A flag, picturesque but drab, flapping across the brick face between two windows. Behind each window, a woman: one visible only up to her shut mouth, the other buttoned tight in an overcoat, her head unseen. Both are nearly absorbed by the porous darkness of their rooms. The flag, with its shivering stars and stripes, is a blazon joining those two anonymities; its crushed browline hoods what those windows on solitary lives might reveal. The entire image, from Robert Frank's "Hoboken" series in The Americans, suggests furtive innocence. It broods on the pathos of what's given. The image maker found the scenic moment, copied it, and worked his material until he coaxed from it a mood, a texture, a feeling tone, and the dimension of a world context. The picture expresses a hiddenness not only in the way the two women recede into their separate darknesses, away from daylight's exposures, but also in the odd diffidence in the action of the flag itself. The heroic, sunlit values normally attached to our national symbol, especially its designation of unity in difference, are cautiously cross-grained by the depressive, guarded tone of the image and by the disturbed symmetry of the two windows set nearly lopsided by the slanting movement of the flag. As a representational act, the photo expresses the form-giving encounter between the artist and our most salient public sign. It has political significance because the symbol of the democracy is set in relation to actual constituents of the democracy, which include not only the two women but also the imaginations that stand back of the design and construction of inner-city brick tenement housing. In straight photography the given is deterministic. Against that, Frank presses his own desire to shape the form of the event the event which is the photograph into a vision of relations. The images in The Americans, taken in 1955-56, are also, most immediately, acts of witness to certain facts of American experience.
The first picture in Made in U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, the 50s & 60s, which has been on view at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, is Jasper Johns's Flag on Orange Field (1958). Johns was not interested in the flag as a symbol with shared public meanings to be received and viewed in a world context. It was a design appropriated and investigated for its formal possibilities. (The inspiration for all his flag paintings came to him in a dream in which he saw himself painting a large American flag; it wasn't a dream of the flag, it was a dream of the artist painting.) The textures in the flag paintings are voluptuous. In Flag on Orange Field the traditional colors are set on a summery orange field, and because of the peculiar materials (Johns used encaustic, a mixture of pigment and hot wax which sets quickly) the textures look blistered but cool. The flag's pristine geometry seems threatened by the hundreds of small surface eruptions. In a 1965 painting, Flags, two renderings of the image are suspended on a gray background: in the upper half are black stars on an orange field with green and black stripes; in the lower half, a gray flag barely emerges from the machine gray ground. As formal exertions these paintings are impressive, especially since Johns depletes the image of its normal meanings, although those meanings are vestigially there in the husk of the form. The pictures are also virtually moodless. They have burnt off, along with the flag's public meanings, the artist's temperament. The presentation frontal, annunciatory, self-absorbed but unperturbed has the open-faced ingenuousness of advertising art. There's a brash and strangely charmed innocence in Johns's taking the flag as a subject, as if it could be treated as a neutral arrangement of formal elements without any interruptive angularities of latent historical or social ironies. In its way, it was the most hermetic sort of appropriation. To act as if a shared political symbol could be taken over as just another visual fact, void of felt public meanings, is to assert the imperious privacy (and inviolability) of art. That assertion, in its different manifestations, becomes one of the vexing issues of the exhibition.
American technological ingenuity had begun manufacturing uniform products in huge volume during the Gilded Age, and even then, before the turn of the century, advertising was already a shaping influence on public taste. By the 1950s and 1960s, however, plentiful uniformity had itself become a grotesque, gigantic caricature of American imagination. Recording tape, photocopying, long-playing records, TV sets, Polaroid photography the new means for representing material reality, in infinite replications and with astonishing speed, began to influence our understanding of the public and private life, and of the life of imagination and memory, in ways that we haven't even really begun to sort out. Middle-class economies in the 1950s certainly came to depend more exclusively on uniform products and tools. The hermetic, socially exclusive (and discriminating) automobile was beginning to replace the bus and train with their mixed social populations as a preferred means of transportation. And to accommodate the family automobile and the growing trucking industry, the stupefying uniformity of the interstate highway system was engineered. Beneath such increasing material uniformity and standardizing, which were hawked to consumers with the ruthless cheer that is American advertising's most salient tone, there were old hatreds, resentments, and failures of faith that ran along racial and class lines. The versions of perfectibility marketed by advertisers were mocked by events in Korea, Selma, Detroit, and Vietnam; moral perfectibility and the obscene righteousness that endorses it were the real issues behind the McCarthy hearings. Out of that matrix came many of the artists represented in Made in U.S.A., whose work, the catalogue argues, "stands not as propaganda but as a telling reflection of America's postwar obsession with expressing, defining, analyzing, promoting, and criticizing its Americanness."
The show is divided into several sections, each given over to some aspect of postwar culture: "American Icons" (the flag, the dollar bill, monuments, and historical figures like Washington and Lincoln), "Cities, Suburbs, and Highways," "American Food and American Marketing," and so on. Thematically the works match up neatly with their designated categories, but the thematic arrangements (a little bombastic in any case) do not interest me as much as what the paintings and sculptures reveal about the way the artists answered to their moment. Much of the work is too calculated a reaction to already calculated manifestations of American culture, and the encounter between subject matter and the form-giving desire of the artist is rendered nearly passionless by a conventionalized (and enfeebled) curiosity. For all their diverse talents, artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Wayne Thiebaud are essentially collectors, antic archivists of American facts. There are exceptions in the show. Larry Rivers's Washington Crosses the Delaware is more than a modernist quotation or revision of Emanuel Leutze's famous nineteenth-century painting, though Rivers has said that he reimagined that historical moment as "nervewracking and uncomfortable" and that he couldn't picture anyone "getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics." The coercive anecdotalism of Leutze's portrayal of the event is literally undone, scrambled, in Rivers's version. The spotty, nebulous brushwork and the drawing that shows through the half-realized figures like wiring enact not a historical event so much as a skepticism about the way history's tones are determined by stylized facts.
But on the whole, for a viewer like myself who believes that the most profound disharmonies (and cautious accordances) with one's moment are enacted in the innovations, constraints, refusals and assertions and contestations of an artist's form language, too many of the pieces in Made in U.S.A. give testimony above all to the manipulative publicities of postwar culture. Attention to American things is not new. Thomas Eakins, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, regionalists like Reginald Marsh, Winslow Homer, George Bellows, and naive painters like the Louisianan Clementine Hunter have absorbed idiosyncratic American facts into their work. And, more to the point, the first-generation Abstract Expressionists in their heroic willfulness and push-it-to-the-extreme flamboyance the field of paint for them was a wilderness frontier to be violently organized into form, into completed feeling were in spirit perhaps the most peculiarly American painters of all. Jackson Pollock combined tactlessness and cunning, and though he practiced an anarchy in the face of conventional figuration, he was also driven to realize new economies and orders in paint. And Mark Rothko meant his paintings to bear a weight of sublime moral feeling. The pop artists who began to emerge a little later wanted instead a culture art, fact laden, actuarial, representative of what seemed to them the dominions of culture in their time. Consequently, for subject matter they were drawn to uniform images and standardized products; in re-presenting them, however, they also borrowed from the methods, tonal register, and moral intent of those who broadcast the products. Absorbed into the very assumptions of Pop Art is the conviction that the artist is a pitchman. That makes for a sort of artist very different from Robert Frank who, obsessed with the same materials, remains at least inquisitive, curious, receptive, open to the most complex and unexpected feeling tones that might emerge while he's working an image into existence.
The pitch that Pop Art makes is sometimes a cry of alarm. That's the dominant tone of many of Rauschenberg's huge fields of canvas on which hectoring one-way signs and torn veils of color angle nervously around news photos of army helicopters, flags, political leaders, and all sorts of cultural debris. His pictures, which I will come back to later, are graphs of American nerves at moments of violent disturbance or change. A more subdued alarmism seethes in the chromium glare of candy-shop colors in Richard Estes's work. His Welcome to 42nd Street (Victory Theater) (1968), a frontal across-the-street view of a pornographic movie house, doubles the pitchman's plea. The marquee's program is so intensified by the deep-grooved ebon shadows behind each letter that the message pulses its own afterimage: "She Takes Off Where Her Mother Left Off: THE NOTORIOUS DAUGHTER OF FANNY HILL ." Estes's vision enhances the delirium of commerce. In Food City (1967), a frontal sidewalk view of a supermarket, the interior signs ("Beauty Aids," "Dietary Foods," "Spanish Foods") and the customers lined up at check-out stands are pasted over by reflections of exterior signs and commercial activity laid on the market's plate-glass window. The laminar appeals are clamped, with rigorous formality, between the upper and lower jaws of the picture: above are banner announcements ("CHUCK STEAK 39Â¢ lb"); below are squat tiers of canned and bottled foods.
The sort of projection we find in Estes's paintings is yet cool and bemused when compared with the extravagant pitch of Edward Ruscha's Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas (1963), where hot-iron reds and whites blaze up from the lower right-hand corner of the frame like something carved out of a headlight's funnel beam. I don't share Sidra Stich's belief, proposed in her catalogue essay, that the service station is depicted as "a monumentalized edifice, an apotheosized shrine." Or rather, if this were Ruscha's intention, it was defeated by his very choice of subject, something so purely the expression of capitalist economics that any notion of its being monumentalized or viewed as sacred must be rooted in a complex, critical, political irony that pop artists did not possess. Ruscha's subject is too peculiar to a historical moment, and too secular, to be in any way sublime. Most pop artists were so cautiously knowing and so caught up in the stylistic niceties of presentation that subversive satire was generally beyond them. And I think that was because the subtleties of feeling tone available to representational painters were co-opted by the pop artist's mixed impulses as archivist and pitchman.
Displayed next to Estes's movie-house picture is Rauschenberg's Choke, and although formally they are quite different (next to the disruptions of Rauschenberg's painting Estes's work seems a city-of-glass dream of reason) there are exaggerated culture facts gathered in each. The liturgical exactitude of Estes's picture palace makes its signs a tall billboard caps the marquee: "WELCOME TO 42ND STREET THE WORLD'S GREATEST MOVIE CENTER " both welcoming and assaultive. Its appeal, like the action of much American advertising, is an abrasive hugginess. In Rauschenberg's picture a One-Way sign rockets up the middle of the painting's upper half, trailing yellow streamers all the way to the bottom of the canvas, where a mess of traffic signs leers from a red patch. Left of the rocket is some kind of meteorological instrument, its gauge barely legible, as if battered by overuse. To the right are more indicators, signs, indecipherable public messages. An army helicopter and the Statue of Liberty, both worked out in the muzzy tones of news photography, occupy each side of the painting's upper half. The aggressive images, however, are almost furtively held back by the fine textures of the silkscreening. Rauschenberg's art is an enthusiastic answer to American experience, and one of his projects is to catch the way we beam instructional signs and messages back at ourselves as if in punishment for some as yet undetermined primal misdeed. We never tire of teasing announcements that instruct us on what to do, what to buy, where to go, and how to get there. It'snot so much the sheer abundance of signs (bumper stickers, T-shirt declarations, billboards, and on and on) that are peculiar to American culture as the frantically meliorist conviction they bear. We have a wilderness in our soul, and one of our felt errands in civilizing it is to remind ourselves of some presumed covenant with perfectibility.
That persuasion is reflected in some strains of Pop Art as an overdetermined meticulousness of representation, whereby subjects drawn from the quick of social and political life are then sealed into a hermetic envelope. CÃ©zanne and Giacometti, Eakins and Rothko, all worked toward an impossible completed rÃ©alisation on the canvas; and the laboriousness of the task was part of the expressive finish of the work. In paintings by Estes, Allan D'Arcangelo, James Rosenquist, and others, where sterling enhancement of the subject is paramount, the macadamized steel-and-glass colors and enameled clarities of image begin to seem painterly equivalents of the 1950s American kitchen, of whose perfections Richard Nixon boasted to Nikita Khrushchev. George Segal makes immaculate simulacra of human figures, which for all their unsettling lifelikeness show no traces of consciousness and personality. A work like Duane Hanson's Motorcycle Accident (1969) horrifies because of its anatomical specificity of broken bones and torn flesh. In Abstract Expressionism the most crucial act was the turning of world feeling into picture feeling. The full emotional and intellectual life of the artist in his moment was lived out in the exploration of open, public, nonrepresentational forms; and the enterprise bore at least vestiges of what once had been belief in transcendence, in some Other, in an imagined consciousness more inclusive than the artist's own.
Against that the pop artist proposes a copyist's art, annunciatory and legislative, that rejects (or evades) the transcendent. As a consequence, the sign or culture image Coke bottle, hamburger, car, flag, or highway sign takes on a determinist authority and deflects anarchic curiosity about forms. Even Rauschenberg's explosive pictures frequently seem contrivances because of the theatrical manipulation of his subjects and materials, though he and Jasper Johns have exercised more formal curiosity than culture-bound artists like Warhol and Oldenburg. Johns's peculiar hermeticism gave him, in fact, the freedom he needed to produce a mud-mystery painting like his 1962 Map . Like many pop paintings, it is a "treatment" of a familiar cultural item. But reassuring cartographic clarity and definition, familiar to many of us from the plastic map puzzles we played with as children, are precisely what melt away in Johns's painting. It's done in encaustic, like the flag paintings, so the whole field of color looks just recently stirred and boiled onto the canvas. Borders once fixed are slipping, the emblems of land masses bleed into incoherent blues and grays, state names are stenciled (smeared, streaked, sometimes doubled, IOWA printed over I O W A) like destinations on boxcars. In treating the emblematic form, Johns revitalizes it as a field in formal disarray and dissolution. Although the work remains in the pop stream, the artist is taking some pains to challenge the given culture fact in bringing the painting to its own realization.
Wayne Thiebaud's paintings of food pose another, wittier, challenge. Trucker's Supper (1961) is fastidious and rigorous in its arrangements: red countertop, glass of milk, sliced bread with a pat of butter, a plate of steak and fries. The stylized pattern, its scenic repose, is resisted by the delirium of the paint. The countertop is a tremulous, rubbery belt, the fork and spoon swim in the fevered grays of a paper napkin, and the steak is a wedge of river-god brown threaded with blues, yellows, and beef-blood reds. In its effort to realize its subject, the painting quivers just this side of representation. What at first seems typical Pop (especially in the catalogue reproduction, where the action of the paint is unavoidably deadened, and the outlines hardened), because of the subject's high, plaintively American definition, after a minute's viewing becomes an expansive and nearly abstract quarrel with what's given. Thiebaud's Lunch Table is less anxious, and funnier. It shows a self-service display of joyous ranks of lemon meringue pie wedges, bowls of soup, layer cake slices, dreadfully inert cottage cheese salads, and watermelon quarters that sit up on their plates like overeager children, all bathed in arctic fluorescent light. The scene is possessed of a fantastic candor and earnestness that we, certainly more than modern Europeans (who have taken over "self-service"
as a term and marketing procedure), feel to be part of our character. That innocence the food looks self-offering, ingenuous, anxious to be liked is momentarily stilled in Thiebaud's thick, pasty forms, as if it were the most fragile of conditions, as if those cheery shapes were about to decompose into light's frigid immateriality.
Andy Warhol favored the iconography of self-offering, but in his presentation of the human he was careful to pound senseless every vestige of pathos in the image. His Twenty-Five Colored Marilyns, an acrylic on canvas, is like a colossal botched sheet of postage stamps, with smudged outlines and mismatched tints. Even the blandest stamp portrait of a historical personage, however, preserves traces of the activities of consciousness. Warhol's Marilyn, like the human figure generally in his work, is devoid of consciousness. His Triple Elvis is a husk of appearances; all the powers of attention have been methodically refined away. Warhol's replicated images are modeled on mechanical processes, so successfully (and profitably) that I don't believe he was speaking as ironically as Sidra Stich says he was when she quotes his famous remark: "Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we're getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine." As an artist, he took his own advice and followed the course of least resistance. In representing the human figure he borrowed or copied the primary vision of others, usually a photographic one. And he passed the image through his nervous system with minimal friction of curiosity, resistance from his own shaping imagination, or concern for preserving (or re-forming) the look of consciousness. The eventfulness of painting, for an artist like Warhol, is beside the point. The point is the bland, stammered second-telling of an already told image. That's why his most charming works are of already determined products Campbell's soup cans, Brillo pad boxes, Coke bottles. When his subjects are politically volatile, such as Jackie (The Week That Was) (1963), whose grainy silkscreened treatments of news photos of Jackie Kennedy are usually presumed to be more refined and sensitive than the leering streetside blasts of Weegee, or Race Riot with its tinted opaque replications of Bull Connor's dogs being set loose on black demonstrators in Birmingham, Warhol vacuums from the photographic image the feeling tones of suffering, social relations, and violence. He wants the image to be both glamorously contemporary and affectively neutral. Warhol and pop artists of his persuasion become the naughty but perfectly housebroken pets of our postwar consumer economy because while they did indeed reflect the material obsessions of American culture, they borrowed too deferentially its means of publicity and played back too uncritically the products that were both subject matter and models for what an artwork product might be.
The eyes in Roy Lichtenstein's comic-strip operettas are emblems of sight; they disclose no activity of consciousness. And the pinched, blank gaze of Mel Ramos's 1961 Superman suggests that instead of answering to that extraordinary pop figure his messianic heroism, his alien but "Americanized" nature, his adoption by and of the Earth, his vulnerability to mineral matter from his home planet the picture is content to bear witness by citing likeness. The event of painting has been conceived in a pop indifference to and disengagement from the political and moral force of the image. The same intention stands behind Lichtenstein's comic-strip art: the artist's image-making faculty seems driven exclusively toward a perfect aestheticizing of the culture fact. Comic-strip characters are titillating and hypnotically charming because they are presences to which language, the articulation of consciousness, is fastened. Language is laid on; it doesn't issue from human sources, it's suspended in or pasted to their context, their frame. The only artist in Made in U.S.A. whose work has subversive political force is Jess. In his "Tricky Cad" series he scrambles frames and dialogue snipped from the Dick Tracy Sunday comics, re-editing story and speech. The collages are grotesquely funny, acerbic, deranged enactments of the manipulations of pop images and idioms. In Tricky Cad Case I Dick and Sam stalk some (unidentified, unseen) villain in a snowy forest. Dick shouts: "Halt! His! Her! Halt!" His partner answers: "Fire bearing the baby in the doll ." Prefabricated language attached to consciousness is one definition of propaganda, and in his idiosyncratic comic tones Jess is questioning (by dismantling) that kind of political and social authority. He turns Dick Tracy's snarling do-goodism into a riot of busted consequences and misfired intentions. Rauschenberg does not have Jess's canniness, but his ambitions are more grandiose. He uses silkscreening to fuse ready-made images to the field of the picture, thus fastening world debris to an imagined context. He wants the ghost of what's given, the hard definition of debris turned almost phantasmal in the decomposing, thinned-out consistencies of silkscreening. In the book Off the Wall, Calvin Tompkins described Rauschenberg as an inclusive, voracious sort of artist. He's certainly not interested in the monastic, cautious deliberations of Warhol, Robert Bechtle, or even Jasper Johns (though Rauschenberg has always thought Johns the more skillful technician). In Kite, a snapshot of a Boy Scout flag parade is ruptured by another showing army troops, one kind of uniformity disrupted by another. Above that scene rises a buoyant, sky blue column; at its base an army helicopter hovers over the broken parade, and at its top sits a bald eagle, river-clay red. Flanking those images the helicopters and eagle are fastened signatures in much of Rauschenberg's work in the 1960s are ivory pillars streaked with jet that seeps, like oil or blood, from a black cylinder high in the picture. The gusto and breakneck rhythms in this and other Rauschenberg canvases are checked a little by the repetitive, programmatic borrowing of available politically encoded facts street scenes, soldiers, policemen, J.F.K., astronauts as if they were control devices to prevent an all-admissive delirium. In Kite this tension is palpable. The studious borrowings by other pop artists seem at best formal niceties when compared to the congestive turbulence in Rauschenberg's work, which looks to me, more than anything else on display, like an accurate, if incoherent, answer to the wild nerves of the 1960s.
But the single most powerful image in Made in U.S.A. is de Kooning's Marilyn Monroe (1954; Plate 7); it makes most of what surrounds it seem tame, conventionalized, dispirited. The full force of de Kooning's rage for form is lived out in the action of the paint, which registers the encounter between the painter and not only the husk of appearances of his subject but also the subject's consciousness. This is brutally apparent in the show, where his Marilyn Monroe is displayed alongside Warhol's Twenty-Five Marilyns . For de Kooning what mattered was not so much the glamor-bound emblematic quality of his subject (he didn't confer the title, apparently, though he admitted that Marilyn Monroe, whose picture he kept in his studio, inspired this and other women paintings of his) as the aggrieved, proud, helpless, and nervously giddy offering of pleasure's promise. Built up from a field of winged, angular planes of red, yellow, white, and green, de Kooning's Marilyn emerges in her picture existence as a consciousness at once desirous and fearful. The image shows none of the coy self-regard that mutes most of the other works on exhibit, and it is certainly unconcerned with taking on for its own purposes of enhancement the glamor inherent in its subject. Such glamor is feverishly neutralized and displaced by de Kooning's desire.