Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 19, 2001
Marjorie Welish Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960 Cambridge University Press, 1999. 321 pp.; 43 b/w ills. Paper $27.95 (0521633931)

Marjorie Welish has done an admirable job of identifying key issues that have occupied artists during postmodern times. Her essays “investigate the fate of the concept of the brushstroke” during a period when the boundary conditions of art were being aggressively re-evaluated. The various approaches taken by the major members of the New York School—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Barnett Newman, among others—are constantly in the background of her discussions. She argues that the brushstroke, or more generally the “mark” or the “touch,” was a fundamental unit of meaning for the Abstract Expressionists, and she often uses this observation as a point of departure.

In the first section of her collection, entitled “Narrating the Hand,” Welish explains how the formal assumptions of the Abstract Expressionists were amplified and expanded by a subsequent generation of more conceptually oriented artists, a generation that might be considered proto-postmodernists. She deals with Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and Yves Klein, artists whose works signal a shift from formalist to conceptualist concerns. She examines Rauschenberg’s “sculpture” in relation to his attempts to avoid such distinctions, arguing that he was largely responsible for more traditional “sculptural objects” being displaced by “nonprogrammatic objects,” a conversion tied to his interrogation of Abstract Expressionism. While for artists like Pollock and de Kooning the “brushstroke” and the “surface” were sites for the exploration of personal risk and spontaneous action, they were for Rauschenberg intellectual arenas in which received ideas about reflexivity and uniquity could be challenged.

In her discussion of Twombly, Welish again queries Abstract Expressionism in relation to the younger artist’s re-examination of the brushstroke. She explores how Twombly takes drawing to be the basis of both writing and painting. His canvases, interpreted as hybrids between manuscripts and painterly expanses, draw both visual and verbal terms back from the oversights of our general distraction. As she does with Rauschenberg’s combines, Welish analyzes Twombly’s combinations, his consolidations of writing and drawing, in ways that allow us to see their characteristics afresh. It is Twombly’s procedural approach, with all its complex, multiple meanings, that makes him, too, a proto-postmodernist.

Welish argues that Johns can also be interpreted against the background of Abstract Expressionism: he, also, takes on issues central to the earlier practice. Like Rauschenberg and Twombly, Johns asks questions about the fundamental meaning of art objects. Welish argues that, especially because he builds his paintings as much as he paints them, he contributes to the nascent postmodernist philosophical debate emerging in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Pointing out that his “constructed paintings” helped to “deconstruct” Abstract Expressionism, showing it to be a kind of “rhetoric,” Welish cites Robert Venturi’s early (1965) reference to Johns’s work as exemplifying an “aesthetics of complexity and contradiction.” She argues that Johns is fully aware of the history of mark-making and wholly cognizant of its representational conventions. “Drawing on the history of the mark, and savvy in the worldviews ascribed to certain spatial paradigms, Johns has deliberated long and hard to give us polysemous field paintings that are in pensive control of a complex modernity.”

In her discussion of Klein, Welish focuses on his interest in authentication. She argues that his use of documentary photographs prefigures one of the dominant aspects of contemporary practice. Through an analysis of the reproductions surrounding his famous Leap into the Void, she reveals Klein’s complex relationship with Abstract Expressionism. In the earlier action painting, the canvas was construed as an ethical domain wherein the artist, driven by inner necessity toward self-expression and self-fulfillment, enacted an existential search for authenticity. By Klein’s time, such a quest was no longer possible, and he and his friends could no longer believe in such pursuits. What was then possible was only a self-consciously ironic performance of authenticity. Thus, for Klein, photography “was not so much a witness as a subtle co-conspirator in forging the leap of authenticity.”

The essays in the first section of Welish’s book are about central figures in the first stages of the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Although focused on Rauschenberg, Twombly, Johns, and Klein, she also brings their concerns in line with what could be considered more recent developments. Particularly revealing is her comparative study of Twombly and Mary Kelly. She examines these artists’ shared interests in the way language functions both visually and verbally. Welish argues that both artists “stress the social instrumentality of language.” Twombly’s and Kelly’s approaches can be taken as model strategies that have informed postmodernism generally: objects are either replaced by language or fully embedded within it.

In the second section of the book, “Expressionism and Other Expressivities,” Welish continues to deal with issues grounded in the era of Abstract Expressionism, but ones that are perhaps colored even more indelibly by strains of postmodernism. She explores the “abstract expressionism” of Jonathan Borofsky, Tom Nozkowski, Jonathan Lasker, and David Reed. Making reference to Lasker’s work, but in terms that could be applied more generally to these other artists as well, she argues that “translating Abstract Expressionism into a set of visual givens by means of carnivalesque counterfeit now enables what was once gesture to keep pace with shifts in cultural intention.” Welish also examines the “pictorialism” of Alex Katz and Eric Fischl. She points out how these artists conceptualize their images in terms of the prior history of art, especially the history of Abstract Expressionism, and also how their references are located in a matrix of cultural concerns. Katz gives us leisure-class “portraits conceived as color-field panoramas,” and Fischl “transforms suburbia into a lurid soap opera” using Neo-Expressionist techniques. In this essay, Welish revisits some of her primary concerns involving modernism and postmodernism. “Surveying the paintings of Katz and Fischl together, one can see how figurative painting that is similar in subject matter and locale can diverge enormously in content—that is, in the meaning that its figures readily enact.”

In the last section of her book, entitled “Ideas of Order,” Welish examines Minimalism and Conceptualism. She deals primarily with Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. Both Judd and LeWitt, she argues, responded to the subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism. In its place, they endeavored to make “specific objects” and “conceptual objects” that operate according to theoretical systems. Welish also deals with “ideas of order” in the multivalenced works of James Turrell, Nancy Haynes, Jene Highstein, Siah Armajani, and Hannes Brunner. She points out that, in LeWitt’s serial configurations, “inscription replaces expression.” Something similar could be said with regard to the other artists, but in terms of “perception replacing expression,” “reiteration replacing expression,” of some other formulation. Again, what is at stake is a shift from emotional to intellectual methods. In the work of all these artists, rational and rhetorical means are used to unpack the assumptions of Abstract Expressionism by exposing the antinomies of seeing, of designing, of ordering, and of building.

Welish’s criticism is informed by her training in art history. She argues persuasively that an art historically informed practice allows critics to make believable assertions about contemporary art because it provides an antidote for both the “infinite regress of interpretation” and the “mood swings of opinion.” The “hypothetical knowledge” of art history gives interpreters an important set of intellectual tools. Understanding style as an aspect of culture and establishing chronologies that reflect historical change can be coupled with disciplines such as phenomenology, hermeneutics, and semiotics to good effect. Welish argues that a synthetic approach can produce criticism grounded in the pursuit of genuine understanding while remaining open to imaginative interpretation.

The course that I teach most often is entitled “Art Since 1960,” and thinking of this course, I found Welish’s insights and observations very useful. Her essays will be good additions to my list of suggested readings. I think any reader of her book will come away with a more sophisticated understanding of issues that have occupied artists since 1960. Welish not only educates her readers about art, she also informs them about art writing. The collection contains essays about Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg and an interesting analysis of the myriad ways in which the works of Johns have been received. Welish takes on complex questions surrounding the distinctions between description, interpretation, and evaluation—and provides us with sage advice about how to adjust to changes in the way social and cultural matters are ordered and how regimes of knowledge and belief can be appraised. As she puts it, “Art criticism may provide a mode of thought whereby speculative instruments—tools that are analytic and empirical, formal and stylistic, linguistic and philosophical—continue to test received ideas of modern (and postmodern) culture.”

Craig Adcock
School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa