The Glory of Defeat in Abstract Expressionism

Modern painting reached its highest point with Jackson Pollock. Maybe Marc Rothko if you would prefer. Anyway, the American Abstract Expressionist Painters of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s brought the modernist project to its logical conclusion.


What was that project? And what was the motivation for it? Well there are generally two answers. The first is found in the writings of Clement Greenberg. He argued that each art form should work within the essential vales of its media that were not shared with any other art-form. So for painting the image had to go (photography could take care of that) and history painting was anathema (literate and illustration took that ground) and perspective and illusory space was to be firmly rejected. Ultimately the painting had one virtue that was denied everything else. Flatness. So the history of modern art, starting (arguably) with Manet can be seen as a continual and intellectually inevitable move towards this flatness; the flat painting on flat canvas. Greenberg even contemplated that the canvas without any paint could work as a painting – even if not a particularly successful one.


But if you have such a reductionist historicist approach to painting, the moment of triumph becomes the gateway to utter defeat. Pollock and Rothko in their differing ways got to the summit of abstract painting. Their beautiful achievements complement each other. Here the triumph of American painting was writ large – very large. But it was a dead-end. Taken this far they had run out of road. As Charles Harrison puts it – there was nowhere to go.


Charles Harrison was canny enough to look outside the usual narrative of abstract painting for an explanation of why the moment of triumph was really only an immense billboard announcing a dirt track. It curiously dovetails with the Christian critic Hans Rookmaaker’s approach to Modern painting where he viewed the rejection of God and Truth as the essential narrative of the modernist project. It was frighteningly successful. Harrison harks back to 1882 when Nietzsche announced the ‘death of God’. Here is the real issue.


Modernist abstract painting was successful as it delved decisively into its essence and embraced the essential flatness of the canvass. But that is as far as man can go. Without God there is no reality to respond to and no truth to tell. Of course there is a truth in the flatness of flat paining. But it isn’t a prize. The painter is a pauper, offering self-reflective pigment for sacrament. Bob Dylan wrote, “man worships by at the altar of a stagnant pool and when he sees his own reflection he’s fulfilled”.  A Pollock or Rothko is indeed beautiful to behold. We look with reverence upon them and see the glory of the reduction and impoverishment of our own lives without God.

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