The American Action Painters (1952)
[originally published in Art News 51/8, Dec. 1952, p. 22; then published in Tradition of the New, 1959.]
- At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act-rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
Art on the Edge (1975)
[University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-72674-6]
- As with other modern artists, his readings provided not an organized outlook but a kind of metaphysical hum that surrounded his mental operations.
- "Newman: Meaning in Abstract Art II" (p. 58)
- Abandoned by philosophy, politics, and sociology, historical determinism continues to hold out in formalist art criticism.
- The aim of every authentic artist is not to conform to the history of art but to release himself from it, in order to replace it with his own history. However the historical pattern is drawn, it will not fit the developing sensibility of the individual.
- "Olitski, Kelly, Hamilton: Dogma and Talent" (pp. 64-65)
- Abstract art as it is conceived at present is a game bequeathed to painting and sculpture by art history. One who accepts its premises must consent to limit his imagination to a depressing casuistry regarding the formal requirements of modernism.
- "Lester Johnson's Abstract Men" (p. 71)
- Only through apprehending, by means of present-day creations, how art is created, can the creations of other periods be genuinely appreciated.
- "Criticism and Its Premises" (p. 136)
- The internationalization of art becomes a factor contributing to the estrangement of art from the artist. The sum of works of all times and places stands against him as an entity with objectives and values of its own. In turn, since becoming aware of the organized body of artworks as the obstacle to his own aesthetic self-affirmation, the artist is pushed toward anti-intellectualism and willful dismissal of the art of the past.
- "Criticism and Its Premises" (p. 137)
- Imitation of the art of earlier centuries, as that done by Picasso and Modigliani, is carried on not to perpetuate ancient values but to demonstrate that new aesthetic orders now prevail.
- "Criticism and Its Premises" (p. 138)
- One cannot, however, avoid saying a few words about individuals who lay down the law to art in the name of art history. Art criticism today is beset by art historians turned inside out to function as prophets of so-called inevitable trends. A determinism similar to that projected into the evolution of past styles is clamped upon art in the making. In this parody of art history, value judgments are deduced from a presumed logic of development, and an ultimatum is issued to artists either to accommodate themselves to these values or be banned from the art of the future.
- "Criticism and Its Premises" (p. 147)
- The mingling of object and image in collage, of given fact and conscious artifice, corresponds to the illusion-producing processes of contemporary civilization. In advertisements, news stories, films, and political campaigns, lumps of unassailable data are implanted in preconceived formats in order to make the entire fabrication credible. Documents waved at hearings by Joseph McCarthy to substantiate his fictive accusations were a version of collage, as is the corpse of Lenin, inserted by Stalin into the Moscow mausoleum to authenticate his own contrived ideology. Twentieth-century fictions are rarely made up of the whole cloth, perhaps because the public has been trained to have faith in "information." Collage is the primary formula of the aesthetics of mystification developed in our time.
- "Collage: Philosophy of Put-Togethers" (p. 178)
- An art mode, new or old, is for the creative mind essentially a point of beginning. Content is brought into being by the activity through which the artist translates the movement into himself. In such an appropriation, there is no difference between an ongoing movement and one that is finished. During the reign of Minimalism, a painter might realize the new through Impressionism. That art history has a schedule of continuous advances en masse is a fantasy of the historian. The shared syntax of art movements is constantly replaced by the sensibility and practice of individuals. The avant-garde art of yesterday is the only modern equivalent of an aesthetic tradition. The fading of the ideas of a movement does not mean that it can no longer be a stimulus to creation. At the very dawn of a movement, the work of its artists commences to replace the concept; instead of Cubism there appear Picasso, Braque, Gris. Compared to the activities to which they give rise, ideas in art have a brief life. In the last analysis, the vitality of art in our time depends on works produced by movements after they have died.
- "Shall These Bones Live?: Art Movement Ghosts" (p. 230)
- Greatness in art is always a by-product.
- "Shall These Bones Live?: Art Movement Ghosts" (p. 231)
- The interval during which a painting is mistaken for the real thing, or a real thing for a painting, is the triumphant moment of trompe l'oeil art. The artist appears to be potent as nature, if not superior to it. Almost immediately, though, the spectator's uncertainty is eliminated by his recognition that the counterfeit is counterfeit. Once the illusion is dissolved, what is left is an object that is interesting not as a work of art but as a successful simulation of something that is not art. The major response to it is curiosity: "How did he do it?"
- "Reality Again: The New Photorealism" (p. 237/239)
- Illusionistic art appeals to what the public knows not about art but about things. This ability to brush art aside is the secret of the popularity of illusionism. Ever since the Greeks told of painted grapes being pecked by real birds, wonder at skill in deceiving the eye has moved more people than appreciation of aesthetic quality. But for art to depend exclusively upon reproducing appearances has the disadvantage of requiring that the painting or sculpture conform to the common perception of things.
- "Reality Again: The New Photorealism" (p. 239)
- The new attitude of the critic toward the artist has been rationalized for me by a leading European art historian who is also an influential critic of current art. It is based on a theory of division of labor in making art history. The historian, he contends, knows art history and, in fact, creates it; the artist knows only how to do things. Left to himself, the artist is almost certain to do the wrong thing — to deviate from the line of art history and thus to plunge into oblivion. The critic's role is to steer him in the proper direction and advise changes in his technique and subject matter that will coordinate his efforts with the forces of development. Better still, critics should formulate historically valid projects for artists to carry out. That not all critics have the same expectations of the future of art does not, I realize, weaken the cogency of my colleague's argument. The surviving artist would be one who has been lucky enough to pick the winning critic. My own view that art should be left to artists seemed to my mentor both out-of-date and irresponsible.
- "Thoughts in Off-Season" (p. 249)
- Art has arrived at the paradox that tradition itself requires the occurrence of radical attacks on tradition.
- "What's New: Ritual Revolution" (p. 251)
- In the United States, revolts tends to be directed against specific situations, rarely against the social structure as a whole.
- "What's New: Ritual Revolution" (p. 256)
- If being an anti-art artist is difficult, being an anti-art art historian is a hard position indeed. His doctrinal revolutionism brings forth nothing new in art but reenacts upheavals on the symbolic plane of language. It provides the consoling belief that overthrows are occurring as in the past, that barriers to creation are being surmounted, and that art is pursuing a radical purpose, even if it is only the purpose of doing away with itself.
- "What's New: Ritual Revolution" (p. 260)
- The current demoralization of the art world is attributable at least in part to museum interference, ideological and practical, with ongoing creation in art.
- "The Old Age of Modernism" (p. 283)
Art & Other Serious Matters (1985)
[University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-72695-9]
- It is not logical for art to be logical. Art goes against the grain of the times as readily as it goes with it and at the very same moment. Instead of seeking the nearest exit, art responds to a new situation by uncovering a labyrinth of problems.
- "Movement in Art" (p. 14)
- The skills of the modern artist are the opposite of those of the craftsman: instead of acquiring techniques for producing classes of objects, the artist today perfects the means suited to his particular work.
- "Inquest into Modernism" (p. 51)
- How much the work of an artist owes to an art movement to which he belongs can never be determined exactly, if only because the movement derives its character from the individual creations of its members.
- "Evidences of Surreality" (p. 55)
- Both art and the artist lack identity and define themselves only through their encounter with each other.
- "Willem de Kooning" (p. 155)
- The artist is obliged to invent the self who will paint his pictures.
- "Saul Steinberg" (p. 191)
- Not only the artist but everyone "becomes someone else" in becoming someone. One is thought about, thus invented. Or as Steinberg put it with memorable succinctness in his Cogito drawings, "I think, therefore Descartes is." One creates not oneself but another. Being is in the act.
- "Saul Steinberg" (p. 196)
- Not only were the minds of artists formed by the university; in the same mold were formed those of the art historians, the critics, the curators, and the collectors by whom their work was evaluated. With the rise of Conceptual art, the classroom announced its final triumph over the studio.
- "American Drawing" (pp. 247-248)
- For the artist, fulfillment of self consists not in marching in the ranks of the liberators but in being entered in the roll of the Masters. The artist tends to find himself in the position of a deserter from his social group — or, at best, one who collaborates, with secret reservations.
- "Being Outside" (p. 271)
- Exhibitions of minority art are often intended to make the minority itself more aware of its collective experience. Reinforcing the common memory of miseries and triumphs will, it is expected, strengthen the unity of the group and its determination to achieve a better future. But emphasizing shared experience as opposed to the artist's consciousness of self (which includes his personal and unshared experience of masterpieces) brings to the fore the tension in the individual artist between being an artist and being a minority artist.
- "Being Outside" (p. 273)
- The struggle to make an absolute statement in an individually conceived vocabulary accounts for the profound tensions inherent in the best modern work.
- "Metaphysical Feelings in Modern Art" (p. 316)