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
- Pre-WWII: Nature as primary source material for art
- Post-WWII: Abstract-Expressionism disregards nature and looks inward
- Post Ab-Ex: Product replaces nature as primary source material for art
Another way to look at this:
- Pre-WWII: Eyes wide open, see nature
- Post-WWII: Eyes shut, avoids nature
- 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’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:
Malevich, Black Square, 1915, and
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’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!