We might think of the 1950s and
early 60s as a melting pot of the "West Side stories" of the period and
California life style of the Mrs. Robinsons (look it up if you don't know
what the reference is). Culturally, this is a period of jazz, the early
Beatles, Elvis Presley, Simon and Garfunkle, Ken Kesey and Holden Caulfield.
It's also Father Knows Best and Leave it Beaver. In short,
this is a period which is characterized by:
• a changed socio-cultural environment: affluence, the growth of mass media, conformity and estrangement
• a culture of “cool”: this is not an existential culture but a culture in which the emphasis shifts from the interior, subjective world to the objective exterior, from the interest in communicating without describing the world to an interest in the question of how things have meaning.
|Ellsworth Kelly: Green, Blue, Red, 1964||Frank Stella: Jasper's Dilemma, 1962-3|
|Morris Louis: Sarabande, 1959||Helen Frankenthaler: Mountains and Sea, 1952|
Frankenthaler's development draws
on her response to Pollock's liberation of the artist from the canvas and
the brush, to the lyrical use of color and forms in Kandinsky's pre-world
war I paintings, and Gorky's own response to Kandinsky which further freed
colors from form and line. In addition to these painterly influences,
it seems quite likely that Frankenthaler was also responding to the sculptor
David Smith's style of "painting in space." Without creating spatial
illusionism in her paintings, she suggests a 2-dimensional version of this
idea of painting in space. Louis did not develop his style of staining
the canvas until after seeing Frankenthaler's paintings, creating a "matriarchal"
line of influence in this case. Yet, his style is really quite different.
Because he saturates the canvas even more than Frankenthaler, he creates
a more complete fusion of color and canvas than even she does.
|Bridget Riley: Shift, 1963||Victor Vasarely: Alom, 1966|
Op Art: Central to op art
is the belief that certain patterns and combinations of black, white and
color can produce automatic, sensory responses in the viewer. If
the response is automatic, it should be almost identical for everyone;
therefore, all viewers are equal and the artist is little more than someone
who produces a physiological response by understanding the laws of optics.
The op artists also believe that some of these patterns produce a type
of visual instability in which the viewer sees forms and colors that are
not in the painting. This instability becomes a metaphor for movement.
Op art, although very familiar to an American audience, was primarily a
|Riley: Blaze 4, 1964||Riley: Cataract, 1963|
Although she does not accept the label of op artist for her later work, Bridget Riley's early black-and-white work is a good example of op art. Her later work reflects her interests in visual problems, in the implications of setting limits on what the artist can manipulate in a given work, and in her goal of wanting to produce a profound viewing experience without using recognizable subject matter. In 1995, Riley quoted a passage from Igor Stravinsky (The Poetics of Music) to describe her personal beliefs about the value of setting limits on the composition of the art work:
“My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.”By the 1990s, when she referred to the above quote, she was no longer making black-and-white paintings but had begun to produce effusively colored paintings.
|Riley: Sapphire, 1995||Riley: Andante, 1980/1|
Joan Mitchell, some of whose work
evokes comparisons with the work of Philip Guston in the 1950s, described
her paintings as "remembered landscapes which involve my feelings" and
said that the beginning of a painting lay in the memory of a feeling.
Artists such as Mitchell, Milton Resnick and Guston were interested in
color and opticality, but unlike Kelly or Stella (and more like the abstract
expressionists), they include a more subjective or personalized tone in
their paintings. Or is it just that we're inclined to see thick and dynamic
brushwork as being emotional and subjective whereas the flat application
of paint seems emotionless? Nonetheless, the subjectivity of artists such
as Mitchell is associated to the color and the paint, not to some narrative
or mythology about the reconstruction of the world (as might be the case
with the abstract expressionists) or the autobiographical (as we often
assume for the female artist).
|Joan Mitchell: Gently, 1982||Mitchell: Evenings on 73rd Street, 1956-7|
1. The artist as story-teller or "historian": in some cases this is a strong rejection of abstract expressionism AND a rejection of purification in art. But choosing to emphasize narrative does not have to be an explicit rejection of abstract expressionism, just a rejection of the negating and self-cancelling qualities of the abstract expressionist approach to narrative. In some cases, the artists in this category overlap with objective, formalist abstraction in that they seek a non-illusionary, non-gestural approach to the figure--we could call it a factual and "cool" approach to the painting. But the perception of these paintings as "cool" may be misleading.
2. The gestural-figural painter may be a painter who seems to engage in a dialogue between abstraction and figuration, often with the figure emerging from the abstraction. Some of these artists seem to follow most closely in the tradition of De Kooning. Diebenkorn is the best, although not the only example, and in some significant ways, he is quite different from de Kooning. Nonetheless, both he and de Kooning seem to resolve the "dialogue" in favor of abstraction.
Some of the figural artists who
begin to emerge by the 1950s (or a little before, in some cases) include
Alice Neel, Alex Katz, Jacob Lawrence, Grace Hartigan, Philip Pearlstein,
Nelle Blaine, Larry Rivers, Joan Brown, Fairfield Porter, and others.
|Alice Neel: The Last Sickness, 1953||Philip Pearlstein: Seated Nude on Green Drape, 1969|
|Alex Katz: The Black Jacket, 1972 (left side of two-panel painting)||Richard Diebenkorn: Girl Looking at Landscape, 1957|
Katz's paintings speak to the social life and customs of his time, the society of cool conformity, and they speak to this through color, form, and figure. Katz, in interviews, described himself as being uninterested in interior, psychological states, but captured by the optical experience of what he saw. When something particular moves him, he said, he would begin to generalize it and make a symbol out of it. This optical experience which seized him, an experience of color and form, was always found in the ordinary activities and people of daily life events: people playing cards, gathering at a cocktail party, driving a car, standing and talking. The paintings, taken as individual pieces of a larger group, reveal repeated figures, repeated locales, repeated activities.
Diebenkorn said of his painting: "I want the action to be in the painting. My investment is in the moods, colors, and shapes rather than in the situation depicted." In his early work, Diebenkorn reveals an interactive style of painting which moves back and forth between figure and landscape and then between figure/landscape and abstraction. Eventually, abstraction dominates his output although he maintains that throughout his career, it was never the figure or subject which interested him but chromatic and spatial effects in the painting.
For the California artists and other
post-abstract expressionists (Pearlstein, Rivers, and Hartigan, for example),
style or technique became a subject. The characteristics of abstract expressionism
(the large-scale painting which becomes an "environment," the all-over
composition, suggestions of automatism, the gestural expressiveness) were
basically broken down and isolated. These elements then became new "signatures"
which impart additional meaning to the subject matter.