10 Abstract Expressionists, and the signature styles that killed them*

These days everything is art, and part of the rhetoric surrounding that is that the artist is free to use any material or method. But the reality is that the artist is restricted to creating a niche in a gallery context, which usually requires a very narrow focus. The most important thing is that the art be easily distinguishable from any other art in galleries. One can only achieve this by limiting oneself, and also by being aware of what all the other artists are showing in all the other galleries. This kind of work revolves around preparing for an exhibition, and the gallery is often a part of the art itself. I call this work “exhibitionism”. Underlying it are assumptions based on capitalist ideas of creating a unique product to market, and branding it. The Abstract Expressionists are a perfect example. Each artist had to have his or her unique style, but all were exploring non-figurative painting. One artist would drip paint, another spill it, another stain it, another use fuzzy rectangles… Each artist was then restricted to that particular way of applying paint, and often a range of color schemes as well. The artists created unspoken monopolies for themselves, and it was understood and respected by all the other artists.

1. Jackson Pollock: dripping

Take Jackson Pollock. Probably the most recognizable example. He came up with the drip painting, more or less (Max Ernst had already done drip paintings using a can with a hole in it swinging from a string), and it became identified with his name. Here we have an easily recognizable style or “brand”.

Pollock

Jackson Pollock dripped paint. Nobody else can do it. That’s his signature style. Also the first painter to incorporate cigarette ash.

Did he ever want to go back to doing some other sort of painting? Did he have to believe that drip painting could encompass, somehow, all the content one could achieve using other means, including having subject matter? Just dripping is a bit restrictive. Whatever you do it’s always going to be another drip painting, with that same sort of all-over, tangled line, and muted color aesthetic. There will only be a slight variation of mood. What would happen if someone else went ahead and exhibited a drip painting? Can’t do that. I’m a bit afraid of what would happen if someone had. [Much later a Chinese forger made copies of them. I had a lot to say about that here.]

2. Willem de Kooning: vigorous brushwork and the whole palette of color

Willem de Kooning was a bit luckier, because he got in early and staked out vigorous brushwork and the full palette of color. He didn’t leave much for the others.

de-Kooning

Willem de Kooning with Elaine de Kooning in NY, 1953. He was at the front of the line and snapped up the best techniques for himself. Dude!

3. Marc Rothko: soft rectangles and glowing colors

Marc Rothko eventually established his uniqueness with soft-edged rectangles and fields of glowing color.

rothko

Marc Rothko, in front of one of his glowing soft-rectilinear canvases. Great for the nearsighted because you can appreciate these equally well without your glasses.

Both Rothko and Pollock have grandiose spiritual claims attached to their art, by themselves or by others. Rothko said, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”  It’s indelicate, but I can’t help but wonder if there was a connection between the heroic claims made for their art, their self-limited range of artistic expression, and their deaths. Rothko committed suicide (he slit his wrists and overdosed on antidepressants), and Pollock lost his life due to suicidal alcoholic recklessness (he drove his car into a tree). “Spiritual” and “suicidal” don’t really go together in my book, unless “spiritual” signifies an existential crisis. Nothing wrong with an existential crisis, I’d just wanna’ call it that if that is what it is.

4. Helen Frankenthaller: stains

Helen Frankenthaller got the good idea to stain paint and use more organic, roundish forms. She worked on the ground like Pollock, used a brush like de Kooning, and soft shapes of color like Rothko, but made it her own.

Untitled-4

Helen Frankenthaller applying very wet paint that will stain. She got in a bit late and the best techniques were already taken. She has a lot of followers, however, who use coffee as their medium of choice.

I wouldn’t want to be saddled with making stains. It’s just too easy for it to look like a paint rag. You don’t have the energy of a Pollock or de Kooning, where we can see the force of their movement in the painting. Here we can see it in the photo of Frankenthaller, but it’s not there in the end result. She also couldn’t really labor over the color combinations like Rothko, and she tended to have blank canvas as her background color because it’s hard to stain over other colors. She should have shown up earlier. One could only imagine what she could have done with drips!

5. Clyfford Still: patches

Still is another artist who had to mix and match after the main techniques had been snapped up. Instead of the soft rectangles of Rothko, Still made patchy shapes.

Still

Clyfford Still did as good of a job with patches as anyone could hope for, but patches just didn’t capture the imagination as well as other techniques.

Still made some fine canvases that are up there with the best, but his method just seemed like it must have come a little after the big boys uncovered the mother loads. People didn’t come right out and say, “Hey, you got stuck with patches” but it was somewhere there in their consciousness. He could use any color he wanted, and establish careful compositions. This was good. But he wasn’t allowed to use a straight line or drips or stains. I’m assuming he understood all the other Abstract Expressionists, and could have worked in their styles reasonably well, but it was unheard of, and instead of acknowledging the market forces at play, and the need for a signature style, we just pretended that one style suited one personality. Stains were somehow appropriate for a woman, and hence Frankenthaller was able to capitalize on that. I’m not sure what patches say about one. Still’s paintings did have a somewhat novel element in that the viewer couldn’t really determine which colors were background and which were foreground. Seems shifty though. So, he’s not as popular.

6. Paul Jenkins: Spills

Jenkins may have seen the problem with Frankenthaller, which was the lack of “action”, so he took the staining idea and put velocity behind it.

Paul-Jenkins

Paul Jenkins: spiller. It hadn’t been done yet. Sure, people had taken out the garbage, but this was a new kind of emptying the trash can.

These leave a bit up to chance, which we can think of as a good thing (rather conceptual, and conceptual is the new God of art), but it’s not as good of a thing as doing something deliberately and well. These are pretty much a cross between Pollock and Frankenthaller. The extra money he spent on paint was saved on brushes.

7. Robert Motherwell: shapes

Robert Motherwell went a little more complex and a little more confusing. What else could an artist do? He used shapes, kind of like cut-out shapes, but then very loosely painted. It’s a bit like Still, but the shapes are more bold and distinct, and much less patchy. He also did some purely black and white canvases, which really emphasized shape.

motherwell

Robert Motherwell. Stayed in shape. Literally.

8. Jean-Paul Riopelle: Spatula

He did use a spatula, but also a trowel and palette knife. The results were often spectacular, as palette knife painting often is, because by definition it is thick paint up against thick paint.

Riopelle

Riopelle and one of his lavish canvases. A monkey couldn’t have done it. He needed a little more of a hint that a monkey could have done at least part of it.

These are lovely, but Riopelle suffered from being Canadian, and he really needed to be an American to get the CIA promotion, which was a covert effort to make the world respect America – not France and certainly not CANADA– as the cultural center of the universe, which would help legitimize its political and economic system. If he were a little more conceptual-art savvy, he could have immigrated to the U.S. as an art piece. Besides that, his work looks like it was done with a palette knife, which is such a traditional landscape painter’s tool, which everyone would associate with old-style, outmoded, easel painting (when you say “easel painting” it should be with a sneer). When people are using sticks and garbage cans, you seem precious if you use traditional artist’s tools. Remember, Jean-Paul, the idea is at least as important as the canvas. If you make it too beautiful the idea becomes irrelevant, and so do you. Few people know Riopelle.

9. William Baziotes: organic shapes

baziotes

William Baziotes and his biomorphic abstraction. A little too like Paul Klee, which is too Surrealistic. Baziotes missed the target by not being random enough. Not weird enough for Surrealism nor haphazard looking enough for Abstract Expressionism.

Baziotes made a go with organic shapes. It was a solid enough effort, but “organic” signals “biology” and one can’t have one’s abstraction reference simple biology – y’know, pond stuff – when a more vague style could, by process of elimination, evoke the numinous.

10. Franz Kline: black and white

Rather than mix and match extant styles, Kline went the other direction and hacked off artistic possibilities – namely, color – and in so doing tried to make the kind of monolithic statement that would propel him into the Art Hall of Fame.

Kline

Franz Kline. Scaffolding or workbench-like manly shapes. Or is that a machine gun tripod? These are black and white even in a color photograph. The bulbs in the roof don’t have any color either.

Kline with the heroic mark. A very simple composition with dramatic swatches. These are kind of reminiscent of Japanese Zen style ink paintings. It’s more about the breathing than anything else. What is light? What is dark? Am I looking at something that’s stacked, or am I looking down at a river and factories? B&W can be so ambivalent. Kline recognized this power, and tried to make powerful art. Tough going without color, but later, Robert Ryman would do paintings that are just white (I wrote a lot about Ryman here). I could go on. Larry Poons with small ovals, Jules Olitsky with sprayed color, Adolph Gottlieb with one circular form and a horizontal line beneath (shoulda’ changed his first name as art), Barnett Newman and his stripe paintings (of which I posted at length here), Cy Twombly with his scribbles…

And then when there was nothing left to do, you couldn’t do Abstract Expressionism anymore. It was no longer worth doing, but it was still worth buying and looking at, which is just a bit confusing. People look at them as precursors to the new new, as historically significant. They must be replaced and usually rebelled against. It would make more sense to incorporate, integrate, and expand upon the work of prior generations, but then one would risk looking less distinctly new.

All the Abstract Expressionist artists made very large canvases that could be sold for equally large prices. Each tried to define a niche for himself, to have a style, an individuated persona: immortality. And they were very careful not to step on each other’s feet or to trespass into private property. The artists were thinking about themselves as significant players in a game, and making shows for the gallery arena. The style is more important than the quality, though these guys were certainly good at what they did. Undoubtedly they saw themselves as exploring new terrain. Pollock went to Mars. Frankenthaller flew to Jupiter. But they were also more importantly setting themselves up, or being set up by the art market as, unique products with a brand name.

This model continues today. Artists are still trying to find some angle or gimmick to set themselves apart. They will say they are “about” this or that, or they are “investigating” some social issue. Whatever it is, they need to find a way to stand out. As more and more art has already been done, artists are pushed further out on a limb in search of the new. The art is ultimately for the hungry art consumer, who has seen it all before. The artist is not creating for his or herself, but for the jaded art market. In eschewing all that has been done before, art has become anemic and inbred, which is why the general population doesn’t give a flying hoot about it. It’s a bit like trying to cook, but curry has been taken, and so has beef. You can’t use nuts. Pretty soon we’d be eating the pizza carton and throwing away the hopelessly antiquated pie. Then we’d be eating our shoe leather. Then just spitting up in the air and sucking it back down.

The contemporary art paradigm doesn’t work with food. The culinary equivalent of the contemporary artist is someone who tries to define a signature set of recipes that no one else has done before, and can’t necessarily be eaten. Chefs would say things like, “I’m about the asparagus”. There would be the culinary equivalent of Paul McCarthy: hot dog, mayonnaise, and shit ice-cream. Jeff Koons would specialize in marshmallow banquets. Hirst would make candy coated rancid meat, with one maggot in each piece. It just doesn’t work when you have to eat it. We want all the good stuff back in there. We don’t want anything absolutely disgusting, no matter how ironic gulping it down might be. So why not, as an artist, dump trying to be a unique immortal in the art market pantheon? Don’t try to make a revolutionary new soup that uses gasoline and depleted uranium (as a statement about accepting our troubled ecology, or some such nonsense), but instead try to make something you really want to eat, and use whatever ingredients you want.

Much so-called radical art is dependent on the market place and a corrupted economic system for its existence and proliferation. The art is made with the exhibition space in mind, and within the rubric of the greater context of the art market and a contrived art history. The artists took the gallery owner’s advertisements seriously, and so did everyone else. One can see with the Abstract Expressionists that while they were perceived as “breaking ground” and opening our eyes, minds, and spirits; they were doing it all in accordance with the laws of capitalism, and a self-defeating philosophy that pinned them to one limited signature style. Now that we have seen the capitalist-expansionist model start to crumble, we know that selfish self-interest isn’t the greatest good, and we’ve experienced “trickle down” as being pissed on, why are we still making art for and within that framework? In other words, why are radical artists making art for dinosaur capitalists?

The most important thing for the contemporary artist is to invent a new style, and to make art history. It should be to make good art. If it turns out to be great art, it will probably be distinct anyway, and eventually get some attention.

*I actually like these artists, and don’t literally think their styles killed them (except maybe to a degree with Rothko and Pollock), but rather that they got stuck working within the parameters of a style that was negotiated between them and the art market. You can see getting to the proverbial end of one’s rope by making just drip paintings for a decade, or two, or three… can’t you?


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12 thoughts on “10 Abstract Expressionists, and the signature styles that killed them*

  1. All great artists, but definitely put an end to articulate communications in the area of social needs that their predecessors tackled. Pollock was a competent modernist as were others. I find it difficult to believe the Nazi infested C.I.A. didn’t design abstract expressionism to put an end to some of their avowed enemies the “degenerate” modern artists.

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  2. I don’t think the two “great wars” were all that great. Maybe “horrific” is the right word. I think too that modern art as developed between the two wars is a good tool in the hands of ordinary creative folks that do not have a say in the governing process, or stratospheric art market.

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