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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Franz Kline. "Ninth Avenue Elevated RR Station at Christopher Street," 1940-41. Oil on board, 16 x 22 inches. Private Collection. (c) 2012 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Not infrequently exhibition catalogs come my way. Here are four that I found of more than ordinary interest. The first three are of single artists: Noland, Frankenthaler & Kline. The third is a group show: Jens Jensen, David Evison, & John Griefen. The first three are of interest to me because of their attempts to find imagery in abstraction; the fourth is simply a handsome tribute of its own.


The first is "Kenneth Noland: Paintings 1958 to 1968, "published by Mitchell-Innes & Nash, in conjunction with their exhibition from March 17 to April 30, 2011. This was Noland’s first posthumous exhibition, and the catalog essay was by Paul Hayes Tucker, an art historian who teaches at University of Massachusetts Boston and is best known for his work on Monet.

In this essay, Tucker attempts to show that Noland’s early work not only offered the “formalist purity” of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried but “much more.”

Specifically, he is intent on showing how Noland’s “target” paintings, for example, incorporated references to everything from a) the diagram of Planet Earth as the Giant Orgone Accumulator created by Dr. Wilhelm Reich, the eccentric psychoanalyst with whom Noland was in therapy for nine years to b) the circular logos for Tide (the detergent), RPM (motor oil) and Lucky Strike (cigarettes).

Certainly, this prying into Noland’s psyche would never have been encouraged by the artist himself. Moreover, by failing to explain how all these references found their way into Noland’s paintings, Hayes creates the impression that they were deliberate and consciously intended.

Furthermore, the reproductions of these logos, with their harsh, garish colors, and the crude diagram of Planet Earth, with its didactic lettering, violate all the esthetic standards to which Noland gave his allegiance.

None of this does his reputation any real good. Whatever it good does to establish roots for his work in the external world is counteracted by the choice of such remarkably ugly roots, together with the failure to offer a plausible explanation for how they found their way into his paintings.

Of course, I know that even a far more nuanced approach to the problem would not have been welcomed by Noland, either—because I myself essayed that in 1983. Shortly after I introduced my theory of multireferential imagery, arguing that the abstract image synthesized many different sights the artist had seen, a synthesis achieved through the artist’s unconscious, I attempted to discuss with Noland possible sources for one of his target paintings of which I had a good reproduction.

In this target, the delicate, subtle color scheme at which he excelled was built around blues and greys. This reminded me of the uniforms worn by the armies of the North and South during the Civil War, a conflict that Noland, raised in the South, might have been more aware of, growing up, than Yankees. The circles themselves further reminded me of speed: the whirling wheels of trains, automobiles and even planes.

I don’t recall raising the issue of the Civil War with Noland, but I do remember him saying he loved fast cars and planes. He balked at the idea that his unconscious might have been conveying images, though, and out of respect for his feelings, I never published this research while he was alive, but I continue to think that my approach had more sensitivity to the strengths of Noland as an artist than that of Professor Tucker.


A second catalog essay that pursues a parallel line of thought is “The Pleasure of Not Knowing,” by John Elderfield, in "Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959,” published in conjunction with the exhibition at Gagosian from March 8 to April 13, 2013.

This too was the artist’s first posthumous exhibition, and, though Elderfield—now an emeritus curator at MoMA and associated with Gagosian—has written about Frankenthaler before, he carries his arguments on behalf of her supposed allegiance to subject matter to new lengths.

Oddly enough, he appears to accept the possibility of multireferential imagery in abstract paintings, maybe even unconsciously arrived at. He calls this “generalized allusions to the external world,” but he neglects to give me credit for the notion, and argues that it doesn’t carry Frankenthaler’s allusions to the external world far enough.

Speaking of Frankenthaler’s paintings from the 1950s, he maintains that Greenberg & Fried (except in passing) ignored “an aspect of her art of major importance: that it is not abstract, devoid of other than generalized allusions to the external world, but is depictive, comprising imaginative reconstruction of lived experience."

Among paintings that Elderfield calls “depictive” are some apparently inspired by postcards reproducing Old Masters, and others prompted by the artist’s experience of the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira, when she visited these sites with Robert Motherwell during their honeymoon in 1958.

Alas, I don’t think this approach does Frankenthaler any favors either. The tortured attempt to line up her paintings with the putative “depictive” elements in them is nothing more than an attempt to reduce her to the level of a second-rate representational painter, one whose uni-referential imagery is so amateurish that it takes a curator to decipher it—just about what Rose Carol Washton Long did to Kandinsky.

I might add that Frankenthaler herself vigorously resisted my theory of multireferential imagery, when I tried it out on her in 1983 (the same time that I tried it out on Noland). The example I attempted to discuss with her was “Flood,” owned by the Whitney and painted in 1967.

As with many paintings by Hofmann, I felt that the imagery in “Flood” combined vertical and horizontal depictions of landscape--the countryside as seen from the ground and as seen from the air. Bu to Frankenthaler, this whole idea was merely an effort to find “a handle” or “a way in.” As such, she thought that it deprived the viewer of “the esthetic emotion”(a phrase that I have elsewhere heard equated to “the esthetic response”).

Years later, when I was working on "A Memoir of Creativity," I came across a long, two-part article on abstract expressionism published in Life in 1959. The text that accompanied the semi-abstract painting by de Kooning from the 1950s used one of those phrases (either ”way in” or ”handle,” I can’t remember which).

I realized that Frankenthaler’s use of these terms must have been a revival of the response generated among dedicated abstractionists in the 1950s by the semi-abstract paintings that de Kooning initiated with his “Woman” series in mid-decade. I suspect that while the "Woman" series was widely welcomed by all the people who couldn't see abstract expressionism as long as it was truly abstract, it was at the same time resented by people who valued the abstract in abstract expressionism & considered this a part of what made it so distinctive. Among this group of people I would especially expect to have found not only Frankenthaler herself but also other painters of pure abstraction & their admirers.

It was still the same Frankenthaler speaking who, in an interview I conducted with her for my 1969 article in Time on her, contrasted the landscapes she made from nature while out painting with Greenberg in the country with the abstracts she made back in the studio, saying that the landscapes were “the discipline” and the abstracts, “the joy.”

In 1969, too, she’d said to me that in a hundred years, all painting would be abstract. I subsequently heard the exact same observation from another one of Greenberg’s friends, and suspected that they were repeating something that they’d heard him say.

By the later 80s, though, with the invasion of neo-expressionism, a figurative art form, and the popularity of the ”pictures” school, the future triumph of abstraction looked a lot less inevitable, and even Frankenthaler became less insistent on the purity of hers.

At some point (though I can’t remember when) she even wrote to me that people frequently found allusions in her paintings, and in later years, she herself spoke to reporters, curators and/or authors like Elderfield about what thoughts and wishes were expressed in individual pictures.

That said, I still feel that whatever uni-referential imagery she was conscious of incorporating into her paintings, and that has so zealously been unearthed by Elderfield et al., is only the tip of the iceberg, and that much more subject matter is also present in ambiguous shapes—as is the case with much and maybe even all true abstracts.

Even the possibility of these additional layers of meaning, however, is usually resented by most viewers, for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, these viewers apparently find the notion of ambiguity unsettling. They would rather have a simple unequivocal solution, or, barring that, no solution at all.

Artists, by virtue of their very sensitivity, instinctively feel that they don’t want strangers poking and prying into their innermost thoughts & feelings. Some artists even like to make abstractions because it helps them cover up what they don’t want exposed.

This latter possibility was suggested to me by Anne Truitt, back in 1983. It was part of a wonderful letter that she wrote, in response to my sending my article to her. She accepted my theory in the main, though she had penetrating critiques to make of it as well. It’s a pity that I was only able to paraphrase it in "A Memoir of Creativity," but (marking a unique experience for that book) her estate refused me permission to use her actual words.


A third catalog seeks to introduce representation to abstract art, and, in so doing, offer a fresh incentive to pomonians to give it a fresh look. This is "Franz Kline: Coal and Steel," by Robert S. Mattison, and it accompanied a major exhibition held at the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania from October 7, 2012, to January 13, 2013.

An abbreviated version of this show was held in the spring of 2013 at the Mishkin Gallery of Baruch College, where I saw and reviewed it. I posted my review on March 20, and it also appeared in the hard copy FMD in my late spring issue #106.

Just as John Elderfield tried to find subject matter for Frankenthaler in Old Master postcards, and Paul Tucker looked for sources to Noland’s target paintings in Tide and motor oil logos, so too Mattison searches for the underlying figurative sources for Kline’s slashing, mostly black-and-white abstractions of the 1950s.

He finds them, too, in the bleak industrial cityscapes and countryside of the coal-mining area of Pennsylvania, where the artist was born in 1910, and in the already picturesque neighborhood of Greenwich Village, where he settled in 1938 to pursue a big-city artist’s career.

The result is a much more plausible narrative. There are important reasons for this, I think. First, Kline himself was aware of fragmentary figurative elements in his abstractions, and second, he left behind a substantial body of earlier figurative work, which Mattison could use for source material.

Mattison convincingly recreates the historical situation in the Lehigh Valley while Kline was growing up, with photographs and/or descriptions of the trains, trestle bridges, mine shafts, culm piles and coal breaker buildings.

These serve to illustrate the first part of the exhibition, with Kline’s early paintings of similar subjects. These paintings are mostly dim, dark and fluid, but still only the work of a very young painter with nothing but high school art classes to prepare him.

The paintings of New York subjects, mostly Greenwich Village during the late 30s and early 40s, are more accomplished: Kline had had a year of studying art in London.

Frequently these views are quite impressive, dominated as they are by imposing architectural forms. The stately views of the old “El” (elevated railway) stations show remarkable attention to detail and articulation.

It is not altogether too hard to see them as way stations on the route to Kline’s abstractions, though actually the crucial link—from the later 40s—seems to have been primarily the many smallish, black-and-white sketches on paper of a woman—Kline’s wife Elizabeth—seated in a rocking chair.

Second in importance in this transition may be the moody oils of Kline’s studio interior, with and without the rocking chair (Elizabeth had serious emotional problems which necessitated frequent hospitalizations in the later 40s, and throughout the 50s).

All of this is very persuasive, though it fails to directly address the central strategy of abstraction, which is the way that it incorporates what Mattison (correctly) calls “visual memory” into abstract paintings.

This strategy is to combine and synthesize different visual memories—to create an ambiguous or multireferential image, one that reminds different people of different things, depending on how their own visual memories correspond to those of the artist. In other words, I would tend to see at least a dual set of sources in Kline's abstractions: not only the coal-country allusions that Mattison writes so eloquently about, but also the human figure, possible even a female human figure--reflecting how he was led into abstraction with his studies of his wife Elizabeth.

Still, Mattison is not entirely averse to psychological theory. In fact he quotes a behavioral researcher named David C. Rubin on “autobiographical memory.”

More importantly, he quotes Kline, in a passage with definite multireferential overtones: “I don’t have the feeling that something has to be completely non-associative as far as figure form is concerned….I think if you use long lines they become---what could they be? The only things they could be is either highways or architecture or bridges.”

This is as close as I’ve seen yet to an artist admitting that his paintings could refer to highways AND architecture AND bridges. And the closest (aside from John Elderfield’s phrase about “generalized allusions”) that another writer has come to substantiating a case for multireferential imagery—even if he doesn’t call it that.

It may be that the theories of dream interpretation introduced by Freud are an unpopular today as is Clement Greenberg (somehow Jung is a lot easier for most people to accept than Freud—he doesn’t threaten people with the possibility that they may not be in complete control of themselves).

But, as I’ve learned from occasional attendance on lectures at the New York Psychoanalytic Society, the idea that the images one sees in dreams are a synthesis of things seen in waking life isn’t unique to Freud. It is also accepted by other dream researchers, including some hostile to Freud.

My argument that such a synthesis also informs abstract paintings is part of my larger understanding of synthesis as the essence of all creativity. Nobody ever invents things all by themselves; they always simply put familiar things together in new ways--this goes for Einstein & his theory of relativity as well as every abstract painting ever made.

In addition to its failure to grasp the multireferential bull by the horns, Mattison’s catalogue suffers from a bit too much pomonian dystopia. This shows up in its harping on what a melancholy, alienated, angst-ridden personality Kline had, and its determined attempt to eradicate the contrary (and far more prevalent) picture of him as a sociable fellow with skill as a raconteur and conversationalist.

Another way that Mattison takes a dystopian tack is by harping on the idea that the Lehigh Valley economy was going downhill all the time that Kline was growing up in it, and that, in painting abstractions based upon it, he was chronicling a dying culture.

This kind of eschatology is a staple of pomonian negativity, and specifically in its insistence that modernism is dying if not already dead. The way I look at it, looking back nostalgically on the past is healthy and beneficial, and that, in being nostalgic for the Lehigh Valley in which he grew up, Kline was expressing mental health. At any rate, that is the gist of an article by John Tierney in the NYTimes for July 9—nostalgia, according to the latest research, makes life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. The mighty locomotives, massive culm piles and other evidence of important industrial activity also had a majesty to them, a tribute to their power and productivity that deserve commemoration for their own sakes.

Mattison does better when he characterizes the abstract paintings themselves as expressing “the duality of construction and destruction,” and admits that “it took an abstract vocabulary to express these feelings.”

And, on the whole, his catalog is more sympathetic to its subject, and accordingly more illuminating, than either the Elderfield or Tucker catalogs. But let us not be too hard on them either. After all, the artists they had to deal with came along a full artistic generation later than Kline, and pose problems that he didn’t. It may be that a fuller appreciation of their multireferential imagery will have to wait until they are as far in the past as Kline is today.


Finally, a neat but not gaudy catalog is “Jens Jensen, David Evison, John A. Griefen,” published for the exhibition of these three artists from three different countries at Kunstraum Heiddorf in Heiddorf, Germany, August 17 to October 31, 2013 (and on view by appointment throughout the winter). Evison, the Brit, is represented by tile reliefs and steel-and-aluminum sculptures. Griefen, the Yank, shows his free-form acrylics on wood and handmade paper. Jensen, the German, shows acrylics on canvas, and mixed-media piece on paper.

Everything is abstract and delightfully modernist. The brief catalog essay is by Charles Wilde. As it’s in German, I don’t know what it says, but I would guess that it’s delightfully modernist, too. Although the gallery isn’t as large as Mitchell-Innes, Gagosian, or even the Allentown Museum, the quality of the color reproductions compares very respectably with theirs.

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