Where the Action Was

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Where the Action Was by Ben Lerner

This was the canonical American art for which the claim "you had to be there" seemed strongest ...

May 19th, 2011 reset - +

I

AFTER THE FIRST ROOM of late-Surrealist and still vaguely figurative paintings at the Abstract Expressionist show at MoMA, you arrived at a gallery devoted to Barnett Newman. "Vir Heroicus Sublimis" ("Man, heroic and sublime"), 18x8 feet, a smooth expanse of red cadmium divided by five of his vertical "zips." When Newman first exhibited this painting, it was accompanied by a note instructing the viewer to get close to the work; we're supposed to be engulfed. Such instructions weren't atypical for his cohort; Rothko suggested viewers stand eighteen inches away from his canvases. At MoMA, while I was waiting for the crowds to thin, I watched several people get very close to the painting indeed: but they were all facing the wrong way, looking at a friend (or an obliging guard) who was taking their pictures, the vibrant painting like some chroma key background. How easily the human figure, what Newman and others worked so hard to banish from painting, walks right back into abstract art. 

 

It's easy to make fun of the tourists who unknowingly reduce the avant-garde to kitsch with a digital camera's simulated click, but lots of people have posed in front of Abstract Expressionist paintings. There are the many photos of Newman himself, and the photos of Pollock "in" his canvases that are perhaps as famous as the canvases; liquidating the figure from the painting just reinforced the figure of the painter as an anchor of authenticity and meaning. But it's not just the heroic artists: there are Cecil Beaton's photos of fashion models posing in front of Pollock's Autumn Rhythm that appeared in Vogue in 1951, for instance. By the time Harold Rosenberg worried that "action paintings" had degenerated into "apocalyptic wall paper," they had served as all kinds of photographic backdrops. And didn't all the talk of how the monumental scale and absorptive nature of a Newman or Pollock or Rothko defeated reproduction (Newman famously said that modern painting was "a struggle against the catalogue") add allure to the reproductions? This is a photograph of something you have to be there to experience; this is a photograph of what can't be captured by photography, the failure of one medium securing the other's absolute presence.

 

When I was a young tourist, my parents took me to New York, to MoMA and the Met, but, while I was fascinated by the polyglot crowds streaming through the galleries, I retained no real impression of the paintings. I do remember, once I was back home in Kansas, looking through the catalogues, and being captivated by these paintings supposedly too big and vibrant and alive for reproduction: I had stood before that one and that one and that one. This was the canonical American art for which the claim "you had to be there" seemed strongest, and I admit I experienced the strength of that claim after the fact. (I didn't then know anything about minimalism, Pop, etc., at the time, but if I wanted cool, modular objects, I could go to Walmart, and Andy Warhol had a show on MTV.) Those giant New York canvases were the American art that made a spectacle of its resistance to a particular form of spectacularization — art, that by not being here, in Topeka, Kansas, helped me believe there was a modern there there, in Manhattan. 

 

Los Angeles was the other pole of my Midwestern imagination, but I didn't feel I needed to go there to be there: Hollywood was always opening in a theater near me. The screen was a place where stills ran together in order to create the illusion of the real, which required forgetting the screen; Abstract Expressionists rejected realistic figuration and insisted on the presence of the canvas itself. Screen and canvas were the flags of the two coasts, two modes of absorption, two attitudes towards mediacy. These are banalities, but they were no less a part of my imagination for that. And they are part of why Abstract Expressionism New York was invariably a show about New York, about the city's status in the cultural imaginary. This is not just because the painters gathered and showed in New York, not just because MoMA owns all these paintings, but because "Abstract Expressionism" — either the absorptive mode of Newman and Rothko, or the fevered, perpetual action of Pollock — makes a particular bid for physical presence, and so lends its permanent home a certain prestige. Of course, it's a prestige secured in part by sending the paintings around the country and the world, by temporarily lending presence to other cities, and Los Angeles has been one of the most significant borrowers in this regard; the 1965 show at LACMA on the "New York School" was a crucial step in both the canonization of Abstract Expressionism and in its total identification with New York. ??In the catalog accompanying this exhibit, the familiar claims of irreproducibility are repeated, and the largest Pollock and Newman are printed on foldouts, as they often are. If the point is that the literal physical dimensions of the canvas are inextricable from the experience, what's accomplished by printing them on two 10''x9'' pages instead of one? While it suggests on the one hand that the paintings exceed the conventional frame of the book, gesturing towards the necessity of another mode of experience, it can't help but evoke the pornographic centerfold. Hugh Hefner said that the ideal centerfold is one in which "a situation is suggested, the presence of someone not in the picture." The object of the centerfold was to produce "an intimate interlude, something personal and special." One isn't supposed to just look at the centerfold, but rather feel present before it. If you were to swap in the language of sublimity for kitschy phrases like "intimate interlude" and "personal and special," it would sound like Newman describing how he wanted his canvases encountered.

 

II

Why was this show put up when it was? MoMA gave two reasons: first, the vague and incontestable assertion that it was a good time to look at this art again, to experience its majesty and pleasures. Second, the museum says it wanted to show us that what's normally on display at MoMA is only, in the words of curator Ann Temkin, "the tip of the iceberg" — that in the museum's storage facility in Queens is a breadth of wealth it can't, despite the huge Taniguchi building, possibly display at once. But surely there's an unspoken reason as well: it's cheap. This is the most ambitious exhibit MoMA could mount exclusively of its own inventory, and the unusually (for MoMA) slim catalog accompanying the show reinforces the sense of economy. There is no question that the extent and quality of the Abstract Expressionist holdings are breathtaking. But the irony of mounting a major Abstract Expressionist show at least in part as a result of budgetary caution is too significant for it not to enter my experience of the exhibition. 



Pollock's paintings were the first to fetch prices previously reserved for works by major European artists; the Met bought Autumn Rhythm for an unprecedented $30,000 in 1957. These canvases are founding commodities in a wild American art market, a market that would itself become a kind of medium for artists like Andy Warhol. The relationship between Abstract Expressionism and American capitalism, however, goes beyond the canvases' commercialization. When Abstract Expressionism first started making waves, when Clement Greenberg began to champion it as the "American-type painting" that signaled New York's eclipse of Paris as the capital of modern culture, the work was predictably denounced by baffled reactionaries. Good Americans like Congressman George A. Dondero railed against it in familiar McCarthyist terms: degenerate, un-American, a communist plot of some unspecifiable sort. "'Modern art,' Dondero wrote, "is a term that is nauseating to me." But as the prestige of the Abstract Expressionists grew, denunciation gave way to political recuperation. It's a story that's been compellingly told by Eva Cockroft and Serge Guilbaut, among others: how MoMA, working behind the scenes with governmental organizations, began organizing exhibits in the 50s that would promote Abstract Expressionism as a "weapon of the cold war" (Cockcroft's phrase) — as evidence of a flourishing democratic culture that could be shipped abroad, an aesthetic adjunct to the Marshall plan. What had been criticized as chaos was re-described as freedom, signifying an American openness to risk and experiment in contrast to the Soviets, who had their own Dondero-like disdain for modernists. 

 

Maybe the kind of risks that Pollock took in his painterly performances weren't that different than the frenzied movements of a trader on the stock exchange floor, making and unmaking fortunes. And if "my kid could have painted that" became a canonical insult, it was also a sign of egalitarian opportunity — maybe your kid could get on the cover of Life magazine, just like Pollock. More generally, the heroic subjectivity of the painter with his specific autographic style became a metonym for rugged individualism, no matter that almost all of the Abstract Expressionists and their advocates had had some relation to radical left wing politics. Mythologies associated with the West Coast, not the East, were of service here: Pollock's frontiersman like persona, more John Wayne than effeminate elite, renders Abstract Expressionism part of our great and inevitable Westward expansion (a Hollywood aside shows the relation: Ed Harris starred in and directed the Western, Appaloosa, not so long after he played Pollock in Pollock, the only other film he's directed). As critics like David and Cecile Shapiro have noted, the abstractness of the work, that it lacked an easily paraphrasable message, made it more available for export than social realist painting, which tended to be explicitly critical of capitalism. Even if the canvases were read as critical of some aspects of the American — as an other to mechanical production or increasing cultural conformity — accommodating dissent within limits was, after all, a key American value. 

 

This is a reductive summary, and debates about the extent of MoMA's role in the promotion of Abstract Expressionism as a "weapon of the Cold War" are ongoing. What is not in dispute is that Abstract Expressionism began as a vanguard of broke, largely lefty painters and grew into the symbol of American postwar cultural dominance through careful critical and institutional management. Now the Abstract Expressionists are shown, at least in part, as an austerity measure in a bankrupt city, a bankrupt empire. Maybe the most eloquent way to measure our distance from the middle of the 20th century is just to quote one Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska speaking in 1940: "With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up until it is just like Kansas City." 

 

In the galleries, thinking over the repeated assurances that what we see in MoMA is just the "tip of the iceberg," I couldn't help but think of Marx's famous description of how, in an economic boom, everybody is a Protestant: we act on faith. But when the bubbles burst, when we find ourselves in a crisis, everybody becomes a Catholic — rushing towards the monetary base, scrambling for gold. MoMA's repeated assurance that there is more in the vaults than we can see sounds a little like a bank trying to defend itself from a run, its storage unit a kind of federal reserve. Forget lending these canvases to L.A. or abroad: MoMA gathered its resources into a show of force, insisting on the presence of real value just a few miles from Wall Street. And the Abstract Expressionists are the closest thing American art has to gold. Can you imagine MoMA trying to reassure itself and others with gallery after gallery of Warhol, or, let's say, Matthew Barney? In the 90s, this exhibit might have felt like a triumphant return to the beginning of the end of history, modern art having been replaced by a post-historical, post-media pluralism. Today it feels like a requiem for that requiem. If something's reached an end, it isn't history. 

 

III

Which is to say the best of this work feels more contemporary now than it would have twenty years ago. The discourse of American triumphalism has collapsed, but not the force of the paintings. The show, I've yet to mention, was one of the most powerful I've ever seen. Take Newman: I feel like I'd never really encountered his work until I saw this large room devoted to it. On the one hand he's dizzyingly anticipatory of minimalism; a painting like The Wild would have been cutting edge if he'd made it twenty years later. On the other hand, this exhibit clarifies how specific to painting (and not Judd's "specific objects") his accomplishment was: the way his zips make us toggle between senses of foreground and background, division and unity, for instance. The room of Rothko's felt a little cheap to me by comparison, but the point is that no other exhibit in my lifetime would allow one to make the comparison so thoroughly. Generally speaking, Temkin's curatorial decisions were excellent — how she distributed the comparatively few De Koonings in the museum's holdings, for example. One of his "Women" looked back into the room of Rothkos as if to show how the figure has been rotated out of the painting into the position of the viewer. The decision to flank the exit of the exhibit with Rothko's Untitled (1969-1970) and a figurative Guston is, if a bit loud, a powerful concluding gesture. The gray and black Rothko feels so flat, so hermetically sealed after his earlier paintings' interacting layers of color that it seems to indicate more than a personal exhaustion. The Guston points in two directions at once, forward to Pop and back to his early Social Realist work, which is also to say it complicates any easy linear narrative of painting's development (or death) while also indicating the political indeterminacy of figuration. 

 

The list of intelligent curatorial decisions is long, but it's also ultimately beside the point. Each time I returned to the room devoted to Pollack, a room which exerted a kind of gravitational pull, the more the drip paintings seemed to me to exceed any framing strategy, literal or discursive. Are there any artworks more indisputably in the present tense than Pollock's wall size paintings? One might be among the most famous, but it was also the freshest work in the entire exhibit. Perpetual explosions, the best of his canvases remind us that if such painting can serve as the gold standard of American art, the guarantor of value, it's ultimately because of the force with which it materializes a crisis in value: a crisis in the conventions of facture, a crisis in pictorial orders of figure and ground, a crisis of scale, a crisis of address. None of these crises feels containable now by "end of history" narratives, or assimilable to a Greenbergian formalist theodicy, or reducible to a painter's unconscious or heroic individuality. It certainly isn't assimilable to "New York"; Pollock often spoke about the "West," "the vast horizontality of the land," the Indian sand painters, and so on, and a case could be made for identifying him and his painting as much with Wyoming and California as with New York. Regardless, the point is that the liquidity and energy of the Pollock makes value of whatever sort feel desperately up for grabs. 

 

Maybe I'm just saying Pollock is a modern artist, but the shock of the show is how much more contemporary the modern feels than the work that literally followed it, that supposedly supplanted it. Outside of the AbEx New York galleries was a small cluster of artworks grouped under the title "This Way to Pop" — Jasper Johns' flag, some soup cans, a Marilyn. More and more I feel that that's the work that depends on the Abstract Expressionist pieties for its power — the cool assimilation of the gestural and "alloverness" to the reproduction of a flag, Warhol's de-skilled deadpan — not the Abstract Expressionist canvases themselves. I don't mean no great art has been made since the "triumph of American painting" (Irving Sandler's phrase), but I can't shake the feeling, or shake the feeling that MoMA can't shake the feeling, that much of what passed for significant American art in the late 20th century was a form of derivative trading. 

 

IV

Would this show feel different to me if it were hanging in L.A.? Would the experiments in scale be pulled away from the example of Matisse and Picasso and appear more immediately in conversation with the Mexican muralists? Would I be more aware of the legacy of these paintings in Latin America, where, as scholars like David Craven have shown, Abstract Expressionism was largely received as powerfully critical of corporate capitalism, no matter the intention of those organizing the exhibits? As I've already suggested, the total identification of Abstract Expressionism with New York has always been a fiction; Pollock and Guston both went to Manual Arts High School in L.A.; Pollock's method owed plenty to Indian arts of the western U.S.; many of the paintings in this show (Clyfford Still's, the lesser known Sam Francis', etc.) weren't made anywhere near New York; and so on. As the discourse of national triumphalism crumbles, so does the notion of New York (the new Paris) as its metonym. But then, L.A. and New York have always defined themselves in opposition to one another, and the notion of a "New York School" has been as much a part of the West Coast's psychogeography as it's been a part of the East's. When LACMA mounted its 1965 show, Barnett Newman, one of the few native New Yorkers involved with Abstract Expressionism, wrote the museum protesting the use of the phrase "New York School" in its title. As he put it in an interview with Neil Levine in 1965: "The 'New York School' ... exists only in California."

 

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