The conclusion of World War II brought massive changes to Western culture as a whole, and widely different changes in the lives and art of the peoples in the V icon

The conclusion of World War II brought massive changes to Western culture as a whole, and widely different changes in the lives and art of the peoples in the V

Post-War Modernism


The conclusion of World War II brought massive changes to Western culture as a whole, and widely different changes in the lives and art of the peoples in the various nations of the Allied countries. While the cultures of what would become Western Europe, especially those most closely allied with the US in the war, England and France, began the long process of rebuilding, America found itself riding the crest of great military victories on both Pacific and European fronts, with its industrial complex intact and in fact greatly enhanced by the intense innovation and production of technology and manufacturing programs of wartime. One of the most influential artistic affects of the War in Europe was the influx of artists fleeing, at least temporarily, the Nazi occupation. Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dali, Arshile Gorky, Marcel Duchamp and an number of other influential creative people took up residency in the 30’s and 40’s, exhibiting, teaching, and otherwise sharing and influencing the generation of artists coming of age. Surrealism in particular took hold of the American imagination with a vengeance, giving artists raised on regionalism and the Ashcan School freedom to explore their own psyches, to establish a more direct connection between the action of painting to the deep, archetypal self. Salvador Dali was designing sets for Alfred Hitchcock and designing advertisements for New York store windows and television sponsors such as Alka-Seltzer, and psychologists fresh with the ideas of Carl Jung were encouraging people to resolve their internal dilemmas by looking for archetypal and emotional connection to a communal consciousness. As some war veterans were taking residence in bright, new, suburban neighborhoods, others went to college and immersed themselves in learning, trying to make some universal sense of their experiences. Art itself gained a new sort of academic respectability, with universities beginning to grant a new graduate professional diploma, the Master of Fine Arts degree.

Theory and Criticism

Fredrich Nietzsche. The great lone, ambitious but suffering figure of modern man was described adroitly by Nietzsche, who coined the phrase of the “Will to Power” as most descriptive of the next phase of human psychic evolution. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as in his other writing, the tormented philosopher attempted to strip away all pretence, all false authority and piety, exposing the individual as responsible for, and primarily to, his/her own will. This idea, known as existentialism, paved the way for a new idea about humanity, the Ubermensch, or Super-human, who would play out this new consciousness and usher in newfound freedom and exultation of what it means to be alive and conscious. Although he died before the beginning of the new century, his work was not available widely or in translation until the 1940’s, and the link between his ideas and other prophets of the modern human condition of essential isolation such as Franz Kafka, became apparent.

Ayn Rand. Rand, a Russian immigrant to the United States, wrote her landmark book, The Fountainhead in 1943, which was said at the time to be one of the most influential books on contemporary Americans in history, second only to the Bible. Its protagonist, a driven, visionary architect (modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright), destroys his design for a major commission rather than have it altered and diminished by an outside collective agency. She became known as the prophet of anti-communist individualism, espousing a kind of benevolent selfishness; humans should act on their purest self-interest to become most fully human. This notion of the uncompromising pursuit of the self became a dynamic idea behind a number of forms of expression, including literature, art, and film.

^ Clement Greenberg. Along with other writers and theorists publishing in a number of influential New York journals, including Harold Rosenberg and Robert Coates (who coined the controversial term “abstract expressionism;” Greenberg favored “action painting”), throughout the 50’s and 60’s Greenberg developed language, apologetics, and definitions of what he thought was viable new art, and what direction American art should go. He said that painting had a greater number of “expendable conventions” than other forms of art, paving the way for forms of painting and sculpture that aspired to eliminate all but the deepest essentials. Artists working in many different styles seemed to all be in pursuit of a kind of authentic purity, some turning to Native American and other aboriginal cultures, some trying to reduce superfluous elements in their work, others losing themselves in the politics of image creation itself, with yet others looking for their authenticity within the process of painting itself. A common thread within all of the artists, however, is the belief that there is a truth to be ascertained, and they pursued their ideas with the same rigor that governments in the Cold War pursued the conquest of outer space, and the inner, mysterious space of the atom.

^ Abstract Expressionism

New York School

While none of the artists of the New York School attended any common, or any, art institution, they shared a fascination with developing the influences of European Surrealism and Cubism with the classical canon into a new form of process oriented, expressive art. An entire “ aesthetic of the hand” seemed to replace the aesthetic of architectonic composition, and potent improvisation was the highest ideal. The most common institution to most of the artists working in the city during the 40’s and 50’s, in fact, probably was the Cedars Bar, where intense discussions about art, sex, and politics often erupted in fistfights between artists such as Pollock and de Kooning. It was a microcosmic American Bohemia, adding explosive energy to the European interest in erudition and eccentric imagination.

^ Arshile Gorky, 1904-1948, The Liver is a Cock’s Comb, oil on canvas, 1944. Gorky left his native Armenia as a result of the genocide and ethnic cleansing that took place prior to WWII, where over a million Armenians were killed and two million exiled by Turkey and the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. He ended up in the U.S. in 1920, after absorbing the influence of European innovators such as Kandinsky, Picasso, and Miro. Some of his early mature works, however, were based on one of the few possessions he carried out of his homeland: a battered photograph of he and his lost mother. Using the improvisational techniques of the early modern masters, he experimented with that image over and over, transforming it into more of a portrait of his emotional memory than of specific visual information. He continued expanding on his visual language of quasi-figurative and suggestive form, positing a refreshingly original approach to art for his American counterparts.

^ Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956. Moving from his native Midwest to New York in the 40’s, Pollock studied with Thomas Hart Benton, absorbing the influence of Delanay’s Synchromism and the colorful and vigorous semi-abstract style of the then resident Mexican Muralists such as Siqueiros. After undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis to deal with his nagging problem with alcohol, he became increasingly fascinated with cryptic images and symbols related both to Native American visual culture and his own dream world. After moving into a rural studio on Long Island, where he made the garage into his studio, he began to experiment with painting on large, unstretched canvases laid on the ground. Using cans of cheap hardware store paint, he began to encircle and prowl around and on his paintings, dripping, throwing, and splashing the paint---using any tool except a traditional paintbrush. After 1947 he focused on this “action painting,” where the motion of the body in the act of painting became the real subject, liberated from the constraints of gravity or subject matter. After his death in an alcohol-related car crash, his artist-wife Lee Krasner carried on his legacy both in the handling of his work, and her own creative work.

Jackson Pollock working in his studio, from a Life Magazine article, 1950.

Gothic, oil on canvas, 1944. Pollock’s early experiments in his own style transported the dynamic forms of Benton, Delaunay, and Siqueros into a completely subjective realm. Subject matter disappeared into a dynamic, furious clashing of elemental forces. In this forceful work, we can begin to see the act of painting itself becoming the subject, with the dynamic, impassioned movements of the painter’s arm expressing an operatic reach of emotion.

Lavender Mist, hardware store paint on unstretched canvas, 1950. After abandoning the easel and brush, the artist began to create something entirely new, an abstracted record of the physical presence of the artist himself floating above the canvas. He began to work in larger and larger scale, allowing the virtual “print” of his body’s movements to dominate the painting field. In these rarified spaces, aggression becomes grace, and matter becomes energy in an endless field of gestural dance. In his mature work the aggression of the slash and splash seems to become sublimated into a field of grace and light.

^ Willem de Kooning, 1904-. This Dutch immigrant endured a childhood torn asunder by violence, displacement, and neglect; his earliest vivid memory of his troubled mother, Cornelia, was of being kicked vigorously around the kitchen floor for having offended her by playing with her shoes. Through court battles, he ended up staying with his mother during his youth, escaping her madness through dreaming and drawing. He took instruction in classical drawing, and left home as soon as he was able, working as a sign-painter and decorator, furniture refinisher, and carpenter. At the age of twenty-two, he jumped on a ship headed to America unbeknownst to his mother and stepfather, and immigrated to a land bearing dreams of great success. After jumping off the ship in New York Harbor and swimming to shore, he began to make a way for himself as a carpenter and craftsman, working on his art and into the circles of the New York modern art scene. Unlike his friend and rival Pollack, his paintings were based in a rigorous practice of drawing and composition, evolving his explosive paintings out of studies of the figure and nature. Although they seem often completely offhand, his works are the products of often a long process of consideration, composition and re-composition. He worked until the end of his life, continually inventing and re-inventing his rich and complex response to his chosen motifs.

Collage, oil, lacquer, and thumbtacks on paper, 1950. Like a master Jazz musician, de Kooning took bits and pieces of coherent reality and “riffed” on them, improvising and evaluating until a beautifully balanced yet recklessly improvisational image remained. He in fact seemed to be summing up many disparate perceptions and images into an emotionally visceral record of sensate life.

Woman II, oil on canvas, 1950-51. De Kooning worked layer upon layer, often gluing figure studies directly to the canvas, painting over them, reworking and reconfiguring body parts and shapes. In his Woman series, he creates and destroys a monolithic female figure, whose body both overwhelms and horrifies the viewer with its anti-classical bulges and explosions. Like a ravenous ancient Earth-Goddess, this visage seems to grin and grimace at the same time, her high-heeled shoes like hooves on the Whore of Babylon. This series may have been cathartic for the artist, whose mentally ill mother often beat and kicked him brutally with no provocation; his earliest memory of her was said to have been her towering body over him, kicking him around the kitchen.

^ Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-, Mountains and Sea, oil on raw canvas, 1952. Often called a “Second-Generation” abstract expressionist, Frankenthaler absorbed the ambience of the New York School and transmuted it into a complete, vaporous world. Using an innovative technique of “staining” the often raw canvas with thin, watercolor-like pigments, she added light and air to the rather claustrophobic cosmoses of the violently worked canvases of Pollock and de Kooning. Her paintings seem more truly “abstract” than her progenitors, suggesting truly a completely unique world within each work that the viewer may enter and dance within.

Art Brut

Inspired by art of children and the insane, Jean DeBuffet coined the term “Art Brut”, raw art, to describe a new form of art unsullied by the corruptions of society and tradition. Having seen first-hand the horrors of the excesses of cultural-industrial machinery, European artists in the aftermath of the War began to rebuild, as all people in their cultures, a new world out of the rubble of the old. In sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, visual expressions, they sought out the natural and positively human amidst the struggles of post-war Europe.

^ Jean Debuffet 1901-1985, The Cow with the Subtile Nose, oil and enamel on canvas, 1954. Celebrating the rough, raw, and informal in both subject and material, the French painter used mud, tar, sand, and other non-art materials in his paintings, letting the subject evolve out of his encounter with the humble and unpredictable materials. He embraced the spontaneous cracking of his oil paint when mixed with enamel, striving to approach each painting with the innocence of a child, loving each for its own unique merits. He continued to embrace the “formless” in art, evolving his organic painted shapes into literally moving art objects, with their parts fitted with motors so that the whole work constantly changed, like life itself.

^ Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966, Bust of Diane Bataille, painted plaster, 1965.. Greatly influenced by his philosopher friend Jean-Paul Sartre, the Swiss born Giacometti created perfect analogues to the ideas of existentialism: each human being is utterly alone, and bears the scars of the constant barrage of the blind violence of society and the world. His sculpture evolved out of a Surrealist style into his mature work of the 40’s---fragile, broken, and rough suggestions of the human form based on drawings taken directly from the model. The figures gain their poignant nobility from the fact that they seem to resist the melting away of their identity, maintaining their humanity until they literally disappear.

The West Coast School

After World War II, many veterans and other young people felt free, and were encouraged, explore different parts of the States. Along with them went tastes and styles in art, and an exuberant embrace of newly affordable college education under the GI Bill. Variations on international modernist approaches to art sprung up around the country, but especially on the West Coast. From Southern California to Seattle, artists began to experiment freely with Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and whatever else took their fancy. Inspired by the Beat scene in San Francisco, creative people began to celebrate and indulge in a sense of freedom and joy distinct from the high seriousness of the New York art world.

^ Peter Volkous, 1924-, Untitled Plate, 1962. Born in Montana, Voulkous was at the vanguard of the so-called “clay revolution” emerging on the West Coast in the 60’s. The artists of this new spirit in ceramic art took the Arts and Crafts ethos one step further, incorporating ideas of contemporary painting and sculpture into the tradition of craft and refined aesthetics associated with the great crafts movements of the 20th century. An accomplished potter, Voulkous would create an elegant and delicate clay vessel on the potter’s wheel, then abruptly sit on it, or throw it against the wall, infusing the object with the emotional immediacy of abstract expressionism into the fabric of a utilitarian object. Along with Robert Sperry and others, he set a new standard of faith to materials and faith in improvisation within the craft of clay, opening the doors for a variety of experimentations calling into question the functional basis for ceramic art.

^ Sam Francis, 1923-1994, untitled, acrylic on rice paper, 1968. A native of California, Francis had his plans to become a doctor sidetracked after a crash while in training for the Air Corps. While recovering from injuries that had developed into spinal tuberculosis, he began to experiment with painting. He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute under the master of the “Bay Area School” David Park, and finished a Master’s degree at Berkeley. He worked with a number of important abstract painters, including Al Held and Norman Bluhm, who also reveled in color and dynamic composition. He became especially adept at painting on paper, using a wide variety of mediums, and in printmaking. This piece exhibits a loving embrace of the aesthetic of action painting, but with a high sense of simple visual pleasure. Painters from the West Coast rooted in this period helped establish a new passion for breathtaking surface, and enjoyed the physical sensations of the hand-made object.

School of London

The controversial term “School of London” has both been embraced and rejected by artists ascribed to the style. It can more properly be considered a period rather than a style, when artists coming of age in post-war England turned the archetypal visual language of Surrealism inward, seeking in the end to express a very personal encounter of their own emotional lives with images of the human form.

^ Francis Bacon, 1909-1992. Born in Dublin, Bacon moved incessantly with his parents between war-ravaged England and Ireland during his youth. Though some sense of normalcy was maintained within the various Bacon households during their nomadic years, his father was often explosive and violent, contributing to what the artist described as a “ferocity of life.” He discovered his homosexuality during his early adolescence in the presence of stable boys hired by his father to literally beat discipline into him and his errant brother. After being banished from his father’s house for trying on his mother’s underwear, the sixteen-year old moved immediately to London and began moving freely, to his father’s shock and amazement, within a variety of levels of society. Traveling to Berlin with a family friend, who later seduced the young man, Bacon settled in to the decadent life available on the streets of the city, finally moving to Paris to work as a designer of interiors and furniture. Back in London in 1929, after making a name for himself as a Designer, he abandoned it for painting. His work was a departure from the then-fashionable Surrealism, it included elements of raw, painterly expression and a straightforward admixture of sexuality and violence. He drew his brutal images from tabloid-journalism photography, film, and classical paintings. Using a series of wrestlers photographed in Eadweard Muybridge’s series Human and Animal Locomotion he painted expressive humanoid forms grappling and embracing each other on a stark, almost clinical background. All of his work seemed to ask compelling questions about the relationship of desire, aggression, and submission.

Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef, oil and pastel on canvas, 1954. Combining a copy of Velazquez’s Portrait of Pople Innocent X with images from a slaughterhouse, Bacon draws parallels between raw meat, the crucifixion, and the torments of the individual. He shows us the unseen life within each person’s personal isolation chamber of the body, and forces the viewer to confront their own psychic pain.

Crucifixion, three panels, oil and pastel on canvas, 1965. Like an updated version of an early Renaissance altarpiece, his triptych brings us face to face with primeval terror and suffering. The distortions, blurring, and violations of each body in the picture make us aware of the universality of pain as well as the completely subjective experience of individual sorrows. He suggests a new form of dichotomy between the body and spirit, hinting at the dissolution of distinctions between the two during extreme states of agony and ecstasy equally.

^ Henry Moore, 1898-1986, Recumbent Figure, Green Hornton stone, 1938. After serving in World War I, the English sculptor became fascinated with art from aboriginal cultures in the Pacific, Africa, and America. Combining the Cubist deconstruction of form with the Surrealist inclination towards biomorphic abstraction, Moore’s work kept nonetheless close to its origins in the human form. Like the younger, more solidly School of London painters, Moore consistently sought to evoke the human presence in the larger universe, exhibiting faith in the endless variability of human expression through the body.

^ Lucien Freud, 1922- , Naked Portrait with Reflection, oil, 1980. Born in Berlin in an Austrian Jewish family, the son of an architect and grandson of the psychologist Sigmund Freud, Lucien’s early life was greatly influenced by the sense of claustrophobia experienced by Jews in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the Freuds immigrated to London, though Sigmund stubbornly remained in Austria for as long as he was able. He benefited from schooling in progressive, liberal schools in Devon and Dorset, and finally in the more traditional Central School of Arts and Crafts and the East Anglican School of Drawing and Painting, where he developed a close relationship with the artist Cedric Morris. Even his early work was precisely observed and controlled, and he made it a lifelong dictum that he was simply trying to reveal life rather than create a composition about life. The overpowering realism of his painting and drawing bypasses decorum in pursuit of absolute respect for the subject. The rich impasto of his oils are the result of long model sittings, where the painter works a section over and over until he finds the color and line of the life of the model rather than any self-conscious desire for “expression.”

^ Frank Auerbach, 1931-, Head of Gerda Boehm, oil on board, 1965. Sent to England by his parents in 1939 to escape Nazi Germany, Frank Auerbach eventually settled in a small section of north London, and chose that small world, with his circle of friends, lovers, and models, and his sole subject. He assiduously studied masters such as Sickert and Constable from the previous century, searching for the same sense of the absolute “right” correspondence of painted mark to subject. His often modestly-scaled paintings reveal many layers of response to the motif in their finished form, with drips of the viscous oil paint at times still suspended from the bravura end of a brushstroke. He seems to address both ephemerality and permanence, classical balance married to a modern sense of the temporal. One is left with a very palpable sense of the negotiated presence of the painter in relation to the model, a temporary but undeniable truce between the endless tension between the self and the other.

Pop Art

Americans were eager to leave behind the world of the Great Depression and the bizarre corruptions of “old” Europe, and took solace in the 1950’s atmosphere of clean, fresh, and ordered simplicity and modernity. Graphic and product designers used the tools whetted during the war to promote the new lifestyle of America, of an era of cheerful production and consumption. As tensions with the new Soviet Union heightened, the American public seemed more and more interested in detaching itself from anything associated with a European past. The images and products, though seemingly innocuous to the average middle-class Caucasian citizen, were in fact ripe with strange and contradictory meanings; artists becoming aware of this contradiction soon used it to their advantage, and savaged the advertising world for its rampant cultural propaganda.

^ Claes Oldenburg, 1929-. Oldenburg was responsible for creating one of the most infamous of Pop Art institutions, The Store. He rented a run-down storefront to use as a studio, and began to fill the old display cases with roughly sculpted, painted plaster objects, such as a hamburger, a piece of pie, or a can of soda. The Store became a meeting place for other artists, and an ad hoc gallery. The artist built his body of work around a simple but extremely compelling idea: take a common, everyday object, and radically change the context through which it is perceived, such as scale or material. One of the most famous of these series of works were his “soft sculptures,” where he recreated in full scale hard objects such as a toilet, a telephone, or a drum set, in sewn, stuffed, vinyl.

The Street, installation and performance by artist at the Judson Gallery, New York, 1960. A lively bohemian artists’ scene had grown up in the late 50’s in Greenwich Village, especially in the vicinity of Washington Square Park. Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and others seeking an alternative voice to abstract expressionism lived and worked in the area. The tenements around the park, and the part itself, were becoming victims of “Urban Renewal:” massive demolition of small housing units in favor of concrete slab architecture. The exhibition of which The Street was part was named “Ray-Gun,” the new name Oldenburg proposed for the new, anonymous and hard-edged New York. In this installation/performance, he made his work out of cardboard and other trash, roughly representing the old, organic, slightly chaotic life of the street that was being replaced by the slab architecture of Ray-Gun. He fondly called this work “my ravings.”

Clothespin, bronze, Philadelphia, 1976. This piece, sited in downtown Philadelphia, makes a wooden clothespin into a huge heroic monument to domesticity. All of Oldenburg’s works, including this one, involve the depiction of objects that move, that possess the possibility of movement, function, or action. The pent-up energy of the spring in the clothespin perhaps represents the tightly coiled energy of the city itself.

^ Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-, Monogram, mixed-media “combine,” 1959. Coming of age during the halcyon days of the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg absorbed their delight in the raw touch of paint to surface and all of its humanistic associations. For him, however, that ground is not a destination or field of emotional identity, it is a visual language to be used as part of a larger vision. He discovered his talent for drawing and his interest in everyday people and objects while serving in the Marines. He studied briefly in Paris on the G.I. Bill, but found his kindred spirits at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in such intense minds as Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Joseph Albers, and John Cage. The school at that point was very poor, and necessity joined with the artists’ natural interest in found objects, as well as random sound, movement, and the poetry inherent within them. He began to boldly combine painting, sculpture, and thrown-off objects into powerful statements on society, perception, and consciousness. Monogram, an outrageous assemblage of a stuffed goat, a tire, a police barrier, the heel of a shoe, a tennis ball, and paint, is a dazzling example of his Combines, works that clash and dance with their own disparate components, completely defying categorization. A Dada sensibility became combined with a pantheistic and expressionistic exploration of material and image, creating an alternate set of societal and humanistic realities.

^ Jasper Johns, 0 through 9, 1930-, oil on canvas, 1960. Like Rauschenburg, Johns uses the vocabulary of expressionism to intellectual, conceptual ends. Taking images and objects from the commonest of sources, he transforms them into statements questioning the permanence and validity of cultural symbols. He is well known for his series of targets and American flags, where he turned densely charged semiotic material into simply surfaces. In his works using stenciled letters and numerals, he uses the patterns in intentionally sloppy ways, going over the lines, making the ciphers almost indecipherable. Here he intentionally overlays the numerals 0 through 9, making the canvas with a blur of numbers; it is a kind of visual semiotics, where the viewer becomes more aware of what exists between the numbers than the numbers themselves.

^ Roy Lichtenstein, 1923- After beginning study with Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League of New York, Lichtenstein became enamored of the rigorous pictorial analysis of Hoyt L. Sherman at Ohio State University. He was drafted by the U.S. Army, and after having served three years returned to Ohio State to complete a graduate degree in 1949. He began exhibiting in New York galleries, and finally ended up in a teaching post at Rutgers University. There he gained contact with a number of influential artists and writers, and was encouraged by Allan Kaprow, an early innovator in Happenings and Performance Art, to pursue art derived from images of contemporary popular culture. During the war America’s advertising industry grew rapidly as a vehicle for propaganda and encouragement, and Lichtenstein was surely influenced in his approach to popular culture by the barrage of posters, products, and images produced as part of the war effort. In 1961 he caught the attention of what would be one of the most influential post-war galleries, Leo Castelli.

Blam!, oil on canvas, 1962. Lichtenstein said that he began his use of stock characters from comic strips when one day he spontaneously began drawing Bugs Bunny as he watched the cartoon on television. He also drew images directly from the small comic found on the wrappers of his children’s bubble gum wrappers. His cartoon paintings soon took on a life of their own, and are actually derivations of type rather than exact copies of prototypes. Bringing back Dada art’s use of text in high art, he lends short exclamations or decontextualized dialogue a kind of poetry. Although the images seem familiar and comfortable, they do not submit to linear analysis, and leave the viewer with more questions than answers.

Go For Baroque, oil and magna on canvas, 1979. All aspects of culture, high and low, fuse in a sort of electric collage style in Lichtenstein’s later work. He is extremely prolific, and has worked through a wide range of subject matter, addressing larger issues in art, such as illusion, reference, context, and abstraction. A seemingly simple, tastefully decorated office seems to have exploded, with motifs, scale, and space wrenched playfully into a fourth dimension.

^ Andy Warhol, 1928-1987, Campbell’s Soup Can with Opener, oil, 1962. Andrew Warhola, who was raised in very down-to-earth circumstances by his Polish working-class family in Pittsburgh, seemed to have sought to distance himself completely from the gritty and the real. More than perhaps any other Pop artist, he tapped into the vein of absolute escapist fantasy inherent in American media culture, spending his artistic life immersed in and fascinated by the “floating world” of New York celebrity and fashion. Many of his images deal directly or indirectly with the relationship of death and the denial of death via glamour, and allows us the guilty pleasure of immersing ourselves in something we intuitively know is patently false, however beautiful it is.

^ Richard Hamilton, 1922-, Towards a Definitive Statement on Coming Trends in Men’s Wear, mixed media, 1962. One of the pioneers of Pop Art, this English artist created some of the movement’s first works, using Dada collage and juxtapositions of images to engage in and comment on the fantasy world being created for consumers in America and England. One of his work’s greatest strengths is its embrace of both the folly and the guilty pleasure of the new consumer society, using ambiguous compositions of images from pop culture and advertising to underscore the distinctly disoriented state of Western society.

^ Edward and Nancy Keinholtz, 1927-1994, 1944-, The State Hospital, mixed media installation, 1966. Although, from the beginning of his career, Ed Keinholtz employed images and objects drawn from common, contemporary culture, his work does not fit comfortably within the bounds of Pop Art. His work is stridently polemic, generally expressing outrage or despair at social injustice. When this work was displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one could only see the two reclining figures through the small window of a door taken from an old mental hospital. A stench wafted out through the window, emanating from a full bedpan underneath the lower bunk. Fish swim dismally within the spaces that should be faces, and the hands are bound cruelly to the bedframes with leather straps. The upper figure is contained within a neon cartoon balloon pointing to the lower figure’s “face;” the patient sees himself as a void, as a hopeless entity. Edward and his wife Nancy collaborated on a wide variety of installations, all protests or comments on the sadness and sickness within contemporary society. Edward returned to his native Idaho after establishing his career in Los Angeles, creating works for venues worldwide up until his death in 1994.

^ David Hockney, 1937-, Beverly Hills Couple, acrylic on canvas, 1968. The British born Hockney has, perhaps more than any of the other artists who began in the Pop style, absorbed the aesthetic, the adoration of the superficial gleam, of popular culture into the fabric of his life. He came to reside in Southern California, and turned his eye to the theatricality of elite settings and people, i.e. beautiful people at home. Celebrating the lifestyle in which he was immersed, he allowed the flickering light of the backyard swimming pool, and the flat, even light of the cloudless skies bathe his subjects in a kind of Olympian perfection. His flair for the dramatic led him into set design, where his pastiche of modern styles became a trademark look; all of Hockey’s sets have the same ambience of his decorative paintings.


During the war, the extravagant embellishments of American Art Deco mutated into a more economical form, which reflected the righteous efficiency of the industrial instruments of war, in turn creating the so-called streamline style. This, in combination with the influence of Bauhaus artists in residence after fleeing the Nazis, gave the U.S. a great appetite for the aesthetically efficient, modern, and technological. The architecture of the International Style dominated new building, and the patrons of the new cathedrals of capitalism wanted visual art that reflected the New World. Artists followed the pursuit of non-objective form spawned by the Abstract Expressionists and the Rationalism of Dutch émigré Piet Mondrian, to its logical extreme, and strived to produce art that “managed” abstract space as powerfully and mysteriously as the architecture of Mies van der Rohe.

Mark Rothko, Red, Green, and Blue, oil on canvas, 1955. This Russian immigrant began his career as an abstract expressionist, but he evolved his own interest in the depth of the pictorial field as a primary concern of painting. He initiated what came to be known as Color Field Painting, a pictorial strategy preoccupied with the illusion of depth created by the presence of large blocks of color floating on the canvas. A sort of dematerialization occurs when looking at a Rothko painting in person; the plane of the canvas disappears within an almost Quantum field of presence, inducing a quiet, dream-like state of mind. He carried this to extremes in his Houston, Texas Chapel, a room filled with large black fields of color on canvas, very much meant to evoke the Buddhist-influenced empty spaces of kindred spirits such as John Cage.

Al Held, 1928-, C-P-I, acrylic on canvas, 1978. While still an art student in Paris the young Al Held had an epiphany; he desired to unite complete objectivity with complete subjectivity, as represented by artists such as Mondrian at one end, and Pollock at the other. Out of all the geometrically based abstractionists working in the 70’s, Held was most interested in adding, stuffing his paintings with rich spatial and color contradictions instead of purity. Involved initially in leftist political movements after leaving the Navy at the end of World War II, his friends derided his passionate interest in abstract art, saying that it was not for the people, it was instead only for itself. He kept simplistic ideas about purity in both art and politics at bay throughout his career, focusing on building increasingly rich, complex, and colorful paintings; they seem to embody the complexity of human experience so dear to great humanist thinkers.

^ Frank Stella, 1936-, Saskatoon I, polymer and fluorescent paint on canvas, 1968. From his first paintings in grammar school, Stella was fascinated not by the representational image, but by the structure of the image, and ambiguities existing between the center and the edge. After study at Phillips Academy and Princeton, he gained his fame first by painting simple squared and shaped canvases composed of a single color and evenly spaced raw canvas lines. He began to explore the visual vibrations and illusions that resulted from various divisions in the picture plane, and branched out into bright palettes of highly saturated color, configured and reconfigured within variations-on-a-theme series of paintings. This piece, from his Protractor series, uses the manipulation of the simple drawing instrument of the protractor to layout a field of subtly overlapping colors and planes that seem to advance and recede from the viewer in a kind of mysterious, spirit-like dance. His current paintings and sculptures continue in the same vein, focusing instead of a Baroque overflow of space instead of a polite, almost Medieval, division of clear planes.

^ Richard Serra, 1939-, Tilted Arc, hot-rolled steel, Federal Plaza, Foley Square, New York, 1981. Serra’s work exists completely, though not always comfortably, within the public realm. His massive walls of solid steel intervene into the environments they occupy, intentionally modifying habitual human patterns of movement and sight. This tall arc of steel was laid out across the public plaza of the Federal Building, adjacent to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. The artist felt that the plaza was aesthetically barren, and that it desperately needed a dynamic division line that would be seen as an animated entity for the traffic whizzing by on and off of Manhattan Island. Many of the office workers in the building disagreed, however, and protested management’s blighting of the plain but open tree-lined public space; for them, it wasn’t perfect, but it functioned as a kind of park where they could escape their office cubicles for a time. The debate raged, and the piece was eventually dismantled and moved, much to the chagrin of the artist. He is indeed a masterful psychologist of space, and knows very well how to manipulate viewers’ physical and emotional space.

^ Louise Nevelson, 1900-1988, Sky Cathedral (Variant), painted wood, 1959. Antithetical to the lyrical forms of art created by the great female artists of the earlier portion of the century, such as Harriet Hosmer and Georgia O’Keefe, Nevelson created worlds that are decidedly architectonic, taking on the “male” domain of absolute structure. Created entirely of wood, Nevelson’s assemblages command the attention of the viewer like great, ancient temple reliefs. The bits and pieces of furniture, architectural decoration, and cast-offs suggest possible entry into the space-meaning of their modular units, but bar the logical mind from any simple explication. Their mute power engenders a sort of unique self-consciousness within the viewer, ultimately focusing the energy of the art on the ingrained categories of classification and structure that the viewers always carry with themselves.

^ David Smith, 1906-1965, Tank Totems IV, steel, 1953. The overriding concern of many sculptors working in the Post-War era, the conquest of space, found uncompromising expression in the hands of Smith. His lifestyle echoed the sparseness of his work; he spent most of his time in a raw, austere, woodstove heated studio secluded in the forest well outside New York City. The suggestive figurative quality of his constructions repel any hint of representation. They, instead push the viewer’s attention first to the aesthetically wrought metal surfaces, then outward into the negative space, primary artistic objects that seek to deny their very presence.

^ Donald Judd, 1928-1994, Untitled, copper with red Plexiglas, 1989. Like the Photorealist Duane Hanson, Judd sought to heighten the viewer’s sense of self-consciousness. Instead of, however, manipulating notions and perceptions of social space, Judd’s sculptural forms seem to occupy some no-man’s land between architecture, sculpture, and furniture. One becomes caught up in the awareness that a human being just can’t quite categorize the presence of his objects. In this sense, Judd was the master of non-space and non-existence; his pieces seem to intrude into our normal spatial sensations, and seem uncomfortably just about to disappear.


In spite of the apologetics of critics like Clement Greenburg, who saw the history of painting as having an end goal, and other cultural observers declaring painting to be dead, artists, patrons, and audiences continued to hold on stubbornly to the representational image in both painting and sculpture. While Pop artists continued to deconstruct low and high culture, questioning the interrelationship of meaning and form and the possibility of direct experience of nature, others, seeing themselves as inheritors of the traditions of the Art Students League and the Ashcan School, devoted themselves to a more observationally-based engagement of artist and subject. Many employed photography directly in their process, the Photorealists, while others eschewed the detachment of the lens, and went about the business of creating contemporary images with the older tools of hands and eyes. Whatever their specific means or aims, these artists share a belief in the primacy of the representational image over notions of pure space.

^ Richard Estes, 1936-, Grand Luncheonette, oil on canvas, 1969. The camera is an essential tool for Estes, one of the most influential of the Photo (or Super) Realists, but he in fact alters the compositions recorded by the lens, moving objects, vanishing points, and altering colors. He emulates Edward Hopper, painting almost exclusively New York scenes, but avoids overt emotional or narrative content. He avoids the inclusion of people in his paintings, and his scenes seem to exist in a perfect, spring/summer netherworld that can be completely possessed by the viewer. In constructing his paintings from multiple photographs, he creates a sense of heightened reality which varies from both the photograph and the observed painting. In this piece, the eye becomes pleasurably lost in a glittering maze of color and light that lends the common urban subject, an inexpensive place to eat, mythical status.

^ Philip Pearlstein, 1924-, Two Models with a Bedouin Rug, oil on canvas, 1987. Pearlstein’s paintings’ precision suggest that they are photo-derived, but they in fact deal directly with the illusions of the eye itself. His compositions are unflaggingly observational; he strives to paint things exactly as they are, playing down excessive tricks of dramatic lighting and softening the blow of strange perspectives and foreshortening. The horizontal planes of the floor in this painting, set in motion by the patterns of the rug, recall the contradictory perspectives of Early Renaissance paintings and Roman frescoes. Instead of subsuming important, eccentric detail into a grand, coherent scheme, Pearlstein allows the limbs, furniture, and props to be completely themselves. His is a Realism that questions the unerring sense of truthfulness assumed by the conceit of Realism itself.

Jack Beal, 1931-, Danae, oil, 1983. One of a group of firebrand realists, including Alfred Leslie, Beal once stated bluntly in an interview, that, “anyone who distorts the human form, for aesthetic reasons or for no reasons at all, is stepping on my toes.” He pursued an objective rendition of light, form, and narrative in the manner of his beloved Dutch naturalists. He strives for his paintings to breathe as if they are alive, and create a space so palpable one could walk in it. In his version of the beautiful Greek maiden Danae, who is ravished by Zeus in the guise of golden light, the viewer is invited to feel the sunlight’s warmth and enter into the divine communion taking place before their eyes. Beal feels acutely the tension between beauty and realism, and strikes a convincing balance between the two.

^ Alice Neel, 1900-1984, Andy Warhol, oil, 1970. As an artist raised on the WPA street art ethic, Neel saw herself more as a “collector of souls” than portraitist. She painted her famous friends and acquaintances in the art world (including Andy Warhol here recovering from an attempt on his life) as well as neighbors, friends, and everyday people of the street. Her expressive perspective, intuitive anatomy, and facile brushstroke imbue her “souls” with an aura of indeed their greater, or secret, selves. The paintings, like the sitters, are never completely at rest, but they exist at some moment of peace with themselves.

Duane Hanson, 1925-1996, The Shoppers, cast vinyl, polychromed in oil with accessories, 1976. A sort of sculptural Photorealist, Hanson made precise casts of average, everyday people, dressing and decorating them with a mortician’s care and attention to detail. When confronted with these works directly, the viewer experiences a sort of jolt of awareness, a virtual voyeurism. One cannot quite get over the feeling that these persons’ privacy and social bubbles are being violated by the presence of an audience, which is precisely the point. The work of realistic art makes the viewer reevaluate their relationship to people in “normal” reality.

^ George Segal, 1924-2000, The Diner, plaster and environment, 1964-66. Working in plaster casts of real persons set in a realistically propped environment, Segal’s three-dimensional realism allows the viewer to related to the vague emptiness of the raw white figures. Although they do not confront the viewer in the same way Hanson’s pieces do, these melancholy bodies seem lost in isolation. Their ghostly presence calls to mind a world existing either before or after the actual physical universe, either Platonic spirits, or memories.

^ Ansel Adams, 1902-1984, Moonrise, Hernandez, Mexico, gelatin-silver print, 1941. Edward Steiglitz’s experiments in the context and technology of photography was continued with a school of artists concerned with the creation of breathtaking images of landscape, nature and light. A group known as Group f/64, (from their aspiration to use the smallest aperture opening possible to achieve more uniform detail and depth), which included Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White, and Ansel Adams transformed the practice and audience for photography into a pursuit for a kind of visual purity, refining the photographic print into a new art object in and of itself, with its own particular aesthetic criteria.


Music and Theatre

In the United States, and the West in general, the post-WWII celebrations of plenty gave way to the fears and paranoia of the Cold War, the game of nuclear standoff played by the States and the Soviet Union. The peaceful suburban dream sold to veterans of WWII, with its pleasantness, safety, comfort, and predictability became for artists coming of age in the late 50’s, became a symbol of the cold, unimaginative, repressive aura of pure Capitalism. Wildly improvisational jazz, known as Bebop, challenged all notions of conventional pleasure in music. Throughout the 40’s and 50’s Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk created eccentric, innovative music that deconstructed the swing styles of the Harlem Renaissance into a new, freeform, often discordant aesthetic. Their willingness to break the mold encouraged jazz artists in the 60’s and 70’s, including Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Chick Corea, to reinvent jazz again in the style known as Fusion. Bebop’s literary cousin, Beat poetry, engaged as well in a kind of Blitzkrieg attack on the senses, giving vent to the unsocialized, raw primal consciousness being hidden by pretty suburban drapery. Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary poem Howl brought the transcendental visions of Walt Whitman into harsh relief, describing the tragedy of humanities best nature and impulse as being choked and distorted by modern society. Young, white, educated audiences became exposed to the origins of these earthy and mystical forms through the blending of Blues music through the nascent music capitals of Chicago, Memphis, and Detroit. These, as well as a myriad of other influences, helped create the Western Counterculture, a philosophy of rebellion and free self-expression and gratification that has come to highlight the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy alive and well in the Industrial West.

Composers working in more classical modes began to experiment widely with unusual forms of composition, including elements of dissonance and aleatory (chance) events into their music. Although a number of maestros worked in this vein, including Olivier Messaiaen, Pierre Boulez, and Edgare Varese (the first composer to include electronic sounds and elements in his pieces), the most well-known is certainly the American John Cage. Working with avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College, Cage developed totally new vocabularies for music, turning ambient and chance noises into musical composition. In works such as Music for Prepared Piano, where he bound and altered the strings and hammers of the piano to make strange new tones and sounds, he brought the entire Western notion of “beauty” in music into question.

The influx of the Blues into White culture infused new life into older European folk music played throughout working class quarters around the country, creating the international phenomenon of Rock and Roll. The new, percussive and overtly sexual quality of the music added new life to American music theatre as well, spawning the Rock Opera. New works such as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell continued the evolution of the Musical into more aggressive and rhythmic forms begun by innovators like Stephen Sondheim.

Juxtaposed with the popular spectacle of musical theatre, inheritors of the angst and metaphysical turmoil of Artaud, Camus, and Sartre created works that sought to lay bare the anxieties and anguish of the modern age. Samuel Beckett, Peter Weiss, and Harold Pinter, to name just a few, extended the ideas of absurdist, political, and psychologically charged drama into a myriad of new forms and plays. Regional and off-Broadway companies supported classics of post-war and experimental American drama, gringing the works of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller into competition with escapist musicals. These innovations made their way slowly into more popular the formats of television and film, paving the way for extravagantly experimental works in performance that were to emerge in the later decades of the century.

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