Randall Jarrell, the critic and poet best known for World War II poems such as “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” wrote an essay in the mid-1950s responding to the hot visual art craze of his day. Titled “Against Abstract Expressionism,” it makes the case that the action-painting club of Jackson Pollack and Willem De Kooning deserves a devil’s advocate. Such expressionist painting, he argues, isn’t the “purified essence” of modern Western art. It’s a “specialized, intensive exploitation of one part of such painting, and the rejection of other parts and of the whole” (340).
Critic Clement Greenberg’s famous dictum—“Paint is paint; surface is surface”—hovers back stage of this essay without Jarrell actually mentioning it. In 1957 he didn’t have to. Greenberg’s pure modernism was everywhere, with sculptors, choreographers, poets and other fine artists each pressing on a chosen medium to more directly reveal its supposed inherent properties and purposes. Photography, for Greenberg, was best suited to picture the real world. Prose was best for telling stories. Painting should try to do neither.
Jarrell can’t stand that idea, and God bless him for writing this: “When we are told (or, worse still, shown) that painting ‘really’ is ‘nothing but’ this, we are being given one of those definitions which explain out of existence what they appear to define, and put a simpler entity in its place” (341-42). By calling painting “nothing but” paint and surface, Greenberg and the Abstract Expressionists are not reducing painting to its essence, they’re replacing painting with something simpler. (Kind of like certain neuroscientists these days claiming they can explain love by watching which parts of your brain “light up” in an fMRI scan.)
A figurative painter has to agree with Jarrell’s fundamental gripe. If paint and surface are just that, then why is a Rembrandt self portrait so much more fun to look at than the bare gallery wall? The gripping experience in viewing a painting comes in the way we negotiate two ways of seeing. We walk into the room and discern its material, flat presence at the same time as we see into the illusion it presents of a face or a barn or a twisted color field that seems beyond any words we might use to describe it. Jarrell, as a poet, puts it this way: “In the metaphors of painting, as in those of poetry, we are awed or dazed to find things superficially so unlike, fundamentally so like; superficially so like, fundamentally so unlike” (340).
However—and for me this is a hefty “however”—we shouldn’t be throwing Greenberg’s baby out with the bath water. After all he’s right that a painting isn’t a photo. And it isn’t a story or a rhyme or a person. It can refer to these things (and if a painter includes text in the picture, it can contain some of these things), but painting is open to rules, methods and textures that aren’t available through any other means of making a picture, and it’s really easy to forget to explore those. Greenberg was educated by people who saw photography as the best means for recording the visual world. Their response was to laud the work of Picasso, Cézanne, Monet and others who showed how painting could be freed from the burden of picturing some universal real. They used painting to picture dreams or the painter’s idiosyncratic impression of a sunset. Greenberg and his cronies argued from that point of view all the way to the stilted, narrow corner of painting called Abstract Expressionism—their mistake.
Yet the dangerous idea that photography is the world in a box hasn’t left us. With Facebook and Hipstomatic on our smart phones, it isn’t a night out or a birth unless we bludgeon the room with flashes and send the jpegs to our “friends.” What Greenberg et al. astutely, if snobbishly, bring to the fore is that painting can be viewed as a unique technology, a special mode of communication worth preserving and celebrating. Watching a digital film in high definition 3-D doesn’t take the place of attending a live production of Giselle, Don Giovanni or Death of a Salesman. Painting is irreplaceable like ballet, opera and theatre.
Jarrell’s essay shows up in the middle of a collection called Writers on Artists (1988), edited by Daniel Halpern. I bought it for cheap at Powell’s huge bookstore, and it’s full of diverse takes on painting by everyone from Susan Sontag to Ernest Heminway to Italo Calvino.