Their motifs are traditional, even reassuring: still life
objects, portrait subjects, landscapes. Nonetheless, their treatment of
these motifs is unsettling. Coffee cups, human features, houses in the
countryside are all riven with gaps and fissures. Then, with the invention
of collage, the Cubists introduced rifts into their very medium. Moreover,
their bits of paper—cut from wallpaper pattern and columns of newsprint—are
fragments of things once whole. So it is not only with images but also with
structure that the Cubists represent their times as careening into disunity.
There is, however, a twist to this story.
Looking at the details of a Cubist collage, one sees ambiguity, fragmentation, irresolution. However, if one steps back for a larger view, the work resolves itself. For it is unified by the familiar devices of pictorial composition: formal balance and counter-balance, as well as clear and harmonious relations between the overall image and the surface of the canvas where the image appears. Up close, things are in crisis. Nonetheless, the work is nicely set in its frame, the center holds, and global unity wins out against local disunity. Or does it? The Cubists never let us believe absolutely certain in the triumph of composition’s over-arching order. It may be that composition does what it can to impose order but ultimately fails. Piet Mondrian had no interest in ambiguities of this sort. Reducing the apparatus of Cubist form to vertical and horizontal lines, plus rectangular blocks of the three primary colors, he tried to remove the difference between image and structure. For a painting, he believed, need not be a picture in the usual sense. Using only the abstract forms of which he approved, it should be a display of “dynamic equilibrium”—Mondrian’s label for harmony achieved with the formal give and take of pictorial composition.
As abstract as Mondrian’s paintings may look to us, he did not want them to be seen as detached, self-referential exercises. An “equilibriated composition,” he said, refers to society, because “art and life are one.” Pictorial harmony prophesies social harmony, for “equilibriated relationships in society signify what is just.” Mondrian’s orderly art is utopian, for it proposes a social order that felt to him perfect. Others have felt otherwise. Barnet Newman saw in Mondrian’s paintings “an empty world of geometric formalisms.” Mondrian’s geometries left Newman feeling oppressed, imprisoned, reduced to a cipher capable only of correct but reflexive responses to composition’s domineering cues. In the place defined by a Mondrian canvas, Newman sensed a deadening of his will, a loss of himself. Therefore, “it is precisely this death image, the grip of geometry, that has to be confronted.”
If painting was to live, if Newman was to stay alive as a painter, he would have to govern his medium with by new rules. It would not be enough to oppose Mondrian’s ruler-straight geometry with squiggly, biomorphic improvisations. Newman made that move in the early 1940s, and it had locked him into a rigid posture of confrontation—the champion of “organic” form facing off against the geometricians. To feel free, Newman would have to wrest geometry away from Mondrian and reinvent it for himself.
Having squared away his patches of color. Mondrian fits them elegantly, beautifully, to the surfaces where they appear. As form is painted, it acknowledges the flatness of the canvas and the authority of its edge. When Newman began to deploy straight-edged forms, he allowed them to acknowledge the edges of the canvas only enough to question their authority. This challenge to the canvas—the very premise of painting—opened that sharply bounded surface to intimations of the infinite (a way of saying that, like Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, Newman devised a variant of the allover field, which does without the devices of traditional composition). Claiming to have “busted geometry,” Newman boasted: “I’ve licked Mondrian; I’ve killed the diagram.”
Of course, he did nothing of the sort. A new way of making a painting cannot defeat an old one. Nonetheless, when Newman invented his version of the allover field, he tried to put Mondrian on the wrong side of some conflicts basic to Western culture, generally, and American culture, in particular. For Newman’s wide open paintings propose openness and freedom not merely as virtues in themselves, but as alternatives to the rigid enclosures and locked-in clarity, the feeling of claustrophobic order, that he saw in the art of Mondrian—and of many other European avant-gardists of geometric bent. Newman saw his own art as both egalitarian and beneficial to individuality, like Walt Whitman’s imaginary America, a boundless field where uncountable leaves of grass are free to flourish as perfect equals.
Preserving and clarifying Old-World traditions of pictorial composition, Mondrian’s paintings subordinate small elements to large. They assert hierarchy against equality, submission against independence. At any rate, this is the not entirely justified argument that Newman’s art makes against the art of Mondrian. Both painters progressed by reducing their medium to its structural elements. Though they did not define those elements in precisely the same way, they both took on the same task, which was to represent political values—and an ideal political order—without the help of pictures. For pictures were backward. Structure and structure alone must bear the mimetic burden.
The idea that pictures are backward is a tenet of high-modernist doctrine that very few have accepted whole-heartedly. Most of us are fascinated by pictures of all kinds, and our fascination distracts us from matters of structure. Why focus on arrangements of images when images themselves are so interesting? They absorb us, even more in story-telling mediums than in the painter’s static medium. An overpopulated history painting will probably elicit a comment or two about scale or composition, but when we turn to the movies we may well forget that their images have structures, that their sequences are intricately shaped forms. After watching a movie, we talk about psyches and motives and morals—about the numb, morally blank horror of Taxi Driver or Sunset Boulevard’s overwrought mixture of hard-nosed opportunism and weird, even gothic self-absorption.
In Sunset Boulevard, everyone but the ingénue sees life through a violently distorted lens, and even she is wised-up to an unusual degree. The plot moves from peculiarities to uneasiness to further peculiarity, as the hero is drawn away from his more or less legitimate ambitions and into the clutches of an unconscious vampire—a succubus who sees herself as an innocent wronged not by a man but by Hollywood. Once a great actress of the silent movies, the stuff of dreams, she was betrayed by the dream factory itself, when it began to produce talkies. The sets, the costumes, the acting, the dialogue—all the imagery of Sunset Boulevard conspires to convey a grandiose strangeness and to entangle it with routine awfulness. This mixture of the strange and the awful gives the movie its mood, which is set early on by a shot of the hero face down in a swimming pool. He is dead. Strong as an image, this shot is even stronger if one considers its structure.
Seeing the dead hero from below, we assume that the camera is shooting from a point far beneath the surface of the water. In fact, it isn’t. As Wilder explained, “We put a mirror at the bottom of the pool and poured in a lot of light. Then we shot down, and hiding the cameras was hard.” Watching this sequence, we have no idea that it required an ingenious solution to a merely practical problem. Never doubting that the camera is submerged, we let its odd point of view guide us into a place where ordinary points of view are ineffective—just bitter reminders of a happier world that no longer has a place for the hero. In the world of the story, all perspectives are delusional. All attitudes are elaborately distorted, and yet we find them intelligible, in part because we have been prepared to do so by the structure of the proleptic, up-from-under shot of the murdered hero. The strange angle of this shot helps us feel at home in strange house, a mansion where all the inhabitants’ motives, all their angles, are bizarre. Thus a dazzling display of structure corresponds with the imagery presented by dialogue, acting, and decor—all the more readily noticed means of representation. In Cubist collage, image and structure are at least partially at odds. In Sunset Boulevard, they reinforce one another almost too effectively, as in a dream, which is also an artifice that knows how to distract the viewer from its artificiality.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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