I’ve been reading Irving Sandler’s book on the Abstract Expressionist painters, The triumph of American painting. It’s part of my Morton Feldman research project. Feldman was closely associated with the New York painters of the early 1950s, especially Philip Guston and Mark Rothko. Sandler’s book is a great history of that period, since he writes from first-hand experience of the painters at that time. I am very much in tune with his emphasis on the personal, the spiritual, and on content over technical detail:
[These artists’] preoccupation was with investing forms with meanings that relate to the whole of human experience, and any critical approach that does not consider these meanings is misleading.
I picked this book up also because I wanted to study how someone writes about that art. Abstract Expressionist paintings, like Feldman’s music, seem to me to resist wordy explanation, so I wanted to see if I could get some ideas from reading people who write well about that art.
There is generally no discussion of individual paintings in The triumph of American painting, only in a few cases where they are really important as turning points. There is an emphasis throughout on the evolution of styles, the process of artistic discovery. The descriptions of paintings are, for me, at times disarmingly direct and physical. Take this from the opening of the chapter on Clyfford Still:
[Still’s paintings] are generally composed of vertical paint-incrusted areas of flat color whose contours are jagged. The areas are not separable forms against a background but function as zones of a holistic field. The accent is on openness.
Sandler moves from descriptions of physical characteristics to descriptions of the effects these have on the viewer’s experience, and he is careful to tie this to the meaning of the painting. I like this trajectory: bare physical description, perception, internalization and cognition.
I’ve gotten other things from my reading, too, including an increased appreciation for the connections between John Cage and New York painters in the late 1940s. Reading Sandler’s early chapters on the 1940s kept reminding me about Cage’s writings from that period, especially “A composer’s confessions.” I tend to overlook his connection with Surrealism, but the importance of automatism as an artistic technique is so clearly tied to Cage’s work. It is also illuminating to consider Cage’s interest in Asian aesthetics in the context of the artistic “myth making” that Sandler describes: in the 1940s all of these artists (Cage included) were reading Carl Jung and looking for archetypes.
Lastly, this makes me think about why we write about art and music, the relationship between artist, writer, and audience. My tendency has been to think of my reader’s personal experience of the music as a prerequisite to what I write. Anything I write is something to be mixed in with the reader’s own unmediated understanding of the music. Hopefully I say something that enhances that experience, or deepens it, or causes the reader to be more aware of it. It might change that experience a little bit. But reading The triumph of American painting, it occurred to me that a writer might be an experience creator, not just an experience enhancer. The reader may not have a strong personal understanding of the music, or may be confused about what they are experiencing. In this circumstance, the writer can suggest what that experience can be. My natural inclination is to reject this approach as “putting ideas into someone’s head”, but I’m not sure how much I trust that inclination. The connection of listener to the truth of the work cannot be faked, but perhaps it can be induced. The writer can be a mediator of experience, a facilitator—or, to shift the imagery sharply, a medium, a shaman. Writer as shaman? Just writing that gives me a shock, but considering Morton Feldman’s lengthy late works, there’s potential in that image. What is a six-hour musical performance if not a kind of consciousness-changing ritual?