IN THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY

by Paul Henrickson, Ph.D. ©2005

tm. © 2007

In THE ATLANTIC MONHLY of April, 1958 there appeared an article entitled “The Tyranny of Abstract Art”. I found it, then, and I still find it, a most profoundly serious comment, regrettably, I found no evidence of hope in this statement of anyone, including the author, Ernst Gombrich, locating, or identifying any solution to a situation which, as described, seemed awesomely tragic. Gombrich indicates that there are conservative critics, but does not identify himself as being among them, who believe that the problem with modern art is that it has become too easy, a “mere splashing of colors”. He then gains some intellectual support from the field of psychology which recognizes that “nothing is harder to bear than complete freedom from any restraint” and a recognition that convention is sometimes reassuring if you are uncertain of the depth of the unknown or the distance required to reach safe harbor. The safe harbor, in this analogy, is the product of the creative artist which is, to use Gombrich’ s expression, “recognizably himself and yet significantly different”. Gombrich does correctly, I believe, identify the self deception both some artists and some intellectually unalert commentators on art suggest when they tell us that the artist is merely the vehicle for the voice of the muse which is somewhere else, although, yet, the statement is accurate. The problem, I think, lies, in the conception of the self which any culture brings to bear upon all its members, but most traumatically upon those few who, at some point, begin to doubt the correctness of the vision of the mass mind. I experienced a very moving episode at one time when raising peacocks on my property in Pojoaque, New Mexico, one of my hens had laid five or seven eggs which she had, of course, hidden away under some bush. When I noticed that they had hatched and were running around I quickly caught all those I could and secured them in a holding pen protected from as any predators as possible, and there were many predators in that area, both domestic and wild. During my final search I came across an egg with a chick still mostly contained within it. It seemed to me that the chick was very nearly about to give up trying to free itself from its containing shell. It had broken through a portion of the shell and had exposed its head and a small portion of its body but seemed to have tired out. I talked to it and told it I would try to break more of the shell to let it out, but it seemed to have died there in my hand, just as a small mouse had done when thinking it had been caught by some light weight plastic sheet, died when I playfully looked at it and softly said “boo”, the light went out in its eyes.

We seem born with two somewhat conflicting impulses, one of these allows us to survive if we conform to survival rules within the group into which we’ve been born, or hatched, the other impulse sets forth another set of rules, more special in their demands and more inventive in their techniques as well as incredibly more insistent that survival means a confrontation with those exterior expectations emanating from the group. It is to break out of the shell, the type-casting, and to transform our being, intuitively responding to these other guidelines, into something the form of which there is no pattern to assure us that we have arrived, no group to assure us that we belong, that we have arrived. Gombrich, as an art historian, then assumes partial responsibility for the situation by reminding the reader that he, and other art historians, have trained the public, and the artists themselves, to expect significant new aesthetic developments to arise out of studio experiments. The truth, of course, is that sometimes valid aesthetic developments do emerge from studio experiments, or accidents, and the miracle involved, seems to be that some eye has caught a glimpse of meaning in the synapse between accident and intention, and it is an incident of the alert mind which brings needed order out of the seminal chaos. What a dreary world, indeed, it would be without that process of the occult and lowly earth worm tilling the soil and making it ready, as any good catalyst would do, for a better harvest. One of the key expressions in Gombrich’s analysis is “creating something recognizably himself”. In any event I found the expression demonstrably important when, as a graduate student, studying under Dr Hilton Thomas at The University of Minnesota, we, the class, were asked to choose between two images projected onto the screen as to which of the two showed a genuine work and which a copy. I happened to have been the only member in the class who had had studio experience and so, for me, the question posed no problem. There is always a neural signature in the work of a genuinely creative artist which is rarely successfully copied and it is that recognition which makes the difference between legitimate art historians, critics, connoisseurs, and dealers. Without this recognition of the subtleties of application and style all other conclusions are tainted with fraud. Another, very important observation that Gombrich makes is that in referencing the observations of Walter Pach, a generation earlier, that is 1927, he underscores the possibility that those who are able to detect false art in one epoch may not be free from deception encompassed within another. In point of fact, that is probably one of the reasons why we have experts in every increasingly shorter time periods of creative effort, such as, for example, expert “X” having as his area of expertise, the last three years of an artist who had been creatively productive over nine decades. It should be stated, at this point, that it is not primarily the artist’s responsibility to document, as an analytical historian is expected to do, the paths of his own inspiration. Also, at this point, it should be noted that a great deal of art historical work is simply related to being able to recognize the characteristics of what is known as a “school”, the school of Caravaggio, for example, referring to, in general, that whole mass of production which bears a resemblance, however loosely, to a

Caravaggesque appearance. In many cases it has not been sufficiently emphasized that these “followers” do not appropriately belong in a list of creative artists, nor is it sufficiently emphasized that those dealers, who prey upon the unaware buyer employing his own ignorance as a seductive device, are inflicting irreparable damage to the general level of cultural awareness. The loathsome attitude of the dealer who justifies his deceit by reference to a buyer’s responsibility is unacceptable. It is the responsibility of the teller to be responsible for the truth of what he tells, not the listener. It is, however, the listening buyer’s responsibility to learn as much as possible about what it is he thinks he wants. In the world of art this takes some doing.

Caravaggio: St. John with Ram”

In the Gombrich article, which has proved to be very fertile indeed, the author also refers briefly to the possibility of “cheap aesthetics”. It is regrettable that the demeanor expected of cultivated art historical commentators seemed not to encourage the forthright presentation of examples that might fit the reference. In my work, here, I have attempted to avoid that dangerous socio-intellectual and moral pitfall by either being very reticent (if certain conditions required consideration), or blunt, if the artist’s offering was found unacceptable. Neither of these cases however, excuses the critic from continuing the process of re-evaluation. I see nothing shameful in the event, that if, after “X” number of years, a critic changes his mind. Gombrich also makes use of the term “snobbism”, a term, or one very much like it, which is nearly unavoidable when dealing with topics such as this. I believe, however, that the original meaning of the term in the French was “sans nobilite” which, if this older meaning is retained, casts a somewhat altered shade to its use. I do not think that, in deference to its usually pejorative application, a rejection of the idea of the elite should, itself, be rejected. Some things are simply better than other things. It is, after all, a matter of fact, made fact, by informed judgment. Also in this connection the emphasis Gombrich places on the differences between good behavior in a social setting and what is thought to be good behavior in an artistic endeavor

are to different things. In the first case it is desirable if one wishes to avoid conflict, in the second, if one wishes to be a truly innovative creator, it is often deadly. It is the job of the art commentator to try to sort out all these matters for himself and for as many others as can follow the arguments and refer to their own visual experiences. That is what I have tried to do in this present work and I do not hesitate to state that the works of Edvard Munch. Claude Monet, Hyman Bloom, Sam Scott and Peter Rogers have proved to be very helpful.

Munch: “Murderer in the Lane”

Monet: “Pond”

Bloom,H.: “Sea”

Scott.S. “Blossoms”

Rogers,Peter: “The Quest”

These artists have shown us that the focus of the graphic arts on the illustration of exterior events is not, as also Madame de Stael had pointed out two hundred years ago, is not the point, but, rather, that the focus for both the artist and the critic, are the visual events which take place within the work of art itself and its on-going and mutable correlation with our, the observers, consciousness. That is why it was so sad to see the chick still inside its shell give up its struggle to emerge and reject my offer to help, as did the mouse in the face of its belief in its own origins and its conviction that I was a threat to him. We are conceived according to the rules of the system. The requirement to be successful is the struggle to transform ourselves out of it. In the work of these artists, and others, one is encouraged to see other realities and, in the case of Rogers, a mode of expression lending itself to the illustration of a faith. Later on in his article Gombrich discusses the value of the Western tradition of the spirit of experiment which, it would seem, describes much of art in the past century and a half and its application to the activities within the art studio and urges us to identify some standard of success or failure. He suggests that it is obvious that such standards cannot be as clear-cut as they are in science. He doesn’t tell us why they cannot or why the standards applied to science cannot be less clear-cut. He tells us as well that the success of an art experiment cannot be equated with public acclaim. He urges that theories of art if they are to have value at all must enunciate standards. Perhaps it is only the limitation, again, of our vocabulary, but it does seem that to arrive at a standard there must be agreement and that the process of agreement necessarily involves compromise, and the more compromise there is the longer the fall from the ideational ideal. Perhaps a different image may help us to comprehend the process I envision. The artist when confronting the work is in correspondence with that work since the time

he first made the first mark upon the surface of the canvas, from there on in, if the artist remains faithful to his mission, the process is always one which, in an increasingly complex way, strives to maintain the organic logic originating with that mark. There is no other realty other than the intense correspondence going on between the artist and his, in part, self-emerging product. Somewhere else in this book I write about the work of Eric Sloane who, himself, describes his initial approach to the canvas in a way quite similar to this, but then, compromises that vision by adulterating it, as he himself stated, with the sentimental applications of the romantic dreamer. He failed as a creative artist, Monet and Munch did not.

Sloan,E.: “Wash Day”

At one point, Gombrich makes the assumption that the terms “abstract” an “nonobjective” are interchangeable. It is extremely unfortunate that a man with the standing of Gombrich should have lent his name to a very serious misunderstanding. There have been times, however, that Herbert Read had seemed to have done the same thing. On one level it is an understandable weakness in the face of a consensual agreement among the population of commentators that the term “abstract” is appropriate to describe the product of a process that rejects representation. I maintain quite the opposite. What is abstract and what is abstracted are qualities pre-existing in a source. Be that source the nature of the world around us and be that nature either the trees, animals, or whatever or the constructed environment of the nursery. Whatever is on the canvas is an abstraction be it a painting by Albert Bierstadt or one by Hans Hoffmann. The term “nonobjective” also carries with it a similar problem. Non-objective paintings are, after all objects, and as such, themselves cannot be non-objective and in both these instances it is the assumption that the terms correctly make reference to things beyond the objects being discussed that gets us into difficulties. We must refocus our attention on the objects being discussed and to determine from evidences therein what the nature of those objects may be. We must retrace the steps of the artist himself and in so doing we might possibly discover why artists like Albert Pinkham Ryder, Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh struggled so passionately to form out of their sensate experiences images that spoke more truthfully about their creative visions than any of the classical approaches could have done. They would have failed as creative artists had they accepted the limitations imposed by consensus.

Bierstadt,A.: “Mountain Landscape”

Hoffman,H. “Bananas” As a step in that direction I have created a series of “non-objective” puzzles designed to approximate the process of the creative artist when making an image. Some explanation of these can be found on the web site www.tcp.com.mt Gombrich attempts to further describe his position by stating that he has found some works to be like “color music”, and states by way of example “canvasses by Kandinsky that are really pleasing, just as there are fugues of shapes by Mondrian and Nicholson which command respect and interest.” My goodness, what a pitiable statement! We should applaud his efforts, of course, but the inadequate conception, its infantilism, is so apparent that it is quite nearly embarrassing to point out that he hasn’t reached the level of understanding where he can admit that a work of graphic art or music is quite beyond “pleasure”, although it may be pleasant, and far beyond “respect” which suggests “approval of a standard”, and furthest of all

from “interest” which places the work on a level quite beneath that of the observer where, in point of fact, a work of art worthy of the name is an awesome construct not at all merely “interesting”. One leaves Gombrich, as respectable as he is, with the feeling that he has yet to have experienced, sensually experienced, a work of art.

Kandinsky,W: “Gold, Red,& Blue”

My point of view toward works of art I’ve not initially understood and which may even have offended me is that it is my duty as both critic and lay observer to try with some degree of ardent desperation to fathom what I presume the image maker had created with some purposeful intent to bring into form some communicable image he had, at some level already understood. While it does not always happen that way, when it does, it is a joy. There are, however, to end on a note of reconciliation, canvases, which do, as the earlier Gombrich comments tells us, seem so facile, and in their facility so pretentious, as to be tolerated only with impatience, such as, I find, the work of Paul Shapiro and of Kirk Hughey which represent the comic attempt of the blind man to walk with knowledge and certainty in the world of the sighted. In fact, extending that analogy, the work of Michael Naranjo, a San Juan Pueblo Indian, who now possesses no eyes , whose eyes had been the victim of the Korean conflict, is far more worthy and knowledgeable than either of those two charlatans. The patience required, I imagine, is related to how the worm turns, if, in these cases, it turns at all.

Shapiro,P.” recent works

Hughey,K. three paintings

Naranjo, Michael: “Eagle Dancer”

The worthiness of Michael Naranjo’s work lies in the abundant evidence that he has put into the production of his work all the spiritual energy and carnal knowledge he possesses in order to complete a statement he wishes to make about himself and the world in which he exists. It is my contention that Naranjo would have done so even if his work had been non-objective as that of Shapiro and Hughey. Both Shapiro and Hughey have successfully vacuumed their works of significant meaning, significant meaning in terms of creative effort, and, as it were, offered up an ice cream cone with three scoops and no flavor. I should add, at this point, that in the work of say, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Sam Scott, which are mainly, also, nonobjective there is substance.

Jean-Paul Riopelle: Green Abstraction

Sam Scott: Flaming Yucca