can be called, held by many of the "Practitioners of the Square" from Mondrian to the present Hard Edge, Minimalist generation.


 As the most stable of geometric shapes, with the exception of the aspirational triangle (not much in demand in our day), the squat, earthbound square offers -- like a 9 to 5 job -- the illusion of security and permanence in a disturbing world.  The stolid square epitomizes the mundane limitation of the leaden status quo.  


 Our very minds and emotions -- our total psyches -- are becoming mechanized by machine influence and dehumanized societal emphases.  We literally, in a frighteningly real way, as such art reveals, are in danger of becoming near robots, cold-minded adjuncts of the technological society we serve.  Can 1984 be far away?


 Agnes Martin exhibits a work entitled "White Stone," 1965, on which a grid of horizontal and vertical pencil lines have been drawn with the aid of a straight-edge.  Can you imagine anyone dividing twenty-five square feet of canvas into 57,600 one-quarter-inch squares?  Now, that's really homage to the little devils.  


 Robert Ryman's contribution to the statement of the square is "Delta II," 1966, an eight-foot-square canvas empty except for a single layer of horizontally-brushed white oil paint.  


 Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg's "Red Painting," 1953, is a fiery, beautiful exploration of the power of that color.  But his early emotional strength cools in later silk-screened images and tastefully superimposed swatches of brush-on color whose aesthetics are too weak to carry the burden of the content.


 Only an age such as ours could consider the work of Andy Warhol art.  Perhaps the most trivial of all artists, his special blend of the most banal photographic images coated with decorative color fluff combine with the instincts of a shower curtain designer to produce what we deserve.


 Summing up the New York School reflects the narrowness of concerns evident throughout post-World War II art as a whole.  They are too deeply involved in formula, formula often degrading and demeaning to humanity, denying the extent, even existence, of our needs and aspirations.


 While the emotion in the best of the Abstract-Expressionists is a positive aspect, a sign that they are still at home, so to speak, their souls present if in disarray, the geometric abstractionists, including the Minimalists, are soulless, lacking any content or aesthetic meaning beyond their own artistic emptiness.


 The Pop artists, in the shallowness of their imagery and execution, are as superficial and trite as the advertising from which they stem.  The cynicism and ultimate nihilism of their approach are as deadly as that of the geometricists and Minimalists in their reflection of dehumanization without alternative.  There is indeed "no exit" here.


 Despite some exceptions, and in spite of an attractiveness of color, design, texture or size, the predominant feeling coming from the paintings of the New York School is emptiness.  They are empty of any real purpose or meaning, an emptiness of surface devoid of anything but the most minimal aesthetic considerations.  The intellectual, emotional and spiritual condition of modern man is on display at the Guggenheim -- a vacuum which nothing they have tried can fill, without foundation or lasting significance.  With these fundamental weaknesses, it appears unlikely that the New York School will be more than a footnote in art history.


 The time has clearly and finally come when a new beginning in art must be, is being, made, which creates a living art from the full range of human thought, feeling and visual experience.  The current revival of varying kinds of realism suggests that the natural cycle of re-discovery is underway.  It should be said, however, that the more passionately expressive forms of figuration will be more healing than those which, in their coldness and impersonality, echo similar destructive characteristics in the Pop, Color Field, Hard Edge and Minimalist artists of the New York School.


 Ours is a far from perfect world, but it is all we've ever had, all that the greatest artists of the past ever had.  At that, it's beautiful enough.




Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms