Art and theory

Last night I went with a friend to the Harvard Film Archive to see Painters Painting, a 1972 documentary by Emile de Antonio. (The Archive’s film copy of the movie had been ruined and they were forced to show it from 80’s-era laser disk, as a result of which embarrassment the showing was offered for free). The subject was American painters, focusing on the Abstract Expressionists and their Pop-Art and Color-Field successors. Many of the artists who were alive at the time were featured in interviews (Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, of course, had each died violently before the movie was made). Interesting to see how this tight-knit group of people interacted with each other, with the dealers and collectors, and with the outside world.

What stuck me, ungenerous soul that I am, was what terrible theorists the painters all were. By which I mean, they had very strong ideas about what they are doing and what other people should be doing and what kinds of art are good and bad, but these ideas are all visceral and impressionistic (as it were), rather than flowing from some set of basic axioms about what art should be. They would offer various opinions in the guise of fundamental principles, of course, but the principles were often incoherent and never really fundamental, in the sense that they could be reasonably applied to a wide variety of aesthetic moments. Instead, they were rules of thumb that happened to serve this particular person well in their particular set of circumstances. You were as likely to hear, for example, about how it was absolutely necessary to make your brushstrokes vivid and recognizable, as you were to hear that brushstrokes should always be completely imperceptible. I can imagine perfectly good reasons for either position, but these stances were offered as self-evident truths, rather than as flowing from some deeper theory.

And I don’t blame the artists in particular; the few critics that were featured (Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer) didn’t do much better. Again, they had strong opinions justified by appeals to comprehensive-sounding statements, but although their sentences were longer and more complex they didn’t seem to come any closer to possessing a set of fundamental axioms from which we could begin to derive their specific judgments. Nor do I by any means think that one needs to be a good theorist to be a good artist; the empirical evidence might argue for the converse. The one artist who seemed to have a full-blown theory was Frank Stella, who spoke convincingly about why the appropriate response to gestural painting was to move toward geometric forms and liberation from the rectangular canvas. Unfortunately, at the level of a personal reaction, I found his actual paintings to be the most lifeless and least beautiful of the bunch. The poor guy couldn’t seem to understand why the same people who found his work cold and uninviting were so taken with that Rothko fellow.

This is also not to say that the artists were in any way unintelligent or even inarticulate (although some were); many were very interesting to listen to. Willem de Kooning had provocative things to say about the “lightness” of American culture in contrast with that of Europe, and Jasper Johns and Barnett Newman made enlightening remarks about their use of texture and space. But you nevertheless got the feeling that they wouldn’t be able to offer a good reason why, for example, it was interesting to eliminate color entirely from a deeply textured representation of the American flag; only that it seemed to work (which is a fine reason, just not a theory).

The other thing that strikes you (or me, as an underinformed amateur who is making this up as he goes along) is how reflective and tightly-coupled the painting world really is. So many of these works are simply baffling when viewed in isolation, but begin to make sense when viewed as pointed reactions to some specific innovation by some other painter. It gets even better when the artists are dragging each other to shows or even quasi-collaborating, as when Robert Rauschenberg thinks it would be fun to first draw something and then carefully erase it, but realizes that it’s no fun to erase his own drawings, so convinces de Kooning to donate one of his. For my next paper, I want to convince Ed Witten to donate an unpublished manuscript, from which I will delete all of the interesting parts — I think it would be a ground-breaking collaboration.

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