January 22, 2011

From Solomon's 'The New Art'

A little Saturday stenography. Alan Solomon wrote "The New Art," a catalogue essay for "The Popular Image," one of the first museum exhibitions of Pop Art, organized by Alice Denney in the spring of 1963 at the fledgling Washington Gallery of Modern Art. [Solomon would go on to restage the show in the ICA in London that fall, sort of obscuring or usurping Denney's and the WGMA's position in the history of Pop.]

Anyway, Solomon, who had just left Cornell to establish the Jewish Museum's contemporary program, where he gave Rauschenberg his first retrospective, and who would soon be the commissioner at the Venice Biennale where Rauschenberg would be the first American to win the International Painting Prize, discussed both Rauschenberg and Johns, along with Allan Kaprow, as key influences on the nascent Pop Artists. Because no one else seems to have put it online, here are some extended excerpts from Solomon's essay:

The point of view of the new artists depends on two basic ideas which were transmitted to them by a pair of older (in a stylistic sense) members of the group, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. A statement by Rauschenberg which has by now become quite familiar implicitly contains the first of these ideas:
Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)
Rauschenberg, along with the sculptor Richard Stankiewicz, was one of the first artists of this generation to take up again ideas which had originated fifty yeras earlier int he objects made or "found" by Picasso, Duchamp, and various members of the Dada group. Raschenberg's statement, however, suggests a much more acute consciousness of the possibility of breaking down the distinction between the artist and his life on the one hand, and the thing made on the other.

Earlier I discussed the philosophical issues involved here in some detail. In Rauschenberg's view, the work of art has stopped being an illusory world, or a fragment of such a world, surrounded by a frame, which cuts it off irrevocably from the real world. Now, the entrance into the picture of objects from outside--not as intruders but as integral components--breaks down the distinction between a shirt collar, say, as an article of clothing and the same thing as an emotive pictorial device. In other words, we begin to operate here in an indeterminate area somewhere between art and life, in such a way that the potential of enrichment of life as art merges inseparably with the possibility of making the work of art an experience to be enormously more directly felt than the previous nature of paintings and sculpture had ever permitted. Rauschenberg wants the work of art to be life not an esthetic encounter depending in part on an intellectual process.

Without a doubt, this is an exciting and suggestive idea, one of those concepts which may not be startlingly new, but which, stated positively in appropriate circumstances, can trigger activity in other artists.

Solomon goes on to quote Kaprow's writing about Pollock, Rauschenberg's engagment with John Cage and the differences between Cage performance and Kaprow happening. And then after floating the idea that performances "appear to have been a necessary interlude in the whole process of exploration of the relation between people and things," he gets to Johns:
This contemporary absorption in the identity of objects and their emotive potential originated not only in the work of Rauschenberg but also in the paintings of Jasper Johns. Earlier I spoke of two basic considerations in the new art, the first being the new awareness of the mutuality of art and life. The second brings us back to the object and its new "personality." Without a doubt, Johns's flags and targets from the mid-fifties reopened the whole issue as much as anything else, since the subsequent preoccupation with popular images and subesthetic objects in one way or another refers to his initial assumptions (or nonassumptions).

When Johns made an American flag the subject of a painting, he invited a substantial list of questions about both the image and the way he painted it. The flag is the kind of image so frequently exposed that we have literally become blind to it. In the context of the painting, we ask ourselves whether we have really ever looked at it; a moment of hesitation follows about whether the artist is really serious or not (the banality of the new images always raises this question). We might then wonder whether it is even legal to paint a flag. Short of obscenity, it is hard to thing of a situation which could be more unsettling to us than the conflicts presented by this image.

Furthermore, when we really look at the flag, it becomes a curious obtuse image, apart from its emotive impact. A strong, simple design of rectangles and stars produces no recessive effects, so that its flatness puts us off at the same time that the strong contrasts and vibrations make such distinct visual demands. The repetitive character of the design verges on monotony, but we simply cannot isolate such factors from our compelling identification with the image, which means so many different things to each of us.

In the face of the flatness and purity of the rectangles and stars, without any modulation of tone or softening of edge, when Johns imposes on the image his own painterly handling, a new tension results, bringing us back to the basic problem of the relation between the picture and the real object As I have said, Johns raises quite a number of questions.

Indeed.

The WGMA's The Popular Image catalogue can be hard and expensive to find, but fellow critic Gregory Battcock liked Solomon's "The New Art" so much, he took it as the title for his 1966 anthology. The New Art: A Critical Anthology is cheap and easy.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: January 22, 2011.

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