Book Reviews -- Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s by Michael Leja

Article excerpt

MICHAEL LEJA, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 392 pp.; 92 b/w ills. $50.00

Almost fifty years after Jackson Pollock first took up a stiffened brush and dented can of Duco enamel to produce his celebrated "poured" or "dripped" paintings, post-War abstraction in the United States remains nothing if not a contested field. One need only turn to such a seemingly innocuous text as David Anfam's recent World of Art series primer on Abstract Expressionism to get a sense of the way in which even the most circumspect references to historical circumstances and cultural contexts still seem to require immediate shoring up by assurances as to the timelessness, inexhaustibly rich formalist achievement, and explanation-defeating individualism of the art produced by Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and company.(1) Thus, the paintings of the so-called "Irascibles" or "New York School" continue to inhabit a curious space in which the social history of art is something to be doled out in carefully mediated doses and often stoutly resisted--in sharp contrast to the current near orthodoxy of the connection between Impressionism and social/contextual accounts, for example. (Indeed, I can scarcely convince my undergraduates that Manet's Olympia is a painting, they are so sure that "she" is a prostitute.) It is as if the by-now roundly popular and yet comfortably distant art of the 19th-century avant-garde can be trusted to withstand the scrutiny of social historians, while such resolutely unfamiliar, rebarbative, and yet historically more proximate painting requires the constant critical propping of the erstwhile connoisseur. Of course Abstract Expressionism is "great" painting and unshakably installed in the canon--deservedly so. But it is difficult to love, and it seems to demand respectful, kid-glove treatment in order to allay the anxieties of a public that remains suspicious of modernist high jinks.

Make no mistake about it: Michael Leja means to insert himself squarely into this contested field. Drawing from popular texts on anthropology, psychology, and philosophy, as well as journalistic cultural criticism and Hollywood movies, Reframing Abstract Expressionism is an ambitious attempt at reading the major concerns of this art within their historical context. The book mounts a frontal attack on Abstract Expressionism's engagement with the primitive, the tragic and timeless, the unconscious, and the individualistic. And it embeds these themes within a detailed account of the discursive formations of human subjectivity during a period in the history of advanced art in the United States when the self was most dramatically and insistently put forward and put at risk in painting.

Moreover, the book's ambitiousness is double-edged. On the one hand, Leja means to address the terms by which such pivotal cultural institutions as the Museum of Modern Art and such preeminent art historians of the period as Irving Sandler have argued for the "Triumph of American Painting"--the sheer aesthetic brilliance, mastery of modernist paradigms of genius, and virtuoso control of painterly matter evidenced by Pollock's constellation-like skeins of paint, de Kooning's expressionist disfigurations of the female body, Rothko's calmly frayed and floating rectangles, or Still's jagged eruptions of pigment.(2) On the other hand, Reframing Abstract Expressionism might be read as not so much a follow-up but almost a pre-text to such revisionist histories as Serge Guilbaut's provocative and still controversial How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art.(3) Post-War abstraction could not have been deployed as a tool of Cold War policies by such explicitly ideological institutions as the U.S. State Department, Leja argues, if it were not "always already" within ideology. Such an assertion marks not simply a shift in attention from reception theory to issues of production, for Leja takes a page from the French Marxist Louis Althusser to press home the point that works of art are not appropriated after the fact of their making by the forces of cultural imperialism or political hegemony. …