Artforum, Vol. 6, (April, 1968) pp. 22 - 32.
Subhead: The materials Cubism threw out must work themselves back into painting by means of innovation, so that we will have a whole art again.
Art revolution is like real-life war. Both bring violent change, vast destruction and technological "advance," and make conditions which must be reckoned with as the rebuilding proceeds. Cubism offered us a chance at abstract art, but in the course of its first growth it destroyed, or seemed to destroy, or seemed to render unimportant to art many of the materials, activities and effects natural to painting and sculpture. This essay is about Cubism, its problems and promise, and its formal variety in the work of two recent American artists: Jackson Pollock and David Smith.
Cubism was precipitated from the mixture of two attitudes. The first, emerging with increasing vitality and clarity throughout the 19th century, was the realization that art quality is a property of the art work itself, existing apart from any external measure. The second was the innate human tendency to organize visible and tangible things in terms of space.
The Impressionists were the first materially abstract painters. Sometime in the 19th century, possibly around the 1820s, with Constable and Corot, a type of painting appeared which eventually was labelled Impressionist, featuring a certain kind of conscious use of the natural materials of paint which forced the paintings thus made to assert themselves as objects made of paint, and which forced the elements of painting away from the subject into more-or-less obvious visible relationships with each other. For a history of art styles this is the most important single fact about 19th-century Western art. From Manet to Monet, from Seurat to Cézanne, materials and visible conventions were slowly pried away from the subject and set into the painting. Art quality became, or was discovered to be, an internal feature of painting; it was seen to arise from the materials and how they are put together. As this became apparent to the 19th-century painter his attitude toward his materials changed, which in turn affected the way he made paintings.
If a painting depicts something real, or expresses an idea, or serves any art-making attitude other than that which assumes the combined materials make up the content of the picture, then the units of construction will be in terms of the subject or idea of the picture, and paint, color, shading, modeling and all other natural painting materials bend to fit the need at hand. But if the art-making attitude assumes that art quality arises from the use of the materials of painting to make the painting, then the artist will strive to equip himself with a method of picture construction contrived in terms of these materials, and develop, discover or invent material units of construction - pieces or parts from which the painting can be made. This is exactly what the Impressionists did.
The evolution toward abstraction was impelled by consciously giving materials the power to bear art quality; having this power, materials make painting come around to material terms. The free use of painting materials inclines away from depicting real things because that locks up the more expressive use of paint, or at least makes the passage to expression a long and hard one. The Impressionists got the best of both by seeing nature in such a way that abstraction was accommodated. Afraid of the route their art took, they set up an ingenious system of defense, consisting of theory, contending in sum that what was happening to painting was actually happening to nature, and that they were only nature's faithful servants, recording her every whim. This is how they resisted abstraction, not in their paintings, but off the top of their heads. And what they said rang true. The abstracting of painting and the new habits of seeing jibed; the new processes operating in painting had a discoverable equivalent in nature which the Impressionists attributed to painting to rationalize their radical method. This method brought abstraction to the surface, and yet it produced the most realistic paintings seen in art to that time, and, to my mind, the most beautiful and complete. Though they defended realism in theory, and produced realistic paintings, the Impressionists, by using an art-making method the basic conformation of which was in terms of the materials of their craft, provided for the destruction of the realist method. These magnificent realist paintings were plain evidence that realist painting was breaking up; the materials of painting were taking over, and would thereafter disqualify the depiction of any reality outside of painting for ambitious art-making. Abstract painting had taken root.
Cézanne lifted the Impressionist art-making method, skimming it off the top, leaving all the softness behind. He flattened out the "pieces" and organized them spatially. The Fauves used the pieced-painting method to pull a switch on Impressionism; for the natural color of the Impressionists they substituted blunt, primary, "unreal" colors, colors which were invented for, rather than natural to, the subjects depicted. But the strength of the abstract method was not manifest until Cubism. The more explicit an idea becomes, the closer it will approach an expression of its extreme - if its application still works. The idea of abstract, material or "piece" painting, had the depth and vigor to sustain the work of ambitious painters. It evolved quite naturally into the spatiality of Cubism, because the awareness that the picture must be made from "pieces" favors spatial construction. It goes from how and what to where.
Three-dimensional space is the most important single fact about our environment; our first "set" in any situation is the location of things around us. Certainly other kinds of activity occupy us most of the time. But that's because our position relative to other things is so thoroughly ingrained that our response has become automatic. Everything we experience, all our senses and all the decisions we make about what we sense presupposes awareness of relative location. Painting is flat because it was born of convenience. Long before painting got artistic, it was used to show something, to tell a story. A wall or skin or other flat surface is much more convenient for depicting things than sculpture, especially with primitive means. So we began with a two-dimensional means for depicting three-dimensional things. The first problem of picture-making has always been where to put the items depicted - not necessarily the most important, but the first, just as there must be a skeleton before there can be flesh. The primacy of spatial consideration in painting paralleled that in our environment. A reversion to the elemental often characterizes radical action, and when Picasso started on the road to abstract painting in 1907 he fell back on that most elemental visual fact: space in depth. The depiction of painted elements in illusionist depth became his basic tool and was the first clear-cut method of abstract painting.
Affective color and sensual paint were put away as spatial abstract painting developed. Both of these natural and expressive materials were incidental to Cubism because Cubism wanted elements which could be handled spatially, and spatial differentiation is clearest when the units are sharply defined and similar in kind. Value difference was kept as a tool to fix planes in depth, but complex hue difference would have interfered; by the same token, the soft and sensuous paint of the Impressionist would have fuzzed the sharp edges of the planes and pushed the surface toward continuousness. Abstract painting presumably could have worked itself out in other ways, as it did, for instance, in the painting of Monet at the end of his life - painting which is still too modern for us. But it was space-painting that had the power and bluntness to persist and grow.
To become spatially abstract, painting was forced to close down on some of its most expressive elements (hue variation, sensual paint) to emphasize an element (depth in space) it had to fake. After Cubism, "advanced" painting arranged simple things in illusionist space. The notion of abstraction, of painting done only on its own terms, is still the forceful idea it was 100 years ago, but it is so tightly associated with the Cubist style that most painting is space painting. Not much else counts. New painting usually is evaluated in terms of arrangement, and our critical vocabulary is a language of things depicted in space. The critics have had no choice. I could give you an analysis of the color dynamics of a de Kooning painting, but it would be trivial relative to the quality of the painting, because de Kooning used color unaffectively, to identify planes and areas. It is arrangement that bears his art. Painters outside of Cubism, like Matisse or Still, are considered great, but a little freakish, off the main line, so to say. Certainly all paintings must have space, because the canvas has space, and something has to be placed on it some place or other in order to make it a painting. But that does not mean that arrangement must carry the painting. We are still very much in the grip of Cubism; the materials Cubism threw out must work themselves back into modernist painting by means of innovation, so that we will have a whole art again.
Cubism cuts the potential of painting, but no method is sufficient in every way, and Cubism was a "supporting" style, one that offered broad opportunity for art-making. even if only in one direction. If an artist took that direction, that of art-making through spatial arrangement, Cubism would take him halfway. Cubism is a part of some of the best art of our time. It was there, like Everest, waiting to be used. And used it was.
Abstract Expressionism, for example, grew from the cursive and energetic Cubism of which Picasso's drawings for Guernica are samples. Before Abstract Expressionism. Cubism was a small-scale style, not because large Cubist paintings were impossible, but because the units of the Cubist work were small in relation to the whole scene depicted, following the example set by the art of Picasso and Braque from 1909-1914, and the method used to paint these small units limited their potential size. Picasso and Braque used these small units because their Cubism evolved as a method of abstracting natural objects. These objects, landscape, still life, or the human face and figure present subtle and numerous light and dark variations. The Cubist method eroded these subjects by means of the process adopted from Impressionism through Cézanne, which took the units of value change available in a natural subject and rendered these value differences into units which could be related by means of their visible likeness to one another. A Cubist painting of 1910 has roughly as many facets of value as its subject - not exactly but apparently. Early Cubist painting, Cubist painting as it was growing, abstracted nature by rendering its value differences into repeating elements on a pictorial surface. But Cubism kept most of the important visual properties of natural objects, or, let's say, of realist painting, such as value difference, depth illusion, and apparent surface complexity; the subject may seem to be missing from a Cubist painting of 1912, but it is there, really. Most of the means of visual recognition are retained; the only real change is that the features of the subject are modified. The Cubist method forced the subject matter of painting into terms with the picture itself. Cubist paintings became more-or-less abstract because natural objects, if they are to be pictured, demand that painting materials make a visual approximation of them, which was at odds with the Cubist notion that the elements of a painting should be ordered in terms of the picture surface and each other. The development of the Cubist style is a visual embodiment of this conflict.
Early Cubism required the incising, cutting stroke made by a small brush, loaded with paint, worked by the wrist and fingers. In this way it kept some of the sensuality of oil paint as a hedge against its radical intent, especially in the form of the "impressionist" dots and dashes which enliven so many Cubist pictures. But until Abstract Expressionism large scale Cubist painting excluded paint handling of this kind because the wrist-finger technique was inadequate for the size. When Cubist painting got big, then the "pieces" got big. When the pieces got big, they had to be filled with paint; and so they were, with flat, evenly painted areas, pieces cut with a saw, not a knife. When the Cubists painted big they gave up the vigor of early Cubism, and went to what I call "applied" Cubism, that is, the use of the forms developed by early Cubism, laid down straightened out, and filled evenly with paint - Cubism used on its own terms rather than as means of abstraction.
Generally speaking, Cubism demands an active handling of its elements because the elements themselves lack character. Cubist elements were deprived of individuality so they could be more easily shoved around and arranged. The generating of Cubism was tough aggressive, pushy, cutting away at the figure and the landscape, and actually at all previous art. But when the "action" was over, after 1914, or to be safe, after 1920, most painters did not know how to carry on what Picasso and Braque started. They were stymied by scale and application. Cubism had made a large rent in the fabric of pictorial art, and it took a long time to patch it up. I think it is safe to say no painter after 1910 had the visual inventiveness to cope with the problems and promise of Cubism until Abstract Expressionism
Cubism is an "open" style; it grants further opportunity because it started more than it could finish. But it is also a stubborn style, demanding modification of all of its terms if any of its terms are altered. Scale was one of the most resistant terms of the Cubist picture. To make a painting like Guernica as large as he wanted it, Picasso was forced (or so he thought) to make it out of large flat pieces that would have to be built from scratch, because they could not be made quickly by a few strokes of the brush, as was possible on a smaller scale. For Picasso this meant taking on a liability; it meant that he could not "handle" the materials, and Picasso's brilliance is in his hands. He usually has trouble with large scale, and he is always best when his touch is most directly involved, for example, his drawings and etchings, and some of his sculpture and ceramics. Even the great early Cubist paintings are very tactile, like clay bas-reliefs. Also, Picasso has trouble with conception, with thinking something out, and a mural-size painting must be planned with great care and a regard for the dynamics of scale. He never had this quality of thought, and I think it is one thing which has led him into failure in his later years. Even the early Cubist paintings were not really thought out; they were produced by an intense and aggressive visual imagination, by doing rather than thinking. Guernica is about 25 feet long, way beyond the reach of any means of touch or stroke available to Picasso, and he was not the radical of 1910, ready to fall back on his visual intuition to solve art-making problems. Besides, he was not thinking visually, he was thinking about non-art things. The bombing of Guernica was a big thing for him, so he decided to make a big painting of it. To make this painting, with the equipment he had available to him, he had to apply Cubism, to build the painting out of Cubist building blocks. There was very little invented for Guernica; the painting was unsupported by anything brought in as new.
When Cubist "pieces" are enlarged and painted flat they get hollow and thin. This is because big flat things, seen in space in depth, look hollow and thin, like paper, cut lumber or tabletops. Picasso could have enlarged his stroke to fit the scale confronting him, but that did not occur to him. Instead he went ahead and built the painting out of thin sheets, blew it up, like a slide projector would, without the support of color - thin means indeed to carry the strength of his feeling, which the painting was designed to express. Picasso tried to paint a huge painting by extending small-painting technique. It did not work because he was not willing to make the accommodations to scale that his style demanded. Guernica remains a pathetic monument, impressive for its huge size and for the "human content" which flickers over its surface, through the desperate overstatement.
The drawings and small studies for Guernica were typical of what Picasso could do well. A drawing for something demands more gesture than thought, and is small, "handleable," and usually without color. Picasso could sit down with a soft pencil or crayon, the paper half an arm's length away, and quickly draw some of the figures, moving swiftly from one to the other, sometimes without lifting the crayon from the paper. Cubism stood in the background, coming forward now and then to correct and adjust, maintaining its discipline while hidden, like the director of a play. Abstract Expressionism did not spring from these drawings; its roots were widespread. However, as Abstract Expressionism grew and developed, it looked like these drawings, and expressively they were cousins. Abstract Expressionism simply added scale, and, less important, color; it expanded the size of the Cubist painting, and developed a method of painting consistent with this expanded size. Guernica fails, in part, because it is a mammoth painting done with small-scale means. Abstract Expressionism provided a suitable method for large-scale Cubism by blowing up small-scale technique - by drawing on a larger scale, with brush and paint, and color to distinguish planes.
Despite the "drawing" technique, Abstract Expressionism was a method of making paintings, and in the 40s and 50s that meant Cubist paintings, for the most part, and that in turn meant planes. Abstract Expressionists found that one could paint large Cubist paintings and still keep the painting alive, retaining the touch and vibrancy of small-scale Cubism, by using a large brush, lots of paint and broad stroking. But when their method is taken to an even larger scale, as its spirit compels, one of two things must happen: either the Cubist pieces, or planes, stay the same size, and become small in relation to the entire picture, and therefore numerous, or the pieces become larger and stay in proportion to the expanded picture. In either case, enough other factors of the Cubist method are threatened to disqualify the style for large scale.
The component of Cubism disturbed by scale is the depth illusion induced through shading and value difference. This depth illusion is necessary to a two-dimensional art committed to complex surface incident which seeks to compose relatively small pieces in terms of the shapes of these pieces rather than hue difference. The Cubist picture cannot function well without it. The first factor of Cubist painting is the Cubist piece, a relatively small, low-color elemental shape with an evident visual similarity to the other shapes on the canvas. These elements are kept uniform and uncomplex so that they may be related by means of edge and shape, since edge and shape are the important variable factors through which the Cubist painting is maintained. Complex hue variation was left off the Cubist piece early in the game because affective color does not adhere nicely to it. The remaining factor of color is value (broadly speaking, the third factor of color, chroma, comes or goes with hue). Value difference, light and dark difference, provokes depth illusion. Given the above conditions, rejecting value would produce a more-or-less monochrome canvas, rather devoid of pictorial incident. The only discriminating tool left would be line. For classic Cubism, Cubism as it grew and developed, building a painting with line only, with the apparent loss of illusionist volume and depth, was not a real possibility - this had to wait for Pollock. Since Cubism was committed to the factors of depth illusion (discrete pieces separated visually by value difference), the Cubists could hardly avoid it in their paintings. Fortunately, depth illusion catalyzed the effect of Cubist painting. The extra measure of intricacy took some of the burden from the pieces and gave them elbow room. It was entirely consistent with the Cubist style; using it was plain good sense.
Suppose we have a very large Cubist-Abstract Expressionist painting which has kept the piece size small. There will be many pieces, because they are small, and the canvas is large. The effect will be to lose depth. The depth implied by these small pieces will be no greater, per square inch, than that implied by the same size pieces on the smaller canvas, and that is already pretty shallow. The Cubist-Abstract Expressionist painting lets very little through; it has the depth created by close, head-on planes, like a pile of awry papers viewed from above. You can expand the size of this sort of picture, but you cannot expand the depth if you use small, opaque planes. So the depth becomes proportionately shallower, and is effectively lost to the painting. This isolates the pieces and cramps relationship. For example, if we put a white piece of paper over a black piece of ribbon so that the ends of this ribbon show six inches apart, we will see those ribbon ends as connected under the paper. But if we separate these ribbon ends under a six foot piece of paper, the ends will seem discrete. This is a fact of perception. If small Cubist pieces are too far apart, the artist can no longer enforce the illusion of connection over-and-under, and this will destroy the illusion of depth and its effects. The Cubist method is committed to fairly regular and complicated pictorial incident; it needs apparent depth to raise the level of surface complexity necessary for this on a relatively small scale. Given Cubist materials, as exemplified by early Abstract Expressionism, a very large small-piece picture tends to cancel itself out. This is the problem Pollock faced.
Another way to make a big Cubist painting is to enlarge the pieces. This is what Picasso did with Guernica. But then another integral part of the Cubist method must be thrown out, especially as it came through to Abstract Expressionism: the touch, the painterliness that softened the hardness of Cubism, or better, was an attribute of the best Cubist painting, and which became a physical consequence of the Abstract Expressionist technique of large-scale stroking as a method for painting big Cubist pictures. Also, the character of the elements will change if the pieces are enlarged. As I noted about Guernica, the big Cubist element that is flat painted and "hard-edged" tends to get thin, like a sheet of cardboard. This is all right in a small Cubist painting, because the thin parts are small, and look "right" relative to their size; we see things that size as being properly that thin. However, given conditions up to the early 40s at least, large size thin pieces did not look right functioning within the art-making method of spatial construction. Cardboard is fine for building a model, but you would not use it to build a house. It is possible to use rigidly drawn thin pieces in illusionist space to make good painting, but the whole idea of Cubist "construction" would have to be replaced by an organizational method natural to the pieces, which would stiffen the picture plane, such as geometric regularity, and therefore, the picture, which would become spatially simple, would have to be carried by something more than the style of relationship between the pieces; other painting elements, like color and sensuous paint would have to be added. It would hardly end up a Cubist painting.
On the other hand, large-piece Cubist painting might be made not by painting the pieces by hand, but by making them some other way. As far as I know there is only one way to paint planes on a large canvas and retain drawing, or "touch," and that is to lay a canvas down and pour the paint. This is what Morris Louis did. However, as Louis's paintings show, this method leads right out of Cubism, again for relatively mechanical reasons, which I do not want to get into now, because I am concerned with Pollock, and he did not take this course.
Pollock's early paintings had a compressed "boiling" feel, lacking any niceties, and uncomfortable in small scale. They seem to want to open out. This pressure was within Pollock; it is only natural that he made huge paintings. To make very large paintings with small-piece Cubism, Pollock made a brilliant series of style-modifying decisions on the way to his large drip paintings of 1948-52. Though he held on to Cubism he threw out one of its favorite visual characteristics: opaque planes. As his style developed, Pollock began painting around the planes that had been part of most ambitious painting since Cézanne, and by doing so implied these planes by circumscribing them and leaving them transparent. Pollock simply avoided filling them in. He understood, as did no other Cubist painter, the real spirit of Cubism and the real contribution of Abstract Expressionism, and he took advantage of both.
The quality of the Cubist painting arises from the relationship in illusionist space of elements which have been contrived to bear a visual similarity to one another. There is a law of the economy of things, which applies to art and nature, and everything else, which could be stated roughly: that which makes the best of any situation is that which does the most with the least, that gets the most mileage with the least waste. Since the quality of a Cubist painting depends on relationships between definite parts, we can infer that the most efficient Cubist style is one which creates the most relationships with the least elements. The visual relationships that one element can have with another are increased if the two are set apart from one another and decreased if they are put together, because the more surface exposed the more there is to relate visually. Large-scale small-piece Cubist painting with opaque planes loses complexity because it loses the illusion of depth. This in turn lowers the number of available visual relationships. Pollock made the planes transparent and left the lines around them. By doing this, within the Cubist style, he increased visible surface in terms of edge and depth, gave his pictorial elements a tremendous relational capacity, and held on to Cubism. This was an incredible job of style-building. But objectively, on analysis, this foundation of Pollock's art is as easy to describe as it was hard to build. It is a simple problem in topology and economics. There was nothing about the Cubist style that demanded opaque planes; they were just handed down with the Cubist style. But the identity of the style includes abstract planar parts, and these Pollock kept.
Though a Cubist, Pollock's impulses identified with the expansive thrust of Abstract Expressionism. Furthermore, he was compelled by nature to seek proper solutions to the problems which came in company with the huge Cubist paintings he wanted to paint. De Kooning "drew" big opaque plane Cubist paintings, and thereby held back from the implications of his method. Pollock really drew his paintings, with lines of paint, and by doing so seemed to disregard what a Cubist painting should be, because he threw out interlocking opaque planes. Actually, he showed that opaque planes were not only expendable, but hindered Cubist art-making in large scale. Thus Pollock solved the problem of large-scale small-piece Cubist painting. It is easy to identify one plane with another in Pollock's painting, because they are all the same, all "air," transparent pieces within the twisting skeins. Since it was possible to "see through" the planes, the depth problem which plagued all very large Abstract Expressionist painting dissolved, and the problem of low visual cohesiveness inherent in any multi-facet painting of relatively low hue difference was eliminated. In fact, the overt visual cohesiveness of strings of paint in implied empty space is very strong, like hanging fishermen's nets, and supported a number of pictorial innovations denied to Cubist painting before Pollock.
Pollock's painting technique points up his ability to invent mechanical solutions to satisfy his picture-making impulses. The expansion of the Cubist painting demanded a modification of technique to accommodate it. Cubist paintings of 1912 were done with arms bent at the elbow, with the wrist working and the fingers flexing. A de Kooning is done, as he said himself, in the space between outstretched arms, that is, by using the whole arm and body, and the shoulder, thereby making the small Cubist painting movements larger to fit the larger scale, and by accepting the effects produced. Pollock wanted to paint, or draw, very large pictures, pictures that were beyond the range of de Kooning's outstretched arms, but he did not want to give up Cubism. He did this by making the distance from "shoulder" to "finger" much longer, by getting away from the canvas, throwing, dripping and flinging the paint, laying it on a canvas far from his hand, like the spot of a flashlight on a wall. He kept the vital "touch" of Cubism on a scale larger than that which could be encompassed by the stroke of a hand-held brush, and the Cubist method stayed intact.
Pollock's acceptance of the appearance of his spilled lines and blots gives away the breadth of his genius. His drawing was "unartistic"; it had a quality which until that time could not be associated with art. It was not "good drawing." "Good drawing" had not gone through the stylistic convulsions painting had, because drawing is not "important"; artists do not think about it so much, and therefore usually do not force style onto it. A Picasso sketch is not radically different from a Rembrandt sketch; both are "Good Drawing." The alien character of Pollock's drawing came from the fresh technique he used. His acceptance of the appearance of his drawing is a measure of his ability to suppress small things for the sake of larger ones. The "ugly" look of Pollock's line would have stopped any other artist right there; another artist would feel at that point that he was no longer making art, because what he would be making would not "look" like art. De Kooning, for example, never would have accepted the look of Pollock's drawing, or of any other "non-art" look of that extreme sort.
Another result of Pollock's method was the exposure of bare canvas as a neutral ground supporting the network of paint. Bare canvas is not like a painted background, because it asserts itself as different from the paint sitting on it; it has the quality of difference that a stage has for a play, or a house has for the people living in it. The use of bare canvas as a backdrop sets up the paint as the active party of the pair, and the unpainted canvas becomes a void, across which the painted unit can act on each other however the painter wants them to, unchecked by anything between. For ambitious painting, this was an important innovation.
Pollock's style got around the old Cubist bugaboo of aligning the elements of the painting with the edges. Small-piece large-scale Cubist painting, which Pollock's was, avoids this problem because of the small size of its elements. A short edge on a large field seems random relative to the field and its edges; a large piece must come to terms with the edges because of its obvious visual relationship to them---Mondrian worked with this problem. Furthermore, Pollock's technique of throwing skeins and blots of paint made picture parts which gave up the character most picture parts had; they have no real kinship to the "man-made," artificial, rectangular, delimited canvas. It is difficult to "throw" a straight line. Also, Pollock's painted areas sat on top of the canvas, treating it as a bed. Since the canvas is not covered completely with paint, and since the painted areas bore no visual kinship to it, the form of the canvas must be considered separately from the paint, like the base of a sculpture, and the paint is thus freed from formal cooperation with the canvas edge.
In 1912 Cubism was an open-ended, promising, generating style; it started much more than it could finish. Like an evolutionary change in nature, the Cubist style disqualified the past and set up the future. Pollock's art brought a species of Cubism to its conclusion and closed off that avenue of art-making. It had the relation to early Cubism that the top of the mountain has to the base. After Pollock, ambitious painting turned to large-piece "thin-plane" Cubism, which is still evolving. I could go on about the original aspects of Pollock's art, but it would not serve my purpose here, because I assume that the reader knows something of his painting and its special qualities, and I want to get to David Smith.
Cubism developed as a spatial style because it kept that aspect of the natural objects it otherwise abstracted, and because it needed the complexity offered by depth illusion to organize the simplified pictorial "parts" which were its basic material. Illusion in depth remained however shallow the implied space got. The spatial implications of Cubism led to a different type of sculpture than that which had gone before. As a painting style, Cubism arranges well-defined, rather monochrome units in (an illusion of) space; it slices, fits, balances, trues and fairs, and is by nature uncomfortable with the edges a painting must have, because the edges of the canvas share the character of the standard Cubist element and therefore must be considered integrally - they cannot be anonymous. Sculpture is surrounded by space, not by edges, so sculpture elements must come to terms only with themselves. Also, Cubist elements are easy to construct three-dimensionally: they are hard and simple, and tend to be monochromatic, like sculpture materials. Cubism offered abstract art to sculpture more than it did to painting.
Ironically, Cubism inspired much more painting than sculpture. Cubism revolutionized sculpture absolutely and radically, but painters seem to have made the best sculpture (and it was not real Cubist sculpture) for the first half of this century at least, and Cubist sculpture was not generated on a scale proportionate to the gift Cubism gave the medium. There should have been a David Smith in the 20s. Obviously there are reasons why there was not, because ambitious sculpture fudged along behind painting until the early 50s, or until whenever Smith got to his mature large-scale style. After Cubism, ambitious sculpture was Cubist or Cubist based, except for "outside" geniuses like Matisse. But for some strange reason no sculptor really took the premises of Cubism and made sculpture according to them until Smith came along. Perhaps the style was just too much, too raw and radical and full of naked potential, and made the sculptors of the time turn away, uneasy and frightened, or led the braver of them to take on something that was too much for them, hedging their accommodation with more familiar forms.
There are thousands of examples of this "holding back." I saw some sculptures a few years ago made entirely of auto bumpers, and were basically Cubist in design. Auto bumpers certainly cannot be excluded as materials for sculpture. However, they must be used carefully because they tend to be useful elements of an art-limiting mechanism which I call the "style-stealer's new-material variation."
The "style-stealer" goes after someone else's art-making method, getting at it from the top down by adopting the "ear-marks," the various surface features which follow from the method, like de Kooning's spatters. But even after the style-stealer has fully ingested the style he will not really know how to use it, because it is not his, it is foreign to him. He did not "grow up" with it and it will hang awkward and clumsy on his art, however slick that art may seem at first. It is like trying to be the weight-lifter by stealing the weight-lifter's weights. The smart style-stealer will use one of the many "variation defenses." If enough other artists are using the same style as any particular more original artist, then the style is a popular one, and therefore easy to "get." In order not to be thought an imitator, and still take advantage of the popularity of the style, the style-stealer must alter the superficial aspects of the style while retaining its character. Then his art will look original and be popular. The "new material" variation is one of the easiest and most effective style alterations. Rather than modify the borrowed style by making changes in the method of construction, the artist reaches away from art for exotic or unusual material, and molds it to the art-making method in vogue. Thus Pop art was born: a grafting of illustration onto the tired roots of Abstract Expressionism.
The method has proven especially fruitful for present-day sculpture. It is easier for sculpture than it is for painting to embrace new materials, because sculpture is three-dimensional, as are most other things, so there are more materials available to sculpture. Part of the reason we have what seems to be a sculptural "renaissance" is that old sculpture-making ideas will support so many "new" materials: neon lights, incandescent lights, plastics, auto parts, electronic gadgets, chrome plated things, literally hundreds of extra-art materials, all of which, it could be argued, are legitimate sculpture materials; that is, you cannot say that it is impossible to make good sculpture of them. These "new" materials make original-looking sculpture. Actually, they stifle originality, because any material brings to art its own terms of structure, and these terms must be learned from scratch, or be adopted from internal necessity, if good art is to be made from them. Materials grow with style; they cannot be grafted. Most of the artists using these new materials have given up the idea of making great art, from the bottom up, because it was too much for them, and the new material is applied to a tired and timid art-making method. Artists who have given up on art will hardly succeed in the two-times difficult job of making great art with materials which must be brought under control on a felt basis, a process which assumes that the material is chosen because it can be shaped and handled in a manner concluded by the artist before the material is brought to art (as welded metal adapted to the Cubist style) and not applied to simulate true originality.
The bumper artist took up the new-material variation technique. (I use these sculptures because they are good examples for me - clear and easy - not because they are any worse than most other recent sculpture.) First of all, bumpers are bumpers. Even though this kind of "new material" was pretty standard when I saw this work a few years back it still retained an aggressive novelty content, which establishes contact with the viewer, who may not like the idea of sculpture made out of bumpers, but the contact is made, and he is led into the work by recognizing the materials. This unmasks the pseudo-aggressive pose of novelty materials, showing that their actual purpose is the opposite of their declared purpose, and that the novelty which shields the ingratiation declares that this is "art" material and therefore allows us to like it. Also, bumpers are chromed, and this gives the chrome a reason to be there - another apparently aggressive "new" quality. Art types say they hate slick, shiny things but we must love chrome to have so much of it in our environment. All we need is a pop excuse to welcome it into art. Again, this seemingly tough anti-art material is simply ingratiating, and again doubly so, because it puts on a tough-art pose which lets the viewer excuse his acceptance of a hollow, easy-to-get art. It is like a sugar-coated pill in reverse. Formally, the bumper sculptures, the ones I saw, were soft and hesitant. Auto bumpers are, within narrow limits, the same size and shape, so he had to work in a spatial medium with spatially restricted elements: not an impossible situation but a real handicap and an unnecessary one. His art paid dearly for using these materials.
But none of these things were at the root of the problem. They were symptoms. No one can prove that great sculpture cannot be made from auto bumpers, but if it is, then the sculptor must take sculptural rather than psychological advantage of his materials. These pieces failed to use the opportunities provided by the art-making method by means of which they were constructed. The style of this failure is shared by most Cubist sculpture. As I said, Cubism is more natural for sculpture than for painting. Nevertheless, the authority of Cubism rests on Cubist painting. As a result, Cubist sculpture that is timid, and that means most of it, tends to be pictorial, and makes up for its sculptural weakness by adding other elements, to get "meaning." The bumper sculptures are typical pictorial Cubist sculpture. They are compressed, crowded in and crossed on themselves like the elements of a Cubist painting; they seem to be looking for a frame. This shuts out space, because the sculpture, by imitating the closed and opaque space of Cubist painting. excludes the normal environment of sculpture. As such, they close off their chances to grow into anything better. It is odd that a painter (Pollock) took better advantage of the spatial opportunities of Cubism than most Cubist sculptors did.
David Smith may have been the only sculptor to make Cubist art on the terms it demanded: he accepted, refined and worked within that style, and brought it to [fruition]. Smith was a trenchant sculptural thinker. He chose Cubism because he knew what it offered, and, having chosen it, he made expansive art-making decisions, enlarging and perfecting the Cubist method. The Cubist style forged new formal elements for art-making by radically simplifying realistic elements into quasi-geometric shapes. These new shapes were "elemental" and therefore looked more like each other than the varying shapes, with varying identities, of real objects. The content and quality of a Cubist work depends on the relationship these shapes have with one another. Cubism was the concrete form of an impulse first visually evident in Impressionism: that a painting is made of painting elements, and the quality of a painting depends on how the painting is made. Cubism produced painting elements which were easier to use than those which had gone before because they were simpler. Smith adhered to Cubist materials, adapted them for sculpture and "released" them by giving them a chance to work freely. Like Pollock, Smith made great art: like Pollock, and like all other great artists, Smith had to contrive, invent or accept certain materials and conditions to get himself to the point where things were set up, in his mind and in his studio, so that he could make great art. Smith had a head start denied to Pollock, because he was a sculptor, and his chosen style did not conflict with his art-making medium, as Pollock's did. Smith's art is natural, just as Pollock's is heroic.
The successful art-making conditions Smith set up for himself are rather more clear-cut than Pollock's, and can be listed with some definition:
First: SHAPE. Smith kept the form of the Cubist piece and adapted it for sculpture. Cubism demands simple parts because the quality of the Cubist work is carried by the relationship between them. If the parts are themselves complex they will maintain their own identity, which will work against their integration with each other. Realist sculpture, usually of the human figure, could afford parts which were intricate, like a hand, because the realist sculptor's art depicts a highly evolved three-dimensional figure with its own consistencies of surface, and it is seen as a unit in spite of its tremendous visual complexity. We know what it is, and that the various very sculpturally involved parts belong where they are; we do not have to make a mental effort to make them belong there. A group like the Burghers of Calais is measurably more involved than a Cubist sculpture, but it is made simpler if we count the figures as units, and mark off only the expressive characteristics as factors of complexity. This is why invented art is usually simpler than art which uses extra-art forms. If sculptural forms are not recognizable they must be simple, or they will not get in gear with each other. (I mean formally. A Surrealist or Pop sculpture may juxtapose complex units to get some special kind of meaning.)
Second: SIZE. Cubist sculpture looks best in the size Smith used: "human" size, the size of the larger things around us, roughly 5 to 15 feet tall. I am not sure why this is true; it is probably just a visceral reaction, a natural regard we have toward a thing we look at and do not know about. It certainly involves the nature of the relationships between the size of things and the size of humans. The elements of Cubist sculpture are most effective when they are "handling" size, the size of a thing which we feel might take some effort to lift or throw, or might be just nudgeable without a power tool, things which might fall, pile up, or be nailed or riveted, like building materials or furniture. Very large individual pieces in a sculpture are heavy and full of dead gravity and inertia; they seem unlikely to swing or pivot, or be handled by one man. And a sculpture made of very large elements is hard to see.
On the other hand, a huge sculpture made of "human-size" parts would lose the force a life-size sculpture has, because the very profusion of elements, multiplied by scale, would sap the force of relationship in the mind of the viewer. The pieces would lose their strength as individual parts, and the shape of the element, the area available to be seen, would become incidental because it would merge into the homogeneous whole. Good art can be made this way; this is pretty much Pollock's solution for large-scale Cubism on canvas. Large-scale small-piece Cubism can be made to work on canvas because you can see all the forms while standing in one place. But if a Pollock is turned into sculpture the increase by one dimension would square the number of elements. This would not only make a chaotic-looking, hard-to-see piece but would call for the elements to be organized into simpler configurations. This heads right back to normal Cubist sculpture. If it is left very complicated, we have something else. Good sculpture may be made this way. It is not impossible, it just has not been done. If it is done it will not be Cubist sculpture.
Conversely, Cubist sculpture is unhappy in small scale - not impossible, just more problematic. If the sculpture is reduced in size then the elements are reduced in size, and they become intimate, pieces we can pick up and juggle. Sculpture made of these parts fails to come across with authority, because we associate them with things in our environment which are either precious or dispensable, and these associations operate against a relationship between the parts in terms of the features of the parts. They lack the size and weight necessary for straightforward visual engagement. If the elements of the small sculpture stay large, then there must be fewer of them, and the piece has less relational potential. Good small Cubist sculptures can be made, and I do not say that they cannot. But to do so the sculptor must take on certain disadvantages he does not need and should not want. We are much more particular about the properties of sculpture than we are about painting, because painting has an artificial feel, we know it is a picture, and pictures are used for representation. They are not real, whereas sculpture stands right in the three-dimensional environment amid all the things we must think about and act on all the time. The assumptions people make about three-dimensional objects must be considered a condition of art-making. There is no reason to fight this fact, any more than there is reason to introduce extra-art elements, or other art-limiting factors.
Third: COMPLEXITY. This is a factor of total size and element size, of course. If the elements are too few, then that aspect of the sculpture which carries the quality will be cramped; if the elements are too many that same relational force will dissipate into the profusion of parts and pieces. The elements of Smith's sculptures are discrete, and numbered roughly between 3 and 20, usually; that is, just about enough to see all at once, to be able to distinguish one from another while keeping them together in one visual reference. This moderation of the number of elements cannot be proven necessary, but it is evident that these overall choices made it easier for Smith to get as much as he did out of the Cubist style he used. Smith kept complications down; if something is there in one of his works, it is usually there for a purpose other than grace or embellishment.
Fourth: SURFACE. Cubist sculpture asks to be monochromatic. The reasons for this are subtle, and stem from our attitudes toward color. The original Cubists eliminated color, or more accurately, used a reduced and severely greyed range of hue variation, on the way to a spatial method of picture-making. Color crept back into Cubist painting after the "action" was over, because "applied" Cubism needed a few painterly or sensuous elements to take the place of the spent power of the style once it was generated. Color was used to identify planes as they went under and came up in Cubist illusionist depth, and it gave some life to the unfortunate thin quietness of applied Cubism; but sculpture planes are evident in space, and need no further identification, and they gain their own life by acting in the greater "reality" of three dimensions.
One way or another, color was only a minor tool for Cubism, a lackey at the feet of spatiality. So it is not surprising that Smith would avoid color, especially since he recognized the sculptural power of the Cubist style as it was, simple and naked. He knew that the pure Cubist method was good enough for sculpture and that simplification, not elaboration, was needed. This was in the nature of Smith's art-making attitude.
But a better reason why Smith did not often use color, and indeed, why color is usually so unfortunate on sculpture, is that we do not have any real experience with color and no procedure for the application of varied color to the things we make. In nature, the few things that are highly colored stand out as spots against a neutral background, and when you look closely at them you see not one color but hundreds. If you look at a red flower closely, in the sunlight, you will see small variations of this red: orange-red, purple-red, a streak of black, a spot of yellow and white, dark red where the shadow falls, light red where the light hits, and so forth. Nature is quite a color blender. But human beings are not. We use simple, bright colors in a flat declarative way, with little subtlety, and the materials we have at hand emphasize and extend this. When we color the things we make, like a car, a fire hydrant or a book cover, we usually use one or two colors, unless it is a picture (often of a natural subject) which already has, or at least has the visual complexity to bear, subtle color difference. But things we color simple. Manufactured objects, as compared with natural objects, tend to be simple, like Cubist sculpture compared to the human body. It is not within our experience to create complicated color designs for manufactured objects, and indeed, there is no reason to do so. Cubist sculpture is frankly man-made and non-natural; the parts Of a Cubist sculpture have no reason to bear color, and when color is applied it usually looks artificial, like a wrapper - it has no organic relationship with the shape of the thing it is on, like natural things do; it looks arbitrary and out of place, and, like other extra-art elements, it seems foreign, meshing with spatial things awkwardly and with great difficulty. Also, color is a fragile component of surface, too delicate to work with the rough spatiality of Cubist sculpture. Successful colored sculpture must use material which looks to us as if it should be colored the way it is. Chamberlain's crushed auto-part sculptures, although they are not great art, use color effectively because his materials are colored to begin with, so we are prepared for it. Also, he uses painted sheet steel in a painterly way, by crushing and bending it, which gives the material a soft but jagged look, with a scratched, roughed up surface, just like an Abstract Expressionist painting. This gives the colored parts the same kind of acceptable complexity natural objects have. And there is usually not much color variation. Incidentally, I think colored sculpture wi Il be an important part of the future of art and will grow from the Cubist sculpture of the present, from Smith and Caro, and not from the brightly colored "funk" and "pop" and the various plastic and light sculptures currently on display.
Anyway, Smith usually stayed away from color. He also managed to avoid, or I should say master, the problem of uncolored surface in some of his greatest pieces, for example, those of the "Cubi" series. Surface is a sticky problem. I could say many of the same things about "interesting" surface as I said about color. Affective surface nearly always drags down Cubist-based sculpture, whether it is "anti-art'' plastic and chrome, or "interesting" rust and old wood. Color can be avoided. But surface cannot. Smith used welded metal. If you leave metal alone (most metals) it gets "interesting" looking. in a very plain way. This is not so bad. I suppose most of Smith's work has this look, But some of Smith's sculptures seem to violate the "rule" of plain surface for Cubist sculpture. Instead of leaving the metal alone he burnished it to a high polish and left the path of the burnishing tool on the surface. This path has the peculiarity of seeming random and "non-artistic." It asserts itself as a thing visible only because a workman with no "art" intention wanted to get the thing polished as fast as possible. As such, the burnished path is so completely out of whack with the whole character of the piece, but is such a dumb and obvious part of the steel surface, that the surface it interrupts, thwarts your involvement with it. It is one of those brilliant "non-art" things, like Pollock's "ugly" drawing. By avoiding interesting "art" surface, but at the same time giving the surface a character which seems absolutely random and yet absolutely at home, Smith got himself a finish which leads right into the work, Rejecting our advances toward it, this surface forces us to get to the things about the piece that Smith wants us to get to - the opposite effect, remember, from the ingratiating chrome pseudo-shield of the bumper artist, or of Trova's and the rest of the shiny-surface and pop sculptors. Like Pollock, Smith was able to disregard artistic "niceness" in favor of the overall work.
Fifth: OPENNESS. Most Cubist sculpture is weak because it follows Cubist painting. These sculptors avoid taking sculptural advantage of the Cubist method, which is a shame, because Cubism is a sculptural style. The spirit of Cubism favors openness -not just apertures, but real openness, as far as the elements will stretch. As I noted about Pollock's painting, and as his painting demonstrates, the dynamics of Cubism move Cubist elements toward open structuring.
Cubism developed as a type of abstracting visual attack on particular things. The subject matter of the first Cubist paintings, usually single items, like a head, or a put-together group like a still life, gave the picture a wholeness against which Cubist fragmentation could play. But after the issue was settled, Cubism was left with the pieces into which it had rendered its subjects, and it was up to the artists to make Cubist art by putting together rather than by taking apart. This is "applied" Cubism. The law of economy I applied to Pollock's painting also goes for sculpture: that which makes the best of any particular situation is that which does the most with the least. Since the quality of the Cubist work is carried by the relationship between simple, rather clearly defined units it follows that there will be more complexity-per-unit if they are physically separated because the amount of surface exposed determines the complexity of relationship possible with any particular number of components. The strength of Cubism's demand for openness is amazing. Smith understood this, and opened up all the way. He even made a few pieces which seem to be nothing more than big holes surrounded by a few awkward lengths of steel - but they work.
Smith enjoyed all the advantages that his developed Cubist style got him, but his choice to leave big space between simple elements was probably the most important to his art. It gave him more than increased surface; it gave him an expressive freedom which cooperated with his materials. By forcing his sculpture open, he could make not only space shapes, that is, shapes in space circumscribed by the elements of his sculpture, but the elements themselves had a greater freedom of movement: they could see-saw, tilt, topple, jut off, and do a hundred other things. Smith got himself such a position of strength, at least during the last ten years of his life, that his work was really play, of the most energetic and serious sort. The foundation of his work was so sound, so securely chosen and perfected, that he left himself free to do anything, almost without any working out, like an old Chinese calligrapher, wielding his rat-hair brush with an abandon born of fifty years concentration. It was this play, this final turn, that gave Smith's work the art it has.
By way of a postscript, I would say that, in a sense, what I have said about the work of Pollock and Smith is indifferent to its quality. Other artists, having done the things I have described, would not have made great art. The evidence is always with us in the form of the work of the imitator. I cannot prove that Pollock and Smith made great art. According to my experience their art is of a very high order; by assuming, rather than by demonstrating, this art-quality, I accept the limitation that all art critics, good and bad, must accept: the inability to specify the effect great art has, which precludes the possibility of describing its proper forms. It seems that criticism must always follow art.
But this is the only blind spot that is forced on us. The assumption of quality is subjective, but the description of a work, of its features and the forces which formed it, should be equally objective. Art critics so often mix up description and experience. Their function should be to set down facts about works of art, not to transmit what they feel, or offer a verbal substitute for art quality. "Meaning" in art writing is justified only as it pertains to a describable effect. All else is experience and what you get from it. That's where art quality is. I have not got on to the art of Pollock and Smith by outlining the foundations of their method. That comes from looking, not reading. There is no good done writing about the mechanics and invention evident in the work of an artist if that writing leads us to mistake these things for the art they support. Having sensed art, it is tempting to ascribe it to some feature of the work which lends itself to talk. But then the art gets lost. Like all real beauty, art is as slight as it is persistent. It can hide behind a simple, silly sentence like "Jackson Pollock was born in the wide open spaces," the truth of which screens its sly purpose; it satisfies, but deceives. Good art will not give up to words; its quality is fugitive and veiled. It will push back as hard as we try to penetrate, yielding only as a source, on its own terms. I have tried to draw out some of the facts about Cubism and its internal forces, and to record its changing shape as it passed through the work of Pollock and Smith. Although the quality of their work arises from the way it was made, as I can show to some extent, how it was made, and what Cubism gave to it, I cannot demonstrate that quality in words. All I can do, all anyone can do, is describe the path it makes.