Distancing itself from a public sphere in turmoil following World War II, the discourse of Abstract Expressionism rejected political involvement. Yet politics entered on another level, in the public reception and international circulation of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s. In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon, triggering an arms race with America. The success of the Chinese Communists in 1949 further fed American paranoia, which feared a conspiracy to establish Communism throughout the world. In the politically charged environment of the "Cold War" in 1950s America, Abstract Expressionism, with its bold, slashing forms and open-ended meanings, was played off against the Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union, a style dictated by the state and disallowing any form of experimentation. Promoted as a heroic expression of American freedom, Abstract Expressionism moved from embattled marginality to growing official celebration. Using art as a form of cultural diplomacy, government-sponsored exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism toured internationally as representatives of cultural democracy, liberal individualism, and a free society.
Despite such emerging recognition, the early 1950s also saw a reactionary attack against modern art, waged by allies of Senator Joseph McCarthy's (1908- 57) crusade to root out Communists in the government. Such reactionaries aligned modern art not with freedom but with "Bolshevism"-the dangerous revolutionary philosophy propelling the Russian Revolution- and suspected that it was part of a conspiracy to subvert American values. Abstract Expressionism, despite its ambition to achieve universality, became a kind of Rorschach test in which different social groups saw diametrically opposed meanings.
The Contradictions of Success
In 1956, after drinking heavily, Pollock smashed his car into a tree, killing himself and a passenger. Pollock's dramatic death not only fueled the myth surrounding him, but sent the value of his work soaring. While the artist might be idolized as a rugged individualist, tormented by his own demanding quest for authenticity, his art was simply a commodity whose value was determined by the law of supply and demand.
Several Abstract Expressionists had to contend with the "dilemmas" of financial success and popular recognition, making their artistic program appear increasingly problematic with time. After struggling to create a social and artistic "space of resistance" for themselves in the 1940s, their work was widely collected, exhibited, and cataloged by the mid-1950s. Their institutional patrons ranged from the Museum of Modern Art-which they had protested against in 1950 for ignoring their work-to the U.S. State Department. Powerful art dealers and critics such as Clement Greenberg (1909-94) promoted them. All this threatened a group identity based on their embattled position in American society, waging war against a mainstream culture and corporate accommodation. Their gestural brushstroke- the mark of authenticity-itself became a style to be imitated, as art schools institutionalized their way of making art. However, as their marks became conventionalized through repetition, spontaneity proved an impossible model to follow.
Even at the height of the "New York School," as the Abstract Expressionists came to be called, other painting practices emerged both inside and outside New York. Younger artists, including several notable women painters, were freeing the language of gestural abstraction from its associations with the embattled masculine quest for authenticity. The assertive, crisis-driven language of the male New York artists differed as well from the quietist Asian-inspired calligraphy of West Coast abstraction. Even figuration returned, bearing with it a new social content. Still other younger male artists adapted a range of tactics that carried them beyond the long shadow of their elders, through satire, subversion, and irony.
Helen Frankenthaler and the "Soak-Stain" Method
In 1952, shortly after seeing an exhibition of Pollock's work, Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928), a twenty-three-year-old New York painter, made Mountains and Sea (fig. 17.10), a lyrical abstract landscape recalling a trip to Nova Scotia with her companion Clement Greenberg. Though very young and female, Frankenthaler had been welcomed into the Abstract Expressionist "club" after struggling to master the languages of Cubism and automatism that had fed their "American-style" painting. For Frankenthaler, the spontaneous methods of her male colleagues opened not into self-revelation but into a freedom from earlier models. Mountains and Sea initiated a remarkable history in postwar American art; reinterpreting Pollock's legacy, it also transformed his working methods in important ways. Instead of pouring paint onto canvas in emulation of Pollock's "drip" method, Frankenthaler diluted her paints into soft pastels and applied them directly to unprimed canvas, "staining" and soaking her canvases with color so that pigment and support became one. Resembling dyed cloth, her work further blurred the relationship of figure and ground with a lightened palette that reduced value (light/ dark) contrasts and exploited the canvas itself as an equal element in the design. Though this technique induced a tendency to see the canvas in terms of surface effect, Mountains and Sea also suggests spatial illusion through the landscape element within the work; the painting turns upon a central episode evoking mountain or rock forms and vegetation, anchored on the right side by the suggestion of a blue horizon. Frankenthaler's nature was different from Pollock's; it was, in her words, "the totally abstract memory of the landscape."
Frankenthaler's work combined tradition and technical innovation. In terms of scale, Frankenthaler matched her male colleagues: Mountains and Sea was roughly 7 by 9 feet. Yet she paradoxically used scale to produce intimacy of vision, serving private sources of meaning and symbolism. Mountains and Sea also introduced a new lyricism of pooled color in place of the fierce gestures of older Abstract Expressionist painters. Shortly after she completed her breakthrough work, its dematerialized and floating fields of color furnished inspiration for the artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis in their version of color field painting.
Resourceful and independent, Frankenthaler took what she needed from the largely male traditions of artmaking that had defined modernism, and incorporated these lessons into her own contribution. Her innovations are all the more striking in a decade characterized by pressures on women to marry, and to renounce personal objectives in service to the family. Frankenthaler's breakthrough required willful absorption in her own creative development, made possible by the financial support of her family. An elite education at Bennington, an all-women's college committed to professional training-especially in the arts had furthermore given her confidence in her own intellect that allowed her to hold her own alongside male critics and artists.8 Like O'Keeffe before her, she resisted being labeled as a woman artist by critics who interpreted her art exclusively in terms of gender and "essential" feminine experience. Yet, like other female artists in the 1950s, she struggled with the universalizing and often explicitly male discourses and practices of her older colleagues in Abstract Expressionism. To step outside the subordinate roles assigned to women in the 1950s, and to assert the authority of one's own experience and sexuality, was a course taken by other women artists who collectively represented alternative forms of Abstract Expressionism.
Most observers assume that the influence flowed from New York to the rest of the country, and thus give priority to art made in that city. But in San Francisco and Seattle communities of artists produced their own distinctive forms of abstraction. These West Coast movements were shaped by the presence of strongly defined personalities, but also by specific physical landscapes, intellectual and social environments. A shared artistic and historical inheritance was filtered through local conditions, resulting in regional schools of abstraction. West Coast artists such as Mark Tobey were included in surveys of modern American art from the late 1940s. But since then, such national coverage has given way to a history of American art largely centered on New York.
One regional influence came from the West Coast's location on the Pacific Rim, in proximity to intellectual and aesthetic influences from Asia. Artists and intellectuals across America were introduced to Zen Buddhism, which finds enlightenment (or satori in Japanese) through the meditative discipline of mindfulness-a paradoxical disengagement of the mind and judgment through experience of the moment. The lectures and writings of the Japanese scholar Daisetz Suzuki (1870-1966) played a central role in the dissemination of Zen Buddhism; his ideas particularly took root on the West Coast, especially in San Francisco and Seattle. Suzuki first visited the United States from 1897 to 1908 and returned in 1950, at the age of eighty, for a decade of teaching at leading institutions such as Columbia University, during which period he published in English influential books such as Zen and Japanese Culture.
MARK TOBEY. Mark Tobey (1890-1976), working in the Pacific Northwest, took the universal preoccupations of Abstract Expressionism in another direction. Tobey renounced any claim to an American painting, which he associated with nationalistic rivalries leading to war, in favor of "universal citizenship,"9 reviving and extending the older concept of the cosmopolitan as a citizen of the world to include not only European and Native American but Asian culture, which he identified as his greatest influence. Introduced in the 1920s to Chinese brush painting by a Chinese friend in Seattle, Tobey also spent time in a Zen monastery near Kyoto,Japan, in 1934, and retained a life-long interest in Asian art and culture. He shared with other West Coast artists an interest in Japanese calligraphy and ink painting, a vital tradition made available to a wider audience at the Museum of Modern Art's 1954 exhibition Abstract Japanese Calligraphy. Tobey's markmaking was intimate and meditative, far removed from the psychic automatism that was a point of departure for New York abstraction.
Tobey's "white writing" dated from as early as the 1930s-"all-over" compositions that preceded Pollock's. Unlike Pollock, Tobey meticulously applied tempera paint (rather than fluid housepaints) in layers. Like other abstract artists in these years, however, he began with no preconceived idea, combining discipline and improvisation. Tobey worked on a small scale, his works delicately patterned at · a time when large bold painting had become the norm. His controlled tracery of paint suggested fields of energy, differing however from the full-body drip gestures of Pollock. Golden Mountains of 1953 (fig. 17.11) suggests an ethereal response to nature that inverts the relationship of mass and void through a dynamic stitchery of line over a luminous yellow/ white field.
ALL-OVER COMPOSITION AND THE BREAK FROM HIERARCHY. At both ends of the continent, in New York and the Pacific Northwest, the practice of abstraction turned away from centered composition, perspectival vision, and geometric structure. Such hierarchical ways of seeing- which organized space according to foreground and background, figure and ground, object and environment-privileged artistic will in giving order to a disordered universe. Developments in theoretical physics disrupted such hierarchies, as did Asian Buddhist concepts of selfhood as an illusion. Both of these envisioned a universe in which space was activated by unseen energies, in which "emptiness" and silence represented a paradoxical fullness . Particle physics and a Zen openness to the undifferentiated flow of everyday perception freed from judgment or control inspired the chance operations of the radically experimental composer John Cage (1912-92), as well as Abstract Expressionism's complication of the figure / ground dualism. Cage had considerable influence on post-war art through his teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In the 1950s, Black Mountain gathered together the avant- garde in dance, music, studio arts, ceramics, and performance. Its collaborative, experimental environment played an important role in shaping the next generation of artists, many of whom absorbed its lessons of open-ended engagement with experience and the materials of art.
In 1925, the outspoken critic Thomas Craven wrote that "[The artist] is an effeminate creature who paints still-life, tepid landscapes, and incomprehensible abstractions purporting to express the aesthetic states of his wounded soul. No doubt the increasing effeminacy of the American environment has much to do with the shaping of his conceptions, but if he possesses no masculine virtues to begin with, let him bob his hair and design Futurist lingerie or sets for movies.
"Painting is essentially a man's art, and all great painters have been coarse, earthy and intolerable. In the entire range of art there is not a single picture entitled to a moment's consideration that has been done by a woman."10
With admirable concision, Craven (an ardent supporter of Pollock's first teacher Thomas Hart Benton) summed up well-worn attitudes about artists. In the nineteenth century art for art's sake acquired effete connotations. Craven extended the taint of effeminacy to the formal obsessions of the modernist artist, and linked them once again to a prissy, self-absorbed concern for fashion. A virulent nationalist, Craven repudiated most forms of modernism; his image of the effeminate artist was widely shared, and helped fuel the defiant masculinity of Jackson Pollock as he revitalized abstraction from the 1940s. The image of the feminized aesthete dabbling in formal problems was one Pollock clearly had to exorcise. His brooding style and rough self-assertiveness in the face of earlier art contributed to Pollock's emerging celebrity. In magazine articles on the painter and his wife Lee Krasner (1908-84), an important artist in her own right, she appears as "Mrs Jackson Pollock," making jam or observing her husband as he enacts his heroic gestures.
"THE GIRL BACK HOME." From bad boys of film Marlon Brando and James Dean to John Wayne, popular idols asserted an image of beleaguered but surly American masculinity. American men confronting a generation of women recently empowered by wartime employment anxiously demanded a return to domestic norms or, conversely, a feminine sexuality that was playful, available, and non-threatening-more kitten than panther. The Varga pin-up girl (fig. 17.12), a favorite feature in the men's magazine Esquire from 1940 to 1946, was the work of Alberto Vargas, a Peruvian emigre whose skills with the airbrush and intuitive grasp of a male wartime fantasy world made him synonymous with a particular version of the "girl back home." Impossibly long-limbed and poreless, she accompanied American GIs overseas, her sexual allure conveniently reinforcing patriotic duty as a reminder of a nation worth defending. There was another, darker side to feminine sexuality, however; in the seductresses of Hollywood film noir (a genre of psychological thriller that often involved some form of female betrayal, shot in high contrast black and white) male viewers found reason to distrust women who coveted male potency. The studies in sexual behavior of Alfred Kinsey (1948 /1953), based on interviews of more than 11,000 men and women, revealed a decline in men's sexual energies relative to women's after their early twenties, and contributed to a growing sense of male inadequacy. Linking sex and death, the 'blond bombshell," like her dark-haired noir counterpart, was a type that conveyed considerable ambivalence toward women. The classic 1950s icons of female beauty-tightly packaged yet bursting at the seams- summed up these conflicting desires: for control and for loss of control, for constructing and exceeding boundaries.
WILLEM DE KOONING'S WOMAN. Among the most notorious icons of male ambivalence toward women was Willem de Kooning's Woman series, painted between 1950 and 1953 (fig. 17.13). These canvases are characterized by leering masklike faces, predatory toothy mouths and bug-like eyes, and enormous breasts that alternately offer "pneumatic bliss" and threaten suffocation. 11 Grotesquely humorous, they seem parodies of male anxieties about women. For de Kooning, their ferocious aspect carried a certain hilarity. No doubt they record de Kooning's own sense of awe about the female, whose archaic power was registered in the shocking frontality of these figures. There were multiple inspirations behind these works, spanning the history of art from Cycladic figurines to modern billboards and media images of women. De Kooning actually collaged cutout mouths from cigarette advertisements directly onto one of these canvases. If their parodic quality links them to the Pop artists of the 1960s, their painterly strokes and layered, scratched, scraped, and smudged surfaces puts these works squarely in the milieu of Abstract Expressionism. At the same time, they also look back at the Old Masters so admired by de Kooning-in particular, to the Flemish master of female flesh, Peter Paul Rubens-as well as to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. At the height of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning' s series signaled a return to the figure with a vengeance, causing consternation among the supporters of 1950s abstraction.
GEORGE TOOKER'S WAITING ROOM. Masculinity was under fire from another direction, however. In the increasingly hostile and paranoid political climate of the government-based McCarthy investigations of Communist ties, identity-public, personal, political, and sexual-had to be closely guarded. George Tooker's (b. 1920) Waiting Room of 1959 (fig. 17.14) reveals an airless underground world of gridded spaces and social anonymity. Here is no human contact; faces and eyes are cut in half, blocked, or hidden behind opaque glasses. Deadened by life, his sleepwalkers find no meaningful exchange, occupying an existential room with no exit. Waiting implies an outcome; here is no outcome, but only moments as undifferentiated as the repeating cubicles each figure occupies. The only suggestion of life is the forced smile of a cover girl who appears on a mass-marketed journal, blocking out the face of the female reader.
Tooker's vision of urban alienation, in which personal identity literally disappears behind the manufactured images of the mass media, was colored by his own homosexuality. In the 1950s sexual and political repression were often linked, as fear of Communism was associated with fear of sexual difference. To be "straight" implied allegiance to both a sexual and a political norm; to step beyond the bounds of accepted behavior was to risk social persecution. Tooker's art revealed the deep cynicism many intellectuals felt in the face of the increasingly bureaucratic and impersonal social landscape of the 1950s.
Like others of his generation, Tooker revived the use of tempera, a quick-drying medium in which pigment is suspended in egg yolk, widely used in the Renaissance. Using figuration and a meticulous perspectival space, Tooker and other nonabstract artists represented a response dramatically different from Abstract Expressionism to the same cultural conditions: an extreme disenchantment with the spiritual hollowness of modern life. Abstract Expressionism exploded the traditional space of easel painting in an aesthetic detonation comparable to the revolution in the physical sciences that produced the atomic age itself By contrast, Tooker reaffirmed traditional means but placed them in the service of a devastating critique of mass society.
Beyond Abstract Expressionism
Young artists in the early years of the 1950s were surrounded-indeed, trapped-by the important work of their elders. From Picasso to de Kooning and Pollock, several generations of modernist experimentation had left little room for them to maneuver. Outsiders to the art worlds of New York and Europe,Jasper Johns (from South Carolina) and Robert Rauschenberg (from Texas) felt few commitments to the past. In the very years that Abstract Expressionism "triumphed" as a critically and officially accepted style, these younger artists pushed American art beyond subject matter, beyond expression, and beyond the subjectivity of the artist as creative force. The art of Johns and Rauschenberg remained indifferent to received notions of artist as hero, as well as of beauty. Offering no clear paths to meaning, their works questioned the fictions that supported art-that a painting is a true image of reality; or that it offers access to a world beyond itself.
JASPER JOHNS. Issues of identity were especially significant for Jasper Johns (b. 1930), a reticent young artist whose first exhibition in 1955 in New York City broke radically with the reigning style of the older Abstract Expressionists. Johns's avoidance of anything approaching self-exposure takes on new meaning in light of his homosexuality. In the climate of Cold War surveillance, Johns's art refused to be identified, named, or targeted. In its strategic silences, it opted out of accusation, finger pointing, and society's impulse to pin down and compartmentalize identities, both social and sexual. Identity remains elusive in Johns's work, impossible to decode from the numbers and symbols of the information age, which he painted with such loving anonymity.
Johns's 1958 Gray Numbers (p. 550), like Pollock's gestural abstraction, is an all-over painting. But there the resemblance ends. Johns grids his picture plane to contain numbers from one to nine, read down as well as across in repeated sequences. Figure / ground distinctions are also leveled, since the painting is all in shades of blue- gray monochrome. In the gridded impersonality of numbers Johns evokes a world organized around information broken down into component parts uninflected by meaning. Here is an abstract order that operates apart from hierarchies of importance or judgment-a veiled comment on post-war bureaucratic culture. Yet the painting nonetheless subverts such sameness through a surface whose tactility and color variations imply the complexity of nature. Gray Numbers occupies a different world from the slashing, heroic gestures of Abstract Expressionism. With very different artistic means, Johns, Pollock, and Tooker were all responding to a world that tracked and gridded individual identities. Despite their extreme differences, Pollock and Johns would be among the most influential artists for the next generation of American art.
Johns's early Target with Four Faces of 1955 (fig. 17.16) makes the idea of visual focus the subject of a deadpan joke; the target so insistently focusing our sight has no significance. Meaning remains neutral, as does hue: the corners of the canvas are as saturated as the heart of the painting. The result is to undermine the hierarchies of vision that had shaped painting as a practice, in which greatest attention goes toward the center. Abstract Expressionism had already undermined these hierarchies. Johns does so while painting concrete objects. The bull's eye corresponds to the vanishing point of a perspectival space. While referring to the Renaissance conception of space, Johns's artwork delivers not the illusion of space but a blankness onto which we project our own meanings. The human face, around which so much of the humanist tradition of European art was centered, is offered but thwarted: the eyes, seat of the soul, are cut off; and the hinged lid that stands above, once dropped into place, will hide these faces in their four compartments. That contraption suggests a play on identity as well, both revealed and obscured. Newspaper print is visible beneath the paint surface but not legible. The faces convey no expression or emotion. Everywhere, Johns thwarts communication. In its place he offers only mute witness.
Johns's surfaces are beautifully textured and layered. His medium was encaustic, in which pigment is dissolved into hot wax. Lacking fluidity, it is the very opposite of Pollock's poured enamel housepaints. In its imperfection and its varying densities, its rough surface, and its laborious application, it,represented a rebellion against the exhausted language of spontaneity associated with Abstract Expressionism. Johns's aesthetic refinement is worlds away from Pollock's tumultuous energies. And, in another departure from Abstract Expressionism, idea precedes execution, rather than evolving in tandem with the act of painting itself. A friend reported that Johns would sit for hours in his studio, thinking. He would not begin painting until the work was fully formed in his mind. Unlike the older New York School painters, process was unimportant. The idea that painting could be a primarily intellectual act was a revelation for artists younger than Johns. For painter Ed Ruscha, seeing Target with Four Faces "was the atomic bomb of my education."12
Johns's early work also engaged in questioning the picture plane, around which so much experimentation had been focused ever since Cubism. He repeatedly chose subjects in which the image and the thing were one and the same. Two-dimensional flags (fig. 17.15), targets, and letters, painted onto canvas, were precisely what they resembled: the thing itself. Johns's flags place a familiar object in a new context, emptied of emotional associations. Choosing to paint flat objects, Johns also obliterated the hierarchy of background and foreground in one further assault on illusionism. Representation and reality, form and content, collapsed into one. Johns's work replaces realism with the thing itself.
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG. Beginning in 1949, and with calculated naivete, another young artist, Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), experimented with what went into making a painting. Why not attach a man's tie to the canvas, or a can of paint? Why wasn't dirt as beautiful as gilt paint? From 1954, in a series of works he called "Combines" (which combined painting and sculpture), Rauschenberg amplified the collage tradition in twentieth-century art by literally incorporating life into his work, in the form of ladders, quilts, clock faces, and a menagerie of animals from stuffed hens and birds of prey to an Angora goat, belted by a rubber tire. His use of these found objects, and various other kinds of junk, anticipated the "Assemblage" art of the 1960s.
Bed of 1955 (fig. 17.17) was made, according to Rauschenberg, with a bed quilt given to him by a friend while at Black Mountain because he had no other materials to paint on, and he was broke. 13 Onto the quilt Rauschenberg dripped and slathered paint, an act associated by critics with the violence of everything from an ax murder to a rape. Rauschenberg's interest here, however, is in paint, which flows and drips and spatters, conveying the messiness of life as the realm of the artist. As art historian Leo Steinberg has pointed out, Bed takes as its subject an object most insistently associated with life. Here- the place of dreams, of love, of conception-is unpredictability, randomness, disorder. By simply inflecting a horizontal surface (the bed we lie upon) into a vertical surface situated against a wall, Rauschenberg recasts it as art in an act of naming and recontextualization.
Bed may also be a playful jibe at the modernist concerns of his teacher at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Josef Albers (1888-1976). Albers had devoted years to a series of paintings known as the Homage to the Square (fig. 17.18), begun in 1950, five years prior to Rauschenberg's work. Squares of the same color are surrounded by concentric squares of other hues in a meticulous study of color interaction. Albers had emigrated to the United States from the German Bauhaus, a bastion of uncompromising modernism. Albers's experimentation with color screened out all extraneous elements.
In its own vernacular, the quilt in Bed is also an homage to the square, a variant on a traditional pattern known as "log cabin." Each square is surrounded by a border altering-in the manner of Albers-our perception of its scale and tone. In using a quilt ~s its point of departure, Bed wittily reasserts the priority of everyday life over the modernism of Albers, which drew precise boundaries between life and art. As Rauschenberg said later, ''.Albers's rule was to make order, but I only consider myself successful when I do something that resembles the lack of order I sense."14
Rauschenberg's aesthetic ran parallel to that of John Cage (who called their friendship a matter of "understanding at first sight").15 Rauschenberg had met the composer, who was older, in 1951. Cage's Zen-influenced aesthetic of emptiness was directed at tossing out the clutter of associations, memory, emotionalism, and received ideas about beauty in order to clear a mental and creative space where things could occur without the directing will of the artist. The principles of chance and random variation now took the place of aesthetic influence and creative will. Beginning in 1951, Rauschenberg did a series of monochromatic white paintings (fig. 17.19), radically purging his art of subject matter, gestural action, or emotional content, all of which were so central to the Expressionist avant-garde when Rauschenberg arrived in New York in 1949 as a young man. Looking at these white paintings one saw only shadows, drifting like random thoughts. Letting go of any control over the meaning of the work, Rauschenberg allowed for an unstructured experience open to events. Lacking was the sense of art as a projection of personality. Once the artwork is no longer an expression of the artist himself, what becomes important is the viewer's presence, which animates the work and becomes its content.
Rauschenberg' s early work also explored new ways of making images that removed the hand of the artist. In 1953 he did this quite literally, by erasing a drawing by his friend and colleague Willem de Kooning. He then presented it as a work of art in its own right. Ironically, it would become the most famous of de Kooning's drawings. Predictably, it does not reproduce well. Erased de Kooning Drawing symbolically acts out Rauschenberg's neutralization of art grounded in technique, style, and the aesthetic object. He chose de Kooning because, as he put it later, "his work was definitely art."16 Rauschenberg's Automobile Tire Print, a collaboration with John Cage in 1953, was a scroll-like strip of paper 264 inches long, across which an inked auto tire has been driven. Like Johns, Rauschenberg understood that any form or meaning imposed by the artist was a foreclosure of experience itself. The two artists, only years removed from World War II and working on the cusp of a radically new understanding of artmaking, shared a principled indifference to art forms which insist upon specific content. In their apolitical stance, they introduced a new kind of political content.