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

By Hobbs, Robert | Art Journal, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview
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Abstract Expressionism Reframed -- Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s by Michael Leja


Hobbs, Robert, Art Journal


Michael Leja's book is a densely written and refreshingly speculative view of Abstract Expressionism, using the so-called New Art History, aspects of Marxism, and semiotics. Regarding Abstract Expressionism as limited by accounts that have considered it in isolation from popular culture and broader social issues, Leja sets himself the task of investigating this art in terms of primitivism, the unconscious, and a dominant male subjectivity by discerning what he terms the Modern Man discourse and investigating its construction in film noir and books intended for general readers. Citing Jonathan Culler's statement that "context is not given but produced; what belongs to a context is determined by interpretive strategies" (quoted p. 11), Leja recognizes the creative and critical role of scholarship that seeks to discover the dominant ideologies at work in a specific time. Instead of simply viewing art as reflecting social structures and psychological attitudes, Leja aims

to reconstruct the discursive fields that shaped and were shaped by New York School art. Reading that art as participating in dialogues with contemporary intellectual and cultural production--all engaged in ideological processes--should help us see and account better for its specific forms, its trajectory and its reception (p. 102).

A student of T. J. Clark at Harvard, Leja reworks both his dissertation and some of his professor's ideas about Abstract Expressionism in this book that is clearly one of the most remarkable such studies to appear in the past decade.

Leja subscribes to T. Jackson Lears's idea in No Place of Grace (1981) that the bourgeois ideal of a centralized and autonomous individual was giving way in the late nineteenth century to a fragmented and divided self plagued with a sense of weightlessness. This change, according to Lears, was occasioned by a lack of commitment to community and religion. In addition, Leja posits the theory that the self as a centered subject was being eroded by internal conflicts that pit the emotions against the intellect, the subjective against the objective, the instinctual against the rational, the primitive against the modern, and the unconscious against the conscious in an effort to establish a sense of control. According to Leja, "New York School art was involved in a broad cultural project--reconfiguring the individual (white heterosexual male) subject for a society whose dominant models of subjectivity were losing credibility" (p. 39).

After investigating such books as James Harvey Robinson's The Mind in the Making (1921), Horace Carncross's The Escape from the Primitive (1926), Harvey Fergusson's Modern Man: His Belief and Behavior (published in 1936, and found in Jackson Pollock's library), and Philip Wylie's Generation of Vipers (which was on the best-seller list for six weeks shortly after it was published in 1942), Leja develops the theory that the Modern Man discourse can be traced to the 1920s. He notes:

These writers represented the tragedies of twentieth-century history in a way that attributed causal responsibility to the tragic, fateful human situation and to the nature and mind of individuals, rife with vestiges of primitive barbarism. In doing so they implicitly absolved from responsibility and guilt conscious human agency and the political order (p. 67).

An important corollary of their writing is that they universalized wars and human tragedy as psychological norms endured by people throughout the ages. Their reading of the primitive that was firmly entrenched in ideas of the terror of the unknown and the tragedy of existence exhibits definite parallels with the art and thought of the mythmaking Abstract Expressionists, particularly Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. Wishing to establish a broad-based history for Abstract Expressionism by showing its affinities with middlebrow culture, Leja notes the pervasiveness of the Modern Man discourse in such film noir masterpieces as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and White Heat (1949) where barbarism was a basis of modern life.

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