The Rise of the New York School, following World War II, coincides with the emergence of the Cold War. A window of time was developing out of the context of fear where artists secluded themselves in their studios in Greenwich Village and individually sought the refuge of abstraction. These avant-garde artists recognized that the intersections of lines and non-objective forms had the potential to create powerful visual effects. Jackson Pollock took this realization to a new level of significance with his drip paintings of the late 1940s to mid 1950s. Pollock seemed to intuitively understand Wassily Kandinsky’s abstractions. The famed Russian painter stated, in Cahiers d’art, 1932, the following: “A round spot in a painting can be more significant than a human figure…The impact of the acute angle of a triangle on a circle produces an effect no less powerful than the finger of God touching the finger of Adam in Michelangelo.” What are your thoughts, within the frame offered by Kandinsky, on Pollock’s unique way of approaching the canvas as a choreography of movements “dancing” above the canvas surface?
The Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky was a powerful proponent for informing/persuading/educating the audience to see not only the efficacy of the abstract imagery in Modernist works of art but also the need to sustain the audience’s gaze and convince them to “willingly suspend their initial disbelief”. Not an easy task in the third decade of the 20th century! In his Creative Art (1931) Gorky states: “The critics, artists, and public (are) suspended in the air like vultures, waiting in the air for the death of the distinctive art of this century.” Of course we know, blessed by our 82 years of historic distance, that Modernism and Modernist attitudes of the experimental artists would indeed prevail! But Gorky, like so many artists, knew the transformation would not be easy and a heavy price would be enacted on those experimental artists who were brave (or foolish) enough to push for change. What are your thoughts on Gorky’s statement?
Photograph of Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky Working in his Studio on Activities on the Field, part of the Newark Airport mural, 1936 (part of the Federal Art Project)
Arshile Gorky, The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, 1944
The experience and horror of WWI was so great, it resonated so deeply in the eyes and mind of artists, that the creative arena ennobled itself by venting through social criticism. The visual artists began to understand the age they lived in, the age they witnessed, through optical lenses imposing urgency and emptiness. The previous higher properties of concern for artists, portraiture, history painting, technology, etc., could no longer be extracted from life’s experiences with any moral authority. Richard Huelsenbeck wrote the following in the Dadaist Manifesto (1918): “With Dadaism a new reality comes into its own. Life appears as a simultaneous muddle of noises, colors and spiritual rhythms, which is taken unmodified into Dadaist art, with all its sensational screams and fevers of is reckless everyday psyche and with all its brutal reality.” What are your thoughts on Dada and on Huelsenbeck’s manifesto comment?
Dr. Richard Huelsenbeck, Berlin, 1917
Dr. Richard Huelsenbeck, Dada Almanac
During the years immediately leading up to the First World War, a group of artists in Italy began to extol the “cleansing” aspect of war and entered into a campaign or crusade to sweep the art world free of its age-old traditions, conventions and rituals. It was anticipated by these Italian artists that this effort to “clean house” would be met with fierce resistance. As such, these avant-garde artists were willing to meet resistance with force. One of the leading Italian Futurist painters, who also happened to be a gifted writer, was Umberto Boccioni. In his Manifesto of the Futurist Painters, published in 1910, Boccioni exclaimed: “A clean sweep should be made of all stale and threadbare subject matter in order to express the vortex of modern life—a life of steel, fever, pride and headlong speed…The accusation ‘madmen’, which has been employed to gag innovators, should be considered a noble and honourable title…Sincerity and virginity, more than any other qualities, are necessary to the interpretation of nature…Motion and light destroy the materiality of bodies.” What are your thoughts on the Italian Futurists in general and Boccioni’s manifesto thoughts in particular?
Umberto Boccioni, Self Portrait, 1905
Umberto Boccioni, Charge of the Lancers, 1915
Running parallel with the “scientific” findings published by Freud and Jung, the experimental visual artists of the first decade of the 20th century turned their gaze to the primitive forms of non-Western cultures for inspiration. Within the avant-garde group Der Blau Reiter, The German Expressionist artist/critic August Macke proclaimed: “Are not the savage artists, who have their own form, strong as the form of thunder?” (August Macke, quoted in Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting, 1957). Why do you suppose so many experimental artists in Western Europe chose to turn their gaze away from Western muses for inspiration in favor of non-Western sources such as the primitive masks of African tribes?
August Macke, Self Portrait, 1906
As we begin to leave Vienna and the Secession Movement, we find ourselves confronting a new approach embraced by experimental artists regarding the process of fixing something into visual form. This new approach, called Cubism, may be best understood by the following words offered by French poet, playwright, novelist and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire: “The art of painting original arrangements composed of elements taken from conceived rather than perceived reality.” (Guillaume Apollinaire, The Beginnings of Cubism, 1912). Within this context offered by Apollinaire, what are your initial thoughts on Cubism?
Photograph of Guillaume Apollinaire
Photograph of Guillaume Apollinaire wounded in WWI
Oskar Kokoschka, the Austrian painter, poet and playwright, turned his gaze toward the fantasies rummaging around and through his conscious and unconscious mind. OK, he often signed his works with just his initials, was intrigued by the investigations of Freud and Jung into the complexities of dreams and fantasies. Kokoschka sought a painterly style which would engage him into the mysteries of dreams. Fortunately for us, the artist had quite a lot to say verbally on the subject of dreams and fantasies which helps us, the observer, open up the various layers of his imagery for analysis. With regards to dreams and fantasies, Kokoschka wrote:
“Consciousness is a sea ringed with visions…True dreams and visions should be as visible to the artist as the phenomena of the objective world…The life of the consciousness is boundless. It interpenetrates the world and is woven in all its imagery…Therefore, we must hearken closely to our inner voice…The awareness of imagery is part of living… a life which derives its power from within itself will focus on the perception… of images…How do I define a work of art? It is not an asset in the stock-exchange sense, but a man’s timid attempt to repeat the miracle that the simplest peasant girl is capable of at any time, that of magically producing life out of nothing…Open your eyes at last and see… now I will open the book of the world for you; there are no words in it, just pictures.”
Do you agree with the artist’s understanding of dreams and fantasies? Do you respond to your own dreams and fantasies as you develop your studio or non-studio work? Your thoughts?
Oskar Kokoschka, Self Portrait
Oskar Kokoschka, Bride of the Wind, 1913