Artforum, Vol. 5, (December 1966) pp. 30-35. Subtitle: In which the formal contribution of Pop art is found to be negligible.
Present-day American painting and sculpture is very vital. It is split into many styles. Each style has its own qualities and some sort of audience. There is a "culture boom," which means that attention and money are being directed toward art. Art gets a lot of publicity. This is a stimulating atmosphere for artists. Consequently there are more artists making more art than ever before, and some of this work is very good. On the other hand, most of this huge production is inferior. Much of this inferior work is being done within the confines of several contemporary styles whose very nature limits and debilitates the talent and energy of the artists working with them.
The enlarged framework of Abstract Expressionism was not the first assumptive basis for abstract painting, but it was the most fertile. Abstract Expressionism, as it flowered in this country from 1940 to 1960, was the first big burst of abstract painting involving a large number of fine artists working in a limited area with intensity and shared understanding. Their standard was Cubism, more specifically the flexible Cubism of which Guernica was an early example1, handled with an expansive expressionist attitude. For a while it looked as if these artists were formulating new terms for painting. They didn't, but the easy promise was seductive. Moreover, like all original artists, they created style. Others sensed the quality and borrowed the style to get the quality. Instead of quality they got a sign pointing back to the original artist. This is the way fashion is born. The few pioneers, the exciting, somewhat derivative style, the growing economy and the increasing demand for art eventually caused an avalanche of Abstract Expressionism. By the late '50s just about everybody, it seemed, painted like de Kooning. In fact, the Abstract Expressionist "look" was a complex, prefabricated, emotive signal (of the sort I will describe presently) having broader currency than any in history.
In the late '50s and early '60s there were a number of artists who felt that Abstract Expressionism was a dead end. They saw the style weaken as it passed from the hands of the originators, and they were oppressed by the flood of second rate Abstract Expressionism surrounding them. So from their own paintings they chased away as many of the mannerisms of Abstract Expressionism as they could understand. Abstract Expressionism was repudiated point by point: painting within the drawing replaced drawing with paint; overt regularity replaced apparent randomness; symmetry replaced asymmetric balancing: flat, depersonalized brushing or open, stained color replaced the smudge, smear and spatter; affective color replaced color-as-plane. The entire visible esthetic of Abstract Expressionism was brutally revised.2 These were the "hard-edge" artists; many of them are the Op, Minimal and Color artists of today.
Another reaction to Abstract Expressionism was, in the beginning, an accommodation, or an adaptation, rather than an open revolt: Pop art. This style based itself on the styles of Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, none of whom rejected the whole vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism the way the various hard-edge painters did. Instead, they injected illustration into the Abstract Expressionist method. As Pop art developed, and was taken up by others, a "pure" Pop evolved, which is all illustration, wherein the rendering of the work coincides with the artist's attitude toward the subject matter, and in the work of these artists there is little vestige of Abstract Expressionism.
The Pop artists took advantage of the "energized" art environment yielded them by Abstract Expressionism. Their works looked lively and the hard-edge works looked dull. The Abstract Expressionist style was an exciting one, for all its faults. It had an appealing atmosphere of muscular action and direct participation; it connoted rebellion and masculinity at the same time; it was calligraphic, yet imposing; dynamic, yet intimate. Abstract Expressionism created an audience, and then sated that audience. The new art public became bored with Abstract Expressionism, but they were not ready to give it up. They were eager for art. With its Abstract Expressionist backbone and shiny Pop face, Pop art spilled in to fill the vacuum. As the sophistication of the art-viewing public broadened, Pop was followed by Op and, now, Minimal Art. In the meantime, others struggle with the artistic problems left them by Abstract Expressionism, and enjoy whatever attention is left over.
Pragmatically, the strongest art styles of any given period are those which receive the most critical attention. Today the strongest styles are Pop, Op, Minimal and Color. As categories, these styles weaken progressively; in other words, Pop is more definite as a style than Op, or Color, and tends to dominate the other factors the artist may introduce into a work.
Pop art has subject matter which is recognizable. but untraditional, usually taken from popular vulgar, or "non-artistic" culture, often that of 20 or 30 years ago, when the artists were children.3 Once determined, the subject matter is rendered in order to enhance its own qualities, or according to various contemporary styles. The fact of, or recognition of, an ironic reflection upon this subject matter is the major part of the content of a Pop work.
The works of the following artists fill out a description of the Pop style:
Robert Rauschenberg works both flat and in the round. His flat works are usually expanded collages - photos, reproductions, transfers, various flotsam of contemporary life - rendered with modified heavily Cubist-Abstract-Expressionist technique. Occasionally objects will protrude from the picture plane. His sculptural work tends to be juxtaposed subject matter, like his famous goat with a tire around its middle.
Roy Lichtenstein's subject matter is comic strips. Except for adjustments he makes for artistic reasons, and change of scale, the subject determines the rendering. His recent works are "landscapes" and Abstract Expressionist type "brush-strokes," done in the comic strip style. They are simpler and better than the earlier cartoons. He may someday be painting abstract paintings with these means, which should be interesting.
James Rosenquist has a simpler technique. He juxtaposes painted enlargements of common objects. The arrangement is usually Cubist, but sometimes two or three elements will be put together in so simple a fashion that the compositional means are unimportant, and the weight falls on the subject matter.
Robert Indiana has made emblematic painting using punchy verbal signs: "eat," "die," and so on. The composition tends to be symmetrical and sign-like, following the character of the subject matter.
Claes Oldenburg is more "pure" Pop. His objects are enlargements or material changes of his subject matter: giant shirts and hamburgers or soft telephones and typewriters. His things are witty and sensual, and often quite sexual, like the giant breast-like light switch and the phallic Dormeyer Mixers.
George Segal makes plaster casts of real people and puts them in "real" situations. The bus driver at the Museum of Modern Art is a good example. The "freezing" of a real situation is the idea here. There is no attempt at esthetic treatment. The surroundings are settings with real objects, and the plaster casts are awkward and apparently unretouched. The scenes gain what character they have from the "frozen" quality, which lends a vague, Surrealistic aura, and this sometimes heightened by theatrical lighting.
Andy Warhol seems to accept the consequences of Pop thinking more than the others. His Brillo boxes and Campbell's Soup cans reproduce the original, or at least look as much like the original as possible. He is the least "artistic" and most up-to-date of the Pop artists (except Kaprow, below) because he recognizes that Pop thinking can express Itself better in film or in the theater, or even in "real life" than in the gallery, that in fact, Pop art does not belong on the walls of a gallery. The only concession to traditional picture-making in his last show was the wallpaper.
Allan Kaprow, more consciously and positively than Warhol, apprehends and accepts the implications of Pop thinking. Rauschenberg has said that anything can be subject matter for art, but Kaprow really means it. He has taken the Pop notion at face value. For him, anything we sense and experience in any way, can be, and should be, experienced esthetically. This becomes a kind of pantheism, or a specialized kind of theater, which is interesting, but has little to do with my subject, gallery art.
Because Kaprow is the most extreme, or purest, Pop artist, he is the furthest from painting in the gallery sense, demonstrating, to me at least, that gallery painting and Pop thinking are antithetical, and that their union on canvas is an unnatural one. I have always felt that the more successful Pop works were those furthest removed from "artistic" consideration, as indeed the Pop esthetic clearly states. Rauschenberg's Abstract Expressionist hangover, Rosenquist's awkward Cubist make-up, and Indiana's picture balancing are useless vestiges. Lichtenstein is the only one of the eight I described who seems to be moving back into painting. Eventually the cleavage will become visible; on the one hand there will be painters and sculptors, and on the other there will be Pop artists, doing the sort of thing Warhol and Kaprow are doing. It is just a matter of evolution and distinction. Pop thinking will find its proper expression away from the gallery.4
The examination of Pop art raises a point which is important for an overall understanding of the Pop phenomenon - the apparent originality of a work depends on the prevalence and acceptance of the style within which the work appears. Pop art multiplied rapidly in the early '60s. I was amazed at its wide acceptance, because Rauschenberg and Johns were the acknowledged proprietors of this style, and it seemed to me that the newcomers were simply imitators. I did not reckon on the intense need for a jazzy successor to Abstract Expressionism. Instead of being astonished at the apparent similarity between the Pop artists, I should have realized that they were advancing a new front, a new stylistic environment, soil from which many slight variations could sprout, each making a reputation. Take camels, for instance. To us, a camel is a camel - it is either a one-humped camel or a two-humped camel, and it doesn't make much difference anyway. But the Arab camel driver has a vocabulary which includes hundreds of words relating to camels; to him every camel has its recognizable and describable traits. Each camel, to him, is a distinct individual. In Pop art, or in late Abstract Expressionism, or in any other close, concentrated field of specialization, familiarity breeds differentiation.
There are few "pure" Op artists. Many of the artists in the Op show at the Museum of Modern Art used optical tricks sparingly, enough to produce a certain effect within a larger scheme. Op art contains forms which are visually elusive, or fool the eye, creating some kind of strain on seeing.
Bridget Riley and Richard Anuszkiewicz are two representative Op artists. Riley's effects are spatially achieved, Anuszkiewicz's largely through color. The subject matter of their paintings is the optical trick played on the eye of the observer. The rendering of the painting is determined by relating the forms on the canvas to achieve the desired optical effect.
Unlike Pop, Op is primarily a gallery art; you might even call it an intimate art, because its effects are apparent despite changes of scale.5 Like Pop, Op is an expression of the attempt to impose excitement on what appears to be a dull medium.
Minimal art is the fruition of an attitude toward art-making which began five or six years ago as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. It is characterized by extreme and deliberate simplicity. Minimal art attracts sculptors because the attitude it embodies reduces the enormous complexity of choice facing the artist working in a three-dimensional medium today, in an art environment with practically no preconceptions or assumptions about what sculpture should be.
Three minimal artists whose work I know are Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd.
Robert Morris is the most complicated of the three because an element of Pop thinking surrounds his work. He is concerned with process, change and aspects of seeing and experiencing. Sometimes his sculptures represent literal ideas, or a set of interconnected literal ideas, A typical Robert Morris sculpture is a polyhedron covered with a coat of medium or light grey paint. At the same time, he is interested in pure Pop "happenings."
Carl Andre's bricks, or styrofoam slabs, or lengths of beam timber are put together in an absolutely regular manner which excludes reflection on any relationship between the parts, except that customary relationships do not exist. His sculptures catalyze the sensuous nature of the common standard objects which are their formal parts, and become materially beautiful.
Donald Judd's work is the "purest" of the three. His sculptures are large boxes, factory-made according to his plans, of sheet steel and other anonymous materials, sometimes painted. They are rigid, regular, exact and cold, with few sensuous or relational features.
The fact that the subject matter is greatly reduced provides the content of a minimal work under the guise of "the work of art as a whole." The absence of special features and relationships provokes general questions about art. As with Pop and Op, the "meaning" of a Minimal work exists outside of the work itself. It is a part of the nature of these works to act as triggers for thought and emotion pre-existing in the viewer and conditioned by the viewer's knowledge of the style in its several forms, as opposed to the more traditional concept of a work of art as a source of beauty, noble thought, or whatever. It may be fair to say that these styles have been nourished by the ubiquitous question: "but what does it mean?" These styles are made to be talked about. That is one good reason for their popularity.
These three styles are provocative; therefore, they provoke thought. In most cases the rendering of the subject matter is meant to enhance the character of the subject matter. The subject matter itself is the result of a complex, culturally shared and conditioned attitude, brought whole into the work, sometimes so little developed that the subject matter and the work are virtually identical. It is an emotional signal, an indication to react to and think of the work in a manner leading to verbalization, a set of clues leading to talk.
This use of subject matter weakens a work to the extent that the work depends on it. When the artists I have mentioned do succeed, it is because of their talent and will to succeed, and in spite of the styles they have adopted. By now it is a critical cliche to say that Pop art brought the soup can up to art, but it just isn't true. Pop art has attempted to bring art down to the soup can. Like Op and Minimal works, Pop works consist of visual-literal ideas which are artistically half-digested. This is nothing new. Other kinds of self-imposed conceptual limitations hampered artists of the past, such as David, Millet, Malevich, Daumier, Bouguereau, Duchamp, possibly Mondrian and Brancusi, and countless others, all gifted artists of great accomplishment who would not free themselves from the mannerisms which bound their thinking.
It cannot be denied that artistic expression depends on limitation. The means of expression in painting are paint and canvas, and "style," which springs from the body of decisions the painter has already made about his work, or in other words, the limitations he has accepted as he eliminates and specializes. Today there are few cultural restraints on subject matter, and virtually no compositional assumptions. The painter is encouraged to be "free," to choose any way of painting he wants. He has to start from scratch, and building his expressive means right from zero is a tough job. He is constantly tempted to grab, say, a little bit of Pop to deflect attention from a weakness in his style. But Pop subject matter has its own meaning; it does not belong to the artist. Though he may claim it, he did not make it. It will prevent him from being "loose," from handling his materials freely. In the long run it is a pure handicap.
The ability to build a delimited style which excites rather than inhibits expression, which expands rather than restricts freedom, is one of the traits of a great artist. When I look at the paintings of Monet, Manet or Goya, I can recognize and envy the deep openness and the tough flexibility which existed in that part of the artist's mind which concerned his work. In terms of simple choice, his style is restricted and specific, simply because he has rejected all repressive limitations in order to bring his style to the point of expressive expansiveness. The mechanics of this series of decisions are terribly difficult to particularize. It is a function of the personal breadth of the artist - whether he is willing to take on big things or chooses to stick to little things. If I could explain it, I could explain the difference between Robert Rauschenberg, fettered to Cubism, and David Smith, who used that deadly style as if it were another piece of sheet steel, how Shakespeare and Beethoven could lift themes wholesale from everywhere and make them their own with apparent ease, and how Goya got away with the Horrors of War. It is beyond me to figure it out. I am just pleased to be able to recognize it at work.
It might be argued that the building of a viable art style is a microcosm of a properly lived life. Both consist of a series of decisions having positive results, both result in a situation of existence on the best possible terms with the environment. The difference is that you can do what you want with paint, and you cannot do what you want with life situations. In fact, I feel that artistic choices stand for moral choices, because good and bad decisions in either sphere seem to be qualitatively related, which makes painting a kind of ethical activity. But that is another essay, much longer than this one.
A simpler analogy may help to clarify the difference between a hobbled, inhibited style and one which is free and expressive: the relation between two games, Monopoly and chess. This is not a comparison of games with paintings, its a comparison of types of complexity. At first glance Monopoly looks like a vastly more complicated and interesting game than chess. The Monopoly board is loaded with plenty of recognizable and meaningful things: money, properties, houses, a jail, a pile of chancy secret choices. And so on. It is a lot of fun to play. However, the style of Monopoly playing is determined and limited by the very character of these elements, just as chess, with its extremely simple components, can become an enormously varied and flexible expression of a player's style.
The expressive styles of great artists are invariably relational. This is as true today as it was in the past, despite the development of contemporary styles which seem to declare the contrary. The notion that art quality must have a relational basis runs directly counter to the Minimal esthetic, which conceives of the work as an undisguised whole, and indirectly counter to the esthetics of Pop and Op, which depend on prefabricated emotive units, or relationships unified toward a specific effect. Each of these styles begins with a ready-made idea which functions as a big unit, thus reducing to a minimum the relational potential of various parts of the work.
Art is a human-to-human activity. The artwork is the permanent embodiment of a series of decisions made by the artist. To have human value the work must reflect a certain number of these decisions and to do this the work must have an overt complexity. In other words, it must be relational. This is not a popular view today, and as far as I can tell it is quite unprovable. However, I am convinced that it is true.
I am also convinced that today these decisions should involve as materials the basic "parts" of painting as it has come to us through tradition. Since Impressionism painting has tended toward explicit and self-conscious use of its own conspicuous elements. All painting consists of paint and the surface upon which paint is deposited. Creating a complex surface, adequate for expression, depends on line, hue, shading, canvas shape, tone, light and dark, intensity, blurring and sharpness, and so on. We have yet to make a real abstract art; that art will consist of the basic elements peculiar to painting, exercised freely.
Most of us have taken modern art courses in college, or have had equivalent art instruction. We remember being told how to look at a painting, and how to look at qualities picked from the work. We were directed to attach our first attention to the simply perceivable and discernible parts of the painting. These parts were meant to be footholds to gain entrance to the mystery, if any, of the painting. This notion, as it surfaces in teaching, is a conceptual realization of an idea which has been becoming slowly visible in the painting of advanced artists for the past 150 years - an idea which is the stylistic springboard for the serious painting being done today: a painting is made of parts; how the parts are put together is what determines the quality of the painting. The consciousness and pressure of this simple idea is the basis of the stylistic revolution of modern art. It is the core of the modern "mainstream," which one way or the other affects practically every artist.
The first broad application of this principle as a deliberate method was made by the Impressionists. Until the early 19th century art was influenced by art, not by nature. Despite the gradual understanding of perspective, anatomy, and other natural properties of the visual world, painters shied away from nature. But "style" painting in this sense died with Ingres. The work of the early nature painters, such as Constable and Corot, was more modern and viable in every way, and drove the other kind of thinking about art down into Bouguereau and the Academy. As the Impressionists slowly saw how vastly complicated nature was they felt compelled to come to terms with nature through thinking as well as painting. They wrote their theories down, as we all know. It looked as if they were going after nature with a dissecting tool. Actually they were just trying to rationalize the frightening (to a painter) things they realized as they took mankind's first real look at nature since the cave painters - such as, a shadow under a tree looks purple, everything is made up of bits of light and color, and there are no lines. This writing and thinking must have been an effective safety valve for the Impressionists' conceptualizing tendencies, because they made the freest and most beautiful paintings of our civilization.
The Impressionists' paintings were built of small patches of paint because visual nature is made up of small patches of color. It could be argued that Cézanne's art was a record of the misunderstanding of Impressionism. He was a "space" painter, not a "color" painter. He took the patches from the Impressionists, but he used the color bluntly, as the Abstract Expressionists did later, as an "ax" to divide planes. By taking the elements of his painting from painting, instead of from nature, Cézanne started us away from nature and back toward style. Then Picasso and Braque picked up the idea of painting-as-spatially-related-parts, developed the Cubist method of picture-making, and, equally important, returned us to our old custom of thinking about painting as a stylistic continuum.
We are getting away from Cubism now, but for better or worse we are stuck with our thinking habits. Art-making today is admittedly specialized and intellectual; painting styles evolve almost exclusively from other painting styles. Some artists have adapted to this situation, and take vigorous advantage of it. They are those upon whom painting as a high art depends. I call them "color" painters, but that is inadequate, as any designation must be, and probably reflects my own prejudices. Stylistically they are a disparate group. They do share a heightened interest in color. But what really characterizes them is their willingness to face the problems of abstract art without the props of a borrowed style. There is only one way to do this - start with the simple elements of painting which naturally inhere to painting: color, line, area size, paint, shading; in short, all the infinite means available to inflect a surface with variation. Then decisions have to be made about what to do with all this, what to accept and reject, and how to handle it all in an expressive manner right from the beginning. Of course this may take ten years and 100,000 decisions, and not many buyers will be attracted in the meantime. That's why so few painters really start from scratch, or at least perform the equivalent by completely rejecting or subduing earlier borrowed styles.
Some present-day painters whose work I admire are Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Albert Stadler, Frank Stella, Gene Davis, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, and I suppose four or five others I cannot think of right now. Their personal styles vary, of course, and some must be better than others, but I could not evaluate them in any absolute or historical sense. Some are "post-Minimal," some are "Post Abstract Impressionist," some are conservative, some are jumping the gun. It would be quite difficult to summarize the style of each. Among them are the best younger painters working today. They are both traditional and revolutionary, taking what is left to them by Abstract Expressionism6 to make fine paintings which in turn are changing the character of art in our time. With a basic vocabulary of the simple elements of painting and personal styles comprehending the potential of these elements, they are laying a basis for future painters which is more broad and solid, and less restrictive, than that left them by Abstract Expressionism. In fact, I think we are on the verge of a great period of abstract painting.
Like mercy, the quality of art is not strained. Good art is like real pleasure, or a funny joke; it cannot be pushed, forced or borrowed. There are no short cuts to making good art, and none to understanding it. Though art is the most deeply meaningful human activity, it is superficially without meaning; it spells out nothing. An art style that flaunts meaning is a dangerous one, especially for the artist who falls for it. After years of work and recognition his easy beginnings will catch up to him, and he will become an example of "an episode in the history of taste."7 These insidious styles exist in any art environment; they are tantalizing, and allow themselves to be used easily. By continuously recognizing these attractive traps, and avoiding them, the artist will keep himself free to build and maintain an expressive style on his own terms.
1. For example, compare de Kooning's early drawings with Picasso's sketches for Guernica.
2. Frank Stella's paintings of 1959 and 1960 say it better than I can. See the Museum of Modern Art catalog for the "16 Americans" show, 1960.
3. Many of the favorite subjects were designed years ago: the Campbell's soup can, the Coke bottle, the Terry-and-the-Pirates type comic strip and many others, including Marilyn Monroe, I should think. The source of possible subject matter for Pop is huge. 20th century kitsch. It is easy to come up with something "new." I am surprised that the range of Pop subject matter is so modest.
4. I left Jasper Johns out of this discussion because he is a more complex artist than the others, who serve well enough to illustrate the Pop style.
5. For example, see Riley's painting reproduced on the cover of the Responsive Eye catalog.
6. Not what they have learned from Albers, Newman, Reinhardt, et al. The example of these men may have helped the younger artists in their struggle with Abstract Expressionism, and I am sure that a few ingredients were lifted from their paintings in the process, but the actual stylistic influence was far less than it appears to have been. The main influence, albeit a partially negative one, was Abstract Expressionism itself. The reaction against Abstract Expressionism caused the symmetry and the wide open spaces of today, and the inheritance from Abstract Expressionism was the subtle promise of a real abstract art, which Abstract Expressionism, like any imperfect parent, failed to fulfill.
7. Clement Greenberg, from his foreword to the "Post Painterly Abstraction" show, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 1964.