Unreal Nature

June 20, 2017

Divine Fury

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:45 am

… it locates us once more on a near-hysterical brink of sublime chaos.

This is from ‘The Abstract Sublime’ found in On Modern American Art: Selected Essays by Robert Rosenblum (1999):

“It’s like a religious experience!” With such words, a pilgrim I met in Buffalo last winter attempted to describe his unfamiliar sensations before the awesome phenomenon created by seventy-two Clyfford Stills at the Albright Art Gallery.

[ … ]

… If the Sublime can be attained by saturating such limitless expanses with luminous, hushed stillness, it can also be reached inversely by filling this void with a teeming, unleashed power. Turner’s art, for one, presents both of these sublime extremes. In his Snowstorm, first exhibited in 1942, the infinities are dynamic rather than static, and the most extravagant of nature’s phenomena are sought out as metaphors for this experience of cosmic energy.

[line break added] Steam, wind, water, snow, and fire spin wildly around the pitiful work of man — the ghost of a boat — in vortical rhythms that suck one into a sublime whirlpool before reason can intervene. And if the immeasurable spaces and incalculable energies of such a Turner evoke the elemental power of creation, other work of the period grapples even more literally with these primordial forces. Turner’s contemporary John Martin (1789-1854) dedicated his erratic life to the pursuit of an art which, in the words of the Edinburgh Review (1829), “awakes a sense of awe and sublimity, beneath which the mind seems overpowered.”

[line break added] Of the cataclysmic themes that alone satisfied him, The Creation, an engraving of 1831, is characteristically sublime. With Turner, it aims at nothing short of God’s full power, upheaving rock, sky, cloud, sun, moon, stars, and sea in the primal act. With its torrential description of molten paths of energy it locates us once more on a near-hysterical brink of sublime chaos.

That brink is again reached when we stand before a perpetuum mobile of Jackson Pollock, whose gyrating labyrinths recreate in the metaphorical language of abstraction the superhuman turbulence depicted more literally in Turner and Martin. In Number 1A, 1948 we are as immediately plunged into divine fury as we are drenched in Turner’s sea; in neither case can our minds provide systems of navigation.

[line break added] Again, sheer magnitude can help produce the Sublime. Here, the very size of the Pollock — 68 x 104 inches — permits no pause before engulfing; we are almost physically lost in this boundless web of inexhaustible energy. To be sure, Pollock’s generally abstract vocabulary allows multiple readings of its mood and imagery, although occasional titles (Full Fathom Five, Ocean Greyness, The Deep, Greyed Rainbow) may indicate a more explicit region of nature.

[line break added] But whether achieved by the most blinding of blizzards or the most gentle of winds and rains, Pollock’s work invariably evokes the sublime mysteries of nature’s untamable forces. Like the awesome vistas of telescope and microscope, his pictures leave us dazzled before the imponderables of galaxy and atom.

The fourth maker of the Abstract Sublime, Barnett Newman, explores a realm of sublimity so perilous that it defies comparison with even the most adventurous Romantic explorations into sublime nature.

[ … ]

… this denial of the Cubist tradition is not only determined by formal needs, but also by emotional ones that in the anxieties of the atomic age suddenly seem to correspond with a Romantic tradition of the irrational and the awesome as well as with a Romantic vocabulary of boundless energies and limitless spaces.

… In its heroic search for a private myth to embody the sublime power of the supernatural, the art of Still, Rothko, Pollock, and Newman should remind us once more that the disturbing heritage of the Romantics has not yet been exhausted.

My previous post from Rosenblum’s book is here.




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