After Modernism – Week 1

Abstract Expressionism & Clement Greenberg

We looked at Abstract Expressionism in this first week, the seminar/lecture focused on 3 different parts;

  1. The roots of abstract expressionism
  2. 3 different forms of abstract expressionism; Ideogram, Action Painting and Colour Field painting.
  3. Clement Greenberg’s modernism.

In order to understand the roots of abstract expressionism we looked at an image from Ad Reinhardt, How to look at modern art in America, 1961. In the image uses the metaphor of a tree to describe how modernism developed from traditional French painting and gained an American style. Cubism and Surrealism played a critical part in the development of Abstract Expressionism. I found this part very interesting as I hadn’t previously looked abstract expressionism but I had looked into cubism so it was interesting to see how the style had developed from this. The main elements from Cubism (Fragmentation of forms, politics, engagement with the outside word, line and plane & flatness/volume) and Surrealism (automatism, hidden imagery, engagement with internal world/desirecan clearly been seen in combination within abstract expressionist’s work.

We then looked a what an ideogram was, this is a painting that suggests the idea of an object without expressing it’s name. We looked at Bradley Walker Tomlin,Numer 20, 1949. The colour played a huge part in this as it suggests urban as these colours after often seen in that setting. Even though the shapes look conventional they are actually entirely of the artist own invention. Action Painting was another form of abstract expressionism according to Harold Rosenburg:

“At a certain moment in the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than as a space in which to reproduce…what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event”

This had never occurred to me before and after hearing this I was able to clearly see this within this style of working. It was like every aspect of the canvas was the same, treated equally. Colour Field painting was the third form we looked at and this was simply when their are different blocks of colour painted onto the canvas. In a piece by Barrent Newman there was a sense of depth that one minute you felt you were looking through a gap in trees then the next you were looking at a gap in-between two buildings.

The seminar text this week was Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg.His theory argues that Kant was the first modernist because Kant used philosophy to investigate philosophy, modernist use art to investigate art. This idea that Kant was being self critical is the same as Greenberg claims modernist art is self critical, painting must convey the definition of painting. There are three things that according to Greenberg are important “the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of pigment” these qualities make a painting a painting. To Greenberg the artist doesn’t have an responsibility to society they only hold responsibility to the painting, whats happening within that rectangle. The evolution of modernist paintings according to Greenberg is that with each generation something is removed from the previous work. This has worked all the way down to the point of having a canvas with one monochrome painted onto it.

“Ever so Manu factors thought to be essential to the making and experience of art have been shown not to be so by modernist art has been able to dispense with them and yet continue to provide the experience of art in all it’s essentials” Clement Greenberg, Modernist Painting, 1960.

Greenberg believes that this process of each generation removing elements of the previous elements work can happen indefinitely.  However, we had a discussion around the idea of does it become a point then when you are simply hanging a unprimed canvas on a wall? This was a interesting discussion as it made me think about whether paintings are actually painting or do they fall under another category of art. Finally we looked at why Greenberg didn’t agree with the work of Duchamp, Greenberg’s reasons were:

  • use of humour
  • lack of serious behaviour towards his artwork
  • intellectualism/pseudo intellectualism
  • not self contained
  • inclassifiability of outcomes.

Furthermore, from reading his text I found that Greenberg felt that it was important to consider how each artwork is made, different disciplines develop differently for example, Cinema film is different to video. He also said that modernist can use objects and it doesn’t have to be abstracted which I think is very important to remember as people often think that it must be abstracted work without a hit of objects influencing an outcome.

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