Quality, Style and Olitski (1972)
Artforum, Vol. 11, #2, (October, 1972) pp. 64 - 67.
All art, good or bad, is outwardly just stuff. As an inventory of materials it is like anything else similarly composed. It becomes art when it is made up and presented as art. Then it comes before a special set of apperceptions we call taste. The function of taste is to find out the value the work of art has for us, and that judgment is expressed in terms of quality. Quality is carried by the materials as they reflect the activity of the artist as he made the work. A great work of art holds up a high standard of human excellence brought into mundane material, perhaps "captured" by the material, as if the quality built its house and then moved in. For this, or some related reasons, art is the most valuable thing in our culture. I don't mean just expensive, although the great expensiveness of what is considered good art has to do with its human value. It has something which we find vitally and spiritually necessary, not as a foundation but as a fulfillment, as the flower is to the root.
Quality is the great constant in art, but it is also the great deceiver, for our culture, anyway, and for the last hundred years or more. It tends to come up where it is not expected, and often where it is not wanted. This is because we have a broad and tolerant society which lacks a tight, cohesive culture and traditional, specifiable, and continuous ground rules for art forms and art quality, and because part of the process of making very good art is innovation. Innovation, by its nature, generates dissimilarity. This will be more acceptable if the goals are understood by the public which receives it. Such a public has traditionally been small, self-consistent, and hierarchical, whether Goya's Spanish court or Louis Armstrong's Sunset Cafe. We have nothing of the sort for our new art; this is not bad thing generally, but it does pull art, which is very special anyway, away from the public (really it's the interested public growing beyond good art's capacity to satisfy). In the narrow art-making environments of the past, innovation was well-received, often as not, especially when it advanced realism. But in recent times seriousness, which is the attribute persisting at the origin of quality in art, has been set against the forms of the medium, producing formal change, which is conspicuous and usually perplexing. In this way stylistic evolution has be come the historic pattern, always associated with the best new art, always leaving behind a generally disgruntled art public. We all know the story.
Art history is the succession of styles produced by innovation as part of artistic creation and the stylistic succession of high art has concurrent types of continuity and discontinuity. Innovation in the service of quality has its own pace and appearance. Usually, especially in modern times, discontinuity is more distinct, but very close knowledge of the art reveals an underlying continuity which will be seen in the clear distance of time. That is why the best art writing reveals continuousness. Conversely, inferior criticism, naturally predominant, tends to react to what is new, and most of the trouble the art public has with new art seems to be on account of innovation.
But recently the general art public has caught on. Now everyone knows that quality comes in company with innovation, and innovation has become deliberate in the hope that quality will follow, and has become excessive in the hope of matching by plotted extremes the felt extremes of great art. This is a false hope. Quality, stubborn and perverse as always, now comes in sober guise, its strength is showing not at the limits of newness but in the careful, consolidating invention of painters and sculptors who seem more and more retrograde as the art world hurtles on. There is a lot of extremely good painting being made right now; as always, it is passed over and misunderstood. The medium is being put down as worked-out, exhausted, and outmoded by an attitude toward art, which we can call neo-Dada, which is itself all of these things, and always has been. It's an irony. Newness is a fact, not a virtue. The only thing that counts is what's good. The avant-garde, or the attitude of avant-garde - avant-gardism - has run itself out. More and more, the best new art will seem slow and conservative, even bland, uninteresting. Stylistic change will no longer have the ring of revolution, and it will not until it bends under newer burdens. The cycle rolls on and on. Read about it in two essays as brilliant as they are hard to find: "Avant-garde Attitudes," University of Sydney, 1969, and "Necessity of 'Formalism'," New Literary History, Vol. III, 1971-72, by Clement Greenberg.
Though the stylistic changes of very good art seem to have the character of progressive evolution this must be an illusion as long as we can look back and see that past art is more or less as good as present art, and vice versa. Apparently the "soul" of art does not change as long as a similar high quality is maintained, as it has been maintained in western culture since the mediums of painting and sculpture became clearly established. But because stylistic change persistently comes with new art of the highest quality we may assume that innovation is part of the process of maintaining high quality in art, not because something new is something better, but because the circumstances under which an artist can create a work of high quality are always changing. Any new serious artist enters his professional life face to face with great art of the past; it shows him what has been done and what can be done. Whereupon he will ask himself only one question: how can I do as well? A style follows as an evolved answer, worked out in paint, over many years. Innovation is always part of the answer, because great art is not replication of beautiful objects but evidence of accomplishment. It must come through discovery and invention, the ingredients of creation. That creation naturally subsumes the best art of the recent past, not to improve - though it will seem like improvement - but to maintain. The great art which comes down to him is the new artist's measure. Like an athlete going after a record he carefully works over the methods of the recent best, pulls them in, ingests them, and comes into his own.
Though invented and discovered method cannot be abstracted from actual paintings, it can be seen as a skeleton or armature, an "allowing" esthetic situation, a stage set up for the play. The artist perfects his part and then shows his stuff, or perhaps provides its definition, as the shroud defines the features of the invisible man. The creation of a successful working style shows that the tremendous pressure it takes to come to high quality in art has overcome the tremendous inertia against it. And the inertia is tremendous; our best artists seldom hit their stride before they are 35 or 40. years old. It is as if the better part of talent must be persistence, as they crack painfully from one level to the next. There's the frustration of art writers. We cannot account for quality, or demonstrate it; we can only experience it and describe the path it takes. But that in itself is enough. If art does have an effect, or serve a purpose, as I know it does, it's worth the effort to help put it over, and it's fun to trace the hidden lines between the styles and methods which have borne the highest quality. I see the linking of close evolution from Pollock to Louis to Olitski, and that Olitski is presently moving in on Clyfford Still's territory, that of the best paintings, of the late '40s, by his inspired use of dense, thickened paint. Greenberg has shown us how modern painting has come to an explicit concern with its natural materials, particularly surface and the flatness of surface. Covering surface is the act of painting. To leave a record of achievement the painted surface must show variety, some amount of differentiation. Apparently it is necessary to assure integration for the elements thus derived. This is expressed as relationship. Abstract painting. lacking the automatic illusion of depth and the "empty" space of realist painting and faced with the primary problem of relating elements across the resistance of a visually flat surface, has had to invent its own vehicles of relationship. The various styles of abstraction of this century are essentially varieties of methods of relating, and the development of such a method has been the first job for inspiration since Impressionism, or at least since Cubism. (Of course the converse does not hold: an integrated painting need not be inspired.)
The basis of most recent successful methods of establishing a picture for internal relationship has been openness, space between. This may be actual empty canvas or clear painted areas, or an abstract illusion of depth. From this root other techniques have grown: limiting and simplifying pictorial elements, for example, or making the surface uniform in some way. Pollock wanted a large, very dense painting which clearly reflected the work that went into it. He did this by eliminating Cubism's planar capacity and by establishing a relatively even attack across the surface of the canvas; the open linear tangle covered without concealing and showed strong interconnection within the netlike pattern. Morris Louis was affected by Pollock's painting, taking from it the idea of uniform, symmetrical density (as opposed to placing and balancing), and Frankenthaler's Mountains and the Sea, or some pictures like it, showed him that when broad, side by side color areas are let out on the canvas, areas which naturally impede interconnective relationship, pictorial integration can be maintained by uniform value. This led to the Veils - very large expanses of paint soaked into the canvas, relatively uniform in value and clearly unified into a coherent image: forms within a single form.
Louis' great problem, as a natural colorist, was to expose and relate hue. Pure or strong hue was kept from the Veils because running different colors together grays them, and the use of similar colors, which would allow greater hue saturation, would have limited color variety and would have exaggerated the one image, single element aspect of the Veils, and that was not what Louis was after. He found a partial solution in the Florals; the centralized design is very coherent, and hue was unobscured at least around the perimeter. Before coming to the Unfurleds, Louis tried several methods of placing pure hue. Most successful was the formation of many separated vertical hue areas in a "veil" configuration. But this hue-varying veil lacked the interconnection which gave coherence to the first Veils and to the Florals, and, lacking accentuation, it also lacked the fine pictorial tension which has always sustained the "simple" abstract painting - the kind of tension which carries a Mondrian, or the best of Kelly's work.
The great discovery revealed by the Unfurleds was that pictorial coherence could be established, and strongly established, by reversing the centripetal bias natural to image-making and inter-connection, by dispersing rather than converging pictorial elements. All at once, so it seems, Louis found, for painting, the terrific binding power of the rectangle itself, turned it into part of the picture, and swept away all the nagging, picayune problems of compression and interconnection. By letting banked streamers of pure hue down opposite ends of a large horizontal canvas, and by leaving the center blank, Louis forced the canvas itself to keep things together. The huge rectangle, as it hangs before us, hauls in the flowing, separating colors, and is visually covered with the tense relationship of angling, falling elements mutually pulling away, like a kaleidoscope catching the tumbling bits of glass, reflecting them across the mirror. And like any real breakthrough, Louis' "painted" painting carried everything along with it, brushing aside the anxious fixing and adjusting all painters know. With overall separation, element to element separation became a virtue instead of a liability. The overlapping of hue areas, so necessary to the Veils and Florals, and so ruinous to pure hue, was left behind, and the rivers of color were set free to flow and spread, relaxed, random, slightly meandering, splendidly casual, charged with the seeming ease of genius.
The stylistic relationship between Louis and Olitski illustrates the pressures of a shared time on two artists of very different artistic temperament and shows that levels of style will be shared precisely according to level of ambition. Olitski's mature paintings - since he began using a spray gun in the middle '60s - do not look much like Louis'; they are less extreme, less "abstract," more traditionally painterly, even more conservative. Olitski fills and enriches what Louis established and refined, and his paintings of the last six or eight years can be seen as bringing Louis' restructured picture back into usefulness. He alone of recent painters understood the Unfurleds, and saw their simple power as paintings and how to take them in and use them. Olitski, heir by virtue of sheer intensity of purpose, inherited a new kind of pictorial structure from Louis, a picture established not by the coherence of an image or set of relationships within four edges, but by forcing the edges to accommodate enough pictorial incident to rationalize the empty interior space as pictorial space, receptive space, which the left-out area around any centralized image could never be.
Olitski's picture, set up at the edge, needs no conspicuous internal structure; the insides, once declared as pictorial, give in to the most careless play of paint. The spray gun let him lay colored paint all over the surface without actually covering or closing it; no matter how much paint is put on a certain level of "seeing through" is kept, as long as the technique is maintained. The slight illusion of depth is necessary less to enhance combination than to maintain the appearance of insubstantiality, openness, airiness, and to avoid the deadly trap of blank opacity which could close up the surface, butt insides and edges against each other, and vandalize the picture at its foundation.
The paint-at-a-distance attack of the spray and the atomized surface bring Pollock to mind, Pollock of the years around 1950, and there is reason to suppose that Olitski was pleased to take Pollock on as soon as his style could handle it. There is a manifest similarity in the dense, flickering, shattered surfaces of each. Pollock's is rougher, more explicitly open, more linear, in line with his need to keep up structural coherence. Olitski needs no connections, no linking-up or carrying over; as long as he keeps it light and easy the painting is his playground, and his freedom is absolute. But like any pioneer, he has been straining his privilege, and in recent years, as he evolves away from Louis and Pollock, clotted masses of gel-thickened pigment have displaced the gentle waves of colored spray. Olitski is getting around the restrictions of surface by forcing his genius to make room for an abundance of paint the Unfurleds seemed to disallow.
This brings us to Olitski's show at the Lawrence Rubin Gallery last May. He has been the best painter around for some time, but this time he outdid himself. My immediate impression on seeing the paintings was one of absolute authority, which I do not associate with first viewings of new art. As this feeling held on and grew it was joined by an odd sense of conservatism. I was very moved, and a little baffled. Except for a few shows which affected me strongly as I was learning to paint and to know art, I have never had such an impression of forcefulness from any group of paintings. Please note: this was not an "intellectual" reaction. "Intellectually" the paintings are still a puzzle; feeling and experience only told me I was up against very superior art, and that Olitski had consolidated and moved ahead, adding weight to inspiration, substance to intuition. To boot, they affected me as a painter. This has made it very hard to draw lines of quality. And all of the paintings were so good I could hardly pick one over the other.
The 11 paintings in the show were all painted in 1972. Each was vertical and relatively small; the largest about six by eight feet, the smallest about three by five. Each surface was roughened by gel either as expressed paint or formed up beneath it as a surface conditioner. Colors were grayed and relatively monotone across the surface. The newest, most interesting, and perhaps the best of the paintings were those made by drawing skins of thickly gelled paint across either bare canvas or roughened sheets of another color (another value, really) with a squeegee, so that the top skin, thick here and thin there, forms patches and skeins of more and less opacity showing more and less of the underlying layer. Illustrating the show fairly here is impossible. Black and white is useless. The two paintings reproduced in color are as representative as possible - one is a "spray" and one a "squeegee" - but I am neglecting one of the most interesting and difficult paintings in the show, Other Flesh 8, and I am avoiding the ticklish job of pinning down differences in quality. It's probably just as well, at this time, anyway.
Larro 17 is visually and essentially a spray painting, even though on close inspection it seems to have been made with a nubby paint roller. There are three discernable "parts": the gel-roughened reddish, yellowish, and bluish-gray expanse of surface; the colored lines and patches along the edges; and the sharp, jagged breaks in the surface along the edges to the canvas below. These three elements are wholly interdependent but function more by mutual support than visual interaction. There is no hint of anxious composing; everything hangs loose and swings casually into place. The ragged breaks along the edges declare the canvas, which in turn declares the surface, advertising it for what it is, and they have a brilliant strength of effect, for example, the way the more diagonal break in the lower right corner seems to stretch the field out and down. Some of Hofmann's late paintings, which hang a few bright rectangles against a grayed field, use the same device - there was one hanging in the stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art last summer. The painted lines define the rectangle and add color; unlike Louis' bright dispersing banks they slap lazily up against the edge like ropes hanging off the side of a building, coming in on top of the surface just as the breaks slice beneath, sandwiching the surface layer to squeeze out just a bit more ambiguity of depth. The surface strains their support, loading the grayed colors to imminent opacity. It's a delicate balance and the hand of a master.
Radical Love 2 is the "new" Olitski, made by scraping batches of gel-thickened paint across the surface with a squeegee. This painting, with one other in the show, was the most extreme of the squeegee paintings, relying almost completely on that technique and its consequent effects. Except for the usual marginal thickly brushed lines Radical Love 2 seems to be just one color-grayish-orange, perhaps a whitened Indian red - thick with gel, pulled or stretched across the canvas, leaving a path of paint patches of varying thickness and opacity. Several incised lines hang across the painting like tiers of slack clothesline behind a tenement. Breaks and lines come in to help just as they do in Larro 17. Traditional composition is nowhere to be seen; the total randomness of the casually scraped and plowed surface gives away the clear strength of the compositional method, even throws it at us. The painting has an esthetic weight, density and authority which stands in plain contrast to its thin, pale, easygoing appearance. The squeegee and the gelatinous, semi-transparent paint are agents of a step forward for Olitski; perhaps it would be better to say a step into his style, toward an even finer consistency, for the squeegee paintings cast away the remaining artificiality - the slight illusion of depth supporting the fragile, indefinite interior of the spray paintings - and put in place the real transparency of transparent paint. Not that this is better as such, but better paintings will come of it; it is more natural, more flexible, more firmly set to hold the graceful final finish laid on by hand and eye.
Though there is probably no line of influence from Clyfford Still to Olitski there is a comparison to be made between them. Each artist worked directly against the problems of surface inherent in abstract painting, and now, in the squeegee paintings, Olitski has begun to work over the surface entirely in terms of surface just as Still did in his great paintings of the '40s. Each artist, in his own way, saw that surface can't be fooled, and found an entirely natural way to take it in as a friend. Still crept the paint across with a palette knife, interweaving fingers, inlets, and thick, opaque seams of paint, tearing and breaking openings from one color to another; Olitski "makes" the painting at the edge and scrapes out more or less transparent colored clots and patches. Each artist reaped the benefits of playing it straight with the inexorable demands of the flat abstract picture, earning the license to push paint into the lush, sensual conformations so natural to it, delivering the fine, sparkling, painterly finish we can see all the way back to Watteau or Rembrandt - perhaps even farther - which comes down to us through Constable, Manet, Matisse, turns up in Morandi, the early Hopper, and others, and can be seen today in some of the better realists, such as Fairfield Porter, in good painting perhaps unsupported by inspiration. We might call it natural painting, or pure painting. It is painting without "ideas," without alien schemes or desperate measures, painting devoted only to paint and the things paint can do best. That odd authority with the conservative flavor that hit me so hard when I walked into the Rubin Gallery last May was simply the tough conservatism of absolute high quality, of the highest standards in art, of the baffling, sustaining innovation which sets its pace only by the deliberate schedule of good art, less revolution than consolidation, less far out than dead center, less declared, self-conscious invention than the ripened, ready fruit of invention. Olitski kept to the tough central line undistracted. Now, to borrow a phrase from Greenberg, he has preempted serious new painting. He is, for the time being, our best painter.