It was the goal of art from the Renaissance to the end of the19thc to put in front of the viewer a world of verisimilitude .. At its best it has allowed artists to show events that are not immediately present to the viewer whether representing the “Last Judgment “ by Michelangelo , the “Disasters of War” of Goya or Frederic Church’s views of the Amazon jungle.
The thesis of this treatise on drawing and painting describes the continuation of this focus on seeing and visuality into the 20th c where it takes on a deconstructed and highly self-conscious form. ”Modernism” which embodies an art form built out of these reduced visual structures has come to an end culturally in the last twenty years .In a sense Greenberg’s logic pushed it to such simplicity that it really had nowhere to go. What is the next step beyond an all black painting of Reinhardt or Kelley’s panels of primary color,or Robert Ryman? All are more about the sculptural reality of how they interact with the walls behind them .There can be no dynamic within an all black painting and Kelley’s panels don’t really react with each other in the way Hoffman’ color does. Currently, Modernism has been replaced by art as opinion or news ,most often political in nature .The need to ground an image in a coherent visual structure is no longer required neither in academia nor in art world produce.I hope that this book serves the purpose of codifying for the student a world that seems to fade more and more into the past and could soon appear incomprehensible if its underpinning are not spelled out.It would be pleasurable to allow the student to linger a little within the ideas that envigorated painting for 500 years.I personally think that the language based on seeing has not been totally explored and even to reenact the discoveries of the past allows the artist to still find new things to say as the Chinese did in a tradition which lasted for 1500 years .The image of Hsia Kuei’s painting shown above was done somewhere in the middle of the grand tradition of Chinese painting.The genius of Chinese Landscape painting is that it points to a metaphysical reality beyond itself.As the famous Buddhist said:Don’t look at the finger pointing to the moon but at what it points at,. That tradition has also come to an end as well judging from the art production coming out of Modern China,which maybe makes these words even more pertinent.Where do we go from here.
Recently,an artist friend sent me a letter to the editor of Art News written after Gorky’s death by Joseph Solman., a painter who knew Arshile Gorky.It was an appraisal of the artists worth and although it was clear that Solman admired his talent he thought that Gorky remained an imitator and not an original genius.Mr Solman was so right but so wrong.
Here is the text,which was sent to me by Larry Deyab directly photocopied from the original Art News:
The posthumous celebration of Arshile Gorky’s paintings(A.n.,Jan.51) is a rather pathetic mockery of the man and his work.During his liftime,his closest associates as well as more objective spectators were in common agreement as to his complete dependence on various manifestations of Picasso. Certainly his later turn to Miro,Matta and Kandinsky indicated no element of growth,except for a more brilliant technical dexterity.
Many of us admired his conversations as well as his rare taste and accomplished skill. Sometimes, after putting to rout an adversary in matters touching on Ingres’ supreme role in modern painting, the remarkable shapes in Uccello’s pictures and other lively topics, he would dumbfound a new concert to abstract art with the casual remark:”The only difference between us is that I saw those issues of Cahiers d’Art before you did”…
Gorky was always ready to hold forth on art in the company of friends and strangers. At such times he could be keen, scornful and theatrical by turns; yet, withal a very lonely man, unquestionably tortured by lavishly skillful and empty improvisations…
Gorky made tasteful, but never very daring variations on the works of other men. He never fully stated an independent theme. He lived in the sensations of others. That is all.
Time,the only objective appraiser, will probably level Gorky’s work to the stature it held during most of his lifetime and we will be able to retain our fond memories of a vital personality.
What Gorky was able to do and which sets him apart from many of the artists of his time is his knowledge that abstraction was in many ways a part of the Western Figurative Tradition although not foregrounded as it became in the 20th c .It allowed him to make connections in his work between the Renaissance and Miro for example or the painterly quality of Rubens which gives his work such power and presence. What this book is trying to do is to place both past and present in the language of the eye.The comments of Solman have been common in my career as an artist.The ethos of art education has been since the 60’s one of forcing the student to distinguish himself from others at all costs and the price paid is to ignore the language of art.Harold Bloom in his seminal work the “Anxiety of Influence” made most explicit the dialogue between the contemporary writer and the past and his struggle to overcome it.Implied is that the poet read the past and knew its power. The greatest writers shadow is the longest and the stronger the poet the more they are capable of understanding the power of that shadow and the need to come out from under it.The work of the comtemporary poet is agonic and only via this struggpe can the poet show his or her worth. I would submit that the student of today is woefully ignorant that there is a visual language at all.So how can the student engage the past in a dialogue if they are not aware of it.
Using Bloom's thesis one would see Gorky in a totally different light.He alone knew the tradition.He weighed it in the “smithy of his soul” and pushed it to a different place, a difference too subtle for Solman to see.That subtle difference,a difference that makes a difference set the platform that abstract expressionism used to define art for the next thirty years.