Illustrating America

Peter Campbell

  • Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture by Paul Cummings, Jorn Merkert and Claire Stoullig
    Norton, 308 pp, £35.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 393 01840 7
  • Abstract Expressionist Painting in America by William Seitz
    Harvard, 490 pp, £59.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 674 00215 6
  • About Rothko by Dore Ashton
    Oxford, 225 pp, £15.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 19 503348 5
  • The Art of the City: Views and Versions of New York by Peter Conrad
    Oxford, 329 pp, £15.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 503408 2

The landmarks of New York – the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, the Rockefeller and World Trade Centres – have no ceremonial public function. Victories are consecrated in the streets, with ticker-tape falling. And New York painting is like New York celebrations: it has not been made for palaces and chapels. Reginald Marsh’s Coney Island bathers were its Three Graces, George Bellows’s boxers its Laocoon. But then in the late Forties Abstract Expressionism came, producing something with the scale and power of public art, although these paintings, like the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Centre, were self-referential. They did not glorify the city, or victories, or political alliances, or history, or the land, but the artist himself and his creativity: art galleries apart, was there a natural home for them?

In 1958, when Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building went up, it seemed that there was. The Abstract Expressionists, who, in the Forties, could see themselves as an embattled avant-garde, were out of their cold-water lofts, and taking on the status of giants and heroes. Pollock was already two years dead; Seitz’s record of the movement, although it is only now published, was written. The Seagram was special. Mies van der Rohe was asked to design it after a committee had considered both Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: Phyllis Lambert, an architect and the daughter of the head of Seagram, persuaded her father that the opportunity to give New York a great building should not be lost. The Four Seasons restaurant on the ground floor – a public space in a building honouring high art and refined taste – would be a sort of secular chapel. Here, perhaps, the huge canvases of the new school would look at home. Philip Johnson asked Mark Rothko to paint a series of pictures for the walls. Rothko took the job on, and then, some years later, decided not to deliver the pictures. (They eventually came to the Tate Gallery as a gift from the painter.) Although Dore Ashton’s ‘critical biography’ is not very informative about the contradiction which Rothko felt existed between the spirit in which he had made the paintings and displaying them in the restaurant, the implications of his decision are interesting. The grand question ‘what is art for?’ may elicit less revealing answers than the simple one: ‘where shall we put it?’

It was not just the scale and seriousness of Rothko’s paintings that made the restaurant an unsuitable place to hang them, for when a real chapel was built in Texas for another set, the effect was, Ashton says, ‘disappointing. Rothko had been right to cherish “the space” he had made in his own studio. The new place with its concrete and steel was far too perfect to be perfect for Rothko’s vision.’ The fault, Ashton goes on to say, was the Texas light. But there was a fragility inherent in Rothko’s programme. The pictures demanded an architectural environment – they were most effective when they enveloped the viewer. But their content was too fugitive to sustain the kind of public life such a permanent setting implies. They probably looked at their best in those exhibitions like the one at the Whitechapel Gallery, where, when one saw them for the first time, it seemed that an abstraction as self-consistent as classical music had been achieved. And yet this sense of being part of a process, part of a forward-moving wave, left Rothko depressed. The revival of figuration in the Pop art of the Sixties made him uncertain about the value of his own work.

There is a question which hangs over all judgments about the importance of abstract paintings. It is not to do with their effectiveness – they clearly work. Rothko’s late paintings, in particular, have elicited strong, identifiable emotions and sensations with a degree of repeatability which would impress an experimental psychologist. What is at issue is how these emotions and sensations relate to those which are experienced in front of works which have a figurative content. The doubt which dogged the first painters of pure landscape about the possibility of scenery having any place in art when it was not the setting for some kind of human drama was allayed by the deification of nature. Doubts about the Impressionist art of pure sensation could be met (though the charm of the subject-matter pretty quickly made defence unnecessary) by appeals to the scientific nature of their analysis of perception. Doubts about the pattern-making abstraction of the Constructivists could be met with discussions about the psychology of our response to colour and shape. The logic of these defences can run a number of ways. One may claim that what makes us pause before a Fra Angelico can be distilled by removing the accidentals of Virgin and Angel: that figuration, like the personification of natural forces in myths, is a passing stage in aesthetic maturation. If one follows this line of reasoning, the possibility of, for example, tragedy in painting must either be abandoned, in the same way as God must be left out of the mechanism of a thoroughgoing scientific cosmology, or the sensation which a tragic painting gives must be held to lie in (or at least be achievable by) the disposition of shapes and colours. If form can really be as significant as that (the obvious analogies are musical), an art of painting cleansed of imagery, but with the potential to match the specificity and complexity of feeling which literature achieves and music on more doubtful evidence aspires to, would be possible. It is clear that Rothko’s ambition was that kind of communication of human emotion.

His later paintings – those which have, typically, two cloudy rectangles floating one above the other on a coloured ground – have been admired by almost everyone who has any time at all for abstract painting. They really do evoke the feelings of quasi-religious calm and awe which Rothko’s statements about his work suggest he intended. They were particularly well received in England – Henry Moore spoke of them as his ‘most revelatory experience in modern painting since his youthful discovery of Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and the Cubists’. This quick response in England may have owed something to our familiarity with the cloudy sublimities of Turner’s late paintings, and something to sheer ignorance of the way Rothko’s work had developed, for in New York Rothko’s career looked different, and critics were slower to warm to him.

Rothko was born in Russia and grew up in Portland, Oregon. He was a clever boy who got a scholarship to Yale. He did not graduate but went to New York instead, and within a couple of years he was taking art classes. It was a late start for a painter, and he was to say that he was never really ‘connected’ with painting, that his inner life was his subject-matter, that he was a Renaissance painter, ‘producing a view of the world which transformed our vision of things’. In the late Thirties he painted subway scenes: one or two of them could almost pass as New Yorker covers. Then he painted surreal semi-abstractions, making reference to ancient mythologies and tribal art, with something of Ernst and something of Miro about them. When, in the mid-Forties, he began to paint less focused shapes in brighter colours the critical response was subdued, and often bewildered. Sometimes it seemed that what he was doing was not painting at all – that his canvases were mandalas, devotional aids, instruments of spiritual transformation. Ashton describes his intentions:

Rothko had to assign values, and often his viewers were sceptical. In 1956 when he still worked in a cramped room and could never have more than one or two of his large canvases visible, he used to keep one of his earliest abstractions, Number 22, 1949, against a wall in a narrow storage area. This early essay into a kind of limitless space, with huge areas of floating yellow and orange, interrupted only by a red band straddling the canvas from side to side, shocked unaccustomed eyes. Rothko had not quite reached the ambiguity he would shortly perfect and, to call attention to the picture plane and its function as the final determinant of the image, he had scored the rectangular red form with scraped lines. This painting, he said, with its large area of yellow and its bright red was perceived by most people as optimistic. But, he emphasised, ‘it is tragedy instead.’ He had assigned a value which in time would come to be understood, but not by everyone. The painting by its scale alone could be an equivalent to an epic drama. The eye is given a desert of yellow in which to wander, perhaps with anxiety, until it reaches a narrow border of still paler yellow which with its fading edges is not even really a border. The very time it takes to reach a visual resting point in scanning such a canvas is enough to endow it with faintly disturbing qualities that Rothko could see in terms of tragedy. For him, clearly, the ‘things’, the roughly rectangular shapes moving now slightly forward and now back, were, as he said, actors enacting events in which there were unnamable feelings that would find resolution on the surface of the canvas.

Rothko’s ‘assigned values’ were better understood as statements of his single formal theme became increasingly static. Any new development, even the discovery of a new shape of cloud, a new range of colours, would seem a betrayal. The wheeling and dealing which the success of the New York School brought with it in the early Sixties distressed him. The flow of new styles, the need for inventions, undermined the sense of absolute truth, put in question the seriousness of all abstract painting, made it less of a mystery, more of a game. The calligraphic, gestural art of the Action painters, the aleatoric art of the dribblers, the sign-making and the reputation-building, left him, on Ashton’s evidence, with doubts not only about the worth of the school which his work was seen to be a part of, but about the worth of the work itself.

The best things the Abstract Expressionists did were implied, and very often achieved, by the mid-Fifties. William Sietz’s book has no illustrations later than that, and his history does not seem truncated. He caught the movement at the point where it was becoming commercially successful. The city which had brought together de Kooning from Holland, Rothko from Russia and Oregon, Hoffman from Germany, Gorky from Russia, would now take its profit. The magazines, the newspapers, the galleries, the curators, the collectors, the critics, the whole network by which reputations are made, was in gear. The other network – the one which allowed the object of their interest to grow – lost some of its power to throw up new combinations and inventions. But the mills were rolling, and the large abstract canvases which became the badge of New York painting went on being produced in moulds which had to a large extent already been formed.

De Kooning, says Tom Armstrong, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, ‘has changed the nature of painting and our understanding of art’. He describes a film in which the artist paints a picture: ‘his relationship with the brush and paint created the sense that one was witnessing a personal encounter only he could conduct. It was awesome to watch such a private experience become public.’ The catalogue of two Whitney exhibitions, which these words preface, enshrines two kinds of confidence: that of the curators and critics, like Armstrong, that they are riding the treacherous tides of art firmly attached to the mane of genius, and that of de Kooning himself in the validity of his vocabulary of gesture. The paintings change, as a signature does. The child starts by writing its name, the adult makes a mark, the significance of which lies, not in its meaning as a word, but in its power uniquely to identify a person. In de Kooning’s paintings one sees layer after layer of organisation removed, to reveal a more and more vigorous calligraphy. Subject-matter, construction, calculation go. Only genius – rampant, infantile, pre or trans-rational genius remains. It is the easiest art in the world to find wanting, if you want an art which will make the world coherent.

The interest in the painting of the Forties and Fifties which these books display is more than academic. It looks very like nostalgia for the last time when making it new did not seem old hat, and the last time when the avant-garde had briefly outstripped the public, and could develop ideas collectively rather than keep such valuable cards close to the chest.

If the public experience of gallery art is broken down into its constituent parts, those gestural traces left by brush or knife or thumb on the surface of the picture are the evidence of an autograph performance. It is the fate of visual art in the age of mechanical reproduction to be revered for its corporeal authenticity. Dore Ashton feels that literary intellectuals had a prejudice against hand-workers, and that the seriousness of the intellectual positions taken by painters like Rothko was not sufficiently appreciated or understood. When one reads her book, which very carefully analyses them, the explanations Rothko gave of what he was doing seem as relevant to his work as scientific colour-theory is to the work of Seurat: which is to say, very relevant indeed if you want to know how the painter thought about what he was doing, but rather irrelevant to the experience of the work.

New York was important to American painting in the post-war decades as a place where such ideas circulated. Only in a few of de Kooning’s paintings does it appear as subject-matter (or at least give title-material). Peter Conrad, whose subject is versions and visions of New York, thus has no place for Rothko or de Kooning in his book: with the Pop artists – like Oldenburg – he finds work which can illustrate his theme. In each of his chapters he shows how different artists made sense of the city. The presiding spirit is Whitman, ‘the genius loci of this book as he is of New York’. Whitman’s desire to embody the city is set against the closed world of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Conrad shows O’Henry and Stephen Crane plucking characters from the crowd; Jacob Riis using photography to document the inhumanities of slum tenements, Stieglitz using it to make skyscrapers monumental; Oldenburg embracing the city by making toys out of monuments, and monuments out of toys; Richard Estes accepting its disorder in photo-realistic paintings of principled unselectiveness. This cast is no chorus, but the city is not, as Conrad says in his final sentences, about singing together: ‘art has managed the most arduous formal feat of all – opening itself to contradictions.’ The manner is that of the secular preacher, and the illustrations Conrad has chosen are texts for the string of rhetorical excursions which make up his book.

Conrad’s writing spreads over his texts like a bright lichenous growth, obscuring what they should make plain. The range of reference is wide (a rudimentary bibliography would be useful), but the book is smaller than its themes. The corrupted technical language of Chapter 12 (‘Looking through Brooklyn Bridge’) can stand as an example of the way imprecision obscures Conrad’s argument. The chapter begins with a confusion: ‘The object in New York which most keenly attunes itself to the subject is a bridge.’ What subject? Carry on: ‘If you anthropomorphise the skyscrapers, you get either an overweening ego or an ape; if you ponder the inner life of the Statue of Liberty, you discover a head empty of thought; but the Brooklyn Bridge seems to take on naturally the attributes of a human body?’ So the subject is human, the reader or inhabitant. But why should an anthropomorphised skyscraper seem like an ape? It wasn’t the Empire State Building which held Fay Wray in its paw. And why is the Statue of Liberty more empty-headed than any other piece of sculpture? (She is – the symbolism is rather striking – one of the very few statues with ideas in her head, for sentient human beings have regularly stared out from the observation gallery in her brow.) Conrad’s sentences breed such quibbles. But he now moves on to the matter of his argument. The bridge is special because it feels alive, hums and vibrates like a living creature, and its cables provide frames which outline segments of the city. This idea may not seem a great one (after one or two photographers had made good pictures through the bridge it became something of a visual cliché), but it is thoroughly worked out:

Being transparent, it segments the city with its cables and instructs you – if you look at New York through it – in a way of seeing. The bridge’s engineering is the effortful but gracious enforcement of synthesis, holding contraries together with the violence of spun steel. And its bravest feat of this kind is visual, not architectonic. It analyses the city, proposing itself to the artist as a mediator between his subjective retreat and the throng of clamouring objects which is downtown Manhattan.

The metaphors here – of the structure of the bridge for the stresses of life, for the framing which photography involves, and for the relationship between the artist and the city – are developed in language which makes their relevance hard to discern.

In a paragraph in which he writes of the way Hart Crane used Brooklyn Bridge as a metaphor, he again uses the language of engineering, and again manages to cloud the meaning of almost every term he borrows. He speaks of steel’s ‘resilient preparedness for stress and tension’ – but in engineering terms tension and compression are both stresses. At the end of the book one has unwound many such sticky cocoons of words.

The language of photography is used in much the same way. Moreover Conrad’s interpretation of what photographers think they are up to ignores interesting examples which run counter to his generalisations. For example, writing of William Klein’s New York photographs of the Fifties, he says: ‘The photographer’s trade is visual trespass. He can only practise it on the streets of the city – where one’s gaze is entitled to be free on condition that it doesn’t linger – by camouflage and subterfuge. The city imposes the unique creative condition of forcing him to make art while he is pretending to be doing something else.’ In so far as this is true, it is as true of an Indian village as it is of a city – those photographers who have made a fetish of erasing their presence have used the technique universally. But what is more to the point is that it was in New York that Bruce Davidson took the pictures (reproduced in his book on Spanish Harlem) which were one of the first and best-publicised attempts to make photographs of poor people which were not voyeuristic and invasive. He purposely used a plate camera and a tripod, and made no secret of what he was doing. And Diane Arbus (another New York photographer whom Conrad does not mention) had a relationship with her subjects which may have involved pretences, but certainly not the pretence that she was not really taking pictures. Then one finds that Conrad, when he comes to write of Walker Evans’s photographs, spends some time analysing the responses of his subjects, and Evans’s qualms about exploitation. It is all very confusing. The justification for pushing on must be a liking for Conrad’s bravura performances in paraphrase or analysis.