Abstract Expressionism as Queer Event
April 19, 2010
First off, sigh. Things, you know?
The USPS has released some collector’s stamps of famous works by abstract expressionists. The stamps are still larger than usual stamps, but you can no basically hold a Motherwell or a Rothko in the palm of your hand. It’s a little creepy. I suppose a book plate isn’t much different, but still.
A more productive reaction to the small scale is how it got me to thinking: the only thing that saved abstract expressionism from looking really decorative and, well, fey, is the scale involved. Those Motherwells and Rothkos and Pollocks are huge suckers. Unlike photography (until recently), there wasn’t really any limit on how large a painting could be–if the wall isn’t big enough, just find a bigger wall–and I think a lot of that swagger has to do with the shock with which abex was received, the machismo incorrectly associated with it, and the “expressionism” part sort of incorrectly associated with it.
Let me explain a little bit: most abex art was made by expats from Europe who arrived during or after WWII. Only really Pollock, Motherwell and Joan Mitchell were bonafide US, and all three have odd histories–Pollock the working-class drunk and Ben Shahn student from the “American West”, Rothko the spiritualist; Motherwell the uptown dada enthusiast who more or less wasn’t lumped in with the abexers until well along, and Mitchell, who had to get out of the US and move to postwar Paris to build a legit reputation as a reverse expat. This is sort of immaterial except for the fact that I’m trying to point out that everybody involved had motives and enthusiasms that only got tagged as a group movement thanks to MOMA and the CIA’s efforts to instantly historicize postwar US art.
Abstraction is a common denominator, sure, but “expressionism” is a sloppy holdover for employing large brushes and brushstrokes (and other means) in order to fill large amounts of real estate. These folks were Painters and, besides making art and getting drunk a lot, spent a lot of time endlessly debating the meaning of what they were doing, and what they were doing was usually highly conceptual and very carefully executed. You just can’t spontaneously work at that kind of scale. And it’s weird to think of the following curve: Ad Reinhardt existed in the same milieu as these folks, moreso than Rothko or Motherwell, and his all-embracing finality arrived well early of the slow leak of expressionism from “abstraction” until you eventually wound up, via color-field abstraction, with “hard edge abstraction,” which looks like a sloppy parody of work done by Reinhardt a good while ago. And then things go off the rails with Photorealism and neo-bad-painting but let me get back to my point–
There’s something queer about ab ex painting that’s hard to see because of the scale, and because of a general refusal on the part of western art culture to equate queerness with heroicism. Frank O’Hara couldn’t do it all by himself (though he tried). And by queer I mean odd, off, particular, fastidious, colorful, epic, decorative, and gay. On the face of things, even women are hard to locate, much less feminity: there’s Mitchell and….there’s a bunch of people you might not know by name, like Grace Hartigan, who flirted with figuration like de Kooning (and like, hey, Elaine de Kooning) but never gets mentioned within a motley group of expat abex experimental painters. And what you see in a work like that by Mitchell and Hartigan is a kind of brashness and heroicism and scale that tosses traditional cultural notions of the feminine to the side, where they were picked up and fooled around with by Rauschenberg and Johns.
Anyway. So what does this have to do with queer abstraction? It has to do with: I can’t think of any queer artists before FGT and General Idea working at a big public scale, at which point abex painting was consigned to history books, midwestern MFA programs, and Sunday painting, a PBS show that could have run, in theory, right after Bob Ross. So all of this is to say: maybe something that makes abstracting queer these days isn’t a tenuous relationship to queer content but scale used not to erode the decorative and odd and “queer” but to actively embrace it.
This didn’t all just occur to me today, though. It occurred to me yesterday when I found some colored pencils while cleaning and wondered what I, by process of reduction a photographer, could do with them. Also, I don’t know how to draw, so the answer seemed to be to draw thin curls of color and then scan and enlarge those fuckers so much that they look like bank lobby art made by a six-year-old. I think I was pretty successful at first try: the minimum actual sizes of the works below are 4×5 feet; usually much larger.
Then again, who knows. Here we go: