My most frequent childhood dream was of blocky masses of spongy graywhite vapors. They were terrifying because they could possess me, absorb me into their mass, though that also seemed inviting, even desirable, a return to pure, undifferentiated beginnings, a flight from the pains of unlikeness. When I first got to know some of Rothko's painting in the 1970s, I was moved in ways I could not understand or articulate. Something in them exercised what D.H. Lawrence calls "the insidious mastery of song." Their claim had to do with that old dream and also with the paintings' nonanecdotal quality, whereby the very abandonment of narrative, of figural and scenic suggestiveness, became a dense presence, a sumptuous forfeiture. I think of Rothko's sacred decorations for the chapel in Houston. The place turns you back into yourself. The images, their paint films eroded and cracked by lighting and humidity problems over the years, are yet meditative objects. They don't return us to nature, to the massiveness of material reality; they restore us to our means of spiritual preparedness, to disciplines of awareness. Rothko said he wanted high moral themes. He wanted to make tragic painting. We experience tragedy not as themes but as dramatic situation, character, anecdote, momentous event and consequence. But tragic feeling may be an inchoate stirring or condition not attached to a specific experience, and it's that feeling of loss in the fullness of knowledge, of the force of destiny, of a yearning to find in ourselves sacred knowledge and to suffer the consequences of the discovery that Rothko tried to cast in those forms. (Can they be Keats's "huge cloudy symbols of a high romance"?) It's more a dream feeling than a waking one. No less intensely lived but not consciously so. It is not lived in time. We experience it out of time, or in the Great Time, the Beginning Time that we are so much closer to when we're children. I can't follow the critics who see in his paintings figures or recapitulations or "traces" of the figurative art of previous centuries, especially when they make the case that he is essentially a religious artist recapitulating or transfiguring traditional religious motifs. If anything made him an artist of the sacred it was his mission to paint the facelessness of transcendence. He pursued (and illustrated) the post-romantic consequences of Shelley's statement in Prometheus Unbound that "the deep truth is imageless."
A useful definition of "imaginative," in Bergson's Two Sources of Morality and Religion: "any concrete representation which is neither perception nor memory." I think that means categorically neither one nor the other. An amalgam, but infused (I would add) with the instinct for form.
Over the years Frank Stella has achieved a programmatic novelty, surprises so strategic that they feel more like methodically worked-out theories than actual physical events. His is the kind of abstraction that lives entirely for others (and for the systematic advance of art history). Years ago he said, "For a painting to be successful, it has to deal with problems that are always given to painting, meaning the problems of what it takes to make a really good or convincing painting." An artist naturally folds into his expressive work a historical awareness of predecessors and an awareness of formal problems. But the superior artist will not be so concerned with the correctness or aptness or timeliness of his response to those pressures. And yet Stella's career is taken as exemplary by many younger artists, even nonabstractionists, insofar as they are more preoccupied with making art that explains or justifies its own existence than with art that is essentially emotive, appetitive, expressive.
Museum going . In Philadelphia, in the CÃ©zanne room with its great centerpiece of the 1906 Bathers, a father bustles through the far doorway, two children tugging his hands, bubbling about something. The father, trying to get above their voices, nearly shouts, "But in those days, Jimmy, they didn't have things like VCRs," while they pick up speed and hurry across the room and out the far door. In New York at the Degas exhibition the dense weekday crowd, funereal in its attentiveness, paced in silent procession from one image to the next. Rippling the surface of that quiet was the chittering of headsets. More explanations. When we go to a big show, we can acquire more prepackaged information about the artist's work its social and biographical setting, its art-historical "place," etc. than ever before. Because of the educational mission of our museums, I suppose this sort of instructive processing of art is inevitable, though I think it must somehow impede the natural streaming of beautiful images into our emotional and spiritual lives. How close are we, though, to believing finally that, in our cultural lives, information is edification? Access sufficient data, compile an adequate body of fact, contrive a theoretical apparatus that will elucidate patterns that connect systems and networks, and the Golem stirs.
In his chapter on Leonardo in The Renaissance, Pater writes: "The way to perfection is through a series of disgusts." For moderns, the way matters more than the perfection, and the disgusts themselves are exemplary.
Why are the jets and emulsive tracks of paint in Pollock's Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 so compelling? It's not only because he was creating a greater plasticity of space and laying out dozens of contested fields of formal activity where disintegrating patterns pitch against imminent, struggling stabilities. There's something one can't reduce satisfactorily to formal terms. In 1964 the Romanian-born Eliade, who was a great admirer of his countryman Brancusi, spoke of "nonfigurative painters who abolish representational forms and surfaces, penetrate to the inside of matter, and try to reveal the ultimate structures of substance ." In order to talk about Pollock, and Rothko for that matter, in other than purely formalist vocabularies (and to avoid the useless argument that both were representationalists masquerading as abstractionists), we may have to pick up where Pierre Schneider left off in his discussion of Matisse and talk about the sacred and the mundane. Eliade also says that nonrepresentational art corresponds to the "demythologization" in religion advocated by Rudolph Bultmann. As Christianity may dissolve the images and symbols of its traditional narratives to confront once again the freshness of religious experience in our secular, materialist time, certain artists give up the making of representational images so that they can see through traditional iconography to the world as it could have been seen only on the first day of creation. Moreover, he says, today's artist "sees only the freshness of the first day of the world he does not yet see its 'face.' The time of the epiphany has not yet arrived, or does the world truly have no face? " I think Pollock and Rothko worked to paint that facelessness. For Rothko it was toned with a magisterial, voluminous solemnity. For Pollock the tone was one of self-devouring conflict.
Why the erotic pinch of photographs? Eros, the divided egg, the desire, the likeness separated forever from its matching, complementary half. Maybe because the whole shape of the ghost of the flesh is already there and yet is not there, I mean not here, not actual (the image tells us that, too), its likeness so like what we imagine our own likeness to be. We see ourselves remembered, already posthumous, sometimes smiling. I have an old studio portrait of my grandmother as a young woman in Abruzzo. I see the dignified stillness, the compassionate self-containment that men found so attractive. In a snapshot of my father, taken in South Philadelphia when he was in his early twenties, I see the familiar shadow structure and stress lines of my own face. A third image, of my grandmother and grandfather, not long after she joined him in South Philadelphia: my young grandfather, who would die a few months later, has the alert, triangulated, almost wolfish features my father bears in that other picture. My grandmother is wearing a dark, simple dress and high-laced boots. Both are dressed in familiar, too frequently brushed and washed and ironed grays and whites. They have in their faces the strained look of what Henry James called the launched populations. But now, in my life, my memory, there are other presences that sharpen the pinch even more. Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Russell Lee they are there, too.
Realism into Camp . The representation as sitting duck: see Jasper Johns's Decoy . The title identifies the image as an easy target, but also a deceptive one meant to draw our attention away from something else, away from the really real likeness. Deception depends on coy verisimilitude. Johns is the realist as sign painter. Each form, even abstract patterns like the famous hatchmarks of the 1970s and 1980s, is a sign meant to stand for something else. So what does a decoy painting mock? The painted image is a stand-in for the original, it's not the duck. So where's the duck? Nowhere present but everywhere signified? Johns's enterprise since the late 1960s seems to be the making of images that are purposive stand-ins for a reality too fragile, intimate, or vulnerable to expose. And what might that reality be? Maybe it's the mind in which correspondences and connections between signs and emblems flags, numbers, Savarin cans, bathtub fixtures, posters, letters hold their coherence, generate some system of meaning. Or does an image refer to some originating prototype, the really real, that has fled? Is Johns mourning the loss of some untold but felt Golden Age of image representation? (Does the lament become soon numbed by its ritual funereal repetitions?) Or is he devious or impish or callow to have devised an art that is essentially a model of the monkey mind? Decoy recapitulates familiar motifs in somber indigo and pale blues: framed in the center is a Ballantine can, positioned as an exhibit or lure. Color words (RED, ORANGE , etc.) form column and buttress patterns. That field is mounted on a lower border illustrating silkscreen images of Johns's earlier works: the Savarin can, a light bulb, a flashlight. Decoy and many other pieces of the 1970s and 1980s are essentially design concepts so overdetermined in their impassivity that the felt life has been drained from them. The blandness of purity.
Baudelaire says in the Salon of 1846 that the great criterion of art is memory. "Art is a kind of mnemotechny of beauty; and slavish imitation interferes with memory. There is a class of atrocious painters for whom the smallest wart is a great piece of luck; not only would they not dream of leaving it out, but they must needs make it four times life-size." But there is also reality's command to artists (they feel it as a command) who, though practiced in Baudelaire's mnemotechny, cannot ignore the high shine of the world's objects, the allure of the given. Such artists, however, would rarely think of enlarging a wart. The exaggeration and intensification of the given comes from their transformative way of seeing the world. Memory may turn what's before our eyes into a fever dream, and that becomes the object the artist copies.
Discussing Giovanni Morelli's argument for making correct attributions of works of art, Edgar Wind says in Art and Anarchy: "This is the core of Morelli's argument: an artist's personal instinct for form will appear at its purest in the least significant parts of his work, because they are the least labored." The same can be said of a poet's work. What can be felt in the simplest, least significant turn of phrase is the stirring of language in answer to the poet's instinct for the necessary (not the correct) form. A poet follows the pattern that language generates the way a painter follows or pursues the emergent image. It's the strange perfume of the work.
Fairfield Porter's double portrait of John Ashbery and James Schuyler depicts a certain kind of poetic distraction. The two seem to have nothing to say, each lost in a thought that holds little interest even for them, to judge by the look of bland restraint on their faces. Their composure seems just as likely to verge on terminal boredom as on delirium or hysteria. That makes them truly Baudelaire's children.
For Lucian Freud the flesh is a garment worn by an exhausted spirit. His figures seem to bear too much weight of the past, and the burden bores them. They look like ideal sitters because it would be more difficult for them to move than to sit still for long periods. It's the skin, with its vestiges of conscience, that distinguishes the humans from the plants that Freud sometimes paints into their scenes.
The 1986 Biennial at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is devoted to what the curators call the presence of the past in recent art. The works on display are meant to demonstrate the complex ways young artists are taking over, making over, classical influences. Giulio Paolini, best known as an Arte Povera artist, is represented by Nesso: to compose an image of the centaur Nessus he mounts a scroll of paper with a human head and torso drawn on it atop a classically modeled horse's body. (He said he doesn't intend "a revisit, in the sense of a choice in the stores of the past, but rather an undifferentiated welcome, a memory that wants to reach the very making of the work.") The German Hermann Albert's paintings blend explicitly the influences of de Chirico, Balthus, and Picasso. Carlo Maria Mariani offers pictorial rÃ©sumÃ©s of Ingres, Fuseli, and Blake. In these cases the relation of present activity to past achievement is essentially archival, recuperative, and parodistic; the presentations are theatrical and bluntly self-aware. The formal instigations of older artists quoted in these images are not recovered so that they may be pushed further, detonated, retested, or pounded into new possibilities. (Any of Giacometti's ballpoint sketches of masterworks in the Louvre would be a measure of how that's accomplished.) They're mummified, made pristinely historical. The exception is the Norwegian Odd Nerdrum, whose painting The Water Protectors shows a bombed-out terrain patrolled by half-naked warriors in leather headpieces carrying automatic weapons. The drawing and coloring are obviously derivative of baroque painting, but Nerdrum isn't simply manipulating historical values or pushing imagery around; he has a singular and disturbing vision that he's trying to model in paint, and his homage to masterful predecessors becomes unnervingly folded into his vision of civilization undone by its own overrefined sense of need. His work doesn't suffer from formal fatigue and isn't immunized, as so much recent figurative painting seems to be, against unexpected feeling.
The way Pollock skeined paint onto the canvas would seem the supreme manipulation of accident decisive accident. He used the brush like a stick, pointing the paint into emergent arcs and spindles on the blank ground of the canvas. He used the action of gravity on a painter's material as a crucial form-making action. He was no more a shaman wielding a medicine stick, as one critic melodramatically described him, than was Courbet or CÃ©zanne buttering the canvas with heavy loads of paint from the palette knife. Better say Pollock was no less the shaman than they. As for accident, in a 1951 interview he said that the drip paintings were products of a controlled application of paint, that he did not use the accident, he denied it. Those forms were, in other words, exclusionary. The snarled, implosive space created by the apparent galactic chaos of pigment came from a discipline of denial. The application of paint by the Wild Man from Cody was a stay against the derangements of form that accident creates.
The Cibachrome process so saturates the photographic image with color that the tones look hallucinated, engorged with dream dyes, but at the same time cool, shellacked, almost decorative. I saw somewhere a show of images of sports events. The colors were so ripe and swollen that the tension of physical action a soccer player falling, a motorcyclist turning a curve (his knee about an inch off the ground), a gang of racing cars at the starting line was loosened, drained of energy, because the drawing, I mean the composition of stress lines and tension points, was slack. Intensification of color can't compensate for wobbly structure. Or if it does, it usually makes for visual bombast. But I also think of Richard Misrach's Ektacolor images in his 1983-84 "Desert Fires" series where the conflagrations of light seem a visionary part of the natural life cycle of the landscape. The paper itself looks as if it has caught fire, ignited by likeness. Used in this way, a color process can set the image in an adversarial or strained relation to its own support.
To write or make images in response to Nietzsche's challenge (from the notebook he kept while writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra ): "He who no longer finds what is great in God will find it nowhere he must either deny it or create it."
Rothko's art is the kind that cultivates the imminence of oblivion, cultivates it with such disciplined passion that possibility comes to seem desirability. How then does one make an art of defiant resolutions out of the knowledge of despair, the tantalus of complete forgetfulness? That's the poet's question, too. One sustaining answer (Rothko's): a feeling tone blending vexed joy and pained (never blissful) forgetfulness.
Artists who take their Americanness too literally as a subject are likely to become mere processors of American facts, though in the bargain they may also become well known, maybe rich, producers of such facts as commodities.
In much Pop Art the crucial aesthetic decisions seem to have been made before the image comes into existence, so that the materials can't respond in a challenging way to the artist's exertions. In a way such an art liberates the artist: the image is "non-negotiable" but often it also results in a numbed and numbing exclusivity and a new academicism waving the banner of cultural criticism. The pleasures it offers are those of good-humored, cautious, and fairly predictable artisanry. One pop trap was that some of its artists wanted everything, in moral terms. They wanted images having critical adversarial energy all those votive objects of a market economy: movie stars, comic-strip heroes, cars, refrigerators, TVs, canned foods, and hot dogs but they wanted them also to be celebratory. The critical energy was mostly co-opted immediately by the sheer political commodity value of the images. How can an image maker criticize what he or she also exalts? Does ironic presentation redeem one from that dilemma? What if pop irony itself carries a high market value? Is it necessary to do as Warhol did and confuse the public into market delirium by becoming a vendor of your own masterful affectlessness?
My friend L., a ceramics artist and furniture designer, took me to a furniture art exhibition on lower Broadway. She kids me for being a romantic nostalgist and hopes to liberate me from my loyalties to figuration. Deployed in the long high-ceilinged space were chairs, tables, play sets, wet bars, lawn furniture, models for landscape designs, etc. Each piece had its own idiom angled into some kind of dramatic relationship with the object's traditional use value. Nothing seemed exclusively decorative or primarily useful. Each had designs on the viewer-user, begging for some lively response. One fabulous piece: a wet bar made of (I think) black granite. The front played with the light, breaking it into hundreds of black glints. It had no fake or ironical sacrosanctity, though it kept some of the solemnity of its form it looked like a cropped monolith. But its chief beauty was in the adjusted monumentality of the black stone, which also held some surprise: on its rear side, invisible to the imaginary guests, was a carved hive of gleaming cells and cubbyholes, the secret inflections of the monolithic front disclosed only to the initiate. The entire object seemed to talk back at us. Designed into it was the assumption that there is a living relation, a ritual conversation, between us and our things.
Richard Diebenkorn may have proved by now to be the most masterly of the painters associated with Bay Area figurative art in the 1950s, but during that period David Park was the most exciting because his painting was so anxious. Diebenkorn's pursuit of colorist geometries in the figurative work, then later in the abstraction of the 1960s and 1970s (culminating, I suppose, in the processional varieties of the "Ocean Park" series) shows a tenacity of purpose and investigatory deliberation he learned from Matisse, though Diebenkorn has never really been driven by passion for the figure or by fauvist enthusiasm. By contrast with the serene buoyancies of Diebenkorn's work of the 1950s, Park's figure paintings from the same time are massive and not yet fully evolved cult objects. In Park the instrumentation of the brush is more a part of the drama of subject, and the color is madder, more incensed and driven, though (in the work of the early 1950s especially) there's an anxious devouring of space by color volumes that seems one moment a terrible violence, another moment a diffident impatience. The flesh in Standing Male Nude in the Shower from 1957 glows a bar-neon red, tacky-infernal, painted from the inside out. In the 1954 Nudes by a River, built up in broad banded color masses, the flesh, shown in a state of repose, still struggles to define itself against the erosions of space. The 1957 Bather with Knee Up, like Park's work generally after 1955, is solidly constructed, but the planks of ocher, brown, and gray look nailed into place. The colorist disruptions of the earlier work and the instinctual surprise: in portraits like Head of Lydia (1953) and Profile and Lamp (1952) we're pitched into the intimacy of the subject as we are in genre pictures like Sophomore Society (1953) and Cocktail Lounge (1952) are overresolved in frontal, increasingly monumental poses. If there's anxiety in these later pieces, it may lie in the disparity between the often grimly isolated individuals in the figure groups and their representation in loaded, erotically charged masses of paint. Baudelaire's praise for the imagination comes from his hatred or dread of nature, of the fallen world of the visible. It's a Catholic's version: "How mysterious is imagination, that Queen of the Faculties! It touches all the others; it rouses them and sends them into combat. . . . Those men who are not quickened by it are easily recognizable by some strange curse which withers their productions like the fig-tree in the Gospel. It is both analysis and synthesis. . . . It is Imagination that first taught man the moral meaning of color, of contour, of sound and of scent." The Imagination thus dissolves and recreates the world, it redeems nature from itself, saves it from its chaotic beginnings. Baudelaire's Romanticism the Imagination as moral adjudicator and meliorator of all in nature cannot accommodate a CÃ©zanne, a Giacometti, a Matisse; although they certainly exercise Imagination more or less as Baudelaire understood it, they did so in order to represent nature as they saw it. They practiced the same degree of moral attentiveness to nature as did Ingres, whom Baudelaire so disliked, and Manet, who he felt was gifted but misguided. It's not the fallenness of nature that determined how certain modern artists have gone about their work but the fallen condition of the Imagination itself, which knows it wants to make an image of nature but knows it has lost for good the innocence of realist representation. (In light of the impossibilities modern artists faced, splenetic Baudelaire sounds almost cheery.) Maybe one ambition of Abstract Expressionism was to vaporize the very terms of the question, to take the god out of technique, to replace Eros with erotics, to demythologize and dismantle all moral analogue left over from representationalism.
The question of transcendence in painting since 1945 is not God stuff, at least not exclusively. It has a social meaning, if we accept Erich Fromm's view that transcendence means overcoming the limits of selfhood, the prison of the self, of solipsism and alienation, and opening ourselves to others, to relatedness to the world. Jasper Johns may be the exemplary painter of the cell of selfhood the game of form being both play activity and the ramparts of the garrisoned self with no sense of relatedness to anything outside the circuit of familiar forms, and with very narrow, repetitious relations among those forms. But he is not bound alone in that nutshell.
William Bailey's still lifes are images of perfection. Some say he's heir to Morandi, but Morandi's paintings, especially the great ones from the mid-1930s and mid-1960s, are all articulated doubts, skepticisms, uncertainties. Their "spectrality" was a way of accommodating the spirit life Morandi felt in the thing life of paint. Exact rendering wasn't important. What mattered was formal curiosity, the investigation of feeling occasioned by the thing that's there, the use of painting to interrogate and disclose feeling. His greatest paintings are images of aggrieved, restive stillness. Bailey, by contrast, makes images of a contented imagination; they have no anxiety about their own existence. He's a superb designer, though. One goes to his work not for mysterious inquiries of color but for colorism's high schematic resolutions. It withholds eruptive disturbances color is the code of predetermined harmonies. The pleasure it gives us is that of a perfect fit, and of certain serenity. It's not a happy art, not as Matisse's or MirÃ³'s or Klee's was often happy, celebrative, nervy, sometimes giddy, and teased out of mind by formal excitements. Bailey's is a contented art, unperturbed, wonderfully composed. One of his tables, with its warm textures and methodically distributed values, occupies its space in a way meant to attract our admiration. It offers itself a little too readily, and earnestly, to our appreciation.
Is it worth the effort to perfect a rhetoric of coy but conquering persuasion that mocks its own intentions? Is it worth the effort to make oneself painter or poet a genius of affected affectlessness? That is the most disconcerting sentimentality of our time. We've come so far from Bergson, who less than a century ago could say that the universe is a machine for the making of gods! Our time needs an artist who, without the insulating mockeries of Camp, will be brilliantly and fearlessly antisacred. In the work of some moderns it's impossible to distinguish between the pursuit of transcendent reality, of the old sacred, and the desacralized commitment to formal realization. Modernism's necessary blasphemy was to keep alive the idea of the sacred by saying that it inheres in the pursuit of forms. This is what Matisse meant when he said he believed in God only when he was working. It's not historical vestiges or residues of the sacred that exist in their work, it is in fact spiritual essence, the assumption that the drivenness of the form-making imagination is authored by and answerable to some force or energy or historical contingency greater than itself, even if that greater power is a fiction of the eternal, the infinite. In the work of certain first-generation Abstract Expressionists, of Pollock and Rothko and Clyfford Still, I always feel the presence of the sacred in the forms. The boundary has been crossed; nature and likeness disintegrate and recohere as an otherness of formal mystery. And their formalism is more infused with a naturalistic, fearful, primitive religiosity than is the work of Matisse and Giacometti. In a good deal of pop and neo-expressionist art, figures of sacred power and the sense of the transcendent are taken mainly as materialist cultural residue, or as elements of camp nostalgia. We've been living through another passage in the expanding and contracting relation between the mortal order and that which it conceives as transcending it. It's a story of estrangements.
Questions of Anselm Kiefer . In both versions of the 1982 To the Unknown Painter the palette is planted in the center of its scene; it doesn't have wings, as in other paintings. It's atop a rickety pole, like a flag or grave marker, and in both versions it's surrounded by the massive "heroic" architectural motifs of Albert Speer. Is it therefore an image of spindly weakling art holding its place in the bombastic vacancies of the officially heroic? Is Kiefer mocking the worshipful heroizing of art and artists? Is the palette-on-a-pole an image of hermetic isolation, of the artist as Simon Exemplar? Does it mark a gravesite in a cavernous mausoleum? Does the image, so simple in its elements, cohere? / / / Many of his paintings barely concede light. Light appears as an act of will, never casual or incidental to subject or composition. It's so carefully rationed that its dispensations must be prepared for, ceremonialized, and when it does come it's usually zinc light, sand-grit light, as if in illustration of the lines from Paul Celan's Deathfugue (a poem illustrated explicitly in Kiefer's Shulamite and Margarete paintings):
Black milk of dawn we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon and mornings we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it
/ / / Why isn't the pictorial conceit of Icarus-March Sand (1981) ludicrous? A flying palette. Winged aspiration. The painter scorched by ambition and foolhardiness, trusting too much to technology. A hackneyed contrivance? But the presentation is utterly graceless, mineralized, the palette's grossly feathered wing a scorched gluey black. The textures are decayed, clotted, pounded. Icarus, with his kidney-shaped head and fat wings, is a turkey vulture, a carrion feeder out of nightmare, fallen, still falling. / / / Why is the second great influence on Kiefer after his mentor Joseph Beuys, by his own admission, Andy Warhol? Kiefer often begins with a photograph implanted on the canvas. Then, he says, "I cover up the pure reality of the photograph with my thoughts and feelings, since I paint in layers." (Warhol wanted that pure reality, too, but he wanted it stained, exposed, tinted, combed not covered, and his process was one of refining out thoughts and feelings.) Kiefer's layers are visible in the finished work: "I work according to a kind of 'inverted archeological' principle." He constructs a painting not as a digging or unearthing but as a seeding of the site. A painting thus becomes the evidence trove of its own history. Why Warhol? Does his image making represent to Kiefer a purity unavailable to him, a historical innocence or indifference so bland, uninflected, and impersonal that to a mythopoetic painter like Kiefer it must seem a perverse ideal? Is Warhol's influence some kind of vaccine? / / / Nigredo has a surface so congested with pigment, emulsion, shellac, and bits of paper stapled to the canvas that it creates an earthwork inertia, an apparently impenetrable voluminousness. The subject announced by the title is the stage in the alchemical process when a pure black liquid, the perfect blackest black, is achieved as preparation or ground for the emergence of light. Nigredo is a death, a resolution of all color to primal chaosblack. The emergent light is a sign of transformative genius and invention, of which we see other testimonials in Kiefer's homages to Germany's spiritual heroes. But it seems to me also a gnostic, messianic drama, the light brought forth by the alchemical artist from fallen chaotic matter. The painting's titanism (I wonder at the sheer expense of materials to produce this and many other of his paintings) and its concern with the heroic presagings of illumination in a dark, fallen world perpetuate the Parsifalism so many critics praise his work for denouncing. Pictorially, Nigredo, like the winged palettes (one of which has been installed at the foot of the main staircase in the Philadelphia Museum of Art so that it gestures up to the classical Diana in her niche), is a massive redemptionist clichÃ©. But the rhetoric of his materials is so overwhelming he uses canvas like an athenor, an alchemist's furnace that we can be moved and rocked by it as we are by grand oratory. I'm moved and shaken by some of his works, but I'm also repelled by their suggestions of purity, election, rescue, and purifying fire. We do not need to be redeemed from ourselves, from history, from the earth. / / / To know the devil, swallow his spit. Kiefer, as visionary image maker, exposes, criticizes, grieves over the imperious myth-making self-exaltations of modern Germany. His scorched, blood-margined images (in his landscapes bloodstreaks often root trees and humans) sometimes seem the immediate register of tormented conscience. Yet he practices the gargantuan, emblematic, myth-encoding ceremonialism that is the major style of that Germany, that Wagnerism. Leon Golub, in his flayed, sagging canvases of paramilitary terrorists, torturers, and mercenaries, enters into a palpably dangerous sympathy with the tormentors he portrays. His monstrous images, however, release in a very disturbing way the moral devastation not only of the actions depicted but also the devastation of the temptation to sympathy and alliance and silent collaboration. Golub is a much older artist and has a more refined sense of moral complexity (and of politically motivated horror). In Kiefer's Germany's Spiritual Heroes a sketchy charcoal figure, barely visible from a distance, occupies the center of the composition. Is he a worshiper at the fire shrines that line the walls? His figure is partly rubbed into the grain of the wooden floor and beams, rubbed into their substance like a troll, but he's drawn slightly across the grain so that he can be distinguished. Is he the not-yet-materialized challenger (and future co-tenant) of those enshrined heroes? Is the painting a self-portrait with figures?
In 1983 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art put on an exemplary small exhibition titled Rothko 1949, featuring nine paintings: one from 1947, another from 1955, and the rest from the decisive year. In the adjacent room were several large works by Clyfford Still. You could see, with the kind of clarity too few exhibitions allow, not only the influence on Rothko of Still, who by 1949 had already begun to intensify and explore the form language of ripped seams in the planar colorist unities of his paintings, but also the gradual resolution of Rothko's early modeling of forms into the brooding, morally volatile masses of his mature style. The 1945 Tentacles of Memory has some of Klee's menacing whimsy in its floating, weedy lines of ink drawn on thick bands of watercolor. No. 17 from 1947 shows some of the biomorphic form of other early pieces, but we can see colors being amassed into adjoining mood fields. The 1949 Multiform is a saturated burnt-orange field on which, at the bottom, stand two differently sized columnar grays; a faint, broken blue-gray outline runs around the large solid upper portion, which in some places breaks down into archipelagoes of color. It looks very much as if those lower columns and the squared upper field will become engorged with their color, filled out into the familiar resolute hieratic forms soon to emerge in Rothko's painting. In his efforts that crucial year, however, there are streaks, nervous or anxious brushwork, runny frontiers of color seeping jaggedly into neighboring fields. Seeing them so close to the Still paintings makes me think that Rothko learned from Still most of all how the mediating intellectualism and Jungian conceptualizing of his earlier work could be diffused in expressive need. In 1949 Rothko began to find colorist presence without analytical or illustrational apparatus. But it's not just the color relationships that mattered. Much later he would say: "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions tragedy, ecstasy, doom. . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you . . . are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"
Greenberg says somewhere that watercolor is a more intimate medium than oil and that American artists consequently feel more comfortable using watercolor because they can be more direct and immediate and private. This is certainly true of Charles Demuth. He seems to feel less obligated to be emblematic, representative, formally constructive, and self-conscious in watercolors, especially the still lifes and the erotic scenes among men. The flowers in his 1923 Gladiolus are nature retold as infinitely veiled vacancies the petals are serial disclosures. An image like the sensuous Green Pears is celebratory and analytical, yet these qualities exist as an intimacy rare in his oil paintings. And his images of men are humorous, robust, unapologetic, immediate; they carry the gleeful boldness of hidden pleasures treated as privileged loves. By contrast, an artist like Robert Mapplethorpe, self-consciously postmodern and consequently moodily affectless, makes images that propose intimacies as intellectual commodities. His flowers, with their cool, overdetermined effects, have such a pristine aura of lasciviousness that as erotic emblems they are finally quite harmless. Demuth's 1930 watercolor Two Sailors Urinating, with its frontal view of unbuttoned sailors holding big penises, is an image of appetite, dangerous fun, anonymity, and obsessiveness. One sailor looks drunk, a cigarette hanging tough-guy fashion from twisted lips; the other, standing behind him, is pretty and stares at him with obvious desire. The black penis hanging from the open zipper in Mapplethorpe's Man in Polyester Suit is an aesthetically hermetic (not emotionally intimate or private) event. The image is defined that is, its emotional effects are defined entirely by self-consciousness of effect, and that is abstract and intellectualized. There is another image by Mapplethorpe, of a male back, curved, the skin texture almost gritty, pipped, fretted by shadows created (I presume) by studio lighting, that is a dazzling image of flesh as object of desire purely object. In the watercolors Demuth is not as knowing and formally self-conscious as in his paintings he's freed from having to seem notable. Mapplethorpe may never have freed himself from that self-awareness. His images may unsettle us, but usually they aren't intimate enough to be truly disturbing. He certainly made images, as if to order, that suit the pristine arguments of postmodernist intellectuals, because he purged chance and uncertainty from his work as if they were a contagion.
Every portrait is a kind of posthumous rendering or memorial. The camera intensifies the sensation of the evanescent solidity of the flesh. In an installation called Monuments at the University Art Museum at Berkeley, the French artist Christian Boltanski used a 1931 class portrait of students in a Viennese Jewish high school. He rephotographed, enlarged, and isolated each of the faces, setting them inside tin biscuit boxes. Above each he attached identical cheap gooseneck reading lamps, like portrait-frame illumination except that the cowls are bent down in front of the image, partially blocking it and blurring the already overenlarged, disintegrating features of each young face. The illumination interrogates the image, terrorizes its apparent stability and normalcy. But the identical machinery of presentation and illumination terrorizes each image in a like, machine-tooled way. The tin-box frames are spread over a large wall in the concrete bunker of its exhibition space at the museum. The room is darkened. The space becomes a necropolis, and the somber, measured (though not lugubrious) presentation allows for no antic tones, no send-up of memorial conventions. The intense sorrowing activity enacted in the configuration of images is depersonalized; it's unattached to any authorship. Boltanski doesn't show the self-aware historical grandiosity of Anselm Kiefer. (The dangling lamp wires draped like bunting among the images remind me strongly of the circuitry in a few of Kiefer's paintings.) Paul Celan wrote poems as if in answer to Adorno's remark that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Boltanski's images in Monuments are one kind of adequate portraiture after Auschwitz.