By now you are familiar with the bon mots of The Theory, my conscience, guide, and source for all things technical, art-theoretical, and comedical. For the next couple of Fridays, The Theory has offered to throw down what he does best–writing about art.
I asked him to “say something about Jasper Johns and encaustic”. I tossed this off during dinner one night (did I mention he cooks too?) and he said he’d think about it. Here are the results–complete with large format images for those of you who complain about my chintzy photos.
Thanks for the memories: Encaustics and time
Kassandra graciously offered a few installments on The Hive to share thoughts about painting and time, specifically how a painting, and a particular medium, can encode temporal experience. And, eventually, I’m going to talk about two artists closely associated with encaustic – Brice Marden and Jasper Johns – but the foundation for that is a bit complicated.
I don’t just mean encoding a narrative in compositional, or pictorial, terms – like, say, the practice known as “continuous narrative,” in which a single work may depict more than one sequential moment. No, I’m interested instead in how the process of the work might literally embody its making.
What does this mean in practice? Consider a work such as Jackson Pollock’s Number 1 (Lavender Mist) from 1950. We know, of course, that this elaborate tracery was the result of successive swaths of pourings and drippings, as attested by Hans Namuth’s famous photographs.
It is obvious that a gesture – say, the dripping of a particular color – will obscure whatever is beneath it, which is as well to say, whatever came before it. Put differently, if we imagine, as a thought experiment, Pollock creating Lavender Mist by applying colors in sequence, using each once only, the finished work would be a temporal map of its own creation, “readable” as a geologist might read layers of rock strata.
Reality, perhaps needless to say, is a good bit more complicated than our experiment, not least because Pollock was not constrained to use each color once and only once and, on an even more fundamental level, there is no necessary guarantee that the paths of any two colors will cross.
Well, I didn’t promise this would be easy. But that’s one of the reasons why I like Pollock as an example. It was easy to visualize, in part because the Namuth photographs are so well-known; another advantage is that, as a thought experiment, it almost works, but breaks down in an interesting way. Pollock provides a convenient way to think about not just what a process means, but how it means.
The art critic Harold Rosenberg is remembered for introducing the term “action painting” to describe (some) Abstract Expressionist painters. Rosenberg’s basic idea was that the blank canvas was a kind of Existential theatre, and thus its own subject – the “action,” therefore, was the “act” of making. This became the difference between, on the one hand, an emphasis on an open-ended process and, on the other, a concentration of attention on results.
A huge opposition, to be sure, and one familiar in a variety of guises, not least as the tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Peter Schjeldahl captures this perfectly:
“Those opposed qualities became the magnetic poles of Abstract Expressionism…and also the virtual battle stations of the movement’s great, mutually hostile critics, Harold Rosenberg (1906-78), who interpreted the new art rather exclusively in terms of existential drama, and Clement Greenberg (1909-94), who exalted formal invention as an end in itself. Rosenberg gravitated toward [Willem] de Kooning, Greenberg toward [Jackson] Pollock. They squared off over [Barnett] Newman’s smooth expanses of color inflected with vertical bands or lines – spiritual hierophancy to Rosenberg, aesthetic engineering to Greenberg.”
A careful reader, or perhaps just one still awake, might notice here that I was using Pollock not as Greenberg would have, but in a very Rosenbergian way. This is true. But in no event do I want to fight again that war (Green Mountain and Red Mountain, it used to be called) – I’d prefer to just reinforce Schjeldahl’s suggestion that it’s often far from evident, to say the least, how to actually apply such reductive categorizations to actual art, and may indeed finally be somewhat arbitrary.
This has been a lengthy curtain-raiser, but it helps us to ask some fundamental questions. And, in my next installment, when we look at the works of Jasper Johns and Brice Marden, to put these ideas within the specific context of encaustic.