Color Field Painting is another variant of Post-Painterly Abstraction that emphasized paintings basic properties. However, rather than produce sharp, unmodulated shapes as the hard-edge artists had done, the Color Field painters poured diluted paints onto unprimed canvas allowing the pigments to soak into the fabric. It is hard to conceive of another painting method that results in such literal flatness. Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928) painted Bay Side, a work that appears spontaneous and almost accidental. These works differ from those of Rothko and Newman in that the emotional component, so integral to their work, is here subordinated to resolving problems.
Morris Louis (1912-1962) was introduced to the staining technique by Helen Frankenthaler. Louis used this method of pouring diluted paint on the surface of unprimed canvas in a series of several paintings. Saraband is one of the works in Louis’s Veils series. By holding up the canvas edges and pouring diluted acrylic resin, Louis created billowy, fluid, transparent shapes that run down the length of the canvas. Like Frankenthaler, Louis reduced painting to the concrete fact of the paint impregnated material.
Painters were not the only artists interested in Clement Greenberg’s ideas. American sculptors also strove to arrive at artistic purity in their medium. While painters worked to emphasize flatness, sculptors, understandably, choose to focus on three-dimensionality as the unique characteristic and inherent limitation of the sculptural idiom. Minimal art or Minimalism, a predominantly sculptural movement that emerged in the 1960’s, was a clear expression of this endeavor. The movement’s name reveals its reductive nature; people have also referred to Minimal art as primary structures or ABC art.
Minimalist Tony Smith (1912-1994) created sculptures, such as Die, which is a simple volumetric construction. Minimal artworks often lack identifiable subjects, colors, surface textures, and narrative elements. By rejecting illusionism and reducing sculptures to basic geometric forms, Minimalists emphasized their art’s “objecthood” and concrete tangibility. In so doing, they reduced experience to its most fundamental level, preventing viewers from drawing on assumptions of preconceptions when dealing with art before them.
Donald Judd (1928-1994) determination to arrive at a visual vocabulary that avoided deception or ambiguity propelled him away from representation and toward precise and simple sculpture. For Judd, a work’s power derived from its character as a whole and from the specificity of its materials. Untitled presents basic geometric boxes constructed of brass and red Plexiglas, undisguised by paint or other materials. The artist did not intend the work to be symbolic or metaphorical but a straight forward declaration of sculpture’s objecthood. Judd used Plexiglas because its translucency allows the viewer access to the interior, thereby reducing the sculpture open and enclosed. This aspect of the design was consistent with his desire to banish ambiguity or falseness.
Despite the connections between Minimalism and Greenbergian formalism, Greenberg did not embrace this direction in art. He expressed his concern: Minimal art remains too much a feat of ideation [the mental formation of ideas], and not enough of anything else. Its idea remains an idea, something deduced instead of felt and discovered. The geometrical and modular simplicity may announce and signify the aesthetically farthest-out, but the fact that the signals are understood for what they want to mean betrays them artistically. There is hardly any aesthetic surprise in Minimal art…Aesthetic surprise hangs on forever – it is there in Raphael as it is in Pollack – and ideas alone cannot achieve it.
A sculpture that presents this enduring impact is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Yin Lin (born 1960) at age 21 in 1981. The memorial is simple and austere. It is a V-shaped wall constructed of polished black granite panels, that begin at ground level on each end and gradually ascends to a height of ten feet at the center of the V. The names of the 57,939 casualties (and those still missing) incised on the wall in the order of their deaths, contribute to the work’s dramatic effect. Lin put careful thought into the purpose of war memorials which she concluded “should be honest about the reality of war and be for the people who gave their lives.” She decided that she “didn’t want a static object that people would just look at, but something they could relate to as on a journey, or passage that would bring each to his own conclusions…I wanted to work with the land and not dominate it. I had an impulse to cut open the earth…an initial impulse that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the cut would remain…” In light in the tragedy of war, the memorial’s illusion to a wound and a long lasting scar contributes to its communicative ability.
Alternatives to Modernist Formalism
Diverse Sculptural Directions
Although Minimalism was a dominant sculptural trend in the 1960’s, many sculptors pursued other styles. Russian born Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) created sculpture that combines a sense of architectural fragmentation with the power of Dada and Surrealist found objects to express her personal sense of life’s underlying significance. Multiplicity of meaning was important to Nevelson. She sought “…the in-between place… the dawns and the dusks” – the transitional realm between one state of being and another. By the late 1950’s, she was assembling sculptures of found wooden objects and forms, enclosing small sculptural compositions in boxes of varied sizes, and joined the boxes to one another to form “walls,” which she then painted in a single hue – usually black white or gold.
The monochromatic color scheme unifies the diverse parts of pieces such as Tropical Garden II and creates a mysterious field of shapes and shadows. The structures suggest magical environments resembling the treasured secret hideaways dimly remembered from childhood. Yet the boxy frames and the precision of the manufactured found objects create a rough geometric structure that the eye roams over freely, lingering on some details.
In contrast to the architectural nature of Nevelson’s work, a sensuous organic quality pervades the work of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (born 1911). She described her sculptural objects as “groups of objects relating to one another…the drama of one among many. Cumul I is a collection of round headed units within a collective cloak dotted with holes. The units differ in size and height, each with a seemingly distinctive personality. The marble mediums high gloss next to its matte finish increases the sensuous distinction between the group of swelling forms and the soft fold caressing them. Bourgeois connects her sculpture with the body’s multiple relationships to the landscape: “[My pieces] are anthropomorphic and they are landscape also, since our body could be considered from a topographical point of view, as a land with mounds and valleys and caves and holes.” Bourgeois sculptures are also more personal and sexually suggestive. She stated, “Sometimes I am totally concerned with female shapes – characters of breasts like clouds – but often I merge the activity – phallic breasts, male and female, active and passive.”
Eva Hesse (1936-1970) began as a Minimalist early in her career but moved away from its severity. Her works, while bare and simple are compelling. Using non-traditional sculptural materials, such as, fiberglass, cord, and latex, Hesse produced sculptures whose pure Minimalist forms appear to crumble, sag, and warp under pressures of atmospheric forces. Born Jewish and hidden by Christian families from the Nazis, she was separated from her family and not reunited with them until the early 1940’s, at which time here parents soon divorced. The events had a profound impact on her and gave her the sense that modern life is strange and absurd. Struggling to express this view in her art, she created informal sculptural arrangements with units often hung from the ceiling, leaned against walls, or spilled out on the floor. She said she wanted her pieces to be “non art, non connective, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort.”
Hang Up looks like a carefully made empty frame spouting a strange feeler that extends into the room and doubles back to the frame, Hesse wrote that for the first time in this piece her “idea of absurdity or extreme feeling came through.” “Hang Up has a kind of depth I don’t always achieve and that is the kind of depth or soul or absurdity of life or meaning or feeling or intellect that I want to get.” The sculpture possesses a disquieting and touching presence, suggesting the fragility and grandeur of life amid the pressures of the modern age. Hesse died of a brain tumor at the age of 34.
Avant-garde artists of the 1960 continued to challenge artistic convention. While Post – Painterly Abstractionists and Minimalists explored implications of two and three dimensionality, others explored the fourth dimension of time as an integral element of their artwork. These brief temporary works eventually were categorized under the broad term Performance art. In such work, movements, gestures, and sounds of persons communicating with the audience, whose members may or may not participate in the event, replace physical objects. Generally, the only evidence of these events is the documentary photographs of the event. Further, the informal and spontaneous nature of such work, which used the human body as primary material, pushed art outside the confines of the mainstream art institutions. Performances, known as Actions, events, and Happenings, in large measure were derived from the spirit of Dada and Surrealism and anticipated the youthful rebellion and subversiveness of the 1960’s.
Many of the artists instrumental in the development of performance art were influenced by the charismatic teacher and composer John Cage (1912-1992). Cage encouraged his students at the New School for Social Research in New York and Black Mountain College in North Carolina to link their art directly to life. He brought to music composition his interest in the ideas of Duchamp and in Eastern philosophy. He used methods such as chance to avoid the closed structures marking traditional music that seemed to separate it from the unpredictable multilayered qualities of life. For example the score of one of Cage’s piano compositions instructs the performer to appear to sit down at the piano, raise the keyboard cover to mark the beginning of the piece, remain motionless at the instrument for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. He was then to close the cover, rise and bow to signal the end of the piece. The “music” would be the unplanned sounds and noises (such as coughs and whispers) emanating from the audience during the “performance.”
One of Cage’s students in the 1950’s was American artist Allan Kaprow (born 1927). He was very knowledgeable about art history and was inspired by his study of music composition with cage. Kaprow was committed to the interaction of life and art. He believed that the actions that produced a work were more important than the final work. This led Kaprow to develop a type of event known as a Happening. He described a Happening as an assemblage of events performed or perceived in more than one time and place. Its material environments may be constructed, taken over directly from what is available or altered slightly; just as its activities may be invented or commonplace. A Happening, unlike a stage play, may occur at a supermarket, driving along a highway, under a pile of rags, and in a friend’s kitchen, either at once or sequentially. If sequentially, time may extend to more than a year. The happening is performed according to plan without rehearsal, audience, or repetition. It is art but seems closer to life.
Happenings are often participatory. Spectators may walk on tires, write phrases on panels, or participants take a piece of wrapped candy from a pile in the floor until it is eventually gone.
Some artists produced work that involved painting and performance. Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Association), a group of 18 Japanese artists in Osaka, expanded the action of painting into the realm of performance- in a sense, taking Jackson Pollock’s painting methods into a public arena. Led by Jiro Yoshijara, Gutai was founded in 1945 and devoted itself to art that combine Japanese traditional practices such as Zen with a renewed appreciation for materials. In the “Gutai Art Manifesto,” Yoshihara explained: “Gutai does not alter the material. Gutai imparts life to material… the human spirit and the material shake hands with each other, but keep their distance. Accordingly, Gutai works involved such actions as throwing paint balls as blank canvases or wallowing in mud as a means of shaping it. In a 1955 piece, titled Making a Work with His Own Body, Gutai member Kazuo Shiraga (b. 1924) used his body to “paint” with mud. The Gutai group dissolved upon Yoshihara’s death in 1972.
Bodily Relationship to Meat: Like Gutai, Carolee Schneemann (b. 1939) integrated painting and performance in her artworks. He self- described “kinetic theater” radically transformed the nature of performance by introducing a feminist dimension through the use of her often-nude body to challenge “the psychic territorial power lines by which women were admitted to the Art Stud Club. In her 1964 performance, Meat Joy, Scheemann reveled in the taste, smell, and feel of plucked chickens and raw sausages. Her description of the performance included the following passage:
“Carcass as paint… flesh jubilation… extremes of this sense… may involved quantities of dark fabric and pain drawn form performance area outward into audience to become inundation of all available space- action and viewing interchanged, broker through. Smell, feel of meat… chickens, fist, sausages? I see several women whose gestures develop from tactile, bodily relationships to individual men and a mass of meal slices. Specific sequence of collision and embrace.”
Performance as Ritual: German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was strongly influenced by the leftist politics of the Fluxus group in the early 1960’s. Drawing on Happenings and Fluxus, Beuys created actions aimed at illumination the condition of mere humanity. He wanted to make a new kind of sculptural object that would include “Thinking Form: how we mould out thoughts or Spoken Forms: how we shape our thoughts into words or Social Sculpture: how we mould and shape the world in which we live.”
Beuys commitments to artworks stimulating thought about art and life was partially due to his experiences during the war. While serving as pilot, he was shot down over the Crimea, and claimed that nomadic Tatars nursed him back to health by swaddling his body in fat and felt to warm him. Fat and felt thus symbolized healing and regeneration to the artist, and he incorporated these materials into many of his sculptures and actions, such as How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. This one person event consisted of stylized actions evoking a sense of mystery and sacred ritual. Beuys appeared in a room hung with his drawings, cradling a dead hard he spoke to softly. Beuys coated his head with honey covered with gold lead, creating a shimmering mask. In this manner, he took on the role of the shaman, an individual with special spiritual powers. As a shaman, Beuys believed he was acting to help revolutionize human thought so that each human being could become a truly free and creative person.
Destruction as Creation: The noting of destruction as an act of creation surfaces in a number of kinetic artworks, most notable in a sculpture of Jean Tinguely (1925-1991). Trained as a painter in his native Switzerland, Tinguely gravitated to motion sculpture. In the 1950s, he made a series of “metamatic” machines, motor driven devices that produced instant abstract paintings. He programmed these metamatics electronically to act with an antimechanical unpredictability when viewers inserted felt-tipped marking pens into a pincer and pressed a button tin initiate the pen’s motion across a small sheet of paper clipped to an “easel.” Viewers could use different-colored markers in succession and could stop and start the device to achieve some degree of control over the final image. These operations created a series of small works resembling Abstract Expressionist paintings.
In 1960, Tinguely expanded the scale of his work with a kinetic piece designed to “perform” and then destroy itself in a lard courtyard area at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He created Homage to New York with the aid of engineer Billy Kluver, who helped his scrounge wheels and other moving objects from a dump near Manhattan. The completed structure, painted white for visibility again the dark night sky, included a player piano modified into a metamatic paining machine, a weather balloon that inflated during the performance, vials of colored smoke, and a host of gears, pulleys, wheels, and other found machine parts.
This work was premiered (and destroyed) on March 17, 1960, in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, an array of distinguished guests, and three television crews in attendance. Once the machine was turned on, smoke poured from its interior and the piano caught fire. Various parts of the machine broke off and rambled away, while one of the metamatics tried by failed to produce an abstract painting. Finally, Tinguely summoned a firefighter to extinguish the blaze and ensure the demise of Homage to New York with his axe. Like the artist’s other kinetic sculptures, Homage to New York shared something of Duchamp’s satiric Dadaist spirit and the droll import of Klee’s Twittering Machine. But Tinguely deliberately made the wacky behavior of Homage to New York more playful and more endearing. Having been given a freedom of eccentric behavior unprecedented in the mechanical world, Tinguely’s creations often seem to behave with the whimsical individuality of human actors.
People first termed Happening, action, and body art to describe various kinds of artistic endeavors involving the body as aesthetic material. In the mid-1970s, people widely began to use generic term Performance art to describe this broad range of creative activity. Extreme examples of Performance art involved artists who created various performance pieces centered on risk taking activities such as being shot with a gun or crawling over broken glass. Such work dramatically challenged accepted definitions of art.
The relentless challenges to artistic convention fundamental to the historical avant-garde reached a logical conclusion with Conceptual art in the late 1960s. Conceptual artists asserted that the “artfulness” of art lay in the artist’s idea, rather than units final expression. Indeed, some conceptual artists eliminated the object altogether. In addition, Conceptual artists rethought aesthetic issues, which long have formed the foundation of art. These artists regarded the idea, or concept, as the defining component of artwork.
American artist Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945) was a major proponent of Conceptual art. His work operates at the intersection of language and vision, dealing with the relationship between the abstract and the concrete. In a broader sense, his art explores the ways in which aesthetic meaning is generated. One and Three Chairs consists of an actual chair flanked by a full scale photograph of the chair and a Photostat of a dictionary definition of the word chair. Kosuth asks the viewer to ponder the notion of what constitutes “chairness.” He explained, “It meant you could have an art work which was that “idea” of an art work, and its informal components weren’t important I felt I had found a way to make art without formal components being confused for an expressionist composition. The expression was in an idea, not the form – the forms were only a device in the service of the idea. Kosuth explored these concepts further in a series of works titled Art as Idea as Idea. He elaborated:
Like everyone else I inherited the idea of art as a set of art as a set of formal problems. So when I began to rethink my ideas about art, I had to re-think that thinking process and it begins with the making process… “Art as Idea as Idea” was intended to suggest that the real creative process, and the radical shift, was in changing the idea of art itself. In other words, my idea of doing that was the real creative content.
Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) began as a painter and then in the mid-1960’s abandoned painting and turned to object making. His amazingly varied work has included sculptured pieces of various materials, installations, films books and performance. Nauman’s work in the 1960’s was conceptual or idea based, further he had an interest in language and wordplay, that has a whimsical or humorous bent. The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign) was the first of Nauman’s many neon sculptures. He selected neon because he wanted to find a medium that would be identified with a non-artistic function. Determined to discover a way to connect objects with words, he utilized a method outlined by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical investigations (1953), which encouraged contradictory and nonsensical arguments. Nauman stated that this piece “was kind of like a test – like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it… It was on one hand a totally silly idea and yet on the other hand I believed it.”
Other Conceptual artists pursued this idea that “the idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as a product.” Ultimately, the Conceptual artists challenged the very premises of artistic production, pushing art’s boundaries to a point where no concrete definition of art is possible.
Art for the Public
The avant-garde provided a major directional impetus for art production in the post-war years. Abstract Expressionists, Post Painterly Abstractionists, and Minimalist artists expressed this interest in Modernist experimental art in the vocabulary of resolute abstraction. Other artists, however, felt that the insular and introspective of the avant-garde had resulted in public alienation. These artists were committed to the communicative power of art and to reaching a wide audience with their art. These artists, Pop artists, Superrealists, and environmental artists, were much less committed to the single-minded focus on formal issues characteristic of the Modernist mindset.
The Development of Pop Art
The prevalence of abstraction and formal experimentation in much post-war art had alienated the public. Pop Art reintroduced all of the artistic devices – signs, symbols, metaphors, allusions, illusions, and figurative imagery – traditionally used to convey meaning in art that recent avant-garde artists had purged from their abstract and reductive works in search of purity. Pop artists not only embraced representation but also produced an art that was resolutely grounded in consumer culture, the mass media, and popular culture, thereby making it more accessible and understandable to the average person. Pop Art is a short term for popular art and referred to the popular mass culture and familiar imagery of the contemporary urban environment. This was an art entrenched in the sensibilities and visual language of the late 20th century audience.
The roots of Pop Art can be traced to a group of young British artists, architects, and writers who formed the independent group at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in the early 1950’s. The sought to initiate fresh thought into art, in part by sharing their fascination with the aesthetics and content of such facets of popular culture as advertising, comic books, and movies.
The group probed the role and meaning of symbols from mass culture and the advertising media. In 1956, a group member, Richard Hamilton (b. 1922), made a small collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, that characterized many of the attitudes of British Pop art. Trained as an engineering draftsman, exhibition designer, and painter, Hamilton was very interested in the way advertising shapes public attitudes. Long intrigued by Duchamp’s ideas, Hamilton consistently combined elements of popular art and fine art, seeing both as belonging to the whole world of visual communication. He created this work for the poster and catalog of one section of the exhibition titled This Is Tomorrow-an environment installation filled with images from Hollywood cinema, science-fiction, the mass media, and one reproduction of a van Gogh painting (to represent popular fine artworks).
The fantasy interior of the collage reflects the values of the modern consumer culture through figures and objects cut out from glossy magazines. Just What is It includes references to the mass media, to advertising, and to pop culture. Such artworks stimulated the viewer’s wide ranging speculation about society’s values. This kind of intellectual toying with mass-media meaning and imagery typified British and European Pop art.