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Tag Archives: Blank Canvasses of the 1950’s

I was gutting a trench for a retaining wall yesterday and a thought occurred to me. It was this:

The History of Nature in 20th Century Western Art

  1. Pre-WWII: Nature as primary source material for art
  2. Post-WWII: Abstract-Expressionism disregards nature and looks inward
  3. Post Ab-Ex: Product replaces nature as primary source material for art

 

Another way to look at this:

  1. Pre-WWII: Eyes wide open, see nature
  2. Post-WWII: Eyes shut, avoids nature
  3. Post Ab-Ex: Eyes wide open, nature has been replaced

 

And by “nature” I mean both the natural world and depictions of human experience. True too that this is also a great over-simplification, granted, but I’m working big picture here.

With that in mind, art thru the Ab-Ex period involved a lot of big canvasses and tons of paint (no distinction between types), generally speaking. With that in mind, the transition from Paint to No Paint, as happened with Conceptual Art, was gradual.

But before we get to that, here’s a quick question: Which came first – the removal of paint, or the removal of nature? This is interesting because I’ve often looked at a lot of major artist’s work and wondered why it took them 20 years to get to where they were ‘obviously going’, ie: Why did it take Rothko so long to get to the basics of his genius color field paintings? The answer is that everything is a process, and as a painter over the length of a lifetime, each painting is simply part of that process, ie: there is no goal except to continue what you started yesterday. So the idea that a series of individual and collective steps was required in moving from Ab-Ex to Concrete Art as the new Avant-Garde, well it’s not surprising given paintings’ multi-century professional and cultural dominance.

So, to answer the question above: Nature.

In 1951 Robert Rauschenberg began a series of monochromatic (white or black) paintings that were shown in 1953.

Rauschenberg, White Painting 1951

Rauschenberg’s idea was to reduce the painting to it’s most fundamental nature, bringing about the possibility of pure experience. Which is exactly what a 26 year old New York painter might say when trying on something new. He also dug their reflective qualities. So, in part hippy-dippy, what kind of highly subjective difficult-to-achieve pure experience is he talking about, but also, more importantly, part of a long tradition of blank (not true, simply void of subject matter unless paint and method is also considered subject matter, which is all about intent) or monochromatic paintings that trace as far back as 1882. This format was revived by the Russian Suprematist and Constructivist movements, then later in Color Field and Minimalist paintings.

What’s interesting here is that after the initial Incoherents (pre-Dada – check them out) showing in 1882, the true foundational monochromatic works by Malevich (Suprematist) and Rodchenko (Constructivist), take place either during or immediately after WW1. Perhaps during the 20th Century it takes the gravity of a World War to reduce painting to its simplest form? Because after these examples, monochromatic painting, before a post-WW2 revival, was pretty darn scarce.

Here’s a few Russian examples:

 

Black Square, Malevich, 1915

Malevich, Black Square, 1915, and

 

Rodchenko 1921

Rodchenko, Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue color, 1921

What’s also interesting is how these fellows considered their work. In fact, the intellectual foundation they laid is foundational to Western painting, period. Malevich thought of this work as contemplative, a “pure essence” argument like Rauschenberg’s “pure experience” above. Rodchenko countered that his monochromatic painting represented the end of painting with painting as object, thus in reference only to itself. Blows yer mind, right?

So long before a bunch of New York artists decided to reinvent painting, Malevich turned his brain inward for an emotional, instinctual bit of painting, while Rodchenko blew the lid off the whole idea of painting by intentionally removing subject matter, declaring the piece an expression of an idea and therefore bypassing traditional critic-centric channels to craft the content of discussion around his art. That’s modern folks, wildly ahead of his time modern and I’m in awe. Plus he killed painting, ah ha, he merely invented Conceptual Art by placing the intellectual framework of Idea As Art front and center. Ah ha, that’s not true either, Duchamp beat him by a few years, but as far as painting is concerned both Malevich and Rodchenko were generations ahead of their time.

The link here, beside the nature of the art, is what draws painting to a standstill, ie: blank canvasses? Rauschenberg, as well as Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein and a few others, retreated from traditional subject matter to contemplate monochromatic canvasses. Did it take the gravity of a World War for artists to step back from what they had otherwise been doing and get back to basics, ie: paint + canvas + intellectual artsy reinvention? Or was it the omnipresence of Clement Greenberg and the Ab-Ex movement that needed shaking off?

 

Ad Reinhardt, Black Paintings

Ad Reinhardt’s black canvasses

Here I return to the distrust of language. America had turned into a message machine (Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” was in process of becoming an uncomfortable truth. McLuhan also said that advertising was the greatest art form of the 20th Century. I think he and Rodchenko would have gotten happily drunk together) and the distrust of language, ie: the distrust of the Old Boys network and their non-stop cultural, financial and political messages. Revolutions were fermenting or in full bloom all over America (Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, the rights of the Middle Class, music, literature, etc) and the need to detach yourself from everything that came before in order to find an authentic post-war voice that also wasn’t Ab-Ex was daunting. Thus, remove all subject matter, eliminate all language and essentially start from scratch.

But you can’t call it scratch. You have to call it blank or monochromatic or later Minimalist. And, oddly enough, you just keep using paint. It seems a bit odd in retrospect that in trying to discover a new voice, that one kept using the materials of the past. Like trying not to imitate your dad, but still wearing his clothing. Paint, at the heart of it all, was central in American high art, but that was about to change.

 

Next up: Jasper Johns, Franz Kline and still more Rauschenberg. Plus a few surprises!

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60’s text art didn’t just happen overnight. Noone woke up and said ‘Lo and Behold! A mathematical equation – on canvas!” Nope, there were steps involved, like any new movement, and while things happened relatively quickly, they did have antecedents and a fairly clear transitional phase.

As with the Abstract-Expressionists looking to carve their own identity in the 40’s and 50’s against the omnipresent influence and greatness of their European predecessors, text-based artists, or more properly Conceptual Artists, needed to forge their own identity and so pushed back against their older Ab-Ex brethren. One thing the Ab-Ex movement had going for it, beside its own revolutionary greatness, was a kind of subconscious, spiritual aspect that had been attached to their work. Jackson Pollock famously visited a psychoanalyst, Mark Rothko built a chapel, and everyone’s work was hailed as a collective liberation of painting and Americanism. The only aspect that Conceptual Artists wanted any part of was the liberation of painting, in fact the complete elimination of it altogether, which ha ha got me to thinking:

Wouldn’t it be nice if two competing art movements really, honestly loved and respected each other? Usually, a movement comes out with a manifesto trashing whatever happens to be the dominant paradigm, and Conceptual Artists certainly released their own manifestos which were a bit Dadaist in nature, which again makes sense given the intensity of the culture around them. Here though, imagine this scene:

On Kawara: “Damn Jackson, that whole splashy thing is really amazing! Seriously, I’m impressed!”

Pollock: “Hey thanks! And I really dig your Date/Time thing. How’d you come up with that?”

On Kawara: “Oh you know, I was messing around in the kitchen, one of those really bright ones down in Mexico, and, heck, does it really matter? How’s Lee?”

Pollock: “She’s great, just fantastic! And her painting, wow, who knew? What’s with that little filly I saw you with at Kaprow’s wing-ding?”

On Kawara: “I don’t know man, I think she’s some kind of heiress. I’m trying to get her to buy one of my mimeographs, but she kept taking about DeKooning. You know how it is.”

Pollock: (Laughing) “Oh yeah, I know exactly how it is!”

End scene, arm-in-arm as they go to tear another door off the Cedar Tavern.

Point being, nothing like this could have every remotely happened. Nevermind the historical inaccuracies, ie: I don’t think On Kawara ever attended a Happening, ah ha, that’s another little joke – who the hell knows? Plus Pollock would have been long dead. You see the problem.

So what comes next will be the stages inbetween classic painting as represented by the Ab-Ex movement, and the blossoming of Conceptual Art in the 1960’s. Want a little sneak peak?

raRauschenberg white painting

Yep, blank canvasses. And a very young Robert Rauschenberg before he got to screenprinting BMW’s in the 90’s. That said, blank canvasses still used paint, thus had ties to a much older tradition that itself was in danger of crumbling. True too that nothing ever really dies, art-wise, it just becomes a more crowded landscape. Of course painting will never die, but from this moment forward neither will Conceptual Art.