Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Post-War Artists at Work

Victor Vasarely
Nives II
1949-58
oil paint on canvas
Tate Gallery

Francis Bacon
Turning Figure
ca. 1959-62
oil paint on paper
Tate Gallery

Patrick Heron
Brown Ground with Soft Red and Green: August 1958 July 1959
1958-59
oil paint on canvas
Tate Gallery

"Modernism includes more than art and literature.  By now it covers almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture.  It happens, however, to be very much of a historical novelty.  Western civilization is not the first civilization to turn around and question its own foundations, but it is the one that has gone furthest in doing so.  I identify Modernism with the intensification, almost the exacerbation, of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant.  Because he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism, I conceive of Kant as the first real Modernist."

"The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.  Kant used logic to establish the limits of logic, and while he withdrew much from its old jurisdiction, logic was left all the more secure in what there remained to it."

"The self-criticism of Modernism grows out of, but is not the same thing as, the criticism of the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment criticized from the outside, the way criticism in its accepted sense does; Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that which is being criticized.  It seems natural that this new kind of criticism should have appeared first in philosophy, which is critical by definition, but as the 19th century wore on, it entered many other fields.  A more rational justification had begun to be demanded of every formal social activity, and Kantian self-criticism, which had arisen in philosophy in answer to this demand in the first place, was called on eventually to meet and interpret it in areas that lay far from philosophy."

Asger Jorn
Untitled C
1958-59
etching and aquatint
Tate Gallery

Cy Twombly
The Song of the Border Guard
1952
woodcut
Tate Gallery

William Baziotes
Mammoth
1957
oil paint on canvas
Tate Gallery

"We know what has happened to an activity like religion, which could not avail itself of Kantian, immanent, criticism in order to justify itself.  At first glance the arts might seem to have been in a situation like religion's.  Having been denied by the Enlightenment all tasks they could take seriously, they looked as though they were going to be assimilated to entertainment pure and simple, and entertainment itself looked as though it were going to be assimilated, like religion, to therapy.  The arts could save themselves from this leveling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity."

"Each art, it turned out, had to perform this demonstration on its own account.  What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art.  Each art had to determine, through it own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.  By doing so it would, to be sure, narrow its area of competence, but at the same time it would make its possession of that area all the more certain."

"It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium.  The task of self-criticism 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 standards of quality as well as of its independence.  "Purity" meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance." 

Terry Frost
Untitled Composition
1954-56
watercolor on paper
Tate Gallery

Peter Lanyon
Corsham Model
1953
crayon and gouache on paper
Tate Gallery

Peter Lanyon
In the Trees
1951
screenprint
Tate Gallery

"Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art.  The limitations that constitute the medium of painting – the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment – were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly.  Under Modernism these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly.  Manet's became the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surface on which they were painted.  The Impressionists, in Manet's wake, abjured underpainting and glazes, to leave the eye under no doubt as to the fact that the colors they used were made of paint that came from tubes or pots.  C├ęzanne sacrificed verisimilitude, or correctness, in order to fit his drawing and design more explicitly to the rectangular shape of the canvas."

"It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism.  For flatness alone was unique and exclusive to pictorial art.  The enclosing shape of the picture was a limiting condition, or norm, that was shared with the art of the theater, but also with sculpture.  Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art, Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else."

"The Old Masters had sensed that it was necessary to preserve what is called the integrity of the picture plane: that is, to signify the enduring presence of flatness underneath and above the most vivid illusion of three-dimensional space.  The apparent contradiction involved was essential to the success of their art, as it is indeed to the success of all pictorial art.  The Modernists have neither avoided nor resolved this contradiction; rather, they have reversed its terms.  One is made aware of the flatness of their pictures before, instead of after, being made aware of what the flatness contains.  Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before one sees the picture itself, one sees a Modernist picture as a picture first.  This is, of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modernist, but Modernism imposes it as the only and necessary way, and Modernism's success in doing so is a success of self-criticism."

Peter Lanyon
Coast
1953
watercolor and gouache on paper
Tate Gallery

Joseph Beuys
Electricity
1959
oil paint and watercolor on paper
Tate Gallery

Robert Motherwell
Iberia No. II
1958
oil paint on canvas
Tate Gallery

"Modernist painting in its latest phase has not abandoned the representation of recognizable objects in principle.  What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognizable objects can inhabit.  Abstractness, or the non-figurative, has in itself still not proved to be an altogether necessary moment in the self-criticism of pictorial art, even though artists as eminent as Kandinsky and Mondrian have thought so.  As such, representation, or illustration, does not attain the uniqueness of pictorial art; what does do so is the association of things represented.  All recognizable entities (including pictures themselves) exist in three-dimensional space, and the barest suggestion of a recognizable entity suffices to call up associations of that kind of space.  The fragmentary silhouette of a human figure, or of a teacup, will do so, and by doing so alienate pictorial space from the literal two-dimensionality which is the guarantee of painting's independence as an art.  For, as has already been said, three-dimensionality is the province of sculpture.  To achieve autonomy, painting has had above all to divest itself of everything it might share with sculpture, and it is in its effort to do this, and not so much – I repeat – to exclude the representational or the literary, that painting has made itself abstract."

– all quoted text from the essay Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg, published in Arts Yearbook, 1961

Ralph Rumney
The Change
1957
oil paint and household paint on hardboard
Tate Gallery

Paul Feiler
Portheras Grey
1959-61
oil paint on canvas
Tate Gallery