E.C. Goossen, ‘The Art of the Real’, 1969

E.C. Goossen was a leading American critic and curator with in-depth knowledge of the contemporary art scene. Known for his clear style of writing, he set out in this essay to explain the different ways that the new abstract painting shown in the 1969 Tate exhibition expressed aspects of reality but, crucially, not its appearances. Although a champion of artists such as Morris Louis and Ellsworth Kelly, he concluded by wondering how long this form-based approach to making art could be sustained.


The Arts Council is very glad to have the opportunity to present this exhibition, The Art of the Real, in London. We would like to thank the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, for this exhibition and also Mr. Eugene Goossen, guest director, who arranged it with the help of Mr. Waldo Rasmussen, Director, the Department of Circulating Exhibitions, The Museum of Modern Art, and his staff.

Our thanks also go to the Director and Trustees of the Tate Gallery who have placed their galleries at our disposal and to Mr. Michael Brawne, M.Arch. (MIT), AA Dip., ARIBA, who has planned the installation.

Gabriel White
Director of Art, Arts Council

Preface and Acknowledgments

This catalogue as well as the exhibition it was designed to accompany, is based on the premise that a significant, identifiable change has been taking place in American art over the last two decades. The diversity of the styles that have appeared may at first seem simply confusing, ranging as they do from pop art’s immersion in subject matter to op art’s appeal to pure visual sensation. Yet between these extremes there can be seen a consistent development of abstract forms and the manner of their presentation. We have witnessed, for example, an interaction, perhaps unprecedented in modern art, between painting and sculpture. In this development seems to lie the essence of the most crucial problem for art in our time, and also the most significant area of stylistic invention.

Every style of the period, of course, is relevant in its way to this fundamental change. It would have been possible to include here examples of pop art, but they would have been visually distracting in this context: op art has also made a major contribution, especially in the realm of ideas about perception, but it too would have introduced unnecessary complications. It was further felt that the juxtaposition of works of art largely similar in formal means would allow their distinct differences to emerge. Thus the seeming narrowness of the selection is hopefully to be understood as a matter of purpose rather than of prejudice.

The generosity of artists and collectors and galleries who lent works to the exhibition, knowing its intent, is therefore especially commendable. Artists have a natural aversion to being categorized or treated didactically – especially when they are in the midstream of their careers. No disrespect, however, has been intended toward individual works. The quality of each was the deciding factor in its inclusion. It is to be hoped that those disagreeing with the thesis will nevertheless have the opportunity to enjoy the works, each on its own premises.

Some of the works chosen are familiar, but were included because of their historical significance; most of them, however, have seldom or never been seen before, and several were made specifically for this occasion. Thanks should go to all those individuals and galleries who lent works to the exhibition, with special thanks to the artists themselves, who made available more than half the works shown. The director, who presented this exhibition by invitation, is grateful to members of the Museum staff who gave him untiring assistance: the late René d’Harnoncourt, former Director, who gave support to the idea of the show from its inception; Waldo Rasmussen, Director of Circulating Exhibitions, whose interest and cooperation have been inspiring throughout the preparation of the exhibition; Alicia Legg, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture, who helped in all aspects of it; Elita Agee, Exhibition Assistant, who carried out the many details of preparing the exhibition for circulation; and Jane Necol, whose assistance far exceeded that of mere secretarial efficiency.

E.C. Goossen
Director of the Exhibition

The Art of the Real

To propose that some art is more ‘real’ than other art may be foolhardy. Yet many American artists over the last few years have made this proposal by the nature of their works. They have taken a stance that leaves little doubt about their desire to confront the experiences and objects we encounter every day with an exact equivalence in art. That they are shaping this equivalence by modifying forms inherited from the history of modern abstraction may or may not be an accident. Certainly there seems to be a growing distrust of idealism and its unfulfilled promises. The ‘real’ of today as it is posited by this new art has nothing to do with metaphor, or symbolism, or any kind of metaphysics. It is not the ideal Hegelian essence that Hans Hofmann was invoking several decades ago in his essay, ‘The Search for the Real’.1 It does not wish to convey the notion that reality is somewhere else. Neither is it related to the symbolic reality Malevich thought he had discovered when, in 1913, he first isolated his black square on a white field. Malevich indeed had produced a real square, but he employed it as an element in the construction of a precariously balanced, idealized order with which he proposed to bring forth a ‘new world of feeling’. Today’s ‘real’, on the contrary, makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor is it involved in uplift. Indeed, it seems to have no desire at all to justify itself, but instead offers itself for whatever its uniqueness is worth – in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.

Whatever the urgencies of the last decade outside the arts that may have helped bring about this insistence on the stubbornly literal idea of the ‘real’, there is sufficient evidence to explain it purely as an extension of the implications, of both form and attitude, in abstract expressionism.

Of late, as ‘formalist’ criticism bears down harder (out of necessity, one might add), the ambition and the attitude that gave rise to the works of the abstract expressionists have begun to recede behind tomes of analysis. Yet the impetus toward the mature styles of Pollock, Rothko, Still, and Newman (pp.16, 27, 25, 18), to name the four whose influence has persisted most strongly, was the desire to find one’s real self on the canvas through personal imagery and format. This desire was not mystical or metaphysical; quite the opposite. It was an overriding ambition to make something so original that its reality could not be challenged. As Clyfford Still wrote in 1952, ‘We are now committed to an unqualified act, not illustrating outworn myths or contemporary alibis. One must accept total responsibility for what he executes.’2

These painters had of course learned much from the abstract art of the preceding four decades. They knew that to specify an illusionistic space on an otherwise obviously flat surface inevitably carries representational associations with it. Representation is in turn associated with realism, an illusion of the fact rather than the fact itself. Thus they worked to achieve a feeling of indeterminable space without specifying its dimensions. Imagery had also to be as free from associations as possible and refer to nothing outside its role in the picture. They turned their backs on Euclidean geometry, with its familiar, idealist history, and also gradually removed any overt reference to organic form. Colour had to share the burden of originality, as each artist sought to make it as much his own as possible, not only by his selection of hues and values, but also by a personalized method of application that would distinguish it materially from conventional practice. And while they spoke much of subject matter, their aim was not to represent something, but to make something, something which had never existed in the world before. They wanted, as Mark Rothko said, to eliminate ‘all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer’. Among the obstacles he included ‘memory, history, or geometry’.3

The forms and formats these artists employed now seem comparatively rich and complex when one becomes used to the minimal paintings of the 1960s. But the high intensity they were able to evoke, using nothing but abstract forms on a two-dimensional surface, set a tone and level that would rarely be matched in the subsequent twenty years, and strangely enough only by those who dared reduce the means even further, while at the same time seeking an even more literal reality.

The early 1950s saw the full efflorescence of abstract expressionism in the hands of its inventors, and also its degradation in the hands of those artists who followed the superficial aspects of ‘action’ painting and depended upon personality alone to carry the day. Such an individualistic approach was not for everybody. Happily there was an alternative. It came from artists of a different temperament, those who felt more at home with the clean, bright, unmodulated colours of De Stijl, the sharp-edged forms of the American precisionists, and the anonymous paint surfaces of the ‘magic realists’. Painting for artists of this persuasion became a process of thought from the very beginning, rather than a process of discovery after the fact, as was the habit of ‘painterly’ expressionists. The objection that such an approach was closer to ‘design’ than to ‘art’ was based on the same romantic prejudice that Jane Austen had tried to correct in Sense and Sensibility: i.e., that intellection obviates feeling.

It is a fact, however, that a number of artists with design or architectural training were to take up painting during the 1950s and help to bring about a healthy reaction to expressionistic excess. At first they were relatively obscure; for example, Alexander Liberman was the only painter of the new ‘hard-edge’ school to be included in the important exhibition Younger American Artists organized by James Johnson Sweeney in 1954 at the Guggenheim Museum. Liberman’s painting had been done in 1950, the same year as Minimum (p.22). At the same time Tony Smith was developing a modular system for his painting (p.41), and Ellsworth Kelly was in Europe establishing his own stylistic direction. In 1954 Kelly returned from Paris, where he had met Vantongerloo and Jean Arp; neither of these men, however, had much influence on him. Except for a few paintings based on Arp’s theories of ‘chance’, most of Kelly’s work, then as now, derived from direct observation of forms in his environment. This fascination with things seen, and the way they actually are seen, is reminiscent of the prophetic work of Georgia O’Keeffe. In its uncompromising objectivity, O’Keeffe’s intense vision seems more coordinate with the art of the last decade than with that of her own generation. A comparison of her Lake George Window of 1929 (p.12) with Kelly’s reconstruction of a window observed (p.13) points up not only our sense of what is factually real in each, but also how the real can be achieved in either two or three dimensions. Certain components of the situation can be equated: the angle of vision is head on, axial symmetry is frankly accepted, composition literally follows fact, and there is no implication of action that would require our suspension of disbelief. O’Keeffe’s window is not sculptural beyond the minimal shadowing of delineation, and Kelly’s window is not pictorial beyond the illusions inherent in our own seeing. Both are almost totally static and make no allusions to any world other than their own, yet they are ‘art’ as much as are any other works of art.

During this same period Kelly discovered the power of pure colour. He painted a series of pictures made up of joined, vertical panels. Each panel was painted one unmodulated colour emphasizing its rectangular area and its relative physical position in a horizontal format similar to an ordinary colour chart. In such pictures as Painting for a White Wall, 1952, Kelly literally turned colour into subject matter. A few years later other artists would employ this format for the same reason, but none of them would surpass the purity, innocence, and sensuous presence of colour that Kelly achieved in these paintings. He was also responsible for what was probably the first ‘shaped canvas’ that can be directly related to subsequent developments. White Relief of 1952–1955 (p.14) did not issue from a drawing board but from the observation of the mirror-image of light streaming under the arch of a bridge. Although it is not necessary to know Kelly’s sources to experience his art as art, knowing them helps one to understand why his work has such structural integrity.

Even among artists who stayed with representational, rather than abstract, subject matter, common sense and literalness have played major roles. Jasper Johns possesses both to a maximum degree. To solve the problem of subject matter in relation to the flat canvas, and perhaps taking a hint from O’Keeffe’s leaf pictures of the 1920s, he often selected flat subjects like targets, maps, typographical elements, or flags. Others, committed to solving the problem in terms of an abstraction without allusion, took longer and more difficult routes. Both the younger Frank Stella and the older Paul Feeley had, by the late 1950s, found themselves frustrated trying to climb the ramparts of abstract expressionism. Each began to look for a rational way to redirect his art. Stella abandoned variegated colour and painterliness; starting with a rectangle or cross, like many city planners, he enlarged upon it by a simple series of equally broad stripes until a satisfactory area for the module of the stripe was reached, and that was his picture (p.43). The external shape was determined by the initial shape at the centre, and in order not to end up with leftover areas at the edges, which would have created the image of a heraldic device on a field, he notched them out. The result was a ‘shaped canvas’. In later experiments (p.19) with V’s, parallelograms, rhomboids, hexagons, semi-circles, etc., he invented series after series of interpenetrating and overlaid shapes using colour coding, as Stuart Davis had in his late pictures, to identify and hold the coloured bands within a minimal, flattened space.

Feeley, on the other hand, seeing the problem as one of keeping alive the surface of the canvas without losing its flatness, developed an interchangeable relationship of figure to ground by means of two undulating, interactive shapes. When one or the other was placed on an unpainted canvas field, the reverberation with the absent but implied figure gave life to the picture as a whole (p.11). Ultimately he also created these shapes in intersecting planes of painted wood, or in fully round constructions of fibre glass exposing them to three-dimensional space (p.31).

There were painters, nevertheless, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s who did not seek to relieve the pressure on two-dimensional painting by moving toward or into the third dimension. In fact, they added still more pressure. Turning to their expressionist forebears, they tended to pick a particular element or quality from the work of Rothko or Newman or Still, emphasize it, and then make it carry the main burden of pictorial means and interest. The urge, in other words, was to reduce rather than to agglomerate (the reverse was likely to be true of those who followed the tradition of the ‘action’ painters). This reduction also occurred in the over-all design of their pictures, in the direction either of ‘field’ painting or in the symmetrical organization of centred, simplified non-images.

Following Still’s tacky paint surface, for example, Ralph Humphrey eliminated Still’s kind of drawing, shape, and suggestion of planes, and ended up with a field of colour (p.26). He modulated his colour with very slight shifts of hue and worked the paint into low, light-catching relief, achieving a subtle, tactile physical presence across the canvas. Ad Reinhardt, on the other hand, who had often been considered as one of the abstract expressionists but was never quite able to abandon his Bauhaus prejudices, worked from within nearly opaque colours, often mat black, illuminating an elementary cruciform with lighter tints. The near-objectness of the black pictures in particular was to have considerable impact on some of the younger artists, among them sculptors, of the later 1960s.

Fig.1 Morris Louis, Alpha-Phi 1961

Morris Louis
Alpha-Phi 1961
Tate T01058
© The estate of Morris Louis

A number of painters during the late 1950s and early 1960s contributed to the reduction of imagery and incident without quite abandoning expressionism. Ray Parker, for example (p.24), seems to have been torn between lyrical passion and the need to find a way to make his art as palpably real as possible. There are lyrical qualities, too, in Morris Louis’s work, but they are balanced by the physicality of the soak-stain method he used, which identifies colour with the actual weave of the canvas. Moreover, Louis kept reducing his means, and even the area that the hues occupied in the vast expanse of raw canvas, ever seeking a still higher brilliance to confirm their existence as colour. And in a series of pictures painted in 1961 and 1962, referred to as the ‘Unfurleds’ (p.50) [fig.1], he pushed the central space between the ribbons of colour more widely apart, thereby increasing the distance over which the eye must travel to pull the image together, or, if one’s gaze is fixed on the empty centre, calling peripheral vision into action. These two ways of seeing such pictures adds to our perception of their physical existence as space-occupying objects.

Kenneth Noland’s most recent pictures are even larger than Louis’s, and something similar occurs in respect to peripheral vision. But since Noland carries his variegated horizontal stripes across the whole field, the eye can only handle parts at a time, except when the picture is seen from one end, where the perspective effect of dimunition [sic] assists one’s understanding of the physical situation. The speed of recognition is slowed, however, by the number of the vertically stacked colours. This stacking, of course, is a system of ordering that has been in wide usage in the sculpture of the 1960s and was employed as early as 1956 by David Smith in the unique piece Five Units Equal (p.34). It is none-the-less consistent with Noland’s earlier concentric circles and his chevron pictures. Noland’s ideas for pictorial format seem to have come from military insignia, selected not for their iconographic implications, but for their banal simplicity, permitting maximum emphasis on colour.

The increase in the sheer size of paintings, and recently of sculpture as well, has been a much discussed subject since the days of the big canvases of the abstract expressionists. As painting has become more ‘minimalist’, the optimum sizes appear to have increased proportionately. The same kind of inverse ratio seems to have been at work in another way. As this kind of art has grown more conceptual, it has depended more and more upon such basic responses as simple perception, sensuous appreciation, kinesthetics, and recognition of the tactile, objective existence of the work before us. This may explain the current popularity of sculpture, particularly of abstract and non-pictorial sculpture. Painting, always more capable of, and therefore more prone to, intellectualization, has nevertheless tried to keep pace with this demand for palpable reality, while still remaining painting. It has succeeded so far only by distilling its means and putting more perceptual burdens on the viewer. In a minimal painting by Patricia Johanson (p.28), for example, we are expected to grasp a single narrow strip of colour extending as much as twenty-eight feet along the middle of an empty field of raw canvas. Such mixtures remind us that painting had reached the minimal several times before in this century – on O’Keeffe’s Blue Lines of 1916, for example, and in Malevich’s White on White of 1918 – but in the Johanson we are asked to cope with the irreducible facts physically rather than intellectually.

The problem of colour in sculpture may never be resolved satisfactorily, since painted sculptures tends to become pictorial, or at least to undergo a serious weakening of form. Colour seems to work best with minimalist sculpture, as in some of Lyman Kipp’s larger pieces (p.36) or in Sanford Wurmfeld’s three-dimensional colour charts (p.29). As for John McCracken’s slabs of sheer colour (p.35), it is hard to tell whether one is confronting a painting or a sculpture.

At this juncture the two modes are still checking out each other’s territory to find out what is real for each, suggesting that a more coordinated sense of style may be in the offing. This is especially observable in the common application of simple and regularized patterns and systems: the grid, the modular, and the radial as well as close-packing, stacking, etc. The result is a democratic ordering of similar parts brought together into a totality. Hierarchical passions and dynamics are left behind, and we are faced instead with self-evident, crystalline structure, the objectively (instead of subjectively) real. What is surprising is the variety that such sculpture and painting have been able to provide, given conditions and limitations that we once might have thought could lead only to empty repetition and boredom.

This variety is partly the result of the interchange between the two modes, which had already begun in the early 1960s. We discover that Carl Andre’s earliest stacked sculptures (p.30) are distinctly related to Stella’s first black pictures (p.43); Darby Bannard’s paired rectangle (p.23) suggest a number of box and plane pieces by Robert Morris (p.49), Donald Judd, and others; while Agnes Martin’s stacked and grid structures (p.20) find their equivalent in Judd’s wall sculptures (p.33), Larry Poon’s grid paintings, and Sol LeWitt’s space cages (p.48). But when we put all these and other seemingly similar works together, subtle differences appear, and the full richness of the new vocabulary of forms becomes visible.

Whereas Judd and Morris, who have already attracted considerable attention here and abroad, set out to make original and ‘specific’ objects (Judd’s term) and have often concerned themselves with the orderly placement of separate units in a space field, Tony Smith has taken an entirely different route. Though he says he ‘speculates in pure form’, the results are hardly speculative. Die (p.32), and Free Ride both of 1962, are the simplest possible resolutions of the essence of the cube. To confront one of these works is to know the cube on a scale that allows us to experience it fully without being handed ideas about it. The later pieces, following the logic and the variations possible to tetrahedra, can be viewed from any direction whatever without the mass becoming lost in silhouette, a failing of much pictorial sculpture. Smith’s attack allows for the broadest range, from pieces that stand aloof and alone to those that can, like Stinger (p.37), envelop the viewer and force him to experience them. Perhaps more than any other sculptor at this time, Smith has found the precise amount of the ‘real’ we can bear in art, for his work has a monumental power rarely available to other approaches.

The gradual divorce of the physical means of art from expressionistic associations has been accompanied by a distinct change in attitude towards what art should attempt. Expressionism, even at its most abstract, continued many aspects of representational art, and constructivism, despite its purist look, was basically nostalgic in its search for meaning through traditional methods of composition. The new attitude has been turning art inside out: instead of perceptual experience being accepted as the means to an end, it has become the end in itself. The Renaissance artist laboured over perspective in order to create an illusion of space within which he could make believable the religious and philosophical ideals of his time; the contemporary artist labours to make art itself believable. Consequently the very means of art have been isolated and exposed, forcing the spectator to perceive himself in the process of his perception. The spectator is not given symbols, but facts, to make of them what he can. They do not direct his mind nor call up trusted cores of experience, but lead him to the point where he must evaluate his own peculiar responses. Thus, what was once concealed within art – the technical devices employed by the artist – is now overtly revealed; and what was once the outside – the meaning of its forms – has been turned inside. The new work of art is very much like a chunk of nature, a rock, a tree, a cloud, and possesses much the same hermetic ‘otherness’. Whether this kind of confrontation with the actual can be sustained, whether it can remain vital and satisfying, it is not yet possible to tell.