American abstract expressionists, such as American artist Jackson Pollock (right) and Dutch artist William de Kooning, have long been outspoken in their views that painting is an area or a space within which to simply come to terms with the act of creation. Indeed, there is something ironically self-proclaimed as “objective” about this so-called abstract expressionist style, or “action-painting” (tachisme) as it is sometimes called. In a move towards greater objectivity, Pollock rejected the traditional easel and moved his work to the floor, where he met the resistance of the hard surface.
“On the floor I am more at ease,” Jackson said. “I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”
Objective? Something here sounds suspiciously like the modernist urge toward objective purity, and as we postmoderns know, this simply cannot be achieved.
For Clement Greenberg, the greatest art critic of the 20th Century, the physicalness of the paintings (with their clotted and oil-soaked surfaces) was the tool to understanding them as documents of the artists’ existential struggles. The spontaneous activity of the artist revealed something personal about his psychology and unconscious struggles. The paint was dripped onto the canvas, as if to say it doesn’t matter where things land anymore. In Jackson Pollock’s work you can sometimes find cigarette butts. Smoking a cigarette for Pollock must have been an unconscious urge, an addiction, that led him to drop them somewhere on the canvas. Of course, something about that seems very coordinated. One can imagine Pollock tossing the cigarrette over his shoulder, and only moments later turning around anxiously to see if it landed on the canvas.
‘Spontaneous’ isn’t the right word to describe the action painters. Jackson in fact is supposed to have had an idea of what the piece was to end up as. Granted only the artist understands when the artwork is ‘finished’, yet isn’t to have an idea of what you are planning to do the opposite of spontaneity? The place in which to act spontaneously suddenly becomes a place in which you plan to act spontaneously, and thus defeating the purpose.
The tide soon turned against abstract expressionism, and in the 60s there was a revolt against their sensibility, called “Post-Painterly Abstraction” which favored openness and clarity over dense painterly surfaces of abstract expressionism. The density of the action painters was seen as not so spontaneous, and much more like a kind of dwelling. Post-Painterly Abstraction was soon emulated by Minimalism, Hard-edge Painting, Lyrical Abstraction and Color Field Painting. The avant-garde shifted from the false “objectivity” of Pollock toward an even more “objective” geometric precision and socio-political theatricality, commentary and observation.
American painting was declared “dead” by various critics, like the American minimalist Donald Judd, who cited three-dimensional, volumetric objects as the embodiment of “visual truth”. The anodized aluminum sculpture on the right is an untitled work by Judd. Pictorial illusionism as it had appeared in painting–which is flat and merely depicts space, was described as “deceptive” and “outdated”. Yet as California remained the creative center for developments such as hard-edge painting, American painting seemed far from “dead”. The places in which artists acted, painted, or sculpted, went back to being formal places of creative study. Creative spaces for Jackson Pollock had been hard floors, mainly. The new backlash creative spaces were places to build strong visual truths, and hard-edge geometric boxes of purity.
This makes sense from a perspectivist point of view. Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil that he had his own truths that the weak people of the planet simply could not obtain. They were his truths, they were stronger truths, and some would never know them or come to understand them. The truths Nietzsche expounded might not even have been meant for anyone living at the time of his writing, which he assumes is true. The geometric truths of minimalist sculpturs are true in the same way. They are bold, unprecedented, and undeniably austere. “American painting” is certainly not dead at the time of Judd’s writing, but the statement is profoundly prophetic. It is a weak and dying-off movement. American painting will undoubtedly be taken over by stronger, more pictorially bold forms of art, such as minimalist-veined sculpture and mixed-media.
The era of being falsely spontaneous and objective about one’s activities is out, and the era of the self-conscious construction of subjective truth is in. Long live the truths of minimalism!