Read an Excerpt
WOMEN, THE NEW YORK SCHOOL, AND OTHER TRUE ABSTRACTIONS
By MAGGIE NELSON University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2007 Maggie Nelson
All right reserved.
Chapter One ABSTRACT PRACTICES
THE ART OF JOAN MITCHELL, BARBARA GUEST, AND THEIR OTHERS
As the dust of the twentieth century settles, it's quite possible that many artists, writers, and critics would identify the move away from "the impediment of 'representation,' all that easy mimicry, etc." (as Robert Creeley has put it) and toward differing forms of "abstraction" as one of-if not the-defining impulse in both verbal and visual art. In the seventies Creeley went so far as to assert that this move "gave us, in short, what art we have had in the last 50 years. At least that" (Yau, 52), and many would probably (if grudgingly) agree.
But throughout the modernist period, for every Wallace Stevens who stayed busy elaborating the idea of a Supreme Fiction that "must be abstract," there was also a William Carlos Williams proclaiming "No ideas but in things!" As Wendy Steiner has observed about the many literary modernists who came out "on the side of things" (whatever that might mean), "writer after writer-no matter how hermetically his work was cut off from the 'average reader-vowed his hatred of abstraction" (183). And while Creeley himself celebrates abstraction as the major event of twentieth-century art, he also adds this caveat: "Danger is very much present in the too simple concept: 'abstraction.' The idea of it, rather than the practice" (Yau, 52). Similarly, Gertrude Stein-who perhaps worked harder than any other writer in the twentieth century to disrupt the tradition of mimesis as metaphor for or goal of artistic practice-was also quite wary of abstraction, which she famously deemed "pornographic."
Given these recurrent tensions, it may make more sense to highlight not abstraction per se as the twentieth-century's overriding obsession, but rather the negotiation a work of art makes between its dual status as a sign of the thing-world and a part of the thing-world. This negotiation certainly has its roots in modernism (in Duchamp's readymades, in the cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, in Stein's nonrepresentational still lifes and portraiture, and so on), but in retrospect also appears the animating force of much else: Pollock's drip paintings, Rauschenberg's combines, Warhol's soup cans, Robert Smithson's earthworks, Carolee Schneeman's body art, and so on. It also continues to shape much contemporary debate about American poetry-a debate which still worries over whether poetry should privilege "the word over the world." In the past few decades, the varying debates about Language writing and its challenges have presented the most salient example: in his 1993 book After the Death of Poetry, for instance, Shetley compares the chilly poles of New Formalism and Language writing to conclude that poetry's cultural reputation has been lost, and can only be restored if it manages to strike some kind of balance between the two extremes-that is, if the poetry of the future can "bring together the authority of skeptical reflection with that of experience. Neither is adequate by itself" (191).
Some feminists might scoff at this fuzzy, seemingly outdated dichotomy of "reflection" vs. "experience," but a similar split continues to run through feminist conversations about women's writing. The 1999 Barnard conference, for example, hopefully titled "Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women," ended up mostly underscoring the divide; as Frances Richard later observed about the event in the spring-summer 2000 issue of Fence magazine, it was as if "the poetic spectrum had collapsed to navel-gazing lyric or egg-headed language and the twain could never meet" (87). In another statement published in Fence after the conference, the organizers (Rankine and Cummings) asked almost plaintively, "Might the opposition between object and representation be addressed in other, less combative terms?" (126)
This chapter addresses this question through a consideration of the "abstract practices" of the painter Joan Mitchell and the poet Barbara Guest. Creeley's phrase is important here not only because it emphasizes the decades-long commitment to her artistic practice that both Mitchell and Guest made, but also because it serves as a helpful reminder of the fact that "abstract is not a style," as Mitchell was fond of saying. Indeed, regardless of its hold on the twentieth-century imagination, abstraction is not any one thing (as a cursory walk through a gallery containing works by artists such as Kandinsky, Miró, Rothko, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Bridget Riley, and Amy Sillman, for example, would quickly make clear). Similarly, the various kinds of abstraction explored by writers of the past century or so are nothing if not diverse: no one would say that Mallarmé, Stein, Creeley, Celan, and Ashbery, for example, contend with abstraction in the same, or even similar, ways. What's more, as Wendy Steiner reminds us, when it comes to abstraction, the painting-literature analogy is by no means a simple one, complicated as it is by "the ability of painting to he utterly abstract and the corresponding inability of literature to be so, since it is composed of words that have preexisting meanings" (Colors, 65-66). The complexity of this analogy only deepens when one contends with the broad, slippery, and often vague employment of the word "abstract" by critics, artists, and writers alike, and the confusions that can arise when the word gets dragged across multiple disciplines.
The work of both Mitchell and Guest speaks generously and provocatively to Rankine and Cummings's question-"Might the opposition between object and representation be addressed in other, less combative terms?"-but I want to make clear at the outset that I'm not holding them up as examples of artists who've somehow bridged the gap, so to speak. Such a goal doesn't strike me as possible or even desirable. As O'Hara demonstrated in his statement for Allen's New American Poetry, it's the mysterious movement between the concrete and the abstract that can be so much fun: "It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time" (420). In keeping with this vacillating spirit, I hope here to underscore how Guest and Mitchell are each central to their fields and periods, and at the same time to chart the ways in which their specific "abstract practices" represent an important mark of difference within them: Joan Mitchell's slowed-down, landscape-oriented practice of abstraction differs tremendously from the better-known and mythologized accounts of New York School action painting; likewise, while Barbara Guest is endlessly referred to as the only woman poet in the first generation of the New York School, her work is often strikingly different from that of Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara, and Schuyler, and for a variety of reasons has not found an easy home in their "school." As far as I see it, one could easily consider each woman's work as either emblematic or disruptive of the terms of the movements with which it is associated-the first move aims to shifts them to the center, the second, to preserve the power of the margin. Both gestures have their temptations, but I suspect the tension between them is more engaging if left unresolved.
At first this approach may appear to resemble the one taken by Ward in his review of Guest's If So, Tell Me (in Jacket 10), in which he writes:
It is possible to reconfigure the New York School showing Barbara Guest to be of marginal, or equally, of major importance. There are obvious links. She connected with the world of visual arts, and indeed her work may be more genuinely influenced by abstract painting than is the male poets'.... However it is in part the quality of the parallel that finally sets her apart from the male poets with whom she conversed, and for much of the time her work does not resemble theirs at all.... The two wider traditions in which it might be even more useful to situate her work would be those of modernist women's poetry (particularly given her biography of H.D.), and ultimately, aestheticism. (n.p.)
I agree with Ward's tacit point, that there's no "correct" way of constructing a movement-that the very construction of one endlessly invites being "reformulated, expanded, or exploded by reading different texts," as he says elsewhere. Surely that's all part of the critical dance, and without it, many would be out of a job. But despite Guest's real affinity with H.D. and other modernists, the idea of situating her work with other "women's poetry" gives me pause, as it cleaves Guest from her milieu-a redundant gesture, at this point-not to mention modernist women from modernist men.
For while there's intrigue and excitement in the idea of a parallel tradition, there's real conflict, too. There also exist profound aesthetic differences between the male members of the New York School of poets and painters that should not be overlooked (a Schuyler poem rarely "resembles" an Ashbery poem; a painting by Kline rarely "resembles" one by Pollock), but the problem remains that profound differences between male artists do not always preclude their membership in a group or club. In fact, critics often treat such differences as necessary to the formation of a sort of gang of superheros, in which each wields his own special power (i.e., "If each of the four [poets] had a role to play, Ashbery's was that of the Poet ... O'Hara was the hero ... Koch was the madcap," and so on [Lehman, 72]), or as paradigmatic of important shifts in purpose or sensibility (i.e., the alleged split between the camps of Pollock and Willem de Kooning, or the alleged "defacement" of Abstract Expressionist gesture by artists such as Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, etc.). In the case of the male Abstract Expressionist painters, the more vociferous the differences among them, the more these differences were heralded as proof of their "irascible" individuality-a club-by-divergences which famously took a literal form for some time as "The Club."
On a more basic level, the construction of a parallel tradition also airlifts women out of the scene in which they lived and worked. In his memoir Tracking the Marvelous: A Life in the New York Art World, John Bernard Myers describes the New York School milieu as follows: "Grace Hartigan and Jane Freilicher divided O'Hara and Ashbery between them. Nellie Blaine latched onto Koch. Helen Frankenthaler and Mary Abbot took up with Barbara Guest, as did Robert Goodnough" (147). Later, in discussing the Artists Theatre formed in 1953, Myers writes:
Our program that first year consisted of tour one-act plays written for us: Tennessee Williams' Auto-Da-Fé, with décor by Robert Soule; Try! Try! by Frank O'Hara, décor by Larry Rivers; Presenting Jane by James Schuyler, film sequence by John Latouche, décor by Elaine de Kooning; and Red Riding Hood by Kenneth Koch, set by Grace Hartigan.... We moved to the Comedy Club for our next presentation.... We used for this program a play by John Ashbery, The Heros, décor by Nellie Blaine, The Lady's Choice by Barbara Guest, décor by Jane Freilicher, and The Bait by James Merrill, décor by Albert Kresch. (166)
I reprint this brief snapshot not only to suggest the flavor of the artistic production of the place and time, but also to call attention to the novelty of men (primarily gay men) and women working side by side in that production, taking each other's writing and art seriously-a trend that didn't necessarily extend to other midcentury avant-garde scenes, such as the more homosocial environments of the San Francisco Renaissance or Black Mountain College (a point chapter 2 explores in more detail). In tribute to this fact, this chapter pays a significant amount of attention to the work of Mitchell and Guest on its own, and also in relation to, and sometimes collaboration with, the work of other male figures of the period, including Schuyler, Ashbery, O'Hara, and Joe Brainard, while it also sets forth larger questions about women, abstraction, and the processes of literary and art history.
IT'S A DAUNTING TASK to bring a feminist perspective to bear on artists famous for bristling at the very presence of the words "women" and "artist" in the same sentence. When asked to write a response to Linda Nochlin's famous 1971 article "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Elaine de Kooning sent the following:
I was talking to Joan Mitchell once at a party ten years ago when a man came up to us and said, "What do you women artists think ..." Joan grabbed my arm and said, "Elaine, let's get the hell out of here." That was my first response to Linda Nochlin's essay. I was curious about how a man would react. Alex Katz thought it would be a cop-out to answer the piece. Sherman (Drexler) thought it would be a cop-out not to answer it. John Cage thought the question "divisive and an over-simplification." I agree with all of them. (Hesse, 56)
"Let's get the hell out of here" seems to me an understandable response. But the progress of de Kooning's comment is telling, insofar as her next response is to canvass the important men in her life, as if a chorus of male opinion were a prerequisite to knowing what she wanted to say. She then takes an undeniable pleasure in agreeing with the men, and aligning against the feminist scholar. It's not an unusual stance, especially at that particular cultural moment: before the feminist movement (and, I'm sure some would argue, long after) such an attitude was something of a prerequisite for women to get in and stay in the conversation-the way to get ahead, get seen, get heard. Looking back on this period in a 1986 conversation with Nochlin, Mitchell elaborates on this aspect of the painting scene:
JOAN MITCHELL: ... I think the women were, some of them, more down on women than the men.
LINDA NOCHLIN: Yeah, that's perfectly possible.
JOAN MITCHELL: [A lot, Like], you know.
LINDA NOCHLIN: But I just wondered whether the generally nonsupportive atmosphere for women artists, whether it's by fellow women, or by men, or by a general atmosphere, or what?
JOAN MITCHELL: Oh, I don't know. I adulated the men so much they sort of liked me. I mean, I thought Bill [de Kooning] was a great painter. They liked me.
LINDA NOCHLIN: Yeah, but I mean, they would have liked you if you weren't a painter, too. I mean, was there any feeling that ...
JOAN MITCHELL: I don't think.... No, no, [Conrad] Marca-Relli [shows at McGee now] and Nic Carone [teaches at Studio School] in the Stable Gallery, they ... Hans Hofmann was very supportive-of me. I used to run into him in the park. I'd be dog-walking at nine in the morning, he'd say, "Mitchell, you should be painting." Very nice. (both chuckle) I don't think women in any way were a threat to these men, so they could encourage the "lady painter."
LINDA NOCHLIN; Umm. But what if you ...
JOAN MITCHELL: Oh, 130, I was very seriously involved in painting, they knew that.
LINDA NOCHLIN: Yeah.
JOAN MITCHELL: Philip Guston was very nice to me.
LINDA NOCHLIN; Yes. So you didn't feel any difference?
JOAN MITCHELL: Well, about what?
LINDA NOCHLIN: I mean, if you'd been a man painter?
JOAN MITCHELL: I would have had a lot easier time.
LINDA NOCHLIN: Yeah, okay. (n.p.)
At a different point in the conversation, still undaunted by the task of trying to needle some feminism or protofeminism out of Mitchell, Nochlin pushes at her to say more about how it felt to be a woman painter amidst so many men. Mitchell responds: "How did I feel, like how? I felt, you know, when I was discouraged I wondered if really women couldn't paint, the way all the men said they [the women] couldn't paint. But then at other times I said, 'Fuck them,' you know."
Excerpted from WOMEN, THE NEW YORK SCHOOL, AND OTHER TRUE ABSTRACTIONS by MAGGIE NELSON Copyright © 2007 by Maggie Nelson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.