At first I was put off by Harold Rosenberg’s early 1970’s book on art criticsm Art on the Edge (1) by his use of terms like “the artist is a man who…” and almost quit reading. But I came to overlook his gender insensitivity as I read on. Rosenberg’s primary concern is that art, and he is primarily concerned with painting, is in danger of going over the edge that separates it from crafts, commercial design and the mass media.
What’s interesting about his views, is that, though he is deeply immersed in the art world, he is not aware of the term or the fact of post-modernism. He is writing at the time of a huge change in attitudes toward art and he is documenting this change as it is taking place. Thus he is able to report on the transition between the philosophical endorsement of modernism that was widely accepted by the art establishment and the shattering of this consensus through emerging artwork critiquing that philosophy.
In many ways, his writing was prescient as it can be said that art has since gone over the edge he described. But this jump was a conscious choice by the artists involved and made out of a sense of necessity. That felt necessity was to rebel against the commodification of art and the modernist illusion that the art object could meaningfully convey a response to a world that was capable of creating two devastating world wars and weapons of mass destruction. The jump was also motivated by photography that could record life much better that painting and had replaced it in many ways.
Instead of making irrelevant art for money, artists such as Duchamp were make art as criticism through parody, irony or subversion.
Rosenberg’s insensitivity to gender issues reflects his lack of attention to the other important issue that created the post-modern revolution. Though he touches on the fact that taste in art, especially modernist painting, was set by an elite made up of white, middle & upper class males. They in turn found they most admired the work of white, middle-class male artists, so that women & visible minorities were excluded from exhibitions & sales.
There were many other artists who did not accept that there were insurmountable problems with making artworks such as painting. For instance, Rosenberg suggests that “…if Miro had a “problem” it was how to reach a state of creation unhindered by problems”. And as Rosenbery says, many artists saw the only other alternative to be making art for oneself.”For Newman, painting was “…a way of practicing the sublime, not communicating it.”
Others such as Mondrian, believed that it was possible to “…conceive of a grand vision such as the salvation of the human race.. that could be expressed in paint.” He believed his work was a “plastic vision” that would help to set up ” …a new type of society composed of balance relationships”.
Mondrian was aware that his work could not speak for itself without a “new phase in human development” so he wrote statements and manifestos explaining his ideas.
The irony, for Rosenberg, is that in contemporary art the meaning of artworks is not in themselves, but in the personality of the artist, “…his ideas, his role, his pathos.” He saw with clarity that what would become post-modernism would replace ideas in art altogether.
Modernist painters wrestled with the issue of content and the reaction against using recognizable images. Rosenberg refers to “pre-formlist abstraction” as that which has an unmistakable subject but “…projects a content that is implicit in but not restricted to the marks on the canvas”.
In this approach, a painting “…comes into being through unanticipated responses to what is taking place on the canvas”, as Rosenberg describes the work of Joan Mitchell. Whatever has gone on before provides the clue & the motivation for the next move.
The “meaning and emotional intensity [of Mitchell’s pictures] are produced structurally, as it were, by a whole series of oppositions: dense versus transparent strokes; gridded structure versus more chaotic, ad hoc construction; weight on the bottom of the canvas versus weight at the top; light versus dark; choppy versus continuous strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtapositions of hue – all are potent signs of meaning and feeling.”(5)
Rosenberg describes these as pre-formalist modernist painters as differentiated from the formalists who conceived abstract art in terms of “…a grammar of dimensions, edges, and color relations”.(2) Formalism also focused on eliminating metaphorical references, perhaps in reaction to what had become a cloying use of metaphors by some artists in earlier periods.
But the ultimate destination of this formalist direction were paintings that eliminated not only metaphor, but dimensions, edges, and color relations as well, to become a flat plane of one colour. My question is, where’s the fun in that compared to Mitchells’ aim and method: to express delight at having been taken by surprise? (4)
This triumph of an oh-so-serious approach to art is another interesting aspect of post-modernism that will be explored in another post.
1. Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations, Harold Rosenberg,1975
2. ibid p. 83
3. ibid p. 73
4. ibid p. 83