Color, paint -- and Abstract Expressionism

In art there are moments when the deepest of intuitions, the most fugitive of interior whisperings and rustlings, the most delicate or passionate of feelings, slowly merge into consciousness and demand to be heard.

Slowly, tentatively, colors, shapes, and textures begin to take form; little impulses of life move inexorably toward pictorial realization and identity. There is a stillness in the air, the feeling that anything is possible. And then there is the exhilarating moment of luminosity and evocation as the brush touches canvas, and life itself is given form, purpose, and direction through paint and color.

Although that magical moment has always been present in the act of painting, it wasn't until this century that we accepted the possibility that this moment could embody the sum and substance of art itself. That a splash of red or a dab of green did not need to be transformed into a representation of a flower or of grass before it could be considered art. We began, in short, to wonder if a work of art could not wholly exist of judiciously placed splashes and dabs of paint and color.

Historically, color has always been the poor relation of drawing and of three-dimensional modeling. Even in the case of such great colorists as Rubens and Delacroix, color remained firmly embedded within the pyrotechnics of light-dark contrasts and the discipline of draftsmanship. Although the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists gave color new freedom and put it center-stage, it still functioned for them as a means of establishing the identity of something other than itself; landscape elements, for instance, or a person, or a sky.

And this dependency upon nature as subject also applied to the Fauves shortly after the turn of the century, especially to the work of Matisse and Vlaminck. The Fauves permitted painting to retain the shape of a smear or a bad as it came fresh from the paint tube. And the color itself was seldom, if ever, mixed or dilluted. Even so the paint was not allowed to draw full attention to itself, but was then arranged so as to suggest the forms of objects seen in nature.

So color, during the first decade of the 20th century, was on the verge of achieving autonomy. All it needed was someone to give it a push.

That push came from several directions, but always at first -- as with Robert Delauney and Piet Mondrian -- within a strict geometric framework.

It wasn't until Kandinsky came upon the scene and decided in 1913 that paintings could validly be made of splashes, squiggles, smudges, and dabs of paint that bore no resenblance to anything in nature that pure color and raw paint really came into their own.

Oddly enough, probably because the idea of "nonobjective" art was so radical and heretical, not much came of this original freeing of paint and color from the depiction of objects. It is true that the germ of the idea gained currency throughout Europe and America, permitting artists to paint more freely and impulsively, but there wasn't the grand explosion of paint one might have expected. Even Kandinsky gradually began to codify color in terms of highly disciplined geometric compositions.

But the explosion did come after World War II, when the Abstract Expressionists tossed all the eggs of their creative identities into the one basket of raw paint and pure color, and committed everything they were as artists to what the physicality of paint and the sensation of color could produce on canvas.

During this period, an Abstract Expressionist's identity could depend on how willing he was to risk his accrued skills and his status by following what paint and color could do rather than by insisting that they do his bidding. Painters went into deep depression because they could not smash through their own creative frontiers. For weeks and months they would hurl themselves against their timidities or their limitations. Many, either because they lacked the courage to risk their earlier accomplishments, or because they could not finally translate their identities and ideas into paint and color, never made it. But those who did produced some of the most crucial and important art of this century.

If, by 1942, 20th-century art was a 200-acre farm surrounded by dense forest, by 1954 -- the year Abstract Expressionism peaked -- enough forest had been cleared by the painters of this movement to make a 300-, even a 400-acre farm. Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and the rest of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists were the woodsmen who cleared the forest, pulled up the stumps, and leveled the ground for plowing. They were pioneers in every sense of the word. And, as pioneers, they didn't have time nor the inclination to be pretty or always to be neat.

It's been roughly a quarter-century sine they were at their peak, and we are still cultivating the area they cleared for us. It may not seem that way, because of the continued influx of various types of realists and artists of other persuasions far removed from Abstract Expressionism, but it is true nevertheless.

Would our Pop artists have struck such grotesque an gigantic postures? Would our Conceptual artists have reacted so totally againt the notion that art must be on canvas? Would our Photo Realists have painted such huge pictures if Abstract Expressionism hadn't challenged us once and for all with the bigness of its collective heart? I think not, and so, for better or for worse, even small talens are now striving to be big. I for one welcome it, because it stretches the scope of our vision.

Some today still see Jackson Pollock as the arch-demon of 20th-century art, the artist who, even more than Picasso, corrupted the art of today. I couldn't disagree more. To my mind that is like hating Daniel Boone, Christopher Columbus, and Lewis an Clark -- or to wish that our country had remained the size it was at the time George Washington was inaugurated.

For all his slapdash impetuosity, Pollock extended the frontiers of painting as much as -- possibly even more than -- anyone else in this century. And he did so by presenting evidence in his canvases that an artist can transmit and transform creative energy into images of cultural significance as simply and directly as a lightningrod conducts electricity. And that it can be done without plan or conscious control.

This many not seem like much, but it changed the face of painting for a goodly number of years -- and may have altered it for all time.

The next in this series appears August 26.m

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.