Art of Cruelty (On the Relation of Antonin Artaud to Contemporary Painting)
My research focuses on the role and effect of the artistic ego in contemporary abstract painting, paying particular attention to how artists deal with and separate themselves from the history of their own profession and how the elitism of this history can be broken down. The Abstract Expressionists attempt to deconstruct the dominance and authority of iconography in Western literature and imagery by presenting a work that doubts and places an act of ‘cruelty’ upon itself. However, in order to produce the work, there must be a certain conviction in that doubt, thus when considering the ego the artist is faced with multiple contradictions. The artist looks towards a universal consciousness in the work, whilst simultaneously attempts to deal with the suppression/expression of the ego. The artist must also reconsider the notion of the ‘real’, as society represents it. The Surrealists provide the viewer with insights into the subconscious through the image; this inner ‘unreality’ is confined to the canvas space, and thus the subconscious unreality of the human mind, the outer reality of the world and society are kept firmly separate. Antonin Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ attacks society’s enforcement of such preconceived, socially acceptable personas and the Western literature and art that supports them. Furthermore, he questions the individual mind within this society and its capability to conform to something that works against it, suggesting that there are a number of complexities at work that ultimately undermine the fixity about reality and its daily assurances of conventional behaviour. Sigmund Freud sets up this problem with the ‘splitting’ of the ego, suggesting that the ego serves as a defence mechanism against the traumas of reality, ‘on the one hand, with the help of certain mechanisms, it rejects reality and refuses any prohibition: on the other hand – and in the very same breath – it acknowledges the danger from reality, turns anxiety about it into a pathological symptom, and attempts subsequently to ward this anxiety off.’ Thus, when directly readdressing the issue of the ego, in an attempt to suppress and deny, artists come across this cyclical thought process, causing contradictions and dilemmas in the work, as I will explore in certain cases later on. Is the ‘act of cruelty’ in the work (as Artaud initialises) a conscious decision made by that artist, or is it simply the result of the ‘splitting of the ego’?
Antonin Artaud recognises that the human ego works as a guard against the ‘dangers’ of reality, thus attempting to defy the ego and face reality by having the courage to establish his theatre of the ‘real’. Working against Surrealist ideals, Artaud redefines what is ‘real’ concerning the subconscious mind and society’s prescriptions. His theories behind the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ relate to certain thinking in contemporary painting, as well as relating to personal considerations about the ideas integrated into my own practice. Artaud’s ideas have influenced a lot of work in several fields such as painting, writing, poetry, film and performance. In turn, Artaud was the forefather of the integration of many art forms. He concluded that art should be a direct reflection of life, that art was life itself, and that the language of Western theatre was too flat, stagnant and deceitful and served no purpose other than to gratify the ego of the audience and society in general. Moreover, Artaud suggested that society places too much importance in the value of writing and text. He criticises the notion of writing as being too repetitive; having been read once, text is useless, ‘We should get rid of our superstitious valuation of texts and written poetry. Written poetry is worth reading once, and then should be destroyed.’ It is through the body that we should emphasise and project, being something that is physical, ‘real’ and always original; each human exhibit is unique and cannot be repeated. Whilst ‘Plato criticises writing as a body; Artaud criticises it as the erasure of the body, of the living gesture which takes place only once.’ Artaud wanted to replace Western sensibility with a purified theatre of the ‘Real’, and in doing so needed to encompass every honest element of the human condition. He wanted to create a complete theatre and not an ‘abstract theatre which excludes something from the totality of art, and thus, from the totality of life and its resources of signification: dance, music, volume, depth of plasticity, visible images, sonority, phonicity, etc’
It is said that Artaud developed his ideas for the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ as a reaction to his treatment when incarcerated at the asylum of Paraire in Rodez. His negation of this system and its authority brings up the general debate about the credit of ‘empiricist truth’ over ‘humanist epistemology’. The cruelty of his theatre is not simply a reflection of his personal madness or his time at the institution; it is an argument against any such a self-proclaimed authority, and the right they have to suggest what is correct and proper in terms of human behaviour. Jacques Latremoliere, Artaud’s personal psychiatrist, sought to dehumanise him, suggesting that he was ‘useless’ to society, perhaps even dangerous. In an interview, Latremoliere ‘claims to have reinvented Artaud through electro-shock therapy and further that Artaud’s work is of no value because he was ‘no longer viable’ and ‘couldn’t take care of himself’. He concurs that, because of Artaud’s obvious insanity and irrational behaviour, he couldn’t possibly have anything intelligent to say in his theatre. Artaud flies back at the authorial voice, ‘the encounter raises the epistemological questions to which Artaud always returned: how do we think we know things? with what certainty and authority? what guarantees our sanity? why is it important to think otherwise?’
Andre Breton, pioneer of the Surrealist movement, similarly saw Artaud’s theatrical productions as ‘the unbearable exhibition of a mental patient’. Artaud remained faithful to certain Surrealist concepts concerning the disintegrated boundaries between reality and unreality, the redefinition of reality, and allowing his plays a ‘discontinuous structure that reveals stories by indirect means.’ Yet Breton, as well as many others, recognised that Artaud had broken away from the Surrealist circles, overriding the ‘superficial distinction, cherished by surrealists, between the rational and the irrational’ He was no longer interested in the stream of subconscious and that steady, automatic kind of creation. He disagreed with the Surrealists’ idea that they were removed from the work they produced and removed from the thoughts that produced them, denying any kind of responsibility or reality. Artaud says that ‘No Surrealist is in the world, or thinks of himself in the present, or believes in the effectiveness of the mind as a spur, the mind as a guillotine, the mind as judge, the mind as doctor, and he resolutely hopes to be apart from the mind.’
However, Artaud struggled to create something that was infinitely ‘real’ in his theatre, and found the physical limitations of the theatre, its ideological limitations and the preconceptions of the audience ever present. Artaud’s frustration grew and he ‘became aware during the course his “performance” of the impossibility of making himself heard in a theatre of the Real and later said that only bombs could have achieved the desires effect.’ Artaud’s ‘impossible’ theatre is so dubbed because of his difficulty in establishing a theatre ‘that is not definitely locatable’, since its purpose goes beyond physical, literary and social boundaries, and ‘since its loci can and should only be realised in the mind of its individual spectators and readers.’
The Living Theatre appeared in the post-war American counterculture of the 1950s as a product of Artaudian ideology and theatricality. The economic slump of the period and authority’s subjugation of those affected spurned a desire to break away from that mainstream culture. Particularly in the performing arts, ‘the desire for a more authentic form of theatre was growing among he disaffected community.’ Language and text, both in a political and literary sense, becomes the enforcement of the authority within society, and also the western symbol for elitism, as is suggested by Artaud in his ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. Thus the concern of the Living Theatre becomes one ‘of body freedom and body expression’; the presence of the body becomes more involved within the work itself, not simply a projectile for language but the body becomes ‘both a medium and subject of art’. In other words, the body becomes the art. The flourishing of drug use within this era is not simply an act of retaliation against authoritative powers in society; it serves a means by which further subcultures can be explored, and the interrelation of various influences can be achieved away from the rigid structures of society. It is also a thoroughfare into new modes of perception, away from the imposed rationalities of the mind and using the body itself acting as the subjectile. Yet the concern with such a group battling against a system, and the problem that Abstract Expressionists faced time and time again in terms of establishing themselves away from a linear progression, is that this very rebellion is held in balance against the authority it rejects, ‘every act of resistance is conditioned by the force that it resists, and every act of resistance recasts the history of resistance’, thus the Living Theatre had to rely on this friction in order to function. The second problem is that, due to its creative use of drugs and its presence in the very beginnings of the shift from the repression into the excess of the sixties, the reputation and purpose of the Living Theatre is spoiled into become a fixed symbol of this revolutionary period. This would become the appearance of the group, which contradicts its agenda, ‘the longevity, extremity, and revolutionary resolution of the Becks’ work in theatre, performance, and political activism can lure the scholar into viewing them as a transhistorical, transgeographical presence, remaining fixed despite their constant travels and continual shifts in organizational structure and aesthetic concern. And this is where Scarpetta’s invocation of the Living Theatre as the root of truly radical performance finds its limits.’ Thus in terms of identifying a new language, the Living Theatre discovered the impossibility in this, as did Artaud; the language is not their own but becomes the ‘property’ or tarnished symbol of a discontented rebellious society. What initially sets out to be an instigation of a dialogue between the theatre and the audience, an integration of both, becomes an imbalance where the former is powerlessly placed on a pedestal, and the latter can abuse that icon for their own purposes.
Artaud’s dilemma transmutes into the problem of contemporary painting, taking the white cube, museum space as the theatre and considering this space as one for contemplation and acting out. Artaud suggested that there be ‘no more masterpieces’ in an attempt to negate the elitism of the Western theatre and the egotistical position of the author, so that the subject can speak for itself; the audience can create their own dialogue. Artaud’s rejection links to considerations in painting that spurned the post war movement away from the expressionist gesture and away from the iconography of historical painting. The importance of painting shifts focus away from the finished product, but to the process itself, and becomes an act of cruelty, a violent, sudden purging, of its own history.
This is not such an easy transition. Abstract Expressionism’s non-conformity, like Artaud’s, fought hard to argue its case against a whole system of social prescriptions. Moreover, the movement was founded on a series of contradictions. For example, the work of the Abstract Expressionists revolved around self-doubt, and that doubt built into a violence that acted against the painting over and over, (the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ is in itself a paradox, meaning to pull away and to push forward, to erase and apply), yet these group of artists must have felt some confidence in their authority to turn against everything that had gone before, as Henry Cooper states, ‘The emotional roller coaster of the Irascibles might seem overwrought to us now, but it ran deep. You can’t kill Picasso and Matisse without a lot of faith and a lot of doubt. But more than that, they actually had faith in doubt’. The art here is concerned with the removal of voice, language and thought in favour of an autonomous action, or the ‘controlled accident’. The contradictions are rife, making the convictions of the Abstract Expressionists seem dubious to some, yet these contradictions, doubts and questionings are the very things that drive work. Like Artaud, this group of artists sought to turn their suspicions into an unspoken language; a primal reaction that used art as an act of the body ‘for those dedicated to the handmade, a way to throw shit down, mess shit up, and perform aggressive erasures’.
Artaud’s work as a theatre director, writer and artist centred around achieving universal consciousness. In order to do so he had to break down all of the barriers appertaining to the expectations of society; this seems like a tall order for anyone. Artaud set up his ideas, yet it seemed like he tried to achieve too much at once, came across too many obstacles and prejudices in order to be truly successful. The painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement follow through with Artaud’s concept, and form a sharper attack on conformity through the abuse and violation of historical iconography and the scandalising of traditional aesthetics.
The work of Gerhard Richter is important in terms of recognising the turning point between traditional iconography and the beginnings of its subversion. Richter revitalised the medium of painting during ‘a period when many artists chose performance and ready-made media’. Richter’s paintings certainly contained iconoclastic material, yet this iconoclasm is satirised through the denial of idealism. Richter’s photo-realistic paintings are derived from images he found in the media; magazines and paparazzi snap-shots. Yet these figurative paintings are produced in conjunction with still-life, studies of aeroplanes, doors and corrugated iron, thus mocking the authority of the figurative painting. In order to bring a new freshness to painting, Richter had to remove himself from its history, and redefine its purpose, ‘he believed that paintings should focus on the image rather than the reference, the visual rather than the statement. He wanted to find a new way of painting that would not be constricting.’ Richter resists any kind of psychoanalysis when questioned about his own work, insisting instead that his paintings are constructed out of the visual world around him, nothing more. Richter chose topics that he considered mundane, in order to project his ‘belief in nothing’ and thus deny his own ego as an artist, ‘Perhaps the choice is a negative one, in that I was trying to avoid everything that touched on well-known issues – or any issues at all, whether painterly, social or aesthetic. I tried to find nothing too explicit, hence all the banal subjects; and then, again, I tried to avoid letting the banal turn into my issue and my trademark. So it’s all evasive action, in a way.’ Richter’s approach is perhaps more nihilistic than Artaud’s; the latter is far more aggressive in general in his search for universality, whilst Richter quietly mocks himself as an artist and remains indifferent to the social and political questions that are usually raised in painting. Yet in spite of his apparent self-doubt and passivity, and his claims that ‘conscious thinking is eliminated’ when he works, Richter was interested in challenging society’s perceptions of reality. His photo-realistic paintings are always blurred, resisting the dominance of the image; they are not reflections of the real but the ‘unreal’. Moreover, whilst it might be said his paintings display a certain satire and pessimism, Richter argues that his blurred images allow him to open up certain doors of perception, ‘I’ve never found anything to be lacking in a blurry canvas. Quite the contrary: you can see many more things in it than in a sharply focused image. A landscape painted with exactness forces you to see a determined number of clearly differentiated trees, while in a blurry canvas you can perceive as many trees as you want. The painting is more open.’
Gerhard Richter is notable because of the extreme variations in his paintings, ranging from near photo-realist images to abstract colour chart experimentations, yet he explains that all of his abstracts are merely an extension of that which he has begun to explore in his figurative representations, ‘The abstract pictures are no less arbitrary than all object-bound representations (based on any old motif, which is supposed to turn into a picture). The only difference is that in these the ‘motif’ evolves only during the process of painting. So they imply that I do not know what I want to represent, or how to begin; that I have only highly imprecise and invariably false ideas of the motif that I am to make into a picture; and therefore that – motivated as I am solely by ignorance and frivolity – I am in a position to start.’ Richter paints to undermine his own artistic ego; the abstract paintings go further in the sense that the artist cannot know what he is about to represent, thus removing his own authority and handing it over to the painting.
Gerhard Richter’s notion that his figurative canvases could represent the ‘unreal’ or the other again links back to Artaud’s artistic concepts and more particularly, the letters and drawings he produced towards the end of his lifetime. Artaud was not interested in imitation or representational imagery. His portraits deconstruct a false reality and contain iconography that serves to cruelly expose and then purge the inner realities of artistic and viewer alike, ‘the general issues and motifs are now the original betrayal by a natural birth, the exorcism of the sexual intercourse, excretion, facality and scatology, furthermore presentations of fragmented bodies in terms of bodies without organs, thus the accusation and the overcoming of a false constructed body.’ Moreover, Artaud’s drawings aid him in solving some of the problems concerning spatial and ideological limitations that he encountered when establishing his ‘theatre of the impossible’; unlike the theatre (which already carries its social preconceptions and is therefore separated from the director), Artaud’s drawings and writings allowed him a personal, private space to experiment and destroy boundaries. He sets up the idea of the ‘subjectile’ as the relationship and connection between the surface and the subject of his work, ‘they are not only written on the paper, on the contrary, the subjectile ‘paper’ becomes more and more a field of action for Artaud’s projectiles, incorporated and performed by his writing/drawing. Furthermore, he perforated, ruptured and even burnt his paper,’ thus allowing the surface to become part of this ‘action’, not to simply work as a support, and the autonomy of the surface is broken down. Artaud’s argument against the language and text of Western theatre is further brought to light in his writings, ‘This fight in regard to an authentic body that still rests to be born becomes also apparent in Artaud’s invention of a cryptic glossolalia which he mentions for the first time in his letters from Rodez where he was detained in the local psychiatric clinic from 1943 to 1946.’ Artaud’s non-conformist text works with the subjectile as a whole in order to stir the natural inclination of the reader.
We can see the relationship building between Artaud’s theories and the Abstract Expressionists through the testing of reality and the denial of a preconceived authority. Richter’s denial of the ‘real’ in his representations correlates to Artaud’s attempt to find a new ‘other’ language in order to force out the ‘natural’. Albert Oehlen’s work is similarly concerned with the cancellation of the self and iconography in painting, although much more explicitly than Richter’s. Oehlen’s images are an inflation of reality’s forms; it is such an encounter with the real that the rational, aesthetic beauty of these forms is subverted, and presented in ugly anti-form. In talking about his latest finger-painted series, Fingermalerei, Oehlen inherits Gerhard Richter’s passivity and authorial denial, ‘Absence and mark, void and depth, speak to the conflicting impulses at play in the work and in the language of gestural painting generally. Oehlen has said that all of his abstract paintings came from an inability to paint when he wants to paint. Nevertheless, the paintings embody the dialectical push-and-pull of “I can’t, but I must” that characterises much challenging art.’ Oehlen’s work similarly faces many of the contradictions that are embedded in contemporary painting; there is evidently little faith in ability, yet the conviction that the work must be done. The ‘push-and-pull’ here highlights the tension between the artist’s distancing from his own work and his need to challenge and interrogate it. This tension becomes part of the process of the work, and is integral in shaping the ‘subjectile’, the relationship between the surface and the subject.
As in Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, Oehlen’s painting suggests a disillusionment with a certain kind of formal language, ‘At a time when languages and codes seem to define all means of experience and understanding “Fingermalerei” points to the promise of a space beyond linguistic or informatic representation’. Oehlen is looking for the ‘impossible’ in finding a form of painting that shakes off its previous authority as an argument, social commentary or as an aesthetic masterpiece. Oehlen’s painting is the most literal in expressing his struggles as an artist. His method of working is aggressive yet sophisticated. In the Fingermalerei series, Oehlen uses his hands to form the marks rather than the paintbrush, thus attempting to approach the canvas from a fresh perspective, rejecting conventions, yet by using the body as the projectile the relationship between painter and painting is made more intimate and therefore displays a certain desire for control. Moreover, Oehlen’s surfaces shift between bold, confident appliance of colour, to aggressive erasure, to absence, digital and painted iconography is vandalised by ugly expressive marks. Thus with its considerable contradictions, denials, inconsistencies and uncertainties, Oehlen’s work raises again the main debate surrounding contemporary painting: does it actually mean anything? Jordan Kantor leaves it slightly open, Oehlen ‘proposes that the handmade, gestural mark might, in fact, mean nothing. It might take no recourse to language (a refusal of explanation) but carry an important power to communicate nevertheless: by setting a mood, by evoking a feeling, or by implicating the viewer’s body in imagining the gestures that made those marks.’ Oehlen’s very physical, sporadic mark making, and the denial of explanation, suggests that the relationship between painter and painting is one of the body and not of the intellect. Like Artaud, Oehlen makes his work an extension of the body, and in turn intends to encourage more natural, bodily reactions in the viewer, devoid of the corruption of intellectual thought; ‘the “Fingermalerei” paintings seem to propose – contra a linear model of the development of art – that there still may be the possibility of different and unknown experiences, of new visual and corporeal effects that are neither irredeemably burdened with historical baggage nor immediately recuperated into words, slogans, or arguments.’ Oehlen betrays himself on the canvas, so that others may similarly let go of their own limitations.
Martin Kippenberger recognised that the authority of the Abstract Expressionists as a group of seminal contemporary painters needed to be broken down once again. At the risk of self-doubt in painting being seen as just another self-involved egotistical journey, he used humour in his painting (and various other artistic practices) as a device for self-mockery. Kippenberger and his contemporaries ‘ simply made fun of the new social acceptability in their pictures, gracing their much-admired skills with every conceivable kind of awkwardness’ Whilst Oehlen’s palette is more carefully considered, Kippenberger creates degeneration through the very abuse of material and colour; ‘spatula work, spraying, smudging, layering, daubing – he sought to degrade the colourful materials in whatever way possible … And while the paint stank of latex or wallpaper rollers, thematically the works reeked of insult’. Although similarly ugly and cruel from a visual perspective, Martin Kippenberger’s ideas seem to have travelled beyond that of using painting as an act of self-cruelty; it becomes an act of decadence and distasteful self-indulgence; no longer a questioning of the self but instead an unabashed exposure, ‘punishment no longer worked and excess would be pushed to the limits, even if it ended in nothingness and defeat.’ In Kippenberger’s work, self-doubt has been replaced with a new sense of confidence, albeit a confidence that turns its nose up at the importance of succeeding or conviction of personal capability. It is evident that Kippenberger once shared a similar lack of faith in his work, although instead of allowing it to debilitate him, it became an integral part of the humour in his images, completely overcoming ‘the severe inhibition that used to characterise his painting efforts.’ Although the comedy in Kippenberger’s work seems to be an honest, playful form of self-mockery, the Freudian theory argues that the presence of the ego is rife in humour, as another kind of defence mechanism against reality, ‘the grandeur clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, in the triumphantly asserted invulnerability of the ego. The ego refuses to be hurt by causes in reality, to be obliged to suffer, it insists that the traumas of the outside world cannot get near it, indeed it shows that it sees them only as occasions for the gain in pleasure.’ In other words, humour is a device that can undermine a bad situation, thus forming a protective barrier and counteracting the effects of reality and asserting itself ‘against the disfavour of real circumstances.’ The ability to turn this disfavour into humour gives that person a certain control and an authority over others; it is the reduction of other people.
Turning to the painting of the American Artists, here the work is delivered to the subject through agonistic or aggressive ritualistic process. The work of Hans Hofmann, as one of the founding members of the New York School, most illustratively charts the transition away from Western European iconophilic sensibility into the abstract expressionism of the American artists. Being a German-born artist now living in America, the stylistic movement in his painting is parallel to both his physical and national transition. Hofmann’s disenchantment with his involvement with the European scene, however, was much reflected in his experiences of the Surrealists movement infiltrating New York at the time of his arrival. As Artaud similarly tried to remove himself, Hofmann fell out of favour with some of the Surrealist concepts, ‘Hofmann was ill at ease with everything but the aesthetic implications of Surrealism, and he denounced many of their tenets. He had little desire to probe his unconscious on canvas nor to grapple with literary content. However, the potential for a spontaneous gestural abstraction offered by the Surrealist method of automatism was an irresistible lure to him.’ Hofmann was attracted to the idea of an automated form of painting, but the notion of using automation to stream the subconscious of the artist seemed outdated to him, and he felt uncomfortable with the controlled separation of the subconscious. For him, automation should be renewed; it is ‘very little a question of the unconscious. It is much more a plastic weapon with which to invent new forms. And as such it is one of the twentieth century’s greatest formal inventions.’ Hofmann was continually interested in pushing forward with these new forms and, as I suggested earlier, this transition is exposed in his shifting styles. As a result, Hoffman was criticised as being an incompetent painter, yet the artist himself stoutly defended this, implying that this movement was essential to his practice, ‘If I ever find a style, I’ll stop painting.’ He was the first to bring seemingly incompatible areas of abstraction together. So Hoffman revamped the concept behind the automated working process, opting for a more schizophrenic, disjointed, shifting visual image, rather than the controlled, stream of consciousness set up by the Surrealists. Hoffman began with a linear dribbling, as part of his initial experimentations in automatism, in order to ‘unify a composition’, later moving on to daubs and larger pools of paint, where the unidentifiable and discontinuous shapes paved the way for the future generation of Abstract Expressionists. However, in contrast to the later Abstract Expressionist ideal, Hoffman insisted that the authorial persona of the artist was always present within the work, and that it couldn’t exist without it, ‘every art expression is rooted fundamentally in the personality and in the temperament of the artist… when he is of a more lyrical nature his work will have more lyrical and poetical quality; when he is of a violent nature his work will express this in a more dramatic sense’ Although Hofmann’s mentality is yet to undergo the inevitable undermining of the ego by later artists through self-doubt, and then the re-establishing of the author as ‘mediator’, his painting displays the beginnings of the shift away from its linear history. His aggressive mannerisms in the application (and erasure) of the paint show the work beginning to turn against itself, which will characterise the Abstract Expressionist movement, ‘As a composition progressed he might use any number or combination of these implements, sometimes wiping paint across the work with tissues as well as with his hands. He went at some canvases with such ferocity that he appeared to attack them without being aware of where he was placing the colours; others he began carefully blocking in the major shapes with black lines in order to stress the underlying structure.’ The shifting between mediums in the attempt to discover something new, seeps though to the later work of Robert Rauschenburg, where a new universal language surfaces. Given insight into his studio space, it apparent that Hofmann harboured many of the conflicts that were about to plague the Abstract Expressionist movement, from aggressive vitality to an obsessive-compulsive tendency towards control, working to reinstate order and covering up his previous act of ‘shame’; ‘He continued his meticulous (cleaning) regime until everything in the studio was restored to its original condition. This process reflected the compelling need for order that coexisted with Hofmann’s seemingly irreconcilable urge for spontaneity and improvisation.’
It is perhaps too obvious to suggest that Jackson Pollock’s transition into dripping and pouring is directly influenced by some of Hofmann’s experimentation, even with the initial personal disparity between the to artists put aside. Pollock did adopt and push forward Hofmann’s ideas, and what was for the latter a fleeting trial and error became a serious occupation for the former. However, the practice of automatism through the construction of linear patterns serves different purposes for both artists. Hofmann used this technique in order to set up a certain composition within his work, whereas Pollock uses it excessively so that formal composition is rejected, presenting an ‘all-over style of painting which avoids any points of emphasis or identifiable parts within the whole canvas and therefore abandons the traditional idea of composition in terms of relations among parts.’ So whilst Hoffman’s deconstruction focused through aggressive application and new mediums, Pollock took this further into new levels of iconoclasm through the decomposition of the image itself. Pollock initialises the notion of ‘action painting’ and the integration of the painterly gesture and performative art. The artist here is not set up with canvas, easel and paintbrush, as in the conventional, controlled way; the artist instead places the canvas on the floor so that he must make his own path around it, adding and manipulating where he sees fit. This kind of action painting works at a pace by which there can be no serious contemplation, and thus the development of the work itself cannot be interrupted by ego of the artist. Pollock maintains that he is still in control of the process, ‘I can control the flow of the paint. There is no accident.’ Yet the performative, fluid, improvised technique demands that the work be uncorrupted by authorial intent, ‘The painting is both the result of split-second decision making and happenstance, choreography and chance. Each physical “performance” was a unique, spontaneous and unpredictable event’ This method of working anticipates that to be found in Raushenburg’s work, where the artist allows himself the element of surprise and the image can speak for itself. Such as in Artaud’s theatre and in his drawings, the work here acts a playing space, or a field of action, an exorcism of convention and the return to new forms of image making. Pollock’s work is able to hold a steady balance of conflict between a spontaneous action and a mature sense of control. For all of his abrasive techniques and diffusions of the icon, the palette is always chosen with precision and the paintings hold subtle areas of light and dark. Pollock holds onto his fixation with the aesthetic; the ‘layered skeins of paint generate beauty and order out seemingly random gestures.’ His art is revolutionary in that it brought the spontaneous, performative capabilities of painting to the forefront, yet that loyalty to aesthetic tradition is still there, and so has much further to go in breaking from its history.
Like any other artists trying to establish themselves during the Post-War Depression, Arshile Gorky struggled find his own way against the uncertain, poverty-stricken climate, although the conviction to succeed was obviously there. Similarly to Hofmann, Gorky experienced some severe difficulties in terms of seeking out his personal stylistic approach, and bringing his childhood Armenian experiences into the modern New York world. Yet while Hofmann preferred to work in such a way for the reason of chancing upon certain new discoveries, Gorky was riddled with self-doubt and a sense of incapability. His struggles, as became an implicit feature of the abstract expressionist movement, were based upon the inner conflict, oscillating ‘between extremes of self-doubt and self-confidence.’ The self-doubt rose out of Gorky’s insecurity when trying to certify a placement within current painterly circles and the need to ‘formulate his own language’ stylistically and thematically, yet because of this lack of confidence the production and exhibition was somewhat limited. Gorky discovered a solution in the subversion of realism in his self-portraits. There is a distinct connection between Gerhard Richter and Gorky’s earlier paintings through the denied authority and dominance of the figure, although Richter’s work was less concerned with the self than presenting his images as a social comment whilst Gorky’s ‘farewell to realism’ was more to do with his personal feelings and anxieties. His Self-Portrait of 1937, with the blurred features of the face and the blotted flatness of the hands, exposes much of his insecurity and preservation. Yet the portrait moves from clouded imagery, to flat plains and finally through to intricate detail in a continuous cycle of activity which, as we have already explored, will become a hallmark in the work of Albert Oehlen. Gorky thus manages to turn a debilitating self-consciousness into vehicle for exploration. Returning to his Armenian heritage, having been previously cautious about doing so, Gorky calls upon his childhood memories living in Armenia. Now that the distance between himself and his home country had been created, Gorky is able to re-explore it again with a sense of mystery and separation, ‘embracing and fabulising this exoticism, as the details of his distant land were unverifiable, and thus flexible and open to invention.’ Gorky finds suitable concepts as a way to move forward in his work; the stylistic ‘roaming’ as a projection of doubt and anxiety as an artist in conjunction with the painting’s thematic mystery and uncertainty concerning his own heritage. Thus Gorky finds his own footing and a relationship that works; his breakthrough in the late 1930s ‘was to resolve these strands into works that were manifestly new and exploratory, sympathetic to the artists whose work he admired but no longer tracking them.’ Gorky’s work is particularly important as it begins to encompass eastern imagery and myth into the contemporary practices of the West, thus breaking down its elitism and the authority of its own history. Along with Artaud, Gorky instigates a critical revelation in early avant-gardes through the incorporation of non-western art into the closed social circles of the West, thus rethinking its language and rules in favour of a voice that looks toward the new and ‘universal’. This was certainly the intention of Gorky all along, ‘he certainly expected the painting to speak – however mysteriously – to those who stood before its heavy and pock-marked surface.’ He wanted to create a cryptic and penetrating language that could reach the inner consciousness of the viewer to communicate across a number of social, racial and political barriers. Like each member of the emerging abstract expressionist movement, Gorky ‘set off on the conquest of a new morphology which seeks to express in the most concrete language the process of the reaction of the psychic on the physical,’ encouraging his audience to unite the body and mind to live though an honest visual and physical experience, rather than to allow the mind to be corrupted by society.
Philip Guston’s work similarly considers the breaking down of compositional rules. Although while Pollock dripping and spilling aims to disperse the iconophilic image,
Guston’s painting and drawing contains very heavy, physical images that are most concerned with the subversion of traditional aesthetic through their cartoon-like, fleshy bloatedness. Such as Hoffman, Guston actively looks to distance himself from the work by refusing to give clear explanation for his motives, or by confusing himself and the viewer through contradiction, thus creating a mockery out of his own conviction as an artist. The artist first suggests that he looks for something “that will belittle me for some time”, only to correct himself later; “I am only interested in the weight of the familiar”. Furthermore, Guston seems to embrace such paradoxes and a lack of fixidity, never committing to one stylistic approach, ‘His work is clearly cyclical. His painting tones alternates, now caressing, now strident,’ thus presenting his work as a bringing together of certain ‘irreconcilables’ in order to release personal and historical constrictions. In spite of this, Guston states that his image making is not a rejection of the history of painting, rather an exploration and incorporation of the whole in a mature sense of personal myth in order to obtain certain inspiration, ‘He looks at paintings. He communes with artists in the fifteenth century, and he converses with the painter in the studio down the road… Conversations, dialogues, letters, notes, a reminiscence, a quarrel, a reconciliation – anything may set him off.’ Guston’s work is first and foremost concerned with conversion and collaboration, and this dialectic quality is the primary method of production. The artist tries to establish himself away from the linear pattern of art history, yet utilises its history so that the work follows a cyclical process. For Guston, the dipping into and movement between various art movements aids his exploration of spatial possibilities within the painting. Even though his paintings follow many abstract expressionists in its reduced palette, ‘in compensation he has enriched with countless intermediate tones with which he has been able to suggest eccentric, even occult relationships within the formal structure of his painting’; the intense study of colour within this reduced palette frees the artist to explore something of the ‘other’, negating the sense of reduction and passivity that remained prominent in the new artistic sensibility. Guston’s roaming stylistic and thematic works can be explained by his desire to disperse certain cultural and mass media trends and to divert a society from following, sheep-like, into comfortable, settled expectations, ‘viewers have always responded with alarm, as though Guston’s habitual retrieval of ancient themes and his constant reassessments of abiding obsessions were not apparent in every phase of his work.’ Guston does not allow his ego to rise above the importance and wealth of experience to be found in the linear tapestry of painting’s history; he is attempting to gather ideology and modes of thinking from other times, both varying painterly movements and from his own youth, so that previous intuitive thoughts can be exploited, collaborated and expanded. Contradiction, sporadic stylistic movements and the rejection of a personal artist identity, much reflected back into the painting of Hans Hoffman, works to this artist’s advantage.
The New York School of Abstract Expressionism was the embodiment of contradiction and conflict; the divide between indifference in the work and those who chose to ‘embrace the iconoclastic spirit of Marcel Duchamp’ However, Robert Rauschenburg interests lie not in how he could remove and establish himself away from the history and elitism of painting, and set the work away from that linear chronology, but how he could bring painting into (and make it relevant to) the modern world, as Jack Tworkov, a member of the older Abstract Expressionist generation suggests, ‘Twentieth-century art has been a constant expansion of these limits … If it was all right to make pictures with bits of pasted paper or metal or wood, he asked, then why couldn’t you use a bed, or even a goat with a tire?’ Rauschenburg’s dealing with the ego in painting is very much to do with addressing himself as the mediator of the works rather than the initiator; rather like an antenna that takes in the floating visual of the contemporary and then broadcasts it onto the canvas. His work has free-flowing, spontaneous quality that moves away from self-depreciation and erasure. As Rauschenberg humbles his authorial presence, he is able to use ‘chance and humour to separate him as a distinct personality from his objects, which are neutral and uninteresting in intention.’ Rauschenberg’s learning disability gave him a second eye, one that allowed him to experiment with and exploit the slurred and disjointed visuals in image and text that troubled him in his schooling. It also gave him the ability to work through intuition rather than from a rigid set of ideas or methodologies. The ‘idea’, as Rauschenberg explains it, is nothing more than to put in place certain expectations and limitations before the work has even begun. His role as the ‘mediator’ involves placing all of ones faith into the materials, rather than into the intent of the artist, thus allowing for maximum spontaneity. Rauschenberg finds a place where his inhibitions are lowered as far as they possibly can be, so that authorial intervention can be removed all together, ‘Rather, I put my trust in the materials that comfort me, because they put me in touch with the unknown. It is then that I begin to work… when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty. Sometimes Jack Daniels helps too. Another good trick is fatigue. I like to start working when it’s almost too late… when nothing else helps… when my sense of efficiency is exhausted.’ Thus Rauschenberg returns to Artaud’s concepts in order to produce his honest, open-minded repertoire; his consciousness of the outside world and society is reduced, thus allowing him to work almost unconsciously, and bring the ‘universal’ into the reality of his work. In order to avoid lapsing into a heavy concentration by labouring over one piece, Rauschenberg’s method is to work on several paintings at the same time, allowing him to ‘tap into what he considers the ongoing flow of life, the ever-varied vistas that surround him.’ Rauschenberg’s paintings feature as conglomerations of materials, random paint strokes, and masses of seemingly unrelated images from the media. The painter is not suggesting here, or making a statement, due to his self-proclaimed status as the ‘mediator’, yet he is trying to engage his viewer into some kind of interpretation. By encompassing everything into his work, without any apparent restraint, Rauschenberg is creating a dialogue between the viewer and the painting; they aid each other in the ‘universal quest for symbol and metaphor.’ For this artist, the painted image should not be the focal point of difficult discussions or debates, or even paid that much attention to, neither should it be concerned with its own authority; it’s a natural activity by which dialogue can be instigated and a means by which the common ‘universal’ experience can be found.
The work of Jasper Johns in the 1950s and 60s furthermore illustrates the link between from abstraction into the regimented, structural motifs of Pop Art. Rauschenberg’s conglomeration of imagery and objects establishes the beginnings of Pop Art’s central focus; taking media images out of their personal contexts and placing them together for the consideration of the viewer. However, Johns’ considered, structural forms once again revamp Rauschenburg’s unconscious, free flowing, abstract treatment of the painting process. That is not to say that his work had returned to the artistic egocentricity of the past; he was still keen to work away from the realms of consciousness. Yet as, Jeffery Weiss explains, the motifs in the painting ‘compromise an inventory of operations through which Johns managed to invoke yet shun both abstraction and representation. The inventory describes something like a thematics of process; more, Johns can be said to have addressed the work of art, radically, as a kind of self-describing, functional (or instrumentalised) object.’ Johns thought that abstraction allowed too much of the personality or artist convention to seep through, thus be working through a ‘logic of form’ he could allow the subliminal to condition itself on the canvas. The artist here refines the work to a limited number of motifs and palettes, in steady progression, so that the image can be developed fully. The notion of repetition is important; the reworking of the single image conjures ‘a spectrum of differences across the proliferation’, thus allowing the psychic to fully expose itself. Here we see a radical shift away from the original Artaudian distaste for repetition and the idea that it was counterproductive to finding a ‘universal’ un-prescribed, un-regimented emotion. Here, that emotion can only be found in the savouring of a moment, a repetition and intense exploration of the singular image or motif. The notion of the ‘copy’ is later cemented in the Pop Art movement in a more profound debate concerning the importance of authority. Johns’ work, and its systematic processes, its repetition, challenges those looking for ‘meaning’ in the image, suggesting that the ‘meaning and scepticism’ can only be ‘drawn from the mechanics of process alone’, bringing back into light Pollock’s theory that the performative element of the painting perhaps carries more weight of validity than the painting itself.
Johns’ painting is hugely significant in its progression due to its fresh take on authorship, yet also in its challenge of language in his text and numerical based images. The amalgamation of text into a painting causes the viewer to focus their gaze on a word or number for longer than would be normal. Thus the very meaning of that word or number becomes distorted – ‘a painting cannot mean “NO” simply by enunciating the word’ – so although language is not challenged to such a level as attempted by Artaud, Johns work is equally effective, more concentrated, through the subversion of such a powerful authoritative command. Instead of the short verbal refusal, the painting forces the viewer to contemplate for extended periods of time, thus rendering the word meaningless. Encompassing all of these elements, John’s work ‘presented itself from the start as a fully formed anti-system of its own, utterly certain of its uncertainty and its entitlement to philosophical doubt.’
The problem of modern art centres on numerous debates concerning excess of ego within previous histories of painting, and then moves to how this iconography in the image (as directly related to the ego of the artist) can be cancelled out. This re-examining of the authorial voice in painting refers back to Roland Barthes’ essay, ‘The Death of the Author’. Barthes explains that an individual can never suggest that their work is explicitly their own, due to the fact that ‘that person is subject to a multitude of proceeding voices. He or she is enveloped in a variety of styles, opinions, languages and patterns of thought that speak through the author’s pen as soon as it touches the paper, and the author can therefore make no claim to originality.’ Thus there is no such thing as the ‘original’ in any creative process. Art must find a way of adapting to these revelations concerning authorship. The meaning has now translated into something else. To refer back to Boris Groys, authorship is less about creation and more about adoption for creative purposes. The artist’s ‘signature no longer means today that the artist himself actually produced a certain artwork; it means rather that he is using a certain object within an artistic context.’ Art therefore attempts to detangle itself from the ‘gesture’, the egotistical notion that art is a form of personal expression, as it becomes apparent that it never was. The artistic process becomes an active denial of this sense of the personal, the sentimental, the emotional, the authorial. The artist purposely displaces himself from the work in order to re-establish as sense of control, rather than to continue to battle with the position of authorship. The notion of aestheticism in painting (and artistic practices in general) is rejected and subverted. The artists of the avant- garde not only ‘radically “dislocate” their subject-matter in a way that questions the nature of representation and vision’s correspondence with the world but more fundamentally, they deconstruct those assumptions about personal styles and genres which are reified in labels such as Realist, Expressionist and the like.’ The uncertainty and denial of authorship can be found in the way that painting has turned inward on itself, questioning and doubting its own identity, removed from its author. It has become it own judge and subject to its own scrutiny. My own work is directly related to this struggle, and the pulling away from an iconphilic manner of painting that comes too naturally to a new artist. Besides the work itself, the visual of the journey, I feel, carries an equal weight of importance, charting an active rejection of previous visual and idealogic limitations in my work. My process of working has become an act of nihilism in itself. Passive nihilism is illustrated in the rejection of conventional and well-trodden styles/themes, the deconstruction of the self and personal expressionism in the painting. The active nihilism comes from the ability to form a new understanding and practice now that a distance has been established from earlier representations, and it offers refreshing possibilities, albeit in a radical sense, that Simon Critchley refers to in nominating terrorist acts, for example. The overlap of radical art and terrorism is set in technologies that share iconography. The active nihilism of Martin Kippenberger, as a form of symbolic/iconic violence, directed against systemic violence, (of the political sphere as it embraces also the art market) negotiates, in a radical way, the conflict of iconophilia and iconoclasm in his practice, internalised in the artist as author, turned on himself. His self-destructive drive (also found in other male artists such as Francis Bacon) might also be accented by the intellectual cruelty proposed by Antonin Artaud as he writes in ‘The Theatre and its Double’ to epitomise the cruelty of a system, social and political.
My current interest has thus been an attempt to deal with all of these conflicting spaces, and the paintings produced have undergone a radical shift in the search for a placement within the context of the works that I have been researching. Yet this very journey has become an integral feature of that practice (and not just its early developments) and my understanding now is that the practice is precisely about dealing with these conflicts, tensions, and they are not necessarily something that I should seek to overcome. At the beginning of the year, the work I was producing was based on photographic portraiture and conventional drawing, which gravitated from surety to self-doubt and the need to interrogate what it was I was doing; so the work has now become a synthesis between the ‘cruelties’ placed upon my own ‘subject’ (as a result of a risk and wager, in the process of exteriorising self-doubt), the questioning of the position of author and the search for a kind of material practice in painting. The curated show will be a selection of several series. The first will include earlier images that chart the beginnings of painting as experimentation and doubt, the initial primitive ‘ghost’ of the image. The second series will represent my introduction of the ‘white’ veil, in which images denied through a partially translucent mask, are only to be reaffirmed through the canvases depth. The third instalment presents a banishment of the image and a more aggressive masking. Finally, the series of small canvas will be centred by a larger piece, which will bring all of these conflicting spaces, and my attempt to deal with them, into one area, keeping the tensions in balance.
Books and Journals
Ashton, Dore. Yes, but… A Critical Study of Philip Guston (New York: Viking Pree, 1976)
Cooper, Henry. ‘Spatter and Daub’ in Artforum, Summer 2011
Freud, Sigmund. The Penguin Freud Reader, ed. Adam Phillips (London: Penguin, 2006)
Gale, Matthew. Arshile Gorky: Enigma and Nostalgia (London: Tate Pub., 2010)
Goodman, Cynthia. Hofmann (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986)
Groys, Boris. Going Public (e-flux journal), ed. Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle (Berlin; New York: Sternberg Press, 2008)
Hunter, Sam. Robert Rauschenberg (Barcelona: Ediciones Polografa, 1999)
Kantor, Jordan. ‘Hand Apart’ in Artforum, Summer 2011
Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York; London: W.W. Norton, 2001)
Mark, Lisa Gabrielle. Marlene Dumas: measuring your own grave (Los Angeles, Calf.: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008)
Norris, Christopher. What is Deconstruction?, ed. Andrew Benjamin (New York: St Martin’s; London; Academy Editions, 1988)
Ohrt, Roberto. Kippenberger, ed Angelika Taschen (Koln; London: Taschen, 2003)
Papadakis, Andreas. The New Modernism: Deconstructionism Tendencies in Art (London: Academy, 1988)
Parkinson, Gavin. The Duchamp Book (London: Tate, 2008)
Perry, Jill. Themes in Contemporary Art, ed. Jill Perry and Paul Wood (New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press in association with The Open University Press, 2004)
Peyton, Elizabeth. Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton (London: Phaidon, 2008)
Price, Cedric. Cedric Price: The Square Book (London: Academy Editions; Chichester: John Wiley, 2003)
Scheer, Edward. Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader (London: Routledge, 2004)
Sell, Mike. Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c2005)
Sillman, Amy. ‘AbEx and Disco Balls’ in Artforum, Summer 2011
Solakov, Nedko. Dan Perjovschi, Nedko Solakov: walls and floor (without the ceiling) (Nurnberg: Verlag fur moderne Kunst; Manchester: Cornerhouse [distributor], c2008)
Storr, Robert. Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003)
Uitert, Evert van. Van Gogh Drawings (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979)
Watkins, Jonathan. On Kawara (London: Phaidon, 2002)
Weiss, Jeffrey. Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965, ed. John Elderfield (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, c2007.)
Winzen, Matthias. Marlene Dumas: Female (Cologne: Snoeck, 2005)
The Vice of Surrealism. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~rmutt/dictionary/artaud.html Accessed July 15th 2011
www.gerhard-richter.com/art/ Accessed July 24th 2011.
About Jackson Pollock. www.jacksonpollock.com/bio.shtml Accessed August 2nd 2011
/seconds, issue.13, August 2009. http://www.slashseconds.org/ Accessed August 9th 2011
 Sigmund Freud, The Penguin Freud Reader, ed. Adam Phillips (London: Penguin, 2006), p.64.
 Freud, p.65.
 Antonin Artaud, as quoted in Jacques Derrida,‘ From “The theatre of cruelty and the closure of representation.”’ in Antonin Artaud: a critical reader, ed. Edward Scheer (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 43.
 Derrida, p. 43.
 Derrida, p. 40.
 Sylvere Lotringer, ‘From an interview with Jacques Latremoliere’ in Antonin Artaud: a critical reader, ed. Edward Scheer (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 21.
 Lotringer, p. 21.
 Helga Finter, ‘From “Antonin Artaud and the impossible theatre: the legacy of the theatre of cruelty”’ in Antonin Artaud: a critical reader, ed. Edward Scheer (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 48.
 Derrida, p. 41.
 Susan Sontag, ‘From “Approaching Artaud”’ in Antonin Artaud: a critical reader, ed. Edward Scheer (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 88.
 Antonin Artaud as quoted in The Vice of Surrealism. July 15th 2011. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~rmutt/dictionary/artaud.html.
 Hinter, p. 48.
 Hinter, p. 49
 Mike Sell, Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, c2005), p. 60.
 Sell, p. 61.
 Sell, p. 61.
 Sell, p. 67.
 Sell, p. 67.
 Sell, p. 67.
 Harry Cooper, ‘Spatter and Daub’, Artforum, Summer 2011, p. 317.
 Cooper, p. 325.
 www.gerhard-richter.com/art/. Accessed July 24th 2011
 www.gerhard-richter.com/art/. Accessed July 24th 2011
 Gerhard Richter quoted. www.gerhard-richter.com/art/. Accessed July 24th 2011.
 Richter. www.gerhard-richter.com/art/. Accessed July 24th 2011.
 Richter. www.gerhard-richter.com/art/. Accessed July 24th 2011.
 Richter. www.gerhard-richter.com/art/. Accessed July 24th 2011.
 ‘Antonin Artaud’s Drawings’ , /seconds, issue.13 August 2009, http://www.slashseconds.org. Accessed August 9th 2011.
 ‘Antonin Artaud’s Drawings’ , /seconds, issue.13 August 2009, http://www.slashseconds.org. Accessed August 9th 2011.
 ‘Antonin Artaud’s Drawings’ , /seconds, issue.13 August 2009, http://www.slashseconds.org. Accessed August 9th 2011.
 Jordan Kantor, ‘Hand Apart’, Artforum, Summer 2011, p. 339.
 Kantor, p. 339.
 Kantor, p. 339.
 Kantor, p. 339.
 Roberto Ohrt, Kippenberger, ed. Angelika Taschen (Koln; London: Taschen, 2003), p. 20.