“Not ‘seeing is believing’, you ninny, but ‘believing is seeing’…”
Artistic movements, carved, collaged and splatter painted across history, generally tend to advance or dissipate the philosophical declarations and physical tangibility of their predecessors. To do so, there must first exist belief in a need for stasis or overhaul.
For example, as every art history student learns, the Modern era began around 1900 with a complete rejection of the literary nature of academic art, the stoic sort of realistic works which originated during the Renaissance and are still often touted as the peak of creative achievement.
Yet even the colourful intellectual and cultural explosions of the Renaissance were sparked by humanistic rejection of the saint-tainted linear images created amidst the mouth-foaming religious fervor that permeated societies in earlier, darker ages. Whether artists work to invoke a sweeping, revolutionary-scale break from art as it is known or can only proffer a bright but flagging flash of an attempt, such conscious changes in thought and technique can scoff at the past with nonchalance; usually only to meet the chagrin of being brazenly copied or cold-shouldered by future generations.
One particular upstart in the dusty yet dynamic trajectory of art history is Abstract Expressionism, deemed both a petite club for the turtleneck-swathed bohemian brainchildren and trust fund–buttressed Peter Pans of Old New York, and a credibly cohesive movement sporting a set of unique traits. As an intellectually pervasive assault on everything Modernism also revolted against, the darling movement of chichi philanthropists and tavern-room thinkers hobbled its way through the twentieth century hunched over a theoretical crutch of flatness. The first and most evident breezes of change blew in in the form of a new kind of surface-fixated depthless-ness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal (but certainly not literary!) sense. But where lies the epicenter of these philosophical transitions? From whose minds were these new ideas rustling forth?
Reminiscing quickly, the firmly-held theories of Abstract Expressionism slithered out of their primordial origins in the woozy society of New York City after WWII. That’s when the American Mecca replaced romantic old Paris as the seat of Modernism, and then-kooky concepts from the New York, or Tenth Street School, began to infiltrate lines of conversation among those with a professedly heartfelt stake in Culture. This hip, charming café-bound clique of raucous freethinkers, so over feeling stuffed to the gills with illusion and realism, quickly attracted a hearty discipleship of varnish-reeking artists and well-heeled heiresses alike. Most importantly, the furrow-browed art academics of the day, with all their glorified, jowl-jiggling authority, credibility, and knack for preaching, succumbed to the hypnotic murmurings gurgling frothily from the Tenth Street School. Of these well-respected theoreticians, Clement Greenberg was, and actually still is, the sparkling prima ballerina in the operetta of Abstract Expressionism.
Obsessed with pure essences and intensely exacerbated, self-critical notions birthed by the philosopher Kant, Greenberg demanded that each fine art seize a chance to assess itself from the inside, to employ foundational processes and media to call attention to the distinctness of aesthetic establishments — for painting, for instance, to leave the eye with no doubt as to the fact that the colours used, daubed over fibrous canvas, were made of real paint that came from pots and tubes.
One of the most adherent believers of Greenberg’s gospel was a forty-one year–old Washington, D.C. artist named Morris Louis, who came to New York to get a line on what all the fuss was about. A few lengthy and assuredly didactic chats with Greenberg resulted in a career-bending revelation for Louis — flatness the man had said…
And voilà, with meticulous drippings of washed out pigments, the Washington School, a bosom country cousin of Abstract Expressionism, was conceived. In typical delightful style, Tom Wolfe humorously recounts Louis’ practice:
… [He] used unprimed canvas and thinned out his paint until it soaked right into the canvas when he brushed it on. He could put a painting on the floor and lie on top of the canvas and cock his eye sideways like a robin and look long the surface of the canvas—he had done it! Nothing existed above or below the picture plane, except for a few ultra-microscopic wisps of cotton fray, and what reasonable person could count that against him…No, everything now existed precisely in the picture plane and nowhere else. The paint was the picture plane, and the picture plane was the paint. Did I hear the word flat?
The true star of the show was Theory. Outshining even Greenberg in the spotlight, ideas of evenness, pure colour, and expressive brushwork bulked up into axioms — not to know about these things was not to have the Word. While eventually shuffled off the main stage by subsequent movements like Minimalism, Conceptual, Pop, Performance, and Land Art, Abstract Expressionism still be heard humming along in more recent strains of contemporary art making.
Indeed, fresher reiteration of Abstract Expressionism’s fascination with regulated surfaces are acutely and exaggeratedly observable in a 1992-1993 acrylic work by William Tillyer titled Bloworth Blue. I first saw the 36 x 42 inch canvas prominently showcased in the gaping front window of London’s Bernard Jacobson Gallery, encouraging passers-by to pause and share a moment with the piece. Its support flaunts conformist rectangular perimeters, but with a playful twist, is partially recessed on the left with an asymmetrical relief panel, neither faultlessly quadrangular, cylindrical, nor ovoid.
Greenberg and his bookish cronies would likely greet Tillyer with a grunting hubbub of applause for not only selecting the most stereotypically painterly basis for his work, the properly right-angled canvas, but for pattering even further away with the gag by hollowing out a second miniature flat universe inside a singular work. But perhaps Tillyer made the first cut into his canvas with a smirk, knowing that by settling in a flat plane behind a gap in another level surface, he was actually simulating a bit of depth. Would Greenberg still be honking and tooting and clapping?
Within the sunken area of the painting resides a very sturdy teal square, rendered in smooth and completely opaque pigment. Partially obscured by a long curvature in the upper layer of canvas, viewers are left to question the full extent of the chunky shape’s girth and acquire a hankering to peel back that top coating of surface area, perhaps a willingness to violate the image to reap its would-be secrets.
To the left of the more angular side of the relief panel is depicted an off-kilter black square; larger than its dense teal counterpart, it is defined by a decidedly vacuum-like quality, sucking the gaze inward with a sharply drawn out corner which veers tauntingly close to the support’s lower left crook, without ever being in danger of spilling over the edge of its restricted, geometric world.
The heavy-yet-nimbly-darting, coolly-hued squares recall the practices of two artists who sauntered behind Abstract Expressionism in the confetti-caked and trailing parade of art history. The first is Kenneth Noland, a painter from North Carolina who headed New York-wards, enrolled as a cadet at the Academy of Greenberg, was championed by the white knight of Theory in return, and even buddied up with fanatical Morris Louis, becoming identified as a forerunner of the Washington School.
Tillyer is clearly thoroughly versed in the personal webs which threaded together the artsy circles of post-war Manhattan, yet he demonstrates a further knowledge by painting his squares in direct reference to Noland’s later work as a Color Field painter, in which he rhythmically explored a wide range of acrylic hues in a visual language of chevrons, diamonds, horizontal bands, and plaid patterns on variously shaped canvases. Bridge, a 1964 Noland piece centered around a looming, razor-like triangle painted in matte candy shell shades, is most boldly matched by the curt, outwardly creeping corners in Bloworth Blue. To recognize such, only glimpse at the jarring, edge-licking point of Noland’s squashed flat, rainbow shark’s tooth.
The opposing right hand portion of Bloworth Blue is delineated by a vastly less-rigid, gaseous character. Three roundish, puddle-like shapes rest in a flabby, overlapping stack, ascending in hues of rain-steeped-meadow-grass, a sultrier emerald green, and most loosely, an oceanic navy fit for dapper sailors’ pea coats. They are a trio of rather organic forms, stains, really, more girlish than, but bleeding outward in a similar manner as, the harsh and tautly pulled edges on the left.
Here, the artist reaches further up the family tree and drags Helen Frankenthaler by the wrist into his acrylic on canvas assemblage of Abstract Expressionist models and methods. Helen tangoed with them all — Greenberg, Louis, Noland—and Tillyer wants it known. In 1953, Greenberg brought the Louis-Noland duo to the Manhattan-raised paintress’ studio, where both men found inspiration and security in Frankenthaler’s productivity; her pigments – at that stage, oils thinned with turpentine – were poured gently on to raw canvas so that as it sank beneath the unprimed surface, it became an integral part of the canvas, not something laid on. The effect, truly encapsulated by the thinly pooled billows of moody pigment of Bloworth Blue, was misty, evanescent, and suggestive of weather and seasons.
In glowing affirmation, Observer critic Nigel Gosling’s review of an exhibition in May 1964 at the Kasmin gallery in London cooed, “If any artist can give us aid and comfort,” he wrote, “Helen Frankenthaler can with her great splashes of soft color on huge square canvases. They are big but not bold, abstract but not empty or clinical, free but orderly, lively but intensely relaxed and peaceful … They are vaguely feminine in the way water is feminine – dissolving and instinctive, and on an enveloping scale.”
In Bloworth Blue, Frankenthaler’s uncanny, but not overly-sanitary aesthetic, nicely structured blotches, and rippling feminine flair become incorporated into a visual discourse encircling much of Abstract Expressionism’s sphere.
The composition is wrapped up most tidily in a thin framing device, a shallow shadowbox of clean, neutral wood not unlike oak. Again, the jest is on degrees of projection, as well as layering and sharpness. Multiple planes of flatness — the whole canvas, its peek-a-boo cut-out, resting place on a sunken grey matting, and firm outlining from inflexible, protruding framing — are draped together puzzlingly, twinkling back and forth before the eye in mystifying, flourishing perceptions of flat and its best friend, really flat.
What Tillyer has created with Bloworth Blue is an execution of foggily fluid contours and staccato, but tampered with, stock geometric shapes. Both investigate limits of depth and space, and trigger inside viewers a somewhat irksome optical tension. Pictorially, the image also asserts itself as an aesthetic and intellectual descendant of the Tenth Street School’s quickstepping tribe, and subtly asserts Tillyer’s meddlesome familiarity with the genres and like-minded artists that spiraled to fame during the unstable times following Greenberg’s begrudged abdication of the encrusted throne of Cultureburg.
To an eye accustomed to absorbing the Word, the divine, generative Theories driving chic and noteworthy artistic movements, Bloworth Blue is amalgamated vision of Abstract Expressionism’s loftiest commandments on lying low. Tillyer surely had to believe to create, and while reading his work, all one needs is a little faith in everything flat.
Sources: Alley, Ronald. Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists. London: Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, 1981.
Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” In Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 773-779.
Guggenheim New York. “Kenneth Noland.” Guggenheim Collection Online.
Jameson, Frederic. “The Deconstruction of Expression.” In Art in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 1046-1056.
McNay, Michael. “Helen Frankenthaler Obituary.” The Guardian.
Wolfe, Tom. The Painted Word. 1975. Reprint, New York: Picador, 2008.