Advisor: Barry Schwabsky
Group 3 – Paper 4
1 November 2010
And / Also: Improvisation in Abstract Art
“The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the results of this encounter" (Rosenberg 589).
As Harold Rosenberg articulated in his 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” for many Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1940s and 1950s  (particularly those painters who were working gesturally) the idea of painting as an act was fundamental to their painting process. This painting act was to unfold spontaneously and intuitively, allowing the subconscious of the artist to be revealed on the canvas through the interaction of the artist with the materials. Key to this approach, was a particular way of beginning: without a preconceived idea (or with at most a skeletal motif or image). By suppressing rational thought (the idea), the painting would then become a unique expression of the individual artist’s psyche. Although Rosenberg’s writings expressed concepts that would prove too dogmatic and extreme (for painters) if followed to their ultimate conclusions (i.e., dispensing with the painting object ), the approach of letting a painting emerge in an intuitive way through the act of painting remains a valid and innovative practice, which can be compared to musical and theatrical improvisation.
One problem with Rosenberg’s notion of painting as pure action is that painting is a language built out of of the use of certain materials -- an essential one being paint -- and a vocabulary that is visual. The limits of a medium and its formal language can be extended: materials can be borrowed from other mediums such as writing, sound, sculpture, drawing, etc. Still, painting is primarily visual, and it communicates through the very things Rosenberg says can be dispensed with: “form, color, composition, drawing” (pg). A painter who wants chooses to stay within painting as a medium, would not wish to dispense with “all” formal elements, no more than a musician would want to dispose of sound. They may even want to expand on the formal elements available to them.
Nevertheless, acknowledging Rosenberg’s ideas gives the artistic process at least equal weight with formal considerations, and recognizes the idiosyncratic and individual nature of expression. In particular, although Rosenberg does not address improvisation specifically , improvisation allows for the acceptance of history and tradition, but leaves open and embraces the possibility of innovation through creatively combining, borrowing, and playing with established idioms (Improvisation, Smith).
Artists who continue to paint with an “expressionistic” sensibility frequently use improvisation in order to invent. Rather than approach the canvas with a specific image in mind, they engage in a complex process of drawing upon their technical skills, their visual memory, and their muscle memory, in a way that is very similar to musical improvisation. The “in the moment” process of improvisation is only possible through a mastery of visual language (Inprovisation, Smith), rather than its denial as Rosenberg implies. It involves a deep understanding of the process in which one is engaged (Improvisation, Smith).
Improvisation acknowledges, unlike the Surrealist’s notion of Automatism, the role of technical skill and conscious decision-making. Hazel Smith in Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts Since 1945 discusses the difference between automatism and improvisation saying:
Automatism was a form of improvisation, though its practitioners tended to describe it in a somewhat romantic and idealistic way, as a direct route to the unconscious. In addition, automatism clearly attempted to minimize the control and interactivity of which improvisation is capable (12).
First generation Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Polock, were highly trained in the visual language of painting, and frequently used a kind of visual improvisation to generate new ideas and compositions. Leigh Bullard Weisblat, describing Willem de Kooning’s process, said:
To avoid a preconceived idea or subject, he sometimes began randomly, painting a word or number. He also adapted the concepts of collage by making paper drawings that he tore up and placed on the surface of the work... After each spontaneous gesture de Kooning deliberated over the fresh strokes, incorporating free associations in the compositions but never letting go of conscious control (143).Similarly, in discussing Jackson Pollock’s painting of Mural, Arthur C. Danto says, “one imagines that each move suggested the next, and bit by bit some form began to emerge. It would have been inconsistent with the methodology of creative automatism to prepare sketches or studies, as Pollock acknowledges in his speech at the beginning of the film” [Namuth’s film] (Danto). Yet Danto points out that compositional intentionality emerges in the clear orientation of the final compositions, indicating an adherence to the directionality convention of easel painting. (Danto) 
Similarly, Joan Mitchell, a second generation Abstract Expressionist, talks about how the beginning of her paintings originate in a “memory of a feeling” or “remembered landscapes that involve my feelings” (Barris). Mitchell uses the languages of color and gesture to express a personal, intuitive vision (Barris). In a 1986 interview, Yves Michaud asks Mitchell what she wants from a painting. Mitchell responds: “.... I don’t set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch motion or to catch a feeling....My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem” (Mitchell 33). She talks about the painting being in control and allowing the process to determine what happens next: “I am ‘no hands,’ the painting is telling me what to do” (Mitchell 34). At the same time, Mitchell was very aware of and converse in pictorial language of painting. She says, “I was so and still I am in such adulation of great painters. If you study a Matisse, the way paint is put on and the way he puts on white, that’s painting technique. I wanted to put on paint like Matisse. I worked hard at that a very long time ago” (Mitchell 34). Mitchell had internalized and incorporated a pictorial language that she then could use to create innovative, intuitive, gestural compositions.
Similar strategies of improvisation and allowing a painting to “emerge” can be seen in a contemporary painter such as Charline Von Heyl. Although working in an entirely different style than the Abstract Expressionists, Von Heyl talks about content and subject unfolding during the painting process and claims she never begins with an idea (Kaneda 83). In a 2010 interview with Shirley Kaneda in Bomb Magazine, Von Heyl talks about how an intuitive process enables her to escape the dilemma of abstract painting as design. She says, “As long as I know what I’m doing, I design.... I can get beyond it only in the unknown...I don’t want to make the painting, I want the painting to invent itself and surprise me. That surprise is the surplus value that makes it all worth it for me“(Kaneda 85). Asked how she begins a painting, Von Heyl tells Kaneda:
I just start them. Here’s a white canvas, and I’m going to put something on it.... It’s completely intuitive. A color, a movement, whatever. Very much depending on the mood du jour. It’s like a writer putting the white sheet in and starting to write something. You know that you are going to transform it and transform it, but you just have to start somehow. (83)
This strategy is similar to those used by de Kooning, Pollock, and Mitchell, and seems to trust in the process of improvisation to generate new and dynamic paintings though the dialog of the painter with the materials.
Improvisation is composing on the fly. It requires deep understanding of an idiom or style so that elements can be combined in original ways (Improvisation, Smith). It also requires the artist to “be in the moment.” Smith says, “This fusion of ‘awareness’ and ‘understanding’ brings the practitioner to the point where he can act with a range of options that best fit the situation, even if he has never experienced a similar situation.” Although Abstract Expressionist painters believed in the idea of automatism, and Rosenberg’s writings focused on the idea of action, which would take precedence over formal elements, aspects of both of these concerns are resolved through improvisation. The benefit of improvisation, as opposed to “pure action” or the “subconscious” of automatism, is its adaptability and innovative potential. Improvisation encourages innovation since it “opens up the idea of adding and combining elements from different idioms and styles and conventions” (Smith 12). It allows for individual expression in the context of a formal history without necessarily becoming to pastiche. It does not require the suppression of the conscious nor the rejection of formal language. Rosenberg said, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture, but an event.” Another way to look at it is that the painting is both a picture and an event. And for certain abstract painters, one that is improvised.
“Abstract Art.” The Grove Art Series: From Expressionism to Post-Modernism. Ed. Jane Turner. London: Macmillan Reference Ltd., 2000. 2-13. Print.
“Art Informel.” The Grove Art Series: From Expressionism to Post-Modernism. Ed. Jane Turner. London: Macmillan Reference Ltd., 2000. 53-55. Print.
Landfield, Ronnie et al. Artist Talk. American Painterly Abstraction: 7 Painters. LewAllen Galleries, Santa Fe New Mexico. October 30, 2010.
LewAllen Galleries. American Painterly Abstraction: 7 Painters. October 29-December 12, 2010. Santa Fe, NM: LewAllen Galleries, 2010. Print.
Barris, Roann. “Abstraction and the Figure in the Second Half of the 20th Century.” Online Paper. Radford University Museum. Web. 25 October 2010.
Danto, Arthur C. “Pollock and the Drip.” The Nation. 7 Jan. 1999. n. pag. Web.
“Improvisation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Nov. 2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2010.
Kaneda, Shirley. “Charline Von Heyl.” Bomb Magazine. 113. Fall 2010. 80-87. Print.
Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters.” Art in Theory: 1900-2000. 2nd Ed. Ed. Charles
Smith, Hazel and R.T. Dean. Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts Since 1945. The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997. Web.
Weisblat, Leigh Bullard. The Scribner Encylopedia of American Lives: 1997-1999. Vol. 5. Ed. Kenneth T. Jackson, Karen Markoe, Arnie Markoe. New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 2002. p. 142-145. Web.
Wood, Paul. Varieties of Modernism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
 Abstract Expressionism, Art informel, and related movements, “shared several characteristics: an emphasis on impulsiveness and spontaneity that rejected predetermined composition and that frequently equated drawing with painting; a concentration on the individual mark or ‘tache’, as opposed to the straight line or carefully circumscribed shape; a concern for the expressive potential of paint and its textured or optical effect; and a sense of immediacy in the execution. Qualities of freshness and urgency led to a physical awareness of the artist’s contact with the picture surface and the act of painting itself, manifested in the USA by action painting" (“Abstract Art”/Grove Art).
 This was suggested to me by Barry Schwabsky in e-mail correspondence: “Mary McCarthy to Harold Rosenberg: ‘You can't hang an event on the wall.’” Rosenberg, in “The American Action Painters,” discussing the “special motive” for “extinguishing the object” says that it was motivated by the desire to make the act, and what is revealed through the act as primary, or more important than the object (either within the painting, or taken to its extreme, the object itself). (Rosenberg 589). Rosenberg says that the American painting is not “pure”....”The apples weren’t brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting. In this gesturing with materials the aesthetic, too, has been subordinated. Form, colour, composition, drawing, are auxiliaries, any one of which -- or practically all, as has been attempted logically, with unpainted canvases -- can be dispensed with. What matters always is the revelation contained in the act” (590).
 I have not fully read all of Rosenberg’s major essays, but I am not aware of him directly addressing the idea of improvisation.
 In his Jan. 7, 1999 essay in The Nation, “Pollock and the Drip,” Arthur C. Danto uses a painting by Joan Mitchell (Ladybug) as a jumping off point to talk about the use of the drip. He says that for the Abstract Expressionists, “The drips affirmed that paint has an expressive life of its own, that it is not a passive paste to be moved where the artist wants it to be moved but possesses a fluid energy over which the painter endeavors to exercise control. The act of painting then is like a match between two opposed wills, like the act of taming tigers. The internal drama of Mitchell’s painting derives from the way she uses paint’s propensity to drip to her own advantage by taming it with over-strokes of pigment through which she displays her own discipline and power” (Danto). He talks about how the drip had become “theatricalized.” He claims that Pollock’s work was all about controlling the drip. That as an adherent to the concept of psychic automatism, it was necessary for the paint to obey the “active artistic power.” Pollock isn’t so much as drip as calligraphy -- and the painting is layed flat, preventing “drips”. In comparison, Mitchell worked vertically -- her paintings imply a top and a bottom. In Pollock “the painting... internally determines which edge is top and which is bottom...allowing paint to drip removes that ambiguity.”
 Von Heyl said, “I’m certainly not interested in depicting anything, but neither am I interested in abstraction for its own sake (Kaneda 83).” She talks about coming from an environment where painting was approached in an ironic way (Polke, Kippenberger, Oehlen) --- “heavily male, very jokey, and ironic stance toward painting. Anarchistic and also quite arrogant (Kaneda 83).”
 Charline von Heyl says, “To think and to write about painting is also a possibility to reinvestigate and redefine the basics, which each generation should do (Kaneda 84).”
 On October 30, 2010, I attended an artist talk for the exhibit “American Painterly Abstraction: 7 Painters” at the LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exhibit highlights a small group of paintings done in the 1960s to 1980s by a group of New York painters who struggled with abstract painting in the wake of Abstract Expressionism.
The brochure essay for this exhibition states that this group of artists “perceived that the dense, agitated Abstract Expressionist aesthetic had devolved, from what once had been an authentic record of an artist’s intensive immersion in the painterly process, into what was quickly becoming a studied and standardized mannerism.” According to the essay, “They responded resolutely and with significant visual innovation that often included a new sense of openness and clarity as key compositional innovations within this historically important aesthetic.” In the exhibition, one can see an artist like Joan Snyder finding new, and idiosyncratic ways to explore the gesture and the drip (see Vertical Strokes with White Ground, 1969.) An artist like Peter Young explored his interest in the oriental and spontaneous writing. Bill Pettett, at first emulating AbEx, talks about his “responsibility” for coming up with their own aesthetic. These artist used the language of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism in new, improvised ways: applying paint without the brush using sticks, spray guns, squeegees, pours, stains. But primarily their interests were in the intuitive, the expressive, and mostly the materials of paint. Some of the language I heard during the artist talk echoes that used by Rosenberg (and one can assume Rosenberg wasn’t just inventing, but was reflecting language in use in the studios he visited in the 1950s and 1960s). Bill Pettet says that he “liked the idea of stepping into ‘an arena’ of the canvas.” Landfield talks about wanting to depict an inner truth based on sense and perception rather than “what I think I see”. Asked about how he gets ideas, Landfield responded: “The innovation comes from your life. Initial impulse, passion drives you to paint... but responds to the muse of the moment. Primarily it is language of surface, color, finding a way to get paint on canvas in a way that relates to what I am seeing now -- expressive art has to communicate.” Young said, “You have to make it new, yet nothing is new. I don’t trust the intellect. It takes a period of meditation...repressing thought. Then things will well up....inspiration, intuition.” On behalf of her late husband, Dan Christiansen’s wife spoke about how Dan talked about having to trust in the eye. That it’s a distillation. Artists see and look at a lot of art. You begin to differentiate. When creating, this all informs you and the work (Landfield).
 The entry for Improvisation on Wikipedia has a short definition of improvisation: “Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment and inner feelings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or new ways to act. This invention cycle occurs most effectively when the practitioner has a thorough intuitive and technical understanding of the necessary skills and concerns within the improvised domain. Improvisation can be thought of as an "on the spot" or "off the cuff" spontaneous activity”
 Pastiche is considered a “hodgepodge of styles”. There is a negative connotation to pastiche, which may or may not be deserved. On the one hand, it can be viewed as innovative, on the other hand it can be seen as a “dead language” and “without humor” as described by Frederic Jameson in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastiche).