Modern Art – Midterm

Midterm from Art 179.

Question 1

Jackson Pollock Autumn Rhythm, (# 30)

Helen Frankenthaler Mountains & Sea

Why was Abstract Expressionist art seen to be radical? Who is Greenberg and/or what role did he play in the art world?  Why was he so important—what was changing in New York and why? What is Greenbergian Modernism? Discuss its important role in the creation of the New York abstract expressionist art movement. Which works exemplify it, and which don’t?  How? What are the shortcomings of Greenbergian modernism, and what are the various other ways in which you can discuss Abstract Expressionism?


Abstract Expressionist art was radical for its deliberate departure from the previous schools of painting, both literally and figuratively. Earlier schools of painting had striven for realism and created the illusion of dimensionality within the work; abstract expressionism deliberately rejected explicit representations and celebrated the work’s nature as a painting. Part of this rejection was as an anti-fascist/communist backlash; part of it was due to the movement of artistic culture from Europe to New York. Art critic Clement Greenberg emerged as the chief voice of this movement in essays such as “Modernist Painting” and helped to spread its influence.

The rise of abstract expressionism was partly a result of deliberate geopolitical planning. Hitler had insisted on art that was “clean” and concrete; similarly the Communists disliked abstract art. The United States responded to this by promoting abstract art, both because it reputedly undermined fascist ideologies and because more concrete art was now tainted by association – indeed, practicing painters often chose their style based on their politics, as in the case of the frenchman André Fougeron, a Communist whose anti-American art was distinctly representational and non-abstract, as in the case of his Civilisation Atlantique (1953). US leaders arranged shows in Europe to showcase American art, encouraging closer cultural ties and holding back the iron curtain. This deliberate spreading of American culture, combined with the United States’ status as the least-wounded first-world nation after World War II, helped move the center of the art world over the Atlantic ocean to New York City, where people had money to support art and an interest in consuming and propagating it.

The rising New York art scene elevated Clement Greenberg, and he elevated the art scene. Greenberg helped bring artists together and extolled the virtues of painting as painting. Greenbergian modernism strove for “flatness” and “all-overness” in the painting and deliberately discarded the illusion of dimensionality which earlier artists had worked to enhance. For Greenberg, the act of painting — in general, of creation — was itself so essential to the art that it very nearly was the art. This stands in contrast to later interpretations in which a work’s viewer plays a primary role in generating the art. Greenberg championed artists such as Jackson Pollock, who created his giant drip paintings without attempting literal representation, without any attempt at dimensional illusion, and had painting that went all over enormous canvases without regard for what the viewer found easy to see or any need for focus (and, thus, without the implicit ignorance of a portion of the canvas). Helen Frankenthaler, though a woman, was another favorite of Greenberg’s. She did not exemplify all-overness or masculinity (Greenberg was fairly sexist in his criticism of art; part of his fondness for all-overness was the dominance and lack of restraint it implied) in the ways that Pollock did, but her paintings were even flatter than his on a figurative and literal scale due to her use of unprimed canvases that soaked up her thinned paints without leaving brushstrokes and somewhat precluded the possibility of having colors occlude each other.

Pollock’s qualities are clearly demonstrated in his Autumn Rhythm, Number 30 of 1950. The piece is painted using his trademark sticks and alternative implements (instead of brushes) on a gigantic 207-inch canvas. The paint, while it does not completely cover the canvas to the edges, does not have a central point of focus, nor are there figures to draw the eye in one direction. Every part is as important as all the others.

Frankenthaler’s Mountains & Sea is similarly definitional. There are shapes in it that could be the titular mountains, but they all have different orientations and any representation is far from clear. Moreover, the painting is singularly flat. There are places where colors almost occlude, but the blending effect of Frankenthaler’s painting style leads them instead to blending. And while certain areas of the canvas draw the eye more than others, none is central. This piece is similarly gigantic, measuring roughly 7 feet by 9 feet.

Greenbergian modernism suffered from several faults, however. It rigidly defined arts separately, denying the propriety of mixing fields in any way; whether literally or figuratively; his conception of abstract expressionism excluded de Kooning and his Women series, which often included small photographs and was clearly “sculptural” (for its clear and often dimensional representations of female body parts) even as it was abstract. Indeed, it was so narrowly tailored that many critics have separated Frankenthaler from Abstract Expressionism and placed her in the field of color field painters.

Question 2

Jasper Johns Painting with Two Balls

Robert Rauschenberg Bed

How, and why, are the works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg seen as a critique of Abstract Expressionism.  How do they “trouble” Greenberg’s argument?  Discuss the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in relation to the Duchampian principles espoused by Cage (Merce Cunningham, the Judson Church Dance Company, and Black Mountain College).  Discuss their work in the context of the Cold War climate (paranoia & homophobia) in the US.  Be sure to include a discussion of Kenneth Silvers’ “Modes of Disclosure”.


Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg deliberately rebelled against Greenberg’s established order in their works. Their works, despite being all over, focused on the act of creation, and often flat, included meaningful representations and sometimes merged art disciplines. The two were students of John Cage, himself a follower of Duchamp, and Duchamp’s preoccupation with meanings (as in the case of The Large Glass, whose intricate meaning is explained in excruciating detail by Duchamp himself) emerged in them as well.

Johns and Rauschenberg became romantically involved after discovering their homosexuality, and this sexual orientation is one meaning apparent in their works. Critics have also read a subtle critique of America’s Cold War attitude into works such as Johns’ Flag (1955), which consisted of a painted flag on a surface of wax-bound newspapers; Kenneth Silver also argues that this work is representational of homosexuality in Johns’ time as part of his essay Modes of Disclosure.

Jasper Johns’ Painting with Two Balls is a clearly abstract piece; the painting itself contains no recognizable aspects and could be a fine example of Greenbergian Modernism for its all-overness, flatness, and lack of representation — but there’s the matter of those two little balls in the upper middle. Given Johns’ background and knowledge, they are clearly a deliberate choice to partly separate this work from Greenberg’s ideals. They may well be a commentary on Greenbergian Modernism’s emphasis on the heterosexual male aspects of life (which Johns was unable to share in due to his homosexuality) and, as Kenneth Silver argues, emphasize the representation of that heterosexual man’s outlook in most of the Abstract Expressionist paintings despite the lack of clear forms or images.

Rauschenberg challenged Greenberg in other ways. He tended to create paintings which would have been Greenbergian, but to place them on non-traditional surfaces which gave them meaning and violate Greenberg’s rules. Asheville Citizen (1952) is a painting of solid black with brown scattered in, and would be an austere abstract expressionist piece if not for the fact that the brown paint is all on a piece of the titular newspaper, and the paper is contained within the painting. His Bed (1955) is a very all-over and non-representational piece — except that the paint is on a vertically-oriented bed, complete with folded-back sheets and a pillow. The otherwise nonsensical colors here look like “an axe murder” and are disturbingly sexual in nature. Moreover, they bring gender identity into play, combining both the male work of painting with the female roles in homemaking.

Yet while Rauschenberg and Johns had clearly imbued their works with a meaning, the two were reticent to disclose them publicly. They wanted viewers to find their own meanings, and this shifted the emphasis away from authorial intent and towards the viewer, a trend which would later appear even more strongly in Minimalism. This move embraced Duchamp (and Camp’s interpretation of him), which included “readymades” as art, and demonstrated their break with Greenberg, for whom authorial action was the whole claim a piece of work had to being art rather than just kitsch culture.

Question 3

Richard Hamilton Just what is it that Makes today’s homes

Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe Diptych

Discuss the similarities and differences between Pop Art in Britain and the US.  How did function differently from one another?  Discuss the Independent Group at the ICA in London, their interdisciplinary lectures and radical exhibitions, especially “This is Tomorrow” at the White Chapel Gallery. What was Lawrence Alloway’s role in articulating the differences?  Discuss the role of the art market (galleries, collectors & museums) in relation to British & US Pop?


Pop art in Britain and the United States were two distinct movements with entirely different bases of support. Pop art in Britain was associated with The Independent Group, part of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Their support of pop art was ideological, based on a belief in open and accessible culture. In the United States, pop art revolved chiefly around a few celebrated artists (Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist) and was created by art dealers and galleries.

Pop art in the United Kingdom is by far the more interesting precisely because it was ideological. The IG believed — enunciated chiefly by critic Lawrence Alloway — that culture should represent a “continuum of artefacts from oil paintings to ‘mass-distributed film and group-orientated magazines.’” As part of their beliefs, pop artists in Britain believed that art should reflect life; they adapted quickly to technology like photographs, making extensive use of them in paintings and other artworks. The rejection of Greenberg was both explicit and sometimes bitter, as in the case of John Latham’s Still and Chew (1966) in which he and his art students chewed, spit out, and fermented a copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture.

The British pop artists’ comfortable use of technology and reflection of life is especially apparent in Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (1956). This small-scale collage (roughly 10”x10”) consists of magazine cutouts and depicts an idealized but oddly twisted suburban home. It’s apparently a critique of modern consumer culture and the increasing sexuality of society. The collage appeared in one of the Independent Group’s booths for the “This is Tomorrow” exhibit and was widely replicated by Hamilton in pamphlet guides and other media.

The Independent Group’s participation in “This is Tomorrow” was notable for its contrast. The IG prepared two booths. The first of these housed Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? and contained a beatific design, including soft scented walls and floors, with a gigantic Robbie the Robot posted outside alongside a blown-up photograph of Marilyn Monroe. This pavilion reflected the IG’s interest in what Alloway called an “aesthetic of plenty” that hopefully looked forward to a time when post-WWII rationing was just a dim memory. Juxtaposed with it was another booth that looked liked something out of a Hooverville: corrugated aluminum, a disturbing photo-collage human figure, and old rusted toys and utensils. This booth openly acknowledged the dark side of human advancement so ostentatiously celebrated next door, prophesying doom if our leaders failed to secure peace and engaged in a nuclear war.

Pop art in New York differed considerably from that in Britain. Alloway considered American pop to have “superior ‘density’ and ‘rigour;’” probably thanks to its roots in rebellious abstract expressionists such as Rauschenberg. The phenomenon was in large part created by dealer Leo Castelli through his start-up sponsorship of those who became pop’s artists. Earlier pop artists such as Lichtenstein did not provide the replication of later pop art, but instead derived their pop label through their carefully cultivated air of mass production: Lichtenstein’s works, such as 1965’s Big Painting VI were composed of painstakingly painted Ben Day dots with larger-scale shading and coloring that mimicked comic books.

Andy Warhol promoted endless replication, as in his 1962 Marilyn Diptych, which consisted of a 5×5 grid of Marilyn Monroe’s face, colored like a magazine, and then reproduced that image in what looked to be a bad carbon copy to the right. This work epitomizes his use of cheap color and repetition to imply a mass-market piece of art, which he later used to great profitability by employing “factory workers” to create his high-priced artworks for him.

Question 5

Discuss the dissolution of the concept of the  “artist genius,” and how this dissolution is evidenced in artistic movements we have discussed.  This might include a discussion of shift from artistic production to viewer reception or the role of the artist in production e.g., Warhol’s factory or Judd’s industrially produced objects.  Or you might want to discuss the incorporation of detritus/junk in art or Jasper Johns’ use of everyday objects in Flag or Drawer, or the inclusion of the audience and the role of the artist (especially Kaprow) in Happenings, or the Fluxus idea of art as concept, which can be carried out by anyone. Be sure and include a discussion of Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?”


Since the end of World War II there has been a struggle for the very soul of art. For centuries, art existed in purely representational form; a piece was judged largely by the faithfulness of its representation of a particular subject. Abstract expressionism came to the fore, and the importance of a piece came not from what it said (for it should say nothing), but from how it was made. And then pop art and minimalism and all the related schools became prominent, and under these it was not the artist who gave a work meaning, but the viewer. The need for the artist has continually lessened, and today you might wonder whether it exists at all. Many modern forms of art (movies, web sites, video games) obscure the true artist behind facades of corporations; important pieces of many of these forms are created not by humans but by computers running program code. How did we come to be here?

In traditional forms of art, meaning came about through what was in the piece: representations of bread meant bread, which could be a “signifier,” and there would be a “signified” which might be food, or the body of Christ, or hunger, depending on the context. The artist played an important role in this forms; meaning could be changed or created by relative placement of different elements, the inclusion or exclusion of the elements, and any specific part of the painting. Meaning existed within the artwork, but it was placed there by the artist and meant to be interpreted the same way by all who saw it. Image icons, ideologies, and other parts of shared culture helped to maintain this consistency between viewers. The rules were sometimes bent, as in the case of Magritte’s Treachery of Images (1928), but they remained intact; indeed, Treachery of Images derives its humorous meaning from the rules and their operation.

It is this view of the artist that is most clearly historically referenced in Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” He quotes St. Jerome’s four criteria for exegesis of the author among works of disputed authorship, one of which is that an author must be ideologically consistent. It is hard to identify ideological consistency if the ideology is unknown or is molded by the viewer.

Upon the outbreak of abstract expressionism, the rules changed. No longer was art supposed to be representational; lacking representation it could not have the signs which had traditionally given art its meaning. The meaning of the artwork was now conveyed through its means of production and through a scholarly analysis of its elements, which could not hope to be undertaken by anybody not a student of the artistic school in question. Paradoxically, the art which was promoted to combat fascism and its elitism (via forced universal messages determined by elites) was unaccessible to the non-elite. Nonetheless, because the means of creation and the school of the artist remained key to understanding the meaning of the work, the author remained an integral part of the work’s reception and the artist genius remained necessary to the art world. But it began to break down with the rise of kitsch and pop art.

Pop art was deliberately designed to involve replication as a rejection of abstract expressionism. In general it was replicated at one of two levels, either a piece consisted of many replicas or a piece was replicated many times over; sometimes replication occurred at both levels. Replication of a work was a deliberate choice, to make it more democratic in consumption and deliver the art world from its previous status as a privileged world of the elite. Yet by removing the elite nature of the work, artistic genius begins to drop out of sight. For while Duchamp may have been an artistic genius in creating Fountain (1917) for making us look at a urinal in new a light, the idea of everything as art is only one idea, and can be possessed by only one man. All those who followed had only to pick their object of focus, and there is no genius in that. The derivation of meaning in pop art is left almost exclusively to the viewer. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) and the later lines of “factory”-produced images did not generally create meaning in and of themselves; they relied on the viewer to create one’s own based on a set of very limited and imprecise rules. Warhol became famous not because of meanings he helped spread, but because of the art movement he helped create.

Other forms of art from that time period also began to remove the need for an artist genius. Minimalism in sculpture expressly sought to give the viewer a figurative canvas on which to project their own meanings through the individual’s interaction with the artwork. This is demonstrated in Donald Judd’s Untitled (1968), consisting entirely of an aluminum box covered in enamel, with a slightly recessed top. There are no indications of a political or cultural statement, nor clear references to other artworks; the viewer is left to create meaning from a completely blank slate. The growing tendency of sculpture artists to no longer touch their works, but merely to submit plans to a local metal shop, is indicative of their decreasing importance. Artists have become responsible for coming up with an artwork that others can create and then project onto, whereas under the old system artists were responsible for creating an artwork that would project meaning to the viewer.

In terms of Foucault’s essay, the artists are no longer truly serving the author function. Indeed, some pieces can be completely characterized by their artist, but an author is supposed to represent a coherent ideology and point of view. Under a system of art where the artist is explicitly responsible for not creating meaning, they cannot have an ideology as meant by the author-function, and so while the artist’s works may define them; if the works do not define there cannot be an author-function.