A New Theory of Abstract Painting?

A Review of a Book by Piri Halasz


“A Memoir of Creativity” by Piri Halasz is a witty, honest, scrupulously researched, and well written account of the author’s life experiences and intellectual development. From a “high brow” family, she majored in English at Barnard and subsequently spent 13 years at “Time” magazine. Beginning as a researcher in 1956, she later became a writer. She takes great pride in having been the first woman to write a cover story for Time, the “Swinging London” edition, in 1966. She records in much detail the male chauvinism, office politics, rivalry with “Newsweek”, and other goings on during this period of her life. Finally in 1966 she became Time’s art critic.

The turning point in her life was meeting Clement Greenberg in 1969. He prompted her to quit her job at “Time” which caused her to have a psychological meltdown landing in a mental institution. On recovering, she enrolled in the graduate program at Columbia University eventually earning a PhD. in art history. In the early 1980’s, she published an important series of articles on the reception of Abstract Expressionism (based on her Columbia thesis) which is when I first became aware of her. She subscribed to “Moffett’s Artletter” which I wrote between 1985 and 1989; some years later began her own artletter, “From the Mayor’s Doorstep”, which I subscribe to and read regularly. Her extraordinary diligence and persistence in keeping us Modernist holdouts connected and informed is indispensable, at least for me.

I very much enjoyed this book even though it is too long and repetitive. A big part of my interest is undoubtedly due to the fact that Halasz and I are close in age and have had similar generational experiences. I also went to Columbia and encountered many of the same professors. I read “Time” regularly in the years that Halasz worked there. I too was a close friend of Clement Greenberg, and he had a decisive influence on my life as well.

One of the best parts of the book is its intimate and touching portrait of Clem who was obviously the love of her life. She is the first to portray him so sympathetically, but also with all his foibles, and he comes to life in her pages. She rightly stresses his remarkable intuitiveness about art and people. His “take” was always surprising (at least up to the early 80’s). He was charismatic, blunt, vulgar, kind, cruel, and wise in equal measure. He was also a depressive and an alcoholic. Halasz courageously reports how grossly disrespectful he often was to her. But she was loyal to the end, sitting by his hospital bedside when he was dying.

Halasz makes the important point that Clem believed that great art expressed great human values like courage, character, and ambition. But it is also true that he was the last person to think that art leads to moral edification. Also, he was very competitive with artists and often spoke contemptuously of them, especially the Abstract Expressionist (except Pollock), but others too like Friedel Dzubas and Morris Louis.

Halasz reports that Clem didn’t talk about art with her, yet she speculates that he thought she had a good eye. But if he did, he surely would have said so. When she started her letter, she proposed to me an agreement to like some of the artists I liked, if I liked some of her favorites! But after some bumpy beginnings, her eye has gotten better and better. I now find myself agreeing with her most of the time. Still, she hasn’t gone beyond late Greenberg. (For example, her recent dismissal of the revelatory John Chamberlain retrospective at the Guggenheim.) She still doesn’t appreciate the momentous Modernist turn back to Abstract Expressionism at the beginning of the 1980’s, or the way that Pop effects and the development of new materials, have helped make this possible; thereby sustaining a new chapter in the history of Modernism. In fact, Halasz’s overall outlook isn’t shaped by Modernism so much as by her theory of abstract painting’s “multireferential imagery”. For Halasz, the centerpiece of her book is her exposition of this theory.

“Multireferential imagery” is certainly an apt term for a real phenomena. Most non-objective painting can be seen as having imagery of some sort. Even geometric forms, which have often been considered the most abstract and non-objective, have many ready associations with architecture or other man made objects. More random forms can evoke a face or other animate forms or almost anything else. Often there are several such readings, one canceling out another. It’s a question of shifting focus like the well known duck/rabbit example. Leonardo sought potential figure compositions in the stains on old walls and all of us have seen images in cloud formations. The famous Rorschach psychological tests, which Halasz mentions, rely on our capacity to see images in random forms. Almost always someone else can also see such “emergent” images when they are pointed out. Some painter’s pictures are more evocative of images than others. Some painters confirm these images, others cover them over, and still others work back and forth between abstraction and figuration. Do these images count in the aesthetic effect? Of course they do. Often they add focus, character, flavor, and even wit, to the overall effect. Sometimes we delight in the perspicuousness of an image or images which miraculously result from utterly free form abstraction. Then again, images can seem too imposed and deliberate, undermining the work’s spontaneity. Yet Jackson Pollock in his “Portrait and Dream” of 1953 could starkly, and successfully, juxtapose a huge Picassoid head in one half of the picture with a more or less free form abstraction in the other.

Halasz is not interested in these permutations, possibilities and peculiarities of images in abstract painting however, but rather in constructing an abstract theory about them. In her view, abstract painting is a new, richer form of representation in that it is an unconscious synthesis of many things that the painter has previously experienced. She likens her theory to Freud’s theory of dreams. In her own words:

“Modern Abstraction expresses the modern era better than any other form of art in its difficulty, complexity and incorporation of vast storehouses of images that inhabit the modern mind. Some billions. Great abstractions incorporate the entire range, adding up to a portrait of the artists world in all its goodness and badness that is ultimately profoundly philosophical rather than shallowly optimistic or shallowly pessimistic.”

Here is Halasz at her most bold and expansive. At the same time though, her theory is most persuasive when, as here, it remains a grand, suggestive generalization. When, on the other hand, she seeks to determine the components of a specific, supposed synthesis, i.e. whether or not a painter had, or might have had, experienced an image, she runs the risk of sounding silly. So, at one point, she tries to determine whether or not Pollock cooked spaghetti, in which case spaghetti, along with urine and semen and other things she cites, would be components of his synthesis. Here Halasz seems to reduce the exalted and sublime to the trivial and banal. Sure, this is a problem with the exposition, rather than with the theory itself. Nonetheless, it points up the fact that abstract paintings differs fundamentally from dreams.

Halasz doesn’t mention earlier attempts to explain the meaning of abstract painting. Most of the first abstract painters, Kandinsky, Kupka, and Delaunay, looked to music as the archetypal, nonrepresentational art. The last thing they wanted was to see their works as another form of representation. These pioneers, as well as many of the abstract painters who followed them, often numbered their pictures rather than giving them titles, precisely to thwart those representational associations which Halasz is so anxious to encourage. Others saw abstraction as expressive of our modern, scientific, and technological age, citing non-Euclidean geometry, space/time relativity, stroboscopic photography, force fields etc. In this vein, the painter, Richard Heinsohn, has written:

“We now have, through the study of biological sciences, quantum physics, astronomy, chemistry, and geology, encountered a myriad of images from telescopes, high power microscopes, electron microscopes, spectrometers and underwater cameras, which resemble imagery created by abstract painters. The more we learn from the sciences, the more abstraction approaches representation. Anything imaginable is not only possible, but probable. Pollock’s splatters and drips even speak to concepts of matter colliding with antimatter to form galaxies. This is not to say that abstraction can become representational. Abstraction as a practice distills and extracts aspects of reality in high concentration. Nonetheless, the greater scope of real images sharing commonalities with abstract imagery gives a heightened relevance to the intuitive and intellectual undertaking of abstraction.

This re-contextualizing, by no means redefines abstraction, but does further substantiate it. When Pollock exclaimed “I am Nature”, he was exactly right. Clearly, the more we channel the subconscious, the more these images resemble the various processes of creation itself. This indicates a strong link between the subconscious and the multitude of interconnected processes which comprise our total existence, from microscopic to telescopic. At this point, abstraction becomes a greater distillate of reality than ever before even as the scope of reality continues to reach far beyond plain sight. Despite our material culture’s propensity to transform insightful abstraction into mere décor, its significance continues to increase and its meaning, however enigmatic or specified, continues to evolve with us.”

Heinsohn sees “our existence integrated with myriad interconnected natural processes.” His speculations are Emersonian rather than Freudian, and, despite a few quibbles, strike me as at least as compelling as Halasz’s if not more so. Also, Heinsohn knows to keep his exposition to a few paragraphs of generalities and not get bogged down in specifics. In any case, neither of these interpretations are anything more than suggestive metaphors, or analogies.

Another point to be made about these two notions, is that they are not theories of abstract painting, but only theories of images in abstract painting. There is nothing in their expositions that could not be accomplished with a good reproduction. But abstract painting, like any painting, is both image and object in one. Its singular, palpable presence in time and space is essential. Furthermore, with abstract painting, the medium is usually front and center and, thus, its object character is featured even more.  This is why some non objective painters have preferred the term “concrete” to the term “abstract”. Abstract implies abstraction from something else, while concrete points to painting’s living physicality. But the term “concrete” has never caught on. In any event, any theory of abstract painting which doesn’t foreground this concrete aspect, is bound to seem over abstract. 

Aristotle already noted that representation in itself is pleasing. It may always have a certain edge on abstraction. My own view is that the best way to see abstract painting is not as another form of representation, but lyrically, as a performance by the painter, as a result of his or her ideas, actions, intuitions, and intentions; as a personal, expressive statement. (See for example, Ellen Winner’s “Seeing the Mind Behind the Art: People Can Distinguish Abstract Expressionist Painting from Highly Similar Paintings by Children, Chimps, Monkeys and Elephants”, 2001.) Here is an example of what I mean: “(Kenneth) Noland’s supposed impersonal canvases are vividly imbued with a dozen remarkably personal characteristics – pride, imposed logic, arrogance, grace, wit, independence and inner tension. Noland conveys these qualities, not deliberately but intuitively.” This beautiful passage is Halasz writing in 1968. Why she now makes such a big deal about abstract painting being another form of representation is hard to fathom. Also, her theory, which she seems to think requires research, sends the reader off in the wrong direction and away from the work itself. This is undoubtedly why Clem, Andre Emmerich, and Darby Bannard, three of the best advocates of abstraction, have all been so dismissive of her theory.

For the sake of argument though, let’s concede to Halasz when she claims that her theory is merely a device to get the public involved, to make people feel more comfortable with abstract painting. But if this is so, why limit it to the artist’s past experiences? Why aren’t the viewer’s associational images equally, or even more, helpful? Isn’t the point here that abstract painting is evocative and frees the viewer to have his or her own associations (or make their own synthesis)? In other words, it is not the specific associations that matter most but the pictorial energy that elicits them.

Another big problem with Halasz’s theory is that she never addresses the fact that painters like Pollock deliberately incorporated a large measure of accident and chance into their working process precisely in order to find something that they didn’t already know, or hadn’t seen before; to transcend themselves and their previous experience. Surely this conscious striving toward originality is more significant than a hypothetical synthesis in the unconscious (even though the former doesn’t necessarily exclude the latter). Furthermore, we know today that the mind is forever finding new patterns and meanings in phenomena. It is our DNA. In fact, the mind can’t stop itself and easily finds patterns and meanings in random data.

Also, with a painter like Pollock, kinesthetic empathy would seem to be more important than “imagery”.

By elevating abstract painting as the “richest” and “most representative” modern art, Halasz’s theory makes abstract painting too unique, too unconnected with the past painting and with other kinds of art. So Halasz discounts Neo Expressionism. Since she regards abstract painting as the non plus ultra of Modernism, Neo Expressionism becomes an inconvenience. But there is a kind of representation that develops organically out of, and is therefore informed by, abstraction. One only has to point to Picasso or Pollock or de Kooning, to see that this is so. The European CoBrA painters are another prominent example. Neo Expressionism may have been responsible for a lot of bad painting, but it also produced some very original things. To dismiss it as a whole genre smacks of the doctrinaire. Another example: she never discusses abstract, constructed sculpture which often has many different views and claims to be a new object in the world. Is this too only a synthesis of previously experienced images?

As I have already noted, Halasz sometimes insists that her theory has only educational value. She states that it is “value neutral” and separate from aesthetics. But in numerous other places she contrasts the “richly ambiguous”, multidimensionality” of abstract painting with the “unidimensional poverty” of postmodernism. This strikes me as not only wholly inconsistent, but also inaccurate. Postmodernists like Jasper Johns, Joseph Beuys, and many others, trade in ambiguity; in fact this is often all they have to offer. Also, let’s remember that Halasz considers any representational painting, even that of the Old Masters like El Greco or Vermeer, as well as modern masters like Van Gogh and Matisse, as “unidimensional” and thus lacking the rich ambiguity of abstraction. Clearly Halasz needs to decide whether her theory is truly “value neutral” and separate from aesthetics or not. If it is, then it is far less consequential than she claims. If it is not, then she needs to rethink the relation of her theory to aesthetics.

Halasz believes in the importance of abstract painting; she wants to explain why it can be so profound and elevating. She can’t accept the mystery. She states that “the prevailing view” is that abstract painting “depicts nothing.” This she dismisses as “almost mystical”. Yet she also states that great painting exists “outside time and contingency”. She never really engages with the fact that, from the beginning, the main rationale for abstract painting has been its spiritual or mystical content. Starting with Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevitch and on through Newman, Rothko, Olitski, Dzubas, the New New painters, and many others, this has been the dominate theory. It is telling that Halasz doesn’t even mention Michael Fried, who has offered one of the most compelling versions of this same conception of abstract painting. Even Clement Greenberg, who, as an ex-Marxist and atheist could never use the terms “spiritual” or “mystical”, wrote of great art delivering a “state of exalted, transcending cognitiveness”. Max Kosloff once wrote that Clem’s position amounted to “art mysticism”. Indeed. And what’s wrong with that? After all, neuroscience has shown that mystical experience traces to specific activities of the brain and so requires no metaphysical assumptions. (See my essay “How to Talk About Art”). What is more, the spiritual nature of the art experience has been attested to by numerous authors going back to Longinus in late antiquity. Abstract art might be said to make this naked as never before.

The last part of “A Memoir of Creativity” is a thoughtful account of the politics, art and taste of post World War II America. The book is well worth reading for this section alone. There is much to learn here. To me this is the most valuable part of the book. Halasz makes many interesting points and many perceptive summaries of the ideas of others. One never doubts her honesty or purity of purpose. Hers is a truly unique and independent voice.