Topics in American Art since 1945

By Lawrence Alloway | Go to book overview

THE AMERICAN
SUBLIME

In an exhibition catalogue of 1947 The Ideographic Picture1. Barnett Newman declared that art must make "contact with mystery—of life, of men, of nature, of the hard, black chaos that is death, or the greyer, softer chaos that is tragedy." At the time he wrote, art in New York was bound up with myth and primitivism and undoubtedly these themes, manifesting themselves as an interest in archaic writing and primitive sign systems, can be connected with the exhibition. However, Newman stressed the ideological character of signs, rather than their spatial or linear properties. As he put it: "here is a group of artists who are not abstract painters, although working in what is known as the abstract style." This exhibition included work by Newman (Gea, Euclidean Abyss), Mark Rothko (Tiresias, Versal Memory), and Clyfford Still (Quicksilver, Figure). The use of signs in painting was a way of getting free of systems of representation that destroyed the picture plane, but without adopting non-figurative art. In 1947 Newman abandoned his discrete signs and developed a planar style which depended on the whole format of the picture equally. Still appears to have alternated between various possibilities, but one of these styles was certainly a non-linear, strongly planar image, which may be seen as early as 1944. It is stated decisively in, among other works, 1947-48 W, a large black painting which was loaned to Rothko soon after it was painted. 2. Rothko thinned his iconography, which in the '40s had moved from classical fragments to submarine biology, and made his first 'empty' pictures in 1949-50. 3. The excess of subject matter which characterized the myth-rakers and ideographers (other paintings in the show were called, characteristically, The Fury, Astral Figure, Dark Symbol, The Sacrifice) subsided, leaving

____________________
SOURCE: From Living Arts, 2 (1963), 11-22.
1.
The Ideographic Picture. Betty Parsons Gallery 1947.
2.
Reproduced as no. 32 in Paintings by Clyfford Still. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1959.
3.
Lawrence Alloway: "Notes on Rothko." Art International VI 5-6 1962.

-31-

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