Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956; oil and paper collage on canvas, 80 x 100 in.
How much tension is there between representational painting and painting that is abstract? or I should say non-objective, in that all two dimensional representations require a summarizing, a thoughtful abstracting of three dimensional reality. I was thinking about this issue last week after writing this blog post on a new textile, whose shapes reminded me of those in one of Philip Guston's figurative works. It sent me back to a wonderful essay by the poet Randall Jarrell called "Against Abstract Expressionism", recommended by the artist Lori Ellison. He wrote it in 1957 as a devil's advocate, arguing against this "canonization of a new saint". I do love many of the paintings of this explosive period; the vigorous brush and robust space of a Franz Kline are thrilling.
Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1950 (Lavendar Mist); oil, enamel, and aluminum on canvas,
7 ft 3 in x 9 ft 10 in.
The skeins of paint in a Pollock envelop a mystery, a many-layered search for being. Jarrell, in his devil's advocate role, is eloquent about the actual world and how it is realized in paint:
Between the object and its representation there is an immense distance: within this distance much of painting lives.
He writes passionately about the hands in a painting by Georges de la Tour:
As one looks at what has been put into––withheld from––the hands, one is conscious of a mixture of emotion and empathy and contemplation; one is moved, and is unmoved, and is something else one has no name for, that transcends either affect or affectlessness....These parallel cylinders of La Tour's––these hands at once oil-and-canvas and flesh-and-blood; at once dynamic processes in the virtual space of the painting, and the spiritual gestures in the "very world" in which men are martyred, are mourned, and paint the mourning and the martyrdom––these parallel cylinders are only, in an abstract expressionist painting, four parallel cylinders: they are what they are.But even if "they are what they are" in a non-objective painting, no one is able to purge all association from them; colors and shapes tug at us too.
Jackson Pollock, She-wolf, 1943; oil, gouache, and plaster on canvas, 41 7/8 x 67 in.
Jarrell ended with this:
Man and the world are all that they ever were––their attractions are, in the end, irresistible; the painter will not hold out against them long.Many painters have held out; they continue to find great depth in minimal expression, but what is so interesting is that many of the abstract expressionist artists started out painting images, as did Pollock, and he was going back to the image at the end of his life. Philip Guston had a similar trajectory, from representation to abstraction and back to representation.
Milton Resnick, Untitled, 1983; oil on canvas, 60 x 80 in.
Milton Resnick was known for his densely worked canvases, brushed all over into a rich surface. I still remember stepping off an elevator years ago to be enveloped by the delicious scent of oil coming from his paintings in a gallery down the hall.
Milton Resnick, Untitled, 1990; acrylic on paper, 28 x 18 in.
Resnick also surprised everyone by painting small figure compositions towards the end of his life. He too found the world "irresistible".
Fairfield Porter, Portrait of John Myers, 1953; oil on canvas, 42 7/8 x 38 11/16 in.
There were artists at this time who resolutely refused to join the abstract bandwagon. One was Fairfield Porter, who was also an articulate and widely read critic. He claimed that because Clement Greenberg said that no one could paint figuratively he was determined to do so. He said
I like in art when the artist doesn't know what he knows in general; he only knows what he knows specifically.
Porter was an important role model for a younger generation of representational painters who felt embattled by the dominance of abstraction. How things have changed!
Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting: Black Rectangle, Blue Triangle, 1915; oil on canvas, 22 1/2 x 28 1/8 in.
How is it that I can still feel, contra Jarrell, so much heartfelt passion and pleasure in viewing a painting of a triangle and a rectangle?
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Yellow and Red, 1927, oil on canvas.
And how is it that this Mondrian takes me into a place of pure spirit? I wrote about my love of geometric abstraction in a blog post "Toward the Essential".
Fra Angelico, The Virgin Annunciate, ca. late 1420s; tempera and gold on panel; 12 3/8 x 10 inches.
But I also want to weep at the beauty and tenderness of a Fra Angelico Virgin. So in my answer to my initial question, I don't see a conflict at all; instead I see a long and rich relationship in which artists take a little from here and a little from there, with their work existing on a long continuum from objective realism to the determinedly non-objective. If we think of a giant of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, he himself wandered up and down that path, not touching either end. It is a beautiful path, full of inspiring, moving, and exhilarating painting.