Three crucial movements that shaped today's art
New art movements pop up every few months. Some are concocted to serve individual ambitions. Others are invented to add luster and prestige to groups of like-minded artists for whom a solid collective identity is preferable to a shaky private one. And still others are called into being to serve as convenient ''umbrellas'' under which personal or academic theories can be advanced.
Some, however, are genuine, and they have left their mark upon our culture and society. Three in particular, abstract expressionism, pop art, and minimal art, are crucial to any real understanding of post-World War II painting and sculpture. Abstract expressionism
Abstract expressionism remains the Rosetta stone for much of the significant art of the past 40 years. To try to grasp the point of any subsequent movement, even such a totally dissimilar one as pop art, without first establishing its relationship to abstract expressionism, is to miss a crucial insight into its reason for being. A powerful movement, after all, can as easily lead to violent reaction as to conformity.
Abstract expressionism arose out of the efforts of a handful of New York-based painters - such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still - each of whom had more or less independently arrived at certain important conclusions. Painting, they felt, had become too neat and tidy - or too provincial in its depiction of the American scene. If artists weren't painting handsomely colored and tightly controlled geometric abstractions, they were painting the wheat fields of Kansas or city life in New York's Lower East Side. Painting, meanwhile - or at least the strong, pulsating, forward-moving kind of painting they loved and believed in - was withering, and possibly even dying.
What was to be done? As so often happens in art when reason finds itself blocked, intuition and impulse began to take over. Each of these artists started giving their feelings and intuitions greater freedom. Lines were allowed to move over a canvas ''on their own volition,'' or with a minimum of conscious control. Colors were permitted to hop or prance about - or to move majestically across a large surface. And a multitude of abstract shapes and forms began to appear as if by magic.
As these things began to happen, each of these artists started to think seriously about where it would all lead. A loose creative community began to emerge. The artists looked at and discussed each other's work, and although each painted very differently from all the rest, a collective spirit began to emerge.
By 1948 this loose confederation of talents was beginning to be viewed as a movement; by 1951 it was cohesive and strong enough to dominate world art. This remained true until roughly 1961, after which its stylistic influence declined. It was not forgotten, however. Its impact had been so great that its values and ideals continued to goad or inspire several succeeding generations of younger artists.
In retrospect, what had abstract expressionism been all about? To begin with, it was extremely complex and drew its inspiration and rationale from several sources, most particularly geometric abstraction, expressionism's painterly emotionalism (but not its representationalism), and surrealism's dependence on the unconscious).
Each of these sources, in different combinations, helped shape the various styles that made up the movement as a whole. All of its artists shared a belief that painting should not depend upon anything outside itself for its identity and that the heart and soul of painting at that historical moment lay in the artist's total commitment to the creative act itself. Painting at that moment was seen as stagnating, as up against a barrier, and all that could force it forward was the hurling (or the pushing) of one's talents up, over, and beyond that barrier. If logic and common sense had failed (as they believed), it was now time to let intuition, accidental effects, and raw creative courage lead the way.
In other words (to oversimplify a bit), abstract expressionism can be seen as an impetuous cavalry charge sent out to clear the way for an army bogged down and incapable of advancing.
It did not, of course, always work. And even when it did, the results often seemed too splashy, messy, or formless to the world at large. In the history of modernism, however, abstract expressionism was both a major battle and a major victory. What Pollock, Kline, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Still, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and the others achieved by their ''cavalry charge'' is still very much a part of our cultural landscape. The ground they won, after all , is the ground upon which we still stand today. Pop art
Abstract expressionism was a tough act to follow - or so it seemed to the younger artists trying to make their mark in the late 1950s and early '60s. No road seemed open to them except increasingly bigger and wilder abstract expressionist canvases or the creation of styles as unlike abstract expressionism as possible.
Among those who opted for the second alternative were a few youthful artists who decided to return to representational art, but to a form of it that depicted the banal and anonymous aspects of billboards, comic books, mass-produced advertisements, and popular products. Instead of painting romantic landscapes, heroic deeds, or idealized sentiments, these artists were soon producing canvases of Brillo boxes, Campbell soup cans, Dick Tracy, light bulbs, electric hair dryers, and so forth.
Their argument was quite simple: Art had become divorced from everyday life and needed once again to be reconciled with it. Considering how important such ordinary things were in our lives, what better means for accomplishing this did the artist have at his disposal than the images and symbols of our popular culture?
By giving such symbols the status of art, wouldn't the artist then be able to point up the beauty of everyday things we had previously ignored? And wouldn't he also be able to explore the implications of pop culture and make ironic social and aesthetic comments on visual cliches, commercial vulgarity, Hollywood myths, and mass-produced advertising art?
Such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, and Roy Lichtenstein felt they could do just that - and so pop art came into being.
It caught on quickly, and soon replaced abstract expressionism as the world's dominant art movement. But although its leading artists continued on in their individual ways, pop art as a movement was over by the late '60s. Its effect, nevertheless, upon the art that followed was considerable, for it brought representational subject matter back to painting, and it gave both the artist and the viewer a new way of perceiving the relationship between the banal, art, and cultural mythology. Minimal art
Minimal art also came into being as a reaction to abstract expressionism - most especially the latter's emphasis upon emotion and sensibility. Minimal art was cool and intellectual, and it was often predicated upon mathematical systems and grids. It sought formal anonymity and the elimination of any traces of the artist's hand upon his work. Absolute purity and an impersonal style were its creative ideals. Personal mannerism and anything idiosyncratic were taboo.
Minimal art emphasized geometric shapes, serial (repeated) imagery, unmodulated color (or just black and white), industrially fabricated materials, and anything else that would create simple, clear, un-emotive, and ''rational'' images.
The point was to go beyond the accidental, the subjective, or the tentative toward a more universal level of concretem actuality. Minimal art sought the essential and the ''real,'' and to that end stripped itself down to what it felt were the minimal formal realities of art. What resulted, while often incredibly stark and severe, was also occasionally breath-takingly effective. This was not an art that represented anything, it just was.m
Minimal art exerted an extraordinary impact upon the art world. Such figures as Donald Judd, Robert Grosvenor, Bruce Marden, Robert Mangold, Robert Morris, and Sol Lewitt all worked within this aesthetic at some point, and any number of other painters and sculptors touched bases with it sometime during its prominence from the mid-'60s to the early '70s.
In some ways minimal art was the perfect foil for abstract expressionism, for it countered the latter's insistence that art derives from impulse and gesture by insisting that art derives from logic and control. The two movements evolved at different times in response to different needs, and they must, as a result, be seen as part of the century-long modernist dialogue.
Subsequent art movements will be discussed in future columns.