To hell with the lyrics

Peter Campbell

  • The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell edited by Stephanie Terenzio
    Oxford, 325 pp, £35.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 19 507700 8

In her essay ‘Good Boys and Dead Girls’ Mary Gordon identifies the ‘American innocent’. She tracks him – young, restless and bad news for women – through the novels of Faulkner, Dreiser and Updike. ‘All that matters is that his heart must be pure, and he must move forward to the quest which for so many male American writers is the most crucial one: the search for the unfettered self.’ The ‘unfettered self’, or rather its expression in paint, was exactly what the makers of Abstract Expressionism in the Forties and Fifties pursued. Robert Motherwell was one of them, and his collected writings – a revealing gloss on artists of the School of New York and on modern painting in general – reflect one of history’s ironies.

The Abstract Expressionists, who set out rebellious and vulnerable, were wrong-footed when the epic battle they saw coming with the Philistine was won at the first engagement. The unrealised expectation of a struggle to come has left its mark on Motherwell’s writings. The editor of this collection suggests that Motherwell drew back from having the pieces collected during his lifetime because he felt the early ones argued the case for abstraction too defensively, and the later ones, risking more by way of self-revelation, were too like surrogates for art itself. What they show is that, although the outward struggle was over, the inner one went on. Despite the increasing ease which success brought, the premise implicit in the original quest – that romantic isolation must be the lot of the true artist – was lived out. Hints of the dark undertow can be found in Motherwell’s descriptions of his friends. Franz Kline was ‘funny and shrewd, always filled with comradely affection, even tenderness’ but this ‘covered something much deeper and blacker, that we all respected’. In an obituary of the sculptor David Smith he describes the good times they had and adds: ‘we both knew damned well the black abyss in each of us that the sun and the daughters’ skin and the bounty and the drink could alleviate but not begin to fill, a certain kind, I suppose of puritanical bravado, of holding off the demons of guilt and depression that largely destroyed in one way or another the abstract expressionist generation, whose suffering and labour was to make it easier, but not realer, for the next generation. And if they liked it cool, we liked it warm.’ The cool generation – Pop, or minimalist – was riding the wave as he wrote that in the early Seventies.

Among Motherwell’s peers, writing and high talk were suspect, and Motherwell himself was, from time to time, accused of being too intellectual. It is easy to see why painters without his philosophical bent – he had studied philosophy at Stanford – found laconic, real men’s talk to be appropriate, like blue jeans and plaid shirts, to a way of working which set the visceral and energetic against the intellectual and analytic. But Motherwell, too, could talk macho. He describes how he and David Smith would ‘talk about certain male things: Mercedes Benz (to which he converted me), shotguns, the wonders of Dunhill’s tobacco shop’. After all, good tobacco was no barrier to the search for the unfettered self, because that search was an inner thing; no matter how dapper you might appear, you could still feel the prickle of the hair shirt, and still try for a serious equation between what you were and what you made. Motherwell believed the inner struggle showed.

In a piece called ‘A Tour of the Sublime’, written in 1948, he looked to a modern art which would reject the rhetoric of the old sublime, ‘the glory of conquerors and politicos and mountains’, while projecting ‘in the midst of a shrieking world’ a new sublime – ‘an expression of living and its end that is silent and ordered’. This un-ironic view of the artist’s role has very little in common with the cultural nihilism of the European line of Modernism; and yet it was this line which underwrote Abstract Expressionist theory.

Motherwell was actively involved in making the European connection, however – in particular, through contacts he had with Surrealists and Dadas, as he called them, in New York in the Forties, when he was editing a series on the documents of modern art. Big, strong paintings, a hybrid vigour, were the result of this transatlantic marriage. The European strains of cultural despair and pathological psychology were bred out, with the result that American Abstract Expressionism achieved without trying what the Russian Constructivists had struggled for: a modern style which was acceptable propaganda for the native culture. Its large scale, seriousness and high, obscure themes made Abstract Expressionism perfect official art. Troubled by the élitism implicit in the modern programme, Motherwell asserted a democracy of sensitivity. While one early piece has it that ‘realism historically has always been mainly the mode for reaching the vulgar, the great lump of people,’ elsewhere he writes: ‘In our society art is most integrated in persons under seven, and in patients in hospitals, and these two classes have by far the highest percentage of true artists in my opinion.’ A wilderness of the unconscious was to be found in the pre- and nonrational mind. Of modern art he said: ‘it is as though a few gifted children were able to outwit the adult world and protect their own felt necessities.’

One important consequence of the unthought and automatic having particular authority was a powerful but constricted graphic vocabulary. Most Abstract Expressionist painters made only a few kinds of picture. Among Motherwell’s kinds are paintings in black and white of blot or sign-like shapes; a group which shows door and window-like rectangles on wall-like grounds; a third group which combines bumpy cloud-like shapes with smaller patches of brighter colour. A large group of paintings and collages uses writing and writing-like marks. There are written slogans (‘je t’aime,’ for example, on one series of paintings) and scraps of labels, cigarette packets and so forth incorporated in collages; and there are the scrawled ‘written’ lines on paintings which, mainly because of the relationship they set up between figure and ground, are like ideographs or pictograms to which no specific meaning has yet been assigned. Motherwell’s handwriting was unselfconscious – not one of those art-school italics or elementary-school roundhands which painters are usually left with. His brush-marks have in common with his handwriting a seemingly unpremeditated vivacity. When written slogan and painterly mark are stitched together on the same canvas the seam hardly shows.

All his paintings are characterised by the sense of free but directed activity which was Abstract Expressionism’s special contribution to the vocabulary of modern painting. They seem significant, and while it is hard to think, and impossible to prove just what it is they signify, their energy is such that, like a song in a foreign language, they command at worst puzzled respect and at best the kind of empathy which hums along with the tune and says to hell with the lyrics. But the question, ‘Are there lyrics, or is it all mouth music?’ remains. One reason for the Abstract Expressionists’ word-shyness would seem to be a sense that the more they talked the more they would have to face challenges of that kind. Motherwell, sometimes at least, seems to believe that he and his friends were working in a universal language which, however obscurely, was able to say things about the lot of humanity, and might, one day, become widely understood.

That has not happened. That cartoons about modern painting are not common any more shows indifference rather than acceptance. Painting has settled into its niche – a minority taste which rarely shocks, except when it is bought for a lot of money with public funds.

A painter is not necessarily in a privileged position when it comes to talking about the significance of his art. Motherwell describes helping Baziotes hang a show, and reassuring him about the value of his work. But that was not easy: ‘You see, at the opposite side of the coin of the abstract expressionists’ ambition and of our not giving a damn, was also not knowing whether our pictures were even pictures, let alone any good.’ The coherence of Motherwell’s writing enables one to do what is rarely possible: follow the painter to the point where what is planned and intended – things you can talk about with some confidence – merges with what is automatic. Despite the contrast between this rational, verbal part of Motherwell’s activities and what he painted, a successful symbiosis was worked out. In verbal contexts the Stanford baggage is unpacked. When he is making paintings it is the intuitive, authentic, uncompromised gesture that is celebrated.

Such switches of position were highly effective moves in the game of art. Self-conscious verbal positioning gave rise to critical theory (in the writing of Clement Greenberg and others) which protected the autonomous status of the work by insisting that its value arose from an impenetrably personal relationship between artist and materials. So Motherwell’s paintings could achieve the thrilling directness which he identified and envied in the drawings of very young children, leaving critical theory to block questions like ‘is that enough?’, ‘is there any future in this kind of thing?’ and ‘can’t anybody do that?’

Abstract painting is a game played with our interpretative faculties. It makes them work harder and gives them rest; it exploits and teases them. At this level thought is almost indistinguishable from pattern recognition. But patterns come in all kinds. One of Motherwell’s own early moves was to point to music – Mozart’s in particular – and say: ‘well, that’s abstract too.’ This, of course, will not do. Motherwell’s kind of painting lacks ordered complexity. It is quite specifically not pattern-making of the kind found in, for example, Islamic carpets and tiles, which provide the nearest visual equivalent to the freedom-with-rules of classical music. An appropriate musical comparison to Motherwell’s painting (which would fit with his liking for children’s drawings) is a baby beating rhythmically with a spoon on a plate. The kind of non-figurative painting Motherwell did has to be interpreted without the help of a cultural matrix like that of musical harmony.

Reductionist criticisms of abstract painting were made from the start. Motherwell describes an argument with a nameless Communist painter: ‘He, of course, insisted that my art had no content, that it was decorative and good to taste, like a wedding cake. I remarked that of course every art has content, only that the content of some art is more subtle. My hostility against him was not that he was a Communist, but that his art contains no feeling for real humanity and its capacity for self-realisation.’ Other things Motherwell wrote early on fit well with the notion that what the Abstract Expressionists were doing was trying to find in ‘thoughtless’ painting kinds of marks which would reach below the viewer’s high-level interpretative faculties: ‘painting and sculpture are not skills that can be taught in reference to pre-established criteria, whether academic or modern, but a process where content is found, subtle, and deeply felt.’

Abstract Expressionism was inclined to proliferate. If anyone could do it – well, not exactly anyone, but five-year-olds and the mad certainly – how did you prevent a picture explosion? The limit was set by the number of niches available in the critical and commercial environment. A painter who didn’t have one could not be authenticated by exhibition and promotion. Evolution favoured highly recognisable artifacts. When the definition of style became the end, not the means, of expression it helped to be the one who dribbled or the one who painted everything blue. Even so, the problem of proliferation did not go away entirely. When Motherwell started out he reckoned there were only a few dozen abstract painters working in America. By the end of his life he gloomily put the figure at ‘many hundreds of thousands’. Not surprisingly, more agile styles appeared which challenged the rule of the Abstract Expressionists.

The simple graphic vocabularies which Abstract Expressionism supported set a limit on the number of critical explanations it could sustain. Most could be reduced to an investigation of the viewer’s relationship to a painting seen as object rather than as representation, and the relationship between the painter’s personality and intentions and the kind of marks made. Without problems of representation, technique, social purpose or iconography to deal with criticism became deep, serious and impoverished.

Energy and vitality were not characteristics of the European art scene in the Forties and Fifties. New York was the right setting for Modernism’s transition from avant-garde to dominant culture – the latter defined in terms of what is taught, what is bought for public collections, what makes the best prices. The Museum of Modern Art had the best public collection of Modernism. It was an inspiration and a confirmation of art’s progressive narrative; here were paintings which, when they were made, had belonged to the future. And the future belonged to America.

MoMA’s early incorporation of photography into its collections was official confirmation that representation now lived outside the realm of painting. The long tussle with verisimilitude – from linear perspective, through chiaroscuro and tonal painting and on to Impressionism – was over. The ascendency of Abstract Expressionism followed very closely on the demonstration in the pages of Life that photography could be a popular art which challenged painting without imitating it. Photography gave a benchmark against which the performances of painters could be judged. On the one hand it made clear that they have always manipulated appearances. On the other it fed them images which, like the art of the past, could be quoted, but which had a very different kind of authority. The transformation photography wrought on the mind, the way it was both a revelation of truth and a deadening mechanical curb on the imagination, was recorded by Delacroix in 1853 (Durieu had taken a series of photographs of nudes to Delacroix’s specification):

After dinner they looked at the daguerreotypes Durieu has kindly sent me. I contrived to have them try the same experiment I tried out by accident two days ago. When they had studied the daguerreotypes of nude models, some of whom were weedy specimens who were overdeveloped in some parts of their bodies and disagreeable to look at. I then showed them Marcantonio’s engravings. We felt put off, indeed almost disgusted by their mistakes, affected and unnatural manner, in spite of the excellence of their style, which now we no longer admired. I really think that if a genius uses daguerreotype as it should be used, he may reach heights we have no idea of. Above all when you study these engravings, which have exhausted every painter’s admiration for them, you feel how right Poussin was to say: ‘set beside the classical artists Raphael is an ass.’ Up till now this mechanical art has done us a bad turn. It spoils masterpieces without satisfying us completely.

Delacroix did not live to see the way photography would come to dominate all aspects of representation, or where the freedom brought about by photography’s finessing of the search for true representation would lead. Impressionism, by blurring the image and discarding the boundaries, by inventing, for example, a transformational transcription of the effects of sunlight, opened the way to non-retinal interpretations. This led finally to styles like Cubism which tested to the limit the painter’s powers of disassembly and the viewer’s powers of reassembly. Beyond it lay the purely abstract. Painting was by now so engaged in its own history that career transitions that could be traced in the painter’s work (Mondrian’s and Kandinsky’s, for instance), could be felt to have an aesthetic force in themselves. There were other responses to the exhaustion of truth-to-nature: various kinds of fantasy, caricature, simplification and exaggeration of form and colour which can be compared to the transformations of Mannerism and the Baroque.

Just as the end of verisimilitude had been reached in photography (once it was achieved it became clear that it was the journey that mattered), so beyond Cubist fragmentation lay abstraction, and beyond that the simplest statements of all: a blank canvas, a single line and so on. These logical extensions of post-photographic style were recognised and achieved very quickly indeed. They were not, like the search for true representations of the real world, tied in with problems of the science of colour and the physiology of perception, but more like political slogans: suggestions for actions which went against intuitive ideas of what images are made for, but which were not difficult to carry out once identified and adopted.

By the time young Robert Motherwell started talking to Surrealists, the trajectories of various Modernisms were complete. The authority of history could now be called on to underwrite the critical assertion that Abstract Expressionism was the final achievement of the Modernist programme. One could also, paradoxically, abandon the past. Motherwell saw freedom from it as an American thing. Writing of Ernst in 1948, he says: ‘To the American mind nothing could be more alien than such a contest with the past. Such images as a black mass, a bloody nun, an invader from the East cannot arouse deep feelings in most of us.’ American ideas of equality and democracy made it difficult to live with the fact that the modern painter works for and within a very limited social circle. Motherwell believed, in his early years as a painter, that he would always be embattled. ‘What is false in a realist or a social realist, say a Wyeth or a Shahn,’ he wrote, ‘is not merely an aesthetic difference, or an intolerance or a blindness on our part but their belief and assertion, like Dali before them, that the public really loves art; and that they are involved with the public instead of with the artist’s love for art.’

One way of understanding the gloom which the search for free expression bred in the Abstract Expressionists is to attend to their relationship to society at large. They had no interest in overtly political art. Motherwell dismissed that as impossible: ‘Political commitment in our times means logically – no art, no literature.’ He was not interested in being one of ‘a great many people’ who found it possible ‘to hang around in the space between art and political action’, nor did he and his friends look to society for a validating principle. Popular acceptance, an art of painting to match the art of the movies, was not possible without compromise. But art as a self-referential game of reputations and influences, with money as the final arbiter of worth, was at odds with their notion of the seriousness of what they were doing. In 1949 Motherwell wrote: ‘The conditions under which an artist exists in America are nearly unbearable, but so are they everywhere in modern times ... I suppose that artists were more wanted in the past when they spoke for a whole community, that they became less wanted as their expression became more individual and separate.’ If the desire to be appreciated but not fettered could not be fulfilled, at least one could be serious. ‘Pictures are vehicles of passion, of all kinds and orders, not pretty luxuries like sports cars. In our society the capacity to give and receive passion is limited. For this reason the act of painting is a deep human necessity, not the production of a hand-made commodity.’

The last question that Motherwell’s writing leads one to ask is not about his art but about his life. Why, when he was so successful, did painting have to be made to seem such a tense, even miserable business? The answer lies not in the mysteries of painting – why some make you go on looking and others, seemingly not very different, leave you cold. Ask, rather, where they were done and how and what skills were needed to make them. Paintings (almost uniquely among works of art) are often evidence of the circumstances of their making: Vermeer’s studio, Van Gogh’s cornfields, Matisse’s pretty rooms and handsome models, the garden at Giverny, Constable’s Stour and Corot’s Rome, Velázquez’s royal sitters and Chardin’s jars of fruit. Anyone who has sat down and made a picture of what was in front of them can get some glimmering of the excitements and satisfactions of making paintings which create a world from a world in this way. The pleasure of painting becomes part of the pleasure of looking; doing it, you find yourself in good company. By the middle of the 20th century, history and technology had impoverished the lives of painters by stripping them of the pride which the competence displayed in this kind of painting brings. There was moreover no need to have cornfields or girls or fruit about the place. The part of painting which had to do with representation had been devalued. No act of will could bring it back. Now even work which draws on skills of this kind relies on its subject-matter to achieve its effects – the claustrophobic spaces in the paintings of Lucian Freud for example. At the same time, lucidity of transcription (the common factor in work as various as Corot’s early landscapes, Watteau’s figure drawings, Degas’s pictures of women and Sickert’s music halls) is devalued by the supreme lucidity of photographs.

Pleasure in transcription, which merges with pleasure in the thing being transcribed, is what children find in drawing. They begin confident and become dissatisfied. Delight in making bold marks is eventually compromised by doubts about just how things go. Motherwell, observing this, wrote: ‘One of the most baffling problems in art education is what we grown-ups do, or what children do themselves, so that their universal language disappears at a later age even more rapidly than it begins.’ In other words, young children’s painting resembles Abstract Expressionism, so what they should become is Abstract Expressionists. The argument is transparently self-serving, but it points to a little tragedy played out every time a child who is clever at drawing goes to art school and is taught how to regress in order to understand and speak the language of contemporary painting. It is not that the skills are impossible to regain: there are painters working today – Arikha is an example – who have made the move from abstraction to figuration; and living traditions of representation, critically marginalised but commercially viable, are commonplace. It is rather that painting altogether has become an obsolete animal, like the shire horse, whose power can be harnessed to no useful task now that tractors have taken over the work it was bred for.

In living out what they saw to be the historical destiny of modern art the Abstract Expressionists tried to get round the absence of any uncompromised task for a fully grown art of painting by becoming painterly castrati. The natural development of the image-making faculty was cut short in order that something like the infant’s wonderful, direct expressiveness might be sustained. The last ironic episode in the story appeared in the press a little while ago. De Kooning who is now, sadly, senile is spending his second childhood producing canvases which, expert opinion has it, are as good as ever.