The New Cool-Art

1. Opening Reception, Pictures, Artists Space, New York, September 24-October 29, 1977. Maureen McFadden (left), Irving Sandler (middle), Helene Winer (right). Courtesy Artists Space, New York

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Art historian Irving Sandler, who died on June 2 at the age of 92, contributed to Art in America for over four decades. Known for his detailed chronological studies (from the landmark 1970 volume The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism to Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s published in 1996), he was also a noted memoirist (A Sweeper-Up After Artists, 2009; Swept Up by Art, 2015), a professor for twenty-five years at Purchase College, and a reviewer of remarkable acuity.

Although deeply sympathetic with the Abstract Expressionist artists he knew personally as a habitué of the Cedar Tavern and a programmer for the Artists’ Club, Sandler—who cofounded Artists Space in 1972—was responsive to many artistic developments, even those deeply at odds with Ab-Ex values. This openness is especially evident in the following article, “The New Cool-Art,” from our January-February 1965 issue.

Sandler observes that many then emerging artists (Stella, Warhol, Poons, Judd, Lichtenstein) rejected the “ardent romanticism” of their predecessors, shifting focus away from tumultuous emotion and the aesthetic sublime to a machinelike dispassion and systematized calculation—an approach more indebted to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp than to WWII-era Existentialism. This new breed of artist, he argues, melded each work’s subject matter with its ontological status as a thing-in-itself. Although the strategy is one of total “non-transformation,” expressing “absolute frustration and despair,” Sandler examines this upstart cool-art with both interest and respect, as was his model critical manner.—Eds.

 

 

During the last five or six years, a growing number of young artists have rejected the premises of Abstract Expressionism. The most extreme are Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Poons and Don Judd. Because the group they are a part of is the most vociferous and perhaps the most populous in the New York art world today, I have come to believe that its point of view may turn out to mark the 1960s as abstract expressionism did the 1940s and 1950s.

The basic outlook of these artists is best summed up in statements by Stella and Warhol. In 1960, Stella remarked that it was enough for him to have a good idea; he would be just as happy if someone else, or a machine, made his pictures according to his specifications. His idea was to paint stripes of pigment, arranged in all-over, square-within-square designs, which allude to nothing outside of themselves. Three years later, Warhol, who copies mass-produced commodities, said: “I think somebody should be able to do all my paintings for me . . . The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.” The upshot of this approach has been an art so dead-pan, so devoid of signs of emotion, that I have called it cool-art.

The belief that art ought to be mechanistic is poles apart from the ardent romanticism of Rothko, Newman, and Still who searched for pictorial equivalents of their visions of the sublime, and such action painters as Pollock, de Kooning, and Guston who tried to discover color forms which might stand for intense feelings.

To grasp the felt intricacy of their experience, the action painters remain open to every possibility in art. Conversely, the cool-artists limit themselves to single, pre-determined ideas which are repeated with little variation. In so doing, they have changed the anxious “I don’t know” of the action painters to a calculated “I know.” (The cool-artists’ reduction of artistic means is unrelated to that of Rothko and Newman who do not restrict their palettes but simplify composition to maximize the impact of color.)

To the action painters, the spontaneous act of painting is crucial, for only through it can they arrive at their subjective images. To the cool-artists, process is unimportant, for they think up ideas which require either little or no creative transformation.

The difference is obvious when one compares de Kooning’s fervid, energy-packed gestures, as personal as handwriting, with Stella’s static, enervated stripes which are wholly lacking in tension, variety and climax. And Warhol, who uses a mechanical silk-screen technique to print his images, has also reduced the passionate action in action painting to an anonymous and apathetic activity. The best of the action painters have tried to avoid painting which is, on the one hand, “cookery”—the facile manipulation of materials for decorative purposes—and on the other hand, “recipe”—the rote execution of an idea. The cool­artists cannot be accused of ”cookery,” but they are certainly “recipe” artists.

 

The forerunners of cool-art

The painters most influential in the development of the cool point of view have been Ad Reinhardt and Jasper Johns. Johns’ choice of pre-existing subjects—American flags, targets, letters, numbers—anticipated those of Warhol and Lichtenstein, but of greater consequence was his gloss of action painting. That is, he filled in his designs of commonplace images with free painting which resembles de Kooning’s and Guston’s. However, in their urgency to give form to their deepest passions and thoughts, these artists discarded the cubist ideal of picture-making. In contrast, Johns has elevated the dispassionate exercise of picture-making to a major end in art. His brushwork is not as impulsive as it seems; rather, he “crafts” the look of action painting while denying its romantic content.

Johns’ attitude toward subject-matter serves to underline his concern with the well-painted picture. He makes a picture of a flag as if he were making the object itself—much as a skilled worker would and with the same kind of self-detachment. (His painting conveys no sentiments about Old Glory.) The two kinds of making go hand in hand and reinforce each other.

Although he is often linked with the Abstract Expressionists, Reinhardt has been their long­standing enemy. Reinhardt is a purist who believes that art ought to be isolated from life—de-personalized. He also thinks that art which represents anything but itself is immoral; no extra-esthetic meanings are permissible. In his Black Paintings, he has systematically eliminated everything but what he feels to be the art-ness of art.

Stella, who of the cool-artists is closest to Reinhardt, shares his distaste for abstract expressionism. This aversion may have motivated both to base their canvases on elementary, preconceived ideas, as if thinking along the lines of Jacques Barzun’s remark: “A romanticist position is breached at once by anyone who wants to tidy up the world by enforcing a few simple rules.”

However, while adopting Reinhardt’s negative approach, Stella has reacted against his purism. Where Reinhardt uses negation to create a positive, ideal art, Stella seems to value it as an end in itself. To make his color colorless, Reinhardt keys down the blues, yellows, browns, and purples that he begins with until they become almost indistinguishable. Still, as one peers, subtle tonal variations emerge. To make his lines, divisions, he dissolves them in a grey atmosphere. But this dark luminous aura is hypnotic and invites contemplation. In contrast, Stella’s color, until recently, was uniform; his painting and drawing are blunt and ordinary, and his light is an impassive surface shine.

In renouncing Abstract Expressionism, Reinhardt embraced a Classicist position (even though his extremeness can be considered romantic), if by Classicism we mean an art whose “values are rooted in the universe, rather than dependent upon [man’s] fallible and changing judgment,” to quote Barzun. Stella cannot be so categorized. Where Reinhardt has simplified his painting to express a vision of an absolute, perfect art, Stella has reduced his, because he has reduced his aspiration—almost to zero.

An art as negative as Stella’s cannot but convey utter futility and boredom. Abstract-Expressionist painting also possesses a sense of existential absurdity, but at the same time—and it is here that Stella diverges—it affirms that meaningful action, self-realization, and transcendence are possible.

In its boredom, Stella’s painting has affinities to Reinhardt’s, but where the latter cultivates monotony to underscore the disconnection between art and life, Stella appears to have made it the content of his art—a content so novel and perverse as to be interesting. He emphasized this content in the pictures in his show last year by painting all the stripes the same metallic purple. It is true that this color—nasty, closeup, but oddly bland at a distance—is unusual, as are the octagon, diamond, and parallelogram pictures, each of which has a hole the same shape as the canvas cut in the middle. Artists traditionally have located the main events of their paintings in the centers; in these pivotal spots, Stella places holes—nothingness. Furthermore, artists have generally wanted their works to transcend the materiality of their mediums. Stella’s holes accent the object quality of his canvases; they become dumb things. And there is anything but purple passion in his purple; it is bleak when compared to the royal purple it ironically calls to mind.

 

The emergence of optical-art

Stella’s latest canvases, composed of stripes of dissonant colors that oscillate in swift, perpetual motion, approach optical-art, a variant of cool-art. The most provocative of the painters working in this manner is Larry Poons. Poons paints small circles of one or two colors, set off against a ground stained with contrasting hue, that bombard the retina until it hurts. Although it is difficult to stop blinking when looking at these pictures, one soon becomes aware that the discs are arranged in patterns that seem haphazard but are preconceived and schematic—like John Cage’s musical compositions.

Many of the cool-artists as well as Johns and Rauschenberg are indebted to the ideas of Cage, who more than any other composer has treated music as a visual experience and has even exhibited his scores in art galleries. Among other things, Cage has experimented with mechanical music and the relation of music to noise and silence (non-music). He has also lectured and written extensively about emptiness and monotony as values in art, even though, unlike the cool-artists, his orientation is to Zen. He once wrote: “In Zen, they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”

Larry Poons’s essays in optics were anticipated by Vasarely, who initiated this trend in Europe during the early ’50s, but they are based on color rather than design. Therefore, they owe more to the Newman and Rothko color fields than they do to the pre-World War II geometric abstraction whose tradition Vasarely continues. In this, they are also linked to Albers’s experiments with the interaction of colors and optical illusion; Morris Louis’s visually aggressive last works, and of Ellsworth Kelly’s adjustment of simple color shapes so that all are equally positive, an idea taken from Matisse’s late collages.

But Poons differs from these artists in that he is concerned solely with optical activity. His works are like optical machines which produce visual tensions and nothing else. It must be granted that Poons is investigating sensations that are new in art—almost like a scientist—and so, is related to a Seurat or an Albers. But unlike them, such experimentation seems to be his exclusive aim. It is the lack of a broader intellectual, not to speak of emotional or esthetic, context that prompted Jack Kroll to call Poons’ canvases “cerebral but mindless.”

Akin to the optical-artists are a growing number of kinetic-artists who either assault the eye with movements of such velocity as to prevent thinking or feeling, or who are intrigued with motion in art as a meaningless activity. (These artists differ from George Rickey, Len Lye, and others who charge their mobile sculptures with emotion.) Several kinetic-artists, among them Walter de Maria, invite spectator participation. On one of his wood contraptions, de Maria printed: “If you come upon the box and the block is in, pull it out. If you come upon the box and the block is out, push it in.” The push and pull manipulation here is senseless; the hand moves but not the heart.

 

Pop art: cool and hot

The most notorious of the cool-artists are the Pop artists, notably Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who are the most way-out. Both reproduce commercial illustrations, employing such mechanical devices as stencils and silk-screens. Warhol depicts food packages and Lichtenstein, comic-strips, as they are—dead-pan, without much change except in scale and medium. In their literalness, these artists are unlike Claes Oldenburg, who infuses ordinary objects with new meanings, and such “esthetic” Pop artists as James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselmann who, taking their cues from Robert Rauschenberg, use advertising motifs as design elements in quasi-cubist compositions.

Warhol and Lichtenstein also differ sharply from Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, and other “new realist” abstract expressionists, who, nevertheless, have influenced them. Rauschenberg’s introduction of newsprint and billboard fragments in his “combines” is a highly individual extension of de Kooning’s painting method. His nostalgia for found objects of urban origin and their “painterly” juxtaposition is unrelated to the impersonality of Pop art themes and execution.

Another forerunner of Pop art is Alex Katz whose flat statues and pictures of artist friends take off from display cut-outs and billboards. However, Katz does not simply duplicate road-signs, but uses their vulgarity and impassiveness as foils for his sophisticated artistry and for the feeling of intimacy imparted by his portraits.

Pop art has been treated by some critics as an up-to-date version of American scene-painting—an innocent naturalism that twangs America’s heartstrings. It is also implied that it has fused high art and the mass media into an integrated American culture—a kind of cross between Matisse and Milt Caniff. Other critics consider it a social protest or dada-minded satire on the shoddiness of popular culture, and still others, a glorification of our affluent society in which supermarket goodies become icons, worshipped, I suppose, by a breed of consumer whose culture hero is the junior executive.

However, these explanations miss the deeper content of Warhol’s and Lichtenstein’s work: the sense of absolute frustration and despair that it conveys. More than any earlier artists, they focus on subject-matter, not on execution, which is mechanistic, or on the artist’s interpretation, which is minimal. But the subjects to which they force attention so insistently are totally banal and interchangeable. Furthermore, as copyists, they signify that they cannot realize any but the most elementary, imitative ends in art—that it is impossible for them to communicate anything of import. And in the tedious repetition of their images, they intensify the feeling of boredom and indifference. In this, they contrast with the abstract expressionists who, when they repeated motifs, did so in order to zero in on a zone of compulsion.

The pessimistic outlook of both of these artists resembles that of such French “objectivist” writers as Robbe-Grillet, although the one art form was probably not directly influenced by the other. Convinced that all emotional and intellectual comments that novelists might make about human experience have been exhausted, Robbe-Grillet describes only the surface of the world around him, impervious to any system of meaning. He once wrote: “Around us, defying the mob of our animistic or protective adjectives, things are there. Their surfaces are clear and smooth, intact, neither dubiously glittering nor transparent. All our literature has not yet succeeded in penetrating their smallest corner, in softening their slightest curve.” There is no room for the spirit of man or for the exercise of his imagination in this world of resistant things. And when the image of man does appear, it is as an impersonal thing—the offspring of ads and comic-strips.

 

Price of subtlety

Warhol’s and Lichtenstein’s reproductions of commercial art are so close to the originals that they have been accused of plagiarism, of not transforming their subjects in any appreciable way. In every act of duplication, there are, of course, changes—clearer in Lichtenstein’s case than in Warhol’s—but they are not pronounced enough to open up fresh ways of experiencing the imagery or formal relations. But non-transformation, it seems to me, is precisely the point. It enables Warhol, for the first time in the history of art, to produce an utterly impassive representational art.

If seen in a supermarket display window, Warhol’s sculptures of Brillo boxes would be unnoticeable. But exhibited as art in a gallery, they shock, for by presenting objects that resemble non-art as art, Warhol calls into question traditional definitions of art. In this, he takes after Duchamp and Johns.

A half-century ago, Duchamp placed a urinal on a pedestal and proclaimed it a sculpture. In so doing, he posed the problem, still to be resolved, of whether it was art. A few years ago, Johns cast two beer cans in to bronze (the material of art) and painted labels on the metal (the technique of art) so adeptly that the painted sculptures looked like the real things. By lavishing craft in the re-creation of mass-produced products, he complicated the issues raised a generation ago by Duchamp.

Warhol’s Brillo boxes, which are silk-screened wood constructions, could also pass for the real cartons. But their effect is different from that of his two predecessors. Duchamp’s dada gestures aimed to subvert every conventional esthetic and social value; his “ready-mades” were anti-art. Conversely, Johns’ works possess the patina of high art; his masterly hand is felt in all of them. However, Warhol’s fabrications do not in the 1960, act to decry the absurdity of established institutions. Instead, they express an existential point of view: a sense of the utter futility of being creative at all. Therefore, unlike Johns’ objects, artistry is unimportant; the distinction between art and non-art is of no account.

Warhol made his indifference clear in an interview with G. R. Swenson. Asked whether his commercial art was more machine-like (and so, more to his liking) than his “fine” art, he replied: “No, it wasn’t. I was getting paid for it, and did anything they told me to do. If they told me to draw a shoe, I’d do it, and if they told me to correct it, I would . . . I’d have to invent and now I don’t; after all that ‘correction’ those commercial drawings would have feelings, they would have a style.”

In adopting non-transformation as an artistic strategy, Warhol and Lichtenstein have come up with a novel solution to a problem which has occupied artists for more than a century: how to stress the reality of subject-matter and of the work of art at the same time. Their answer: make them as indistinguishable as possible. In the case of painting, to get around translating three-dimensional figures into two-dimensional images, choose motifs, e.g., commercial illustrations, which are flat, non-illusionistic, and the same shape as the canvas.

Such solutions do not seem inadvertent. In their deliberate avoidance of extra-esthetic references, many cool-artists have been reduced to making comments about art and nothing more—somewhat like estheticians. They have isolated the formal problems that, among other matters such as the quality of feeling, have faced modern artists, and have solved them in esthetic terms only. Some are concerned simply with painting a non-abstract expressionist picture or with painting a picture that is purely optical. Others make sculptures that are solely objects—the “logical” culmination of the idea that a work of art is a thing-in-itself as against the representation of a thing. This last seems to be the intent of Don Judd, whose abstract constructions are sculptural counterparts of Stella canvases.

 

Pop art and recent abstraction

The unconventionality of its subject-matter and technique has made Pop art the most talked about phenomenon in current art. But as significant as its novel way of “returning to the figure” has been its relation to the most recent tendency in abstract art—the painting of Al Held, Raymond Parker, Kelly, Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Paul Brach, Friedl Dzubas, and other “abstract imagists,” as H. H. Arnason has called them. It is this direction, I feel, which has been the most fruitful in the last half­dozen years and which has attracted the best painters who have matured during that time.

Like Newman and Rothko who influenced them, the younger abstract imagists have simplified their pictorial means to explore the expressive possibilities of pure color. The Pop artists have not been especially interested in this, but they have borrowed from the abstract artists such devices as setting off a large, clearly defined, single image against a field of white canvas. Hence, Lichtenstein’s blown-up comic-strips are closer to Noland’s or Kelly’s abstract images than to any other figure paintings. The reference to abstract° imagism in Warhol’s and Lichtenstein’s realist illustrations gives them a hip look that no other representational art today possesses.

There are other affinities as well, for the cool approach has affected much of the new abstraction, so pervasive has it become. Like the cool-artists, the abstract imagists have reacted against the complex and ambiguous free gestures that characterized action painting. Instead of exposing the ragged marks of their process, they cover up their tracks. For example, Kelly and Brach paint their forms mat so that all traces of the hand are obliterated. Louis, Noland and Olitski suppress gestures by staining pigment into unsized canvas. With the exception of Al Held’s works, abstract imagist pictures have a self-possessed, passive quality that differs from the uncertainty, at once anxious and robust, and the raw energy that mark the best of action painting.

But where the cool-artists are negative, the abstract imagists are positive, in that, like Newman and Rothko, they are preoccupied with the emotional vibrations that color alone can generate. To this end, they have discarded pictorial elements which they consider alien to color—complicated drawing, brushwork, and textures—in order to enjoy it “mysteriously,” as Gauguin put it, as “sensations proceeding from its own nature.” They agree with Matisse that colors have “the inherent power of affecting the feelings of those who look at them.”

However, compared with the visionary paintings of Rothko and Newman, those of Kelly and Brach are willfully dead­pan, and those of Louis, Noland and Olitski are suavely hedonistic. Of the abstract imagists, Kelly and Brach are closest to cool-art. Although he uses Arp­like anatomical images as points of departure, Kelly generalizes them until they are impersonal. Furthermore, the black, white and primary colors that he uses repeatedly are as bland as the hard-edged and uninflected surfaces that he favors. Yet, this blandness is inadvertently enigmatic. Each of Kelly’s abstractions engages one like a person who is wholly wrapped up in himself, but who one senses is intriguing. Brach, on the other hand, is a symbolist, even though he empties his geometric forms of all meaning. The symmetrical blue-grey circles that he paints are so close in color to their grounds as to appear invisible.

 

Postscript

The reasons for the emergence of cool-art are, of course, difficult to determine. Some critics have tied it to broader social tendencies. They have claimed that it reflects the spirit of our times. This kind of speculation can be stimulating, but up to now, it has resulted only in empty generalizations, for example, the claim that cool-art is the product of a nihilist generation that cannot feel about The Bomb.

More credible is the idea that abstract expressionism, after more than a decade of hegemony, offers younger artists too few possibilities for development. Therefore, many have embraced a different method—the execution of simple, pre-determined ideas—and other values—calculation, impersonality, impassiveness and boredom.