issue 28 > nonfiction > kuspit
The New Baroque Abstractionby Donald Kuspit
"Decoration is the spectre that haunts modernist painting, and part of the latter's formal mission is to find ways of using the decorative against itself," Clement Greenberg wrote.(1) For him, it does so most successfully in what he famously called "the 'decentralized,' 'polyphonic,' all-over picture." "Every area" is "equivalent in accent and emphasis," resulting in an effect of "hallucinated uniformity."(2) "This sort of painting comes closest of all to decoration—to wallpaper patterns capable of being extended indefinitely"(3)—but what keeps it from becoming banally decorative is that it has "no insulating finish."(4) Its surface is "fresher, opener, more immediate" than the mechanically produced surface of wallpaper, however "flat and frontal" both surfaces may be. The painting's surface has the "spontaneity and directness" that indicates that it is the product of an individual, while wall-paper is mass-produced and made for use by the anonymous masses. As Harold Rosenberg might have put it, the painting's surface is the "signature" of an individual, while wallpaper is unsigned. Anton Ehrenzweig goes even further, arguing that the "inarticulate form elements" or "plastic forms" spontaneously generated in the course of making an all-over abstract painting are radically individualistic, for they express profoundly personal and complex unconscious feelings.(5) The inarticulateness of the forms suggests their unconscious import, and their plasticity conveys the complex plasticity of feeling. In contrast, wallpaper is impersonal, and its patterns are rigidly fixed and simple.
It is the plenitude of these inarticulate form elements in all-over abstract paintings that signals their spiritual ambition—the spirituality Kandinsky thought was innate to abstraction, and which he thought was carried by color, which became more and more radiant, abundant, and subtle as he developed. "Spirituality" meant the quality of consciousness for him, and the quality of a color—and every color was a cornucopia of qualities, contained a seemingly infinite subset of related colors-- conveyed the quality of consciousness: qualitative consciousness of art, and also of feeling. What was at stake in every art was the quality of the artist's consciousness of art and of his or her feeling, conceived as a quality of consciousness.
All this suggests that pure abstract painting is about itself or the painter who makes it, but I think it addresses a larger issue: it is a defiant response to a painfully industrializing, "modernizing' society, experienced as a spiritual and visual desert before its "economical" aesthetics became too widespread to be rejected, and so became the emblematic modern style, the style that best expressed the "modern progressive spirit," or at least catered to it. The "economical" Bauhaus style codified, justified, and institutionalized modernism, not to say the "efficient" modern attitude to life, with its peculiar narrow-mindedness and asceticism (art's not supposed to give impure pleasure, it's supposedly to be purely intellectual)—the attack on "excess" that Braque argued was necessary and that began with Loos' attack on ornament in architecture--and Minimalism reductively reified it, completing the mortification of the flesh of art that began with Bauhaus "practicality." But however obviously practical, as its concern with materials and construction indicate, the Bauhaus also had spiritual ideals, as the famous Manifesto makes clear. It was self-consciously spiritual; Bauhaus constructions, however new their use of glass and steel may have been, were meant to embody spiritual consciousness and aspiration, as the towering church pictured by Feininger on the cover of the Bauhaus manifesto strongly suggested. Minimalism, which is a corruptive derivative of Bauhaus constructivism and materialism, not to say a simplistic dumbing down of the intelligence that informs them, stripped away its spiritual inclinations, in effect declaring its idealism to be a self-deceptive illusion. Minimalism denies the spirituality that Kandinsky thought was innate to abstraction, in effect confirming Greenberg's assertion "that the great masters of the past achieved their art by virtue of combinations of pigment whose real effectiveness was 'abstract,' and their greatness is not owed to the spirituality with which they conceived the things they illustrated so much as it is to the success with which they ennobled raw matter to the point where it could function as art."(6) Abstraction was materialistic or positivistic—dealt with directly observable material facts--not spiritual (even covertly) for Greenberg. Like Comte, he believed that materialist positivism signified a mature consciousness of reality, unlike the immature consciousness of religion, with its "superstitious" beliefs about raw material facts.
In the 19th century Ruskin was one of the first art thinkers to observe that "modern principles of economy and utility" had created an urban "desert of Ugliness"—"banished beauty from the face of the earth and the form of man." No longer are "our streets beautiful with art," for modern art has set itself "against all religious form." For Ruskin "the most startling fault of the [modern] age is faithlessness," which is why modern art cannot help but be "vulgar, dull, or impious," that is, "profane." "There never yet was a generation of men (savage or civilized)," he wrote, "who, taken, as a body, so woefully fulfilled the words, 'having no hope, and without God in the world,' as the present civilized European race." "It is evident that the title 'Dark Ages,' given to the medieval centuries, is, respecting art, wholly inapplicable. They were, on the contrary, the bright ages; ours are the dark ones."(7) No doubt if he had lived to see the Bauhaus factory he would have rushed into a medieval cathedral. He preferred soaring stained glass windows, with glorious narrative scenes mysteriously embedded in the colorful light that passed through them, to the plain factory glass of ribbon windows, which did nothing to lift the eye, confirming that where was nothing hopeful and mysterious in the colorless light that passed through them. The stained glass windows were pleasurable and spiritual at once, while the factory windows only reminded one that was stuck inside a building doing work, all the more unconsciously painful because it was spiritless—making a product rather than saving one's soul.
"Reaction from this state was inevitable," he noted, "if any true life was left in the race of mankind." "Accordingly," he wrote, "men steal out, half-ashamed of themselves for doing so, to the field and mountains…finding among these the color, and liberty, and variety" they could not find in modern cities, which "reduced streets to brick walls," and where "coldness of heart" prevailed. They could "gaze in a rapt manner at sunsets and sunrises, to see there the blue, and gold, and purple, which glow for them no longer on knight's armor or temple porch."(8)
I suggest that now that the landscape is on the verge of being destroyed—Kandinsky's so-called "apocalyptic landscapes" make the point clearly (it is worth noting that purely abstract painting was initially an attempt to satisfy what Ruskin called the "landscape-instinct," and can be perversely understood as its ironic realization)—must now turn to purely abstract painting to find, color, liberty, variety, and beauty, and, perhaps most noteworthily in a cold society, to have their hearts truly warmed. Pure abstract painting invites—demands--rapt attention, and is most convincing when it is a visual joy to behold, affording pleasure for the mind and body, cognitive as well as sensuous pleasure, and, following Ruskin's lead, what might be called existential pleasure, that is, the pleasurable feeling of being alive, the feeling that life is worthwhile and good, however bad society may make one feel. One might say that pure abstract painting is a source of pleasure in a painful world, a sensuous refuge for the senses in a world that has seemed to have lost its senses, a sort of visual manna in the modern desert.
But beginning with Newman, Rothko, and Still painting became a desert of color. Gesturally vital Abstract Expressionism flattened into Color Field Painting. Painterliness lost its impulsiveness and intensity, its dynamics all but dissolved in the desert of color, which however seductive was oddly dry and inert—just lay there, sometimes like a plane of fog ("atmosphere," as it is politely called) that wouldn't lift. Gesture was minimized into a trace, a hint of a lost plentitude: the cup of painting no longer ran over. It was no longer a cornucopia of thriving gestures but a well that had run try. Or, to use another metaphor, it seemed to have run out of steam, lost the famous "energy" evident in Pollock and de Kooning. Greenberg thought that Newman, Rothko, and Still were the "next advanced step" in painting, perhaps the final step toward uncompromising purity, that is, the complete "denaturing" of painting. He ironically said that "Minimalism was an advance that was not worth the trouble," but he took the Minimalist tendency in their paintings seriously.
Reducing (trivializing?) the painterly brushstroke to a schematized minimum--Newman's so-called "zip" in supposedly sublime empty space being the outstanding example (the static, quasi-expressive zips seem to mock the dynamic painterly gestures of Pollock and de Kooning, which are driven by inner necessity, unlike the grandstanding zips, which are theatrical devices)--allows the canvas's flat surface to become self-evident, reminding us that it is the indispensable material fundament of the painting, and with that the conspicuous "final proof" that modern painting is ruthlessly positivist. Color is applied flatly to the flat surface, suggesting that it has lost its affective presence—even conveys flat affect—especially because color field painting tends to be monochromatic, or to use a few broad flat patches of color, thus making the flatness of the canvas unmistakable, forcing it on us, as though to overwhelm our being with its nothingness. A Hans Albers Homage to the Square painting, a painting completely stripped of "anxious" gestures—he famously wrote Harold Rosenberg that "anxiety was dead" (and with it "self-expression")—with each square a flat plane of color ambiguously emerging from and receding into another one (usually three in all, with the implication of infinitely more), is perhaps the most straightforward "depiction" of the Minimalist desert, and with that experience of being deserted and feeling barren and sterile oneself.
As though in reaction to Minimalist reductionism, a vigorously painterly painting has appeared in the 21st century. It carries the banner of "the new spirit in painting"—the title of a famous exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Painting in London in 1981—to new heights. The paintings that appeared in the exhibition—most prominently those of the so-called Neue Wilden—have been labeled "Maximalist," and the label has stuck. They are clearly anti-Minimalist: they are more richly colored than Color Field Paintings and much more painterly and expressive. They are "decoratively" all-over—indeed, refreshingly sensuous and energetic, restoring haptic excitement to painting, re-uniting it with visual excitement, making for an emotionally restorative painting, rather than the old anguished American Abstract Expressionism or depressive Color Field Painting. The paintings of the German Christian Awe, which unite Hans Hofmann's lush color and Neue Wilden inner necessity, and the paintings of the American Carol Brown Goldberg, whose works are grounded in so-called pattern painting, particularly that of her mentor Gene Davis, and the idiosyncratic mysticism of Kandinsky, are major examples of what I want to call the new baroque plentitude and complexity and pleasureableness of abstract painting. The works of both painters are fraught with a welcome joie de vivre and made with daring skill. They show that there is still aesthetic, expressive, and spiritual life in abstract painting, which many theorists thought had become merely a formal exercise, the dead letter of abstraction without the living spirit it aspired to convey when it was young and novel, as it was when Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian began to paint abstractly.
(1)"Milton Avery," Arts Magazine 32 (Dec. 1957):41
(2)Clement Greenberg, "The Crisis of Easel Picture," Partisan Review, 15 (April 1948):482
(4)Clement Greenberg, "Is the French Avant-Garde Overrated?" Art Digest, 27 (Sept. 1953):12
(5)Anton Ehrenzweig, The Psycho-Analysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing: An Introduction to a New Theory of Unconscious Perception (New York: George Braziller, 1965), chapter 2
(6)Clement Greenberg, "Irrelevance versus Irresponsibility," Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, Collected Essays and Criticism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), II, 233
(7)John Ruskin, Modern Painters , (Boston: Dana Estes, 1902), III, 323, 321
(8)Ibid., 369, 359