Unreal Nature

July 28, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… The modern artist’s task was to create equivalents … free from any residual association with familiar things.

Continuing through the essay ‘Abstract Expressionism’ by Kirk Varnedoe in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984):

… Probing for the fundamentals of man’s modes of representation and their connections to natural law was central to the whole endeavor of advanced American art in the forties. And it is here, in the imagery rather than in the rhetoric, and on this deeper level of meanings, that the new American primitivism connected most forcefully to a larger set of issues. Here it reaches beyond its roots in Surrealism, and beyond the particular pragmatic or political concerns of its own day, to attach itself most significantly to basic currents ongoing in modernist primitivism since Gauguin, and to the larger issues of primitivism as a pursuit of Western artists and intellectuals since the eighteenth century.

… The triadic association between “untutored” forms of expression, the innermost sources of creation, and the basic forces of nature is a constellation going back at least to the writings of Herder. The dovetailing by artists of the forties of simultaneous interests in prehistoric writing, scientizing natural history, and tribal art is another formulation of this recurrent nexus. In this view, Primitive arts — the unselfconscious poetry of tribal song, or the configurations of the bushman’s design — are seen as shaped by a suprapersonal emotional/psychological necessity and as destined for an integral role in collective life.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Their forms are thus identified with the dream, central to modern nonrepresentational art, of universal signs, representations simultaneously cultural (of the human mind, not slavishly imitative of nature’s appearances) and natural (linked directly to universal meanings in a way that escapes contingency). Such signs would rise from and address levels of consciousness at which the problematic barriers between body and mind, between self and society, between the laws of nature and the productions of men, are permeable if not dissolved. Primitivism has thus been recurrently joined, throughout its existence as a mode of Western thought, with speculation on the origins of language and the nature of signs, and with the search for an absolute or “natural” art in harmony with immutable, universal forms of meaning.

… Rothko spoke with envy of the “archaic” artist’s privilege of living in a society where transcendent art could find its expression in communally valid hybrids of human and animal form. The modern artist’s task was to create equivalents for these “monsters and gods” in new forms, free from any residual association with familiar things.

To be continued.

My previous post from Varnedoe’s essay is here.




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