Saturday, January 8, 2011

Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still and Willem De Kooning at MoMA

Barnett Newman, The Voice, 1950
Barnett Newman’s The Voice, 1950: an all “white” field, a zip on the right hand side of a huge canvas. The accompanying text plate in Abstract Expressionism at MoMA tells me this painting is about the flatness of the canvas, the anonymity of the paint, the absence of the artist. To be exact, this is the kind of painting that “downplayed the signs of the artist’s hand.” My experience of The Voice could not be more diametrically opposed to the one I am guided to have of this, one of Newman’s most vulnerable paintings. I become lost in the movement of “white” paint, which is really an intense and undulating array of off-whites in various shades, densities, hues. The zip as the unmistakeable signature of an artist that is everywhere present on this canvas, a canvas that is anything but anonymous, is the only thing that stops me. The zip is like a fence that pulls me back as I fall reverently into the expanse of paint and color that simultaneously becomes more than a surface. I cannot get past the fence, the zip, I can’t jump it, I can’t break it, I can’t move beyond or even along it. Steadfast, and yet somehow uncertain, overwhelming the right hand side of the canvas despite its complete understatement, the zip works to thrust me and my attention back to the center of the painting.

Other visitors took photos of The Voice, though I wondered why. As you can see from the image above, in reproduction, there is nothing much to see. Everything in The Voice happens as I stand before it, in person, over time, just like the (presumably human) voice of its title. In time, the white becomes too bright, it reflects the light and the after images become overwhelming, the glare is blinding. To compensate, I am pulled in towards the canvas, to examine the movements of the paint, its viscosity, the cracks on the painted surface which remind me of aged skin, or more likely, the tiny red branches of an irritated eye. And up close I see the strokes of the brush, horizontal and vertical, revealing that the “white” might just be white afterall. I see that it is only in the handling of the paint by this anything but anonymous painter that monochrome is transformed into an array of rich, variations of white, cream, off-white, dirty white, and so on. There is the virtuosity of The Voice.

Franz Kline, Chief, 1950
I have spent years looking at paintings by Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and so last week I chose to spen time with Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2, 1944 and 1951-T No. 3, 1951. I don’t think I have ever really understood Clyfford Still’s paintings perhaps because I am not American. I am always reminded that Still’s relationship to paint on the canvas is American, vehemently and decisively American. I wonder what this means? While I know enough about Newman to take issue with the text plate, when it comes to the paintings of Clyfford Still, I am less arrogant and more inclined to believe what I am told to think and to see. Still’s are apparently paintings for the new world, they are paintings that express the expanse and the possibility at the horizon of that expanse. It’s true, Europe knows nothing of expansiveness and the possibility of change is much harder in coming. And so, I can see, maybe these paintings are quintessentially American afterall.

Clyfford Still, 1944-N No. 2, 1944

A swathe of black spreads out over the surface of 1944-N No. 2: though of course it is not really a swathe, but a highly worked over and worked up, meticulously crafted surface of layer upon layer of variegated black paint. This halting, yet deep, intense black surface creates both a space of liberation, but also of doom, the unknown. And then at the edges and in the cracks that emerge in this vast wilderness of black, comes the color, the brown the red, as if looking out from a cave into the possibility of color and light, life and future existence at the edge of the world. Ironically, even though the room of Barnett Newman’s paintings precedes Still’s in the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, the possibility and the future in 1944 would pave the way for Newman, for Rothko, even for Pollock. Not only did they all explore color and its effect on perception, its relationship to other colors, but they were the progenitors of an American obsession with the dynamic relationship between the surface of the canvas and the necessity for a frame. We see this “problem” or relationship resolved by Newman in his trademark language of the zip, a problem that is first imagined by Still in those red and brown interventions into an all black color field. 

I am still thinking about Clyfford Still’s work as quintessentially American, and I wonder who is the American who engages with this work? Who is it painted for? Who is this so-called American who has such a relationship with the landscape? A relationship that is colored by such force and energy, a relationship that sees few limits as possibility opens up inside and across the sumptuous surface in black. Perhaps the one Still imagines is characterized by the self-reliance and physical drive of the American spirit – an energy I don’t see anywhere in Europe?

Willem De Kooning, Woman I, 1950

There were other paintings that stopped me for a time. Philip Guston’s gray paintings for example, but my interest in them is of a different kind. I loved the de Koonings for their color, for the plasticity of the world as he sees it, a world that is angry, filled with insanity, loneliness, isolation, and the fractured selves of the modern world. It is a world so radically different from the infinite expansiveness of Still’s American dream. De Kooning is American, but as we know, he was born in the Netherlands, and so his paintings are framed. Inside de Kooning’s frames, the great European traditions of portraiture infuse the power of Woman I, 1950. And the European exploration of color — inspite of De Kooning’s rendering color strange and artificial—is all over paintings such as A Tree in Naples, 1960, together with their homage to Cubism and other early twentieth century European movements. Simultaneously, on his canvases, figure and ground are in such battle with each other, wrestling with an intensity that creates motion and that familiar forthright energy of what it means to be American. 

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