The New "Pure" Painting



Abounding in current art criticism are such terms as "re­ductive", "basic", "essential", and "minimal", all exemplary of generally well-meaning and sometimes successful efforts to group stylistically, or to otherwise conceptualize and catego­rize, the work of the present and recent past. Such analytical or characterizing terms are applied particularly to the work of three major contemporary American artists: Barnett Newman and Frank Stella (who recently showed sculpture and painting respectively at the Pasadena Art Museum), and Kenneth No­land (who exhibited paintings at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery).

But in some ways, just because these more established artists have already become associated with a familiar (if not always lucid or consistent) critical-analytical-historical interpretive vocabulary, it may be clearer to set out some ideas here in relationship to the painting of three younger artists: Michael Egan (photo above, "Polara" 1964), Nick Boisvcrt, and John Caruthers. All three are, like Newman, Stella and Noland, very much concerned with "pure" painting, with functional, not just with formal prob­lems—i. e., theirs is an involvement in depth with the act of painting, with the question of what painting is. Before examin­ing the special qualities and implications of this new "pure" painting, however, it is important to define its nature, its rela­tionship to other contemporary problems in painting, and some salient features in its historical development.

The notion of "pure" painting is, first of all, not a descrip­tive category for works of art so much as it is an historical con­cept which functions as a critical approach to individual paint­ings. It has been a sort of negative ideal in the sense that artists who have concerned themselves with creativity as innovation and discovery always challenge the existing, conventional, limiting conceptions of their medium. Refusals to accept the prevailing definitions of painting—concerned as they usually are with what painting is not, or what it cannot, be more than with setting forth what it is, or what it may be—have thus led to expanding and deepening the meanings of the medium it­self. For example, since the early 15th century, it had been pretty well taken for granted (by our essentially Western Euro­pean culture) that painting necessarily involved a 2-dimen­sional illusion, or a picture of the perceived 3-dimensional world, visually ordered by the convention of one-point per­spective. This limiting self-definition of painting was success­fully and consistently challenged in the late 19th century in the work of Gauguin and Van Gogh with its Japanese influences and in the brilliant decorative attitude of Art Nouveau, leading to conscious reaffirmation of the surface by abstract painting early in the 20th century. By demonstrating that painting is not to be circumscribed by a commitment to create the illu­sion of a 3-dimensional space-box, the historical construct of this stylistic development thus contributes to the notion of "pure" painting.

Another example might involve the concept of the brushstroke (from the "painterly" painting of Velaz­quez or Hals to Manet, to the persistence of the brushstroke in Mondrian and Rothko, or in Johns and Rauschenberg, to its disappearance in Pollock's drips, Frankenthaler's stains, War­hol's silk screens, or even in Man Ray's airbrush paintings, arriving finally at the summing-up statement of Lichtenstein who takes the brushstroke itself as his literal subject matter). Clearly the brushstroke can no longer be held essential to any definition of painting as art—however important an element it may be in the particular work of one artist or in one period of art—and thus the idea of pure painting is indirectly pursued by virtue of another incidental aspect having been successfully challenged by artistic vision and invention, and by the works of art themselves. Painting was freed from the tyrannical hier­archy of subject matter finally just half a century ago, with the first deliberately conceived abstract work (the recognition for this achievement being generally accorded to Kandinsky, and dated around 1911). Even so, for those without the benefits of an art historical orientation and/or sweet reason, it is still dif­ficult to grasp the fact that neither the specific nature of a painting's subject matter nor indeed the existence of any rec­ognizable subject matter have anything whatsoever to do with what painting (or art) is—once we have admitted the validity, as art, of a single abstract work, whether a Kandinsky or a manuscript page from the 8th century Book of Kells. Not that we will ever zero-in on the "answer" to what painting really is; but by continually challenging those circumscribing conventions that attempt to define for us what painting is not, or worse, what it (and what art) cannot be, painting will remain vital as a medium, and art will not lose utterly its relevance to life.

The paintings of J. Michael Egan force us to confront another series of these touchstones formerly taken for granted. His approach is spare in both means and materials: raw canvas with three carefully conceived bands in acrylic primary colors in the most recent work. These canvases, seen in a one-man show at the Mills College Art Gallery, are composed of modular units: rectangles as in Sistine Super Starr, or equilateral triangles as in Sarah, Deb, and Robe. One element that helps to account for their exhilirating impact, however, is scale; the triangles are six feet on each side, and Sistine Super Star, when assembled (of four stretched canvases measuring six by nine feet each) actually rises over twenty feet from tip to tip. The structural relationship of these modular units is typical of Egan's attempts to provide all of the physical and formal factors that are essential to their aesthetic "logic", while avoiding the visual diversions that would be either superfluous or merely incidental to the problems of "pure" painting with which he is vitally concerned. As Carl Belz has noted, "This is a tough minded approach to picture making, involving a minimal vocabulary and some carefully restricted and self-imposed limitations. Work that follows such a course takes the chance of becoming intellectualized, even to the point of dryness, but Egan's, paintings surmount this risk and ... go far beyond the artistic 'problems' which are, nevertheless, so important to them." Artforum, V01.5, No.4, December 1966.)

Egan forces us to grapple with the problem of the painting­-as-object. Historically this involves a challenge to the notion that painting can be defined as that which (being usually made out of canvas and oil paint) is enclosed by a gilt frame, and placed upon an appropriate wall (home of the wealthy, museum, etc.). Certainly not many homes of the poor could sus­tain twenty-foot canvases; but neither can one of Egan's paintings bear the respectability of the gilt that follows generally after forty or fifty years for the public taste to become acclimatized (what could be more tasteful now than a little Cubist thing nestled in visual scrambled eggs?). At least one Cubist composition, Picasso's well-known Still Life with Chair Caning ( 1911 1912), resists such a symbolic framing that establishes the boundaries of the world of Art, separating it from Life, because the artist provided his own frame; from the world of  Life, a length of real rope. Yet the idea of the frame persisted until Mondrian challenged it by painting one of his stripes over the edge and onto the stretched canvas covering the sides (around 1935, although this may be antedated by some of the other painters associated with de Stijl or Constructivism).

For pictorial reasons deriving from the logic of the painting itself, the frame is made not only irrelevant but impossible; and the painting becomes a three-dimensional object in a way that seems to be more essentially related to "pure" painting than to the intermedium assemblage indicated by the Cubist works. Egan develops this concept of painting-as-object so that the structure of his canvases (and the interrelationship of the various modular units) is directly related to the pictorial dis­position of the stripes. Arbitrary or capricious aesthetic deci­sions in this approach to painting are subservient to those that are consistent with the "logical" and conscious creative pro­cesses.

This attention to the edge itself is typical also of Nick Bois­vert's work; Stella and Noland are more casual about its treat­ment. In other ways too the West Coast painting of Boisvert parallels some of the East Coast concerns of Egan, such as in a use of color that is almost exclusively limited to the three primaries. But where Egan utilizes raw canvas, the surfaces of Boisvert's painting-objects are entirely coated—straight from the can with Sinclair paints—rather than with the primary acrylics of Egan; both are in contrast to the mixed intermediate hues of both Stella and Noland, or the very careful chromatic choices of Newman. The edge of Boisvert's large blue and yel­low painting is treated just like another stripe; but between stripes he uses black dividing lines in contrast to the other artists who generally allow blank spaces of unpainted canvas, The black is to cut down the optical activity of the colors, which emphasizes the separate visual identity of each stripe; it also marks the approach of this art as post-Op, while relating it to the more biomorphic painting of Nicholas Krushenick.

In the work of John Caruthers, mentioned in a previous article (Art International, Vol. X, No. 10, December 1966), white stripes bordered by black lines now cross colored fields to create an intriguing optical play of illusionistic space. The elements are painted in flat pigment, but their apparent weaving in space is a reading paradoxically difficult to avoid. Caruthers thus achieves a clear tension between the obviously 2-dimen­sional and the illusion of three dimensions by abstract means. The black makes his conceptions more deliberately ambiguous in terms of lines and space than painting that uses colored areas, leaving unpainted canvas for the "lines", such as that of Stella, Larry Zox, or Neil Williams.

Left: Nick Boisvert's It Hurts So Bad I Could Care Right: One of Kenneith Nolan's "Chevrons".

Left: Nick Boisvert's It Hurts So Bad I Could Care Right: One of Kenneith Nolan's "Chevrons".

A programmatic critical approach to all of this painting might first set out as problem-references several formal ele­ments: line, color, form, surface, edge, shape, and scale— be­fore exploring the more interpretive elements of subject matter (iconography), content (iconology), effect (criticism and aes­thetics), and significance (cultural and historical). Egan's mod­ular structure and its related visual logic thus can be seen to involve some of these formal elements more deliberately than others. Neither the pictorial forms themselves nor the partic­ular qualities of surface, for example, are as important to his work as problems related to the edge, to shape and scale. That is not to say they are irrelevant: line and form become closely conjoined in the idea of the stripe—and while the stripe may be of rather minimal pictorial concern in itself (of much less interest, say, than Krushenick's forms), the relationship of the stripe to color and the subsequent disposition of these colored stripes on the surface of the canvas are critical factors in dis­cussing Egan's work. And color for Egan, Boisvert or Caruthers, as another example, does not provide the same basis for prob­lems that it does for Noland, Stella, Newman or Krushenick-the use of color by the former painters is reduced almost com­pletely to the controlled, a priori non-problem assumptions, as in Egan's decision to paint only with three unmixed primary colors, always related in a predetermined sequence of red, yel­low and blue, beginning at the extreme left of any composition and reading to the right. This kind of new attitude toward the process of painting suggests the maturing of applied game theory, already a sophisticated attribute of Marcel Duchamp's metaesthetics of fifty years ago. On this issue of color, Noland, on the other hand, would seem to be playing a different game—a much more conventional and Romantically-oriented one, where color is retained as an expressive element. But again, both Egan and Noland explore problems related to scale.

Big paintings were not even news for the Baroque ceiling masters, much less for the Abstract Expressionists. However, it is par­ticularly with artists like Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko that certain kinds of scale problems come to be consciously raised: the field of the painting surface purposely engulfs the viewer in its world, although this new perceptual world resists the illu­sionist or metaphorical relationship with the "real" world that was maintained up to the 19th century. Several of Noland's recent paintings demonstrate this changed attitude toward scale as an element of composition: horizontal stripes on radi­cally proportioned canvases which (in the normal intimate gallery or living space anyway) stretch outside peripheral limits of vision. Gogee, at the Nicholas Wilder G, is almost eight times as wide as it is high (24 x 190 1/2 inches) and Equatorial Front is even wider (196 inches) although it is also higher (41 3/4 inches). In contrast to the color fields of Rothko where the shape of the canvas is reduced to an incidental factor by the scale, both Noland and Egan—especially with his gigantic Sistine Super Starr—seem to utilize shape to articulate scale. This is even true with Egan's relatively smaller canvases (such as Sarah, Deb, and Robe, or Distane, Adage, and Venus which com­prise another interrelated series); through structural statements with modular shapes they build up a controlled dramatic sense of scale.

Beyond the more strictly formal problems there also lie per­haps surprisingly rich possibilities for investigation and inter­pretation in the realm of iconography—surprising because the minimal formal statements at first appear to provide little enough basis for such an approach. Indeed, it is the adjunct of the title—as a conjoined poetic statement—to which we can most confidently turn in this matter. The titles so seldom seem to bear any relation whatsoever to the visual images (anti-images?) that there is a temptation to regard them as mere ironic perpetuations of a tradition essentially dead. But the phenomenon is too widespread and consistent to be explained away as a neo-Dada gesture. Anyway, recognizing that the title is presented in an essentially different medium than the work of art itself does not automatically eliminate the possi­bility that the title may also bear a sincere and valid correlation to the painting. By way of illustration, a parallel problem is raised in two different but conjoined media when the Beatles sing in their movies, A Hard Day's Night and Help! In the latter film, director Richard Lester most clearly eschews any of the attempts to force songs into a plot structure following the rather arbitrary conventions of the Broadway musical. But by dis­carding the devices that are still used, say, in Elvis Presley movies, Lester makes an important contribution to new ways of using music as a structural element in the medium of the cinema. It is in precisely this way that the songs in Help! avoid being used arbitrarily as literary, illustrative devices; rather, they become what they are, and as such can function with a new integrity.

Much the same shift in attitude toward the use of titles occurred in the history of modern painting. Jackson Pollock, among others, would number some paintings rather than give them titles—an anti-expressionist notion fully con­sonant with what we know of Pollock's art theory, despite the popular misconception of him as an archetypal "expressionist" artist. Younger artists have chosen not to face the title as a dilemma. Pollock still must have conceived of the title itself as being essentially related to the painting, thus being forced to adopt the mechanistic expedient of numbering his works. But when the title as such and the painting are recognized as func­tioning differently, in different media (however conjoined in presentation), the artist is then in a much more confident posi­tion to use titles accordingly, without the fears of fakery and pre­tension that must have plagued Pollock. Frank Stella is per­haps one of the finest of these title-poets: Sunapee III, the Cho­coura and Tuftonboro paintings, or his earlier Charlotte Tokayer. But Sistine Super Starr (from F. Scott Fitzgerald, the comics, or the Green Bay Packers?) is hard to match.

There is a clear danger in all this of what would in other times, or what should by older conventions, represent a serious personal statement coming to seem only a quixotic gesture. Yet the stance of post-Abstract Expressionist painters lacks the sar­donic clement of earlier Dadaism, where one might find an otherwise similar use of titles. In order to become so disappointed with the world, Dada had to decline the gambit of Romanti­cism. Now in turn (and in turnabout) it is the Dada gambit that is accepted. An excellent opportunity for reviewing the long and productive interaction between the essentially Euro­pean movements of Dada and Surrealism and the essentially American artist, Man Ray, was provided by his first full-scale retrospective exhibition which closed out the year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This ambitions project, brought together under the supervision of Jules Langsner, in­cluded more than 300 paintings, drawings, collages, rayo­graphs, films and objects, and covered a period from 1910 to the present. It achieved one of those seldom attained goals of a retrospective in creating a vivid sense of Man Ray's artistic personality. This very success—or even just the possibility of it—serves as a fascinating point of contrast between the younger contemporary artists and those active earlier in the century.

"Stripes" - A photograph by photographer/artist Man Ray

"Stripes" - A photograph by photographer/artist Man Ray

Already with Man Ray, and with his friend Marcel Duchamp, we find an explicit concern with the problem of artistic identity. In this regard it is possibly less interesting that "Man Ray" is a pseudonym, than the fact that Duchamp not only assumed another name for himself but also deliberately set about creating an alter-ego, Rose Selavy (a portrait of whom, by Man Ray, was included in the exhibition, bearing its title in the form of a painted rose with the inscription "Cola vii ").

Egan has begun to expand in this direction by appropriating several identities, among them: Mike, Michael, J. Michael, Joseph, Joey, and Joe Egan, plus Beau Egan and the some­what more inventive Aaron Beau. With the possibility for so many guises there is a threat that the force of a single artistic personality will be dissipated. A rejoinder may be, "But what does this have to do with art anyway?" Or further, "And how much bad art do you think has been perpetrated in the name of the artist expressing his personality?" With Egan, where one identity is just about as good as another, the stance of the artist effectively approaches one of impersonality. In the work too, we search vainly for some obvious human trace of involve­ment, like the "records" of Pollock's action-creation events, or the brushstrokes that persist in Rothko, Johns, or Rauschen­berg. But since the brushstroke turned out to be another one of those ideals of painting that had, so to speak, feet of clay, we might be wise to proceed cautiously here with the concepts of "personality" or "impersonality". For where the art of Egan, Noland, Stella and the others might appear, to the indiscrimi­nate eye, to conform to a stereotype of impersonality, it does not take much of a confrontation with the art itself before we are quite capable of distinguishing personal styles. As we have implied above, these separate painting styles can be charac­terized by referring to the "checklist" of elements (line, color, form, surface, edge, shape, scale, subject matter, content, effect and significance) and then to the kind of problems each of the respective artists chooses to explore in terms of these elements, or combination thereof. In contrast to this way of deriving a sense of identity from an analytical approach to the work, the personality of Man Ray pervades all of his work in whatever style or medium; in this way he is related more closely to the 19th-century Romantic image of the poet or artist than to the image prevailing today.

Works by Man Ray - "New York" (left) and "Orchestra" (right).

Works by Man Ray - "New York" (left) and "Orchestra" (right).

Characteristically, the most successful of Man Ray's many brilliant and witty inventions are those that demonstrate his personal creative ideas like flashes of inspiration: swift, clear and penetrating. The object entitled "New York, 1920" and composed of steel balls in an olive jar is as easy for us to describe conceptually and verbally as it is unlikely that we would ever come across such a combination of materials by chance. But such disarmingly simple statements contain impressive iconic power; works like Object: to be Destroyed, with a photograph of an eye mounted on a metronome, or the well-known Cadeau com­posed of a flatiron with a row of tacks glued to its face, provide strange object-images difficult to forget. With the exception of a few really impressive works: The Rope Dancer Accompanies Her­self with Her Shadows (not in the Los Angeles exhibition), Ob­servation Time—The Lovers, and Imaginary Portrait of D. A. F. de Sade, Man Ray's paintings in historical perspective seem to be primarily effective as anti-medium statements, intended (at least in part) as anti-painting paintings. Orchestra (1916) sums up with a sort of deliberately hideous good taste that contem­porary tradition of dull Cubistic pictorial exercises. A more straightforward anti-painting is Abstraction (1940), based upon a series of earlier works like Gens du Monde and Gens d'Interieur (1929). In each of these works, the major pictorial device is an overall pattern of regularly spaced zig-zags. This goes some way toward Lichtenstein's much later comment on the brush­stroke, but at the same time epitomizes Man Ray's own benignly devastating wit.

The superficially impersonal stance of much contemporary painting is of course thoroughly familiar to students of the early 20th-century abstract movements—but underlying the stylistic coolness of that work was (as often as not) a certain "warm" dedication to political, philosophical or spiritual positions by the individual artists. The dégagé stance vis-a-vis the medium of painting is only fully and consistently developed with Pop Art, beginning in the late 1950's—as indicated by Warhol's use of the silk screen or Lichtenstein's Ben-Dayesque, but most fully exemplified perhaps by the anti-personality of Robert Indiana. This is a "cool" attitude toward painting that be­comes especially cool in Marshall McLuhan's sense of the term when it is taken over by the post-Pop painters like Egan, Bois­vert or Caruthers. The act of painting became detached—lit­erally detached from the surface—when the physical "bridge" of the brush was discarded by Pollock; just as Pollock also used to think of his finished works as things apart from himself. Already with Indiana the depth involvement with the act of painting was emphatically stated in new terms; we must not forget how much human concentration is necessary before one's work looks as though it might have been done by a machine.

Naturally there are stylistic family trees for the younger painters. Boisvert, for example, cites the influence of Lichten­stein's pure colors and heavy black lines, ultimately derived from comic strips; and Boisvert incorporates these formal ele­ments in his non-figurative work for much the same reasons as Lichtenstein did originally: to achieve a pictorial immediacy and visual impact. One general difference between the Pop-oriented painters and the cool "pure" painters can be discov­ered by their approach to the problem of subject matter. Pop Art represents a historically critical turning (or returning) of painting to the exterior world of subject matter. After fifty years of abstraction, however, this could never again be the picture-making conception of painting that still flourished, but finally faltered in the 19th-century. Pop Art is as seriously con­cerned with painting as was Manet, rather than being in­volved with mere picture-making (which, after all, a machine could do better than most painters as early as Daguerre made his process public in 1839). But prior to this "extrinsic" devel­opment of painting that established renewed bases for the rela­tion of art to Pop life, there was almost a full half-century in which virtually every major statement within the medium was " intrinsic ", i.e., either concerned with self-definition of " pure" painting in terms of developing formal elements and processes, or turned inward, with Expressionist painting, and concerned with the personality or intimate identity of the artist himself. The roots of this intrinsic development of painting of course go deeper than the beginnings of abstraction: already in the middle of the 19th century Courbct occupied a key position by challenging a concept of the hierarchy of subject matter, which paved the way for Manet's purist approach and for the extreme statements of the Impressionists that followed. By ex­panding its concerns and opening up the world of painting, Courbet just as rightly deserves a key place in its "extrinsic " development—a function no doubt more closely in accord with his own socialist motives than the exclusivist intrinsic effect.

It should be no wonder that following this intrinsic develop­ment of painting up to the present—a sort of functional stylistic narcissism—we encounter a complex series of "problems", concerned with those formal elements, posed and solved by the works of art themselves. No art historian has yet written a text from this point of view, but then, the academics usually are the last to catch on. Such a historical study involves a ques­tion of radical methodology more importantly than it does an unorthodox concept of history: for one would have to discard (at least temporarily) the comforting clichés of art historical "movements" and the perennial embalmed syllabus based on simple-minded chronological sequence, and once again (for once?) look at the works of art themselves. For example, in relation to the idea of an intrinsic development, the history of Expressionism acquires a new and wider level of significance: one which seriously implicates such previously unlikely paint­ers as Mondrian, or the work of Kandinsky at the Bauhaus and after.

Nothing so rich and varied as the history of modern painting could hope to be organized by two spare concepts such as "ex­trinsic" and "intrinsic". As critical or historical approaches they have the incidental virtue of being new, and hence may inspire or encourage the drawing of new relationships, which is the creation of new meanings and understandings. Should any of these become "established", they ought to be roundly challenged in their turn. But the world of ideas is always pluralistic (except for authoritarian mentalities), and one way of measuring the value of a new idea is, in fact, to assess the quality of the fresh alternatives, rebuttals or antitheses it stimulates. One of the most exciting of these (which cannot, however, be explored here) is the idea of the "motion-picture" as the con­tent of one key line of historical development in modern paint­ing—closely related to time-motion problems in modern sculp­ture. But in the end, any scholar or writer on art (unless he is the slavish disciple of a mechanistic historical determinism) must be drawn to two beautiful statements by Man Ray: "There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it." And: "All opinion is transient, and all work is permanent."

Kurt von Meier


This is the cover of the February, 1967 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-67.