Contemporary Art Transition from Traditional Movements to Abstract Expressionism

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The issue focused on throughout this essay will explore the relevance and acceptance of the contemporary art transition from traditional movements, portraying this through a focus on abstract expressionism, especially the struggles overcome by the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. By addressing these conflicts between artists and critical individuals I hope to create a greater understanding of the unusual explorations of abstract expressionist artists and their reactions to critical judgment and factors which may have supported or given them the courage to pursue their work against mass scrutiny.

The contemporary art era began to emerge in the 21st Century and although it is greatly influenced by the past, artists explore the concepts through the idea of abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism is the art movement where artists began to convey attitudes and emotions using non-traditional and spontaneous methods and techniques. Artists traded in the secure and accepted ways of making art, such as realism, to become more expressive. By letting their emotions interact with the making of their works, the paint became more objectified as it would be slung across a large canvas to create an unpredictable outcome, as opposed to a controlled detailed painting of an intended subject, where the paint was purely a means to an end. Similarly to DNA, the techniques of traditional artists were passed down through the art world, but this movement within the stable art world, like the human race, evolved.

Many artists have pushed and poked into the abstract expressionism movement, each discovering the possibilities of the new ways of thinking when it comes to painting and sculpture, which has slowly evolved to create a variety of styles now named as styles in their own rights. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Peter Blake have all contributed to the style which is now known as Pop Art.

Andy Warhol’s works were pioneering for the development of Pop Art and the Abstract Expressionism movement. He has become a popular icon for his works, one naming ‘Campbell’s Soup’ which was created with synthetic polymer paint on thirty-two individual canvases. The idea of repetition used in this piece was not initially accepted by the traditional ways of thinking and dates back to when Pietro Perugia completed an altarpiece in Florence in 1507. Many considered the altarpiece to be a replica of pre-existing designs and methods, being unacceptable as a distinct piece of artwork. This is where it can be considered the focus of contemporary art to first become apparent but never followed through with due to dismissal by higher members, as the ‘moment has always been recognized as marking an important transition’ (Williams, 2016) from old to new. Warhol often uses found or chosen images to create work, which in relation to Perugia could be argued the artwork is not solely his own. Warhol was however sued for some of the images he used for his work, due to them not being his own photography. Photographers Patricia Caulfield, Fred Ward, and Charles Moore all, in turn, sued Warhol for his unauthorized use of their works, which is understandable and just, although Warhol made attempts to settle claims himself outside of court, later to discover it easier to request permission first.

This idea of ownership dispute within the movement has also been tested by the likes of Peter Blake, also from the Pop Art movement, as he uses cuttings of photographs, graphical designs, and text from magazines and albums to create his own works. Blake has had similar criticisms about the authenticity of his pieces, although being from the later time of this movement he has been accepted easier as his works have won many awards and he has been requested and commissioned to complete works for worldwide events, for example, the Brit Award in 2012. Blake typically uses primary colors, typography, and rectilinear patterning alongside his found imagery and painting, and when in conversation with Simon Garfield he questioned ‘why (Garfield did not) paint pictures of what (he) like(d)’ (Garfield, 1996). This is a brilliant question planted by Blake as it portrays how strict the art world can be and became in the traditional era where rules were followed and boundaries were left unpushed. Art is supposed to be enjoyable for both creator and beholder, hence why artists create work in the first place, and it is believed that this simple question became lost in the traditional ways of creating, becoming buried underneath expectations.

Blake’s piece ‘The First Real Target’, created in 1961 using enamel on canvas and collage on board, ‘questioned the art world’s obsession with originality’ (Blake and Rudd, 2003). This piece itself was not from an original idea as Jasper Johns had already used a target in a previously created piece named ‘Target with Four Faces’ in 1955, and creates a mockery of the traditional thoughts behind a piece of artwork through the naming of his own piece using the term ‘The First Real Target’. Using this term sets the question back to the originality of works and how although this piece is an image of a real target, is it authentic? Blake expresses how he is directly influenced by the ‘American painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but he owes much inspiration to his artisanal upbringing and interests’ (Blake and Rudd, 2003), proclaiming that he was ‘really just painting what (he) was about, the person (he) was and (including) the things (he) knew’ (Burn, 1983) from his research and inspirations, thus justifying that these were his interpretations, therefore, believing these were his own original works.

Equally important to the unacceptance of others' work being recreated and named under the new artist, a majority of the classic art lovers feel that contemporary art has become absurd and in some aspects, unworthy of modern galleries today. Critic Jonathon Jones, after attending a Warhol exhibition in Hayward Gallery, London, perceived his work named ‘Invisible’, an empty white plinth placed in a room, to be his ‘weakest thing by far’ (Jones, 2012). Jonathan Jones continues to express how Warhol became ‘bland and industrial’ and his career progressed as he turned masterpieces into mass-produced commodities, further expressing that the public needs a ‘break’ from Warhol’s entireties in the hope that he can be rediscovered in the future to be appreciated once more. These concepts expressed from Jones, however, are not the belief of all public critics, as they numerously have expressed their admiration for the creating process and thought which goes into a piece like ‘Invisible’. The way the burglar alarms are evenly situated around the plinth and expressed on a plack that they shall sound if the sculpture’s area is breached is playing with the mentality of the beholder, leaving them to question if there really is something on the plinth, just invisible to the human eye.

The concept that Warhol was able to do this because of his status as a highly credited artist already with his celeb status, leaves the questions of whether they are more valuable to the contemporary art world? And also, does this make their work better than unknown artists? One factor I do believe to have helped Warhol’s progression to his status slightly is the focus of his subjects, for example, his silkscreens of ‘Marilyn Monroe Series’, as by using the big stars at the time of his practice, he became more widely recognized. Many dismiss this argument as irrelevant as Warhol’s work would not have been accepted as easily if critics did not appreciate the artwork as a new and individual piece of work. Warhol was one of the first to take silkscreen printmaking away from the commercial setting and use it towards creating abstract expressionistic artwork, giving him his widely credited role in the fight for acceptance of contemporary art.

The artist Robert Rauschenberg has additionally been a huge influence in creating the push for contemporary art’s breakthrough and testing the art world out of its traditions, as Rauschenberg’s works have both challenged and succeeded in establishing a new form of making, focusing again on the process taken to create as opposed to just an accepted realistic painting. His ‘White Paintings’ works created in 1951, consists of five white panel works which were each created in the same manner, one-, two-, three-, four-, and seven-panel iterations, with identical canvas proportions and paint consistencies, have been a fine example of this, alongside the production of a similar set of ‘Black Paintings’.

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Although all the white painted canvases are considered as a collection, they were each intended as individual pieces that could be sold either together or separately if desired. Rauschenberg himself considers his paintings to ‘take you to a place in painting art has not yet been’ (B. Parsons Letter, 1951) as stated in the letter he wrote to the leader at Betty Parsons Gallery, where he had recently exhibited works of a more traditional yet still of the abstract expressionism nature. He declares that by using the white color choice of paint, he aimed for it to be the connotation color of ‘God’, and believes the works to be of great importance in the art community.

The color white has traditionally been associated with innocence and purity and used throughout both biblical and symbolic traditional painting to portray this. This indicates why Rauschenberg saw the color as Godly, although historically in wars and battles a white flag would be used to indicate the desire to surrender or admit defeat to opposing parties. Does this indicate the surrender Rauschenberg believed to have achieved from the traditional opposing artists to the new age of abstract expressionism? I believe so, as Rauschenberg considered these specific pieces to be of great importance and be displayed alongside ‘other outstanding paintings’ in order to be accepted as masterpieces. Being a key Neo-Dada movement artist, Rauschenberg’s exploration of the boundaries set through traditional art, unveiled multiple opportunities to create experimentally. His focus on thought provocation brought an unknown depth to his white paintings because although to the apparent eye of the beholder of a minimalistic style, the pieces raised numerous inquiries. Rosalind Krauss also believed this when she suggested that the ‘picture plane in the paintings and prints (were) best interpreted as a memory field, where personal intuitions and collective memories jostled with each other on equal terms’ (Molesworth, 2015).

Fighting strongly for the expressionistic movement to be accepted and identified with, in 1953 Rauschenberg made the artistic decision to cause a disturbance in the production of his works by receiving a requested Willem de Kooning drawing and erasing the contents of the image, leaving a scuffed pencil indented sheet of sketching paper which he later framed naming it ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’.

Working with the likes of Josef Albers, an American painter, sculptor, poet, and teacher, born in Germany, who was admired as a ‘pioneering design researcher of the first order’ (Zender, 2016), Rauschenberg began to develop his work in the idea of art being art and life being life. The ideas portrayed before in his ‘White Paintings’ continued and opposed the originally Godly meaning portrayed in the likes of Rembrandt with his piece, ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’ from 1634 where the light surrounding the saint signified his importance in the painting, with Rauschenberg’s continuous battle against tradition.

Still distancing himself from the conventional ways of making, Rauschenberg created ‘Bed’ in 1955, which consisted of oil paints and pencil expressed on a bed set – pillow, quilt cover, and sheet – secured on wooden supports. It is believed that the sole reason for this creation was the lack of materials Rauschenberg had to hand during a creative outburst, therefore deciding to use canvas-like replacements instead. By attaching the bed set to the wooden supports created, he set a familiar sculptural canvas of a scene most observers would encounter each day, which is still relevant now. This engages the observers emotionally as their daily routines are bought and connected to the work. By leaving a corner untucked, this also represents the busy lives they may lead, with little time for the small details in life, brushing over them, and becoming absorbed in society, also depicted through the dripping paint splatters and brushed paint across illustrated on top. It works like ‘Bed’ which are frowned upon by critics who treasure the traditional ways as the only ways as the materials used are not actually created for art production making but for living purposes. Nevertheless, critic Olivia Laing expresses in the Guardian that there is a ‘limit to how many words you can cram into a sculpture’ (Laing, 2016), and how Rauschenberg’s fascination grows through replication.

The overall need to create when this piece was created is inspiring to many for when he was completely out of the typical painting and sculptural tools, he found other material that could be used in replacement. This supports the argument for Warhol’s ways of making, using recycled photographs similarly to Rauschenberg’s recycled bed set, and in contrast to Warhol’s success with the production of his works and making money from these, Jasper Johns, printmaker, painter, and Robert Rauschenberg’s long-term lover, was not so successful at selling his pieces, due to them unfortunately at the time not being worth or perceived as being as valuable.

This idea of valuing a painting/sculpture when in the traditional concept of creating masterpieces was a lot easier than the likes of the contemporary era, due to rules being followed and materials being used for their intended purposes. How can a piece be valued when it is original in its creative time and has no comparison pieces by other artists to help determine a price? This is where the contemporary art world becomes a playing field in the less creative side of artworks. Artists began to play around with the pricing of their pieces, attempting to sell a piece worthless in materials and time for more than the expected value, often succeeding as the general public and art enthusiasts combined were unsure also when told processes and theories behind works. Johns’ work being sold as less compared to rival artists of the same time seemed a little backward, especially compared to the likes of Damien Hirst for example. In 2008, Hirst’s work ‘raised 111 million pounds at an auction at Sotheby's in London with the headline 'What a Waste of Money for Damien Hirst 'Art'’ (Crosthwaite, 2011) to which the columnist Joan Burnie was infuriated by as the work sold, a shark in formaldehyde, is a decomposing life form, which although preserved, will decompose making it quite literally, sold rubbish. From Burnie’s response, I can understand why many critics and art enthusiasts despise the contemporary art movement, especially abstract expressionism, although I do believe this judgment of price is solely down to the buyers of the works and if they are willing to pay this amount of money for these styles of work, then that is their decision and in literal terms does not affect or concern others. The concept that Hirst, like Warhol, was able to do this because of his status as a well-established artist does link back to the traditional era, showing evidence that the influences from the era are still embedded in the contemporary practices, as many painters sold works for more than their perceived worth due to artistic status, however, artists such as Jasper Johns work could have done the same, only his works were not as credited by critics due to his inspirations and accreditation.

Johns’ piece, ‘0 through 9’ which is often referred to as Numerals, was created in 1961 ‘characterized by heavy brush marks and oil films, along with widespread impasto’ (Tate. Williamson, 2017). Each number is superimposed over the next number, therefore creating a layered library of images that can only be seen if focused solely on the one number within the piece. Johns brings forward the idea that his work should be ‘seen and not looked at, not examined’ (McGrath, 2013) but interrogated by the observer furthermore engaging them to interact with the painting. Johns’ interest in the interaction of the audience is portrayed through his use of thick tactile mediums and how he lays them within his pieces, using metallic relief, lithograph, and pastel for his smaller three paintings which go alongside ‘0 through 9’. This process-based exploration of mediums and their textures begins the questions raised with many artists of where the boundary is between painting being painting and sculpture being sculpture.

Sculpturalising painting through the thickness of paint and mixed mediums such as gesso and emulsion is criticized by the famously believed art oppressor Clement Greenberg as he believed flat line ‘pure abstract painting was the logical and necessary conclusion of modern art’ (Jones, 2011). The likes of Damien Hirst and Ai Wei Wei have become part of a more conceptualism movement in sculpture, where the concepts of the traditional aesthetics are overruled by the focus on the process and ideas behind the work. The work is planned and organized in advance to the creation of a piece, therefore the piece could be reconstructed if needed as the plans could be repeated to get a similar, if not the same outcome. This is a beauty of the modernist sculptural aspect of abstract expressionism, as this way of creating although not from the artist’s hands directly, is still seen as their own work.

Furthermore, many have excelled in the minimalistic movement, developed in the U.S.A around the 1960s, where it has taken skill to learn how few marks or brush strokes can portray an intended image. Donald Judd and Dan Flavin have been key influences on this movement, becoming marveled at for their skill. In addition to this, minimalism has been incorporated into a sculpture through the use of geometric shapes and symmetry. However, minimalism in my own perspective is not just the simple black and white lines and simplified shapes of a sculpture, it is the thoughts behind the work which are although complex, can be portrayed in a specific thought out few marks. Relative to my practice, I see the work of Morris Louis Bernstein to be this as his pieces if no context was put forward, can be perceived as childlike paint experiments. His painting ‘Alpha-Phi’ displays a relation to alpha in the scientific graph-like structure of the paint on the canvas.

Following on with the struggle of acceptance, due to the majority of the artists mentioned throughout this interrogation of the boundaries pushed in the struggle of the contemporary art movement being homosexual males, it can be perceived that this factor may have made their struggles greater when presenting their works to the world. A critic for the Art Bulletin, Tom Folland, expresses how galleries and enthusiasts ‘did not receive these works well’ (Folland, 2010) due to their sexuality because their homosexuality was ‘a threat to the reigning social order’ around this time of the 1960s. this would have placed additional stress on the ‘gay camp figures’, but also giving them a motivation to push harder for their rights for their works to be displayed and accepted as equals to their heterosexual associates.

Throughout this inquiry and research relating to my own professional practice of making, the process is and always will be a significantly important aspect when creating artworks that can be enjoyed by others. For an observer to enjoy and apprehend to understand the piece presented to them, it is often intuitive to have an idea of the artist's motivations, inspirations, and passions of art. By looking into the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and other artists mentioned throughout this analysis, I can push forward with my work in the knowledge that not everyone will accept the work I create and this does not necessarily make my work and experimentations invalid or irrelevant. Art is perceived by the beholder and it is their take on the work which makes a work great, not the rules and traditions they have followed or stuck by. Greenberg’s perception of art is one out of many, meaning in relation to his own practice, he is correct, his work will reflect this due to the research he carried out and his exploration within his professional practice, however to the more contemporary swayed artists, it is not as relevant. Reflecting on the key aspects explored in this essay I can conclude that the struggle of acceptance with the breakthrough of contemporary artists does affect their artworks but also pushes them to fight for their chosen methods of creating and influenced research because it is not incorrect or irrelevant compared to the traditional ways of art, it is solely different and progressively unique.

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