tv Journal LINKTV November 20, 2013 2:00pm-2:31pm PST
the events of world war ii cast a shadow over the rest of the century and perhaps over the rest of history. inevitably, they changed the course of western art. in europe, the unbelievable scale of the nazi genocide against the jews left europeans with the task not only of restoring their broken cities, but of repairing their shattered culture. in america, the explosion of the first atom bomb in the deserts of the southwest meant that medieval man's fears might come true, that the world might be destroyed in a single terrifying apocalypse. it was against this background that the postwar artists created their art.
while europeans couldn't forget their past, in america, artists turned their backs on what they saw as the public and political dimension of art. the abstract expressionists, centered in new york, escaped to an interior world, where the subject of landscape and the struggle with brushwork and pigment became the goal of painting. for the first time, europe looked to new york. abstract expressionism-- abstract art-- is part of western tradition. it evolves out of it. it's part of it. it remains part of it. it's not oriental. it's not a new tradition.
clement greenberg, critic and promoter of the new york school, became their spokesman and a friend of the leading abstract expressionist, jackson pollock. i first met jackson pollock in 1942. came down the sidewalk, and there was lee krasner, whom i'd known of old, and she was with a very respectable-looking gentleman. and, uh...i saw this rather nice-looking guy, and lee said to me, "this fellow's going to be a great painter." i went, "well, ok." what finally hit me in pollock's art was the portable mural he did for the apartment house in which peggy guggenheim lived.
that hit me. it was the first time i saw him go all over, repeat this way. i thought that was a great painting, and i began to follow pollock assiduously, you could say, after that. raised in the american southwest, pollock was influenced by indian sand painting, and in a sense, his works internalized the desert landscape itself. in new york, he studied the works of modern european masters, especially miro and picasso. i think he had his best run in '47, '48, '49, '50, what i call the "all over," when he spattered or dripped or whatever. about his art, pollock knew what he was about. he trusted his spontaneity in what they call automatic painting.
but he was in control. he'd stop from time to time to see what he'd done. and then when a picture was finished, he'd go back and edit now and then. when it comes to abstract art, there's no subject matter, but there is content, and the two have to be distinguished. in other words, the presence or absence of a recognizable image has nothing to do with value in art. it doesn't have to be about anything. i gave it the title lavender mist. i saw it, and i flipped for it, and then i knew all this predominant color was lavender,
did jackson pollock create an arena for a personal drama? it is not a document of an historical and social tragedy. instead, in europe, the artist couldn't forget the trauma of the war, and each painting, each sculpture, is full of scars, is full of pain, is full of blood. it carries on the memory of death. the painting it's how you feel by the french artist fautrier suggests the look of broken flesh, its blemishes and craters. the italian artist fontana literally attacked the clay, ripping its surface open. he used scissors to stab these holes
into the canvas. european abstract expressionism was more controlled, more finished. the american art had a different look. i'd say that we had looser surfaces. let's call it that. you felt a freshness and a kind of emphasis. i don't want to say violence. that point's been misused in this connection. franz kline drew inspiration from cubism. willem de kooning did portraits that became highly charged responses to the women who were his models. the abstract expressionists wanted to paint on the same level of quality as the old masters
or as, let's say, the best of the school of paris-- picasso, matisse, mondrian. they were striving for excellence. they found they did better work when they went abstract. mark rothko chose a path to pure expression by using only gradations of color on his canvases. pollock's vision and greenberg's theory were explored by a second generation. many acknowledged that helen frankenthaler adapted pollock's technique in a way that made him more accessible to other artists. she stained her canvas with highly diluted paint to achieve these haunting effects in mountains and sea. the abstract expressionist movement dominated the world of western art for over a decade.
by the mid fifties, they were established, only to be superseded by a new avant-garde. the postwar world is characterized by an acceleration of speed-- speed of travel, of information, of communication, indeed, speed of change itself. a style which in the middle ages or the renaissance took decades to work itself out could now run its course in a year or less. in such a culture, saturated with objects, with advertising, packaging, and tv, it was inevitable that art itself should not merely reflect this, but become the object. if the content mattered so little in comparison with the packaging, then why not use a coke bottle or a soup tin? the young generation taught that art was unheroic. it was anywhere and could be anything.
robert rauschenberg's use of coke bottles, a spare tire, a goat shocked his audience. "if this is art," said one abstract expressionist, "i quit." what's very curious in the history of art is that often the moments where something really decisive happens to change that history, those moments are not terribly perceptible to their contemporaries and only become perceptible in retrospect. i think that one of these moments occurred, at least for our modern sensibilities, with the work of robert rauschenberg and jasper johns. this is a rauschenberg called trophy iii. what rauschenberg does is to insist that the surface of the canvas is no longer a window into which we look or through which we look,
a window that opens onto another world as say, this little porthole that i'm looking through that opens onto the skyline of new york. i can see the empire state building through it. rather, what we have is the surface of the canvas as a horizontal field, like a desk top, like the working surface of somebody's studio or somebody's writing table, onto which junk is piled-- mail, post cards, posters, advertisements, records, magazines, newspapers-- a kind of tremendous clutter of banal experience that interpolates even great art into that clutter, as here in rauschenberg's small rebus.
rauschenberg went on to build a wall of information by silk-screening photographic images onto canvas, as in this work called port arthur, texas. the result is that everything here is homogenized in the uniform surface of photographic information. we may think of photography as a realistic medium, but rauschenberg shows it as a single, flattened, informational field as flat as the screens of our television sets or the front pages of our newspapers. one of the things that happens in jasper johns' work is that he makes the image that's projected inside the canvas synonymous with the surface of the canvas. there is no more interior space in the image. the target, the american flag are manifestly, absolutely on the surface of the canvas.
johns is being ironic about earlier pictorial subjects, like portraits or still lifes or landscapes. this painting, based on buckminster fuller's map of the world, is an ironic landscape flattened to match the modern tourist's impression of space. by refusing illusion, johns was making some sort of comment about the nature of modern experience. in the mid-1950s, the art of the disposable consumer culture was born. in '57, the british artist richard hamilton issued its manifesto. this art, he said, should be popular, that is, designed for a mass audience.
so that kind of clearing away and allowing oneself to really stare modern culture in the face, that had a tremendously liberating, invigorating, energizing quality, and it's that quality that gave pop art its kind of joyousness at the beginning... even though a lot of the message had this very acid undertone because it was denying a lot of things that we'd like to think about ourselves. when roy lichtenstein turns to the visual vocabulary of comic books, he's examining stereotypes, packaged images, packaged plots, packaged personalities.
warhol's move is absolutely brilliant because what he does is to make a canvas which is nothing but the repetition of identical objects that are products of mass production, assembly-line production. warhol focuses on the effect of the commodity, its existence as pure repetition, and his commodities extend to people, as well, especially movie stars.
our experience of singular unique events becomes flattened out through the repetition of the way we experience such an event when it comes to us through either newspaper, magazine, or television. one of these unique events that warhol presented as banalized through newspaper reportage would be the riots in selma, alabama. we don't have an individuality that's secreted away from that clamor and refuse and chaos of the everyday. we are that chaos. while in america with pop art the attention was given to recording and to criticizing
the consumer culture carried on by objects, comic strips, advertising, and the media, in europe, yves klein and joseph beuys were dealing with the idea of the artist as a shaman, the person that can change the sensibility of the world. a pilot in a german luftwaffe, joseph beuys was shot down during world war ii. this brush with death permeates his works. here a man appears to be in the jaws of a reptile entrapped in a pipe. it is like an ancient tartan on its side, suggesting death and birth at the same time. for beuys, each element in the world has the same value. for him, there is no difference between animals, plants, objects, or human beings. all share the same energy.
he envisioned a world where everyone was an artist. his work dramatizes unrealized potential, like the sound of flowers decaying or the symbolic power of the cross. this piano is wrapped in felt like an elephant's hide, but the concert grand is not dead, only mute. underneath, it can still be played. yves klein had the desire to purify reality, painting everything blue. this kind of blue has been invented by klein to represent and to symbolize the spirituality and the material sensibility that permeates any substance.
minimal art, or what came to be known as minimalism, was really a phenomenon of abstract sculpture that ran parallel to the rise of pop art in the early sixties. minimal art seems to have devised a kind of abstract sculptural analogue to what it was that pop art was doing. like pop art, one felt that the artist was taking a certain kind of almost perverse and nihilistic pleasure in sweeping away this sense of the artist/creator as the generator of form and instead, subjecting himself or herself to the idea of these abstract forms as something that he, of course, could not have invented.
what they did was to place the object into the gallery space or into the open air so it was affected by changes in the environment-- changes in light, in color, and in perspective. we've been looking at a late work by sol lewitt, where a white pyramid and a black slab bracket a baroque palace in muenster, germany. when we remind ourselves that sculpture, because it is three-dimensional and freestanding, is the model of the human body, of ourselves,
we understand that these sculptors are using this strategy to say something about us, its observers. the relationship of the work to its specific site becomes an abstract way of insisting that the individual is determined by his or her political and cultural context. in 1968, a wave of opposition to the establishment swept through the west like a seismic upheaval. the shock waves were felt even behind the iron curtain in the prague spring in czechoslovakia. here in new york, at columbia university, the storming of the gates
during a violent demonstration against the vietnam war became a symbol of a generation's protest in a year fraught with assassination and rioting. and in france, the government all but fell to an alliance of students and workers. the year ended with the establishment back in power, but this dissident youth culture had become international and politicized. one result was the rejection of all forms of establishment art, and the effects of that are still with us. ♪ o beautiful ♪ for spacious skies
♪ for amber waves... the heroic symbols of world war ii are ironically recycled by edward kienholz in the portable war memorial. images of glory from the last just war reverberate bitterly at the end of the sixties. ♪ america! america! ♪ god shed his grace on thee ♪ ♪ and crown thy good with brotherhood... ♪ this is maya yin-ling's vietnam veterans memorial in washington, d.c., where the names of all the americans
who died in that war are inscribed. initially, her design evoked storms of protest because it was considered unheroic. both pop and minimalism ultimately evoke similar feelings of ambivalence and loss. ♪ god shed his grace on thee ♪ ♪ and crown thy good ♪ with brotherhood ♪ from sea to shining sea! ♪ this is storm king art park in upstate new york. by the seventies, massive abstract works like these
had become the blue-chip staple of corporate collectors in america. 50 years ago, the german critic walter benjamin prophesied that the impact of film and mass reproduction would change forever our idea of what art is. as we come towards the end of this century, we're nearer that point than ever before. since the sixties particularly, many people have felt that western art is in a state of crisis, with no pattern or direction, that the western tradition is played out. abstraction lost its shock value and became ordinary. the new directions suggested by pop and minimalism seemed to many to be a dissolution of all tradition. at the heart of all this perhaps lies the belief that the myth of progress,
which has sustained the west for so long, is now at an end. there is a feeling of contradiction between our material demands and our spiritual needs. because of this, many artists today are turning back to first principles, and the first principle of all is nature. this is robert smithson in a film he made in 1970 of his pivotal earthwork, spiral jetty. this 1,500-foot-long coil of rock was built in utah's great salt lake. it leads the visitor out into the water, like an ancient hero venturing through a maze. he sought a modern restatement
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