The intelligence of the senses

December 11, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

The Painted Word. Tom Wolfe; Picador, $15.50 paper, 106 pp., 978-0-312-42758-0.

The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal, 1941–1960. Roald Nasgaard and Ray Ellenwood; $60.00 cloth, 156 pp., 978-1-55365-356-1.

9780312427580Tom Wolfe doesn’t much like Abstract Expressionism. The movement, which swept the avant-garde New York art scene in the postwar period, borrowed from the European schools of Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism, and displaced the Social Realist style that dominated American art during the Great Depression (and that featured the kind of figurative, representative mode of which Wolfe generally approves). Like Modernism, the term Abstract Expressionism is a bit of a catch-all, an umbrella appellation used to identify a group of artists who are quite stylistically distinct: Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline among them. What they share in common, however, is a general retreat away from naturalism, from the still lives, landscapes, and figurative painting that preceded them. Even the Surrealists, who were another influence on the postwar Abstract Expressionists, often resorted to representation in their work (think of the melting clocks in Dalì’s Persistence of Memory).

But the Abstract Expressionists, says Wolfe, faced a dilemma: if they were to continue in a straight line from the geometrical abstraction practised by Piet Mondrian, how would they inject a corresponding welter of emotion (the likes of which could be felt while viewing a realist painting) into their work? Wolfe’s answer: they would take refuge in theory.

“At a certain moment,” said critic Harold Rosenberg, who, along with Clement Greenberg, was largely responsible for bringing Abstract Expressionism into the public consciousness, “the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Greenberg’s theoretical approach inculcated a new idea of painting – Action Painting – which Wolfe neatly eviscerates in the central section of his short 1975 polemic The Painted Word:

The vision that Rosenberg inspired caught the public imagination for a time (the actual public!) as well as that of more painters, professional and amateur, than one is likely to want to recall. It was of Action Painter … a Promethean artist gorged with emotion and overloaded with paint, hurling himself and his brushes at the canvas as if in hand-to-hand combat with Fate. There! … there! … there in those furious swipes of the brush on canvas, in those splatters of unchained id, one could see the artist’s emotion itself – still alive! – in the finished product.

What one could not see, and what catches Wolfe up short, is anything resembling an object from the natural world – a horse or an apple or a water lily. Pure emotion, Wolfe suggests, results in something incomprehensible unless viewed through the prism of an artistic theory developed by the aesthetic elites who peopled Tenth Avenue’s new bohemia in the late 1940s and ’50s. They understood what the Abstract Expressionists were trying to do, and they would explain it to the uncomprehending masses who, for a time, whether because of the movement’s novelty or its air of sophisticated connection with the salons of Paris or maybe – who knows? – because they actually liked what they saw, paid attention.

What they didn’t do was pay money for the paintings themselves:

In fact, the press was so attentive that Harold Rosenberg, as well as Pollack, wondered why so little Abstract Expressionism was being bought. “Considering the degree to which it is publicized and feted,” Rosenberg said, “vanguard painting is hardly bought at all.” Here Rosenberg was merely betraying the art world’s blindness toward its own strategies. He seemed to believe that there was an art public in the same sense that there was a reading public and that, consequently, there should be some sort of public demand for the latest art objects. He was doing the usual, in other words. First you do everything possible to make sure your world is antibourgeois, that it defies bourgeois tastes, that it mystifies the mob, the public, that it outdistances the insensible middle-class multitudes by light-years of subtlety and intellect – and then, having succeeded admirably, you ask with a sense of See-what-I-mean? outrage: look they don’t even buy our products! (Usually referred to as “quality art.”)

History has proven Wolfe’s analysis to be dreadfully short-sighted: in 2006, Pollock’s painting No. 5, 1948 sold for $140 million. That’s a sizable payday, which renders Wolfe’s splenetic satirical jibes somewhat stale in retrospect. Greenberg’s comment that “all profoundly original art looks ugly at first” may indeed be accurate; Wolfe discovers in this quip what he characterizes as “a kind of Turbulence Theorem”: “If a work of art of a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great.” While Wolfe clearly intends this to be deprecatory, it may be possible to argue the validity of at least the first half of the equation. (Those who are able to appreciate, say, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music might even be able to find agreement with the second half.)

Still, regardless of whether the sting of Wolfe’s satire has dated, the general premise of his book – that the American art of the postwar years was so disdainful of easy comprehension that art theory itself became an art form and its proponents (not the actual consumers of the work) became the tastemakers who decided what qualified as high artistic achievement – is a provocative one. The closer art came to the “flatness” that Wolfe suggests Greenberg prized, the more it retreated up its own fundament. The fact that Wolfe seems more approving of the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein (they are, after all, at least figurative painters, even if the figure happens to be a can of Campbell’s tomato soup) than he does of Pollock or de Kooning should not surprise anyone who has read the essay “My Three Stooges,” from the 2000 collection Hooking Up, in which Wolfe is more laudatory of mediocre realists like Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis than of a sublime aesthete like Henry James.

The impassioned cri de coeur that Wolfe ascribes to Pollack – “If I’m so terrific, why ain’t I rich?” – conflates the notions of art and commerce in the same way conservatives of all stripes tend to: art, and artists, should be self-sufficient, which necessitates being accessible to a large portion of the public. Above all, artists must not alienate the public, they must give the public what it wants. Bob Dylan sneering “Play it fucking loud” over a chorus of boos at Royal Albert Hall in 1966 would not sit well with Wolfe, if one can possibly imagine him in the audience for that show (he would likely be the one shouting, “Judas!”).

But great art often arises out of precisely this kind of reaction to popular tastes, which tend to be conformist and bland. The notion that art should be disturbing confounds Wolfe; any artist who wishes to create something truly new will of necessity disturb the public’s complacency, and must therefore resign herself (in the short term, at least) to a kind of marginalization.

coverThis was not lost on the Automatistes, a group of artists, dancers, poets, and playwrights that sprung up in postwar Montreal. On August 9, 1948, the group, under the auspices of its leader, Paul-Émile Borduas, published its manifesto, entitled Refus Global (Total Refusal), which “was a call to the individual conscience, an admonition to break completely with all of society’s conventions and ‘its utilitarian spirit.'” So writes Roald Nasgaard in his comprehensive and illuminating essay “The Automatiste Revolution in Painting,” which accompanies the astonishing new volume The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941–1960.

Wolfe makes no mention of Refus Global or of the Automatistes (of whom the most internationally famous was probably Jean-Paul Riopelle), but one can only imagine the fits of high dudgeon the manifesto would drive him to. As Nasgaard summarizes:

Only when “rational effort” had been put “in its proper place” could “our passions [shape] the future spontaneously, unpredictably, compulsively.” In this better future, men and women would be free to “realize their full, individual potential according to the unpredictable, necessary order of spontaneity – in splendid anarchy.” Or as Borduas had otherwise phrased it in a letter he sent to Leduc in Paris on January 6, 1948: “Intention must be pushed into the background, along with reason. Make way for the intelligence of the senses.”

Borduas’s notion of “splendid anarchy,” building as it does on the work of the Surrealists, and in particular the ideas of André Breton, is somewhat disingenuous, given the evident underlying control that the Automatiste painters evinced in their work (the quality that puts immediate lie to the oft-repeated cavil, “My kid could paint that”). Nasgaard points out, for instance, that Riopelle’s paintings are predicated upon a “strategy of overlaying his densely packed and intensely multicoloured carpet of taches with a network of spurts and rays of paint in the form of fine lines, sometimes laid down freehand, sometimes as if drawn with a ruler.” Borduas himself was a consummate stylist, whose Les Arènes de Lutèce, for example, is “ordered … (without going geometric) with an almost Mondrianesque precision.” More theory, perhaps – but it does not take a theoretician to see these things first-hand on the canvases themselves.

“A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is: a certain arrangement of colors and forms on a canvas,” writes Wolfe of the new modern aesthetic; he, of course, sees this as a step backward from the representational art that preceded it. In Wolfe’s eyes, dispensing with representation means that art is no longer about anything other than itself. But the Automatistes rightly realized that a carefully structured synthesis of colour and form could call forth an emotional reaction every bit as powerful as a work of Social Realism. It is the deep structure that saves a work such as Riopelle’s Sans titre 1952 from being unforgivably solipsistic on the one hand or just an accretion of blobs of paint on the other, and it is this deep structure that allows for the work’s emotional resonance.

Automatism was an artistic movement, not a political one, but it is impossible to separate the Refus Global from the context in which it was written and published: that of Maurice Duplessis’s Quebec. By calling for a definitive break with accepted societal structures, the Automatistes set themselves in opposition to the dominant mood in Quebec at the time, which was conservative, authoritative, and dominated by Catholic dogma. It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that in so doing, they helped lay the groundwork for the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

It is not necessary to know any of this to appreciate the work of the Automatiste painters, which is liberally reproduced in The Automatiste Revolution. The 62 full-colour plates, featuring paintings by Borduas, Riopelle, Fernand Leduc, Pierre Gavreau, and others, provide a sumptuous overview of the movement, and Nasgaard’s essay (along with one by Ray Ellenwood, entitled “Automatisme Beyond ‘The Barracks of Plastic Arts,'” about the other disciplines that got swept up in the revolution) provides a detailed historical background that helps situate the group in the context of European and North American art at the time.

Wolfe’s disdainful antipathy toward Abstract Expressionism proves bracingly funny, even 34 years after his little polemic was first published. But The Automatiste Revolution – a visually sumptuous, intellectually challenging volume – provides a welcome corrective to his windy biliousness.