Unreal Nature

August 11, 2015

In the Wake of the Atomic Bomb

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… Myth and science, the most Primitive and the most modern, were held to be mirrors one of the other, and one senses … a desire for art to act as the reconciling bond between such apparent opposites …

Concluding 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):

… By the mid-1940s and largely as a response to war and the atomic bomb, even sculptors such as Theodore Roszak, whose constructivist-inspired work of the thirties had celebrated technological modernity, looked to the more expressive, process-oriented aspects of Surrealist art and to a rough, often grotesque repertory of Surrealist-inspired form, to give shape to primal distress. In this climate many of the dream forms of Surrealism (especially the visceral and often sadistic images of Giacometti’s sculptures of the early 1930s) were transformed into aggressive nightmares.

Theodore Roszak, Spectre of Kitty Hawk, 1946-47

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Bones and birds became spiky skeletal monsters and horrific airborne predators, while the simple process of metal welding became a vehicle for tortured, twisted shapes of anguish (for example, Lipton’s Moloch of 1946 or Roszak’s Spectre of Kitty Hawk of 1946-47) — to the point that a “regressive” disregard for finish and an “archaic” evocation of mythic horror became predictable, even formulaic aspects of much of American metal sculpture around 1950. The scarred dignity of a work such as Ferber’s He Is Not a Man, 1950, looks backward to the insistent violence of this archaizing period, even as it participates in the less corporeal vocabulary of iconic natural forms seen in the works of painters such as Stamos and announces a new more reserved emotive tone and clarified formal presence.

Herbert Ferber, He Is Not a Man, 1950

… The primitivism of the forties was at its best a self-consuming enterprise. For those artists who reflected most tellingly on the Primitive artist as a model, the borrowing of tribal forms and the pointed evocation of ancient myth came themselves to be recognized as falsifications of the hunger for absolutes and the drive to universality that were the most challenging bases of the primitivizing movement. A new kind of primitivist tone, suspending the gloomy heavy-handedness of the war years, appears in the works and the words of the New York school around 1948.

… There as a general tendency among all these painters, by 1950, to abandon the portentous (and sometimes rather arbitrarily applied) titles characteristic of the forties, in favor of simple numbers, generic titles, or no titles at all. New nomenclature reflected new content. The neutralization of titles accompanied the elimination of borrowed forms and signs, and this in turn signaled a disenchantment with the ideal of an archetype or primal cipher as vehicle for universal meaning.

These changes manifested a broad-based move away from the vestiges of Surrealism, and specifically away from a concept of the symbol-laden unconscious as the fount of artistic experience and the ground of the viewer’s response. A more stringent empiricism displaced the debates over ur-forms of ultimate cognition and human tradition that had characterized the forties.

David Smith, Royal Bird, 1947-48

… Myth and science, the most Primitive and the most modern, were held to be mirrors one of the other, and one senses in the primitivizing of the New York artists a desire for art to act as the reconciling bond between such apparent opposites: first as the embodiment of ancient signs and myths, and subsequently as the theater of confrontation with universal abstract truths and fundamental energies.

[line break added] Just as it was felt that the darkness of the war period was a throwback to primal vulnerability, so many writers in the later forties expressed feelings that the findings of advanced science seemed to be returning man to a condition of mythic awe before the cosmos. This correlation became especially evident in the wake of the atomic bomb. The rhetoric surrounding the opening of this fearful door onto a new unknown domain sounded quite suggestively like the rhetoric of Newman and other artists on the modern experience as a spiritual echo of the Primitive.

The idea that the lessons appropriate to the future lie in an understanding of the deep past is of course not unique to art, and the desire to recover an earlier integration of knowledge and intuition, art and science, forms a deeply pervasive theme in Western thought. In the twentieth century, though, these issues seem especially close to the endeavor of vanguard artists, both in their deep fascination with the art of the Primitive man and in their love-hate relationship with the progress of science.

My most recent previous post from Varnedoe’s essay is here.




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