The End Of Modernism


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A lecture designed to introduce the basic principles of Modernism and its fragmentation in the 1960s. Its basic emphasis is upon the plurarity of forms of art spawned from reactionary and critical break with Greenberg's notion of 'pure', autonomous disciplines.
(If you want to read my notes, download this presentation).

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  • Postmodernism isn’t an easy subject to understand. In fact, critical aspects of postmodernism are opposed to (or at least sceptical of) the notion that there is a single way to understand any given thing. Rather than accepting ‘truths’ or ‘authentic essences’ it politicises them, and attempts to reveal that they are the products of struggle and repression, the result of powerful discourses rather than eternal, universal values. Today’s presentation is intended to give you a taste of what we’ll be looking at over the next 11 weeks, while hopefully equipping you with a basic framework –a starting point – with which to start to understand postmodernism in art.
  • Today I’ve chosen to start and end this presentation by looking at these two paintings. I’ve chosen them because ostensibly they’re quite similar. They are both abstract paintings. They are both made on very large canvases, the front surface of which they cover completely without border or frame. The colours, though admittedly not identical, do seem to share similar functions: the blues or cool greys seem to comprise the background (or underlying layer), while the warm colours appear on the surface, creating a sense of depth or space. The marks themselves, either appearing like drips, or scrapes, or spats, are suggestive of some kind of intuitive process rather than calculated, premeditated technique. Yet for all these paintings’ similarities, they belonged to two very different discourses on art, two very different ways of understanding what art is. Indeed, we’ll return to this idea towards the end of this presentation.
  • If postmodernism in art implies some ‘going beyond’ modernism, or establishing a critical dialogue with it [preferable], then it seems appropriate that we start with this question. And in order to find an answer to this question we must start by exploring the work of Clement Greenburg, a very influential American art critic after the second World War.
  • In an essay called “Modernist Painting” Greenberg offered an explanation for the developments of modern art. This explanation reveals a lot about the way he thought art should be produced and understood. For Greenberg, crucial to modernism was the capacity of an individual discipline to criticise itself (incidentally Western Civilization was placed at the forefront of this process!). In the case of painting therefore, Greenberg pictured an internal process of criticism to generated by the act of painting itself. [Read quote]
  • This self-critical tendency, according to Greenberg, had been guiding modern art (i.e. Painting) towards what he termed ‘flatness’. For painting to be distinct from sculpture it had to give up its preoccupation with representing (three-dimensional) objects. This development is traced back in “Modern Painting” through a number of centuries. More recent examples of this tendency offered by Greenberg are: Cezanne, Manet, Monet and Mondrian, among others.Of this example Greenberg states: “Manet’s became the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted.” What this purely formal reading misses is any significance the content of this painting might have. For your interest: that the subject of this portrait Berthe Morisot, who was one of the few female artists to exhibit in the Paris Salon and with the Impressionists.
  • Monet’s contribution to the ‘critical’ progress of modern painting towards flatness was deemed to be his ‘all over’ painting, it’s apparent freedom from the constraints of the frame.
  • I hope it’s fairly clear now why Greenberg would champion an artist like Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s (ostensibly) radical departure from figurative representation, epitomised in his infamous drip paintings, were seen to be the pinnacle of a radical, avant-garde art – the culmination of modern arts ‘progress’. They seemed to typify a ‘pure’ type of painting, alluding only to painting itself.
  • Greenberg’s status as an critic essentially helped to propel the artists he promoted, while also spawning like minded critics. However, his formalist approach, in other words his sole emphasis on the aesthetic and technical innovations of particular key (western artists), an his emphasis on purity neglected the often contradictory, political and social dimensions of the artist’s work. I’ll here offer a few examples and discuss some of the broader issues at stake in ‘Abstract Expressionist’ painting.
  • The label ‘abstract expressionism’ who became synonymous with the ‘modern painting’ Greenberg had promoted, but actually included a diverse range of artistic approaches and outlooks, some of which were subsumed by political pressures.Greenberg was connected to the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a CIA initiative reflecting the domestic policies in the United States during the cold war. In this context ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was hailed as the great expression of American liberty, diametrically opposed to the constraints of Communist countries who enforced socialist realism. This is ironic given that key figures in this movement (including Pollock and Mark Rothko) actually harboured socialist sympathies. (Pollock had also had an interest in Jungian psychoanalysis and ‘primitive’ symbolism, though that seemed to be edited out of his later works.)In the example provided here, which provides a striking visual contrast to the work of Pollock, Robert Motherwell loads his work with symbolic meanings and references. This piece is part of a series of works called Elegies to the Spanish Republic, a nod toward the fight against fascism in Spain. According to the art historian David Hopkins (Hopkins 2000, p.24), there are also allusions here to the work of various Spanish artists such as Goya, Velasquez and Picasso, as well as the shapes constituting a particular innuendo – a close up of a bull’s genitals featured in a certain Spanish poem.
  • So the actual complexity of the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ work seems to belie Greenberg’s conception of ‘purity’, and reveal such a notion to be based upon careful selection, or more strongly, exclusion. Throughout the writings of these artists – and critics such as Greenberg – there is evidence of a certain sense of cultural superiority. Indeed, New York, the base for these writers and critics, had surpassed Paris as the hub of cultural power. Barnett Newman wrote, in the essay from which this painting takes its name, “I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European Culture, are finding the answer... We are feeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European Painting [...] The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation”. (Newman [1948] 2004, p. 581-2) In addition to this, there is also an implicit “masculinity” apparent in the posturing some of the Abstract Expressionists. Newman’s statements represent the way that the power of the art to represent the inner feelings of the artists was largely naturalised. Newman said in and interview, for example: “I start each painting as if I had never painted before. I present no dogma, no system, no demonstrations. I have no formal solutions... I work only out of high passion”. (Newman [1962] 2004, p. 783) Perhaps one feature connecting the Abstract Expressionist was the belief that their work really tapped into to underlying (in some case the term ‘primitive’ was used) human essence. [Newman’s The First man was an Artist]Greenberg’s reading of Newman’s work, to return us to his strict definition of modernism was that “ the new openess they [Newman, Rothko and Still] have attained ... Point [s] to what I would risk saying is the only way to high pictorial art in the near future.” (Greenberg [1962] 2004, p786.) Moving away from Pollock somewhat here, he also says, “Newman’s occasionally brushy edge, and the torn but exact one left by Still’s knife, are there as if to advertise both their awareness and their repudiation of the easy effects of spontaneity” (Ibid)
  • Greenberg’s conception of modernism, at its most influential in the 1950s, seemed to hold together relatively well, despite the contradictions implicit in ‘Abstract Expressionism’. In fact, Greenberg’s writings, coupled with the patronage of the American cultural policies were widely disseminated. A travelling exhibition called The New American Painting organised by the Museum of Modern Art 1959 was accompanied by an essay by Alfred J Barr, a long time affiliate of the museum and a strong advocate of the idea that ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was a sign of America’s liberalism. In the 1960s however, the emergence of Minimalism would add extra strain to the meticulous formal rules laid out by Greenberg, threatening the ‘purity’ and coherence of modern art ‘from within’. Frank Stella’s work, for example, seems to continue Modern Paintings’ internal process of self reflection, while pushing it to its limits. A critic called Michael Fried, who was close to Greenberg, offers some incite into one of the aspects of Minimalism that would cause it to break with the Modern paradigm. Though he’s essentially an advocate of formalist criticism, he writes (when discussing the work of Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski) that “All judgements of value begin and end in experience, or ought to...” (Though he qualifies this by saying that this can be an informed judgement) (Fried [1965] 2004, p. 787). Here is a hint then of the part played by the spectator, the ambiguity of objects subject to interpretation.Elsewhere Fried wrote ofStella’s work, “It is as though depicted shape has become less and less capable of venturing on its own, of pursuing its own ends; as though useless, in a given painting, depicted shape manages to participate in – by helping to establish – the authority of the shape of the support, conviction is aborted and the painting fails.” (Fried [1966] 2004, p.795) What seems to be at stake here is the status of the work as an object. (If you look at your reading materials, those by Roland Barthes might offer significant incite here into the way that intellectuals were trying to better account for the object’s complex relationship to meaning – see Semantics of the Object.) In passing, Stella’s works have also been compared to corporate logos.
  • Though Donald Judd would continue to cite the influence of Pollock, Clifford Still, and BarnettNewman, his work constitutes a departures from their practice. Significantly like a number of minimalists, this included a transition from painterly abstracts to sculptural forms (a transgression of Greenberg’s insistence on the separation of different disciplines). In addition to this, his work would often be manufactured by various companies, dramatically changing Judd’s relationship to the work relative to the ‘Abstract Expressionists’, whose (‘existentially heightened’) relationship to the production of the work seems all important. Interestingly, you’ll see how suddenly representations of this work start to feature the space of the gallery too – perhaps another sign that the spectator was starting to be considered.Judd also tried to avoid the type of aesthetic decision making typified by the artists representative of Greenberg’s modernism, and instead he suggested that objects simply be placed in some systematic fashion, one next to the other. This relates to the work of certain conceptual artists (such as Sol LeWitt) but firmly emphasises materiality.
  • Robert Morris did not accept the significance of the ‘Abstract Expressionists’ in the way Judd did. Rather he was more interested in a European tradition related to the Constructivists. His works effaced personal traces (i.e. Distinct colour or shape) and pushed towards anonymity (again distinct from the idiosyncratic tendencies of Willem de Kooning or Franz Kline). More importantly perhaps, his work evoked a sense of theatricality. Each piece became a type of actor, in space. Again this seems like an ‘incestuous’ notion that crucially emphasises the role that the viewer had in completing the work of art – i.e. Walking round, under things, next to things. (Again Barthes’ texts might be useful reference, see The Death of the Author).
  • I hope this is giving you an indication of how Modernism was stating to decay – loose coherence – from within. I hope it’s apparent too, that Greenberg’s particular reading of ‘Modern Art’, which gained so much momentum, essentially neglected, or to use a stronger term ,represseda whole gamut of experiences and possibilities for art. This is just as apparent in his readings of the work he felt typified modernism as it is implied by the artistic practices he omitted from his account of art. One such example can be noted by looking at the writing of art critic Harold Rosenberg: he wrote “At a certain moment 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. (Rosenberg [1952] 2004, p.589) Neglected in Greenberg’s account was the performance, the body, the ritual of certain painters. To him the object was important because it was aesthetically complete, to the next generation of artists it would be the action of Pollock’s work that would be considered – of which the painting is really just an incidental outcome.Rosenberg once likened one of Frank Stella’s paintings to a closed door. To play upon this metaphor: for the rest of this presentation, before I return to the two paintings introduced at the beginning, all I simply want to do is open this door. To reveal the clamouring, messy, exciting world knocking to get in.
  • [Music:The Beatles Revolution (1968) Lennon/McCartney]The 1960s was a highly politicised decade, while also seeing a dramatic rise in consumerism and popular culture (what Greenberg pejoratively termed ‘kitsch’). Though it would absurd to suggest that postmodernism had a clear beginning, 1968 is often seen to be important (though highly contested). In France, events culminated in a student demonstration, linked to an avant-garde art movement called Situationism, which objected to the spectacularisation of society and it’s divorce from real life. The philosopher Michel Foucault has also suggested that 1968 marked a repositioning of academic understanding, a turn towards culture and everyday life. Coupled with the ongoing struggle for civil rights, this move might be seen part of a broader questioning of fundamental values (including identity and subjectivity). A year earlier saw the publication of two major texts by Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology. These works similarly question underlying values by placing an emphasis upon the way that meaning is constructed in language. The importance attributed to these works signifies a turn towards considering language as being a prime mediator in all social interactions, what mounted in intellectual terms to what Barthes called The Semiotic Challenge.Artists in the 1960s would explode the concepts of modern art, proliferating an intoxicating range of different practices and approaches to making art. That which had been repressed by Greenberg’s version of modernism (and perhaps more accurately the structures that sustained them) was about a make a dramatic return (if indeed it had ever been away!).
  • [Weeks 3 and 4]
  • [Week 5]
  • [Week 5]Implied in these examples are also the movements in art neglected by Greenberg’s accounts. Primarily Dada and Surrealism (though Futurism, Bauhaus and Constructivism are also worth noting – amongst others!) Levine also reproductions – or found – works by Walker Evans.
  • [Week 8 (Week 6 Holtzer)]
  • [Week 9]
  • It could be argued that postmodern art politicises visual imagery, critically highlighting the power structures implicit in its meaning. Perhaps it could equally be argued however (al la Julian Stallabrass) that the eclecticism of much postmodern art was simply the result of a restructuring of political and economic systems. A question worth considering over the next number of weeks, and one which will be left open, might be, “does postmodern art critically reflect upon consumerism or merely reiterate its diffuse, eclectic strategies?”
  • To conclude I’ll point out the differences in the way these paintings are considered [Handout: Hal Foster’s The Expressive Fallacy from Recodings] This is to emphasise the cultural (linguistic) turn central to postmodernism. Where the Pollock piece can represent authentic immediate feelings – emanating from ‘modern man’ – the latter is viewed as being the product of signs. Additionally, the ‘purity’ of Pollock piece (which actually contains semi-figurative elements and has a history that complicates Pollock’s role in making the work, suggesting that friends began it with him on a drunken night) is difficult to determine in Richter’s work: the squidgy made marks, and softer edges, seeming to be endlessly evocative of his photo realist works. Where the first was able to attach to a notion of purity, or authenticity, the latter is part of critical perspective that denies that we can transcend the language we habitually deploy, while attempting to promote an art which makes such conventions apparent.
  • The End Of Modernism

    1. 1. Postmodernism in Art: An Introduction<br />The end of modernism: 1960s art and culture<br />Tutor: James Clegg<br />
    2. 2. Gerhard Richter (1986) Blue. Oil on canvas (300cm * 300cm)<br />Jackson Pollock (1952) Blue Poles number 11. (212.9 cm * 488.9 cm)<br />
    3. 3. What was modernism in art?<br />Clement Greenberg (1909- 1904)<br />
    4. 4. Clement Greenberg<br />“The task of self-criticism [in modern art] became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered ‘pure’, and in its ‘purity’ find the guarantee of its standard of quality as well as of its independence.” (Greenberg [1965] 2004, p.775)<br />
    5. 5. EdouardManet (1872) Berthe Morisot with a Fan. Oil on canvas.<br />
    6. 6. Claude Monet (1908) Water Lilies. Oil on canvas (98 * 89cm)<br />
    7. 7. Jackson Pollock (1950) 1950 Number One (Lavender Mist) Oil on Canvas(221 * 300cm)<br />
    8. 8. The consequences of Greenberg’s modernism:<br />“...visual art should confine itself to what is given in visual experience, and make no reference to anything given in any other order of experience” (Ibid p.777)<br />Backgound: Morris Louis (1961) Theta. Acrylic on Canvas<br />
    9. 9. Robert Motherwell (1949) At Five in the Afternoon. <br />
    10. 10. Barnett Newman (1950-1) VirHeroicusSubliminus[man heroic sublime].<br />
    11. 11. Clifford Still (1948) Clifford Still [?]<br />
    12. 12. Minimalism<br />Frank Stella (1959) Marriage of Reason and Squalor<br />
    13. 13. Minimalism<br />Agnes Martin (1964) The Peach<br />
    14. 14. Minimalism<br />Donald Judd (1966) Untitled. Stainless Steal and Yellow PlexiGlass<br />Donald Judd (1974) Untitled [six boxes] . Brass.<br />
    15. 15. Minimalism<br />Robert Morris, Installation at the Green Gallery, New York, December 1964.<br />
    16. 16. Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978)<br />Action painting?<br />
    17. 17. 60s Culture<br />
    18. 18. CaroleeSchneemann (1975) Interior Scroll<br />
    19. 19. Andy Warhol (1963) Ambulance Disaster<br />
    20. 20.
    21. 21. Jenny Holtzer<br />Daniel Burden (1968) Untitled.<br />
    22. 22. Gilbert and George (1984) Life.<br />
    23. 23. Questioning modernism<br />The art practices of the 1960s reflected a broader questioning of the values underpinning society.<br />In art, these questions would be directed against the conventions assuring modern art of it’s “purity”: the autonomy of traditional disciplines (such as painting or sculpture), the separation of art from life or popular culture, the gallery system, the status of artist and role of the spectator, to name but a few.<br />
    24. 24. Art & Language (1980) Portrait of Lenin by V. Charangovich (1970) in the Styile of Jackson Pollock II.<br />
    25. 25. Gerhard Richter (1986) Blue. Oil on canvas (300cm * 300cm)<br />Jackson Pollock (1952) Blue Poles number 11. (212.9 cm * 488.9 cm)<br />
    26. 26. References<br />Fried, M ([1965] 2004) Three American Painters, in W and Paul Wood (eds) Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. Pp. 787-93.<br />Fried, M ([1966] 2004) Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings, in W and Paul 793-5.<br />Greenberg, C ([1962] 2004) After Abstract Expressionism in Harrison, W and Paul Wood (eds) Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. Pp. 785-787.<br />Greenberg, C ([1965] 2004) Modernist Painting in Harrison, W and Paul Wood (eds) Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. Pp. 773-9.<br />Hopkins, D (2000) After Modern Art: 1945-2000. Oxford, Oxford University Press.<br />Newman, B ([1946] 2004) The Sublime is Now, in W and Paul Wood (eds) Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. Pp. 580-2.<br />Newman, B ([1952] 2004) Interview with Dorothy Gees Seckler, in W and Paul Wood (eds) Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. Pp. 783-5.<br />Rosenberg, H ([1952] 2004) The American Action Painters, in Art in Theory: 1900-2000. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. Pp. 589.<br />