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«Abstract Expressionism, the glorious American art movement of the late 1940s and1950s, is a sophisticated debate on the nature of the unconscious. In ...»

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Expressionism in Context

Abstract Expressionism, the glorious American art movement of the late 1940s and1950s,

is a sophisticated debate on the nature of the unconscious. In this essay, I will

demonstrate why such a debate was compelling, and present the arguments that were

used at the time to promote each of the three competing descriptions of the unconscious:

the Jungian, the Freudian, and the Zen. I will note the appropriateness of the formal

strategy chosen for each view: biomorphic shape for the Jungian, line for the Freudian, and color for the Zen.

The Context:

After the barbarism of war comes the question of man’s basic nature. After World War I (so long a war with so many casualties among friends and neighbors, so much destruction of the European landscape, so many frightening new weapons), Dada hoped to strip the very thin veneer of culture and show the irrationality lurking beneath.

Surrealism, which followed shortly afterward in Europe, hoped to expose the twisted logic and repressed desire that drove the actions of individuals and nations. It is not surprising, then, that after World War II a similar question of human nature would arise, especially because it had been essentially a genocidal war. The Germans tried to kill not only all the Jews, but all the people in London. The Allies tried to kill all the people in Dresden and Berlin, and the Americans managed to kill just about everyone in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gas chambers and aerial bombardment of civilians were the new barbarisms.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sloan Wilson’s best selling novel of 1955 and the Academy Award–winning film of 1956 were so widely read and viewed that they epitomized a brand of the 1950s corporate employee. The book and the movie are usually assumed to be a simple indictment of drab conformity, but actually, the story has a more sophisticated message. Tom Rath, the hero of the book, played by Gregory Peck in the movie, applies for a public relations job at a broadcast network. Asked to write his biography in a few pages during the interview, Tom sits in a room to reflect on his life.

The story is largely told in a series of flashbacks (just before, during, and after this interview) of his experiences in World War II: of the seventeen men he killed in closequarter battle, his accidental fragging of his best friend and fellow paratrooper, and his girlfriend in Rome and the child she may have had by him. In the end, however, Tom writes only two sentences, saying that he is there to work, and that is all they need to know about him. That was the right attitude; Tom got the job he needed. He could join the soulless men making economic progress, The story first lauds the desire to put the past behind us. Look forward. Live the rest of your life. As Tom says in the novel: “Between peace and war a clear line must be drawn. The past is something best forgotten; only in theory is it the father of the present.

In practice, it is only a wildly unrelated dream, a chamber of horrors. It is a disconnected world, or it is better to believe it that way if you can” (97).

But the past is always with Tom, and rejecting it, rejecting his memory (and his unconscious), has turned Tom into a drudge. In the film, his wife complains that he has lost his integrity and his courage, that he makes love without passion. Opportunities are seen as problems. It is only when the past reemerges in Tom’s life in a concrete way that cannot be avoided (as his young son in Italy turns up in need of his help) that Tom reintegrates as a person and turns away from the prospect of being a corporate man like his unhappy boss. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, then, is an argument for the utility of knowing and accepting one’s unconscious.

In general, 1956 was the time of Levittown, the G. I. bill, and the Marshall Plan, which was so good for American business, as well as for Europe and Japan. The loss of ethnic and regional identity seemed a small price to pay to join the productive march of the economy. Fireside chats from the White House had unified the country and flattened the diversity of accents. The media had to address all America evenly. Conformity, even homogeneity, was embraced. The blowback from this uniformity was a need for an individual identity to be nurtured within and, consequently, for a counter-culture probing for a definition of the unconscious.

Three Views of the Unconscious:

In her impressive Artforum article of November 1972, “Jungian Aspects of Jackson Pollock’s Imagery,” Judith Wolfe quotes Pollock as saying “I’ve been a Jungian for a long time.” As she recounts, Pollock interest in Jung’s work probably started in 1934 through a friend when he was only 22, and also when he was being treated for his alcoholism by the Jungian psychiatrist Joseph Henderson in 1939 for 18 months; he was later treated by Jungian Violet Staub de Laszlo from 1941 to 1942. Pollock may have been more interested in the ideas than in the treatment, for his work during this period, even as it set the stage for Action Painting to follow, was steeped in the images and ideas of a Jungian search for a collective unconscious of symbols that reached beyond individuals to all times and all cultures. As Wolfe recounts, images of male and female, of night journeys or underground journeys, of birth and rebirth, of mixed humans and animals, of feminine moons that interact with humans, of kings and gods that are both good and bad (all part of Jung’s system) predominate Pollock’s painting of this period.

Wolfe quotes Pollock’s friend Alfonso Ossorio in the 1951 catalogue for a Pollock exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery: “The present group of paintings is done with an austerity of means that underlies their protean character: thin paint and raw canvas are the vehicles for images full of the compulsion of dreams and the orderliness of myth.... [The paintings] both reawaken in us the sense of personal struggle and its collective roots and recall to us the too easily forgotten fact that ‘what is without is within” (65).

Wolfe comments that “Ossorio’s final quote is probably from Jung.” Jung’s idea here is that these powerful notions are both part of our basic nature, and are made manifest in various cultures (in objects, myths, and even various institutions and actions) that in turn reinforce the innate notions in the human unconscious. Pollock finds them in American Indian culture, as well as in Jung’s traditional sources, such as alchemy and ancient Greek, Tibetan, and Oceanic civilizations.

Jung probably found support for his ideas in the new discipline of comparative anthropology. In The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, first published in 1890, James George Frazer shows the continuity of myths and religions across cultures.

A scared king, a reincarnated god, harvest rebirth, fertility, a marriage of sun and moon, or sun and earth—Frazer claims that these legends are born in primeval agricultural societies and continue in the mythology of modern religions. The wonderfully articulate

painter Mark Rothko argues the point of view thus:

[Myths] are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. They are the symbols of man’s primitive fears and motivations, no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never substance, be they Greek, Aztec, Icelandic or Egyptian, And our modern psychology find them persisting still in our dreams, or vernacular and our art, for all the changes in the outward conditions of life…Those who think that the world is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art.

The myth hold us therefore, not through its romantic flavor, not through the remembrance of the beauty of some bygone age, not through the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves, as it was to those who first stumbled upon the symbols to give them life (as quoted in Sandler, pp. 63, 65).

Rothko’s last sentence states a corollary to the Jungian conception of the unconscious:

We ignore these powerful unconscious and universal symbols at our peril! These symbols work populations (Jung was perhaps thinking about Nazism) and can dangerously disorganize the individual.

By definition these myths are narrative and thus, for the painter, figurative, but Jung himself, in his own painting (shown recently at the Rubin Museum) heavily influenced by alchemy and Tibetan mandala, purports that abstract shapes and arrangements of shapes can carry the meaning. Thus Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, Theodoros Stamos, and even Rothko and Hans Hofmann of the 1940s can all follow Arshile Gorky’s lead in making biomorphic or semi-representational shapes floating on an amorphous background and associate those paintings, not with an older European Surrealism, which they resemble, but instead with a new American abstract confrontation with the unconscious.

The painter Knox Martin once told me of an experiment he performed to test the power of his abstract symbols. He scoured encyclopedias to find the scariest symbols, such as the swastika and the hourglass from the black widow spider, and made a small design of these symbols on a paper that could fit in the palm of his hand. He then went to the aviary at Macy’s and leaned against the glass. “The birds went crazy!” Frankly, I too might be rattled if Martin were leaning against my cage. However apocryphal, the anecdote sums up the belief of a segment of the Abstract Expressionist movement that the unconscious is a storehouse of powerful abstract and semi-abstract shapes that engender feelings and actions in humans (and animals.) To understand the second Abstract Expressionist interpretation of the unconscious, Harold Rosenberg suggests that the viewer become, in effect, a graphologist: “Criticism must begin by recognizing in the painting the assumptions inherent in its mode of creation. Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in the vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction—psychic state, concentration and relaxation of will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations among the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked (“The American Action Painters,” p. 23).

Rosenberg’s essay was first published in the December 1952 issue of ARTnews.

Earlier, in January of that year, Klara G. Roman had published Handwriting a Key to Personality (New York: Pantheon Books). Roman was a well-regarded professor of graphology at New York’s New School for Social Research, and her book was reprinted only eighteen months later, suggesting a wide readership. She begins by quoting other psychologists on the subject of what the graphologist looks for: Werner Wolf—“length, position, and form;” Nina Becker—“size, direction, pressure” (quite like Rosenberg’s “inception, duration, direction”). Roman states that “gesture” is consistent throughout a person, and that writing with the left or right hand or the foot reveals a consistency that the graphologist can identify; consequently, such gestures are expressive of a deep and consistent personality (pp. 13–14).

Parsing Rosenberg’s categories with Roman’s chapters reveals how close the two writers are. For Rosenberg’s duration, see Roman on speed: “Fluctuations in pace due to emotional influences revealed by such graphic indices as the following: occasional acceleration or showing down, delays, or stops; headlong haste reflected in uncontrolled strokes overshooting their expectable limits, or a gesture of vacillation, or a retreating step shown in leftward turning strokes; breaks, overt or disguised in soldering strokes” (p.


For Rosenberg’s direction, see Roman on slant: “Slant is therefore ultimately a personal gesture. After the copybook stage, emotional motivations are its major determinants, as is indicated by graphological studies” (p. 187).

In general, a rightward slant indicates compliance, whereas an extreme rightward slant implies “uncontrollable excitation or the over activity of mania,” and possibly alcoholism (pp. 188–90). Leftward slants show defiance, whereas upright script shows balance and self-reliance.

For Rosenberg’s concentration and relaxation of will, see Roman on tension and release: “Every muscle of the body in a certain state of permanent tension, even during rest.... A first determinant resides in the needs and desires of the individual. The stimulation arising from hunger, sexual desire, anxiety, ambition, etc. increase tension...

. Fulfillment of such needs induces a temporary release of tension.” The state of an individual’s pattern of tension can be seen in “graphodyne study of tension-release patterns” (pp. 278–79).

According to Rosenberg, the reward for such connoisseurship of gesture in an Action Painting is to see “its seriousness—and the test of that seriousness is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist’s total effort to make over his experience” (perhaps to make over his unconscious reality). Likewise with Roman, the marks on the page are indicators that may reveal serious “emotional disturbances in puberty, arising from anxiety, shame, or guilt feelings” (p. 276).

Although Klara Roman claims the innovations of Gestalt psychology for her interpretation of graphology, as opposed to the arcane older view (that is, she states that there are insights to be gained by responding to the whole page of handwritten text), her view of the personality and the personality problems that may be manifest in handwriting are old-fashioned Freudian. She does not find Jungian symbols, nor is the Zen model of the unconscious mind at work here. Rosenberg and Roman alike subscribe to the Freudian hydraulic metaphor of flows: blockages, dam-ups, breakthrough releases, and final flow. Rosenberg’s “lucid drama conducted in sign language” describes the artist’s attempt to define his or her essential nature by wrestling with unconscious forces. Both consider the overcoming of unconscious obstacles to be heroic victories; while Rosenberg revels in the Romantic struggle, Roman honors the resulting evenness and balance.

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