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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Art in the 1960s

By Alexandra A. Jopp

As Dutch-born historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon said, “The arts are an even better barometer of what is happening in our world than the stock market or the debates in congress.”[1] Indeed, art can tell us with remarkable accuracy a great deal about lives and cultures, both our own and those in other parts of the world. It can illustrate the tides of social and political change, the strengths and weaknesses of new trends, and the flaws and crimes of oppressive regimes.
American artists in the 1960s had the good fortune to be working in a free environment that allowed them the opportunity to change the nature of the creative process. Their revised fields of vision explored the ways in which artists changed the core of formalist aesthetics, which resulted in changes of perception, as well as, to quote Morris, an “attempt to contradict one’s taste.” Morris further remarks in Notes on Sculpture IV that “changes in form can be thought of as a vertical scale. When art changes, there are obvious form changes. Perceptual and cultural changes can be thought of as a horizontal scale, a horizon even … Once a perceptual change is made, one does not look at it but uses it to see the world.”[2]
According to formalist interpretations of art history, every historical epoch has its own artistic vision, its own style. This is what, for example, enables us to identify a painting, an ornament and a sculpture as being from the same era. This continuity of form ties together an era’s art and cultural environment, with knowledge of one providing information about the other. Heinrich Wolfflin, a Swiss-born art historian, examined the relationship between stages of art and stated that “by analyzing the art objects produced at different stages, art historians could discover something important about different cultures’ ways of seeing the world.”[3] Thus, it becomes possible, by looking at works of art, to identify not only the characteristic features of the perceptions of different artists of a particular historical time, but also to feel that period’s cultural limits, the borders beyond which another creative process begins. This historical artistic perception may be thought of as a space in which art and culture are in constant contact with each other.
For mid-twentieth century artists and critics, the key issue was to formulate the style characteristics of the time and culture in works of art, painting and sculpture. Greenberg, who spent a great deal of time working on this concept, held that the process of new artistic development rested on the concept of flatness, which emphasizes, in terms of painterly purity, the harmony and autonomy of the pictorial medium. This term became a central point of Greenberg’s classic formalist essay “Modernist Painting,” as well as a critical distinction between Modernist and Pre-Modernist art:
Manet’s paintings became the first Modernist ones by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were painted … It was the stressing, however, of the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. Flatness alone was unique and exclusive to art. … Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else…[4]

Hence, Greenberg redefines Modernism. The creative process shifts from a system of formal novelty toward an experimental exercise. The values of color and flatness are clearly expressed. The creative process, in general, does not rest on just the styles of individual artists, but on forms and visions common to essentially all artists of a given era. Notwithstanding the diversity found among artists of the ’60s, art critics maintain that cultural factors led to them becoming integrated in various movements. For example, Henry Geldzahler, assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, noted in a symposium on Pop art that:
Through our writers and art historians, we have become very conscious of the sequence of movements, of action, of reaction. The clichés and tools of art writing have become so familiar that we can recognize a movement literally before it fully happens. About a year and a half ago, I saw a work of Wesselman, Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein in their studios. They were working independently, unaware of each other, but with a common source of imagery.[5]

Wesselman, Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein, for all their differences, are products of the same culture. Artistic vision finds itself, first of all, in the forms and structural methods of the creation of a work of art. Since these forms and methods can reveal historical conditions, vision itself becomes a function of an era’s culture. An art critic once said that “every artist finds certain visual possibilities before him to which he is bound. Not everything is possible at all times.” However, different types of artistic vision can coexist within a given nation during the same historical epoch. And American art and artists of the 1960s provide a plethora of examples. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, for instance, both belong to the same epoch of Abstract Expressionism, yet their works are stylistically opposite. In addition, the cause-and-effect relationship between artistic vision and culture works in two directions, and vision can be understood as a reflection of the cultural mentality of a particular epoch or as a contributing factor to mentality.

Castagnetta, Grace. The Arts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939.

Geldzahler, Henry, Hilton Kramer, Dore Ashton, Leo Steinberg, Stanley Kunitz Peter Selz, "A SYMPOSIUM ON POP ART," New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1962.

Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a vengeance, 1957-1969. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Klonk Charlotte, and Michael Hatt, Art history: a critical introduction to its methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.

Morris, Robert. "Notes on Sculpture IV: Beyond Object," Artforum (Apr. 1969): 50-4.

[1]  Grace Castagnetta, The Arts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939) 630.
[2]  Robert Morris, "Notes on Sculpture IV: Beyond Object," Artforum (1969): 50-4.
[3]  Charlotte Klonk Michael Hatt, Art history: a critical introduction to its methods (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) 71.
[4]  Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a vengeance, 1957-1969 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993) 86.
[5]  Henry Geldzahler, Hilton Kramer, Dore Ashton, Leo Steinberg, Stanley Kunitz Peter Selz, "A SYMPOSIUM ON POP ART," (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1962).

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