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A Non-Theory on Non-Art

“It is in the studio that it helps the most to have a theory...”
-William R. Everdell The First Moderns p.69

Among monuments and decorated gravestones in a cemetery in Woodstock, New York, reserved exclusively for artists, the headstone which marks the final resting place of Milton Avery is, some would say, suitably unelaborate... A simple, plain-fact statement which supplies, in free-hand, an earthly identity along with arrival and departure dates in the lower corners.

When one types Avery’s name into an internet web-browser, the first site reference which appears contains an essay on Avery written by Don Gray, an artist and critic fairly well known in the New York area before he rode his painted pony out to Arizona. The piece mullingly reflects a facet of the critic’s feelings that “much contemporary art is based on fashion or theory disconnected from life.”

Gray’s essay, “Milton Avery: Elemental or Simplistic?” (which can be read, along with a number of his other essays, at, accurately notes that masterpieces by Van Gogh and Gauguin were deeply rooted in simplification and equates that drift with “a desire for the primitive; a basic, solid dependable statement as alternative to growing complexity, uncertainty and confusion in the process of living in an increasingly difficult world.” Striking a harmonic note with the Jungian warnings of Man and His Symbols and related works by Dr. Carl, Gray stresses that “in our time, the simplistic has mistakenly been substituted for the simple, for the essential.”

While Gray grants that Avery was capable of creating an “extremely effective note” in his paintings, he finds them generally too passive; too lacking a “strength of creativity, personality or physical energy” to be seriously engaging as works of art. Against a backdrop of many of Gray’s most pertinent observations about the state of contemporary art, his statements defining Avery strike a resonance with an arguably danceable melody but an equally valid counterpoint swells in the debate on how such work is to be judged. His dismissal of abstract expressionism as a footnote to art history in an article written the same year as the Avery piece (“Reassessing the New York School” 1982) came long before the processes of historical theory had opportunity to solidify and consideration of Avery remains strapped to a figurative pendulum which swings into a Rothko haze of Color Field and Minimalist theory.

Critic Doug Harvey, in an L.A. Weekly review of Avery’s later work on August 15, 2002, considers that Avery was an influence on Rothko as much as Matisse was an influence on Avery. He notes Avery’s tenuous link to Pop Art at a time when “Pop was breaking the art-world stranglehold of Clement Greenberg’s critical doctrine of flatness, which disdained Avery’s refusal to abandon pictorial content” -- a plight which locked in Avery as “a quaint, even naïve Modernist who was unable to make the break from the depiction of people, places and things in order to explore the rarefied sphere of pure abstraction.”

A number of the problems Abstract Expressionism presents to the interpretative theories of art critics and historians wasn’t formally articulated before Claude Cernuschi’s noble 1997 attempts in Not an Illustration but the Equivalent: A Cognitive Approach to Abstract Expressionism. Describing this “thin ice,” Cernuschi notes: “In modernist accounts, abstraction is often described as an attempt to sidestep exegetical questions surrounding signification and communication. Its goal is to achieve a state of perfect opacity, to declare itself as a self-referential, autonomous object, and to circumvent the very activity of interpretation altogether.” Or, as Popeye put it, “I yam what I yam.”

In his contemplative defense of Avery, Doug Harvey sees the work as “formal underpinnings” of Rothko’s insider trading and, referring to the New York School, comments: “What such stalwart champions of the faith fail to recognize is that every painting refers to something other than itself (even if it’s just the designation of itself as an artwork), that this gap is unbridgeable, and that while reducing the elements of an artwork to those that address this gap most unequivocally is a productive and enlightening exercise, it is not an end in itself. It serves to educate the eye. Once you can appreciate pure non-representational abstraction, you can start to recognize the same tendency at play throughout the entire history of painting, and begin to see the world with new eyes. In this sense, the teleological brouhaha of endgame Modernism holds water, but when every work of art has to function as an illustration of this truism, everybody loses. To deny oneself the deep pleasures of Milton Avery’s paintings because they don’t fit the doctrine means it’s time for a new doctrine. Or preferably no doctrine.”

There is a parallel in Gray’s complaint that the freedom permitted contemporary artists is an illusion; “There is a very strong academy today. The hard-edge geometric academy,” he writes in “Questioning Contemporary Art” as he growls about “culture merchants, accustomed to thinking in aesthetic clichés” and “trying to live on the air of theory, without roots in the earth of human experience...”

Gray recognizes that “Abstraction, whether of the expressionist or academic variety, is a turning inward toward an emotional, mystical or cerebral ideal in attempted escape from our disruptive, tormenting world” and that this inward swap of equivalency is a shout for life and speaks of “the drive in America for security at any price following the destruction of World War II -- a grey flannel suit and a house in the suburbs -- (which) was the context of materialism, ‘rationality’ and limited emotional expectations in which the Abstract-Expressionists fought to maturity.” He opines that “only an age such as ours could consider the work of Andy Warhol art” and, in viewing the art establishment, his conclusions are merely one follow-the-money step from conspiracy theory.

But, does not reflection tell us that desperation was a keynote of every historical age? Doesn’t Cernuschi’s explanation of abstraction as metaphor suggest the New York School’s response to the dilemma of the time was “To be or to become...That is the question...”? How can we make judgments based upon theories which have not been defined?

Satirist, actor, songwriter Alan Arkin brilliantly anticipated cognitive response to visual metaphor in a classic skit he performed in when he was part of the Second City improvisational group in the 1950s. Playing a beatnik in a gallery of contemporary art, Arkin asked a starchy tourist how she felt about a particular painting. “Well,” she responded hesitantly. “I have gas. I can’t be objective...” Sensing she has misunderstood his question, Arkin insists “No, no, no...How do you and your gas feel about that painting?”

It is not detail Don Gray raves up in his description of Jan Vermeer’s circa 1660 painting Maidservant Pouring Milk, it is his own response to it: “The simple act of pouring milk becomes charged with its elemental life-giving significance, as if it were some sacred ritual fluid like blood or holy water, because of the solidity of the forms and the intensity of feeling within them...While extremely realistic, such a masterpiece reveals the density of essential fine art form uncluttered by unnecessary accumulation of picky, illustrational, surface detail that may seduce the ignorant, but obscures and denies foundational substance.”

Ignorance of the laws of metaphor is no excuse to miss “substance,” as I’m sure Gray would agree. If Cernuschi had said “screw the inscrutable,” he would have never kindled his theories.

“The light seems not only to flood in from the window, but emanate from the substance of reality itself,” Gray marvels. “The thin strand of milk pours from the circular black depths of the jug as if from the mysterious source of all existence, a firm but tenuous, living link of life and light.”

Is this too simplistic a view of the act of pouring? As the milk emerges and descends, you will notice a subtle clockwise twist of metaphor. A complexity of a simple act; a mere detail? Some sort of ghostly physical law of gravity or something else with a spiral nature? Are there subtle laws of the psyche which govern turns of “free will”? Patterns of “spontaneous” gesture within the artist’s psyche? Where do we start our theories?

“The predominant first impression is simplicity of composition and speed of execution, as evidenced by the thinness of the paint and the sketchy, gestural brushwork,” writes Harvey in his appreciation of Milton Avery. “It is this superficial slightness that has given rise to the mistaken perception of Avery as glib and shallow. Certainly these paintings, once conceived, must have been executed very quickly -- but the longer you look at them, the clearer it becomes that their seemingly tranquil surfaces veil a profound and complex formal and emotional reservoir.”

Harvey sees “something of a culmination” of the impact of 19th Japanese printmaking in Avery’s work and offers a gameplan of Excess and Oceans by declaring Avery’s paintings Black Sea and White Wave to make “a better case for ‘paint as paint’ than any geometric color field.” Of course, the “thinness of his paintings masks their function as a narrow fulcrum between the artists’ and the viewers’ experience” but, nonetheless, they “tremble on the brink of pure abstraction.”

Do we need a separate perspective or theory to adequately weigh such work?

The answer to that question may be found in the closing lines of the Second City skit mentioned above as the tour guide describes and explains a work of art. When one of the tourists scowls and pronounces decisively “I don’t like it!” He just as decisively tells her “Well, you are wrong!”

In this year’s edition of New Art International, we offer a fresh and diverse collection of representational and abstract visions from artists around the world. From the renown Robert Angeloch- whose own area of work straddles the twilight between figurative and non-objective art to new and lesser known talents seeking new definitions of themselves in their creations.

-Jeremy Sedley

2007 Book Art Press