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17.1: The Crisis of the Subject- From Narrative to Myth and Symbol in the 1940s

  • Page ID
    172921
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    "It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique." Jackson Pollock1

    The revelations of the Nazi death camps, the madness of Hitler's Germany, the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Joseph Stalin, and the vision of European cities bombed into rubble and Japanese cities annihilated by the world's first atomic weapons all combined to undermine confidence in mankind's rationality and morality. Representational forms linked to figuration and naturalism-Social Realism, Regionalism, and American Scene painting-no longer seemed adequate to communicate the temper of the times. The war and its aftermath demanded a new artistic language. While Social Surrealism had offered one alternative in the late 1930s, by the 1940s its historically specific subject matter gave way to a preference for universal themes that spanned disparate cultures. Both figuration and abstraction were transformed by the horrors of recent history and the resultant shift in how artists understood their human subject.

    "Magic Realism"

    In the 1940s many figurative artists painted psychologically charged landscapes lacking identifiable historical referents. Director of the Museum of Modern Art Alfred Barr (1902-81) used the term "Magic Realism" in 1942, to refer to painters who combined "realistic technique" with "improbable, dreamlike or fantastic visions." Magic Realists were bound less by an identifiable movement than by a loose preference for poetic structures of meaning metaphor, symbol, suggestion, and condensed time and space.2 Magic Realism used an allusive language of private symbols and personal sources of meaning frequently difficult to access. It shared with other post-war tendencies a retreat from public forms of meaning, which came to be associated with a broader failure of politics. Private symbols replaced collective forms of belief and value, forms that had proven to be too susceptible to fascistic manipulation.

    Figure 17.1: ANDREW WYETH, Christina's World, 1948. Tempera on gessoed panel, 32¼ x 47¾ in (81.9 x 121.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Figure 17.1: ANDREW WYETH, Christina's World, 1948. Tempera on gessoed panel, 32¼ x 47¾ in (81.9 x 121.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    ANDREW WYETH. Vacant spaces and incidents that interrupt ordinary narrative logic characterized a range of artists, including Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917), who created dreamlike scenarios using small brushes and precise draftsmanship in the demanding medium of tempera. Like other works of the 1940s, Wyeth's Christina's World (fig. 17.1) of 1948 depicts a landscape where the human presence has been marginalized. The middle ground and distance, where narrative traditionally unfolds, reveal a stretch of empty field. Only a house on the horizon offers any refuge for the yearning figure of the crippled woman. Yet the house seems to mirror the vacancy in the landscape rather than promise sanctuary or fulfillment.

    Figure 17.2: HENRY KOERNER, Lebenspiegel (Mirror of Life), also called Vanity Fair, 1946. Oil on composition board, 36 x 42 in (81.4 X 106.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
    Figure 17.2: HENRY KOERNER, Lebenspiegel (Mirror of Life), also called Vanity Fair, 1946. Oil on composition board, 36 x 42 in (81.4 X 106.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

    HENRY KOERNER. Another among the most celebrated of these post-war artists was Henry Koerner (1915--91), an emigre from Austria who had lost his parents in the Holocaust. Koerner came to the attention of a larger public with such images as Lebenspiegel, Mirror of Life, painted in 1946 (fig. 17.2). Here, Koerner compresses an extraordinary range of times and places: from the man surveying the scene from the bedroom window of an old urban row house to the streetscapes of Europe, including an urban park from his own Vienna, department stores, and Coney Island resorts of leisure and fun, complete with a Ferris "wheel of life" in the distance. Throughout, scale distortions and strange juxtapositions add to the fantastic quality. In the background, two nude men appear on a hillside-Cain and Abel, by the artist's account. The story, from the Book of Genesis, was a common reference in art of the 1940s to the fratricidal world war just concluded. Vanity Fair condenses the time and space of the artist's own life, spanning Europe and America, to link the present to a much wider history.

    "Modern Man" and "Primitive" Ritual

    Themes of ritualized violence and primitive impulses linked Magic Realism and other forms of figurative art in the 1940s with the emerging abstract painters of the New York School. Despite other differences, both groups traced the source of such violence to the psyche- the unconscious mind that connected the individual to an archaic past. Many among this generation found confirmation of a link between modern and primitive in the psychology of Carl Jung (1875--1961), whose writings, translated from German, were widely read in the 1940s. Jung's version of the psyche contained an entire archaeology of history, promising access to the deepest human motives shaping culture. Jung proposed the existence of persistent features-or archetypes-common to human psychology throughout time and finding expression in all cultures, in dreams, and in myths. According to Jung's theory, archetypes shaped transcultural ritual; to deny them expression would result in imbalance.

    Art historian Michael Leja has linked such ideas, in which cultural forms expressed universal psychic forces, to the dilemma of "modern man." Psychological theory suggested that ancient ritual and religion, increasingly familiar through anthropology and through studies of comparative mythology, helped integrate the individual into a larger symbolic world. However, modernity, lacking such a healing ritual, left the individual internally divided, and left society prey to the horrific. consequences of this divided psyche. Trapped in the labyrinth of the private mind, "modern man" had lost touch with the healing communal forms of premodern societies. Drawing upon this paradigm, many looked to art as the vehicle of psychic integration, whose function paralleled ancient forms of ritual.

    The interest in "modern man" and Jungian archetypes together signal a shift away from the political engagements of the 1930s toward a more psychological, universalizing approach that emphasized underlying transhistorical causes as the motive force of individual behavior. In this mindset, culture was effect, not cause.

    ARSHILE GORKY: ABSTRACTION AND MEMORY. Other artists and writers in these years, however, explored a different psychological language, which grounded the haunted modern imagination in recent history rather than in universal or archaic impulses.

    Figure 17.3: ARSHILE GORKY, The Liver Is the Cock's Comb, 1944. Oil on canvas, 73¼ x 98 in (186 x 248.9 cm). Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, 1956.
    Figure 17.3: ARSHILE GORKY, The Liver Is the Cock's Comb, 1944. Oil on canvas, 73¼ x 98 in (186 x 248.9 cm). Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, 1956.

    Arshile Gorky (1904- 48) fled with his sister to the United States in 1919, following the Turkish government's ethnic cleansing of the minority Christian Armenians in 1915, the first genocide of the twentieth century. Having lost everything, Gorky turned with passionate determination to the language of artistic modernism as a young artist in New York. About Picasso he wrote "when he drips, I drip," while meticulously working his way through the central developments of European modernism toward a strikingly lyrical and original language of abstraction in the early 1940s (fig. 17.3). Gorky's work helped define a shift from the geometric and Constructivist abstractions of the 1930s toward organic shapes rooted in bodily and cultural memories: "Our beautiful Armenia which we lost and which I will repossess in my art." Through a palette resembling the rich tapestry of rug-weaving traditions in the Caucasus, as well as through evocative visceral and natural references and sensuous line, Gorky resurrected his lost homeland. For Gorky, the international language of modernist abstraction was a school that both educated and liberated him to express a historically and personally resonant language. Gorky referred to these paintings as "hybrids," their abstract forms and colors encoded with the history of his culture in what writer Peter Balakian has called "representations of grief and loss."3 Demoralized by multiple tragedies, Gorky committed suicide in 1948, leaving an enormous impact on the emerging Abstract Expressionists.

    The Origins of Abstract Expressionism

    In the early 1940s Jackson Pollock (1912- 56), Mark Rothko (1903- 70), Adolph Gottlieb (1903- 74), and other artists who had come of age painting figurative art during the 1930s turned to new sources and procedures of artmaking in an effort to express the recent realities of the post-war world. They found inspiration and sources in Native cultures. Work by the Pueblo and Navajo Indians of the Southwest, as well as by the Northwest Coast culture of the Kwakiutl, was widely available in New York from 1900 on, at such collections as the American Museum of Natural History, and such comprehensive exhibitions as the "Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts" (1931) and the "Indian Art of the United States" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941. The 1941 exhibition in particular offered a crucial catalyst for those artists who emerged into international prominence in the next generation. American artists collected and studied Native masks, rock art, pottery, weavings, and carvings, drawn both by their expressive abstraction and by their placement in a complex world of ritual and communal enactment. In Native forms they found an expression of unconscious energies that occurred in cultures across time and space, yet that was specifically American in its origins.

    Figure 17.4: JACKSON POLLOCK, Guardians of the Secret, 1943. Oil on canvas, 4 ft ⅜ in X 6 ft 3⅝ in (122.9 x 191.5 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California. Albert M. Bender Collection
    Figure 17.4: JACKSON POLLOCK, Guardians of the Secret, 1943. Oil on canvas, 4 ft ⅜ in X 6 ft 3⅝ in (122.9 x 191.5 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California. Albert M. Bender Collection

    EARLY JACKSON POLLOCK. Pollock's Guardians of the Secret (fig. 17.4) features a horizontal tablet inscribed with indecipherable markings that suggest hieroglyphs or other ancient forms of writing. This tablet evokes the layers of language, myth, memory, and experience that comprise the archaeology of both culture and psyche. Inside and around the tablet are passages that recall Indian pictographs: a fish-like form at the top of the tablet, and at the upper center of the canvas, a black form curling in on itself. Scholar Jackson Rushing has identified the source of this fetal shape in a Mimbres pottery bowl (see figs. 1.19 and 1.20) that appeared in the 1941 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which Pollock saw and studied. Pollock derived the masklike form at the top left of the canvas, outlined in white, from a Northwest Coast mask of a cannibal spirit. Lying prone below the central white tablet is a wolf-like creature. The guardian figures on either side of the central tablet are indebted to Pollock's knowledge of the male-centered secret societies of the Southwest Pueblo Indians, responsible for the ceremonial lives of their people. Throughout, Pollock's brushwork conjures violent energies that are, nonetheless, contained by the tablet, frame, and figure, emblems of the power of ritual and ceremony to structure the unconscious psyche.

    Beyond his borrowings from Native art, Pollock was struggling toward a more direct identification with non-Western forms of creation, in particular the shaman figure endowed with the power to heal and shape the course of events. Shamanic power derived from identification with an animal spirit, in the form of a mask of that animal.

    By using Native American forms, Pollock assumed the mask of another culture, metaphorically expanding his powers as an artist. He had long suffered from alcoholism and bouts of depression. Deeply affected by his growing knowledge of Indian art, Pollock would come to endow his painting with the instrumental power of ritual, to heal and to make whole the psyche divided against itself.

    Several other influences shaped Pollock's work. From his mentor at the Art Students' League, Thomas Hart Benton (1889- 1975), Pollock absorbed- and transformed the concept of myth from a collective social to a personal resource. He also learned from the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros (1896- 1974) at Siqueiros's New York-based Experimental Workshop (1936), where he used newly developed synthetic paints easily poured, dripped, and splattered onto surfaces placed on the floor. Siqueiros incorporated handprints and found objects, including sand, into the picture surface. At the workshop, Pollock encountered ways of working that would become central to his breakthrough painting methods a decade later, providing him with a liberating if demanding mode of expression that bypassed academic Cubism and grounded his art in the radical and transforming ambitions of the Mexican muralists. Siqueiros's commitment to new artmaking techniques appropriate to a new era was prophetic indeed. The example of Jose Clemente Orozco (1883- 1949) was equally crucial; Pollock had visited Orozco's titanic Prometheus mural in progress at Pomona College (1930) in his home in Los Angeles, which Pollock later declared "the greatest painting done in modern times."4 Orozco's sweeping epic forms and spiraling energies, conveying struggle and violent birth, are especially apparent in Pollock's early work.

    In their unprecedented scale (as big as 9 by 17 feet), Pollock's works extended the concerns of the Mexican muralists, while turning them to very different ends. Tying the two generations together was a shared repudiation of the small, portable easel painting, an aesthetic object that remained discrete from the viewer. The sheer size of Pollock's work and that of fellow Abstract Expressionists was intended to envelop the viewer's sensory field. At close range, these works projected a psychological intensity that narrowed the distance separating art from life.

    In the late 1930s Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy. Binding artmaking to psychic process and to a deep transcultural history of symbols, Pollock's work of the early 1940s transformed the alliance of art and life that had motivated the public art culture of the 1930s in which he first began his career.

    Figure 17.5: JACKSON POLLOCK, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas, 7 ft 3 in x 9 ft 10 in (221 x 299.7 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 17.5: JACKSON POLLOCK, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas, 7 ft 3 in x 9 ft 10 in (221 x 299.7 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

    POLLOCK'S DRIP PAINTINGS. Guardians remains a representation, rather than an enactment, of ritual. In the years ahead Pollock would devise a new technique in which the act of making art itself approximated the power of the Native shaman. By 1947, Pollock had left behind all direct references to Indian art in favor of a technique in which fluid housepaint was dripped by a stiffened brush or kitchen baster, or poured directly from the can, onto unstretched canvas (fig. 17.5).

    Figure 17.6: Navajo sand painters at work, from Indian Art of the United States exhibition, 1941. Photograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Figure 17.6: Navajo sand painters at work, from Indian Art of the United States exhibition, 1941. Photograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    Despite popular misconceptions about Pollock's drip paintings, they demanded a high degree of skill, comparable in terms of motor control to the Navajo sand painters he had seen in 1941 at the Museum of Modern Art (fig. 17.6). Indeed he would later compare his own method of laying the canvas on the floor and painting onto it from above to that of the Navajo. Such paintings were done on the ground, in a freehand but exacting manner. Ground pigments, minerals, and pollens were scattered from the hand to create complex designs of ritual figures meant to be used in a healing ceremony. Pollock adapted this method, using a basting syringe or a brush to drip his paint in a loose gesture onto a canvas laid out on the floor. About this process, Pollock wrote, "On the floor I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the Indian sand painters of the West."5

    As Hans Namuth's (1915-90) famous film of the artist painting at his Long Island studio reveals, Pollock assumed a dance-like rhythm as he moved his body down the length of the canvas. A related gestural rhythm is apparent in many of his works. Such direct physical involvement in the act of painting seemed unprecedented; the bodily rhythms of Pollock painting link his methods to the dance, in which art and act, work and creator, become one. Pollock was, in effect, inventing his own way of bringing together mind and body, form and content, in a manner that was inspired by the example of the Native artist, while achieving something new in Western art. These methods expressed a longing for a loss of self in ritualized acts.

    Methods and Techniques

    Jackson Pollock and Navajo Sand Painting

    THE ENCOUNTER BETWEEN Native arts and Abstract Expressionism was one more episode in a longer history of primitivism. Pollock, however, was distinct in emulating both the manner of artmaking and the powers of the shaman artist. For both the Navajo healer and fo r Pollock, the process was as important as the finished product.

    But like many other American and European artists of the twentieth century, Pollock held overly romantic notions about tribal artists. He believed that their work was a direct emanation from the unconscious, unmediated by the over-intellectualization and rigorous training of the Western professional artist. Navajo sand pa inters, however, studied in an apprenticeship system as long-lasting and exacting as the most academic form of art training in the Western tradition. As with many other cultural encounters discussed in this book, this one was characterized by a certain amount of productive misunderstanding; that is, Pollock interpreted the cultural tradition of the Navajo in ways that served his own particular creative needs.

    The Abstract Expressionist Movement

    Pollock's transfiguration was repeated by others in what came to be known as the Abstract Expressionist movement. The term was coined in 1946 by critic Robert Coates in The New Yorker, and was taken up more broadly in the early 1950s to describe a spectrum of approaches bound together by a shared reaction against the geometric abstraction of the 1930s and by a desire to combine an art of content with non-referential forms.

    Abstract Expressionism took shape out of the encounter not only with Native arts and with Mexican muralism, but also with European Surrealist emigres, in flight once again from war. As with Native arts, Surrealism provided a path into the energies of the unconscious mind, offering its own version of psychic integration as the path into a poetically enriched life. Pollock, Willem de Kooning (1904-97), and others transformed the technique of "psychic automatism," learned from their encounter with Surrealism, into something far more fluid and open-ended. In the Freudian model of the psyche, the conscious mind censored the unruly and presocial energies of the unconscious. Believing this uncensored part of the mind to hold the key to purer forms of creativity, the Surrealists felt that it was possible to access these energies through automatic drawing, allowing direct expression of the unconscious mind through the apparently random doodlings and scribblings of the hand. Automatism generated raw material that would enrich older methods of artmaking.

    In the wake of their encounter with Surrealism, Abstract Expressionists reconceived automatism in terms of the paint medium itself; each mark produced a condition to which the artist responded, in an unfolding and open-ended manner that generated new forms. Plastic automatism, as it was called by the artist Robert Motherwell, by emphasizing the materiality of the medium itself over psychic content, recast Surrealism in important ways.

    A generation of artists committed themselves to painting as a method of exploration-of self, of medium, of existence. In an essay on Abstract Expressionism written in 1952 ("The American Action Painters"), the critic Harold Rosenberg probed the significance of the new gestural art, seeing the canvas as an existential arena in which the artist acted out the dilemmas of choice that confronted the individual in a world lacking clear moral coordinates. French Existentialism had an influential presence among post-war New York intellectuals; it offered one way of reading the significance of Abstract Expressionism, and shared with these artists the conviction that inherited ideas about the world- whether social, artistic, or philosophical- blocked or distorted the direct confrontation with experience itself. Emphasizing process over a preconceived image, their way of making art embodied a belief that painting should be difficult, with each stroke measured for its honesty as an expression of authentic individuality.

    Figure 17.7: MARK ROTHKO , No. 61 (Rust and Blue) (Brown, Blue, Brown on Blue), 1953. Oil on canvas, 9 ft 6 in X 7 ft 7 in (2.94 x 2.32 m). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California. Panza Collection.
    Figure 17.7: MARK ROTHKO , No. 61 (Rust and Blue) (Brown, Blue, Brown on Blue), 1953. Oil on canvas, 9 ft 6 in X 7 ft 7 in (2.94 x 2.32 m). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California. Panza Collection.

    COLOR FIELD PAINTING. In the practice of the "color field" artists within Abstract Expressionism- Mark Rothko (fig. 17.7), Barnett Newman (1905-70), and Ad Reinhardt (1913-67)-gestural concerns gave way to broad expanses of unmodulated color, or to floating and vaguely bounded shapes that expanded perceptually to absorb the viewer's field of vision. Rothko wished his works to be hung alongside one another, low on the wall, and in lowered light, resulting in a visually resonant field of color that would draw the viewer in. Rothko's paintings have no impasto; his technique of brushing diluted paint directly onto unprimed canvas contributes a sense of weightlessness. Through their resonating color fields and the vagueness of their boundaries, these images involve the viewer by inducing a form of contemplative engagement. Purged of subject matter or emotional display, they nonetheless remain grounded in a search. for meaning. But in canvases that banish iconography, symbol, or clear referent, the search is in the hands of the viewer. Rothko's subtly palpitant screens also recall the television set, a new medium in the home that brought with it a range of commercial messages and forms of cultural "chatter." Insisting on silence and contemplation, Rothko's floating rectangles negate the impact of the very medium whose forms they recall.

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    Figure 17.8: DAVID SMITH, Hudson River Landscape, 1951. Welded steel, 49⅜ , X 75 X 18½ in (125.5 X 190.5 X 47 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

    THE ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST SCULPTOR: DAVID SMITH. The move toward media responsive to presocial energies and presymbolic expression also drove the work of the leading post-war sculptor, David Smith (1906-65), who had welded tanks during the war. Allied to the procedures and rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, Smith chose to work in welded metal in preference to the older techniques of direct carving. Trained as a painter, Smith often conceived his sculptures in two dimensions, which also suited layouts of heavy steel on the factory floor. Breaking entirely with the forms of earlier American sculpture, Smith made works in which the focus is dispersed, the space animated by edges and shapes. Following preliminary works during the war years that graphically depicted wartime violence in an imagery of sexualized aggression, Smith, like Gorky, turned to agricultural themes and mythic narratives of procreation. Incorporating ploughshares, along with other agricultural implements and industrial artifacts, into his work, Smith renounced any reliance on nature as a reference in his art. Yet working in the countryside of upstate New York, he felt challenged by the scale and shapes of nature to create his own "poetic transposition" of nature's forms (fig. 17.8).6 For him, as for his Abstract Expressionist colleagues, art was a form of the "real" rather than its representation. And, like them, he allowed his materials and his process to shape the direction of the work. His Hudson River Landscape of 1951, like other works of these years, resembles a drawing in space; its fluid shapes recall the automatic drawing of the Surrealists who influenced this generation. Smith's work resembled the lyricism of Pollock as well, and like Pollock he rewrote the rules of the game by fundamentally transforming sculpture's traditional concerns with centered mass, three-dimensionality, and human focus.

    Cultural Contexts

    Abstract Art and American Quilts

    FOR ALL ITS CLAIMS to aesthetic purity, color field painting resembled other visual forms. One such documented connection is with American quilts. Not until Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof curated a groundbreaking exhibition, "Abstract Design in American Quilts," at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1971, did the public appreciate that quilt makers too were sometimes concerned with abstraction in a painterly sense. In a manner analogous to the abstract color fields in work by artists such as Barnett Newman (1905-70), Mark Rothko (see fig. 17.7), Josef Albers (1888-1976) (see fig. 17.18), and Kenneth Noland (b. 1924), some nineteenth-century quilt makers clearly were experimenting with the optical properties of color and simplified geometric form. Correspondingly, several Abstract Expressionist painters owned quilts, and Barnett Newman himself advised Holstein on his groundbreaking exhibition of quilts.

    Most nineteenth-century quilts were made to be draped over beds, but when hung on the walls of an art museum, it became obvious that late-nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Amish women, working in the medium of cloth, had conceived of their quilts as bold graphic design fields (fig. 17.9). Today these descendants of German-speaking immigrants (who came to the United States in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seeking religious freedom) reject the secular world and wear plain, old-fashioned clothing. Yet their quilts reveal a measure of exuberance, using wool fabrics in saturated colors sold by itinerant traders in the Amish regions of Pennsylvania and Ohio. These fine wools absorb and reflect light in a different way from the cotton fabric more commonly used in quilts.

    Art critic Robert Hughes has called Amish quilts "aesthetically radiant objects." Simple and bold in their design and color choices, they are extravagantly worked in fine hand-quilting stitches (often not apparent in photographs). Amish textile artists delight in startling color combinations: turquoise and brown; magenta and red; pink and lavender against red and blue-green; vivid blue against black.

    Figure 17.9: UNKNOWN ARTIST (AMISH), Center Diamond in a Square Quilt, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Cotton, 83 x 82 in (210.8 x 208.2 cm). Shelburne Museum, Vermont.
    Figure 17.9: UNKNOWN ARTIST (AMISH), Center Diamond in a Square Quilt, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Cotton, 83 x 82 in (210.8 x 208.2 cm). Shelburne Museum, Vermont.
    Framing the Discourse

    Abstract Expressionism and the Rhetoric of Nature

    WHEN THE PAINTER Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) criticized Pollock for not painting from nature, the artist famously responded, "I am nature." In the post-war period when Pollock made this comment, "nature" signified an America remote from Europe, defined against history and culture. For Pollock to identify himself with nature was to claim an artmaking process that was freed from European influence. Critics obliged by associating Pollock's explosive energies with natural forces: "Pollock's talent is volcanic. It has fire. It is unpredictable. It is undisciplined. It spills itself out in a mineral prodigality not yet crystallized."7 Such comments drew upon the old rhetoric that associated American art with the raw, sublime power of American nature. Pollock and his critics did what others had done since the nineteenth century; they turned a cultural liability-the lack of history-into a defiant boast.

    Yet Pollock's boast masked a more complex situation. His art, like that of others in the New York School, was deeply influenced by European modernism. Far from being a primal outpouring of an untutored "new American Adam," it was acutely aware of its place in history. From Cubism, the Abstract Expressionists took an understanding of the canvas as a flat surface on which to construct an arbitrary pictorial order; from Surrealism they acquired the technique of automatism. They also learned from more distant masters-from Monet to Rembrandt, Goya, and El Greco. The "new American painting" spoke to a generation who valued innovation and change while claiming a place in a history of art that expanded across time and space to attain a "universal" scope.