Allan Kaprow was so enormously impressed with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings that he said they constituted the last paintings, that they made any further painting impossible. The Modernist values reflected in that declaration, in which one radical innovation could render obsolete all those that came before, have long been discredited, nor is anyone today so foolhardy as to declare the end of painting. But we may be able to revisit what he meant: the drip paintings seemed to make conventional compositional structures beside the point, antiquated. The very geography of painting, what up and down meant, left and right, was no longer what it had been. And Pollock did something else: in removing his hand from the work, in working on the floor and then bringing the result up onto the wall, he seemed to cut an artist-to-art object umbilical cord. Even as he reduced the paint to physical fact and the record of its application to lines of energy, the work took on a life of its own, became a phenomenon unto itself. One could regard One: Number 31 in almost the same way as one looked at a mountain range, a constellation, or microscopic slide, as an object of wonder. And yet its presence on a wall in a gallery demanded it share the status of art with all that came before it, as a conveyance of cultural import, summoning countless interconnections and resonances.
We don’t know how Kaprow reacted to Helen Frankenthaler a few years later, when, like Pollock, she worked on the floor to create her stain paintings, again using gravity and the physical properties of paint in the equation, as the equation. Her imagery, if we can call it that, changed the paradigm again, even though a sense of more conventional composition remained in the side-by-side configuration of amorphous shapes. As with Pollock, in her strongest work we experience painting as phenomenon: the spectacle of colors flowing and comingling, as absolute and beyond the human hand as cloud formations, oceanic currents.
Morris Louis always gave Frankenthaler credit for having inspired his own breakthrough work, his own process, though his technique was, again, markedly different. Referred to as “veils” rather than stain paintings, they were created on the floor and involved tilting the canvas to allow liquefied paint to run downward and spread in ways that he could only half-control by folding and hammocking. Again the result, when mounted and lifted in its impressive dimensions to the wall, took on the aspect of a natural phenomenon. What had been poured downward now seemed to grow upward, sometimes like some multicolored, gargantuan plant form. Art historian Roy McMullen once used the term quiddity, his own equivalent of whatsit, to mean a species of artwork that seemed to defy categorization, often created by artists whose sole purpose was to produce the enigmatic, the mysterious, or to foil art world categorization as a kind of career strategy. Often the aesthetic take-home of these quiddities was negligible. Not so with the above-mentioned painters, whose work was about energy, color, movement, and presence. The enigma was a byproduct of a mystery that unfolded organically.
Morris Louis was the last of these to emerge, the last to mature, and maybe for that reason remains the most vivid for me. The usually monumental size of his work could suggest a towering ego, yet somehow it needs to fill your field of vision, occupy an entire wall to achieve its full meaning. Moreover, the technique he used suggests humility: he seemed to be sharing with us—look what I found!—rather than trying to impress us with the product of his patented ingenuity. And even that “I” is often absent; when I see his work, he’s initially not there at all, even to call forth associations with his other work. I confront sensation for its own sake. As with Pollock and Frankenthaler, the work evokes mysteries, associations with organic growth, massive natural formations, confrontational presences that loom before me. Less-than-ideal compositional characteristics—pinched edges, flattened bottoms—are often beside the point. The almost-symmetry of most of his work reinforces the idea of something programmed by chemistry or DNA that has been slightly compromised by local conditions but is nevertheless vividly present.
I myself work with brushes and use much greater precision, albeit on non-traditional surfaces. However, I regard that ultimate sense of mystery, that separateness, as a crowning achievement when it happens. Even with my own work, I want to be outside, looking on. In the greatest work there always seems to be a sense of mystery for me, sometimes achieved through inherent paradox, sometimes through inadvertent contradiction, a transcendence of ostensible meaning. It can’t be chased, I suspect, without becoming a mockery of itself.
Louis’s process often got out of control and led to many second-rate works and failures; he was criticized for exhibiting work that should never have been shown. But when I confront a really powerful Louis that I haven’t seen before, or one I haven’t seen in a while, it is as bracing as the nighttime sky or an orchard in spring. It can seem as old as cave painting and every bit as mysterious. It often proves to be, as the literary critic Harold Bloom once described Hamlet, inexhaustible to contemplation.
Curt Barnes, Side Pocket, 2015, Acrylic and micaceous acrylic on shaped hardwood ply, 39 x 59 1/4 x 17 1/2 inches from wall
Curt Barnes is a painter who lives and works in New York City. www.curtbarnesartist.tumblr.com