March 19, 2004

The last abstract expressionist has died. The obit in the NYT has this:
Volatile, acerbic, unfailingly blunt, widely read and singularly dedicated to the ideal of the painter's hard, solitary life, [Milton] Resnick was in many ways the popular stereotype of the bohemian angst-ridden artist.
Abstract expressionists were the people who made painting so godawful serious, and I want to give them credit for helping make Pop Art so very much fun. They are also the people who allow you to get more exercise in museums, because you can walk past their huge canvases so quickly. That's easy to do now, but there was a time when you went to the museum and felt you were supposed to have a religious experience with these rectangles. I can still remember how I felt seeing Robert Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic paintings in the 1960s. There were so many of them and they were so huge and presented with such reverence that I just felt manipulated and resentful of the self-importance and grandiosity and sheer, crashing humorlessness of it all. Here's a Motherwell quote:
Making an Elegy is like building a temple, an altar, a ritual place … Unlike the rest of my work, the Elegies are, for the most part, public statements. The Elegies reflect the internationalist in me, interested in the historical forces of the twentieth century, with strong feelings about the conflicting forces in it … The Elegies use a basic pictorial language, in which I seem to have hit on an 'archetypal' image. Even people who are actively hostile to abstract art are, on occasion, moved by them, but do not know 'why'. I think perhaps it is because the Elegies use an essential component of pictorial language…
See? You better be moved and have a deep experience or you're lumped together with every loser who's "actively hostile" to all abstract art, the laughable idiots who say their child could have painted it. Well, the Abstract Expressionists were humorless, but that made them a great source of humor. My personal favorite (to bring up Woody Allen a second time today), is this exchange in "Play It Again Sam":
WOODY ALLEN: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: Yes it is.

WOODY ALLEN: What does it say to you?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

WOODY ALLEN: What are you doing Saturday night?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: Committing suicide.

WOODY ALLEN: What about Friday night?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: [leaves silently]

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