Notes on Style & Environment 1: Critique of Concrete Painting’s ‘Counter-Nature’

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Harold Rosenberg says in his essay Criticism and Its Premises, found in the collected texts Art on the Edge,

“Modern art is saturated with issues and ideologies that reflect the technological, political, social and cultural revolutions of the past one hundred years. Regardless of the degree to which the individual artist is conscious of these issues, he in fact responds to them in choosing among aesthetic and technical alternatives. By choosing a certain mode of handling line, form and color he will have affiliated himself with an aesthetic grounded on the obligation of art to communicate judgments of the artist’s environment, while a different choice will have identified him with the concept that for art reality is that which comes into being through the act of painting. Thus choices having to do with method in art become in practice attitudes regarding the future of man.” [ Art on the Edge, p136]

 

A few points to draw from Rosenberg:

[1] That method is an ideological choice.

[2] That aesthetic and technical alternatives per the work of art corresponds to judgements upon the artist’s environment (nature).

[3] That modern art’s judgements of nature relate to an age of industrial acceleration, the incipient Anthropocene.

 

Stylistic affiliations are not just choices in a market of art. Style expresses and renders palpable certain ontological speculation, perceptual conditions or even modes of existence. Put differently, as the artist is conveying a certain attitude towards environment, style asserts an epoch and its reality.

Style is in a direct relation to environment. While all sorts of content embeds itself within the choice of method, from consciousness, time, history and the invention of symbolic mediation – “communicating judgments of the artist’s environment” – the style is not the only movement that impinged upon environment. Just as much as style may impact environment, there are already all sorts of environmental factors constituting the conditions of possibility of a style. It is not that as an artist my approach to create a work of art is a one-way street with me on one end and the finished thing on the other, as if my judgments are the end-all of the work: style and environment are mutual determinations.

But a common assumption is that style asserts itself above environment, bending environmental to its program – this is the general attitude that the moderns adopted via the creation of a work of art. Examples of this approach in modernism can be observed in the works of technical objectivity, for example Constructivism, Purism, De Stijl, Bauhaus work, etc. The development of such approaches to method extend outward from painting into architecture, furniture, design, advertising and functional objects, setting up a “counter-reality which stands in opposition to nature.” [p149 Towards Concrete Painting, Painting in the 20th Century] The ideological choice of method bestows a judgment upon the environment where nature is displaced by a counter-reality, and the counter-reality has in many ways become our general condition, since “more than any other artistic tendency, its [concrete painting] tendencies have influenced the shaping of our modern environment.” [p150]

‘Counter-Nature’ is a term used by Werner Haftmann in his text Painting in the Twentieth Century to describe the approach of concrete painting and reductivist abstraction. At bottom the enterprise consists in an attempt to compose otherwise than in nature: “The specific shape of the natural object is an impediment to that general harmony which the artist’s mind is seeking to establish as the correspondence to nature.” [p 148] What is of moment here is the composition via the Idea overturning the ‘specific shape of the natural object’ in favor of a concrete abstraction.

What Mondrian called peinture abstraite reelle, or what is today called concrete painting, sets up a paradigm of images and objects where Idea is there at the outset prior to the work’s formation. The Idea seeks an elementary plane where such things as chance, change, caprice, play, tragedy, serendipity, interconnection, etc., are all eliminated – all such things that may be presupposed as ‘particulars’, or even the ’emotional’ or ‘individualistic’, that seemed to impeded upon the artist’s presentation of “universal harmony” (Mondrian). Such things were associated with the ‘natural’ image. So what one may observe is that art during the early phase of industrial acceleration took on a view of environment as an art of counter-nature and that this countering was conceived and executed via the Idea existing prior to the work.

“The Earth has been eaten like a worm ridden house,” said Malevich. And such things associated with the earth were the metaphors certain artists wanted to dispose of – earth and nature took on negative valencies. Approaches unfold along the lines of the artist as master-engineer steering all the forms – an attitude towards the pictorial field where everything can be taken into account and ordered at will. Transforming objects into formal relationships and rhythms where specific shapes associated with ‘natural’ objects were considered an impediment to the generality that the artist’s mind sought: this is a one-way street attitude per style as something considered over and above nature. Just as industrialization impinged into the natural order of things, style sought to remake the world in its own image. The root of this particular approach lay in the notion of a fully-controllable pictorial world regarded as a purely intellectual structure.

Further points to draw out from the exploration of a certain strand of modernism:

[1] That a problem develops when one assumes there is an overarching Idea at the outset, prior to the work’s execution (the artist as master-engineer like a transcendental deity surveying and steering the work of art). This approach fails to recognize that Idea is also embedded in the world and does not exist ‘above’ it.

[2] That a problem resides not only with their conclusion of displacing nature in favor of a counter image, but also in their failing to see the interconnection of form, and it is this failure that propels their counter-nature.  Put differently, a problem arises with the inability to consider ecology, as a mistake present in the work in its insipid quest to do away with the ‘natural’ by considering itself ‘autonomous.’ The autonomy of the painting, no doubt spurred by political means of overcoming the old bourgeois world-picture, displaces the object from its environment and geologic consequences.

[3] That a problem surfaces in their presupposing the work of Abstraction as a reduction of tendencies of nature, as if it could be a vehicle for a ‘pure’ and independent description. In the effort to bracket-out nature by displacing representations of nature, associating the representation of nature for nature itself, there is a glaring mistake since by doing this the moderns missed the chance to consider processes of nature in their abstract quality.  It seems that through reductivist abstraction the painters were reacting to the old structures of representation and associating these representations with what was ‘nature,’ ignoring the possibility of a kind of abstraction that took up natural processes. The difficultly with the word Abstraction ought to be noted, since at its origin is this association with a counter-reality: i.e., abstracting from the world. Our present circumstances lend this to marking-out: Abstraction. An entire reversal opens up where nature is viewed as an immanent unfolding of processual formations and that the images that may arise are not representations but presentations of what the work is doing.

Taking these points aboard as a means of overcoming concrete painting’s hold on the imagination and on our views towards nature, I shall continue exploring modernist method.

Through an exploration of the problem of modern method, and with the addition of a possible solution via the third point above, one may suggest the following: style and environment are intimately connected and cannot be divorced from each other. That the world of forms are all interdependent, connected like a mesh and massively overrun by each other, and this includes the realm of Idea: the failure to consider this and the opposing effort to reduce the world of matter and casuation is something that makes the reductive abstractionists look rather juvenile. Thus one usurps the motion of a counter-reality in art and replaces it with ecological-reality. In an ecological-reality there is no counter-image: style and environment are mutually occurring, mutually determining movements that circle around process.

Moreover, with the latter work there is no Idea at the outset, as if Idea was floating above its context.

It is important to mention that the adoption of a given style and the institution of that style as a major force in shaping environment steers the mode of being in the world and may steer it in particular directions, thus making it possible that certain experiences of what is an object or what is matter or nature can become completely inaccessible. Ecological-reality does not bracket or cut-off the world of possibility. Standing in complete distinction from the likes of a counter-reality, it does not consider matter as ‘dead’ and therefore does not dead-end art.

The last point may be drawn out as follows:

[1] Through setting up a counter-reality to nature the moderns rendered visually an underlining conceit of the age of industrial acceleration, or the incipient Anthropocene: this is the ideology of material as a passive stuff.

[2] This view of materials (of art) as a passive stuff reinforces the viewpoint that an object can be parceled-out or codified into a totally-known taxonomy, and therefore in this logic it can become a figure that is replaceable or exchangeable.  This ignores the myriad subtleties of an object.

[3] This inevitably has a tendency to devalue things, residing in the view that matter is ‘dead matter.’

To respond to this poor view of matter and to conclude, I go back to Rosenberg: “for art reality is that which comes into being through the act of painting.” One ought to take this on board fully in order to realize first, that any Idea that may be there in the making of the painting arises in the process of its making and is not there as a master. And this reality that comes about in the act is immanent, not transcendental; this reality posits no subject on one side and object on the other but is much more elastic. This reality has it that the object creates itself just as much as the artist may have a hand upon it. This is drawn out in action, adopting the coinage Action Painting by taking it one step further into nature.  And that in the action the object sees the artist just as much as the artist sees it. This reality is the artist and the object of art mutually determining their existence, drawing a circle around conscious standing on the one hand and spontaneous excitation on the other. That one tunes to the work of art and simultaneously it tunes to us, and that this informs the relation of method to the ecology of nature. That this world is one of intensities encompassing a range of forms and events that are co-creating themselves with no need of an ‘outside’ engineer. That style does not command matter, and instead that style and environment arise simultaneously. And further, that matter is pulsating and alive.

 

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