The death of Robert Rauschenberg, earlier this week, has helped remind us about the debates that once raged between proponents of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
The art movement known as Abstract Expressionism, a postwar invention of the Partisan Generation (b. 1904-13), helped New York displace Paris as center of the art world. This made New York the capital of the 20th century itself, just as Paris had been (according to Walter Benjamin) capital of the 19th.
But American self-satisfaction isn't the only reason that Abstract Expressionism became such a dominant movement in the postwar era. The impression of intellectual, aesthetic, and perhaps most importantly, political freedom evoked by Jackson Pollock's psychologically intense "action paintings," Mark Rothko's spiritually overwhelming "multiforms," and David Smith's witty connect-the-dot sculptures, to name just three Abstract Expressionists, helped reassure Americans that we -- unlike the recently defeated Nazis and the ever-more powerful Communists -- were on the right side of history.
Uninterested in art history? Stick around! Because I'm going to talk about cutting-edge computer-generated artworks like this:
Thanks in no small part to Russian propaganda, in the early days of the Cold War, America was widely regarded as culturally barren -- "a nation of gum-chewing, Chevy-driving, Dupont-sheathed philistines," as one historian puts it. It seemed critical to educate Europeans teetering between a fondness for communism and capitalism about the spontaneous, free, emotionally intense art that was uniquely possible in the USA.
In the view of the influential art critic Clement Greenberg (a Partisan), the United States had become the guardian of "advanced art." Greenberg, a key early admirer of Abstract Expressionism, wasn't pro-capitalist, he was a Trotskyite; but he saw Pollock's work as vindication of his own theory that the history of art was one of progressive purification in form and the elimination of historical content. One thing led to another, and soon enough Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and other Abstract Expressionists (and Partisans) were thrust into global fame... thanks largely to funds supplied clandestinely by the CIA, through one of its front organizations, the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
This is not to imply that the Abstract Expressionists were super-patriotic, or even pro-capitalist. They certainly didn't realize that the CIA was using their work as propaganda in a cultural Cold War. However, the Partisans' typically super-patriotic, pro-capitalist juniors, usually known as the Greatest or G.I. Generation, but whom I've called the New Gods (b. 1914-23), swallowed Abstract Expressionism hook, line, and sinker.
And then along came a new generation, the Postmoderns (b. 1924-33). Like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Claes Oldenburg, to name a handful of the most prominent Pop Art pioneers, Rauschenberg reacted against Abstract Expressionism and pioneered ironic postmodernist art, characterized by themes and techniques drawn from advertising, comic books, and other areas of pop culture.
Rauschenberg -- born in Texas in '25 -- was a living link between the two worldviews and art movements. "He was a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, taking the brush work of expressionism and then doing subversive things, incorporating photographs, turning a mattress into a canvas and gluing things on," the former director of Minneapolis's Walker Art Museum told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Though Rauschenberg didn't reproduce kitsch artifacts directly in his work, he "helped break down aesthetic barriers between the exalted and the everyday," as Mark Feeney notes in a fine obituary. "Bed," one of Rauschenberg's most famous "combines," is an artwork created from paint, toothpaste, fingernail polish, and the pillow and quilt from his own bed.
I'll let Feeney explain Rauschenberg's resistance to Abstract Expressionism:
Mr. Rauschenberg was the creator of what was probably the most notorious practical joke in art history, "Erased de Kooning Drawing" (1953), which was just what the title said it was. "Erased" might be seen as emblematic of Mr. Rauschenberg's view of Abstract Expressionism, the school to which Willem de Kooning (who had given the drawing to Mr. Rauschenberg) belonged. Brooding seriousness and majestic aspirations were anathema to Mr. Rauschenberg and his art. "You have to have the time to feel sorry for yourself," he once said, "in order to be a good Abstract Expressionist."
Like other notable Postmoderns, Rauschenberg rejected the stark utopianism/anti-utopianism of the Partisans, and in doing so repudiated the archetype of modernity as a force for unmitigated progress. Greenberg and Pollock were among the last Modernists, the last to dream of a revolutionary and all-encompassing change in the human condition. Rauschenberg was among the first-born members of a generation that discovered and celebrated what they claimed was the eclecticism and hybridity lurking just beneath the modernist illusion of unity and integrity.
Pop Art seemed unserious to Partisans and to those who think like Partisans, it still does. But the Postmoderns didn't, for the most part, wallow in nihilism and pure aestheticism; theirs was a vision of a heterogeneous, non-totalizing, chaotic and unfinished utopian social order, one whose hi-lobrow aesthetic cognate might look something like...
Rauschenberg's "Monogram," which involves a stuffed goat, a tire, a police barrier, a shoe heel, a tennis ball, and paint.
All of this might seem like water on the bridge. But it's not! The guiding impulses behind Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art are still in play, still in conflict.
A recent post by art-and-technology writer and curator Régine Debatty on her fascinating blog, We Make Money Not Art, points out that Jackson Pollock still has fervent admirers.
While visiting OFFF, the international festival for "post-digital creation culture," in Lisbon, last weekend, Debatty was floored by the influential web designer and new media artist Joshua Davis. Like Pollock, whom he admires, Davis regards art as the process of creation, moreso than the final product.
Davis's work is, in its own way, as gestural as Pollock's. Because Davis designs software -- generative systems -- that create artwork. He sets certain parameters -- speed, rotation, indecision -- and the system maps drawings accordingly. The results are surprising even to him.
They're beautiful! But can they be used as pro-American propaganda, one wonders? Well, they can certainly be regarded as pro-capitalist. In fact, the Davis drawing below was commissioned by BMW. "Until a few years ago, the design of the BMW Z4 Coupé was considered a dream that could not be realised. The lines are too expressive, the contours too defined," we read at BMW's website. "Achieving the unachievable is a situation American designer Joshua Davis is also familiar with. His complex computer-generated designs were considered unprintable. And so their passion for breaking new ground brought Davis and BMW together to produce a range of limited-edition prints inspired by the Z4 Coupé."
Also: Who is the Rauschenberg to Davis's Pollock? Help me out, readers.
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