After Modernism, Week 1 – Abstract Expressionism and Clement Greenberg

Our first lecture of the series ‘After Modernism’ was about Abstract Expressionism and an introduction to the theories of Clement Greenberg.

We began by looking at the freedom that Abstract Expressionism represented, looking at Jackson Pollock’s painting, Autumn Rhythm, 1950.

Comparing this piece with the propaganda painting by Vladimir Petrov, Tursunoi Akhunova, The First Woman Uzbek Tractor Driver Teaching a Friend, 1955

My initial thoughts when viewing these images side by side was how different they both were stylistically – I felt the first one offered an expressive and abstract take on a subject matter that I found difficult to read into, whereas the second was a clear, representative painting that clearly depicted a readable scene.

However, as our discussion developed I began to see that it could be said that the first painting is a far more representative painting than the second. Pollock’s work offers an undefined chaos addressed only to himself, reflecting quite transparently the nature of a capitalist society and the individualism that couples it, while the second painting puts forward a grossly optimistic view of communism, depicting a scene that ignores the true oppression being suffered at the time of its creation.

On first impressions it seems that the second is more representative but with further investigation it seems that Pollocks’ piece offers more honesty.

We then went onto learn about the roots of Abstract Expressionism:

  • Cubism – the fragmentation of form, political enagement, line and plane, flatness and volume.
  • Surrealism – automatism, hidden imagery and desire.

Before investigating the prominent features of Abstract Expressionism:

  • Gesture – every mark represents the movement of a body, the same body, an outward expression of existence. This taps into the existentialist philosophy that we are alone, surrounded in an eternity of non existence.
  • Ideogram – Coded and fragmented imagery that allows for projected perception, and encourages the reading of images collectively and separately in order to be understood.
  • Size and scale – Large scale paintings that shrink and absorb the viewer.
  • Submerged figuration – There is no sense of a figure in the painting, but a distinct essence of the artists body.
  • The ‘all over’ effect – Draws the viewer in with smaller elements of detail and then occupies their whole visual field. There is not one part of the painting that is more dominant than another, it can be viewed in parts and as a whole interchangeably.

After exploring abstract expressionism, we were introduced to Clement Greenberg and his formalist theory of art in modernist painting. The seminar text was ‘Modernist Painting’ by Greenberg (1960).

Greenberg suggests that the first ever modernist was philosopher Immanuel Kant, a pioneering philosopher who was the first to look inwardly towards self criticism and analysis. For Kant, the importance of philosophy was not simply to investigate the meaning of the outward world but to turn towards philosophy itself and ask what is philosophy? This is the same approach that Greenberg believes should be at the centre of modernist painting.

His formalist definition of painting is as follows:

  • 2-dimensionality
  • The rectangular shape of support
  • The properties of the pigment

This could be argued to be an adequate in definition painting, but it is not sufficient. It fails to account for paintings that are not rectangular, and offers no explanation as to whether the effect that a painting has outside of itself is an extra to the content, or whether it is the content.

Greenberg describes a painting as something that exists only with in the confines of a rectangle, a painting should address itself – as in Abstract Expressionism, the paint addresses paint, it is not pretending to be anything but paint. Anything that relies on, or uses as subject matter as, a reference point outside of itself is not a modernist painting – according to Greenberg.

But – how long can paint simply investigate itself before it starts to become repetitive?


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