On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

ROTHKO AND TRADITION 1987

I still vividly recall how, way back in the 1950s, informed and intelligent art-world people in New York would argue passionately and usually angrily about the pros and cons of Abstract Expressionist painting. Hard though it is to believe today, when these masters have all the hoary authority of Matisse or Picasso, some thirty years ago, even in the city that nurtured them, the likes of Pollock or de Kooning, Rothko or Newman were still topics of raging controversy. Turning friends into enemies, they generated a polemic between those evangelical enthusiasts who felt that an overwhelming mutation of new pictorial truth and beauty had just been born on Manhattan Island and those stubborn naysayers from whose eyes the scales had not yet fallen. The battles were bitter and generally fought as a conflict about black-and-white aesthetic rejection or espousal. Some found Pollock's poured paintings ridiculous examples of coagulated chaos, an offense to art, whereas others found in them seraphic release, a thrilling depiction of disembodied energy. Some found Newman's austere reductions to a single or double vertical zip on a monochrome ground an insult to all existing standards of visual nourishment, whereas others found them tonic distillations of pictorial structure to a rock-bottom core. Some found de Kooning's or Kline's jagged contours and bristle-ridden brushwork the equivalent of chimpanzee scrawls or of undisciplined violence, whereas others found them the vehicles of authentic feeling and spontaneity. And some found Rothko's luminous veils of color fraudulent voids, whose nothingness defied any reasonable expectation of what one should look at in a framed and painted rectangle of canvas, whereas others found them mysteriously silent and radiantly beautiful. But whether these paintings were loved or hated, it was generally assumed in the 1950s that they were somehow totally new forms of pictorial art. Created in New York after the apocalyptic conclusion of the Second World War, they seemed to signal a drastic rupture with prewar traditions of both European and American painting. You might find them great or awful, but they clearly belonged to a completely unfamiliar kind of art that bore little if any comparison with what had come before.

Even the imagery of most Abstract Expressionists contributed to this feeling that the historical coordinates of time and space had been annihilated, leaving us before visions closer to the Book of Genesis--primeval chaos, primeval shape, primeval light--than to paintings that might proclaim they were created in New York City in the decade following the war. And even today, it comes as something of a shock to see paintings by Rothko of the 1930s that depict, say, the artist himself, as a flesh-and-blood man wearing the clothing of that

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