The Quick Hello vs. The Long Goodbye
A discussion of slow art as an antidote to the speedy assimilation of imagery can begin with the embrace of an aesthetic of instantaneous impact characteristic of American art of the Sixties. When Kenneth Noland claimed “I’m a one-shot painter” in the January 8, 1965 issue of Time magazine, he made his intentions clear. The phrase described both his technique of rapidly staining liquid acrylic into raw canvas and the instant retinal impact of his single-image geometric motifs.
Noland did not invent this technique. Jackson Pollock had abandoned the layering of his labyrinthine poured paintings and began using only black enamel on raw canvas. The result resembles enlarged drawings, the canvas acting like a page absorbing ink. When he added color in Portrait and a Dream (1953), the visual effect was that of an enlarged watercolor. Clearly Pollock was in a quandary that he could not resolve. His last painting, Scent (1955), attempted to integrate color and light in a style of all-over immediacy, but produced a rather conventional oil painting, technically reminiscent of late Monet.
Helen Frankenthaler was the first to follow Pollock’s example of letting raw, unprimed canvas absorb liquid pigment, fusing image with support. At first she soaked turpentine-diluted oil into raw canvas. When they became available, she switched to water-based acrylics. With their artificially extended palette, acrylics permitted brilliant pigment to be thinned to watercolor consistency. The raw canvas works like the white page in watercolor, shining through liquid pigment, providing reflected light, as well as offering the additional advantage of absorbing the image into its ground. However, Frankenthaler’s irregular, interpenetrating, highly-detailed and irregular forms cannot be characterized as “one-shot” abstractions. She began—and remained—an abstract landscape painter who synthesized Pollock’s technique of embedding pigment in canvas with imagery reminiscent of John Marin’s airy late landscapes.
With post-War affluence, the art market expanded exponentially and supplied a growing demand for contemporary art. Staining diluted plastic-based paints into raw canvas permitted the production of large-scale works by the “Color-Field” school Greenberg promoted. Executed as quickly as watercolor, permitting no revision, paintings made this way looked fresh and spontaneous, increasing their appeal to a public with no time to waste. The fact that watercolor technique is the basis for stained color field painting challenges Clement Greenberg’s argument that painting could only purify itself through “medium specificity.” Watercolor is a medium distinct from oil painting and its history and has its own characteristics including lack of surface texture. Pure opticality is characteristic of watercolor as a medium. Using a watercolor technique to create monumental paintings violates Greenberg’s notion of medium specificity. Moreover, paintings made this way fade over time as they are absorbed into the raw canvas cloth.
“One-shot” painting’s immediate retinal impact is analogous to the visual punch of Pop Art’s simple graphic images, as well as to the gestalt-based aesthetic of minimalism that also characterized American art of the sixties. Instantaneous impact became the dominant aesthetic criterion, as the contemporary art public grew larger, less educated, and less interested in earlier art. As speed of execution provided quantities of brightly-colored cloth, it was left to the critic to determine quality. This elevated contemporary criticism to a position of influence it never previously held. But a half century later, that decade’s appetite for instant gratification seems suspiciously infantile.
I confess. I bought into the significance of “one-shot” color field abstraction in my article “Quality in Louis,” published in Artforum, October 1971, while I was a graduate student. Now that I have had time to grow up, look at a lot more art, and reflect on what I have seen, I totally reject that text. Nevertheless, the art market uses my antique argument to monetize the continuous stream of rapidly produced stain Color Field painting. The republication of my article by the Robert Mnuchin Gallery in the exhibition catalogue for Morris Louis: Veils (October, 2014)—without my permission or knowledge—is either criminal or negligent, or both. But it’s typical of how the market now uses criticism to legitimize its sales pitch. But criticism is not art history, and opinions are open to revision, unlike “one-shot” artworks.
If speed is directly linked to facility and marketability, what are the characteristics of “slowness,” of what cannot be easily assimilated but requires time to be experienced? Conceptual complexity, intellectually difficulty, a call to all the senses, including above all the tactile—which Greenberg’s restriction of the pictorial to “pure opticality” deemed irrelevant—seem obvious answers. Certainly there have been numerous responses to limiting visual experience to the exclusively retinal. But the result is mainly a variety of academic reruns of Duchampian metaphysics. If art requires meditation and contemplation, that need alone is related to time to absorb an artwork more complex, multilayered and multivalent than the instant impact of “one shot” painting. Perceiving detail, physicality, and surface tactility in addition to retinal stimulation—recalls Stendhal’s declaration that authentic art is made for “the happy few” willing to take the time to savor, assimilate and understand.
BARBARA ROSE is an art historian and curator who lives in New York and Madrid, Spain.