Romanticism & the Abstract: Finding the Sublime 20th c. American-Avant Garde Art

Happy new year Romantics and all readers alike!

The promises of the title carry the weight of a dissertation title rather than a blog post, so to focus such reflections I write in response to an exhibit I recently visited at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957” has recently and consistently been hailed as one of the best exhibitions in 20th century American Art of the 2015 museum season, however throughout the various reviews I’ve yet to see the word “Romantic” spring up yet despite my thoughts.The Black Mountain College consists of a small group of groundbreaking avant-garde visual artists, musicians, poets, and performers alike who taught and were taught at a small progressive arts college in North Carolina. Artists emerging from the experimental school persist as some of the most influential and critical components of the contemporary understandings of postmodern art, avant-garde, dance, music, and the idea of what radical could mean. Familiar names includes composer/artist John Cage, painters Elaine and Williem de Koonig, poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. Artists associated with the school are forerunners in practices of minimalism, abstract expressionism, projective verse, and other modern to postmodern styles recognized today.

Of course the very thought of the “abstract” associated with the minimalist and modernist avant-garde practices of the Black Mountain College artists does upset cooperation with the lush language of Romantic poetry and art. For example, the exhibit included one of composer John Cage’s verbal-visual pieces, “Snow Walk” (shown below).

John Cage, “Snow Walk”

How is anyone to make anything Romantic or find transcendence in art that includes text such as “hot bathtub with pipe”?  However, I still found myself lost in understanding my affinity and continual connections made between abstract art and the products of 18th c. Romantic period. During one of the first sessions of my gateway course to Romanticism, a survey of the British Romantic Period, I used the term abstract to describe a Shelley sonnet thats name escapes me. Before I could finish my naive interpretation the professor, of who I can express nothing but love and respect for, told us how one of the worst words to ever be employed for Romantic arts was “abstract”, because abstraction “sucks the soul of life.”

As I progressed through the galleries I recalled the haze, but not content absent, later works of JWM Turner in relation to some of the works in front of me. Consider Turner’s “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth” alongside Black Mountain graduate Robert Rauschenberg’s “Post (Stoned Moon).”

JMW Turner, “Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”
Robert Rauschenberg’s “‘Post’ (Stoned Moon)”

Turner’s 1842 vision of a steam-boat battling against the terrible wonders of a blizzard sweeping over the harbor incites terror from the obscurity of the scene as the ship fades into the harbor’s mouth amidst the storm. Rauschenberg’s “Post” (Stoned Moon) reflects similar human-made structure beneath the fury of jettison scraps of neutral to gray shades. Rauschenberg unsettles notions of human life as supreme power with the quick cuts that drag, disarray of gray shades, and the Angular corners and geometrical forms pervade Rauschenberg’a storm ridden canvas. Even if viewers didn’t know the piece is from a series of similar prints depicting human exploration into space, the title provides enough information to gathers a similar theme of exploration into the unknown. Viewers of Modern and Postmodern art often look toward the title to comprehend the art object is some manner satisfactory to them, and this certainly was my method when approaching both the late Turner and Rauschenberg’s piece. Could we have made our Turner’s ship without the title? But does this matter, isn’t the point not artistic intent, but viewer perception?

Beyond my approach and the seemingly helpful titles, each work nods to one another through various other visual and thematic cues. The color palette, to start, how the simple degrees of black and white consume the canvas and thus the viewer into the scenes of sublime exploration depicted. I think it’s right to consider each painting as moments from larger narratives, and from this commonality I locate how the Black Mountain College’s “abstract” echoes across time to the Romantic Period. Though each works evasion of a particular focal point or an individual subject the grand narratives of human exploration into forces unknown parallels the incomprehension and unable to represent sublime. Abstract cannot always be treated as reduction or subtraction for these postmodern artists but instead as a strategy to announce how the whole can never be depicted to start.

Looking beyond the Black Mountain College toward the various strands of philosophy and the avant-garde, we may liken these notes on “abstract” to painter Mark Rothko’s comments on the Romantics and abstract expressionism,

“The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental.”

An artist contemporary to the Black Mountain College and Rothko, who follows in the tradition of 20th c. avant grade is American Abstract painter Barnett Newman. In Newman’s 1943 essay “The Sublime is Now”, he addresses Rothko’s comments and attempts to explain how the transcendental sublime quality succeeds in American avant-garde works where European avant-garde of the same moment misses the mark. For Newman, the European artists rely too heavily on myth and often ones of religious influence. But the American artists understand how,

 “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.”

We can make “life” or meaning out of Turner and Rauschenberg’s pieces through ourselves, beyond their titles or historical moments. For those interested in the connections between the Romantic Period and 20th/21st c. avant garde I suggest a read through Newman’s essay. Further interest may be provoked through Jean-François Lyotard takes up of Newman’s essay and paintings throughout contributions to the ever expanding and shifting conceptions of the sublime and postmodern art. In Lyotard’s The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, the chapter titled “The Sublime and the Avant Garde” is particularly beneficial in working through these ideas of his to be briefly touched upon. Generally, Lyotard illuminates how the sublime element of postmodern art objects emerges and sustains through the element of disturbance, which posits resistance to coherent meaning. For Leotard the political potential of postmodern art lies in it’s position as a space to evoke but not define importance. For instance, through both Turner and Rauschenberg’s mentioned works we are of a narrative of exploration but are left uncertain as to the fate, conditions, and influence of any dominant myths that Newman contests. Even if we can’t always recognize a ship lost at sea or a scene of scientific space exploration, there’s the disturbed feeling transposed to viewers through each canvas’ refusal to tell you what they are saying. Instead, each work shouts, “you can see me, but you can never see all of me”, a similar call we could expect any human explorer or Romantic to beckon.

Works Cited

Lyotard, Jean-François. The inhuman: Reflections on time. Stanford University Press, 1991.

Newman, Barnett ‘The Sublime is Now’, in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O’Neill (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 170–3.

Rothko, Mark Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, ed. by Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 167.