VIII. Triumph and Consummation
Three weeks after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bloodiest war in history ended with Japan's unconditional surrender on 2 September 1945. The repercussions in terms of cultural history were comparable to those of the French Revolution, this time affecting
not only Europe, but the whole world. From now on, the world was split
into two blocs, divided by a boundary running right through the middle of a devastated Europe that had ceded its political, economic and intellectual hegemony to the new world powers-the United States and the Soviet Union. The sense of self that had once sustained the Old World now lay buried beneath the rubble.
Within the space of a few decades, the First World War, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War had revealed not only the destructive potential of modern science, technology and industry, but also the fallibility of human reason and moral values. The extent of the destruction and horror unleashed upon the world by a country as cultured as Germany-with its history of great thinkers, poets and musicians-the discovery of the concentration camps and the accounts of the systematic destruction of six million Jews, the photographs of prisoners, the mass graves, the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, united the civilized world in its abhorrence of Nazi terror and shattered any remaining illusions about the intellectual and moral supremacy of Western civilization.
All manner of progressive, liberal and anti-bourgeois tendencies were thus cast in a new light and, in spite of the often unbridgeable gulfs between them, were vindicated by a newfound respectability. This reappraisal was to reshape the intellectual life of Western democracies, influencing their artistic awareness in particular. Much of what had been part of the old cultural context came to be equated with a Europe of power-hungry nation states, and with the traditions and values that were now held responsible for the catastrophe they had survived. Since modern art, by definition, was not tarred with the same brush, it represented one of the few achievements of Western culture that could still be idealized. Its condemnation by the Nazis (and their persecution of its exponents) made it a symbol of intellectual resistance, representing the integrity and continuity of a liberal European consciousness. In all the countries of western Europe and the United States the great masters of modernism were presented to a broad public, either individually or in major group exhibitions. The outsiders and the revolutionaries of the pre-war era became established figures.
While they celebrated their belated triumph, with some of them-Matisse and Giacometti spring to mind here-actually creating their most important works around this time, the next generation of European artists, psychologically damaged by the war, initially lacked the will and the strength to build on previous artistic developments in a creative and innovative way.1 This task fell instead to the relatively unsullied and unburdened American artists who had so recently discovered modern art for themselves, and who sought to create their own truly American works that would rank alongside those of their much admired predecessors. After all, they had saved the Old World, liberating Europe from the yoke of Nazi rule. Thanks to them, democracy had triumphed.
The subtly differentiated and, for the most part, small-scale pictures by their older European colleagues are too intimate and personal for them, neither radical nor consistent enough, as though their creators had not been certain of the value and historical significance of their artistic achievement. The Americans' own painting has to be more uncompromising, more open, more direct and free. They take the vocabulary and the most elementary creative means of their predecessors and use these to recapitulate the main achievements of European modernism- but on a huge scale. With their extremely simple, succinct and striking approach, the Americans step out on a path that will gradually lead towards a style of art that seems increasingly impersonal and anonymous. In a four-track development that will last until the mid-1970s, the basic artistic approaches now familiar to the reader-realist, structural, romantic and symbolist-are clearly legible.
1. Mystic Fusion through Ecstasy and Meditation: Abstract Romanticism
In the altered cultural climate of the postwar era, the United States steps onto the stage of international art for the first time. Young and powerful, progressive and democratic, the center of modern technology and industry, melting pot of enormous ethnic diversity and home to the two latest and most popular forms of art-jazz and film-the United States, unscathed by war, embodies the hopes and ideals of the postwar era.
Before and during the war, countless representatives of Europe's intellectual elite had fled to the United States to escape Nazi persecution. European philosophers and psychoanalysts, poets, musicians and film-makers, artists and architects, as well as scientists who had emigrated after the war, exerted an enormous influence on the intellectual life of the United States, triggering a development that was to enable the world's most powerful economy to take on a leading cultural role as well.
Ever since the legendary Armory Show in 1913, that had confronted the American public with modern art for the first time, there had been growing interest in the new forms of expression that were constantly emerging. In 1929 the Museum of Modern Art was opened, followed by the inauguration of similar institutions in other American cities. Soon afterwards, the first European artists began to arrive in the United States, fleeing Nazi persecution, and, as teachers, began to disseminate their modernist ideas. László Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Josef Albers taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Hans Hofmann at the Art Students League in New York.
Shortly after war broke out, the second major wave of European immigrants arrived. Among them were representatives of all the main stylistic movements of the day. In a photograph taken in New York in 1942 we can see the Surrealists Matta, Tanguy, Ernst, Masson and Bresson alongside Chagall, Zadkine, Lipchitz, Ozenfant, Léger and Mondrian (fig. 250). And it is, above all, the Surrealists who provide the initial, crucial impulse that leads to new American painting.
The first Americans to develop their own independent work in response to the Surrealists' influence are William Baziotes and Arshile Gorky. They pursue a symbolically charged form of Surrealism whose biomorphic, organic forms and spontaneous, calligraphic draftsmanship is reminiscent of Klee, Miró and Masson (figs. 251, 252). In this respect, however distinctive, their work still remains firmly within the scope of the already familiar.
The first painterly oeuvre really to break with the European tradition is that of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Pollock, arriving in New York from California in 1929, to attend Thomas Hart Benton's courses at the Art Students League, looks primarily to the work done by Picasso and Diego de Rivera in the 1930s before turning to an emblematic form of Surrealism influenced by the New York Europeans in exile. As he said in an interview, […] the fact that the good European moderns are here is very important, for they bring with them an understanding of the problems of modern painting. I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious. This idea interests me more than what these specific painters do, for the two artists I admire most, Picasso and Miró, are still abroad.2
Pollock makes the breakthrough to his own formal syntax shortly after the war, developing a working method that corresponds more to a Dionysian dance than to conventional craftsmanship, and which he describes as follows: My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of the hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West. I continue to get further away from the usual painters tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass and other foreign matter added. When I am in my painting I am not aware of what I am doing. It is only after a sort of "get acquainted" period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes well.3
In 1950, the photographer Hans Namuth documents Pollock's working method in a film and a now famous series of stills (fig. 255). They show the direct, consistent and extremely radical approach adopted by this American artist in pursuing the Surrealist maxim of psychological automatism in the visual arts. Pollock works with liquid paints and industrial lacquers, with silver and aluminium emulsions, dripping them from a brush or swinging them rhythmically over the canvas on the floor from a perforated can.
The resulting works are huge canvasses covered in a dense, polychromatic network of intertwined splashes, explosive blotches and febrile arabesques, with neither top nor bottom, drawing nor background, so that they seem to continue endlessly beyond the edge of the picture (hence the descriptive term "all-over" painting). Paint cast onto the canvas in this way creates patterns in which the intentional and the aleatory combine, giving expression to an intensive yet impersonal libidinal impulse that is both aimless and anonymous (fig. 254). These patterns generate a completely non-perspectival, spherical spatiality that lends Pollock's painting a hitherto unknown expansiveness and a magnificently supra-individual and non-psychological pathos (fig. 253).
The rhythmic, labyrinthine drip paintings that appear to have been created in some kind of ecstasy are the first examples of a movement in art for which the American art critic Clement Greenberg coined the term Abstract Impressionism. Today, this term is also used to refer to parallel European movements that were known at the time as Abstraction Lyrique, Informel or Tachisme.
In America and in Europe, we can find two distinct directions within Abstract Impressionism: firstly the gestural painting known as Action Painting, in which the picture as a whole, as in the work of Pollock, bears visible testimony to an impulsive and impromptu painting process and whose leading exponents in America, apart from Pollock, are Franz Kline (1910-1962), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) (figs. 253-258), and, secondly, painting in which extensive areas of color are juxtaposed flatly without specific formal structures, expressing a sense of the infinite and the ineffable. The leading American exponents of this second direction, which is later to develop into Colorfield Painting, are Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Barnett Newman (1905-1970), and Clyfford Still (1904-1980). The transition between the two is fluid.
Robert Motherwell, the theoretician among the painters of Abstract Expressionism, forges a link between these two directions with a cycle of more than one hundred paintings created between 1948 and 1967 and collectively known as Elegies to the Spanish Republic. These are terse, distinctively individual compositions. Closely grouped bars, rectangles, circles and ovals, mostly in black, structure the large, horizontal, white formats with their melancholy rhythm and dark tonality (fig. 258). In the controlled drama of these compositions we find both the aggressive gesture of Pollock and the magisterial tranquillity of Rothko.
From 1947 onwards, Rothko's work is informed by the evocative and hypnotic effect of color; the picture plane is generally divided into two-at most, three-broad fields of color with blurred edges, emerging out of a monochrome ground (fig. 259). At first glance, these calm and self-contained paintings, seemingly illuminated by some mysterious light and consisting of nothing but a polyphony of color, stand in stark contrast to the frenzied world of Pollock. Yet both these artists, and with them the other exponents of both directions of Abstract Expressionism, broadly concur in their ideational positions.
All of these artists come from what might be described as 'emblematic' Surrealism, and are now attempting to transpose it into a cosmic dimension, each one of them seeking, in his own way, to achieve a form of self-surrender, a mystical merging with the universe (or with the picture that represents it) and accordingly presenting works on a scale so immense that they extinguish all other influences and overwhelm the viewer. Theirs is an art no longer geared towards the magic experience of things to be found in the work of their Surrealist precursors, but an art oriented instead towards the rituals of the North American Indians, Eastern mysticism, and Zen Buddhism. They no longer address the dichotomy between the quick and the dead, still clearly evident in the work of Gorky and Baziotes, but explore instead one of two possible forms of mystical experience: the ecstasy of intoxication and the ecstasy of mystic contemplation.4
At the same time, this art is about expressing the inner state of the artist. In their spontaneous and passionate devotion to the painterly act, these artists seek to become one with their own feelings and to realize that unity in visual form. According to Franz Kline, the final test of painting, theirs, mine, any others: does the painter's emotion come across?5 In this emphasis on the emotional, in striving to express an inner state with the greatest possible directness and authenticity, and in the insatiable desire to merge as one with the universe, we can easily recognize the yearnings and ambitions of Romanticism.
Accordingly, in his article "What Abstract Art Means to Me," Robert Motherwell writes I should say that it is a fundamentally romantic response to modern life-rebellious, individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable. I should say that this attitude arose from a feeling of being ill at ease in the universe, so to speak-the collapse of religion, of the old close-knit community and family may have something to do with the origins of the feeling. I do not know.
But whatever the source of this sense of being unwedded to the universe, I think that one's art is just one's effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union.6
The historical significance of Abstract Expressionism lies in the fact that it lends the Romantic approach to life a specifically modern and at the same time impersonal touch. The longings and passions of the American artists are no longer to be regarded in a subjective sense; they are no longer reflected in transfigured Nature nor in the portrayal of exotic adventure, but in the painterly gesture and the artistic vision that takes shape in the interaction of pure, i.e. non-figurative color and forms. The credo of modernism-the universal validity of anonymous forces of Nature-is romantically exalted and equated with human existence. Pollock is the Delacroix and Rothko the Caspar David Friedrich of the 20th century.7
Mention should also be made of a follower of these artists who occupies a position between the two directions of non-figurative romanticism. Cy Twombly, born in 1928, met Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline when he studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. From 1952 onwards, in New York, he develops his own gestural painting in which he strips Abstract Expressionism of its drama: forswearing the heroic gestures of his precursors and replacing them with a barely visible, spontaneous, yet apparently aimless, amorphous scribble (fig. 260). The out-of-control quality of his drawing techniques, which are ripe with intimations of the deepest unconscious, make his seem like the most sustained automatist career, bringing to fruition effects only hinted at by Miró and the Surrealists, writes Roberta Smith, adding, […] Twombly may be the truest of all the 'action painters' as the Abstract Expressionists were sometimes called. Throughout his career, he has conceived of canvas or paper as-to use Harold Rosenberg's famous phrase-"an arena in which to act" in a completely direct and unpremeditated manner.8
Under the name of Tachisme, Informel, or Abstraction Lyrique, similar tendencies emerge in Europe. We shall return to these less radical variations of Abstract Expressionism in a later chapter.
2. The Medium is the Message: Modern Realism
The new generation of artists to emerge after Abstract Expressionism turn their backs on the pathos and arbitrariness of individual expression in a quest to gear their exhibitionist ambitions towards tangible and universally binding standards. That quest is to develop in two different directions. While non-figurative art, be it the Post-Painterly Abstraction or Minimal Art of the United States, or the mathematically based Constructivism of Europe, looks to the anonymous intrinsic value of color, form and number as the basis for their 'modern classicism', two young artists in New York-Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg-achieve a far more radical break with tradition by turning their attention to the visible reality of everyday urban life. In their wake, with the emergence of American Pop Art and its British and Continental variations, postwar art finds its way to a new Realism. Before taking a look at the work of these two great innovators, let me define my understanding of the term Realism as distinct from that of other authors.
In his 1959 essay on Realism and Naturalism ("Realismus und Naturalismus") Georg Schmidt argues against equating the two terms 'Realism' and 'Naturalism'. According to Schmidt 'Naturalism' refers to a technical and stylistic means, whereas 'Realism' is to be regarded first and foremost as an attitude or state of mind, which he describes as follows: The opposite of Realism is Idealism. Realist painting is painting that addresses the cognition of reality in the widest sense; not only visible outer reality, but also invisible inner reality. Idealist painting is painting aimed at a heightening of reality rather than its cognition. The yardstick of Realist painting is its content of reality in the sense of visible and psychological reality. […] The question of Realism and Idealism is, in any case, a question of a state of mind rather than artistic means. Realist and Idealist art can be found side by side at any time, even in the same artist.9
If, like Georg Schmidt, we equate any upright quest for knowledge with Realism, then this concept is expanded rather more than it deserves to be within the scope of an art historical survey. This becomes clear when Georg Schmidt describes the non-figurative art of the 20th century-Kandinsky, Mondrian, Peinture Informelle-as Realist, for no other reason than that it represents an inner reality, or when he writes: Realism is seeing and expressing the contradictions in the social fabric of an era-in order to overcome them. Idealism is establishing a sphere beyond these contradictions-in order to vindicate and maintain them.10 This classification is based on a positive concept of reality that distinguishes between 'true' reality and a false, inauthentic reality; it is, to some extent, ideologically determined and, ultimately, an expression of an idealizing mindset.
By contrast, I believe that the frame of mind or attitude inherent in Realist art is rooted in a skeptical view of any absolutist claim to truth and any form of idealizing exaggeration, irrespective of whether such idealization concerns principles and value systems or one's own inwardness and its exhibition. The Realist artist is interested in the actual and the given. He does not seek to evaluate, change or express, but to ascertain. The fact that such 'ascertainment'-Courbet and Manet spring to mind here-has often been regarded as subversive by the representatives of established and idealized values, and has been attacked accordingly, does nothing to alter its fundamental objectivity.
This attitude (or its predominance) constitutes the decisive constant of any Realist art, no matter how it may perceive what is actual and given. All reality is relative, and even if it is approached for its own sake, can neither be grasped unequivocally nor defined objectively. Each era is characterized by its own notion of the real, and it is this notion that finds artistic form and expression in the Realist phase of the respective developmental cycles. According to today's attitudes, reality-and this applies to physical reality as well as to psychological reality-is not recognizable in its essence. Although we can describe the forms in which it appears, list the component parts of which it is constituted, and explain their mutual and reciprocal functions and relations, we are nevertheless unable to grasp the true essence of what we are examining.
This is an insight that can already be found in germinal form in the writings of Immanuel Kant, and one that constitutes a central tenet in the philosophical system of Arthur Schopenhauer, who, in 1819, in his main work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (translated into English in 1883-86 under the title The World as Will and Idea), interprets the entire world in terms of its metaphysical content and essence as one vast Will, that is to say, in terms of existential striving, while its tangible and visible reality is the Idea of the subject. Schopenhauer's concept of reality began to gain currency in the late 19th century and has exerted a lasting influence on 20th century thinking.
This shift of perspective is not restricted to the arts and humanities. While Einstein's Theory of Relativity shatters the scientific hypothesis of the objective viewer as early as 1906, modern physics comes up against a fundamental limit to its possibilities in 1927 with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: it proves impossible to determine both the mass and the direction of particles in motion. For if the mass is determined, the direction of the particles changes, and if one determines their direction, one influences the mass. Determining microphysical processes means intervening in these processes and thereby altering them. In other words, the question determines the answer-neutral observation is an impossibility.11
This fundamental insight also determines the artistic development of modernism. It is reflected not only in the categorical rejection of an objectively correct representation of visible reality and, with that, in the emergence of totally non-figurative art, but, since Duchamp, manifests itself above all in the extent to which the viewer becomes involved in the creative process. This tendency also informs the Realist art which follows Abstract Expressionism.
Artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg, and the exponents of Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme, do not seek to reproduce reality as such, endeavoring instead to focus on how we perceive that reality, and to trace it back to its (real) conditions. Whereas Seurat, at the beginning of modernism, analyzed the physical condition of the process of perception, artists in the Realist end-phase of modernism turned their attention to the psychological and intellectual aspects of our perception. But when it comes to this 'invisible' reality -namely the reality of the process of perception-neither Seurat nor Johns and Rauschenberg and their followers actively proclaim it, or express it, or otherwise present it: they simply allow the viewer to experience it. Duchamp's maxim of regarder voir constitutes the guiding principle of modern Realism.
The visible reality of everyday life in the second half of the 20th century
is that of an urban consumer society. Its appearance is shaped by mass
production, design, advertising, and new communications methods. Through
these magical channels, countless images and swathes of information are
disseminated at breathtaking speed throughout the entire world. Our consciousness
and our modes of perception are determined to a hitherto unknown degree
by secondhand experience, by the simultaneity and multiplicity of previously
processed and manipulated information. The medium is the message-
Marshall McLuhan's frequently quoted maxim articulates the main focus of artistic attempts to grasp this modern reality.
Modern Realism has adopted the iconography of the new media and their basic condition of technical reproducibility. Its crucial stylistic device is quotation. This is art that crosses the boundaries between the different genres. Painting, sculpture, photography, writing, sound and movement are no longer exclusive creative disciplines, but relate to one another and begin to overlap. In doing so, these media reveal their dual function as both the subject matter and the compositional tool of the new Realism.
This art undermines the firm standpoint of the viewer, who now has to choose between a number of possible modes of observation, and attempt to link them into a meaningful whole. Duchamp's belief that it is the viewer who completes the work is exemplified in modern Realism. We shall elucidate this by looking in some more detail at the work of Jasper Johns.
The Ambiguity of the Real:Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg
Jasper Johns, who grew up in South Carolina, arrives in New York in 1952, determined to become a painter. He earns his living working in a bookstore, experimenting in his spare time with a variety of different materials and techniques in an attempt to come to a clearer understanding of his own intentions and potential as an artist. In doing so, he created objects vaguely reminiscent of the enigmatic Boxes by the American Surrealist, Joseph Cornell.
In 1954, Johns abruptly puts an end to his experiments, destroying all his previous works (with the exception of four works already in private collections) and paints his Flag-the now famous picture of the American flag that marks the beginning of a new phase in the artistic evolution of modernism.
In this work, Johns does not portray a 'real' flag hanging on a mast or even fluttering in the wind; instead he transposes the flat pattern of the stars and stripes directly onto the canvas, painstakingly retaining their colors and proportions, so that the pattern of the flag corresponds to the format of the painting. Instead of depicting the flag, he makes a picture that, in a sense, becomes a flag itself (fig. 262).
The significance and meaning of this work is puzzling at first. The American national emblem may stand for a whole range of abstract and concrete ideas and concepts, but none of these is present in this picture. By wrenching this familiar image out of its usual context and turning it into a painting, he strips it of its previous significance and presents it apparently for its own sake.
He takes a similar approach with the prototypes on which his subsequent paintings are based. His Flag is soon followed by Targets, Numbers, and Alphabets, whereby he adapts each of these subjects using a variety of different colors and techniques (figs. 264, 265). With Canvas or Book (fig. 263) he begins to integrate three-dimensional objects into his pictures and, finally, using casts of real objects, creates a number of free-standing sculptures which are in themselves variations on Flashlight and Light Bulb (figs. 266-268).
On the face of it, in all these works Johns would appear to be reiterating the gesture of the readymade. Yet his approach differs in a number of essential aspects from that of Duchamp. Whereas Duchamp simply selects a readymade object, and declares it a work of art, Johns uses the given signs or forms of the American Flag, numbers, letters, flashlights and light bulbs as models on which to base his own work.
This adopted iconography fulfills certain artistic, psychological and intellectual functions in his oeuvre, and these will be discussed below. First of all, however, let me quote Johns himself: Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the target-things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.12
The first pointer to these other levels, that is to say to the artist's actual intent, is to be found in the particular painterly techniques Johns uses. He works with encaustic, a process in which wax is used as a binder, mixed with color pigment and collage elements (such as snippets of newspaper) and applied while still hot. Once it cools, the wax forms a thin surface layer whose obvious unevenness gives the impression of something crafted. The sensual quality of this surface contrasts starkly with the familiar appearance of numbers, letters, targets or the American flag; by destroying the industrially produced perfection of these signs and emblems, Johns elevates them to another level of significance.
Johns' iconographic models are common property, part and parcel of the collective conscious, effective as a matrix or a cliché in the sense of 'optical concepts'. They represent the negative cast, the mold from which each specific number 3 or each and every light bulb is created. Though such a concept may be the prerequisite for each form cast from it, it invariably remains 'negative' and can never become a positive form itself. All the forms cast from the same mold bear its unmistakable characteristics and in this respect they are the same, even though each is also unique, differing from all the others by dint of its specific existence in the here and now. In Johns' works, this ambiguity, so rarely perceived, becomes direct and intense.
The pattern of the American Flag or the form of a number are so familiar to us that we tend to see them without actually perceiving them, that is to say without consciously taking notice of their form as such. We experience them merely as abstract signs or hieroglyphs. In Johns' pictures, these abstract signs become a concrete reality because of the way they are made. Yet this does not mean that they stop existing as abstract concepts and clichés, independently of this concrete reality. As we contemplate his paintings and sculptures, we cannot escape the impression that these are works created and crafted, yet at the same time we are ineluctably confronted with a sense of déjà vu, with the feeling that we are looking at a familiar and given object. His art always operates on the fine dividing line between reality and imagination.
Accordingly, Johns' flags, numbers, targets and alphabets, are invariably both unique and universal, both collective and individual, both familiar and surprising, everyday and exclusive. Instead of portraying the real, they seem to coincide with it, and it is in this respect, in particular, that they convey an insight into the conditionality and questionability of all reality.
Johns' paintings thrive on the dialectical tension between the negative given form perceived in our consciousness (as a matrix) and the positive, specifically unique reality vested in them by the creative act. Yet not only do they render visible the essence of this tension between a universal and an individual principle, between order and spontaneity, between structure and dynamism, but also combine these two opposite poles in a synthesis of integral and indivisible artistic experience. The realism of Jasper Johns is not founded in his iconography, but in the specific significance with which he invests it. The reality he addresses with his optical concepts is that of the border between image and depiction. Just as, for example, an essayist may deliberate on the question of language, using language as his tool, so too does Johns use images to deliberate on the creative act of imaging. As images of images, his works give an insight into the conditions of all language; their theme is the phenomenon of artistic perception. This theme is presented objectively and without value judgement, finding form and expression in the hands of a realist.
However, the above comments by no means cover all there is to be said
on the significance and meaning of these pictures. Like every artist,
Johns is interested not merely in striving for greater epistemological
or philosophical awareness, but in giving form and expression to his own
self. Admittedly, it is not easy to recognize this intention in his Flags,
Numbers, or Alphabets; yet the coherence, the clarity of
thought and the painterly quality of these pictures indicate exhibitionist
ambitions and idealized structures; it is simply that they are devoid
of any personal mark. They neither reflect the belief in an 'idea', in
some ultimate meaning of human existence, nor do they reveal the inner
state of the artist.
Johns is skeptical in his attitude, especially towards the emotional pathos of the Abstract Expressionists: I don't want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.13 His painting bears witness to this refusal; for the artist withdraws his cathexis from the id and the superego, and transfers it to the ego, that is to say to the 'neutral' aims and structures of the mediating, synthetic instance of the psyche.14 The values and ambitions that find expression in Johns' art are impersonal. He strives for the real, the true and the right.
Both his recalcitrant stance and the rich subtlety of the painterly texture by which Johns imbues each of his surfaces with rhythmic vitality, are distinctly reminiscent of Cézanne. Crichton compares a still life of apples by Cézanne with Johns' painting Figure 7, commenting that where Cézanne painted seven apples; Johns just paints 7.15 Yet Cézanne's apples stand pars pro toto for nature, for the universal laws on which all existence is based; his ambition is to demonstrate and to create the pictorial equivalent of conformity to such laws .
Johns, on the other hand, has lost his faith in a universal law (or rather, in the possibility of its cognition) and is no longer willing to idealize his own emotions in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists. If he is not to lose his artistic integrity, he cannot become unfaithful to his skepticism, his negatively defined faith (that is to say, his conviction that 'truth' is beyond our grasp). This imposes narrow strictures on the artistic possibilities open to him. Given that the dialectic of the artistic process requires an intellectual and creative challenge that inspires exhibitionist ambitions-in other words, a mission-Johns requires a mission that, on one hand, will not demand a positive confession of faith, but allow him to leave empty the place of that faith, while on the other hand presenting him with firm, objective and binding demands.
He seeks a binding obligation free of value, and finds it in the neutral structure of signs and emblems whose typical and clearly defined, universally valid forms allow them to stand not only as representatives of the objective and binding, but also as representatives of scale and order. The anonymity and the blatant insignificance of the these icons permit him to achieve his creative ambitions, that is to say, they permit him to present his painterly virtuosity, his wealth of innovative powers and his sensual pleasure in the creative process, without being unfaithful to himself. The variations on his Flag shown here (figs. 270, 271) not only illustrate the unexpected wealth of creative possibilities that Johns extracted from the banal pattern, but also express the conditions and psychological prerequisites of their creation, summarized by the artist in a single sentence: I am just trying to find a way to make pictures.16 In retrospect, the extent to which he succeeds in doing so is clear. With an extraordinary talent for invention and with unflinching consistency, Johns creates, within the space of just four years, a comprehensive and coherent painterly oeuvre on the basis of a single 'idea'. In doing so, he develops both the ideal and the painterly principles that are to set the standards for a new generation of artists.
All this time, Johns was leading an isolated life in his loft on Lower
Manhattan's Pearle Street; Robert Rauschenberg, his senior by five years, living
in the same building, was the only person to see him at his work.
Unlike Johns, Rauschenberg is outgoing, friendly and extroverted. Among his many friends he counts the composer John Cage, and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. He has already shown his work in a number of exhibitions and has had an article published in Time magazine; he is considered the enfant terrible of young American painting-a reputation he owes to his many unconventional experiments, including his monochrome White Paintings and Black Paintings of 1952, and his Dirt Paintings.
At the time of Johns' and Rauschenberg's first meeting, Rauschenberg is working on his Combine Paintings, involving a variety of different 'objets trouvés': fragments of everyday reality such as torn posters, newspaper or magazine cuttings, photographs, labels, street signs or other panels; three-dimensional objects such as kettles, doors or car tires; soft objects such as shoes and hats, juxtaposed and mounted to form large assemblages which he then covered entirely or in part-often in the most brutal manner-with cheap industrial paints, seemingly without any aesthetic intention whatsoever (fig. 273, 274).
From 1956 onwards, his works become more planar again. On large, partly unpainted canvases, fragments of pamphlets and posters, photographs and newspaper cuttings are interspersed with targeted and spontaneous painterly interventions, whose compulsive intensity is reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism (fig. 272).
In 1958, Rauschenberg begins transposing photographs from newspapers and magazines directly onto the canvas by means of a simple transfer process. From 1960 onwards he employs silk-screen printing as a technique that allows him to enlarge (or reduce) the relevant reproductions, and to manipulate their colors in all kinds of ways. From this combination of printing and painting techniques he develops a new type of picture consisting of a montage of overlapping and interacting fragments. Writing, reproductions of paintings, technical diagrams, photographs of people, machinery, vehicles and buildings, are combined with painterly gestures, splashes and daubs of color. With their constantly changing dimensions, viewpoints and existential levels, these pictorial fragments generate a non-perspectival spatiality that lends Rauschenberg's pictures the remarkable breadth and grandiosity we have already witnessed in the work of Pollock (fig. 276).
In these works, the Futuristic vision of a world in which all things permeate each other (as invoked by Boccioni in his Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting, although he never achieved this in his own artistic output) takes on a pictorial and thus truly contemporary form for the first time. Unlike the Futurists, who idealize the structural changes that have occurred in science and technology, commerce and politics, Rauschenberg accepts such change as a neutral fact and an objective given; whereas the Futurists illustrate it, Rauschenberg undertakes to retrace it in his own technical and creative process. He gives a structure to the visual experience of urban life by stylistically distilling the prerequisites and conditions of the new, changed forms of perception. The pictorial elements in his works are not ordered according to any hierarchical principle, each detail being of equal significance. Accordingly, his compositions are additive, and not geared towards a climax. There is nothing that everything is subservient to.17
This is only one of the many aspects that Rauschenberg has in common with Jasper Johns. The inclusion of the everyday, the blurring of the boundary between found objects and created objects, the tension between reality and imagination, the avoidance of all subjective, emotional expression and the position they occupy midway between Duchamp and Abstract Expressionism are further characteristic aspects that link the work of these two friends and set them apart from the established attitudes to art that prevailed at the time. These two outsiders saw each other daily, discussing their work with one another, and, in doing so, finding the feedback needed for their continued development. According to Rauschenberg, they gave each other the permission to do what we wanted.18
It is through Rauschenberg that Johns meets the gallerist Leo Castelli in 1957. Castelli then organizes the first solo exhibition of this hitherto entirely unknown artist, and this exhibition, at which Johns shows his flags, targets, numbers and alphabets, is a sensational success. Within the space of just a few days, most of the works have been sold, not only to such prestigious collectors as Johnson and Rockefeller, but even to the Museum of Modern Art, whose director Alfred Barr purchases no fewer than three works. However, with the majority of artists and art critics responding negatively, Johns' spectacular appearance on the art scene and the purchase of his works by the Museum of Modern Art trigger enormous controversy.
In order to understand this controversy, we have to be aware of the cultural climate of the late 1950s. Although the New York art world was still under the spell of Abstract Expressionism, regarding it as the only possible form of modern painting, this artistic direction was already beginning to show signs of fatigue. The followers of Pollock and De Kooning were clearly not in a position to consolidate or further develop the painting of their precursors, and had begun flooding the market with second-rate, routine works in which the expressive gesture had lost its previous existential significance and, with that, every last vestige of credibility. Thus, in spite of the continued glorification of Abstract Expressionism, progressive art circles had begun to feel the need for new ideas and a new artistic spark.
Johns' original, confident and magisterial painted pictures not only offered an alternative to Abstract Expressionism, but also returned the recognizable object to painting. At the time, the impact was no less sensational than the decisive move towards abstraction ten years earlier. The simple reproducibility and innovative value of the works shown at Castelli ensured their rapid dissemination by the mass media, thus contributing decisively towards making this young artist an international star virtually overnight. In 1959, Time magazine wrote: Jasper Johns, 29, is the brand-new darling of the art world's bright, brittle avant-garde. A year ago he was practically unknown; since then he has had a sellout show in Manhattan, has exhibited in Paris and Milan, was the only American to win a painting prize at the Carnegie International, and has seen three of his paintings bought for Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art.19
It was during this period that Johns took an intense interest in the work and the person of Marcel Duchamp. According to Johns himself, he had previously known the work of the legendary French artist only superficially and had become genuinely interested only after his own successful exhibition at Castelli prompted many critics to describe him as a Neo-Dadaist. Towards the end of 1958, he read Motherwell's anthology The Dada Painters and Poets, visited the major Duchamp collection of the Arensbergs at the Museum of Philadelphia and read Robert Lebel's recently published monographic study of Duchamp. In 1959, through John Cage, he finally came face to face with the inventor of the readymade.
The many correspondences between these two artists are obvious, yet there are also essential differences. Johns, like Duchamp, is a skeptic, and he also leaves a gap where 'faith' would otherwise have been. Unlike Duchamp, however, he places enormous value on the material act of creation. In stead of declaring a found object a work of art, he creates pictures and sculptures that are both objects and works. The ambiguity of the 'real' takes on a pictorial form in his work.
Both artists have a similar intellectual starting point, but they come to very different conclusions. Both succeed in accomplishing a major coup with a stroke of genius at the beginning of their artistic career, lending exemplary shape to their artistic credo. In the gesture of the readymade and in the picture of the American flag, the respective statements of these two artists are so utterly condensed that they cannot be heightened-only varied. The further creative development of their successful concept becomes a crucial problem that both Duchamp and Johns share with most conceptual artists: the more the concept becomes the actual bearer of the statement, the more rapidly interest in its realization threatens to ebb away, both for the artist and for the viewer. In the case of the successful artist, this symptom of fatigue is further exacerbated by the impact of mass media attention. The worldwide dissemination of his or her works accelerates their reception, driving the artist on to constant innovation; when an artist's initial great success becomes the benchmark for all his or her subsequent works, that artist is often unable to meet expectations.
Duchamp, the inventor of the readymade, avoided that fate by turning to chess. I could have chosen twenty things an hour, but they would have ended up looking the same. I wanted to avoid that at all costs.20 In his case, this refusal is paradoxically part of his work, and not its end; his work is an idea, and this idea is manifested in the myth of his person. The silence of Duchamp is not, as Beuys claimed, over-estimated-at best it is misunderstood.
In contrast to Duchamp the inventor, Johns is a craftsman. He responds in a different way to the challenge that his own work represents for him. This, at least, is how he comments on his first attempts to further develop the theme of the flag: it got rather monotonous, making flags on a piece of canvas, and I wanted to add something-go beyond the limits of the flag and to add different canvas space.21 These three aims-of adding something to what had gone before, going beyond the boundaries of his first invention, creating a different space-determine the subsequent course of his artistic development, and it is in this respect that it differs fundamentally from that of Marcel Duchamp.
The period between 1954 and 1960-when Johns' modern realism finds its purest, most complete and distinctive form of expression in the flags, numbers, alphabets, light bulbs and flashlights-can be described within his overall oeuvre as classical (that is, as classical Realism) in the sense that it stakes out the fixed points of reference for his further works; the entire later body of his work may be regarded in terms of a response to the decisive discoveries of these early years. This causal relationship with his own classical model triggers a psychological dynamism that corresponds in many ways to that which, as we have already noted, determines the process of cyclical development of an entire era.
The Surrealist objects of his 'archaic' early work, almost all of which have been destroyed, and the works I have described as classical, are followed in Jasper Johns' oeuvre by a baroque phase marked by exuberant vitality, wit and humor, love of experimentation and painterly richness. Having hitherto adhered to the clearly defined structure of a given form, his painting is liberated from all external constraints in 1959 with the picture False Start-a title that would appear to be a reference to the previous phase of his output. From now on, color takes on a completely autonomous significance. Strong, spontaneous brushstrokes cover the entire picture plane with a rhythmic structure of blue, yellow and red. With the aid of a stencil, Johns labels these areas with designations whose validity is cast into question by the fact that, in most cases, they contradict what they designate: for example, a blue panel is designated in red lettering as 'yellow', while a yellow panel bears the description 'red' in black letters. With Jubilee, Johns heightens the level of paradox by applying the same color designation to a picture painted entirely in black, gray and white (fig. 277). The combination of painting and writing becomes increasingly free in the pictures that follow. The exhibitionist moment emerges with increasingly strength, the composition becomes increasingly amorphous and approaches the all-over painting of Abstract Expressionism.
The introduction of real objects into the picture in the early 1960s marks a new turning point in Johns' work. From now on, his paintings no longer address a single motif, but, like the Combine Paintings of his friend Rauschenberg, intermingle purely painterly texture with graphic and typographical elements, handwritten notes and real objects (figs. 278, 279). Johns begins to abandon his previous objectively realistic and analytical approach in favor of a more self-contained manner of painting, in which quotations from earlier works and subjective references play an increasingly important role. Many critics regard these pictures with their negative or accusatory titles (No, Liar, Good Time Charley, Fools House, etc.) as the expression of a profound crisis in the artist's psyche. Johns himself also indicated this to Crichton, explaining that he had chosen the title Land's End for a 1963 work "Because I had the sense of arriving at a point where there was no place to stand." It is a point where there is nothing certain anymore, where everything is 'confused by thought.'22
In this, Johns indirectly indicates that the problem of the creative process itself continues to constitute the central theme of his work; only he now sees this from a different point of view.
This is a change that is very much in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp's importance in terms of Jasper Johns' further development is evident not only in the increasing ambiguity of the titles he chooses (such as 4 the news) and in the ever more enigmatic character of the paintings of this period, but also in many direct indicators. The clearest of these is to be found in the most representative work of this period, According to what, created in 1964 (fig. 279). This painting, almost five meters wide (Johns' biggest so far), unites and reiterates most of the pictorial elements that Johns had been using individually in various pictures since 1960: a kitchen stool with the cut-open cast of a human leg, a silk-screen print of several newspaper pages, free-standing cutouts of painted wooden letters spelling the words RED, YELLOW and BLUE, a row of color circles, a coat-hanger and a spoon attached to a wire. The title and signature of the work are located on a small canvas hinged to the lower edge of the painting. This opens to reveal the profile of Marcel Duchamp, who is thus presented as the unseen mentor behind the work.
Following his brief flirtation with the baroque, Johns abandons the definitive structures of those anonymous early prototypes, and thus loses his pictorial and intellectual orientation. At the same time, Duchamp's meta-irony also remains beyond his grasp. Johns continues to ask the questions that Duchamp has long ceased to answer: he seeks to explore the origins, meaning and significance of his previous work. Yet the search is in vain: According to what is a work that reveals the reality of a self threatened by fragmentation. Johns tackles the crisis in two ways. One approach involves working through his entire oeuvre, piece by piece, using complex and time-consuming processes and techniques, producing drawings (graphite, charcoal, chalk, ink and colored ink) and prints (lithographs, etchings and aquatints) derived more or less literally, on a reduced scale, from his own earlier works. The other approach involves a return to earlier motifs, which he reiterates, barely altered, in his increasingly rare paintings.
Then, in the 1970s, with his Cross-hatchings, he develops a pictorial principle by which he creates a series of, for the most part, entirely non-figurative pictures (fig. 280). With these compositions, which reflect an anonymous, yet objectively binding value system, and which are characterized by the discipline and painterly richness of their execution, Johns returns, as in the days of his flag paintings, to the security of clearly legible, immutable values. Within his individual development, this group of works, together with his printed works, represents the classicist return to a binding canon, a return to his classical period.
Finally, in the 1980s, Johns turns to a symbolist mode of painting. In works charged with meaning (though in my opinion artistically less significant) considerable scope is given to unfathomable, subjective and autobiographical references (fig. 281).
In this study, I do not intend to discuss these works in detail (since I know most of them only from reproductions) nor to dwell upon the classical phase of this American artist. Instead, by way of conclusion, I wish to point out once again the contribution that Johns made to modern art. He is the first to break radically with Abstract Expressionism and turn instead to modern Realism, in which external reality (as discussed on p. 403) appears as the ambiguity of all experience and all perception, while the inner reality of both the artist and the viewer manifests itself in the loss of individually informed idealized structures and corresponding exhibitionist ambitions, that is to say, in the impersonal character of the work.
Johns, together with Rauschenberg, has created a new artistic vocabulary, which will form the basis for the most spectacular artistic transformation of the postwar era-the Pop Art revolution.
The Credo of the Trivial: American Pop Art
The appearance of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg on the art scene heralds a crucial turn of events on both sides of the Atlantic. Increasingly, young artists are discovering a new source of inspiration in the iconography of everyday urban life, and beginning to explore its compositional potential. In London, the art critic Laurence Alloway coins the term Pop Art, which quickly becomes a household word in the United States as well, where it is applied indiscriminately to any attempt to integrate the visual world of the mass media and consumer society into artistic composition. Lumping all these tendencies together under the evocative stylistic designation Pop Art, tends to place the external characteristics of this new art in the foreground, while obscuring any insight into its intellectual significance. In my view, Pop Art is characterized not only by its popular subject matter but above all by the particularly non-judgemental attitude with which it addresses that subject matter. It is this attitude that distinguishes Pop Art-as a modern form of realistic art-both from the polemical collages of Dadaism and from the romantic mysticism of Surrealist objects.
In the following, the intellectual criteria of the new Realism is illustrated by way of example of the five leading representatives of American Pop Art: Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal and Tom Wesselman.
Looking at the paintings by Roy Lichtenstein (born 1923) the viewer experiences a sense of insecurity similar to that triggered by Jasper Johns' flags and numbers. Like Johns, Lichtenstein adopts an existing and otherwise banal model, extracting it from its conventional context and reproducing it apparently unaltered. Yet whereas Johns employs a style of brushwork that is alienating, tactile and differentiated in its application of color-and which makes the viewer conscious of the transfer-Lichtenstein achieves the same effect merely by altering the dimensions of his model. He transposes either individual episodes from popular pictures, stories, comics, or illustrations from advertisements and advertising brochures, taking them out of their original context and blowing them up to a huge format, thereby confronting the viewer with an image that is familiar and yet never seen before (figs. 282-286). Greatly magnified, the uniform black outlines, the regular, mechanical dot rasters and the flat and homogenous background colors of the original print-image become impressive and unmistakable stylistic features, and thus, in their new role as the bearers of artistic ideas and intentions, stand in marked contrast to the obvious literary and psychological significance of the original image. This is particularly evident in Lichtenstein's comic-strip pictures. The detached and mechanical portrayal of the highly emotional scenes in these pictures-generally portraying subjects such as love, violence and death-robs them of their individual significance and exposes them as stereotyped and clichéd projections. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to read any intended sociological critique into these pictures. According to Lichtenstein: I think it [my art] merely portrays it [society]. One would hardly look at my work and think that it wasn't satirical, I think, or that it made no comment. But I don't really think that I'm interested in making a social comment. I'm using these aspects of our environment which I talked about as subject matter, but I'm really interested in doing a painting. No doubt this has an influence on my work somehow, but I'm not really sure what social message my art carries, if any. And I don't really want it to carry one. I'm not interested in the subject matter to try to teach society anything, or to try to better our world in any way.23 Lichtenstein is a realist. He captures the collective conscious of his day, or rather, the way in which it is informed by the essence and language of the mass media, yet he does not pass judgement in any way on the reality that he reveals in doing so.
I think that there's been a tradition probably starting with Courbet […] where realism-really I suppose the meaning of the word realism is to take a common everyday object, which is not considered artistic, and portray it. I'm not only portraying it, but I'm working in the style of it, or a style which at least parodies the style of everyday art and everyday society. So it's another form of realism, a preoccupation with everyday life, which you find in almost any art probably since Courbet.24
Lichtenstein adopts the given style of the comic like a readymade. By dramatically enlarging the print-related pictorial characteristics of his models, he creates his own hallmark, proving its evocative power by adopting very different pictorial motifs, often from unknown sources, and altering them accordingly.
The medium is the message-perhaps the most persuasive illustration of McLuhan's maxim can be found in Lichtenstein's adaptation of paintings by Cézanne, Picasso and Mondrian, using strong outlines and dot rasters (fig. 283): A Picasso has become a kind of popular object-one has the feeling there should be a reproduction of Picasso in every home. […] It's a kind of plain-pipe-racks Picasso I want to do-one that looks misunderstood and yet has its own validity. It is just plain humor.25
That brings us to another crucial aspect of Pop Art: the sheer fun of it, and the delight it took in its own pictorial material. This is art that encounters the reality of everyday life without Marcel Duchamp's meta-irony, without the derision and ridicule of the Dadaists, but with a sense of humor that verges on the Olympian-that is to say, humor as an attitude to life, seeing through the shortcomings and weaknesses of the human condition, but standing above these things. This trait distinguishes modern realism from that of earlier eras (fig. 206). Humor appears to be the only possible option which will allow contemporary artists to address their own society and its cultural reality in the spirit of Realism, that is to say, both truthfully and without denial, nonchalantly, observing without becoming polemical.
Andy Warhol (1936-1986) also approaches the visual world of material and
intellectual consumer goods, of department stores and show business, with the
cool, unbiased detachment of the modern realist.
Dollar bills, Coca-Cola bottles, soup cans, Leonardo's Mona Lisa, pictures of film stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, a photo of an electric chair, the atomic mushroom over Bikini, and a newspaper photo of a car crash are the materials he uses in the early 1960s to create an oeuvre in which, by means of isolation, reproduction, enlargement, printing and serial repetition, he builds a lasting monument to the artificial world of modern mass media (figs. 287-292).
Using a simple, rough silk-screen process, Warhol transposes his models singly or doubly, by the dozen or even by the hundred, onto raw or primed canvas, creating several variations on each individual subject. Like Rauschenberg, from whom Warhol adopted the practice of silk-screen printing, his compositions have no recognizable hierarchical principle. The detached equanimity with which Warhol appears to treat his pictorial material and his art, is manifested not only in the absence of value judgements, but also in the compositional minimalism of his style. The quick and careless reproduction process, the mechanical alignment of identical motifs and the laconic arrangement all lend his works an impersonal aloofness.
Marilyn's face, the electric chair or the explosion of the atomic bomb over Bikini are all presented without commentary, not so much as external and 'real' facts, but as representatives of an anonymous virtual reality (a second-hand reality) that permeates our consciousness, thus lending them a significance they did not possess before.
Whereas Johns counters the stereotypical banality of his signs and emblems with the cultivated richness and almost succulent quality of his painterly technique, Warhol, like Lichtenstein, evidently strives to remove all traces of any painterly signature or other individual process from his pictures. He sees himself as the creator of pictorial ideas and concepts, which must be executed in the most impersonal, mechanical way possible and which can just as easily be made by an assistant or a technician. The reason I am painting this way, as he once famously remarked, is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.26
Accordingly, Warhol's most important means of expression and composition is that of mechanical repetition. In this, he even goes so far as to devote entire exhibitions to a single subject (fig. 291), whereby all the works shown involve the same constantly repeated model (such as his Brillo Boxes, Marilyns, Flowers and Cow Wallpapers in exhibitions at Castelli and his Elvis Presley figures at Ferus). In the same spirit, when he designed the catalogue for his major exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (1986), he chose to have a full page reproduction of one work repeated unchanged on twenty consecutive pages.
For all the compositional anonymity that Warhol repeatedly and demonstratively presents, the mechanical processes and principles he uses do develop an aesthetic of their own. The rhythm of mechanical repetition, the interaction between printed and empty pictorial areas, the irregularities resulting from the rough application of the silk-screen technique, and the cool, anonymous brilliance of industrial paints generate a variety of pictorial stimuli, conveying the impression of the apparently unintended and random. The viewer no longer associates the aesthetic pleasure he or she experiences with the artistic composition of the work, but regards it as the inherent function of the anonymous printing technique and the given pictorial material.
The same applies to the message of the work. If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it.27 He does not impose anything of his own on the viewer, neither feelings nor ideas, leaving him or her alone with a piece of reality. It is in this spirit that we have to understand one of his first works, Do It Yourself, created in 1962: it represents one of those painting by numbers pictures that are intended to inspire children to color in and complete a given drawing (fig. 290). Logically, Warhol rejects any examination of his artistic intentions: The interviewer should just tell me the words he wants me to say and I'll repeat them after him. I think that would be so great because I'm so empty I just can't think of anything to say.28
It is not difficult to see a form of self-defense in Warhol's artistic attitude, his seeming detachment and his apparent indifference to the results of his creative endeavors. An extremely vulnerable self, robbed of credible ideals and individual ambitions, withdraws to the anonymous givens of the factual, to the non-committal glitter of the artificial and to the impregnable perfection of the machine. In this respect, he says, I still care about people but it would be so much easier not to care. I don't want to get too close: I don't like to touch things, that's why my work is so distant from myself.29
The ambiguity of the real-the underlying theme in American Pop Art-finds
its most remarkable and varied expression in the work of Claes Oldenburg,
born in 1929. Barbara Rose aptly uses a mock-riddle to introduce it in
the catalogue of the major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970:
What is both hard and soft? What changes, melts, liquefies, yet is
solid? What is both formed and unconformable? structured and loose? present
and potential? What unites conception with process? movement with stasis?
What is painting? sculpture? architecture? or landscape? portrait? still-life?
What personalizes anonymity and objectifies the subjective? What is hermetic,
yet overt? What hides beneath layers of disguises, while proclaiming complete
self-exposure? What is both self-conscious and automatic, logical and
lunatic, real and fantastic?30
Claes Oldenburg, whose mature work supplies the answer to this riddle, was born in Chicago, the son of a Swedish diplomat. After studying at Yale University and training at the Art Institute of Chicago, he arrived in New York in June 1956 at the age of twenty seven. Living on the seedy Lower East Side, Oldenburg developed his own distinctive form of figurative expressionism under the influence of the slums where he was living. If you're a sensitive person, and you live in the city, and you want to face the city and not escape from it, he wrote at the time, you just have to come to grips […] with the landscape of the city, and the accidental possibilities of the city.31
Over the years, Oldenburg works his way towards creating a comprehensive environment in the form of a "metaphoric mural" with which he wants to treat the daily drama of violence, love and death and the absurdity, poverty and violence of his surroundings. For this, he uses plaster, wire, cardboard and all manner of waste materials to create rough, highly expressive reliefs, representing-amongst other things-larger-than-life human figures, heads with speech bubbles, animals, weapons, cars, aircraft, posters, texts and numbers. In 1959 at the Judson Gallery, he shows these pieces as The Street-covered in expressive, graffiti like painting, reminiscent of Art Brut. A year later they are exhibited again at the Reuben Gallery (fig. 296).
From 1960 onwards, a more optimistic, almost 'fun' attitude starts to emerge in Oldenburg's work. Rather than continuing to proclaim the misery and violence of the area he lives in, he turns to its rather more banal inventory, seeking out the unfamiliar in the familiar. At the height of this development, he rents an empty unit on 107 East Second Street and in December 1961 he turns it into The Store-a private gallery, a store and an artistic environment all in one. Here, he shows his latest works, roughshod replicas of everyday objects available at snack bars and in the down-market window displays of his neighborhood. With well over a hundred objects, The Store has a considerable range on offer. On pedestals and tables, on stands and on shelves, Oldenburg displays a motley and indiscriminate array of his works, made of plaster or papier maché and painted in lurid enamel lacquers: garments, shoes, hats, toys and tools, all manner of edibles, cakes, pizzas, sandwiches, hamburgers, sausages, fruit, drinks and ice cream sundaes (figs. 297, 298). In these works, he heightens the clumsy forms, the brutal painting and the vulgar sensuality of his objects by exhibiting them in combination with immaculate, industrially produced real objects-on porcelain plates, for instance, or in real glasses, in a chrome-trimmed display cabinet or on a white enamel stove: I want these pieces to have an unbridled intense satanic vulgarity, unsurpassable, and yet be art.32
Two months later, Oldenburg closes down The Store and transforms the premises into the Ray Gun Theater, where, together with his wife Pat, Lucas Samaras and Gloria Grey, he puts on a number of Happenings, including some with an explicitly sexual theme. These performances prompt Richard Bellamy, director of the Green Gallery, to invite Oldenburg to install his former Store environment in the Gallery.
The intimate atmosphere of The Store, with its countless objects, most of them small, looking for all the world like some enchanted corner shop, could not be recreated in the Green Gallery's large, bright rooms. These new surroundings called for a different kind of approach. Oldenburg decided to enlarge his previous objects gigantically. The results (probably on practical grounds) were his first Soft Sculptures, including a Giant Ice Cream Cone made of soft material, an equally large Floor Cake and the larger-than-life tailored Giant Blue Men's Pants on a wire hanger (fig. 299).
The New York art world had seen nothing like it since Johns' first appearance at Castelli. According to Barbara Rose, the commercial success of the show that heralded the international breakthrough of Pop Art was just about matched by the disapproval of establishment critics.33 Harold Rosenberg viewed Pop Art as a capitulation to the evils of philistine mass culture,34 and Peter Selz condemned it not only on aesthetic, but also on moral grounds. In his opinion, Pop Art, by accepting things as they were, displayed the profound cowardice […] limpness and fearfulness of people who cannot come to grips with the times they live in.35
All these critics attacked first and foremost the non-judgemental attitude with which Pop Art accepted as given the visible reality and materialistic culture of everyday American life, integrating it into artistic composition. The guardians of the old order defended the idealistic values of Romantic, Classicist and Symbolist art against the advent of a new sense of reality, no longer subjugated to the emotional, the ideal, or the significant, but oriented towards the real, the true and the right.
Selz and other like-minded contemporaries perceived this artistic consciousness as threatening because of its grounding in the awareness of a reality whose suppression or denial had hitherto constituted the prerequisite for their own elitist idealism and, with that, their sense of self. The polemicism triggered by Pop Art is not new; in an essay on Roman literature ("Satire and Realism in Pretonius," 1963), the American philologist J. P. Sullivan writes, What unifies the realist tradition in any genre, and sets it off against the romantic, the heroic and the sentimental, is the belief that only the vulgar, the sordid and the sexual elements of life are truly real, that the rest is the humbug of the canting moralist.36
Despite everything, Pop Art rapidly metamorphosed from an obscure underground movement into an established art form, and in keeping with the spirit of the time, became a desirable commodity eagerly taken up and consumed by dealers, collectors, jet-setters and the mass media. The decisive breakthrough came in 1962. That year, the leading American Pop Artists had shows in established galleries for the first time. Lichtenstein at Castelli, Dine at Martha Jackson, Warhol at Stable, Wesselmann, Segal and Oldenburg at the Green Gallery. At the end of the year, a major exhibition entitled The New Painting of Common Objects at the Pasadena Art Museum confirmed official recognition of the new art, whose exponents were presented soon afterwards in New York by Sidney Janis as The New Realists.
Success opened up a whole new material and intellectual dimension for Oldenburg. Moving to California, he began systematically developing his mature concepts with his wife, who helped him by sewing his Soft Sculptures. Between 1962 and 1970, in Venice, California and New York, he created his now famous objects, including wash-basins, toilets, telephones, typewriters, toasters and kitchen mixers, most of them produced in three versions: a hard version (in sparsely painted corrugated cardboard), a ghost version (in kapok-filled linen) and a soft version (in white and black vinyl) (figs. 300, 301).
At the same time, he also created sketches and designs for his monuments, projects for oversized, enlarged objects, (such as a clothes peg, scissors, socket, and many others) to be erected as sculptures in public places. Although only a few of these designs have actually been executed to date, they are of crucial importance to Oldenburg's oeuvre, for they underline his claim to social relevance (fig. 302). Whereas Oldenburg's early objects were expressively charged to a high degree, his mature work from the 1960s reflects the relaxed approach of the realist.
One may object that Oldenburg is not a realist in the sense that his compositions, in almost every respect, with regard to form, color, dimension, texture and execution, differ from the models on which they are based. These deviations, however, do not alter the realistic character of his work; they are neither determined by idealization nor by the need to exteriorize a psychological interiority, but are a function of a form of humor that takes the place of an expressive or judgemental approach.
The same arguments can be used to refute the frequently expressed opinion that the coincidental forms of the Soft Sculptures reiterate the spontaneous, uncontrolled gesture of Abstract Expressionism, and that Oldenburg is therefore to be classed as a Surrealist. These soft objects, which look different each time they are installed, may be regarded as a form of automatism. Only this time it is not a psychological automatism, but a material automatism, a physically determined, 'real' automatism (involving the automatism of reality). As Barbara Rose has noted, the Soft Sculptures always appear as though they have created their respective positions themselves.37
Much the same applies to the associations triggered by Oldenburg's objects. They are not evoked intertionally, but are determined by the expressive intrinsic value of the forms themselves and their real models, by the physical properties of the material used and by the impact of gravity that Oldenburg has described as his favorite shape-maker.38
In his mature work, Oldenburg comments on the material culture that is the basis of the American Dream, and does so from the view point of the modern realist: he takes it as a given reality that can be countered with humor. This attitude, also evident in the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, constitutes a common factor that links the multifarious products of American Pop Art, though it does not occur with the same purity and consistency among the remaining representatives of this movement.
George Segal's Environmental Sculptures are in some respects
reminiscent of the tableaux vivants that were once so popular at fairs
and yearly markets. They show people in everyday situations (a bus driver
at the wheel, a woman shaving her leg, a man at a pinball machine) whereby
Segal adopts his figures from reality like readymades in the sense that
he does not actually design them, but takes molds of living models in
corresponding poses. In order to do so, he bandages their bodies with
wet plastered bandages, then cuts the hardened shell of plaster into individual
pieces, which he removes one by one from the models and puts back together
again to create the full figure. The result shows only the outside of
the cast. The inside, which, as a negative, would permit a true-to-life
cast of the model, remains inside the figure and can only be imagined
or seen in the mind's eye. The structure and volume of the bandages alienate
Segal's figures, reducing them to their essential characteristics. Yet
we can clearly sense that these are not works created in a conventional
way, but a border-line case somewhere between the sculpted and the cast.
As though behind a veil, the finished figure allows us to recognize the
characteristic traits of the model (face, body and stance), and thus creates
the ambiguous effect of what seems like a 'living' mummy (fig. 303).
Segal heightens the reality of his figures by using real objects to characterize the situations in which they appear. Separated from the outside world by their impermeable shell, Segal's figures have an air of oppressively stifling stillness; their solitary isolation seems to mirror a basic experience of modern men and women. With its Symbolist undertones, this existential trait breaks through the frame of sober Realism, according Segal a special position within American Pop Art.
Tom Wesselman, too, in his early Bathroom works (fig. 304), combines real objects with the stylized portrayal of a woman: the tiled wall, the toilet complete with cistern and seat, the roll of toilet paper, the towel rail and the towel in the example illustrated here are all department-store goods. In his later Great American Nudes, Wesselman elevates his female nudes to the central theme as pin-ups, celebrating woman as a sexual object, and abandoning the sober, non-judgemental attitude of the realist in favor of an idealization of sexual pleasure (fig. 305).
James Rosenquist, formerly a painter of cinema posters, uses the naturalistic painterly technique of that particular skill to transpose pictorial fragments of newspapers, advertisements, and posters on a enlarged scale onto the canvas, where he juxtaposes them in collage-like configurations (fig. 306). For all their originality and their brilliant execution, Rosenquist's works tend towards the anecdotal and the illustrative. The same is true of the American Pop artists Jim Dine, Mel Ramos and Larry Rivers.
The Myth of America and British Pop Art
The drive by each new generation of artists to add something new to what has already been created is rooted in an exhibitionist ambition to display their own uniqueness and grandiosity. Where this ambition can be satisfied by continuing to pursue the aims of their precursors, that is to say, by improving or significantly varying what has already been achieved, then, for the most part, the younger generation retains a stylistic affinity with the work of those who have gone before them. However, if their precursors have already exhausted the potential of their artistic démarche, the next generation can only satisfy its exhibitionist ambitions by means of a decisive change of direction, that is to say, by means of a stylistic break.
In this sense, the artists of the American Pop generation rose up against the intellectual romanticism and monopoly position of the Abstract Expressionists, whose compelling and, in themselves, exemplary creations provided the Pop generation with a potent, tangible and clearly delineated foil for their own ambitions and ideals. While Lichtenstein, Warhol and Oldenburg adopted from their 'adversaries' a number of important qualities-the unequivocality and consistency of the pictorial concept, the grandiose appearance of the large format and the claim of universal validity-they nevertheless deployed these values in the service of a new mindset. Instead of taking an interest in their own inner lives, they turned their gaze outwards towards the visible reality of their cultural environment-not idealizing it, but regarding it as representing the actual and the given, as a mirror in which viewers can recognize the conditionality of their own perception and their own consciousness.
British Pop Art, on the other hand, results from quite different conditions and, accordingly, also relates differently to its subject matter and pictorial material. In spite of the Allied victory, Britain emerged from the war a broken nation. In the catalogue of the exhibition Pop Art Redefined (Hayward Gallery, London, 1969), John Russell describes how the cultural climate in postwar London was shaped by a general lack of basic necessities.39 There was a shortage of food, clothing, books, magazines, pictures, air tickets, foreign currency and, above all, little chance to get to know at first hand life beyond the British Isles.
By contrast, the United States in the 1950s was the land of unlimited opportunity. Modern technology and the mass media were far more highly developed there than in Europe. Because of this, the generation of British artists that came of age as the war ended looked with longing and admiration to the popular mass culture of the United States. Everything that came from America was grasped all the more eagerly for the fact that it could hardly be found at home. Magazines such as Life or McCalls were as rare as the legendary nylon stockings, the sleek chrome bodywork of the American limousine or the 78 rpm records that brought American Jazz music trickling gradually into the European consciousness. All these testimonies to a world more modern, more expansive, and more free nurtured a hope of being able to escape the constrictions of all things European, of the here and now, and thus became metaphors of an idealized future.
It is in this cultural climate that the Independent Group, a loose grouping of artists, architects, designers and critics, organizes the famous exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery, widely regarded as marking the beginning of the British Pop movement. The exhibition is to demonstrate the possibility of uniting different artistic media. Twelve separate groups of three participants-consisting of a painter, a sculptor, and an architect-each create their own individual environments.
Whereas most of these groups endeavor to approach the task they have been set within the scope of traditional art genres of painting, sculpture and architecture, the painter Richard Hamilton, in collaboration with John McHale and the architect John Voelcker, construct an environment uniting the visual, acoustic and olfactory possibilities of modern technology together with a number of graphic effects to create a confusing panopticum of contemporary communicative potential. The outer framework of this installation consists of a three-dimensional robot more than five meters high with blinking eyes, a blown-up photo of spaghetti, a free-standing life size figure of Marilyn Monroe, spinning Duchamp rotoreliefs, walls covered with Op Art patterns and photo-collages, all against a background cacophony of machine noises, musical fragments and human voices speaking on top of each other.
Visitors entering the section's enclosed central shaft are bombarded with unfamiliar impressions and sensory effects. In this inner space, the visitor saw cinema projections, breathed scents, entered the cabin of a science fiction space capsule with monsters peering through the windows and a floor of dribbled fluorescent paint seen in black light, and walked on soft floors. The effect throughout the section was of continuous but shifting disorientation.40 Hamilton and his colleagues want to point out the manifold and largely unknown potential impact of the new media and technology of the day. With their environment, they present the raw material available to future artists. We reject the notion that 'tomorrow' can be expressed through the presentation of rigid formal concepts, writes Hamilton in the exhibition catalogue. What is needed is not a definition of meaningful imagery but the development of our perceptive potentialities to accept and utilize the continual enrichment of visual material.41
During the work on This is Tomorrow, the artists involved started
using the term Pop Art. However, unlike today, it does not designate a
new artistic style42 that did not even exist at the time, but is used
solely in reference to the pictorial world of industrial mass culture
that is beginning to shape the consciousness of the day. In this sense,
Hamilton characterizes Pop Art as Popular (designed for a mass audience)-Transient
(short-term solution)-Expendable (easily forgotten)-Low-cost-Mass-produced-Young
(aimed at youth)-Witty-Sexy-Gimmicky-Glamorous-Big Business. […] 43
From 1957 onwards, Hamilton begins integrating this pop material into his paintings. It is interesting to note that these do not correspond in any way to his own definition of Pop Art. Though he asserts that he is interested in painting pictures from and about his own society and in capturing the unique attributes of his era, he himself does not actually work in the style of the new media, adopting only certain formal aspects, technical possibilities and real objects of commercial mass culture in order to compose his pictorial works from them (fig. 307).
It is not until the mid-1960s, following his first visit to the United States in order to see the major Duchamp retrospective exhibition at the Pasedena Art Museum in 1963, that Hamilton takes the step towards Pop Art as we know it. In New York he meets Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dine, Rosenquist and Oldenburg, and, as he himself later says, is extremely impressed by the audacity and wit of their art.44 In 1964 he creates his first Pop works, Epiphany and A Little Bit of Roy Lichtenstein (fig. 309). This print features an enlarged detail of Crying Girl, which had been reproduced on the poster of the Lichtenstein exhibition at Leo Castelli (October 1963) (fig. 308). It seemed only reasonable to take the serial process to its logical conclusion and make an art work from a piece of a Lichtenstein art work from a piece of comic strip.45 My Marilyn and a series of drawings, pictures and reliefs on the subject of The Solomon R. Guggenheim (fig. 310) followed in 1965.
With these works, Hamilton adopts the basic attitude of American Pop Art. Yet this great admirer of Marcel Duchamp is not prepared to be pinned down to a certain style: at the same time he also produces several variations on the themes of Interior (fig. 312) and Patricia Knight. In doing so, he combines painting, collage, silk-screen printing, photography, mirror-effects and metal reliefs, to create strange and complex portrayals whose diverse and, at times, unfathomable references can best be compared with the early work of Duchamp (especially his Large Glass). Hamilton constantly changes his subject matter, working in a wide variety of techniques and material, and composing each of his pictures in the style that appears appropriate to him (fig. 311). In spite of these constant changes of style, his oeuvre retains a remarkable unity-as in the work of Duchamp-the unity of idea and approach.
Hamilton shares Duchamp's detached, cool attitude. In the work of both artists one sees the primacy of conceptual thinking, the coupling of unrelated pictorial and sensual areas, the use of chance, the mixing of media, plurality of style, the underlining of the artificial character of the artistic creation, and the wish to undermine blind faith in 'absolute values'. Above all, however, this British artist is interested in the progressive consolidation of analytical knowledge: An ideal culture, in my terms, is one in which awareness of its condition is universal.46 As a teacher at various art schools, author of numerous theoretical articles and exhibition organizer,47 Hamilton was a seminal influence on the development of British Pop Art.
The first major wave of this new artistic direction begins in Britain in the early 1960s with a group of young artists who met as students at the Royal College of Art: David Hockney, Allen Jones, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips. Together with the slightly older Joe Tilson and Peter Blake, and the younger Patrick Caulfield, they develop an art that has affinities with the contemporary music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (figs. 313, 314).
In contrast to American Pop Art, which grew out of the conflict with Abstract Expressionism, and unlike the art of Richard Hamilton, which was oriented towards Marcel Duchamp, the direction that emerges from the RCA is a much more general movement, which is revolutionary in the true sense of the word, in that it is directed against the prejudices and the elitist class consciousness of the cultural establishment.
'Swinging London' becomes the ideological center of an international youth revolt against the discredited standards of the prevailing paternalistic conventions. A booming economy, emancipation from social constraints and sexual taboos, women's liberation, the contraceptive pill, the drug scene, jazz, soul and pop music, the popularization of Eastern mysticism, Zen Buddhism and Indian music, increasing familiarity with foreign countries and cultures, cars, aircraft, television and the ubiquity of the mass media create the intellectual and social climate from which British Pop Art draws its inspiration and impetus. The young artists celebrate the triumphant victory of their own generation; but, as it turns out, their work is more random, more superficial and more fragmentary than that of their American colleagues. They do not take a structural approach to the new social reality, and they do not convey the underlying essence of the 'new', only its glittering surface.
Reality Transfixed: Nouveau Réalisme
The artistic interest in reality and in the everyday objects of the urban environment was not restricted to the Anglo-American world; a corresponding development also emerged in Continental Europe.
During the 1950s, the Paris art world is in thrall to a wave of painterly abstraction that comprises a broad spectrum of different tendencies, variously designated as Informel, Abstraction Lyrique, or Tachisme. There are similarities here with events in New York. Artists, galleries and collectors see Gestural Abstraction as the logical consequence of Surrealism and thus as the only progressive and forward-looking painting. As in New York, these notions will also be refuted in Paris by the artistic developments of the 1960s.
On 27 October 1960 the French art critic Pierre Restany founds the Nouveau Réalisme group whose initial members are Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Arman, Raymond Hains and François Dufrène; later, César, Villeglé, Mimmo Rotella and Niki de Saint Phalle also join.
At the time, Restany was an ambitious art critic who had tried in vain
in the 1950s to make his name as the representative of a group of young, abstract artists.48 His moment arrives in 1955 when he meets the then unknown Yves Klein, who had just begun painting his entirely blank, monochrome panels.49
Restany is fascinated by the extremes Klein is prepared to go to, and, immediately recognizing this young artist's publicity potential, he appoints himself as Klein's personal impresario, organizing his exhibitions, providing the theoretical underpinning for his monochromatic works, and assisting him with advice and practical help.
Through Klein, Restany meets César, Arman and all the others that he is later to bring together in the Nouveau Réalisme group. With that, as Peter Vetsch notes, he had created a monopoly, a sinecure, that he savored to the full. He wrote the texts to accompany all the group's activities. In innumerable articles he propagated his ideas with a persistence that was sometimes unbearable.50 Following the example of André Breton, Restany quickly promotes himself to become the new 'pope' of the Paris art world. In the founding document of the new movement, he describes the attitude that unites his artists in a single sentence: Nouveau Réalisme = nouvelles approches perceptives du réel.
The artistic principles of the New Realists correspond in a number of ways to those of the American Pop Artists. The Europeans, too, forswear all emotional expression and limit their creative interventions to a minimum, being content, as a rule, to present a detail of the urban environment. In contrast to the Americans, however, they are interested less in rendering visible the essential aspects of this reality than in exploiting its aesthetic stimuli. It is this 'aestheticization' of the world around them that distinguishes their work from that of their American colleagues.
It is perhaps useful here to outline briefly the working methods favored by some typical representatives of Nouveau Réalisme, although it should not be forgotten that these artists only shared a common artistic approach and mode of production for a short time. Moreover, while the movement was not officially dissolved until 1970, at the famous Milano Banquet-the ultima cena of Nouveau Réalisme-most of its members become unfaithful to their original Realist tenets long before that date. My brief outline, therefore, refers only to works from the period 1960 to 1965.
The poster-tearing artists Hains, Villeglé, Dufrène and Rotella remove
partially torn or completely tattered posters from walls, mount them on
suitable carriers and exhibit them as Décollages (fig. 315).
Many of these works barely differ from the compositions of the non-figurative
Informel art of the day. This is particularly true of the work of Dufrène,
who, unlike his colleagues, shows only the back of the posters he has
torn; these form almost monochrome panels which at first glance seem to
uphold many of the aesthetic principles of traditional French peinture.
Arman too, uses found material. He heaps up objects of the same type, most of them used and worn (such as spoons, light bulbs, telephone receivers, coffee pots and the like) to create so-called Accumulations which he presents in glass display cases or in Plexiglas containers; for his Poubelles he gathers waste, rubble and garbage. In 1963 he starts to make his Combustions, singed or completely burnt objects, which he declares as works of art in the sense of 'assisted readymades' (fig. 317).
In 1960, César presents his Compressions at the Salon de Mai for the first time. They consist of three written-off car bodies, compressed into meter-high metal cubes by an electric scrap-metal compressor (each cube weighs over one ton). Later he applies the same principle to a wide variety of materials and all manner of garbage, creating Compressions made of blue jeans, Coca-Cola cans, oil canisters and other things of that kind (fig. 318). In spite of their alienation, these objects do retain characteristics of their original appearance. Herein lies the aesthetic or psychological attraction of the Compressions: their regular form bears witness to a powerfully violent act which in turn conveys an impression of the anonymous forces of the technical era.
Spoerri creates his famous Tableaux pièges by gluing or otherwise fixing found arrangements (such as the remains of a meal, tools left on a work top, or a waiter's tips stacked on a tray) to flat bases, and then tipping them into the vertical to be hung on the wall as a work of art (fig. 316).
Christo, from 1958 onwards, wraps all manner of objects such as an armchair, a tailor's dummy, a motorbike or a hobby-horse in fabric (partly treated with paint) and tying them (fig. 319). In 1968 he begins a series of large scale projects, wrapping his first public building, the Kunsthalle in Bern. (In 1969 he wraps 15 kilometers of rocky coastline in Australia and in 1972 he erects the Valley Curtain in Colorado, a 934 meter curtain blocking the valley between two rocky outcrops.)
Tinguely, whose working methods go beyond the confines of Nouveau Réalisme as such, uses scrap-metal and all manner of materials to create completely useless kinetic objects driven by small electric motors, which can be started by pressing a button, and which then cause the objects to perform some absurd, noisy movement (fig. 320). The art created by Tinguely, who started constructing his Metamatics as early as 1955, no less than five years before the founding of Nouveau Réalisme, corresponds neither conceptually nor in its formal principles to that of his colleagues, but is more akin to the neo-Dadaist Combine Paintings of his friend Rauschenberg; I will return to this in a later chapter in connection with kinetic art.
We may conclude, by stating that while the Americans adopt the brand new,
standardized mass products of the supermarket, the clichéd contents of the mass
media and their specific forms and designs, the Nouveau Réalistes prefer used,
damaged or even destroyed objects and all manner of garbage. Their material does
not come from the shelves in the shopping centers but from flea markets and
garbage tips. Their Realism is not neutral; it does not accept
the urban civilization of the 20th century for what it is, but inbues it with a nostalgic romanticism.
The Reality of Illusion: Hyperrealism
The last realist movement of the 1960s and '70s to be mentioned here is Hyperrealism (also called Photorealism) as represented primarily in the paintings of Chuck Close and Richard Estes, and in the sculptures of John de Andrea and Duane Hanson.
Hyperrealism (or Photorealism) involves projecting photographic slides onto the canvas and transposing the image with clinically painstaking care and precision. The pictures created in this way can barely be distinguished from photographic color enlargements: no viewer can fail to be amazed at their technical perfection. Given that they are all using exactly the same technique as each other, these artists can only be distinguished from one another by their choice of subject matter. Chuck Close specializes in larger-than-life portraits (fig. 323), whereas Estes prefers to show the play of light on the chrome of an automobile or the reflection in a glass door or store window (fig. 321).
Hyperrealism seems even more direct when it is applied to sculpture than it does in painting, the figures being so true to life that they recall the figures in a waxworks. Whereas De Andrea's nudes force the viewer into the role of the voyeur, Hanson with his standardized reiteration of everyday human situations shows the life-style of American society. His works range from a self portrait to a rocker, from a cleaning woman to a housewife shopping in a supermarket (fig. 322). The detached, soberly registering approach he takes to his models, and his sure touch when it comes to selecting them and choosing their accessories, give his works a documentary quality and clear social relevance.
Given their extreme naturalism, we also perceive the fallibility of our perception when faced with these figures: Are they alive or not? Are they fact or fiction? In this respect, the Hyperrealist art of the 1960s and '70s also makes its contribution to the basic theme of modern realism: the ambiguity of the real.
The Significance of Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme
The attitudes expressed in Realist art are oriented towards the values of the ego.
The ego represents the interests of the organism as a whole. Its task is that of self-assertion, mediating between the individual and the outside world, and adopting a synthetic function within the psychological organism. An action by the ego is as it should be if it satisfies simultaneously the demands of the id, of the super-ego and of reality-that is to say, if it is able to reconcile their demands with one another.51 Thus, the ego has to address both the outside world and its own inner world. In doing so, it can fulfill its task only to the extent to which it can assert the autonomy of its functions against inner and outer influences, that is to say, against the pressure of the id and the super-ego (drives and conscience) as well as against the outer world. This requires an objective regulation of its functions independently of the id, the super-ego and the outer world. These functions are dialectical in character and are geared, each in its own way, towards accomplishing a synthesis of reality and idea. The discrepancy between reality and idea is experienced by the ego as intellectual unpleasure, while the correspondence between idea and reality-their synthesis-is experienced as intellectual pleasure.
Each of the three groups of ego-functions strives to achieve a synthesis of idea and reality in one of its own forms:
- the perceptive functions deduce, from the sensory experiences of their organs, the actual causes of these experiences and thereby create the idea
of a corresponding inner and outer reality. Successful perception unites
the sensory experience and the idea of its actual cause in the synthesis of
- the cognitive functions are geared towards recognizing the rules by which the various parts of what is perceived are linked in reality; they seek to accomplish their correspondence with the rules and structures, such as logic, that determine one's own thinking. In other words, the cognitive functions connect current or recalled perceptions in a structural order that corresponds to the causal relationships by which the perceived objects or processes are interconnected and related to one another in spatio-temporal reality. Successful comprehension combines imagined and real structures and relations in the synthesis of the true.
- the executory functions take on the task of fulfilling the intentions, that is to say, of altering inner or outer reality according to certain ideas. Successful implementation combines intent and success in the synthesis of the right.
The real, the true and the right represent the values of the ego. Together, they form a rational, coherent and self-evident structure, that is to say, an idealized structure that is largely integrated in the self of most individuals.
Let us now return to art. In contrast to all previous movements in modern
art, American Pop Artists and their European colleagues regard their art neither
as the expression of inner emotion nor as representing a universal law; they
apparently also forswear exhibiting their special and unique compositional
skills. Nevertheless their art reflects the dialectic tension between
exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures and attempts to combine these
in a synthesis with each other.
The impersonal character of their compositions is rooted in the fact that they have withdrawn their narcissistic cathexis from the contents of the id and the super-ego and have transposed them to the anonymous functions of the ego. These artists orient themselves towards the rational and therefore 'objective' values of the ego. The real, the true and the right form the basis of the idealized structure that triggers their exhibitionist ambitions.
In this respect, they have much in common with the realists of the 19th
century, yet their compositions can hardly be compared with those of their
precursors in terms of subject matter, statement and technique. They no longer
find the real in Nature, but in the pictorial world of the mass media; it is no
longer represented by divine creation, but by the work of human beings. Truth is
relativized in a similar way: it can no longer be unequivocally determined. Each
fact and each statement is experienced as ambiguous; only the ambiguous is
Probably the most momentous of all the questions raised by Pop Art is that of pictorial technique, that is to say, the realization and execution of the work and, with that, the value of rightness. The real, the true and the right are closely linked with one another and mutually dependent. Pop Artists do not simply adopt the pictorial material and style of the mass media, but also the technical and economic principles of their industrial production. They seek to create their works as rationally as possible, that is to say they aim to achieve the greatest possible impact with the least possible effort. They use all the possibilities of modern technology (especially in the field of reproduction), they work with existing pictorial material, in most cases combing it in new ways, and have no qualms about having their works executed by assistants. The emphasis in creative achievement thus shifts from the execution of the work to its conception, changing not only the artistic criteria of what is right but also the conditions under which it can be accomplished. This affects, above all, the demand for realistic portrayal and for inner truth and transparency (that is to say, the demand that a work should render visible the process of creation and the means by which it achieves its effect). Artists such as Lichtenstein, Warhol and Oldenburg do not fulfill these demands in the same way as, for example, Courbet, Manet and Degas.
Unlike their precursors, they require no particular technical skills in order to execute their works, which means that they are no longer dependent on any professional training. An extreme example is Spoerri, who was originally a ballet dancer and, before his first Tableau piège, had not created a single work of visual art. Painterly craftsmanship, talent and skills take a back seat and are replaced by imagination, technical ability, information and pictorial thinking.52
Interestingly, this step is taken at a point in time when the artist withdraws his narcissistic cathexis from the previous transcendentally and idealistically exalted values of his time and shifts them to the actual given reality surrounding him. Only now is his demiurgic ambition to create something entirely by himself replaced by the intention of showing and presenting the reality surrounding him (in spite of its banality). It is not for nothing that donner à voir is the byword of Nouveau Réalisme.
The abandonment of individual narcissistic cathexes and the turning away from one's own self (determined and defined to a considerable degree in the case of the artist by the 'family saga' of art history), opens a person's eyes to the wealth and potential of the world beyond art, that is to say for the world of the actual and the real. With the international success of Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme, this development, initiated by Marcel Duchamp with the groundbreaking gesture of the readymade, reaches its initial apex. The use of given pictorial material, modern techniques of reproduction and industrial manufacturing processes is recognized by a broad public as a legitimate artistic method; the criteria of 'rightness' have been fundamentally and irrevocably altered. Therein lies the beginning of a progressive devaluation of the artist's craft, and of the already mentioned de-personalization of his exhibitionist ambitions.
These changes that started in the late 1950s and continued well into the 60s had far-reaching consequences for the last phases of our developmental cycle; their effects may be observed not only in modern realism, but also in non-figurative art. And it is to these that we shall turn in the next chapter.
3. The Ideology of the Impersonal: Abstract Classicism
The new Realism of Johns and Rauschenberg is not the only stylistic development in which a new generation of artists in the United States rises up against the hegemony of Abstract Expressionism. Within the realm of abstract art itself, Post-painterly Abstraction emerges as a movement characterized by its deliberate rejection of a specifically individual artistic expression that is open to relativization.
It is as though, since Abstract Expressionism, artists have lost all confidence in spontaneous inspiration and individually differentiated expression, choosing instead to withdraw into the sheltering anonymity of the impersonal and the general, and taking refuge in the self-evident that is beyond all doubt. At the same time, the concept as such gains increasing significance at the price of spontaneous creative decisions. Post-painterly Abstraction avoids all that is temporally and psychologically determined, regarding the work of art only sub specie aeternitatis. The work becomes a representation of the absolute. This is a development set in train by Barnett Newman, who subjects Abstract Expressionism to a new kind of artistic discipline, which in turn heralds a new classicism.
The Intrinsic Value of Color: Post-painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly Abstraction (or Color-field Painting), founded by Barnett Newman, marks the advent of a new abstract classicism. Its most important herald is the former Bauhaus artist Joseph Albers (1888-1976), who taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and, from 1955 onwards, at Yale University, Connecticut. His book, Interaction of Color (1943), and his later series, Homage to the Square (fig. 324), in which he illustrates the interaction of color in manifold variations, using the square as his example, form the pictorial and theoretical basis of the new movement, whose members, apart from Newman himself, include Ad Reinhardt, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly. These artists also take inspiration from Robert Rauschenberg, who showed his monochrome White Painting and Black Painting in 1951 and from Jasper Johns, who, in 1954, with his Flags, became the first to correlate the content of a painting with its format.
In Post-painterly Abstraction, the mystically contemplative aspect of Abstract Expressionism, as represented by the work of Rothko, reaches its apex. These artists renounce all traces of the painter's touch, applying the paint in flat, homogeneous planes or impregnating their canvases with thinned paint so that all trace of its application disappears. They are interested mainly in the expressive intrinsic value of color, restricting the formal message of their paintings to the economical use of basic elements. Whereas Morris Louis is the only artist to operate with soft , fluid swathes of color, the other exponents of this movement structure the picture plane with a few cleanly defined geometric forms (hence the term Hard-edge Painting).
In 1948, Newman reduces his formal message, subdividing a large and regularly colored canvas by means of a single narrow, centrally-placed strip of another color (fig. 325). In 1954, Reinhardt launches his series of Black Paintings, whose rectangular or square formats are structured only by barely perceptible strips, also in black, in the shape of a cross (fig. 326). The tendency towards the monochrome is also evident in the work of Ellsworth Kelly, with his obvious references to Russian Suprematism. In 1953, he paints a white square citing Malevich and, shortly afterwards, in reference to Rodchenko, three completely monochrome panels: Red, Yellow, Blue (fig. 327).
In his book Constructive Concepts, probably the most comprehensive and competent study to treat this subject, Willy Rotzler points out a crucial aspect of this painting: The surface was no longer regarded as the support for a painting within whose two-dimensional bounds illusions of color and shape could be generated. The window-like character of the painting, which the exponents of Post-painterly Abstraction criticized in Mondrian, was to be overcome. That was possible only by accepting the autonomy of color and recognizing the picture surface as an autonomous object. […] Taking the picture surface seriously in this way attracted attention to the edge of the picture, which was no longer an enclosure but part of the surface. A shape was no longer placed on the surface, and the outline of the picture area itself became a shape.53
With the advent of the shaped canvas by the early 1960s, the shape of
the painting becomes a decisive factor in the compositional process. Stella, Noland, Kelly and many others fit the outward format of their pictures to the composition on the picture plane, thereby eliminating the antinomy of figure and ground, that is to say, achieving total conformity between the content and the form of the picture. The picture is no longer, as before, the mere medium and bearer of a message, but instead becomes one with it, gaining a hitherto unknown objectness, as it were making the statement itself with all the authority of an autonomous reality, thereby relegating the artist to the background (figs. 329-331). In this respect, this mode of painting might appear to represent the same attitudes I have already attributed to Jasper Johns and Pop Art. However, this is not the case. For all their superficial similarities, the two directions strive to achieve different aims, not only thematically, but also in terms of the ideas behind them. Whereas modern Realism addresses that which actually exists, accepting it as a binding truth (avoiding all value judgements) and seeking to recognize and portray it as such, Post-painterly Abstraction is interested in the apparent essence of the real, that is to say, in the reality of an idea. In it, we thus find the beginnings of the change from the romantic mindset of Abstract Expressionism to the abstract classicism of Minimal Art.
Although the hermetic character of these ascetic works challenges us to abandon all attempts at interpretation, they also clearly stake a claim to the absolute validity of their statement. Though they are founded in the romantic longing to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union and represent an effort to close the void that modern men feel,54 at the same time they also manifest a compensatory cathexis of the idealized pole of the self.
What distinguishes them from the work of the Abstract Expressionists is their lack of any individual psychological implication. Although they express ambitions, longings, and ideas, it is clear that these are no longer to be realized in an individually determined form. Seen from the perspective of art history, there are important reasons for this.
The new generation of the 1950s is no longer willing to pursue the path of Abstract Expressionism; for its spectacular creations leave no scope for meaningful variation or further augmentation. The younger generation has lost confidence in the creative power of the unconscious, of spontaneity and of our inner drives, and is skeptical of the unrepeatable, expressively exhibitionist gesture of Action Painting. For them, individual exhibitionism is not an artistic option. The compensatory displacement of narcissistic libido to the idealized pole of the self also has its limitations, for this, too, has lost form and content and has become an empty, unstructured, hollow space. In order to repeat the grandiose exhibitionist gesture of their predecessors, without imitating it, these artists place its meaning and significance under a different sign. Ideals and ambitions and are stripped of their individual content, and are instead regarded as the poles of a general, objectively given structure, are lauded as impersonal and immutable values, and hence raised to the level of absolute values. The 'inner truth' of individual perception is replaced by the anonymous intrinsic value of color as the 'representative' of the idealized pole of the self; the ambition to become one with one's own inner feelings through passionate devotion to the painterly act, and the will to realize that oneness pictorially, are replaced by the ambition to invent pictorial concepts that can render as purely as possible the intrinsic value of color.
Instead of specific, structuring ideals that act as a challenging principle, and instead of exhibitionist ambitions characterized by an individual and emotionally laden stamp, it is their hollow forms that find shape and expression, namely the longing to merge with an absolute value and the ambition to exercise absolute rule and control.
This art is of a distinctly prototypical character, and represents a kind of aesthetic equation. As in an algebraic formula, all content, and thus all that is personal, has been banned. In turning towards the monochrome, and in the tendency to glorify the void, we are confronted by the kind of mystical absolutism so succinctly described by Kazimir Malevich in his book The Non-Objective World, when he says, if there is a truth, then in only in abstraction, in nothingness.55 Like the work of Malevich, the Minimalist creations of Reinhardt, Newman, Noland and Kelly define the ideal negatively-as the impersonal, as the great void, as being as such. Only in this sense does the ideal find form and expression. Rather than being realized or achieved, it is represented (through the intrinsic value of color) or placed on display. In this sense, a narcissistic cathexis of the idealized pole of the self is manifested in Post-painterly Abstraction. Instead of idealizing the exhibition, as Abstract Expressionism does, the art of Post-painterly Abstraction exhibits the ideal.
Nevertheless, these forms of expression do not run their full course in the representation of an all-embracing ideal formulated in purely negative terms, for they also permit the realization of exhibitionist ambitions. Yet these, as I have already pointed out, are devoid of all individual significance. They no longer find expression in the execution of the work, but in its concept, and this has, by necessity, an abstract, 'objective' character. The concept serves to represent the absolute, to render visible color 'as such'.
The task faced by the artist could perhaps be formulated as follows: how can one give form to the intrinsic value of color and the autonomy of the pictorial surface without alienating or restricting them through precisely this form? Or, to put it another way, how can emptiness and silence be expressed, how can the void be rendered visible, how can one say succinctly and unequivocally that one wishes to say nothing? The solution lies in conceptual invention: this is the most important creative achievement of the artist. This is how the artist satisfies his or her exhibitionist ambitions. Yet these ambitions are guided by a precondition that is as negative as the ideal portrayed: the artist apparently restricts himself to saying that he himself wishes to say nothing. His idealized structure demands that he should renounce any form of individual statement. Thus the artist becomes an ascetic in the service of an impersonal, stringent and puritanical order.
The artist solves this contradictory task by lending the work the autonomy necessary for it to make a statement on his behalf: as a shaped canvas or as a monochrome panel, the work takes on the character of an object in its own right, independent of the artist.
How can it thus fulfill the conditions of a work of art? How can it lend form and expression to the dialectical interaction between exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures? Let me try to illustrate this by way of example of a shaped canvas by Ellsworth Kelly, namely Two Panels: Yellow-Orange created in 1968 (fig. 332).
Needless to say, the viewer knows that this work is an object designed and formed by the artist. Nevertheless, it conveys an impression of autonomy, of being-as-such. A second discrepancy arises from the dichotomy between the spatial illusion of the perspectivally rendered cube and the viewer's knowledge that this is a two-part and purely planar work. These discrepancies create an aesthetic and intellectual tension that arouses the viewer's interest. The two contradictory aspects of the color planes-their intrinsic value and the generation of their spatial illusion-are perceived with great intensity. The insight into the pictorial concept that produces this effect, as it were resolves the initially perceived contradiction.
Kelly satisfies his exhibitionist ambitions through the original and striking manner in which he accommodates the difficult demands of his canon. His 'statement' is made using form and color so minimally that there could be no further reduction. The extent of the color equals the limits of the panel; each color field has a function within the context of the whole. The borderline between colors, forms and functions coincides with the joints of the panels as they are fitted together.56
As we can see, this art also allows a certain leeway for exhibitionist ambitions. Although this also permits different nuances of the impersonal, and in a certain sense different statements too (for each color and each form has its own value, its own quality), it nevertheless remains narrowly defined for all that. If it is over-stepped only slightly, as in the case of the later pictures by Stella (fig. 333), the creative exhibitionism of the artist undermines the work's claim to represent a universal scale of values. The representation of absolute existence then becomes no more than aesthetic whimsy, that is, mere decoration. If it is under-stepped, as in the monochrome paintings that have since become fashionable, differing at best only in size and color, then the tension between exhibition and ideal is extinguished and the work actually sinks to the level of a mere thing.57
In spite of its reduced vocabulary, Post-painterly Abstraction is thus capable of lending form and expression to a dialectical relationship between the two poles of the self. Only, the exhibitionist ambitions thereby lose all individual psychological distinction; at the same time the ideal emerges, not as a challenging structure, but merely as a forbidding and exclusive 'negative'. The radical formulations of Post-painterly Abstraction appear to be devoid of all psychological significance, apparently saying nothing and seemingly having no interest in being rationally understood. The lack of specific interpretational aids permits all possible interpretations or none at all and thus leaves the viewer to his or her own devices. This essential trait, for which Umberto Eco coined the term open artwork also characterizes the three-dimensional objects of a related movement: Minimal Art.
The Intrinsic Value of Form and Material: Minimal Art
Minimal Art differs from Post-painterly Abstraction first and foremost
through its inclusion of a third dimension, while for the most part excluding
color as a compositional means. In terms of their underlying intellectual
approach, however, these two movements largely concur and the transitions from
one to the other are fluid. As a rule, it is the painters who permit a crossing
of borders, in the sense that they also create sculptures. From 1965 onwards,
Kelly adds a third dimension to his practice of combining monochrome color
panels-for example, by placing one panel vertically and another one, in a
different color, on the floor in front of it; or by leaning two or three
different color panels against the wall at the same angle, set at regular
Dan Flavin is a special case; he works with standard neon tubes. The combination of direct and indirect radiation or the juxtaposition of warm and cold sources of light achieve unusual and fascinating effects with which the basic intent of Post-painterly Abstraction, the inherent impact of color as the echo of an intangible, cosmic whole, takes on an immaterial and still more effective form (fig. 334).
Even so, Kelly and Flavin are the exceptions among Minimalist artists, whose interest lies in structure rather than color. Most Minimalists work with simple, prescribed, industrially produced, often right-angled components that can be ordered according to clearly defined and easily legible principles, either to form single, self-contained configurations, or larger systems and even entire environments.
Carl André uses prefabricated standard components of the same kind for any one work-wooden beams, cement blocks, square aluminum or steel plates-juxtaposing them in rows or rectangular areas on the floor, as in his Floor Pieces (fig. 337). Donald Judd emphasizes the principle of alignment: identical rectangular bodies (open or closed cubes or blocks) are aligned at regular intervals either side by side or, affixed to the wall, one above the other. Other alignments show the possible permutations of simply structured, open or closed stereometric bodies (fig. 336). Sol LeWitt applies similar principles to rows of open cuboid frames (fig. 335).
The above description reveals a striking trait that is shared by both Minimal Art and Post-painterly Abstraction: given their anonymous character and the complete correlation of their compositional principles, the works of these artists are difficult to distinguish from one another. Each of these artists has to restrict himself to a few narrowly defined artistic concepts; through their repetition, variation and standardization, he develops the easily recognizable hallmark of his art. Accordingly, the work of most Minimal Artists displays an oppressive monotony. One of the rare exceptions to this rule is Robert Morris, who finds a whole variety of (often surprising) solutions to his ideational and compositional aims (figs. 338, 339). In Minimal Art, therefore, the intellectual approach is similar to that of Post-painterly Abstraction. The objectifying and de-psychologizing of color that characterize Post-painterly Abstraction find their match in Minimal Art in the objectifying and de-psychologizing of form. As Willy Rotzler writes: In any combinatorial procedure there are two factors involved: simple elements on the one hand, and the rules by which they are combined, varied or permuted on the other. This system of elements and rules, parameters and relations, can reveal variety in uniformity or the endlessness of the possibilities in a given range. Serial work, however, does not aim at a 'content', at a special meaning, but only at what it, in fact, is: a simple order.58
The anonymity of this order coincides with an absolute claim to validity. And this, in itself, constitutes the difference between the structures of Minimal Art and the structural principles of European Constructivism. The latter refer to the dialectical relationship (interaction) between tension and equilibrium, mirroring the homeostatic regulation principle to which the body and psyche of the human organism are subjected. The European Constructivists take as their point of reference the individual, inner sense of proportion and equilibrium. The idealized structure they accommodate in their works is founded in their inner experience and is thus 'intrinsic' in every regard.
The American Minimalists, on the other hand, want total anonymity for their compositions; they are not prepared to be guided by their own physiologically, sensorially determined laws, for, by definition these laws would be open to relativization, and above all these artists are striving towards an equivalent of the absolute, the law as such. The idealized structure to which they subject themselves consists in an impersonal, numerically describable principle of order.
In a broadcast by the American radio station WBA-FM in 1964 on the subject of "New Nihilism and New Art," Frank Stella and Donal Judd thus set themselves apart from the Europeans. In reply to the question "Why do you want to avoid compositional effects?" Judd explains, Well, those effects tend to carry with them all the structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition. It suits me fine if that's all down the drain, adding, All that art is based on systems built beforehand, a priori systems; they express a certain type of thinking and logic that is pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world's like.
According to Stella, […] the European geometric painters really strive for what I call relational painting. The basis of their whole idea is balance. You do something in one corner and you balance it with something in the other corner. Now the 'new painting' is being characterized as symmetrical. […] It's non-relational.
I always get into arguments with people who want to retain the old values in painting-the humanistic values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. Any painting is an object and anyone who gets involved enough in this finally has to face up to the objectness of whatever it is that he's doing. He is making a thing.59
Their art serves to render visible a certainty that is beyond doubt, and at the same time rationally tangible. The contents remain correspondingly banal. The archaic grandiosity of these compositions, their anonymity and their blatant, ostentatiously flaunted lack of significance evokes an idealized structure, albeit only as a negative presence. To put it another way, the ideal is negatively formulated; basically, what is missing is the benchmark symbol of perfection, to which one's own action and integrated exhibitionist ambitions could be oriented. Yet at the same time, Minimal Art represents the ideology that has taken the abandoned place of the ideal. It is the ideology of positivism, that is to say of a science and philosophy, content with determining the given and the actual, and rejecting all metaphysics. In its keenest forms, positivism also eschews all explanation and hypothesis, and restricts the aim (or ideal) of science to that of mere description. This reduction of the ideal to dogmatic realism is also a characteristic of Minimal Art.
The dogmatic sobriety of these artists is tantamount to a credo. Unlike Johns, whose insight into the ambiguity of conventional forms opens up a wealth of compositional possibilities, they employ the insight into the conditionality of each individual Being as an absolute value. The idea of de-personalized, objective reality adopts the function of an idealized structure. This does not appear as a primarily demanding instance, but as a forbidding and exclusive instance that imposes a taboo upon all that is personal, arbitrary and aleatory. The visual and compositional canon of Minimal Art is predominantly negatively defined.
The same applies to the exhibitionist ambitions of the Minimalist artists. These, too, are devoid of all psychological significance. Instead of seeking the uniqueness of a Being, they address the uniqueness of an idea, and the efficacy of their concept. This constitutes the decisive and, to all intents and purposes, sole compositional means of an art that celebrates the existence and validity of the impersonal; it is, as Sol LeWitt says, the most important aspect of the work: when an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and the decisions are made before hand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.60
In the positivistic credo of this art, we find a manifestation of the
mindset of classicism. In this sense, the Brockhaus Encyclopedia notes
that classicism is also employed without any value judgement as a
stylistic term to describe a manner of composition which emphasises form
An artistic composition reflects not only the collective mindset of its stylistic direction and the individual idiosyncrasy of its creator, but also the overlying, guiding principle that is the basis of the self-image and world-view of its age. These basic ideas-the medieval human God, the god-man of the early modern era, and the invisible reality of natural forces in the modern age-form the respective constants of the cultural cycle of an era, while the sequential stages of their social, historical and psychologically determined development form its respective variables.
Each work of art reflects the dialectical relationship between the intellectual constants of its age and one of these variables. I use the term classicism to describe one such variable.
The idea of modernism necessarily produces a different classicist art from that of the 19th century. Our era is geared towards scientific thinking and the findings of scientific research; in the varied world of appearances, it recognizes the testimony of an invisible yet structured reality. Out of this vision, modernism develops its ideal, at the same time demanding that the impact of this invisible reality be shown and the conditions of its pictorial composition be made visible, that is to say transparent. The classical art of modernism seeks the pictorial realization of this ideal. Classicist art, by contrast, seeks to present the ideal already achieved, the perfection already accomplished. The classicist, inclining towards an idealized absolute, and keen to exercise unlimited authority and control, alienates the ideal of the classic and replaces it with the negatively defined ideology of positivistic thinking-through the ideology of an impersonal, anorganic and self-sufficient order.
Thus, the classicist art of the 20th century propounds the intrinsic values of color, of material, of number and of stereometry. In place of an individually defined, idealized structure, there is a notion of objective reality, that is to say of objectively verifiable laws; the concept replaces individual expression. An awareness of the questionability of all human action is replaced by the illusion of absolute certainty.
This attitude reflects the attempt by a profoundly insecure and disoriented
generation to counter the impending disintegration of the intellectual
structures upon which the self-image of modernism was hitherto based, by
withdrawing to the last remaining defensible certainties-to objective, clear
and rationally tangible laws and facts. In an earlier work, Die Erfahrung des Ungewissen in der Kunst der Gegenwart (The Experience of the Uncertain in Contemporary Art), I commented on these tendencies in art that have been evident since the Second World War: A decisive characteristic of all these works and stylistic directions is the careful avoidance of any appearance of illusion and any expression of 'sentiment'. This art presents itself modestly in a certain sense, saying no more than it can take responsibility for, promising no more than it can deliver, proud of its sobriety. It is precisely from its limitations that it draws its rank, from its disillusionment that it draws the condition for its own idealization. It counters the uncertain with insight into that which is certain with an insight into the essence of the objective world, of time and space, and also with an insight into the boundaries of its own certainty, and it poses these insights as an antithesis to the uncertain.62
A similar attitude also determines the European equivalent of Minimal Art, so-called Concrete Art. Rooted in the tradition of the Bauhaus and De Stijl, its leading exponents are the Swiss artists Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse.
The Intrinsic Value of the Number: Concrete Art
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Switzerland, too, became an important center of Constructivist art. Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse-the two leading representatives of the group known as the Zürcher Konkreten-developed their own form of geometric abstraction based on straightforward mathematical principles. The Zurich artists are thus the most consistent representatives of a determining tendency within the Constructivist movement, formulated as follows in 1930 by Van Doesburg in his manifesto of Concrete Art: Only the mind is creative. It is the thought that is really important in all spheres of human activity. The evolution of painting is nothing else but the search of the intellect for the truth, as a culture of the visual. Everything is measurable, even the mind. […] Painting is a means of realizing a thought in optical terms: every picture is a color-thought.63
In his essay "The Mathematical Approach in Contemporary Art," written
in the late 1940s, Max Bill comes to the following conclusion from this
notion: And I therefore assume that art can present thought in a way
that will make it directly perceptible. […] And the more exact the process
of reasoning, the more homogeneous the basic idea, the more the thought
will be in harmony with mathematical thinking, the closer we approach
to the primary structure and the more universal art becomes.64 Cézanne's
claim that art should create an equivalent to Nature is applied here to
The frequently voiced criticism that Bill's art is a mere illustration of mathematical laws, overlooks one of its most important aspects. Although his compositions represent mathematical orders, in theory, this objective conformity to a given law is nevertheless countered by a wholly antithetical form of subjective decision-making. In Bill's finest works (figs. 340, 341), the laconic originality of these decisions forms a highly charged relationship with the equally succinct mathematical structures, merging with them to create a synthesis, which is, in itself, a striking and persuasive, unique and yet universal visual form.
In 1950, Bill founded the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, based on the model of the Bauhaus, and was its director until 1957. This "research and training establishment for design tasks of our time" appealed enormously to the younger generation and, together with group and solo exhibitions by the Zürcher Konkreten group, contributed to the breakthrough of the mathematical approach in Constructivist art.
In Lohse's work, the exhibitionist moment is pushed much more strongly into the background by the idealized structure. His work, too, recalls a mathematical exercise, except that, instead of addressing the exception that proves the rule, it addresses the rule itself, illustrating its universal significance. Accordingly it was Lohse, with his modular and serial structures, who was the first to develop visual principles of order that could be applied as programs for computer art (as indeed they now are).
With methodical consistency, he creates variable systems by structuring colored and formally standardized elements according to mathematical principles. By transposing the structure of the color circle to the color role, Lohse resolves the discrepancy between color and form. Color becomes form, and formal structure becomes color structure. In the square structures of his late work, this 'condensation' reaches its climax (fig. 342). There are no main colors or ancillary colors, for all colors are represented in equal quantity, and there are no main forms or ancillary forms, for all forms are equal.65 All the elements interact within the system, forming the whole in mutual dependency. According to Lohse, […] the method represents itself, it is the picture.66 Here we find, even more than in the work of Bill, the fundamental difference to the art of Mondrian and the Constructivists. The dialectical interaction between tension and equilibrium is a thing of the past. Instead of using a geometric visual language to lend expression, as his precursors did, to an inner, emotionally driven sense of form, Lohse points to the regular harmony of geometrical alignments, permutations, progressions and variations.
In this constant set of laws and in the rejection of all emotionality and individual expression, we recognize a clear shift of the narcissistic libido to the idealized pole of the self. This art serves to render visible the law; the ideal
is exhibited. Thus, in his article Lines of Development, Lohse writes that Constructive Art is an encyclopedic art, an art of reason, a moralizing, ideological and political art, both analysis and order.67
Bill and Lohse, whose mathematically structured systems foreshadow the equivalent attempts by American artists a good decade later, are the true founders of the classicist line of development within modernism. As the model and inspiration for the younger generation, they take on the same stature and significance in Europe as Albers in the United States. In the late 1960s, in the Netherlands and Germany, with Jan Schoonhoven, Ad Dekkers, Ewerdt Hilgemann, Raimund Girke and a number of other young artists, an approach emerges in which the existence and intrinsic value of the structure takes on central importance. Ideationally, at least, they represent the European equivalent of Minimal Art.
Whereas modern classicism in the United States and the Protestant countries of Europe absorbs the heritage of the Bauhaus and De Stijl and arrives at an ascetically stringent, purist art, in Paris, French and South American artists-drawing on the same source-evolve an equally classicist form of geometric abstraction (albeit more playful and sensual than intellectual) which is to go down in history as Op Art. These artists are interested less in structures than in examining retinal phenomena and the intrinsic value of movement.
The Intrinsic Value of Movement: Op Art and Kinetic Art
Paris always had a difficult relationship with geometric abstraction and, even after the Second World War, was hardly prepared to pay any attention to an art form it regarded as alien and imported. The founding of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, which presented four hundred non-figurative works in 1946 and seven hundred pictures and sculptures by artists from seventeen countries in 1948, did little to change that situation. The French capital, still seeing itself as the artistic center of the world, was in thrall to the Ecole de Paris, whose artists (Bazaine, Estève, Lapicque, Manessier, Singier and others) upheld the French tradition of tasteful peinture with their non-figurative painting. Above and beyond that, the French were interested, at best, only in Abstraction Lyrique (a French variant of Abstract Expressionism), as represented by Wols, Fautrier, Soulages, Mathieu and Hartung.
Of the few galleries to take up Constructivist art, only the Gallery of Denise René presented a consistent program in the 1950s. Apart from the French artists Auguste Herbin and Jean Gorin, René also represented a number of foreign artists, pioneers of the Bauhaus and De Stijl, Swiss Concrete artists, some Scandinavians and, most notably, the Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely, who was to become the gallery's 'house artist'. Inspired by Pontus Hulten, in 1955 Denise René mounts the exhibition Le mouvement, presenting, for the first time, a representative selection of so-called Kinetic Art. This exhibition included works by Agam, Soto, Vasarely, Bury, Calder and Duchamp (who also foreshadowed Op Art; see fig. 343) and was accompanied by a manifesto celebrating 'movement'-the incorporation of the time factor-as one of the great innovations in contemporary art.
By gathering a growing circle of Kinetic artists, who together form the Groupe de Recherches d'Art Visuel, the Gallery Denise René establishes itself within the space of a few years as the European center of Kinetic Art. The general interest in the new creative potential culminates in 1961 with the exhibition Bewogen Beweging (Movement in Motion) mounted by Pontus Hulten at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 1965, the Kunsthalle Bern follows with the exhibition Licht und Bewegung (Light and Movement) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York presents a sweeping survey of Optical and Kinetic Art in an exhibition entitled The Responsive Eye. This includes a broad spectrum of different creations. Kinetic objects either actually move (propelled by motors, wind, water or human intervention) or move only optically (due to movements made by the viewer or the use of certain compositional principles that generate illusions of movement).
The best-known representatives of the first group, Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely, basically restrict their work to kinetic variations on existing artistic approaches or tendencies. Calder's works, for which Marcel Duchamp coined the term mobiles, consist of firm, stem-like wires and flat, organically formed metal plaques loosely joined to create charming configurations reminiscent of the branches of a tree; the slightest movement (or draught of air) sets these free-hanging works in gentle motion (fig. 344). Whereas the mobiles possess an almost classical aesthetic equilibrium reminiscent of Matisse or Miró, the electrically driven machines by Jean Tinguely, with their absurd and ironic movements, seem like a kinetic re-edition of Dadaism. Although they are the first to include movement as a constant element of their work in the visual arts, these two artists undertake a merely 'pictorial' innovation rather than any renewal of artistic ideals.
By contrast, the kinetic works that primarily generate the optical illusion of movement manifest a new artistic approach comparable to that of Minimal Art and Concrete Art. The leading representatives of this direction, for which Time magazine coined the term Op Art in 1964, are Victor Vasarely and his son Yvaral, the Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto, the British artists Bridget Riley and Jeffrey Steele, and the Italian artist Getulio Alviani (figs. 345-348).
These artists do not apply motion as a compositional tool in the way that Calder and Tinguely do, being interested instead in the notion or illusion of movement for its own sake. The processes of perception that are well documented in the physiology of seeing can be used in such a way that the viewer is confused by optical effects and thinks he or she is seeing movement on the picture plane. Parallel stripes, concentric squares or circles, checkered patterns etc. trigger flickering effects, while shifts in the overlapping of dotted patterns or patterns of lines generate so called moiré effects. The confusing effects of such patterns can be further heightened by the use of complementary pairs of colors that create a simultaneous contrast, or by the use of extremely subtle color differences that make it practically impossible to focus the eye. It would be going beyond the confines of this book to list all the possibilities available for the creation of such effects, or their artistic application singly and in detail. The works illustrated here shall suffice by way of example.
These compositions clearly indicate the extent to which Op Art avoids all personal statements. Instead of facing the viewer with some form of confrontation between the two poles of an individual self, it merely presents him or her with an objective, anonymous, optical phenomenon that is at best amusing and surprising (and at worst merely irritating). Op Art is interested in the intrinsic value of such phenomena, and contents itself with probing all their possibilities experimentally. Its primary aim consists in a more or less scientific analysis of possible optical stimuli; 'research' is the key word that has replaced the intellectual and spiritual commitment that once gave meaning and direction to the art of earlier generations. It mirrors the self-image of specialized technicians, acting as product designers for a new branch of the entertainment industry. In this respect, they proclaim their intention of breaking down art's isolation and reintegrating it into society.
Denise René was one of the first to have kinetic objects industrially produced and put on the market in limited (or unlimited) series as multiples. This undertaking was made all the easier by the fact that Op Art, unlike Minimal Art, also appeals to a broad public. Art could once again be experienced as a true spectacle that could be approached with the naive curiosity of a child or the superior amusement of the culturally pampered. Something was happening, the individual was even invited to participate. This art seemed vital, positive, optimistic. It thus accorded well with the optimism of the time, which was inspired by the hope of a better and happier future.68
Above all, it corresponded to a society that had lost its spiritual vision and whose members were only able to anaesthetize the threatening sense of their inner emptiness through constant stimulation, hectic activity and addictive consumption.
The geometric purism of these works, the clear, objective and rationally comprehensible criteria they took as their points of reference, together with their anonymous, impersonal character, meant that this art, for all its hedonism, can also be regarded as a variant of modern classicism.
This is evident in the broad range of variations of this artistic development. In modernism, the decisive and essential trait of classicism-the uncompromising subjugation of individual exhibitionist ambitions to a transparent and rationally comprehensible structure-takes on a positivistic, technical, scientific quality that manifests itself, among other things, in the constant application of a geometric language of forms. In spite of its unifying impact, this permits a wide variety of different compositional forms, with the result that the spectrum of modern classicism ranges from the diverse and imaginative creations by Max Bill, surely the most important exponent of this direction, to the serial structures of Richard Paul Lohse, and from the laconic shapes and forms of Minimal Art to the whimsical experiments of Op Art. Finally, mention should also be made of the possibilities that emerged for this art with the use of the computer, which I shall discuss in a later chapter.
Each of these classicist directions in art represents an attempt to address the experience of the uncertain by taking recourse to unequivocal and universally binding structures-to counter it with its very antithesis, that is to say, the certain. Modern symbolism, which we are about to address in the next chapter, seeks instead to overcome uncertainty by means of magic and ritual.
4. Magic and Ritual: Modern Symbolism
The modern symbolism with which we conclude our survey of the post-war development of art can equally well be figurative or non-figurative.
By the end of the 1950s a regional variant of Abstract Expressionism-as found
in the United States-has established itself throughout Europe as the principal
trend in post-war art. Known as Informel, Abstraction Lyrique or Tachisme, its
leading exponents in France are Wols (fig. 349), Fautrier, Soulages, Hartung,
and Mathieu (fig. 350), in Italy Vedova, Santomaso, and Moreni, in Germany
Winter, Schumacher, and Sonderborg, in Spain Saura, and Millares, in the
Netherlands the members of the Cobra group, Appel, Jorn, and
Their painting differs from that of the Abstract Expressionists in that it has a more traditional, more baroque approach. Although the European artists admittedly do go beyond symbolically laden Surrealism, they do not make the move towards the impersonal quite as radically as the Americans.
With their all-over paintings, that extend right to the edges of the canvas, or even appear to go beyond them, Pollock and Rothko, the leading exponents of Abstract Expressionism, create the new visual reality that is to culminate in the shaped canvases of Post-painterly Abstraction. By contrast, the Europeans still regard the picture plane as a neutral stage on which the creative process is played out. This even applies to Mathieu, whose gestural improvisations and huge pictorial formats are strongly reminiscent of Pollock. He, too, 'writes' on the canvas, placing calligraphic signs on the picture plane but without linking the two elements-pictorial sign and pictorial ground-as a single entity (fig. 354). Thus, the Europeans do not translate their expressive ambitions into a new visual syntax. They remain bound to the personal-no sign of mystical ecstasy here.
An object-like pictorial concept that resolves the antimony between support and content does not occur in European Informel painting until the mid-1950s, when it emerges in the work of the Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies. He covers the surface of his pictures with a mortar-like mixture of plaster, paste and sand, lending it the appearance of old, crumbling masonry. He scrapes linear signs into the moving surface, drilling holes, scouring away individual layers and occasionally setting a highlight of color. The traces of his intervention seem somehow coincidental and give no indication that the artist intends to make a statement. They do not result in a picture in the conventional sense, but in a piece of anonymous reality. They bear sober and silent witness to an unknown, mysterious occurrence (fig. 351). With their almost monochromatic appearance and their solemn stillness, these works have a certain affinity with the paintings of Rothko, although, unlike these, they do not call for mystical union, but are the bearers of a message. Even if that message defies deciphering, it nevertheless confronts the viewer with an unknown meaning. The masonry-like panels by Tàpies thus take on an enigmatic and magical significance. With them, a tendency begins to emerge in post-war abstract art that we should like to describe as Non-figurative Symbolism.
The leading exponents of this movement are the Italians Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, and the French artist Yves Klein. These European artists also address the void as representing the intangible and the absolute, just as we have already noted in Post-painterly Abstraction.
Fontana lends the dimension of nothingness a certain 'positive', dramatic form by slitting or perforating the monochromatic surface of his canvasses, ceramics and metal plates. In doing so, he makes reference not only to Action Painting, but also to the minimalism of Post-painterly Abstraction, though he goes one step further by founding, with his incisions, something akin to a myth. Fontana's sadistic interventions-causing injury to the unadulterated surface without 'soiling' it with paint-are transformed through constant repetition into a magic ritual.
By combining particular aesthetic qualities-an unerring sense of taste, the magisterial employment of sparse means, the avoidance of all superfluous accessories-with the controlled impulsiveness and expressive power of his incisions and perforations, Fontana succeeds in creating extremely elegant and at the same time exciting compositions (figs. 352, 353). Unlike the meditative paintings of Post-painterly Abstraction, the exhibitionist gesture in Fontana's work enters into a dialectical relationship with the painting as a whole and is, as a result, psychologically charged. Thus, his works gain an expressive quality that brings to mind thoughts of the work of Pollock or Kline.
This dimension is alien to the work of Manzoni and Yves Klein. Manzoni also works with a reduced vocabulary. For his entirely white Achromes, for example, he places simple arrangements of white material such as cotton wool, cotton, felt or fiberglass under glass, or creates a checkerboard pattern by folding plaster-soaked strips of cloth (fig. 354). In his works, the visual aspect increasingly loses its importance. The Lines, applied to rolls of paper around 1960 (the longest, on a roll of newsprint, measuring no less than 7,200 meters), are no longer visible once the support is rolled up, but have to be imagined in the mind's eye.
This tendency towards the mystification of the immaterial, of things that are merely thought or imagined, takes its most radical form in the work of Yves Klein. In the spectacular 1957 exhibition at the Gallerie Apollinaire, Milan, with which he carves out his particular niche in art history, he presents 12 rectangular, monochrome paintings of pure ultramarine blue, entirely identical in format, color and painterly execution.
His use of monochrome color and his preference for ultramarine blue are to become the determining features in Klein's compositions. He even takes to calling himself Yves le monochrome. Instead of using conventional oil or tempera paints, he develops a special process, in collaboration with a chemist, allowing him to fix the pure, unaltered pigment on the support in such a way that the color-especially the deep ultramarine-retains all its luminosity, achieving a lasting impact. Having once developed this color, which subsequently will not change; he personalizes it by giving it the name I.K.B. (International Klein Blue), and this becomes his hallmark.
Initially, he restricts his production to panel paintings. Later, he appropriates all manner of objects, coloring them with his I.K.B., affixing them to a base or mounting them on a plinth, and declaring them to be sculptures. The deep ultramarine of I.K.B. turns Klein's paintings and objects into intensely radiant colored bodies, while at the same time as it were dispersing their materiality. In this way, they gain an intangible, inaccessible quality and appear to be charged with a mysterious energy (figs. 355, 356).
Once again, it is tempting to compare Klein with Malevich. Yet Klein's interests lie elsewhere; moreover they also differ distinctly from those of Post-painterly Abstraction. The art of the Americans develops from the romantic intellectual approach of Abstract Expressionism, via an increasing tendency towards 'objectifying' and 'de-psychologizing' the artistic process, arriving at compositions, which, reduced to their visible yet empty appearance, lend shape to the 'absolute' in a form that is adequate, in the philosophical sense, because it is 'negatively' determined. The work takes precedence over the individuality of the artist.
Klein's work, on the other hand, develops in the opposite direction. Far from serving an ideal or an idealized reality, it is underpinned by a boundless exhibitionist ambition. To him, his blue does not represent an objective, general and autonomous value, but stands for the uniqueness and grandiosity of its inventor, and is even copyrighted as I.K.B. Klein is not interested in the syntax of an artistic language, but in the exhibition of his own greatness and autonomy: I am intoxicated by the monochrome […] I believe it is only with the monochrome that I can live a truly painterly life […] here I am: I myself! By painting monochrome I am happy for the first time!69
The explanation for this enthusiasm may possibly be found in the young artist's family background. The child of two successful painters,70 Yves Klein was untalented (or inhibited) in drawing and craftsmanship, and monochrome painting provided one of the few possibilities of asserting himself as a painter-not constrained by painterly conventions and discipline-and satisfying his totalitarian need for recognition. In his brochure Le dépassement de la problématique de l'art (1959) Klein describes with disarming candor how he found his own way after his initial attempts to follow in his parents' footsteps: […] but then color flirted with me as a purely perceptible space. And the feeling of the total freedom of this purely perceptible space attracted me in such a way that I painted monochromatic planes to see with my own eyes what could be seen of the absolute. At the time, I did not see the painterly potential of these experiments. Until the day, about a year later, when I said to myself "why not?" Everything in the life of an individual depends on just such a "why not?" It is for him, the future creator, the sign that announces that the original image of a new state is ready and mature: the sign that he may reveal himself to the world.71
In a certain sense, Klein, like Duchamp, uses the stylistic device of 'negative presence', albeit coming to it from a completely different starting point. In contrast to Duchamp, who, with his readymades, evokes the absolute as a negative (that is invisible) presence by means of the arbitrary choice and placement of a prosaic object that is insignificant in itself, for Klein it is the visible (monochrome paintings or I.K.B.) that stands for the absolute, evoking the invisible and negative presence of its creator's sensibilité immatérielle and the genius (or indeed the megalomania) of one who makes the absolute 'visible' and thereby takes possession of it. In Klein's work it is not the intangibility of the absolute, but the intangibility of his own "brilliant enlightenment" that is mysticized. Therein lies the crucial difference between these two artists: Duchamp is the detached skeptic, the great discloser, while Klein presents himself as a modern shaman.
Tempting as it may be to dismiss the distinction between two so apparently similar approaches as hair-splitting sophistry, Klein's subsequent development provides plenty of points in support of my view. A few months after his Milan appearance, he hits the headlines again with an exhibition at Colette Allendy in Paris. No longer content with monochrome paintings, he develops a veritable fireworks of "brilliant" ideas. For example, he creates an art environment by scattering pure I.K.B. pigment in powder-form on the floor. In another room, he presents blue flames (for one minute!). In a third room, he shows, for the first time, a series of objects-which he declares are sculptures-soaked in ultramarine blue paint (such as the paint roller used for his work or his later famous sponges), mounted on bases or plates. Finally, he presents the astonished visitors with the spectacular sight of a thousand blue balloons rising over the gallery into the Parisian sky: Première sculpture aérostatique libérée du socle, composées de 1001 ballons flottant dans l'atmosphère.
The next sensation comes the following year with his famous exhibition L'exposition du vide at Iris Clert. Invitations are issued, in which Iris Clert calls upon their recipients to honor, with all your effective presence, the lucid and positive advent of a true realm of sensibility. The perceptive synthesis of this emotion sanctions in Yves Klein's pictorial quest for an ecstatic and immediately communicable emotion.72 For the opening, the facade of the little gallery is painted ultramarine blue, and six Gardes Républicaines in full gala uniform are posted at the entrance. Visitors without an invitation have to pay an admission fee of 1,500 'old' francs (15 francs today). Inside, however, the gallery is completely empty and has nothing but its bare white walls on view. According to Yves Klein, everything will be white so that the painterly atmosphere of the blue dematerialized sensibility can be conveyed. Outside, the blue will be visible, while inside the gallery there will be […] the immaterialization of blue, the colored space that cannot be seen but which we impregnate ourselves with.73 To the astonishment of everyone involved, more than 3,000 visitors come to the opening, which goes on until after midnight, .
Klein's performances, especially his exhibition Le Vide, have been associated with Zen Buddhism by a number of different critics. For example, writing in the periodical Cimaise in May/June 1958, the art critic Michel Ragon, says: Having been to Japan, like Yves Klein, I know how much his idea of the monochrome owes to Zen Buddhism. His empty room recalls the stone garden of Ryoani or certain meditation tables. Yet Ragon is also aware of the precariousness of this relationship, for he adds: And yet if such an endeavor is to be taken seriously then there is no need to post the ridiculous figures of the Republican Guard at the door. Nor is there any need to serve blue drinks.74
In truth, Klein's egomaniac performances have nothing whatsoever in common with Zen Buddhism, which strives to sublate the ego and its control functions. Klein is not interested in Zen but in the desperate attempt to halt the impending fragmentation of his self (the psychological grounds for which I cannot examine within the scope of this study).
In the exhibitionist realm of the self, he counters this threat with the illusion of his own magical omnipotence, seeking to have it confirmed (and visibly represented) in the reactions of his audience: I am in search of the real value of a picture whereby two absolutely identical paintings can nevertheless be different if one is by a 'painter' and the other merely by a skilled 'technician', an 'artisan', even if both are regarded by the public as artists of equal rank. Yet it is the invisible, real value that makes one of the two objects a 'picture' and the other not. This is closely connected with what I am actually trying to do, and with what my future progress requires of me. In short, the solution to my problem is: to do nothing more. I want to reach this goal as quickly as possible. Yet I must set about my work consciously and carefully.75 Magical thinking ousts the creative act. The notion of the god-man, the artistic genius, finds its fantastic form. Here we see the beginning of the development that is to culminate in the figure of Joseph Beuys.
In the idealized realm of the self, Klein counters the threat of fragmentation by apparently blending with a comprehensive and boundless whole, or, to put it another way: by becoming one with an archaic, grandiosely exalted ideal that has split off and become alienated from the ego. As he himself said: In what I do, I am in search of that 'transparency' and 'emptiness' in which the constant and absolute spirit dwells, free of all dimensions.76
In his art he seeks the reflection of the boundless expanse and immutable oneness of the self: To feel the soul and present this feeling without vocabulary-it is this yearning that has brought me to the monochrome,77 he writes in retrospect. Yet his hope is illusory, for blending with the void is tantamount to the dissolution of the self. In Klein's art, the self is manifested only negatively, by absence.
The two strategies that Klein employs in his art in order to maintain a grandiose self image and create a corresponding representation, are mutually exclusive. Klein is well aware of this contradiction and attempts in vain to bridge the gap by the mystification of his inner drama: I am for a total de-personalization of art and yet for an extreme individualism. This is not a paradox if we are willing to think in terms of sensibility.78 This sensibility, when all is said and done, is nothing but a painful awareness of his own inner emptiness; it is the echo of the self that has split off and become alienated from the ego and from reality, the grandiose self of early childhood that has remained in its archaic, primordial state and is no longer capable of integration.
The demonstrative exclusion of the ego and the almost phobic avoidance of all comprehensible statements, that could, by definition, be placed in relation to other things, permit Klein to maintain the illusion of his own infallibility and the absolute validity of a statement that is none. This mystification of his own grandiosity retains its credibility only as long as it remains within the sphere of the imaginary.
The tragic and, in the end, non-artistic moment in this lies in the fact that Klein-unlike Duchamp or the exponents of Post-painterly Abstraction and Minimal Art-wishes to grasp the intangible itself. Yet it cannot be grasped, but at best represented by something visible. By dismissing material appearances as inessential, Klein presents the void-nothingness-as the real and, in doing so, completely fails to lend it an artistic form.
Catherine Krahmer, to whom I owe most of the quotations cited here and many insights into the psychological dynamics of 'le Monochrome', looks at the last years of this artist in her excellent case study of Yves Klein. She shows how Klein's performances came to be increasingly determined by magical thinking.
In 1959, Klein has his 'immaterial checks' printed: certificates with which he conveys his 'immaterial sensibility' to a potential buyer. The buyer has to redeem the checks in pure fine gold, for which he or she receives a confirmation of receipt with the following text: x grams of fine gold received for one zone of immaterial pictural sensibility.79 The conveyance of sensibility is also bound to a ritual: while the buyer burns the check (thereby generating a blue flame) the 'donor of sensibility', namely Klein, throws half of the gold into the Seine (or the Rhine). He keeps the other half for himself. Thus Klein does not lose sight entirely of the pecuniary aspect of reality. Krahmer also underlines this circumstance by commenting in a footnote that no secret should be made of the fact that this ritual was also occasionally violated. The Gallery Iris Clert, for example, possessed immaterial checks already signed by Yves Klein for the contingency that a buyer might drop in during Yves' absence.80 Klein's ambition to create art without getting his hands dirty81 leads to increasingly eccentric and increasingly trivial actions and experiments, which I will not discuss here in further detail. I recall merely the famous Anthropométries created by having female models as-'living brushes' (to use Klein's description)-press their naked bodies, covered in I.K.B. against canvas or paper, leaving the imprint of their bodies on it (fig. 357), or Klein's fire paintings at the Centre d'Essai du Gaz de France, in which, in the presence of helmeted fire fighters (and in front of television cameras) he used flame throwers on his paintings and achieved results that differ little from the non-figurative painting of Informel.
Most of Klein's artist friends are skeptical about these later developments. Fontana speaks for others, too, when he says, after the blue monochromes, Yves made very intelligent things, but he did not get any further in terms of the idea.82 Indeed, Klein's monochrome paintings and the 'invention' of I.K.B. represent his most important contribution to the artistic development of modernism, especially with regard to its phenomenological significance. With them, non-figurative art takes on a clearly intended fetish character for the first time.
Klein's renunciation of artistic input in the traditional sense is very different from the renunciation practiced by Malevich in his Black Square or by Duchamp in his readymades. Whereas the compositional abstinence of these works is tantamount to a statement or stance, and derives its meaning from this, Klein's corresponding renunciation equates with the magical exaltation of his own self. By elevating an inanimate material with which he identifies-namely the color pigment I.K.B.-to the level of the absolute, he subscribes to a modern animism in which he takes on the role of shaman. His monochromes are no longer a mere allegory of the intangible, but claim to embody it (and thus at the same time the grandiose self of its inventor) in the manner of a fetish.
The public has always tended to fetishize works of art (consider, for example, the fate of the Mona Lisa) and today this practice is more widespread than ever. The artists themselves are less inclined to do so. Among them, Klein is one of the first to make strategic use of the viewer's inclination in this regard in order to satisfy his own artistic ambitions. He wants to be one with the absolute, and the public is to confirm this oneness for him by accepting I.K.B. as the absolute. The public thus becomes creative material (that has to be manipulated) and the artistic process becomes a social game.
Right from the start Yves neither composed nor expressed anything, writes Krahmer in her study, but merely played. He played with human sensibilities. This is unequivocally clear in the case of the void and the immaterial checks, but even the monochrome can be regarded as a game. Here, there is a kind of pact between Yves and the color. If an outsider-viewer or buyer-wishes to enter the circle, he has to accept the pact, otherwise he is cheated.83 The rules of the game have to be accepted as binding, otherwise the game and the pact fall apart. Whereas Duchamp confronts this significant aspect of each artistic experience with irony, and lends this irony artistic expression by means of the 'beauty of indifference', Klein celebrates the pact between the artist and his public (the viewer) quite consciously as a magic ritual. It is in this that Klein's paradigmatic significance is founded: his blue pictures represent the non-figurative variation of the 'magic symbolism' that is to inform the art world of the 1970s after Joseph Beuys has made his entrance.
Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) and the 'Inability to Mourn'
The extensive oeuvre of Joseph Beuys, considered by his admirers to be the most important European artist of the post-war era, comprises four areas: Aktionen (or 'Actions'), plastic arts (drawings and objects), art theory, and pseudo-political activities. These will first be discussed individually, after which an attempt will be made to interpret them.
1. The Actions
The roots of the spectacular Actions with which Beuys first came to public
attention in the 1960s, go back to the First World War. Following the
Dadaist performances of that era, American artists in the 1950s developed
an art form-Happenings-which was later to be adopted in Europe as well.
At the beginning of this development stands the American composer John
Cage, whose ideas and compositions, radically called into question conventional
notions of music. In 1952, the year in which his friend Rauschenberg exhibited
his empty, monochrome white paintings, Cage performed a composition consisting
only of silence and called 4'33 (4 minutes and 33 seconds; 'no sounds
are intentionally produced'). Special forms of notation, unusual
or prepared instruments, new media (radio, tape recorder, computer), the
methodical inclusion of chance and the noises arbitrarily generated by
the audience during the performance were all used, rolling back conventional
borders of artistic disciplines and in doing so exerting an influence
on musical and artistic development that can hardly be overestimated.
In the mid-1950s, Cage, in collaboration with Jasper Johns and Robert
Rauschenberg, staged multi-media performances that can be described as
an early form of Happening. The term itself goes back to the American
artist Alan Kaprow, who used it in 1959 in the title of his large scale
performance 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, and wrote a series of articles
on the theory of the Happening. The participants in his extensive, theatrical
actions were each confronted with different, previously determined situations,
to which they had to react improvisationally: The line between art
and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps as indistinct, as possible.
The reciprocity between the man-made and the readymade will be at its
maximum potential this way.84 In New York, apart from Kaprow, it
was above all Rauschenberg, Dine, Oldenburg and Segal who put on Happenings.
At the same time, the related, yet more musically directed Fluxus movement was coming into being. Its leading exponent, the Korean artist Nam June Paik, a student of John Cage, introduced the music and ideas of Happening and Fluxus to Germany in 1959. Together with George Maciunas from
the United States, Henning Christiansen from Denmark and the British artist Dick Higgins, Paik organized the first Fluxus festival in Wiesbaden in 1962, where he met the still totally unknown 41 year-old Joseph Beuys.
Beuys, who had been teaching sculpture at the Staatliche Akademie in Düsseldorf for a year, had overcome a deep personal crisis and had been endeavoring since then to find his own artistic identity. He was still searching for a focus for his high-flying yet largely undetermined ambitions, and for the form in which these could be realized. The Fluxus movement accommodated these endeavors through its improvisational, interdisciplinary character. Moreover, Beuys also immediately recognized this unique opportunity to present his own ideas to a broad public alongside internationally famous avant-garde artists. He invited Fluxus artists to a second festival the following year on the premises of his Academy, thereby ensuring his own participation.85
On 2 and 3 February 1963, he presented two of his own Actions at the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus in the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf: the Composition for Two Musicians and his Siberian Symphony 1st Movement. The latter already fulfills all the criteria of his later performances: The Siberian Symphony was in fact a composition for piano, says Beuys in conversation, it starts with a free movement I invented myself, then I blended in a piece by Erik Satie, then the piano was prepared with small heaps of clay, but first the hare was hung on the blackboard. A branch was stuck into each of these heaps of clay, then, like an electric cable, a wire was run from the piano to the hare and then the heart was removed from the hare. That was all, the hare was dead of course. That was the composition, mainly sound, and then something written on the blackboard.86
His participation in the Festival of New Art in Aachen on 20 July87 of
the same year drew considerably more attention. Reports of the event allow
us to broadly reconstruct what took place: Bazon Brock opens the proceedings
with a programmatic speech on texts by Marx and Hegel, recited standing
on his head (based on Hegel's maxim that "philosophy is the world upside
down"). Beuys then performs an "amorphous piano piece" by filling a piano
"very loosely" with geometric bodies, sweets, dried oak leaves, marjoram,
a picture postcard of Aachen Cathedral, and washing powder, so that it
still can be played but the sound is affected by the added items. In this
way he wishes to demonstrate healthy chaos, healthy amorphousness
in a known medium which consciously warmed a cold, torpid form from the
past, a convention of society, and which makes possible future forms.88
From the beginning of this performance, a tape recording is played of the infamous Berlin Palace of Sports Speech by Hitler's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Beuys is now demonstrating the "healthy amorphousness" of his favorite material. While he melts his blocks of fat on a stove, Goebbels' voice screeches "Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?" ("Do you want total war?"). An indescribable uproar breaks out. Members of the audience storm the stage, an incensed student boxes Beuys on the nose, which begins to bleed. As Beuys' biographer Heiner Stachelhaus writes: […] at just that moment the legend of Joseph Beuys was born. For behold, miraculously, he had with him a wooden crucifix on an expandable base. He held up this Pneumatic Cross in his left hand and stretched out the right in greeting, with blood streaming from his nose. A photographer was on hand to record this shamanic scene.89 (fig. 358).
With this spectacular event, the artist in the felt hat hits the headlines and, overnight, becomes the enfant terrible of the German art world. Although Beuys continues to be involved in collective events even after this breakthrough, from now on he mainly performs alone. Henceforth, his performances are clearly structured, carefully planned, and completely geared towards his own person. I shall outline three by now legendary examples.
On 1 December 1964, at the Berlin Gallery René Block, Beuys performs the Fluxus Solo Der Chef (The Boss). At 4 p.m. precisely, he wraps himself in a roll of felt, at each end of which lies a dead hare. Large quantities of margarine have been spread, clearly visible, in the corner of the room and along a section of the edge of the floor. Two cut-off finger nails are affixed to a wall, with a tuft of hair beside them. To the left of the roll of felt in which Beuys is wrapped, lies a copper rod wrapped in felt, and on the other side there is an amplifier.
At irregular intervals, Beuys makes noises into a microphone. These are amplified and we hear him breathing, wheezing, coughing, hissing, whistling, sighing. Compositions by Eric Andersen and Henning Christiansen are played on a tape recorder. Eight hours later, at the stroke of midnight, Beuys emerges from the roll of felt and explains that it was his intention to provide information on behalf of the dead hare, in the sense that the human language also possesses animal elements. He also explains that the title has to be understood as a code. Der Chef-The Boss-is always the one in control. At the same time, however, the boss is also each individual who takes his or her own self-determination seriously. The boss is your own head90 (fig. 359).
On 26 November 1965, at the Gallery Schmela in Düsseldorf, he performs his famous Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt (How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare). Beuys is sitting beside the door on a chair. He has poured honey over his head and stuck real gold leaf in the honey. He is holding a dead hare in his arms, gazing at it constantly. He then stands up and carries the hare through the exhibition, speaking to it, walking from picture to picture, letting it touch the pictures with its paws. Occasionally, he interrupts this guided tour, steps over a withered pine tree that is lying in the middle of the gallery, sits down again and starts from the beginning.
Beuys explained this as follows: For me the hare is a symbol of incarnation. The hare does in reality what man can only do mentally: he digs himself in, he digs a construction. He incarnates himself in the earth and that itself is important. Or at least that's how I see it. The honey on my head naturally means I am doing something concerned with thought. Our human capacity is not to produce honey, but to think-to produce ideas. In this way the deathlike character of thought is made living again. Honey is doubtlessly a living substance. Human thought can also be living. But it can also be deadly intellectually and remains dead, externally deadly in the area of politics and education.91
Finally, an excerpt from a report by the Danish critic Troels Andersen, who was in the audience on 14 and 15 October 1966 when Beuys performed Eurasia at Gallery 101 in Copenhagen:
If you go by appearances, he is a fantastic figure, half-way between clown and gangster. As soon as he goes into action, he is transformed. Absorbed in his performance, he is intense and expressive. […] He uses very simple symbols. His longest performance during the two evenings was a ninety-minute excerpt (34th movement) from his Siberian Symphony. The introductory motif was the Division of the Cross. Kneeling, Beuys slowly pushed two little crosses which lay on the floor, up to a blackboard. On each cross was a clock equipped with an alarm mechanism. On the board he drew a cross, half of which he then erased, and underneath it he wrote eurasia.
The rest of the piece consisted of Beuys's slowly maneuvering, along a previously drawn line, a dead hare whose legs and ears were extended by long, thin, black wooden sticks. When he held the hare on his shoulders, the sticks touched the ground. Beuys went from the wall to the board, where he laid the hare down. On the way back, three things happened: he scattered white powder between the legs of the hare, put a thermometer in its mouth, and blew through a tube. Then he turned to the blackboard with the half-cross on it and made he hare's ears quiver, while his own foot, to which an iron sole was tightly bound, hovered over another iron sole on the floor. From time to time he stamped on this sole.
That was the main content of the Action. The symbols are entirely clear and can all be translated. The Division of the Cross is the split between East and West, Rome and Byzantium. The half-cross is reunited Europe and Asia, to which the hare is going. The iron on the ground is a metaphor-it is difficult to walk and the earth is frozen. The 3 interruptions on the way back signify the elements snow, cold and wind. All this can only be deciphered if one has been given the keyword Siberian.92 (fig. 360)
2. The sculptural oeuvre: objects and installations93
In the Autumn of 1967, at the Städtisches Museum Mönchengladbach, Beuys
puts on Parallelprozess I (Parallel Process I), his
first comprehensive exhibition of sculptural works in the narrower sense.
Alongside drawings and 'free' objects, that is to say objects created
for their own sake, the main focus of the exhibition is on objects and
arrangements used in his previous Actions, although the history of their
creation and their original function are no longer legible. Removed from
the context of the performances where they were originally used, these
relics displayed in glass cases or in loose arrangements suddenly take
on the character of a work of art and, through the museum atmosphere,
take their place in the history of artistic production. The artist himself
regards his objects as an integral part of a collection of documents
on human artistic activity. As 'documents' of this kind, two thirds
of the works exhibited at Mönchengladbach subsequently pass by contractual
agreement into the possession of the collector Karl Ströher, subject to
the proviso that the main body of the work should remain intact and be
made accessible to interested members of the public.
The exhibition is shown in 1968 in the Kunstverein Hamburg and the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, in Eindhoven, and in 1969 at the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and the Kunstmuseum Basel. Practically overnight, the exhibition makes Beuys the most talked-about artist on the international scene. Visitors to the exhibition are confronted with a sight that throws overboard all previous notions of art, even the most progressive (figs. 361-364). In the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit of 6 September 1968, Willi Bongard laconically notes what is to be seen:
Decayed rats in withered grass. A frankfurter painted with brown floor paint. Bottles, large and small, stoppered and unstoppered. Dead bees on a cake. Nearby a loaf of black bread, one end wrapped with black insulating tape. A tin box filled with tallow, with a thermometer in it. Crucifixes made of felt, wood, plaster, chocolate. Blocks of fat as big as bricks, on top of an old electric stove. A baby's bottle. Brown chocolate bars, painted brown. Gray felt scraps. Bundles of old newspapers, tied with cords and painted with brown crosses. Moldy sausages. Two kettles wired to a piece of slate. Toenail clippings. A preserving jar filled with pears. Copper rods wrapped in felt. Sausage ends. Colored Easter egg shells. Dental impressions in tallow.94
Immediately there are critics who are able to discover the 'deeper' meaning of this collection of materials, claiming that they serve first and foremost to unsettle the viewer in a healing and beneficial way, thereby invoking a new artistic revolution. One of them is Dorothea Christ, writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 4 May 1970: First one enters the large main room, where, behind massive copperplate engravings, the felt slabs covered with copper plates (part of the Fond III ensemble) look like a bundling of primordial energies, and where the soft cover of the piano that had once been packed in a skin of felt hangs limply on the wall like the huge, discarded skin of some mythical animal, while the long rods covered in gray felt (elements from the Eurasienstab Action) lean at an angle against another wall. The main impression one has is that, in the way in which forms are made, objects grouped and juxtaposed in mutual correlation, a shaped and legible image has been found that precisely fixes and expresses today's life: conglomeration, threat, isolation and communication, questioning, finding new components of order that develop apparently casually out of chaos and mass. […]
The "object as catalyst of confusion of consciousness, tension of consciousness and possibly shifts of consciousness" is a formula accepted by Beuys. In order for an object to exude so much power, it has to be prepared or presented in a particular way. Beuys orders everything in glass cases and places the display cases in the room like the component parts of a loosely connected train. The visitor is drawn into this flow of completely transparent rafts laden with memory, and is cast into the midst of a busy nibbling at schematic notions, clichéd formulas, suggestions and suddenly emerging new solutions. The trivial and the cruel, the uncanny and the ironic, but also poetry and a theatrical sense of pathos all play a part. One climax is the display case with the double-handled spades. One or two such uncanny twins, a dirty bucket plus a clean weapon, are enough to create the impression of commandeered work squads and armed action inside the glass case.
3. The extended concept of art
Beuys regards not only drawings, performances, objects and installations,
but also his own statements, as art. In my work I have gone through
different stages: in the first stage, I expressed myself with objects,
in the second stage through action, and in the third stage of thoughts
and concepts, where I now find myself, through the word and the pen.
These thoughts and concepts come together as his much quoted 'extended concept of art'. Beuys considers that each individual possesses creative abilities and that these must be recognized, trained and applied in all fields of life. In Beuys' opinion, art is justified everywhere, in medicine and agriculture, in law, business, administration and education. In each of these disciplines, the old, rigid forms are to be replaced with new, vital, intellectual and psychological forms. Art, which Beuys equates with creativity, comprises the whole of human existence. Each individual is an artist, and life is a work of art.
4. Pseudo-political activities
This notion of art demands political commitment and leads to the concept
of 'social sculpture'. Beuys viewed sculpture in a universal sense. Even
human thought was sculpture to him-one can look at one's thoughts just
as an artist looks at his work. My path went through language,
said Beuys in a lecture in 1985, strange to say it did not start off
from what is called artistic talent. As many people know, I started out
studying science95 and in doing so I came to a realization. I said to
myself: Perhaps your potential lies in a direction that demands something
quite different from the ability to become a good specialist in one field
or another. What you can do is to provide an impetus for the task that
faces the people as a whole. […] The idea of a people is linked in a very
elementary way with its language.96
With his 'social sculpture' Beuys seeks to call into question the conventional concept of art and of the singular work of art created by the artist. Beuys' actual material is the individual. This material is to be shaped, for in the form in which the individual presents him or herself in our Western culture, he or she is sick. Thus, Beuys is interested first and foremost in the artistic education of the individual, in the reconstruction of the social body97 in which every individual can and must participate, in order to achieve the transformation as quickly as possible. Man must once more be in contact with those below, animals, plants, and nature, and with those above, angels and spirits.98
Only once art has been integrated into all fields of life, according to Beuys can there be a functioning democratic society. This is the threshold that I want to identify as the end of modernism, the end of all traditions. Together we shall evolve the social concept of art, the newborn child of the old disciplines.99
Thus Beuys also uses the Düsseldorf Academy, where he has been a professor since 1961, first and foremost as an instrument for the development and dissemination of his ideas. Immediately after the student revolts, in the course of which the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot dead on 2 June 1967 in Berlin, he founds the 'Deutsche Studentenpartei' (German Students Party) together with his student Johannes Stüttgen and the Fluxus activist Bazon Brock, renaming it Fluxus Zone West the following year. The minutes of their meetings indicate that he regards it as an educational party acting as counsel for the true feelings of the students whose main task is to find a rational formulation for these feelings and to assist their positive implementation.100
In reality, the Student Party, like everything Beuys undertakes, serves his
messianic aspirations and his own personal ambitions. He himself puts this very
bluntly on founding the party: "Ich will in den Bundestag!" (I want to get into
Parliament!).101 He specifies the aims of the Student Party as total
disarmament, the elimination of nationalistic interests and of civil emergency
laws, the unity of Europe and the world, the dissolution of all dependence on
East or West, the formulation of new attitudes towards education and research,
and finally establishing a stable foundation for a world economy, world law, and
world culture. As though this were not enough, the Party is even to take it upon
itself to confront and resolve the issue of life and death. Through the very act
of forming, new forms are to be created. Since, according to Beuys, humankind
has made all things, it is the sacred duty of the German Students Party (so
named because every human being is a student) to raise this into the public
In line with the student revolts that shook Germany and France in 1968 (see also pp. 554ff.), Beuys calls for autonomy for the Academy, the abolition of entrance requirements and a new, democratic admissions process without portfolios having to be submitted for approval.103 Serious conflicts, in the course of which Beuys accepts 142 rejected applicants into his class, against the will of the academic board, and twice holds a sit-in with students in the Academy's administrative offices, finally lead to his dismissal on 10 October 1972. Beuys then announces, at the last staff meeting he attends: the State is a monster that must be fought. I have made it my task to destroy this monster, the state.104 From now on Beuys uses virtually all his exhibitions and Actions to propagate his political ideas.105 Yet in spite of his indefatigable activity he has no real political success. As a parliamentary candidate of the Aktionsgemeinschaft unabhängiger Deutscher (Active Community of Independent Germans) he receives some 600 votes in the Düsseldorf Oberkassel constituency in 1976. As a Green Party candidate, he fails to be elected to the European
Parliament in 1979. Real politics, involving an exchange of conflicting viewpoints is alien to Beuys. He has no time for democratic compromise. He is not interested in facts but in ideas. Beuys is not an everyday politician, says Lukas Beckmann, a leading member of the Green Party, his language sounds remote, a long way from the daily reality that governs all our efforts.106
In 1973 the Association for the Promotion of the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research is set up (founding director Joseph Beuys). Its aim is to combat the dangers of technological progress, to liberate creative individuals from their isolation and to explore comprehensively the interaction between the life of the individual and that of society.107 The project fails not only for a lack of finance, but also for a lack of clearly articulated, realistic aims that are, in themselves, actually feasible.
On 23 December 1978, Beuys publishes an article in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau headed "Aufruf zur Alternative" (The Appeal for an Alternative), in which he deplores the collective insanity of the nuclear industry, the gigantic waste of energy and raw materials, and the monstrous squandering of the creative abilities of millions of people as well as an economic system based on the unlimited exploitation of natural resources.108 Though such views may be shared by many, he is neither in a position to present a lucid analysis of the psychological, social, economic and political circumstances of this development, nor is he able to provide useful alternatives. Instead, he is content with empty, meaningless generalizations.
His far-reaching ideas and proposals, as Stachelhaus writes, are concerned, among other things, with the role of money, for Beuys no longer accepts this as a reflection of economic value. Instead, he claims that it has a function as a regulator of entitlement for all processes of creation and consumption, adding that without any bureaucratic measures, or fiscal acrobatics, the acknowledgment of the transformation of the concept of money will lead directly to the abolition of the principles of property and profit in the field of production.109
Beuys clearly knows no doubts. When asked by Hanno Reuther whether, in his long-term endeavors to raise consciousness and change attitudes, he takes the possibility of failure into account, Beuys responds, no, failure, I would say, is something I don't reckon with, because failure in this respect is, in my opinion, impossible. Or my diagnosis, my basis, would be completely wrong. But I believe I am on the right basis. Or let us say, it isn't a question of faith for me, but a way of seeing. I simply see it in front of me as reality. I don't see there being any other possibility. I see that clearly before me, and seen in that way, failure isn't part of it at all.110
What is behind the manic self confidence of this individual, and where does his 'oeuvre' stand in the artistic development of the modern age?
An Attempt at Interpretation
Faced with objects and performances by Joseph Beuys, viewers are as baffled
as they are by Marcel Duchamp's Bottle Rack. They do not know
what is going on, are unable to relate what they see to any known system
and are left entirely to their own devices, i.e. to their own emotional
responses, for all the good that does them. They feel affected, and have
a vague and almost unwilling sense of being touched at a certain emotional
depth, but are unable to interpret these feelings.
Beuys himself admits that it can be difficult to recognize the intent in his works, but also says that he sees a value in the sheer difficulty of his statements. His entire oeuvre is aimed at suggesting unknown and obscure contexts of significance. A special, 'secret' knowledge appears necessary to understand it. Thus he creates a 'negative presence' that lends his work its meaning. As a result the viewer is disempowered, his or her critical functions are disarmed; he or she is dependent on instruction by the artist or his adepts, for, according to Beuys, scenes are portrayed that make claims to the supernatural. Moreover, the objects can be understood only in relation to my ideas.111
An essential aspect of these ideas becomes clear when the artist explains to the art dealer Helmut Rywelski that art in the way I do it actually has the same meaning as the kind of science that I would have done. In other words, art is a magical science that gains its findings and insights neither through intellectual work, nor through the logical connection between observation, analysis and experiment, but (in the sense of the theosophical teachings and Anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner) through inspiration and intuition, through the 'inner eye' of the seer.
In connection with his artistic work between 1951 and 1956, Beuys notes, I realized that warmth and cold were supra-spatial sculptural principles that corresponded to the forms of expansion and contraction, the amorphous and the crystalline, chaos and shape. At the same time, I was aware in the most exact sense of the essence of time, movement and space.112
It would appear that the essence of life as such, of humankind and society, reveals itself to him in an equally 'exact' way. At any rate, all his statements, all his Actions and works are imbued with a correspondingly unflinching certainty. His entire attitude is shaped by the sense of self that is found in 'the one who knows', the elect and the initiated. Behind the nondescript, impoverished materials of his drawings and objects, behind the ritual self-chastisement that he presents in his Actions, there is a boundlessly heightened fantasy of greatness and omnipotence. He does not create an oeuvre in the conventional sense. His creative achievement consists in his vision and his ideas. As he says of his objects, these are all autobiographical documents. They are very unsightly, I have put them behind me, they are totally unimportant. Whoever grasps their meaning turns away from them and turns towards my ideas. For many, my signature alone serves as a work of art.113 This grandiose self-image constitutes the core of his ideas. It is here that an interpretation should begin. In order to 'understand' Beuys, one has to uncover the roots of his narcissistic inflation.
His own interpretations of his works-the hare as a symbol of incarnation, the felt mats with the sheet of copper as an embodiment of mass and energy,114 the Division of the Cross (Eurasia) as the division between East and West, Rome and Byzantium-are purely anecdotal. They represent so-called 'rationalizations', that is to say they do not serve to elucidate the statement and motives of his art, but to mystify them, and to justify their 'claim to the supernatural'.
There is no dialectical relationship between Beuys' world-view and his self-image, for these are a priori an immutable entity. For Beuys, the world is not an independent or alien opposite number, but coincides with his own concept of it. Democracy, art, and science, for Beuys, are magical concepts that do not designate realities, but narcissistically highly cathected fantasies that merge with his own self-image. Accordingly, his symbols and metaphors do not point to any findings or facts, but to the exalted notion of his own omnipotence and omniscience. I shall therefore make only indirect use of the statements and explanations by which Beuys endeavored to provoke ideas and provide concepts. In my view, they represent. on one hand, an attempt to lend conceptual substance to his boundless and indeterminate archaic megalomanic fantasies, while on the other hand they serve to fill a threatening inner void and thus to ward off the latent fear that drives Beuys towards his manic activity. I shall return to this later.
I shall set aside his mythical explanations and attempt to approach the meaning and significance of this oeuvre by a different path, namely that of his psychological motivation.
Beuys regards his objects as catalysts of confusion of consciousness, tension of consciousness and possibly shifts of consciousness.115 According to Franz Meyer, they serve primarily to trigger intellectual processes, strengthening and developing consciousness.116
They achieve this first and foremost by unsettling the viewer. They constitute a universe that is in stark contrast to our familiar surroundings. They suggest insights and a 'secret' knowledge not available to us, hinting at enigmatic interconnections that we cannot know. Finally, they confront viewers with the limitations and inadequacies of their own horizon of experience, and challenge them to be receptive to Beuys' message of salvation, that is to say, to revise their own criteria and ways of seeing.
Beuys, after all, wishes to heal. To judge by his statements, he wishes to redeem the German people and indeed all of humankind from their social evils, their petrifaction and impotence. In this sense, he transcends the role of the artist. He sees his audience not, in the traditional sense, as a free counterpart to whom he presents a work (as form and expression of his own self), but as a material to be formed: the individual must be properly educated, that is to say kneaded. He has to be kneaded through from one end to the other. He is malleable, sculpturally formable, says Beuys in 1969 to the painter Siegfried Neuenhausen.117 Thus, Beuys announces, perfectly logically, his 'extended' concept of art, which crosses all disciplinary borders, and is to go beyond art as it has been experienced and understood in the past. He appears as the people's tribune, as teacher, seer, healer and prophet, transforming the role of the artist into that of the shaman. According to Heiner Stachelhaus, Beuys knew all about shamanism. To him, the shaman was a figure in whom material and spiritual forces could combine. In the present materialistic age, the shaman represented something in the future. Undoubtedly, Beuys himself had shamanic attributes, inwardly and outwardly. The shaman always wears a costume, whose most important part is a headdress. Beuys' costume consisted of a fisherman's vest over a white shirt, a pair of jeans and a felt hat. The shaman, furthermore, is a chosen individual, who holds sole right of access to the territory of the sacred. As Mircea Eliade tells us, among all Siberian peoples, the essential criterion of the vocation of shaman is sickness, the initiation process of dismemberment, ritual murder, and resurrection. But the shaman is not simply a sick person. Above all, he is a sick person who succeeds in healing himself. There is an obvious parallel to the phase of depression and recovery that Beuys underwent in 1957.118
1. The essence of shamanism
Although references to Joseph Beuys' shamanism abound in art historical
literature, most readers-and probably most authors-have only vague notions of
what this concept means.
The psychological aspects of shamanism, as far as I know, have rarely been the subject of scientific study. The comprehensive specialist literature on this phenomenon is restricted to inventorizing, describing and classifying the corresponding practices among various peoples and regions (especially in Central Asia, Siberia, Oceania, South East Asia and among the North and South American Indians.) This is also true of the well known standard work by Mircea Eliade,119 the scholar of religion and mythology to whom Stachelhaus refers in his biography of Beuys.
One of the rare exceptions is the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In his essay, "The Sorcerer and His Magic,"120 he attempts to trace the psycho-physiological mechanisms at the root of the frequently-documented efficacy of certain magical practices in healing, invocation or enchantment. In doing so, he refers among other things to the autobiographical report of a Kwakiutl Indian, transcribed in 1925.
The man, whose name was Quesalid, did not believe in the power of the shamans. Eager to observe their actions and reveal their cheating, he began to seek their company, until one of them offered to introduce him to their group, explaining that if he were initiated, he could practice the profession of shaman itself after a four-year apprenticeship.
Quesalid agreed. His training consisted of a mixture of acting, sleight-of-hand and empirical knowledge. He learned to recite magical songs, imitate unconsciousness or trance-like states, and to use 'dreamers', that is, spies
who would listen to private conversations and provide the shamans with information on the life and symptoms of the people they were to treat. He also acquired fairly precise knowledge in the practice of auscultation and childbirth. Above all, however, he learned the ars magna of a shaman school on the Pacific Coast, which involved concealing a tuft of down mixed with other materials in his mouth, and throwing it up, covered with blood, at the appropriate moment (having bitten his tongue), then solemnly presenting it to his patient and the onlookers as a pathological foreign body extracted as a result of his magical powers. Although Quesalid found his suspicions confirmed, he continued his training. His apprenticeship with the shamans being widely known, he was summoned by the family of a sick person who had dreamed of Quesalid as his healer. This first treatment (for which he received no payment, since he had not completed his apprenticeship) was an outstanding success. Yet Quesalid did not lose his critical approach. He interpreted his success in psychological terms-it was successful because he [the sick person] believed strongly in his dream about me. A more complex adventure made him, in his own words, hesitant and thinking about many things. Here he encountered several varieties of a 'false supernatural' and was led to conclude that some forms were less false than others. While visiting the neighboring Koskimo Indians, Quesalid attended a curing ceremony by a famous colleague from that other tribe and was astonished to find that their techniques differed. Instead of spitting out a tuft of down, the Koskimo shaman merely spit a little saliva into his hand and claimed that this was the sickness. What could be the value of this method? Quesalid wanted to find out, so he obtained permission to try his method in an instance where the Koskimo method had failed. The sick woman then declared herself cured, and from that moment on, following his performance, Quesalid was regarded as a 'great shaman'.
Now, his career was launched. Though still full of mistrust with regard to his profession, he had modified his original attitude. His radically negative attitude had been replaced by more complex feelings. There were true shamans and impostors. And Quesalid himself? By the end of the narrative, we cannot tell, but it is evident that he practices his craft conscientiously, takes pride in his achievements, and defends the technique of the bloody down against all other schools, apparently having lost sight of the fallaciousness of the technique he had so disparaged at the beginning.121
According to Lévi-Strauss there is no reason to cast doubt upon the efficacy of certain magical practices. On one hand, the shaman also possesses positive knowledge and experimental techniques that permit at least some explanation for his success. On the other hand, psychosomatic illnesses, which account for a large proportion of illnesses that occur in primitive societies, are also treated by forms of psycho-therapy in our culture. However, Lévi-Strauss attaches greater significance to the fact that the efficacy of the magic implies faith in the magic. This manifests itself in three ways: first of all, as the faith of the magician in the effectiveness of his techniques, secondly the faith of the patient he is treating, or the victim he is pursuing, in the power of the magician, and thirdly the confidence and expectation of public opinion that creates a kind of gravitational field within which the relationships between the magician and those he enchants are located and can be defined. In other words, Quesalid did not become a great magician because he healed the sick, but he healed the sick because he had become a great magician.
In the shaman process of healing, two different modes of thinking are correlated: normal thinking and pathological thinking, described as follows by Lévi-Strauss: In a universe which it strives to understand but whose dynamics it cannot fully control, normal thought continually seeks the meaning of things which refuse to reveal their significance. So-called pathological thought, on the other hand, overflows with emotional interpretations and overtones, in order to supplement an otherwise deficient reality.122 For the one there is too much concrete experience that cannot be interpreted, while for the other there is too much apparent 'meaning' that cannot be supported by concrete experience.
From the non-scientific point of view of primitive societies, not only are these two forms of thinking not contradictory, they are complementary. In the case of the illness that cannot be grasped by normal thinking, the shaman is called upon by the group to solve the problem by investing his psychic potential, that is to say his surplus of significance, his interpretive capacity, which would otherwise be without practical value. In contrast to the scientific explanation of an illness, it is not a question of relating unordered states, symptoms, sensations and notions to an objective cause, but of understanding them as supra-personal phenomena and relating them to the collective reality of experience and combining them within it to form a whole. Out of the interaction between social tradition and individual experience, a system of reference is thus created in which the sorcerer, the patient and the public, the cause of the sickness and the process of healing all have their place. The shaman offers a solution, that is to say he creates an imaginary situation in which all the main characters return to their place and become part of an order that is no longer threatened (later, I shall show how Beuys accomplishes something similar.)
A similar principle lies behind the healing process induced by the song of
invocation that Lévi-Strauss attempts to explain in his essay, "The
Effectiveness of Symbols,"123 by way of example of a medicine song from the
Cunas of Panama, recorded in 1947 by Nils M. Holmer and Henry Wasson. It is used
to assist at a difficult birth.
The song begins by describing the midwife's confusion, her visit to the shaman, the shaman's departure for the hut of the woman in labor, his arrival and his preparations-fumigations of burnt cocoa-nibs, and the making of sacred figures representing tutelary spirits whom the shaman makes his assistants and whom he leads to the place of the Muu, the power responsible for the formation of the fetus.
The situational activity, that is to say the arrival and preparations of the shaman, are described in great detail and innumerable repetitions, as though in slow motion. Everything proceeds as though the shaman were trying to induce the woman to relive the initial situation (despite her pain and her fears) in a very intense way, and to become psychologically aware of its smallest details. After these preparations, he turns to the actual problem in hand. The explanation for the difficult birth is that Muu has taken possession of the purba, or soul, of the mother-to-be. The second part of the song consists of the search for the purba, overcoming many barriers, defeating wild animals, and a great struggle fought by the shaman and his protective spirits against Muu and his daughters. In the end, Muu is vanquished, the purba of the patient is discovered and liberated, the birth takes place and the song ends by listing the last measures taken, so that everything can now run its regular course again.
Lévi-Strauss attributes the effectiveness of this healing procedure to the combination of normal and pathological thinking, referring to the close correlation between the ritually sung adventures and the physiological processes that have to be treated. The mythical journey taken by the shaman and the struggles he has to fight are not an esoteric invention but describe in symbolic form the process of the birth, the pathological organic powers that threaten to hinder it and the imaginary physical interventions that the shaman undertakes in order to overcome these hindrances and make the birth possible.
The healing process thus consists of making an emotional (affective) situation intellectually comprehensible, and in making acceptable to the mind a pain that the body finds unbearable. That the mythology of the shaman does not correspond to an objective reality does not matter, writes Lévi-Strauss. The sick woman believes in the myth and belongs to a society which believes in it. The tutelary spirits and malevolent spirits, the supernatural monsters and magical animals, are all part of a coherent system on which the native conception of the universe is founded. The sick woman accepts these mythical beings or, more accurately, she has never questioned their existence. What she does not accept are the incoherent and arbitrary pains, which are an alien element in her system but which the shaman, calling upon myth, will re-integrate within a whole where everything is meaningful.
Once the sick woman understands, however, she does more than resign herself; she gets well. […] The shaman provides the sick woman with a language, by means of which unexpressed, and otherwise inexpressible, psychic states can be immediately expressed. And it is the transition to this verbal expression-at the same time making it possible to undergo in an ordered and intelligible form a real experience that would otherwise be chaotic and inexpressible-which induces the release of the physiological process, that is, the reorganization, in a favorable direction, of the process to which the sick woman is subjected.124
According to Mircea Eliade, the shamanic vocation is generated, like any
religious vocation, by a crisis or temporary break in the mind's equilibrium
that the future shaman heals by his own powers. Yet although congenital or
acquired illnesses, nervous illnesses, accidents or psychological crises are
regarded as outward signs of the 'chosen', nevertheless shamans, sorcerers, and
medicine men do not allow themselves to be regarded simply as sick people, for
in their psychopathic experience there is a theoretical element. They can heal
themselves and others precisely because they clearly understand the mechanism of
the illness, at least to a certain degree. Thus, for example, the Eskimo shaman
or the Indonesian medicine man owe their status and their power not to the fact
that they have epileptic fits, but to the fact that they can master them.
Nevertheless, this self-healing is followed by dual instruction by spirits (dreams, trance) and old master shamans (shamanic techniques, clan mythology, secret language etc.). Only this double initiation through ecstasy and tradition transforms the candidates from potential neurotics into shamans recognized by the society in which they live.
The main function of the shaman is healing. Yet he also has an important role in other rites. He is often a combination of medicine man, priest and guide to the dead; he practices the art of healing, takes the charge of public sacrifices and accompanies the souls of the dead into the beyond. Most of them also claim to have power over the weather, maintaining that they know the future, and are able to discover thieves or to protect people from outside magic. Their explanations often indicate an extreme inflation of their self-image. You probably will not believe me, states an Apache shaman to the American researcher Albert B. Reagan, but I am all powerful. I will never die. If you shoot me, the bullet will not enter my flesh, or if it enters it will not hurt me. […] If I wish to kill anyone, all I need to do is to thrust out my hand and touch him, and he dies. My power is like that of a god.125
Eliade surmises that this euphoric sense of omnipotence has to do with the experience of self healing, initiatory death and resurrection. This view corresponds at least in part with certain recent psychoanalytical findings on the subject of narcissism. From this point of view, the shaman corresponds to the psychological type characterized by Heinz Kohut as the 'messianic' or 'charismatic' personality.
2. The 'messianic' and the 'charismatic' personality
These are the terms used by Kohut126 to describe certain narcissistically fixated individuals who radiate apparently imperturbable self-confidence, who announce their opinions with the greatest certainty and who have no qualms about anointing themselves as the leaders and gods of those who have the need to be led and are seeking a focus for their reverence. In some cases it would appear that such charismatic and messianic personalities identify completely with their grandiose self or their idealized superego.
According to Kohut, there is a wide variety of charismatic and messianic
personalities. Many of them are undoubtedly close to psychosis. They are
often dogmatic, with no empathy whatsoever for the psyche of others-apart
from their capacity to sense even the most subtle responses in other people
who relate to their narcissistic needs. In other messianic personalities,
on the other hand, the connection between the self and the idealized superego
is only partial, so that in non-messianic sectors of the self, which nevertheless
fit in harmoniously with the messianic overall personality, they can occasionally
display an unabashed and quite unmessianic sense of humor.
Kohut stresses that the effect of messianic and charismatic personalities is not necessarily detrimental under all circumstances. At times of severe crisis, it is not the modestly self-doubting type of personality that is needed (who generally makes up the leading stratum in calmer times). In times of fear, the masses turn to a messianic or charismatic personality, not because above all they have recognized his abilities and competence, but because they feel that this leader will satisfy their need to be imperturbably convinced of being right, or because they want to identify with his strength and security.
But what is it that allows charismatic personalities to uphold their sense of strength, and what gives messianic personalities their sense of moral superiority?
According to Kohut, an important factor is that these people have suffered early narcissistic injury through the unreliability of their most important care-giver. It would appear that, during the childhood of such people, powerful experiences of self-esteem, generated by a corresponding mirroring (for example, the proud smile of the mother) and a strong sense of security generated by merging with a care-giver experienced as omnipotent (for example when a child is sensitively embraced and carried by an adult) have been followed by sudden failure. Thus, they remain fixated on the experience of an archaic world that caused them extreme narcissistic injury. Thanks to an extraordinary capacity to maintain their own sense of self esteem, such children can succeed in themselves adopting the functions their closest care-giver should have exercised. In such a case, they develop a super-empathy with themselves and their own needs; while at the same time railing against a world that has dared to withhold from them things to which they believe they are entitled.
As they grow up, they come to identify completely with their own grandiose self (and with their ambitions) or with their idealized structures (the sum of their values and principles.) In other words, they do not regard their ambitions as a goal to be achieved, but are instead convinced that these ambitions are already fulfilled, merely since they have been thought and imagined. Accordingly, they do not regard these ideals as a yardstick for the things they do, but experience themselves instead as the personification of these ideals. Such people block injurious reality out of their own self image and replace it-assisted by so-called magical thinking-with the illusion of their own omnipotence and perfection.
This process can readily be related to the traditional scheme of shaman
initiation-suffering, death and resurrection. The early narcissistic injury,
that is to say the traumatic shattering of the sense of self esteem and
security, corresponds to the crisis that heralds the vocation of the
Like the charismatic or messianic personality, the shaman, too, responds to the traumatic shattering of the sense of self esteem and security by identifying completely with this grandiose self or with his idealized superego. This restructuring of one's own self is expressed in the dreams and states of trance that the future shaman experiences subjectively as his rebirth.
The connection between shamanism and the psychology of narcissism now permits us to shed new light on the figure and performances of Joseph Beuys.
3. The illness
Beuys celebrates complex and incomprehensible rituals before an astonished
audience. He subjects his person to difficult tasks and appears to be making
some kind of sacrifice in doing so. Items left over from his performances are
later re-used (in the end these constitute the greater part of his objects) and
presented as the bearers of mysterious powers and meanings, like fetishes or
relics127 (fig. 368). The similarities to shamanism are obvious and are
repeatedly pointed out by his interpreters. Not only does he consciously stylize
himself to fit this role, with his magic objects and his 'uniform' (fig. 370),
but he also repeatedly points out in conversations and interviews his own
experience of initiation, to which he owes his individual experience of
suffering, death and resurrection.
One incident has become part and parcel of the Beuys legend. The setting is the Crimea, in the wartorn winter of 1943. Beuys, serving as a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe, is hit by Russian flack while attacking an enemy position. Although he manages to bring the aircraft back behind German lines, it crashes during a sudden blizzard. Beuys is pinned under the tail of the aircraft and loses consciousness. His co-pilot is dead. Tartars discover the injured pilot and nurse him for about eight days, during most of which he is unconscious, until he is found by a German search commando and is transferred to a military hospital.
Without the care of the Tartars, Beuys would have died, writes his biographer Heiner Stachelhaus; they salved his massive injuries with animal fat, and wrapped him in felt to warm him and help him conserve body heat. They fed him milk, curds and cheese. […] All this touched him deeply. When his health was more or less restored, his rescuers asked him to stay with them. The idea, he remembered later, was not unattractive. That brief life with the Tartars evoked images that he never forgot, and they reappeared, metamorphosed, in many of his Actions. Felt and fat became his basic sculptural materials.128
As a factual report, this story has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Beuys suffered a double cranial fracture, his body was riddled with shrapnel, his ribs, legs and arms were broken, his nose crushed. His capacity to note what was going on around him must have been considerably impaired. It is unlikely that anyone so seriously injured would have been in a position to register the details of his treatment (such as the fat and the felt used to care for him).
My working hypothesis is that the story nevertheless is of central significance because, for Beuys, it takes on the function of a so-called screen memory. This memory applies not only to the sequence of events-air crash, injury and care by the Tartars-but also stands for a much deeper 'inner' injury that has been suppressed or split off because it is so unbearable that it is allowed to enter the conscious mind only in the romantically defused and allegorical form of a screen memory. In other words, in the legendary air crash in the Crimea, we find, in a condensed form, the 're-enactment' of a traumatic and unacceptable narcissistic injury, which forms the core of the 'crisis of initiation' that Beuys overcomes in order to become a shaman. The injury suffered by Beuys was the same as that of millions of other Germans: his country's defeat in the Second World War.
In their famous study The Inability to Mourn, the psychoanalysts
Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich129 examine the way in which Germany
has dealt psychologically with this narcissistic trauma. Some of their
insights are briefly summarized in the following.
Unconditional surrender, the arrival of the Allied forces, the discovery of the concentration camps, and the fall of the 'Führer' in both real and ideal terms so deeply shattered the self esteem of the German people (and in our case, the self esteem of the distinctly sensitive and ambitious Joseph Beuys) that these experiences had to be denied. This psychological crisis manifests itself in two ways: the first concerns the question of guilt, the superego and the idealized structures, while the second concerns the loss of the identification figure of the 'Führer', and the collective ego ideal or grandiose self and the associated fantasies of omnipotence.
Instead of addressing their own guilt, mourning and shame, the German people dedicated themselves to reconstructing and modernizing their industrial and economical potential with a spirit of enterprise that roused both admiration and envy.
It was a lightning change, the sort one would not have supposed a people so easily capable of. For years the Nazi leaders' conduct of the war and the war aims had been accepted with a minimum of inner detachment; certainly any reservations the population may have had remained without effect. Yet, after the total defeat, the theory of an enforced obedience sprang up; suddenly the leaders (those who could not be found or who had already been convicted) were alone responsible for putting genocide into practice, In actual fact, all levels of society, and especially those in positions of leadership-that is, industrialists, judges, university professors-had given the regime their decisive and enthusiastic support; yet, with its failure, they regarded themselves as automatically absolved from any personal responsibility.
For the great majority of Germans who lived through the Third Reich, looking back on the period of National Socialist rule is like looking back on the obtrusion of an infectious disease in childhood, even though the collective regression in which they engaged under the Führer's care was at first highly pleasurable: it was magnificent to be a chosen people.130 An attitude of this kind means that only suitable fragments of the past can be admitted to the memory. Guilty behavior is denied, its significance re-evaluated, responsibility passed on to others. At any rate, those involved did not associate it after the fact with their own identity. As the pre-Nazi conscience-represented by the victorious enemy-came back into force with the fall of The Third Reich, these defense mechanisms were needed against a sense of total worthlessness and against the fear of reprisals. The Mitscherlichs ask what a collective is to do on finding itself exposed to the naked realization that in its name six million people have been murdered for no reason other than to satisfy its own aggressive urges.131
There are only two possibilities: continued denial of one's motives, or withdrawal into depression. If Germans had to live with the unvarnished memory of their Nazi past-even if their personal share in that past was merely in being obedient, fatalistic or enthusiastically passive-their ego could not easily integrate it with their present way of life. Insistence upon historical accuracy in tackling that area of Germany's past would very quickly reveal that the murder of millions of helpless victims depended upon innumerable guilty decisions and actions on the part of individuals, and that blame can by no means be shifted onto superiors (and thus, ultimately, onto the Führer himself) with such self-evident ease as we Germans at present assume. Everything that happened was not solely the result of the Führer's magical qualities of leadership, but was also the result of an "incredible obedience."132
According to the Mitscherlichs, the loss of the 'Führer' (for all the oblivion that covered his downfall and the rapidity with which he was renounced) was not the loss of someone ordinary; identifications that had filled a central function in the lives of his followers were attached to his person. As we said, he had become the embodiment of their ego-ideal. The loss of an object so highly cathected with libidinal energy-one about whom nobody had any doubts, nor dared to have any, even when the country was being reduced to rubble-was indeed reason for melancholia. Through the catastrophe not only was the German ego-ideal robbed of the support of reality, but in addition the Führer himself was exposed by the victors as a criminal of truly monstrous proportions. With this sudden reversal of his qualities, the ego of every single German individual suffered a central devaluation and impoverishment. This creates at least the prerequisites for a melancholic reaction. And, yet, as the Mitscherlichs point out, the Federal Republic of Germany did not succumb to melancholia; instead, as a group, those who had lost their 'ideal leader', the representative of a commonly shared ego-ideal, managed to avoid self-devaluation by breaking all affective bridges to the immediate past.133 This collective defense mechanism consists in a withdrawal of cathectic energies from all the processes related to their enthusiasm for the Third Reich, their idealization of the Führer and his theories and, of course, of his directly criminal actions. By applying this psychological defense tactic, the memory of twelve years of National Socialist rule become pale and schematic. This withdrawal of affective energy, according to the Mitscherlichs, is not to be regarded as a decision or as a conscious, deliberate act, but as an unconscious process, with only minimal guidance from the conscious ego. The disappearance from memory of previously highly stimulating and exciting events is the result of a self-protective mechanism triggered like a reflex action to prevent an almost unbearable loss of self-esteem, and a consequent outbreak of melancholia.
The authors come to the following conclusion: Close examination shows three kinds of reaction by which insight into the overwhelming burden of guilt was kept at bay. In the first place, a striking emotional rigidity was evidenced in response to the piles of corpses in the concentration camps, to the disappearance into captivity of entire German armies, to the news of the slaughter of millions of Jews, Poles, and Russians, and to the murder of political opponents in one's own ranks. Such rigidity is a sign of emotional repudiation; the past is de-realized, all pleasurable or unpleasurable involvement is withdrawn from it, it fades like a dream. This quasi-stoical attitude, this sudden activation of the mechanism whereby the Third Reich, real only yesterday, was de-realized, also made it possible, in the second step, for Germans to identify themselves with the victors easily and without any sign of wounded pride. This shift of identification also helped ward off the sense of being implicated, and prepared the way for the third phase: the manic undoing of the past, the huge collective effort of reconstruction.134
Beuys' reactions do not differ initially in any way to those of his fellow
citizens. After the war, he, too, burns all his affective bridges to the
immediate past. According to Stachelhaus, the war seemed to have affected Beuys
very little, and he omitted this phase of his development from his biography.
Unfortunately, Beuys' scholars have yet to address this subject. The facts and
dates that might cast some light on his relationship to Nazi Germany are,
accordingly, extremely thin on the ground.135
At the age of seventeen, against the express wishes of his devoutly Catholic parents, Beuys joined the Hitler Youth. On leaving school, he was drafted into military service in 1940. Beuys signed up for the Luftwaffe, and trained first as a radio operator and then as a pilot (fig. 367). After duty in Poland, Czechoslovakia, southern Russia, the Crimea and southern Italy, he was sent to North Holland in the last year of the war, where he belonged to the 'Ghost Division Herman', a paratroop unit recruited from all military disciplines.
In spite of his service, Beuys found time to attend scientific lectures, and to read Goethe, Nietzsche and Steiner. Apart from a few drawings, in the war years he also wrote some effusive poems to Nature that betray the influence of Nietzsche and Steiner in particular.
At the end of the war, Beuys was interned by the British, and returned to Cleves one year later. He was determined to become an artist, and in the Spring of 1947 he enrolled at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.
Astonishingly, none of Beuys' supporters have discussed his war experiences.
Even Stachelhaus limits his statements to a few vague indicators. For
example, he writes that Beuys describes the war years as a learning
experience, and goes on to explain: This is typical of him. He
never complained, even though he was severely wounded. Just as he had
taken participation in the Hitler Youth in his stride, so he accepted
soldiering and the war itself as a fate that had to be borne. If you lost
your life, that was too bad; if you survived, you were in luck. Of course
Beuys wanted to survive. And it was because he repeatedly came very close
to death that he was later able to incorporate it into his work.136
This portrayal obviously corresponds to the tendency of denial described by the Mitscherlichs. In reality, Beuys did not merely 'bear' the war, but participated in it quite actively. He was an extremely willing and extraordinarily courageous fighter pilot, who was rewarded with the Iron Cross second and first class, while several serious injuries gained him the black and golden badges for servicemen wounded in action.
What is also remarkable is the way in which the otherwise so talkative Beuys addresses, or rather fails to address, this issue. Even in retrospect, it does not seem to concern him that he did so much for the 'Führer' and his beliefs. Beuys' biographer and his many admirers also ignore this fact. In doing so, they construct what the Mitscherlichs call an 'abstract' heroism, as though the bravery, […] however praiseworthy in itself, had not directly contributed to the destruction of freedom in other countries and to the blackest of crimes.137
Evidently, Beuys also seeks to deny guilt, mourning and shame. At first, he would appear to have succeeded in doing so. In the early post-war years, this former fighter pilot explores almost exclusively Christian symbolism in his plastic works. He designs candelabra, baptismal fonts, a holy-water stoup bearing a relief of the Sudarium of Veronica, a series of crosses (Peg Cross, Hand Cross, Solar Cross) and, repeatedly, the Pietà (fig. 368).
He apparently finds further 'confirmation' through his relationship to a considerably younger postal worker, whom he met in Düsseldorf in 1949. The loss of self-esteem that he has so far denied does not surface until his fiancée returns her engagement ring at Christmas 1954, upon which Beuys falls into a deep depression.
According to Stachelhaus, Terrible times followed. He drifted around and sought treatment at psychiatric clinics in Düsseldorf and Essen, without success. Once, in Heerdt, he locked himself for weeks in the apartment of his writer friend Adam Rainer Lynen, who was away on a trip. Friends eventually broke in through the window to find Beuys in a totally dark room, his legs swollen with edema. The floor was littered with torn drawings. He kept saying that he wanted to disappear and needed nothing more than a backpack. […] Utterly worn out, Beuys felt estranged from humanity; he lost even more weight, lapsed into mental inertia, and without energy, became a wreck in every sense. This went on for two years or so.138
Then an event occurs that proves a turning point. Beuys is invited by the Van der Grinten brothers, his first and only collectors, to spend several months on their farm. During the day, Beuys draws or works in the fields, and spends most of his evenings with his hosts. He finds them open-minded and sensitive in their conversation, patient and interested listeners, who allow him to map out a new self-image and find new self-confidence. Two further events at this time, which Stachelhaus mentions only in passing, may also have been of significance. In 1958 his father dies. In the spring of the same year, at a Mardi Gras party at the Düsseldorf Academy, he meets Eva Wurmbach, daughter of a well known professor of zoology, and marries her shortly afterwards. Finally, he is given studio space in some rooms in the old Kurhaus at Cleves. With that, all the conditions for a 'resurrection' are present.
Beuys begins an intensive study of esoteric teachings, most notably Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, which is reflected in his later work, and the writings of Grand Master Sâr Péladan, a theoretician who wrote on art and religion, and who is remembered primarily as the founder of the Rosicrucian movement in the 19th century and as the spokesman of the Symbolist artists (see p. 97). It is during this period of convalescence that the frequently cited 'scientific studies' of the artist occur. In 1958 and 1959 I had finished all the literature which was available to me in the scientific field. At that point a new understanding of knowledge became clear to me. Through consideration and analysis
I came to the knowledge that the concepts of art and science in the development of thought in the western world were diametrically opposed, and that on the basis of these facts a solution to this polarization in conceptions must be sought, and that expanded views must be formed.139
I suspect that it was also during this time that Beuys first came into contact with literature on the subject of shamanism. In 1957, Rascher Verlag Zürich published the first German edition of Mircea Eliade's Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (original French edition, 1951). This extraordinarily richly documented study was, at the time, the first attempt to give a comprehensive account of the phenomenon of shamanism, and is still regarded as a standard work today. It is probable that Beuys read this work and gained decisive inspiration from it. At any rate, from now on, his behaviour bears a surprising correlation with the shaman practices described in this book.
Be that as it may, by 1955 there is an obvious change in the artist's psychological state. Beuys begins to create pictures, objects and drawings using mainly 'poor' materials, pointing out profound and unfamiliar correspondences that go beyond a one-sidedly determined conceptual capacity. In 1961 he is appointed Professor at the Düsseldorf Academy, and his path to public prominence begins.
It is here, for the first time, that Beuys meets foreign artists-the initiators of the Fluxus festival planned for 1962 in Wiesbaden. He immediately recognizes the barely exploited potential of this artistic direction, the possibility of as it were deriving the entire content of the world from the simplest materials: Everything from the simplest tearing of a piece of paper to the total changeover of human society could be illustrated. Everything was included in a global concept; there was no special Fluxus ideology.140 The Fluxus movement is first and foremost a springboard for Beuys-a suitable instrument to satisfy his newly aroused ambitions. He suggests to the Fluxus artists that they should organize a second Fluxus festival in 1963 at 'his' academy and, in this way, provides himself with the opportunity to perform to a broad public within the scope of this already infamous movement.
In contrast to his colleagues, who stage a relatively harmless and light-hearted neo-Dadaist performance, Beuys undertakes a 'significant' border crossing. He hangs a dead hare on a blackboard (fig. 369) and cuts out its heart on stage.141
With this, his 'self-healing' has taken on manifest expression-Beuys has become a shaman. In his new attire-fisherman's vest, jeans and felt hat-and with an imperturbable self-confidence that will remain unassailed from now on, he emerges reborn and transformed from the crisis that almost signaled his end. He knows with absolute certainty what is evil and what is good, what is wrong and what is right-after all the essence of time, movement, space has also revealed itself to him in the most exact sense. From now on, this self-assurance is the motor behind his performances, not only upholding his own highly charged sense of self esteem, but also challenging his audience to participate in this self-adulation by merging with his personality (fig. 370).
Beuys has become a charismatic/messianic personality. He has identified completely with his 'grandiose self' and idealized superego. Now he himself takes on the functions that the archaic self-object (the Führer) should have exercised. Beuys himself becomes the Führer, but in the way the other should have been. He undertakes what Anna Freud (1936) calls a reversal to the opposite: the great destroyer is replaced by the great healer, the absolute dictator by the upholder of direct democracy through referendum, the thousand year Reich is replaced by social sculpture, and the swastika by the Brown Cross.142
By isolating the relics of his performances as objects and putting them into an art historical context by means of a museum-style presentation, Beuys confronts his contemporaries, albeit largely subconsciously and in coded form, with the artistic fall-out of a nightmare: the memory of the war and Nazi rule. His installations, showcases and collections of objects convey the oppressive atmosphere of army dug-outs, command posts, military hospitals, primitive laboratories, military camps, jail cells and torture chambers, death and decomposition. And yet, as a whole, his work does not appear contemporary, nor does it evoke any contemporary reality, but seems-like an archaeological excavation-to be revealing the lost remains of some unknown and incomprehensible, long-forgotten sequence of events.
The development of this iconography corresponds to the sorcery of the shaman, who presents the previously concealed tuft of blood-smeared down as the evil object at the root of an illness, now rendered harmless. Beuys understands his magic: he tames the 'illness' by according it a place in the collective order. He takes the signs for war and concentration camps, for the impersonal power of a dark organization that decides on life and death, and mixes them with the symbols of the Christian doctrine of salvation, figures from the Nordic sagas, the primordial imagery of Rudolf Steiner and the mythology of totemism. In doing so, he submerges the guilt and shame of his country-and with that of humankind-in the impenetrable darkness of a mythical world that knows neither time nor space, where they lose all individual insignificance and thus all binding validity. The unbearable takes on cosmic traits and is transformed by this artistic reconstruction into a universal existence, into something "that has always been as it is." In other words, the horrors of National Socialist rule and the feelings of guilt and shame connected with them, are reinterpreted with the aid of a 'pathological'
thinking far removed from reality and serving Beuys' own need for self idealization.
Like Hitler, Beuys also seeks the resurrection of German irrealism and the German sense of mission. Like Hitler, Beuys is a covert psychotic. Yet Beuys, unlike the postcard painter from Braunau,143 is also a real artist. As such, in the role of the modern shaman, he has created a language in which 'unexpressed and otherwise inexpressible' states and experiences can be formulated directly. In this way, he has not only given artistic expression to his 'sickness' and the defense mechanisms of his threatened sense of self, but also, albeit in an often dubious manner, to a central trauma of his day: the experience of absolute rule and absolute subjugation. His work touches on the deepest, most persistently denied or repressed imaginings and sensations; it evokes not only the victims of war and concentration camps, but also seduces us into a subconscious identification with their executioners. Therein lies the disquieting impact of Joseph Beuys.
Thomas McEvilley, writing in the catalogue of the 1988 Beuys exhibition in Berlin, maintains: Even if his solution to the nightmare of war was first and foremost mythical, symbolic and escapist, at least he addressed it. He addressed the war by avoiding it, and he avoided it by addressing it. Even if he did not achieve a truly political standpoint as an artist, he nevertheless embodied the war and its pain and confusion in an art that reeks so much of Auschwitz that it will not readily pale.144
Nevertheless, the artistic significance of Beuys, as already mentioned, is grounded not so much in the type of psychological conflicts that he seeks to address, as in the type of visual language he uses in doing so. On the surface of it, he has adopted it from Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaists and their American successors. However, unlike them, Beuys understands the objet trouvé and public performance neither ironically nor polemically; he does
not use these means to point out the absurdity of human existence or to protest against the futility of social conventions. Nor does he seek to
elucidate reality, that is to say, to render reality transparent; instead he seeks to point out deeper contexts through his work. Through manipulation
and evocative staging, everyday objects and materials are charged with 'magical power' in a way that recalls the art of primitive tribal cultures.
Two ordinary plastic bottles (fig. 361), slate blackboards bearing illegible signs, tools, felt mats, honey, fat and all manner of society's trappings are
presented as bearers of mysterious, yet unarticulated and therefore incomprehensible messages.
Remarkably, it is precisely this incomprehensibility that lends Beuys' objects and his performances their 'expressive' force. The blatantly obvious uselessness of these 'works' and the lack of insight into the intentions pursued by them, not only trigger all manner of associations, like the inkblot in a Rorschach test,145 but also stimulate subconscious sensations and imaginings which then, in spite of their indeterminacy, are projected onto the work and are perceived as its meaning and content, that is to say, as a statement by the artist. The essence and content of the art experience mediated by Beuys thus remains unconscious, his 'statement' is necessarily vague; it is reduced to the expression of a psychological climate and to the frequently cited intention, as vague as it is non-committal, of triggering thought processes through his compositions and performances. The creative potential of the viewer is called upon all the more, for viewers must make a significant contribution towards completing Beuys' work, just as they would have to do for a piece by Duchamp. The same broadly applies to all symbolist artists.
5. On the essence of symbolist art
In order to avoid misunderstandings, I shall briefly outline the difference
between symbolic and symbolist art. In everyday speech, we tend to use the work
'symbol' to describe a sign that indicates the content and significance of an
object. This also includes representative signs signifying only that which is
determined by an agreement or statement; for example, in cartography, the signs
used to represent an object on the map, such as a lighthouse or an airport
perhaps, or the sign + used in mathematics as the symbol for addition.
In the field of the arts and humanities, the symbol takes on a much broader significance. Unlike allegories, metaphors, images and emblems, it cannot be conceptually exhausted; all manner of signs can express the same content, while all manner of different contents can be associated with a single sign. In his Maxims and Reflections, Goethe writes: The true symbolism is one in which the particular represents the universal, not as a dream or shade, but as the living and momentary revelation of the inexhaustible.146 Such symbols are characterized in two ways: on the one hand by the mysteriousness, depth and inexhaustibility of their interpretation, on the other hand by their reality, that is to say the power of disclosure that goes beyond their bounds.147
Although their content goes beyond that which can be rationally grasped and although it cannot be clearly defined, symbols refer to specific complexes of imagination and reality that can be determined, in the sense that they can be distinguished from others. It is in this sense that we regard the symbol in religious art. The Christian symbols of the cross, the fish, the halo or certain figures from the Bible stand for the content of the idealized structure of a community of believers; their meaning is determined by tradition and is also subject to change within that tradition.
Such a change occurred, for example, in the artistic development of the Western world with the crisis of the Church in Rome. Traditional symbols
lost their previous exclusivity as bearers of meaning. Idealized structures broke away from their religious codification and became integrated as dynamic, challenging principles, into the individual self of the individual
believers and artists. Accordingly, the meaning of the symbolic signs, objects, or figures was complemented by that of the pictorial canon; in certain cases it was pushed completely into the background by the hegemony of that canon. So, for example, central perspective became a persuasive (and with the previous symbols), equally valuable metaphor for the new ideal integrated into the self of the artist. Thus it became evident that, basically, everything can be grasped metaphorically, and that religious faith need not be vested in sacred attire.
Only then did a notion of art corresponding to our own become established-to wit, the notion that any art, irrespective of whether its iconography embraces actual, collectively binding and traditionally established symbols, is symbolic insofar as it takes forms that go beyond itself and cannot be conceptually exhausted. This is what Matisse means when he says Any art that deserves the name is religious.148
In the paintings from the 17th and the 18th centuries, the protagonists from biblical stories increasingly came to be replaced by figures from Greek and Roman mythology (Classical Antiquity) and by all manner of metaphors for worldly possession and sensuality. Later, symbols of the wonders of Nature and the joys and sufferings of ordinary people were also included, until finally, the 19th century brought us not only the notion of the painterly hand (la patte du peintre) as a metaphor for the unique individuality of the artist, but also the urban realism of Manet, Degas and the Impressionists, with which the secularization and democratization of art reached their climax. This development mirrored the materialistic-that is to say rational and scientific-tendencies of that era and was therefore regarded by many as an intellectual and cultural threat of enormous proportions.
It was from these circles that the Symbolist movement was recruited.
Its followers feared that the individual was losing sight of his or her 'higher destiny' and the meaning of life; they sought to bring art back from its materialistic and democratic 'errant ways' to the order of a comprehensive, cosmic-religious-context of meaning, and tended to measure the value of artistic creation by its symbolic content. Generally speaking, they were opposed to the technical, economic and politically progressive forces of their time, which they regarded as responsible for the demise of a holistic existence. Therefore they failed to develop any new meaning from these dynamic developments, or to create any form of new vision. Their yearnings were backward-looking. They strove for a revival of images from former times that had since lost their credibility, without noticing that it was precisely these that barred their view of the unfathomable, making it impossible to articulate and integrate it into the consciousness of a new age. They therefore failed to find and develop a new language, to sow the seeds of a new consciousness, and it was not they but their counterparts, the Impressionists and Post Impressionists who were to open the gateways of modernism.
Monet's stacks of grain, Seurat's bathers, Van Gogh's gnarled olive trees and Cézanne's apples and Provençal landscapes were the work that bound the people at the turn of the century into a new order and showed them the way towards the future. These pioneers pursued realistic, pictorially-structured or romantically expressive notions; in doing so, their works gained a transcendent significance that came 'from within' on the basis of their individual conditions of creation. By contrast, the Symbolists of the time-Böcklin, Klinger, Khnopff, Moreau, Redon and Puvis de Chavannes, to name but a few-made 'deeper meaning' the actual theme of their painting as such. Instead of fulfilling and realizing the meaning of their art in the creative act, as their counterparts did, they strove for the symbolically coded representation and evocation of a transcendent significance that they proclaimed and glorified like a message of salvation.
They sought to fill the metaphysical vacuum of the 19th century and the threatening emptiness of their own self, and to reconstitute the lost link with the world as a whole, by resurrecting in new attire what had already been long lost. Instead of discovering new values in the existing world, and developing new ideals and new ambitions from which they might build the interiorized structures of a new self-image and world-view, they looked for ways of turning the negative aspects of their state, their rejection of the reality surrounding them, the sense of inner emptiness and the all-consuming longing for what had been lost into a positive sign of their special chosen status, declaring it an asset. In order to do so, they turned to the symbol; but as they were not willing to confront their inner reality, their symbols did not stand for that, indicating neither psychological substance, nor the experience of inner emptiness and abandonment, but serving instead to cover up this very lack of substance and meaning.
In the course of any cultural development, the tendency to express Being and Time and the deeper meaning of human existence in obscure and unfathomable symbols invariably emerges when the things that are to be expressed in this way no longer possess individual or collective certainty and no longer portray a conscious, psychological reality that can be articulated. The Symbolists of the 19th century, like their modern counterparts, represent an apocalyptic mentality that has lost the meaning and faith that were once embodied by collective ambitions and ideals. The unfathomable no longer has a face in their works; it is manifested only in the undertow of the vacuum that this loss has left in its wake.
The symbolist is afflicted by himself and his time. He feels threatened by the fragmentation and disintegration of his individual and collective self and suffers from the painful and frightening sense of his own inner emptiness. A primitive would say he has no soul-that he has lost his purba. And so, like the shaman, he goes in search of the lost self, in search of individual ambitions that would permit him to set himself apart from the others and feel unique in comparison to them, in search of universally binding yet individual ideas that would integrate him into the larger whole, into the wider community, and which would liberate him from his solitude.
He seeks to approach the intangible and incomprehensible, the core of his own self, and to set visible signs for it. Yet he lacks the real, concrete experience of that which these signs should designate. Apart from his inner emptiness and his yearning to fill it, he bears nothing in him which he might express. And so instead of expressive works that convey an inner meaning, he produces mere vehicles for his projections: pictures, assemblages, processes and situations whose meaning and significance remain open, for he hopes to find his lost purba in these. The work becomes the expression of a quest doomed to failure-albeit a quest in which the meaning of the work is realized, which does give it a certain significance and social relevance.
Within the framework of modernism, Beuys is the best known example of a
symbolist artist. Yet he is by no means the only one. In the 1970s, especially
in Italy and the USA, a large number of like-minded artists emerged who can also
be classified as belonging to what I have already described as 'magical
symbolism'. They include Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giovanni Anselmo, Keith
Sonnier and Bruce Nauman. Because all of them, like Beuys, operate with 'poor',
as it were non-artistic objects and materials, the Italian art critic Germano
Celant coined the term Arte Povera for this movement.
With the sparse and deliberately targeted use of butane gas flames combined with banal everyday objects or relics of Greco-Roman antiquity, Kounellis creates extremely effective and unexpected objects and environments (fig. 372). Merz works with earth, clay, and leaves, with sandbags, bundles of twigs and with the hemispheres of the Igloos that have become his hallmark, heightening and underlining the primordial quality of his compositional elements with the coldly bluish light of thin, free-form neon tubing (fig. 374). Neon embodies modern magic. Nauman, too, often uses this medium. In doing so, he frequently employs the measurements or forms of his own body or of individual limbs as the basis for his compositions (fig. 375). Anselmo, Sonnier and the early Serra, whose later works belong to Minimal Art, represent a similar artistic approach. Their compositions, too, convey no comprehensible message. Their statements peter out in a few unusual and surprising visual and sensory effects and in the ethereal significance of indeterminate symbols (fig. 373). In this respect, they also meet the requirements outlined by Moréas (though Moréas had literature in mind) in his Symbolist Manifesto of 1886, of never going as far as the conception of the Idea itself, and his assertion that scenes of nature, the actions of human beings, all concrete phenomena cannot manifest themselves as such: they are sensible appearances destined to represent their esoteric affinities with primordial Ideas.149 Their approach, however, also stems from a central tenet of modernism: instead of portraying reality, the artist is to create a new reality.
In parallel to the magical aspect of this attitude informing Arte Povera, a more rational and to some extent more controlled, more universal and more binding line of modern symbolism can be traced in Europe and the USA. Its leading proponents, including Richard Long, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson can all be classified as part of the Land Art movement.
These artists take the natural (but also alterable) landscape as their artistic medium. In remote, uninhabited regions such as the Sahara or the Mojave desert, they dig trenches, draw lines of limestone across the earth for hundreds of yards or pile stones up into heaps (figs. 378-380). These transient documents of human presence in empty places, otherwise untouched by humankind, make the landscape itself into a work of art. These artists alter the normal form of the landscape, through visible interventions, creating a new constellation, initiating transformations that may take place either on a large scale or in barely perceptible details. A similar approach is taken by Walter de Maria with his Lightning Field (fig. 381). The dissemination and documentation of this art depends to a considerable degree on photography and video recordings. Land Art can clearly be regarded as a protest against the artificiality of the modern urban world, the smooth perfection of metals and plastics , or against what Heizer terms the "utilitarianism of art."150 In our case, however, we are interested first and foremost in the fact that these forms of art, like those of Beuys and like-minded artists, are inspired by the art and mythology of other, often long defunct, civilizations; by the magical stone structures of Stonehenge and the huge earth drawings that the Incas and Aztecs once used to communicate with higher beings and supernatural powers (figs. 376, 377).
This tendency to evoke an archaic past is also a characteristic of the artists of so-called Individual Mythologies (Michael Buthe, Jean LeGac, and others) who can thus similarly be classified as belonging to modern symbolism.
5. Taking Stock
My survey has now reached the threshold of the immediate present. Yet before I address this period, I wish to take note of two points that have emerged so far, and which I touched upon in my introduction. The first of these concerns the structure and dynamics of the developments described in this survey. The second concerns the question of the criteria used to determine artistic significance and quality.
On the Structure and Dynamics of Artistic Development
Like science and religion, art also represents a form of intellectual reflection on reality. It takes place on an aesthetic level of experience and is determined by four ideational objectives, corresponding to the fundamental artistic approaches that I have already designated as Realist, Structural, Romantic and Symbolist.
- The Realist approach is geared towards concrete, sensually perceptible reality, which it seeks to re-create as an objective image in order to integrate it into the conscious awareness and grasp it intellectually.
- The Structural approach has to do with the aesthetic principles of order by which individual appearances correlate with one another and can be combined to create a visual whole. It seeks to master reality by re-erecting it as an aesthetic order.
- The Romantic approach has to do with emotional, subjective interiority. It seeks to merge with reality by experiencing it as an expression of personal emotion.
- The Symbolist approach has to do with the 'supra-sensual'. It seeks to transcend reality by lending it meaning through interpretation.
These approaches can only be isolated from one another in theory. In actual artistic practice they never occur in their pure form, but enter into many and varied associations, which find expression in and determine the character of different works and movements, albeit with one of the four fundamental approaches taking the leading role. For example, in a painting by Cézanne we can find Realist, Romantic and Symbolist tendencies, yet they are all subject to the primacy of the Structural. Accordingly, both in the artistic development of the 19th century and also in that of modernism, we can discern a pattern that I have already pointed out several times. The entire span of this study, from Goya to Beuys, is covered in the table:
Clearly, this table is an extremely simplified outline that does not take into account the many and varied cross references, diagonal links and mutual influences between individual artists, for it merely shows the main axes and accents of the development.
The horizontal rows correspond to the four fundamental approaches,
that is to say to the respective lines of artistic development that are subject to the primacy of one of these approaches. The individual columns represent
the consecutive phases of this development. As the table shows, each of
these phases finds a Realist, a Structural, a Romantic and a Symbolist configuration. The objectives of the four fundamental attitudes remains more or less constant, while their respective configurations reflect the changes to which any society's cultural self-awareness and world-view are subject through time.
This is clearest of all in the case of the fundamental change of paradigm that occurs at the transition from the modern age to the early years of modernism. The leading artistic movements of the 19th century-Realism, Classicism, Romanticism and Symbolism-are all object-related. Realism attempts to grasp reality in the corporeal density and material presence of the subject matter portrayed. Classicism seeks the visual as well as the physical and mental equilibrium of its compositions in the artistic, literary and philosophical model of Classical Antiquity. Romanticism expresses its emotions and passions in the portrayal of external events. Symbolism equates the supernatural with the fabulous creatures and monsters of its imaginary worlds. Body and mind, form and meaning are all interrelated in the 19th century-one invariably stands for the other, and yet they still remain separated and do not become one.
In the art of early modernism, this approach gives way to a new paradigm.
Although it takes forms that are derived from the same four fundamental
approaches, they no longer mirror an object-related world, but a dynamic one.
They no longer portray objects, but processes. The division between object and
subject disappears. The artist no longer attempts to portray a mental or
material object in the spirit of the waning modern age, elevating instead the
dialectical relationship between him or herself and the object to the actual
theme of this portrayal, thus linking the opposites of human being and world,
form and meaning, to form a synthesis, which is in itself a newly created
Manet, Degas and Monet turn to the reality of their own visual experience. Their painting addresses the process of perception, the viewpoint, movement, color and light. Seurat and Cézanne seek and find in visible reality the same forms of order that they find within themselves. Their painting addresses the structure of the visible; they do not wish to create an image of Nature, but an equivalent of Nature. Gauguin and van Gogh discover the oneness of body and soul in the sensual dimension of their feelings, their love and their yearnings. They wish to give artistic form to this oneness, using the potential of color and form to express and speak to the human psyche. Munch and Ensor experience the world as a mirror of their inner conflict; visible reality stands for the dichotomy of all existence. Their painting is a defense against insanity and angst.
The new paradigm is already manifest in this first developmental phase of modernism in a general tendency towards pictorial 'condensation' and the interiorization of all outward impressions. As the cycle continues to develop, the focal point of artistic interest shifts increasingly from outer reality to inner reality, from surface to structure, from the individual to the universal. At the same time, the realistic demands accommodated in the first phase of modernism by all four fundamental approaches are relegated to the background in the second phase by structural and romantic tendencies. Then, with the advent of non-figurative art in the third and classical phase of modernism, the last of our fundamental approaches comes into its own: the object abandoned is replaced by symbolist meaning and content. Though Realism is not sacrificed entirely, its demands are now geared towards invisible rather than visible reality.
Thus, Mondrian and Kandinsky combine Symbolist tendencies with, respectively, either a structural or a romantic artistic approach to the pictorial synthesis that represents the most significant artistic achievement in our age. The paradigm of modernism has thus found its comprehensive classical formulation. Form and content, subject and object, the intellectual and the physical combine to become a coherent visual unit that makes a hitherto unheard-of claim to universal validity.
Yet it soon becomes clear that modernism has not yet had the last word. Abstraction is not the only possible means of lending expression and form to the universal.
At the same time as Mondrian and Kandinsky are making their pioneering moves, Duchamp appears on the scene as an artist who relativizes their achievements by charging the object with meaning in a completely new, unexpected and unsettling way, thereby shifting the 'shadow' of the new consciousness-the experience of the uncertain-into the field of vision of modernism.
Duchamp represents the extreme negation of all the principles of non-
figurative art, yet it is precisely this that makes him a pioneer for the second half of our cycle. "Les extremes se touchent!" The categorical dismissal of the classical canon amounts to a reversal to the opposite. As anti-artist (and indeed anti-classical) the great refuser becomes the determining model of post-classical modernism. With his famous pair of concepts-"the great abstract" and "the great real"-Kandinsky had already recognized and formulated this crucial duality of modernism as early as 1912, before the first readymade.
The first half of our cycle of development-the path to abstraction-was shaped by the dialectical relationship between structural and romantic tendencies. By contrast, the second half is caught in the tension between reality and meaning. In view of the impossibility of surpassing the achievements of their predecessors, some of the post-classical generation of artists shift the focus of their interest to the still untapped possibilities of the realist and the symbolist approaches, thereby opening up an entirely new artistic horizon. The tension between realism and symbolism dominates the mannerist phase of modernism (de Chirico, Pittura metafisica, Futurism, Suprematism and Dada), the art of modern baroque (Magic Realism, Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism) and in a certain sense also defines the artistic movements that occur in the period between 1946 and 1970.
The paradigm of modernism-the scientifically proven, yet nevertheless intangible oneness of body and soul, energy and matter-is reflected
during the course of this development in the light of constantly changing points of view and subjected to increasingly stringent critical scrutiny. And, as events progress, the paradigm reveals such a variety of different aspects that it loses its original definition and powers of persuasion. The collective self begins to fragment. The four fundamental approaches drift further and further apart, their artistic configurations becoming increasingly formulaic and standardized. The dialectical relationship between realist and symbolist
attitudes-the tension between reality and idea-loses its hitherto individual aspect. Gradually, the ideational vacuum spreads, to be filled only by a new paradigm.
Finally, I wish to point out the change in narcissistic equilibrium that
becomes evident during the course of the development described.
The first half of the cycle unfolds under the auspices of a comprehensive self that includes both poles, that takes paradigmatic shape at the classical level. This climax is followed by the mannerist phase that, in fact, turns to all kinds of auto-stimulation and pursues diffuse ambitions and ideals in a bid to fend off the impending fragmentation of the self-image. The baroque that follows is characterized by a compensatory attitude in which one of each of the two poles is narcissistically over-cathected at the cost of the other. The artistic movements that emerged during the baroque continue in a slightly different form even in the period after the Second World War in a kind of late baroque, whereby they lose their individual character.
The last phase of our developmental cycle is characterized by an extreme level of fragmentation and inconsistency; it will be discussed in the following chapter under the heading "The End of Modernism."
Following this summary of the developments discussed so far, I now wish to address the issue of the value and the significance of the various phases and movements.
In the following, I wish to consider the general question of historical
development and the cultural value of different cultural epochs and art
movements. I shall not address the objective criteria of artistic
Classical standards, which would have been applied in the 19th century to answer that question, have lost their absolute validity. Given their clearly defined criteria, I nevertheless wish to take them as the point of departure for my reflections.
The values associated with the concept of the classical are related to three different aspects of artistic creation. The first has to do with the attitude that finds its expression in a work of art. It is regarded as classical (that is to say as exemplary) to the extent that it strives for scale and order and testifies to a balance between the sensual and the intellectual. Such an attitude is not bound to any particular developmental phase. It is not determined so much by the cultural environment as it is, than first and foremost by the narcissistic equilibrium of the respective artist. In other words, a balanced attitude of this kind reflects a corresponding and, as it were, classical character structure in which the demands of the idealized pole and the exhibitionist pole are related to one another, on a par, and are fulfilled to equal degrees in the behavior of the respective individual. This aspect of the classical thus relates to a psychological value that can be equated in the broadest sense with psychic health. The second aspect relates to the historical position occupied by a work of art and the representative function it plays in the developmental cycle of an individual artist or an entire era. The classical phase of a cycle is regarded as the phase in which the actual essence of the respective artist or epoch finds its most universal and at the same time most binding and paradigmatic form.
In so far as this quality coincides with that which we describe as typical, it invariably concerns the relationship of a part to its whole, such as the relationship of an artist's individual work to his or her oeuvre or the relationship of such an oeuvre to the artistic movement from which it springs, or indeed the relationship of such a movement or epoch to the overall developmental cycle of an age.
In this sense, I describe Mondrian and Kandinsky as the actual classics of modernism, for their art stands paradigmatically for the entire age. Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Klee, Giacometti, Rothko, Johns, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Kelly and Fontana may be regarded as classical representatives of their respective movements, although these in turn do not count as the classical phase of modernism. Finally, certain works themselves, such as Cézanne's Montagne Sainte Victoire (fig. 74) or Jasper Johns' Flag (fig. 262) may be regarded as classical examples of the oeuvre of these artists.
The third aspect of the values associated with the concept of the classical-that of so-called artistic quality-necessarily remains limited to individual works or, at best, to individual artists, for the artists who constitute one movement or epoch are not linked by any common artistic quality, but only by shared views or common stylistic traits.
So far, I have presented the various artistic movements and epochs by way of example of their most outstanding representatives. Their artistic, creative qualities, however, can only be understood in an individual sense. These are inherent to the respective artists or works and not to the movements that these artists represent. The criteria of artistic quality are so many and varied that they cannot be reduced to a single common denominator. They go beyond the concept of the classical and the values associated with it, and therefore cannot be discussed within the scope of this survey.
In this connection, we are interested only in the second value aspect of the
classical, that is, the value of the exemplary and the paradigmatic. Its
significance can best be illustrated by a comparison with the course of human
life. The classical phase of a cultural development would thus correspond to
reaching maturity in early adult life. The first half of the cultural cycle
would correspond to childhood and youth, and the second half to middle age and
old age. This position midway between birth and death constitutes a decisive
aspect of the classical epoch of a culture.
For the artists of the first, pre-classical half of cultural development, the classical phase-the phase of initial maturity, of awakening consciousness and paradigmatic formulation of the spirit of their own time-represents the goal towards which all their endeavors are aimed. For them, the value of the classical is as much an unquestioned given as the value of adulthood is for the child or youth.
From the point of view of the post-classical generation of artists, this value takes on a completely different meaning, however. Their art addresses first and foremost the oedipal confrontation with the self-image and world-view condensed in the classical canon, towards which it takes an ambivalent stance. The classical scales of value stand for the figure of the father and, like that figure, are not only loved and idealized, but also feared and loathed.
This ambivalence marks the artistic production of the post-classical epochs. Such epochs strive for a new 'solution', a new equilibrium. Irrespective of this, the exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures that have found shape and expression in classical art continue to constitute the actual theme of artistic exploration. They are scrutinized for any weak points or undiscovered qualities and are alternately questioned, denied, transformed, heightened or played down until they finally lose all contour and any binding force.
At this point we see the onset of the final phase of the cultural cycle, which I shall discuss in the following chapter. Its representatives have lost all faith and make no claims to the paternal role. They wish neither to rule nor to generate, but merely to 'survive'. The earlier pioneer is replaced by the opportunist. His pragmatic lack of prejudice permits the emergence of the ideational vacuum that designates cultural end-phases, thereby creating the crucial prerequisite for the formation of a new paradigm, a new faith and a new vision of humankind and the world.
Both developments-the pre-classical and the post-classical-are related to the apex, or rather, to the midway position of the classical phase. In the first half of the developmental cycle, the classical represents the future towards which the development is heading, while in the second half the classical is the past from which the development is moving away in order to reach new shores. Step by step the groundbreaking rules and values of the past are abandoned. Step by step the development approaches the end of one age and the beginning of a new age and, with that, a new classic era.
All the stages of a cultural cycle relate to one another and are reciprocally determined. No one movement can be regarded in isolation, for each one is determined by the past and bears within it the germ of the future. The question of valence and significance posed above is thus substantially relativized. The fact that the adult age occupies a central position in the life of the individual in no way reduces the existential significance of youth or old age. In the same way, the stylistic epoch of the classical does not necessarily represent any higher value or greater significance in the life of the cultural organism than any other stylistic epoch. With one exception: the classical possesses a more comprehensive representational value than any other epoch. In it, the age has recognized itself, as in a mirror, for the first time as a new and independent era. Classical art stands for the creation of a fundamentally new, independent canon and for the heroic struggle with which this has been asserted against the canon of the former fathers. Its achievements thus legitimize the 'patricide' committed and represent the new Tablets of the Law, the banner and insignia of a civilization. Its creations stand at the center of the developmental cycle and are linked as strongly to its beginnings as to its end. In this way they constitute the common denominator that is shared by all the artistic facets of a civilization and which binds these into a comprehensive whole.