An Analysis of Three Works of Mid-20th Century Modern Art
Wassily Kandinsky helped open up the door to abstract art with his book
Concerning the Spiritual in Art. A lawyer by trade and a latecomer to the art world, Kandinsky made art that was an expression of the "spiritual" side of life: an abstract representation of the world beneath the world. Kandinsky's works were everything modern art wanted to be: real, acerbic, playful, and mysterious; soaking up the subjective character of modernism, but boldly proclaiming life through the interaction of line and color. Much of mid-20th century modern art has its roots in Kandinsky. Whether pop art, fashion art, or abstract art, there is something of Kandinsky's spirit in all of it: individualistic, kitschy, and chaotic, it attempts to reflect through an act of creation a culture that is in collapse. This paper will analyze three works mid-20th century modern art, Jackson Pollock's White Light, Richard Hamilton's Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?, and Norman Rockwell's (perhaps a peculiar choice) "Four Freedoms" and show how each may be considered from Pollock's own observation that, "The modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique."
The Right Technique for the Right Narrative
From the perspective of Clement Greenberg's position that one civilization can produce two opposite narrative extremes (14), it is possible to see how Pollock, Hamilton and Rockwell, very disparate painters, could be contemporaneous of one another and yet all three find success to a degree. Pollock, of course, had the rockiest road, attempting to illustrate his discomfort with the modern world through abstract art. Rockwell, on the other hand, enjoyed great popularity by depicting scenes that spoke to the soul in very traditional and highly sentimentalized ways. Richard Hamilton, in an entirely different way, also illustrates the truth in Pollock's words -- that the artist must find his own technique. Hamilton made his way by collage, catering to pop art tastes. All three artists, essentially, developed their own unique techniques. But perhaps it is Pollock's White Light that is the abstract work of art that condenses Greenberg's idea into a whirlwind of color and line, shape and shadow; depicting two narrative extremes: one of chaos and one of creation.
Modern art has over a thousand and one variations, from Marcel Duchamp to Marcel Breuer and from Richard Hamilton to Andreas Serrano, whose controversial 1987 photograph Piss Christ was recently destroyed at an exhibition in France. Modern art criticizes, mocks, provokes, and turns traditional art theory on its head (often at great risk of offending, as Serrano's work demonstrates). Yet not every modern artist offends, nor is every modern artist a modernist. Norman Rockwell's work grew out of the Dutch tradition, while Faith Ringgold's story quilts reflect a generational influence. Modern art, however, has a shorter lineage and less traditional roots. It displays some of its most typical aspects in abstract art, which is best typified by painters like Jackson Pollock, whose roots are found in Kandinsky's "spiritual" art.
Pollock's Technique: Abstract Expressionism
It is definitely true that Jackson Pollock's Abstract Expressionistic works grew out of the paintings of artists like Wassily Kandinsky. While Pollock never used the phrase to identify his own works, there is a certain individualistic spirituality in them (as there is in Kandinsky's, who greatly believed that art should attempt to illustrate the spiritual side of life). Pollock possessed, in a sense, an extremism that Kandinsky made allowable. By pouring and dribbling paint upon his canvases (which he placed upon the floor) and allowing himself to be filmed walking over them (carelessly), Pollock typified the kind of chaotic, confident disregard for the very art he was so intent on creating. His figurative works exemplified abstractionism because they refused to be representative -- they were wild, irresponsible, yet whole, real, and personal. White Light (1954) is the perfect illustration of Pollock's methodology and plays an important role in the evolution of modern art.
Pollock's White Light also gives the illusion of contour and form, such as Kandinsky would effect in his paintings, which Paul Johnson would describe as "fashion art," except that it was more than merely "fashion art"; according to Johnson, Kandinsky's work was "fine art," because it was made with care and precision -- every line, every shape painted with deliberation (Johnson 666) to express a cohesive and unified "spiritual" vision. Yet, with Pollock, that vision has become increasingly disturbed and, yet, electrified. With White Light it is as though the words of Marinetti were being fulfilled: "Let's break out of the horrible shell of wisdom and throw ourselves like pride-ripened fruit into the wide, contorted mouth of the wind! Let's give ourselves utterly to the Unknown, not in desperation but only to replenish the deep wells of the Absurd!" (126).
Hamilton's Technique: The Collage for Kitsch
Richard Hamilton, however, takes mid-20th century art in an entirely different direction. True to Pollock's assertion that each artist must find his own technique, Hamilton departs from abstractionism and established pop art. For this reason, Hamilton's work is as necessary to any essay on mid-20th century modern art as water is to fish bowls. Hamilton was at the forefront of one of modern art's most infamous movements, which was none other than Pop Art. Virtually defining Pop Art (as a reaction against the painstaking Abstract Expressionism of painters like Pollock) when he made his 1956 collage Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? Hamilton described it as being mass-produced for a mass-audience, transient, expendable, low cost, youthful, witty, gimmicky, glamorous, and big business -- which is just what Pop Art was.
Hamilton set the bar for Pop artists of the sexual revolution (a bar which artists like Andy Warhol would have no difficulty holding onto). The style is eclectic, eccentric, and in-your-face; the subject is a kind of inverted take on home-life; the form is generic; the context revolutionary (socially -- WWII had drifted into the background; radical, youthful, and rebellious attitudes were in vogue); and the symbolism Hamilton employs is of popular culture's perverse love for mainstream kitsch. Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? is a perfect example of the irony that made Hamilton's technique so appealing: it reflected the gaudiness of mid-20th century living, and yet made that gaudiness comfortable and appealing even as it mocked it. Hamilton's Pop Art was as electrifying as Pollock Abstract Expressionism -- but both are very different from Rockwell's homey portraits.
Rockwell's Technique: The Image of Grace
Norman Rockwell would seem a strange fit for a modern art exhibit -- and in fact he is. Yet how can mid-20th century modern art be complete without the great stylistic works of a genuine artist like Norman Rockwell? Rockwell became the poster boy for Saturday Evening Post, creating beautiful, charming, touching, vibrant, detailed, sentimental works of 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s Americana.
Modern but by no means modernist, Rockwell's popularity was a throwback to Dutch genre paintings, Rockwell infusing them with American sensibility and (oftentimes) a soft-edged social commentary (see the "Four Freedoms" series) that was informed by a love for his homeland. Rockwell's influence has been seen in the works of Spielberg (Empire of the Sun), Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), and others. As Paul Johnson says, "He almost defies comment. It is held against him that he took too optimistic a view of life. But the same could be said of Rubens, another painter who was happy in his work and showed it. Art does not have to disturb" (683). Rockwell's style is elegant and Dutch; the subject…