Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949 - 1962

Organized and edited by Paul Schimmel, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Fall 2012

November 2012


Paul Schimmel is to be commended for this difficult project of taking up the art of the 1950’s in the aftermath to, or to state it differently, in the fall-out from, World War Two.

Much of the infrastructure of the industrial world lay in ruins and, in consequence, there was a sense of moral despair based on a crisis of faith in western civilization.  The question which had to be asked was: did human identity still possess ethical integrity, given the immensity of the catastrophe?  In the event, of course, we know that the industrial world, led by the optimism and pragmatism of the United States, quickly got back to business as usual in the 1960’s on essentially the same lines as before, although with significant bumps on its path, with Vietnam as one example, against the background of a general ideological ‘cold war’ stale-mate with the Soviet Union.  In time, this too was won and a further wave of optimism, again with bumps along the way, with Afghanistan and Iraq as examples, has since led us to where we stand now.  Our problem today appears to be that, having vanquished ourselves, we must now make war on our very environment.

Nowhere during this time, except in the work of one obscure French philosopher named Georges Bataille, is the essential issue of ‘excess energy’ addressed.  Bataille poses the question: has the invention of industrial production made possible a physical human capacity beyond the ability of religious, social and moral containment?  Do we, therefore, need to consider this ‘particular’ economy in the context of a ‘general’ cosmic economy based on excess solar energy and recognize that man’s fundamental predicament in the twenty first century is that these two systems are inadequate with each other?  If so, where does this leave our metaphor of light as representing reason and order in the universe?  Light is notably missing from this art of the 1950’s.  The paintings in Schimmel’s exhibition explore the darkness and cold of matter, following exposure to the searing flash of atomic combustion.

The exhibition and catalog make the case that this art of the 1950’s is an authentic expression of its time and of the history from which it emerges.  However, it does not confront or address the issue of why none of it is able to succeed on its own terms, namely those of art itself.  If we compare the art in this exhibition against the achievements of the great modern artists of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, it looks like art has had a nervous break-down.  This is no doubt the curator’s critical point of view.  Art has had a nervous break-down for good reason.  However, does art in break-down constitute successful art?  This is an important question because the failure to ask it has been taken over the last fifty years as a license to make an art of paralyzing mediocrity.

The issue of the relationship of contemporary to modern art has been consistently treated with sleight of hand throughout the post-world war II period.  What today is practiced as contemporary art would have us believe that it inherits the achievement of modern art but that, at the same time, that tradition is now a closed historical period and contemporary art has invented its own independent identity.  It cannot have it both ways.  A powerful tendency in early twentieth century art, led by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp, did indeed break with the modern aesthetic and return to the practices of the nineteenth century Academy.  I have recommended elsewhere that this tendency be called the 'New Academy'.  We should not allow this New Academy to clothe itself in the mantle of modern art.  Let us not forget that Picasso declared, on hearing the news of Duchamp's death, in 1968: "The problem with Duchamp is that he was wrong".

In the post-war period, the great experience of color and light, contained in the vision of Cézanne and Matisse, seemed beyond the range of capability of most artists.  Those, however, who remained engaged with the aesthetic of modern art have never abandoned it.  It may be true that a modern artist today cannot embrace the spiritual aspirations of Matisse's Chapel of the Rosary in St. Paul-de-Vence.  What has intervened is not just the experience of the world war but also a different understanding of energy, its benefits and its dangers.  The modern artist of today must find new meaning in his medium.  If we look at the major figures of the last fifty years, we will see that they already have.

Paul Rodgers