This essay is an extract from A Memoir of Creativity: abstract painting, politics and the media, 1956-2008 published by iUniverse, 2009. The book unites art theory, politics, journalism and personal memoir. At its heart lies the author’s theory of abstract art, that instead of being non-representational, it constitutes a “multireferential” form of representation.
In the early part of 1983, the year after I deposited my dissertation at Columbia, I published three articles in Arts Magazine on art criticism and art history, the 1940s v. the 1980s. The last concerned Clement Greenberg, and I was writing it with particular concern because Greenberg’s color-field painting of the ‘60s & ‘70s was being swept aside by neo-expressionism at that time. I especially admired Pollock’s classic abstractions of 1947–50. While working on my dissertation, I’d noticed how many different things the critics of the ‘40s and later art historians had been reminded of by these paintings. It was in this context that I discovered my theory of multireferential imagery in abstract painting. I was writing my article about Clem, trying to explain why he’d been able to appreciate Pollock and the rest of the abstract expressionists so long before anybody else. One reason, I felt, was his conviction that “feeling” lay behind all great art. The other was his belief that an abstract painting could have content without subject matter (in 1940, he’d written that “every work of art must have content, but…subject matter is something the artist does or does not have in mind when he is actually at work”).
When William Rubin. many years earlier, had suggested that the content of abstract art was “feeling,” it had enabled me to respond to it, but later I remembered that according to Freud, nobody “feels” in a vacuum. One “feels” in relation to one’s inner makeup and external situations or physical stimuli. Defending Clem, I was writing that “I think it was the recognition that a picture could have content, whether or not it possessed readily identifiable subject matter, that enabled Greenberg, among other things, to respond initially to the Abstract Expressionists.” Then I started to rebut the notion that Pollock had been trying to paint any of the subject matter imputed to him by commentators who’d likened his poured paintings to one thing or another.
Suddenly, I realized how Pollock’s abstract paintings could have subject matter: by depicting simplified versions of many subjects simultaneously. The critics who’d been reminded of this or that by his paintings were only wrong to the extent that they believed they’d seen the only possible thing to see. Pollock hadn’t intended to paint any of the things they compared his pictures to, but precisely because he hadn’t, his unconscious had synthesized various visual experiences he’d had into a single image, just as the images in dreams are composites of different things seen in waking life. I knew this theory came right out of Freudian dream interpretation, but an article about Clem was no place to explore it, so I merely inserted a parenthetical remark that I italicize here: “I have not yet seen any evidence that Pollock was deliberately or consciously trying to paint jazz, nature, or any other subject in his poured paintings of 1947–1950 (though I would not exclude the possibility that unconscious associations enabled him to allude to these subjects in his canvases, together with a myriad of others)”.
I read a bit of Freud.I discussed my theory with Dr. I, my psychiatrist. “That’s just like the Rorschach blots!” he exclaimed, or words to that effect. “You can see anything you want in them, too.” “Are you sure?” I asked. “Aren’t there some images that more people see in a specific Rorschach blot than others?” Dr. I conceded that there were, and said that in books on interpreting the blots, I’d find these images listed as the commonest or popular responses. I, however, was otherwise occupied for the rest of the winter, and shoved the subject to the back of my mind.
In May, I went to Europe for three weeks, and attended the opening in London of a show of Frankenthalers at the Knoedler Kasmin gallery. Helen was there, and she introduced me to a Spanish diplomat who collected color-field paintings. She’d trucked my articles across the Atlantic so that he could read them, and he and I talked. He said that modernism was being driven back to Boston and Syracuse (two cities where many younger color-field painters lived and worked). Even Helen’s reputation depended on her having followers, the diplomat continued, and this was why it was so vital for younger painters to succeed. He told me about a terrible argument that the junior partner of a New York gallery that I respected had had with its senior partner, because the younger color-field artists who were the junior partner’s particular responsibility weren’t selling.
In Paris, I taped an interview with Stanley William Hayter, an eighty-one-year-old English painter and printmaker who’d run a workshop for printmakers in New York during World War II. Hayter had known Pollock, and told me that Pollock had experimented at his workshop with swirling paint onto a canvas from a can with a hole in its bottom and a string attached.. This antecedent to Pollock’s mature technique was a surrealist “automatist” device meant to bring the unconscious into the picture-making process. Rubin had introduced me to automatism, and Pollock had known about the role of the unconscious in creation.
“Most modern painters,” he’d said around 1950, “work from within.” He’d added that “the unconscious is a very important side of modern art….” Later, he’d indicated that although he was a Jungian, “We’re all of us influenced by Freud, I guess.” Hayter said that even with abstract art, “The sources are exterior, and it starts by looking, doesn’t it? An artist is somebody who looks a bit more than somebody else. How are you going to explain to the public that somebody they look on as a naive source of genius—like Pollock—this was a man who saw, who looked at things. Much harder, and with greater intensity, with greater insight, if you like…and the result of this was that something came out of him, having been completely assimilated, and so on….”
Back in New York, I called Charles Millard, at the Hirshhorn Museum. I was feeling more self-confident, but also apprehensive about what the diplomat had said. I asked about the retrospective of Friedel Dzubas, a lesser-known color-field painter, that Millard had organized for the Hirshhorn, and that had opened there on June 16. He asked me to come down and look at it, saying it was beautiful, but nobody was coming to see it. I thought I detected a note of desperation.
I read a one-page review in the May Arts Magazine of a Dzubas show in a Manhattan gallery in January. The reviewer saw nothing in these paintings beyond abstract expressionism. Evidently, he knew nothing about color-field painting, and feeling a need to educate him, I called Richard Martin, editor of Arts, and said I’d like to do a one-page review of the Dzubas show at the Hirshhorn. He said he’d be glad to have it, and would be willing to hold the September issue open for it. This would have been around Thursday, July 7 or Friday, July 8. On Monday, the eleventh, I flew to Washington, saw the show and loved it. On Tuesday, the twelfth, I started to write, and began to feel that there was more to be said than I’d previously intended to say. I called Martin and asked for more time and space. He said that the article could be as long as I wanted, and that if I could get it to him by Monday, the eighteenth, he would still be able to use it for the September issue.
The next day, Wednesday, I was working on the piece when Clem called and invited me over for a drink. This elated me further. He had another guest, a photographer and longtime friend named Cora Kelley Ward. They were eating Chinese takeout in the kitchen, and Clem invited me to join them. He’d just returned from a trip to China with his daughter Sarah, and he’d sent me a postcard from there, with the Chinese ideogram for “love” on it. Now he gave me one of the small carved wooden combs that he’d brought back for gifts. We started talking about Dzubas. “He’s great,” Clem said, “but nobody knows it.” Then he smiled across the table at me. “You’re great!” he said.
If there was one thing for which I’d been striving since I’d met Clem, it was praise like this. I can’t begin to describe how terrific it made me feel, because he wasn’t using the word in a slang sense, but with its full importance. I felt like I’d arrived at the top of Mt. Everest, after a long, tortuous uphill journey, like Jove himself were congratulating me. I went home, and kept on writing my review. The neglect of this beautiful exhibition (nearly deserted when I saw it) was symptomatic of everything wrong with the art scene, the way third-rate neo-expressionist art was fawned over in the magazines and selling like crazy, essentially because it was figurative, while the marvelous abstract paintings that I so much loved were being rejected, even knowledge of them driven back to Boston and Syracuse.
Images formed at the back of my mind—of lectures I’d attended at Columbia. Only rarely had my professors there found much beyond formal analysis to use in discussing abstraction, so the minutes spent on it had dwindled into insignificance by comparison with the hours devoted to figurative art, since that could be handled with both formal and iconographic analyses. Such lectures must have left generations of students feeling that their teachers considered representational art superior to abstraction. I thought of the special issue that Art in Americahad done on Picasso in 1980. Only a relatively brief passage, by Clem, focused on Analytic Cubism, while the rest of the magazine concerned itself with windy generalities, side issues and less attractive but more representational work. Picasso in Retrospect (1973), a collection of essays, dealt with practically every phase of Picasso’s career except Analytic Cubism. I visualized twentieth-century art history as a black wall of ignorance and hostility, favoring lesser art, and only a few tiny windows of light allowed to shine through: Analytic Cubism, Mondrian, and abstract expressionism.
What was the reason for this skewing of art history in favor of the second-rate and at the expense of the first-rate, figuration preferred to abstraction at all costs? It must have been the definition of abstraction as depicting nothing. This view went back to the early years of the century, and was shared by supporters and detractors. Yet, although many critics, collectors, museums, and art-lovers had admired abstract art, far more people had been turned off by its seeming unrelatedness to the external world. The result was a constant tendency to revert to figuration (representational and presentational), however ugly.
If all these people could only see that in fact abstraction was a new, richer form of representation, they might learn to love it as I did. Nor was it necessary to claim for abstraction anything it didn’t have. All my knowledge of Freudian psychology, which I’d stuffed down beneath consciousness, came erupting back up—the whole idea that a dream was a composite of images the dreamer had seen during his or her waking hours, since he or she couldn’t visualize anything except in terms of what she or he had already seen. The idea that what had gone into the dream had been conveyed to the dreamer by her or his unconscious, and that therefore ideas or images of any kind could be transmitted from an artist to a viewer, without the artist being aware that he or she was doing so.
Other recollections stretched back into childhood. My eighth-grade English teacher had taught us about abstraction or generalization in language. If you said Willy, you meant one dog of that name. If you said Labrador retriever, you meant not only Willy but all other dogs of that breed. If you said dog, it meant not only all Labs, but all dogs of other breeds, and if you said animal, that meant not only dogs, but also horses, cats, cows, and so on. Simplifying or abstracting a pictorial image from many observations of nature was the visual equivalent to this. I remembered my Barnard senior thesis, on The Waste Land. The poem hadn’t seemed to be “about” anything at first. It was praised by the avant-garde because it evoked a mood or feelings. Decades later, a scholar named George Williamson had figured out the poem’s plot, what it was “about.” I was doing the same with abstract painting.
I remembered things artists had said. In 1967, Tony Smith had told me how Die, his black box, could mean a matrix, or mold, the imperative of the verb to die, and one half of a pair of dice. Later, Helen, Anne Truitt, and Hayter had all mentioned ambiguity to me. William Agee, Rose Carol Washton Long, Gail Levin, and Harry Rand had perceived images in abstraction, even if their writings didn’t substantiate my argument completely. Lawrence Alloway had listed five dualities that might have been in Adolph Gottlieb’s mind when he painted his “Burst” series, with a round, hard (and often red) ball at the top and a scratchy patch (often black) at the bottom: sun and earth, male and female, night and day, life and death, Mediterranean and Northern.1
Looking back, I see other experiences that contributed to my insight, especially verbal ones, since double and even triple levels of meaning can occur in language as well as art. I was helped by puns I’d laughed at as a child, rhetorical devices learned in college, language as used on Time, above all by my two years, from 1969 to 1971, in my world of intermittent fantasy. During those years, I’d perceived so many double levels of meaning in things I’d said, heard, read, and seen that I’d learned to live with ambiguity, to feel at ease with it. Some of these “surreal messages” had been delusions of reference (when I saw them in movies and newspapers), but some I’d been sending myself (in writing Time stories). And sometimes I think I’d received them (Alfred Barr’s tennis analogy, Ken Noland’s big stick).
Maybe because I’d lived with all this verbal ambiguity, I could accept the idea that ambiguity might also be a principle in visual art. Still, a double level of meaning seems to be easier for most people to accept when it’s verbal; visual ambiguity disturbs many of us. We depend so much on our eyes to keep us in touch with the world that we don’t like to think of an image having more than one meaning.
The play I’d written about my summer group house in Quogue, in 1969, had taught me how something from my unconscious could be conveyed to the outside world without my conscious mind being aware that this was happening, just as I believe happened with Pollock, Picasso, et al. I’d intended my play to have a second, surreal level of meaning, about the art scene in New York, but while I was writing it, I’d become aware of half a dozen other, unconscious allusions that had passed onto the typed page without my realizing they were allusions until after I’d written them down.
My article for Arts had begun as a review of the Dzubas exhibition, but almost before I was aware of what I was doing, I was shoehorning my theory about multireferential imagery into the middle of it, and intertwining the two themes. While writing about the theory, I wasn’t thinking about my two years in dreamland, or the many experiences I’d had with words having double levels of meaning—though I did realize that what I was writing tapped into other art experiences I’d had, and I cited them all as part of my argument in a perfectly logical, understandable way.
An artist must be able to see [I wrote] in order to paint (or sculpt), and thus he inevitably sees the world around him from the moment of birth….Whatever he paints (or sculpts) must in some way be influenced by what he’s previously seen. I cannot see any way around this. The shapes and forms he creates…must in some way be related to the vast storehouse of images from nature he has previously assimilated.
But there is a difference between the way in which a representational artist’s work is related to these previously received images and the way in which an abstract artist’s is related to them. …
The representational painter can conceptualize and generalize to a certain extent (for example, in creating an “ideal” landscape, or a mythological or allegorical composition). But the abstract painter conceptualizes and generalizes to a far higher degree. The representational painter creates images on the canvas that are essentially uni-referential; that is, each image on the canvas refers to a single image that can be observed in nature (or could be, if it existed, such as an angel). But the abstract artist creates an image that is multireferential, ambiguous; that is, the image on the canvas refers to two or more objects to be found in external nature. He does this by abstracting, or generalizing his image, often to the point where it bears no apparent similarity to any single object in nature.1
The article segued into a Freudian discussion of how the abstract artist might not be aware of his multireferential imagery and yet create it. I took up and disposed of the Rorschach blots, since I expected other people would respond to my theory the same way that Dr. I. had. I mentioned artists I’d talked with about ambiguity, but I also used paintings to illustrate my theory. The first was “Ma Jolie.” Since this picture of Picasso’s beloved “Eva” was subtitledWoman with a Zither or Guitar in MoMA’s 1980 exhibition catalogue, I argued that the artist had unconsciously symbolized his famously ambivalent attitudes toward women by combining two musical instruments into a single image. It wasn’t either a zither or a guitar; it was both a zither and a guitar. The guitar, national instrument of Picasso’s native Spain, represented memories of his mother, and puritanical Spanish society, while the zither symbolized gypsies and artist’s bohemian night life in Paris. The synthesis of the two was a way of saying that with Eva, the artist had achieved balance and reconciliation.1
As I didn’t know what zithers or guitars Picasso would have seen, I couldn’t establish a direct link between his visual experience and the image in his painting. To deal with this, I used Dzubas as a test case, studying a transparency of his painting, Trough (1972). First, I felt that it suggested four cyclones hurtling down the right side, and a series of flat, stacked green fields on the left. Second, I felt that the vertical shapes on the right also looked like test tubes, and the horizontal ones on the left resembled a stack of heavy books, perhaps scientific.
I called up Dzubas, whom I’d never met, and asked him about his experiences with chemistry, flat lands and cyclones. He’d studied chemistry in the gymnasium he’d attended in Germany as an adolescent, and thought the lab experiments that went with the course “exciting.” He’d also lived in Chicago in the early ’40s, and seen how flat the land around there was. He’d seen photographs of cyclones, too, and, having always been “attracted to large winds,” considered cyclones “an enormous, wonderful, dramatic spectacle.”1 In other words, he had seen things which corresponded to what I’d seen in the painting, so it could be said that he’d communicated them to me through Trough.
The most extended example I used was Pollock. It was by far the best documented, both the many associations that different viewers had made with his poured paintings, and what he could have seen and incorporated into his unconscious storehouse of visual impressions (either the objects themselves or photographs and drawings of them). I began by mentioning the analogies to jazz made by Chad Mandeles, and to the dunes, grass, sea, and sky around the Pollock home in The Springs on Long Island, as discussed by Ellen Johnson. I passed on to Henry McBride’s comparison of one of Pollock’s paintings to “a flat, war-shattered city, possibly Hiroshima, as seen from a great height in moonlight,” adding that Pollock could have seen many images of wartime devastation in newspapers and magazines, and that, even though the Pollocks hadn’t been very involved in politics, “World War II was a cataclysmic event, a giant emblem and symbol of destruction, aggression, and eventual salvation.”1
Life had compared Pollock’s paintings to macaroni. I argued that spaghetti was the pasta unconsciously intended, and that it would have had “powerful associations for Pollock with home, family, nurturing, domesticity, and hospitality.” Citing B. H. Friedman as my source, I added that the artist “was very proud of his skills as a cook and had his own recipe for spaghetti sauce. The Pollocks liked to serve spaghetti, with the sauce, to friends.”1 I commented on Emily Genauer’s comparison of Pollock’s paintings to “a mop of tangled hair” by remarking that “Lee Krasner’s hair must have looked pretty appealing, spread out on a pillow.” I even cited the crack of a Time Art writer from the ‘40s about “a culture of bacteria, seen through a microscope,” finding a possible source for this association in D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form, one of Pollock’s favorite books, with its discussions of the amoeba and many plates of cells, shells, skulls, scales, and snowflakes.1
Since 1983, I’ve done more research, but I think I’ve said enough here to show the process. After I’d given all these examples of other writers’ associations in 1983, I introduced two more of my own, semen and urine. I knew these were explosive subjects, but I thought that surely artists and art historians, being so much more sophisticated than Time’s readers, would be able to accept them in the spirit in which they were presented (what a dreamer I still was). The urine seemed to me to express Pollock’s childish desire to shock, but the semen spoke of the relatively sane and stable marriage that the Pollocks had at that time, the facts that Krasner was herself a gifted painter, and that, although the couple had no children, they had interacted with each other particularly well in the creative sphere.
So I would suggest [I wrote] that the associations with semen I might have shared with Pollock are three in number. First, an association with an act of harmless aggression (“Make Love, Not War,” as the bumperstickers used to have it in the ’60s). Second, an association with both physical pleasure and the conveyance of the tenderest and warmest feelings a man can have toward a fellow human. Finally, semen can be interpreted as a symbol of generation and reproduction, the perpetuation of the species, and from this it can also be seen as a metaphor for the extension of human personality after an individual’s lifetime, in the form of the creation of art for later eras to enjoy.”1
Here I was thinking of Renaissance humanism. In that era, people began to wonder whether Heaven existed, but artists and writers believed they could achieve immortality on earth through their creations. Shakespeare expressed this, most notably in his sonnet XVIII, where, addressing his beloved, he wrote of his own poetry, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
During that Thursday and Friday, July fourteenth and fifteenth, I’d been writing late into the night and getting up early to get on with it. My mother dragged me off for the weekend to a luxury hotel in Amenia, New York, but I brought along pads and pencils, and kept writing. Spewing out ideas that in some cases had been percolating in my mind for decades, on top of the praise I’d received in the weeks leading up to the article, was getting me awfully keyed up, but that didn’t stop me. I must have typed up the piece on Sunday night and Monday morning, after I got back from Amenia, though it runs to about 9,800 words (plus notes). I titled it “Abstract Painting in General; Friedel Dzubas in Particular,” and delivered it to Martin by midday. He took me to a memorable lunch. The next day, I called him, and asked what he thought of the article. “It’s wonderful,” he said.
This original formulation of my theory was, as I see it, a creative act, resembling “problem solving” as outlined by Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought (1926), and even as emended by Robert Sternberg, a more recent cognitive psychologist. Although I certainly wouldn’t set myself up as Pollock’s equal, I believe that this creative act of mine more or less parallels the way that he worked (with allowance made for the fact that we were working in different art forms). As Sternberg said, I first had to identify and define my problem. It was how to deal with the shocking lack of admiration for the best art of its time. With Pollock, the problem (probably existing on a much less conscious level) was finding how he could best and most truly express himself and his era. My “preparation” was information I’d assembled over decades, almost entirely without knowing that it would eventually be put to this use. With Pollock, it was his vast accumulation of visual impressions, going back to his childhood and derived from every aspect of his life. “Incubation” for me took place while I was, without thinking about it, putting my solution oh so gradually together, and the same in another sense was true of Pollock, experimenting with different ways to paint. Finally, and most importantly, came “illumination” or synthesis, in my case bringing together my mostly verbal experiences, and in his, bringing together visual ones.
Pollock may have felt the same flash of insight that I did (possibly when he saw how effective looping paint from a stick could be). He didn’t mean to synthesize visual experience or create ambiguous images. On a conscious level he was creating paintings that depicted nothing. For this purpose, his association with Clem was particularly helpful, because Clem expressed his own intuitive response to paintings most meaningfully in terms of form; whether or not the paintings depicted anything was for him irrelevant to its quality as art. This attitude must have helped Pollock to repress all imagery back into his unconscious, and to focus entirely on creating a painting that “worked” in formal terms—thereby creating work most likely to last.1
Every artist intends every picture she or he paints to be a masterpiece, but the viewer has to decide when the result is one. Since Pollock’s breakthrough in 1947, his allover poured paintings have come to be accepted as pure, beautiful abstractions, and since 1983 (on a much humbler level), my theory has made sense to a limited number of people, either in its original form or as it has further evolved. It’s still in the process of becoming, but the original insight was the decisive synthesis, and to me, synthesis is the stage of creativity that isn’t emphasized as much as it should be—because if you don’t have that, you have nothing. It’s the synthesis of spaghetti, semen, the ravages of aerial warfare, the loveliness of nature, and dozens of other things into single images that makes Pollock’s poured paintings into a paradigm or model for the whole creative process. If you can understand one, you may be able to understand the other.
Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940), in Clement Greenberg: TheCollected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986–93), 1:28. He reiterated this distinction in “In Our Own Time,” Art of the Western World: From Ancient Greece to Post-Modernism, VHS, produced, directed and written by Perry Miller Adato (© 1989 Educational Broadcasting Corporation).
Most Pollock scholars prefer to stress his earlier experiments with dripped or spattered paint in the Manhattan workshop of David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist, but European surrealism enabled Pollock to link up such pouring with the unconscious, and this link must have lent fresh resonance to the technique.
Lawrence Alloway, “Adolph Gottlieb and Abstract Painting,” in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective, organized by Sanford Hirsch and Mary Davis MacNaughton, text by Lawrence Alloway and Mary Davis MacNaughton (New York: The Arts Publisher, in association with the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, 1981), 58.
Halasz, “Abstract Painting,” 82. I am far from alone in associating Pollock’s poured paintings with male sexuality. In addition to Sam Hunter’s “ravaging, aggressive virility,” the artist Ethel K. Schwabacher, student and biographer of Gorky, was also equating Pollock’s painting to “the sheer act—the ever flowing act of potency” during his lifetime. See unpublished notes for a projected book, variously dated “1948” and “1953–1960” in the Ethel Schwabacher papers, 1940–1975, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, r. N69-64. In 1964, Time described how friends witnessed Pollock, “a cigarette smoldering on his lip, emerge from his studio limp as a wet dishrag.” “Beyond the Pasteboard Mask,” Time, January 17, 1964, 69. This suggestive passage was probably written by Jon Borgzinner and edited by Cranston Jones. The Time example is one of three analogies with ejaculation cited by Anna C. Chave, in “Pollock and Krasner: Script and Postscript” (1993), in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles and Reviews, ed. Pepe Karmel (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 265. I do seem to be unusual in equating the image on the picture surface with semen, as opposed to equating the act of painting to ejaculation, and may even be unique in taking the analogy beyond the purely biological, by perceiving semen in human terms as symbolic of aggression, pleasure, love, reproduction, and thus immortality (in the context of Renaissance humanism).
For a description of the intentional uni-referential images that underlie the surfaces of Pollock poured paintings, see Pepe Karmel, “Pollock at Work: The Films and Photographs of Hans Namuth,” in Kirk Varnedoe, with Pepe Karmel, Jackson Pollock(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 86–137. But results count for more than intentions, and Pollock’s finished poured paintings are clearly multireferential, however much postmodernist scholars may try nostalgically to shrink them back into the realm of the comfortably conventional uni-referential.