What is Art III: Modernity as Iconoclasm

We continue with our struggle with Modern Art.

Alexander Rodchenko announced the death of painting in 1921, the early, still optimistic, days of the Bolshevik revolution. His triptych, Pure Red colour, Pure Yellow colour, Pure Blue colour. was just that, three canvases, each  24 5/8 x 20 11/16″, worked in red, yellow, and blue in a careless fashion. Years later the artist commented:

I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it’s all over.
Basic colors.
Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation.


Red, Yellos, and Blue,; Alexander Rodchenko 1921

This is kind of a thing in the contemporary world, the announcement of the end of things, like history. The hubris of Modernity. We might be somewhat envious of this level of faith on the part of these enemies of the past. Weird obsessions, and fragmented hopes, yet, the temerity to destroy what brought them into being, hoping to conjure something new from the rubble. Not just new, but superlative and at once inevitable. That is the clarity of faith.

But this objective only makes sense if you are an initiate of Rodchenko’s cult; if you accept his fundamental premise, that it is viciously deceptive to produce images that convince the eye of the viewer that objects in space occupy the surface of the canvas. This was a grounding meme of the early modern art movement, and is a preoccupation within all of Modern Art. It’s influence cannot be overstated.

Many of us cannot fully grasp this imperative, that because a painter usually paints on a flat surface, so a painter should paint things in flat areas of colour. Weird. We have centuries of development in producing, just with paint on a flat surface, the impression on the eye that people and spaces and objects inhabit the surface of the canvas, and this generation of early Commies decide this is not true enough. Worse: it is a lie. So Rodchenko decides to stop painting and practice industrial interior design and photography instead. But like a man unmoored from his spiritual ground, he must first play the megalomaniac, killing painting to set himself free of its allure,

The level of self deception here is staggering, especially to those of us outside the Communist>Sectarian memeplex. The hypocrisy, or at least the theoretical naivety, of a photographer condemning to oblivion the painter’s two dimensional representations of three dimensional space, when this is precisely the function of a camera.

Looking at a few of Rodchenko’s photographs: though many are interesting, we see a similar conflict as we saw with Rothko in What is Art: I. Having declared painting dead he then resorts to photography for image creation. Image construction to use the term of his school. But he is not free to photograph ‘space’, but is ever fighting with the world’s implacable spaciousness and the camera’s ability to capture it in an instant.

Looking at his photo of the woman walking up the wide stairs carrying a child below, The photographer has to engage in trickery, pushing the viewer toward vertigo in order to achieve his dogmatic flatness.


Sure it can be done, to some extent, but in what way is this less ‘deceptive’ than using perspective and tonal value to create form and depth? The delicious irony; a painter has more control over the perceived flatness than a photographer, though the photographer rejected painting as necessarily flawed in this matter..  Rodchenko had more success achieving his goal with the tricolour triptych above than with any of his photographs. yet even there, the painterly style gives the impression of ‘layers’, and so rudimentary ‘space’. The viewer is a pattern recognizing and ordering filter. These ironies are so delicious.

Of course the Communists proper did not plant this preoccupation in the artist’s mind. The Post Impressionists got it started. Paul Gauguin producing some beautiful canvases under this rule.


Arearea I; Paul Gauguin · 1892

I find Arearea I a pleasing and even beautiful image. At least it has beautiful elements, but it is typical of the unfinished quality of Gauguin’s work of this period. And while the artist might be working from the economy of, “Why finish that area more?”, the viewer is prompted to ask, “Why was that area left so sketchy?”. Did Gauguin suffer from ADD? (There’s a thesis in there for some bright kid.)

Yet these early Modern painters were in time considered romantic keepers of the old aristocratic and individualistic method of art; producing decorations for elite buyers, or making ‘art’ segregated from ‘life’ in a gallery. The Commies hit art hard. They wanted to ‘destroy art’ and bring the surviving creative intuition and process into service of the Proletarian State. Constructions replaced art and needed to conform to the social>political ideals of the Revolution. Constructions must be practical objects inspiring the newly liberated workers. And in their construction they they needed to be ideals of industrial production.

The part of this story that is so hard to wrap our heads around is the implied rejection of all the world before, though we can understand the youthful enthusiasm that something new was being discovered. New perhaps, yet inexorably tied to a tradition it was rejecting. And the rejection did not reveal total freedom. Rather a rebellious antithesis of the Titans that preceded. As such it was merely a Jungian shadow or the forms of the past.

In the Revolutionaries own words;

From Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) ‘Programme of the First Working Group of Constructivists’

Our sole ideology is scientific communism based on the theory of historical materialism.

[. . .]

3 In the agitational sphere:
i The Group declares uncompromising war on art.
II It asserts that the artistic culture of the past is unacceptable for the
communistic forms of Constructivist structures.

Emphasis mine

And Alexei Gan (1889-1942) from Constructivism;

In the field of cultural organization, the only valid criterion is that which is
indissolubly connected with the general tasks of the revolution … Art is dead!
There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique and

And further;

All hail to the Communist expression of material building! [ … ]
The end has come to pure and applied [art]. A time of social expediency has begun. An object of only utilitarian significance will be introduced in a form acceptable to all.
Nothing by chance, uncalculated, nothing from blind taste and aesthetic arbitrariness. Everything must be technically and functionally directed. Once and for all the idea of a final solution and eternal truths must be invalidated.

Emphasis mine.

Hard not to smile at this last sentence’s “once and for all” invalidation of “eternal truths”. Ideals can inspire, however ridiculous and ill formed.

In the field of cultural organization, the only valid criterion is that which is indissolubly connected with the general tasks of the revolution … Art is dead! There is no room for it in the human work apparatus. Work, technique and organization!

Let us tear ourselves away from our speculative activity [art] and find the Way to real work, applying our knowledge and skills to real, live and expedient Rationalization and Transformation work. Intellectual-material production sets up working mutual relations and a production basis with science and technique, replacing art which by its very nature cannot be disentangled from religion and philosophy and is not capable of pulling itself out of the closed circle of abstract, speculative activity …

Tectonic; factura, construction. Retaining the lasting material and formal basis of art such as colour, line, surface, volume and movement, artistic work materialistically directed will become, in conditions of expedient activity and intellectual-material production, capable of opening new means of artistic expression. Not to reflect, not to represent and not to interpret reality, but to really build and express the systematic tasks of the new class, the proletariat. The master of colour and line, the builder of space-volume forms and the organizer of mass productions must all become constructors in the general work of the arming and moving of the many-rnillioned human masses….

Our Constructivism has declared unconditional war on art, for the means and qualities of art are not able to systematize the feelings of a revolutionary environment. [ . . . ]

Emphasis mine

For those interested in a fuller reading of these quotes are taken from Art in Theory 1900-1990, pages 315-320

Below is one of these magnificent Constructions meant to inspire the prole masses to embrace the future of ever-newness in rebellion to the stifling autocratic dictates of beauty, form, and tradition.



Lyubov Popova’s kinetic stage set for ‘The Magnanimous Cuckold’, 1922 (Looks like a flea circus or a mouse gym.)

Again the paradoxical claims of these idealists amuse.  In what way does the Rube Goldberg Machine above  “disentangle” art “from religion and philosophy”? We might forgive the exuberance of the early atheistic Commies, even their weary children are yet to grasp that there is functionally no difference between religious fervour for God and that for Materialistic Communism,  and its determinations. From our vantage the spirit that motivated these dogmatic artists was religious, and—the irony multiplies—a religion with much less freedom than the one it deposed. And it’s world infinitesimally small by comparison. For this Communism is a lessening or the world, not an expansion.

We will follow this story a bit further into the 20th Century. For this seemingly neurotic preoccupation with the flatness of the picture plane persists to the present in some schools. And by affirmation or reaction much of Modern Art can be reduced to an attempt to answer the flatness critique.

Abstract Expressionism


Who’s afraid of Red Yellow and Blue III; Barnett Newman;,967

Though late in his productive life, Barnett Newman’s series Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue states back over the years a fundamental meaning in his work. Though Wikipedia misses the connection to Rodchenko’s ‘Death of Painting’ triptych, comparing Newman’s title to Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf, and by extension, Who’s afraid of the Big Bad WolfNewman was reasserting the picture plane about as purely as anyone has. Even Rodchenko’s three canvases had painterly texture. For Newman honest painting meant even fields of pure colour without the personal touch of the artist’s hand on it. Though rigidly adhering to the flatness dogma, Newman positively affirms the art of painting, even if radically truncated in scope. He, and the other Abstract Expressionists also reclaimed the canvas as a vehicle for subjective, mystical, even religious iconography, as seen in his Voice of Fire from the same year.


Voice of Fire; Barnett Newman, 1967

in their own words we find out what these post war artist thought they were up to.

[ … ]

4 We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.

5 It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what
one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of (academic art).

[ … ]

Emphasis mine

(From Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970) with Barnett Newman (1905-1970) Statement (Art in Theory 1900-1990  P 562)

So though these artists were contradicting their Bolshevik antecedents in significant ways, they were even more at odds with the old Academic art. Nearly one hundred years later, and manifold incursions against it, the enemy yet was formalism; the image, space, light, illusion.

A good deal of our problem with some Modern Art schools is not that they exist, but the totalizing claim they make for their own worth. This is not the same as a deluded artist claiming, “I am the greatest living painter”. It is more the claim, “Our work is the only valid work today”.

Keeping with the Abstract Expressionists we can ask a few questions of Modernity. To be more generous we might say these works are a form of graphic art. A graphic image not for commercial or even obvious political utility, but for psycho>spiritual experience. This esotericism radically separates these artists from the Constructivists of a generation before.

Our critique is that all of this rage against formalism reveals a fundamental iconoclasm in the Modern Art mood. This thesis needs a good deal more space to work out in time, for now we will introduce it by considering the intent of the Abstract Expressionists in their own words. We kicked Rothko around a bit in our first post in this series, and didn’t let him speak for himself. For whatever we may think of his work, for Rothko, his images carry the essential function of a mandala;

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. The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation. Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his plastic bank-book, just as he has abandoned other forms of security. Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.

I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.

Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.

[ … ]

A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their affliction universally.

Emphasis mine

Projection much; lol.

This never needed to be said about classical imagery, which may have offended in content, but rarely in execution.


Red, Blue, Orange; Mark Rothko, 1955; over contemporary furniture

Mark Rothko master of Mod art decor. Empty images for empty souls. 

Well the world has generated a hoard of vacuous sophists to feign they get his work; these have no vulgar eye or cruelty in their impotence. In truth I get Rothko’s work, at least as well as most. But, I see it more as a documentation of a mind contorted by  ideology than as something of enduring profundity. The desire to paint and even to be a ‘great painter’ under the arid deprivations of his ideology expressed itself in a large volume of work which we must admit does have a contemplative influence on the observer. (I have had the chance to stand before a few of Rothko’s paintings in a gallery, and did my best to experience them as the artist intended.) But we must ask ‘Contemplation of what?’ Here lies the iconoclasm. A post-war atheist Jew; what metaphysics can he draw on to conjure icons? His images speak to the utter bareness of the Modern soul, nauseous at the birth pangs of its Post Modern realization. The paintings must also express both the ritual iconoclasm of the Jewish tradition, and the Jewish artists fundamental alienation from the received iconography of the West. Positing images from Rothko’s own tradition would be vulgar, and would alienate him from the centre of the Art World. Making ‘Jewish art’ would have no more cache than Christian art in the 1950s. So Rothko posited near emptiness as the God of our adoration.

Adolph Gottlieb’s comment on his own work and that of his fellow painters is telling;

The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.

Emphasis mine 

Gottlieb spells the iconoclasm out clearly. He lived in a fearful evil world, to which he and his fellows could only offer neurotic expressions of their souls. For the artist, evil seems to be external, not a problem of the human soul. For these artists everything was gone. The slate of the icon was wiped and these artists were pushing the residual chalk into square and blobs to try and make sense of it.


Apaquogue; Adolph Gottlieb, 1961

We have been extracting a narrative thread from the chaos of 20th Century art. Modern Art theory is actually a fragmented set of contradictory ideas. Yet it has trudged over the century as a whole. True, this cohesion into a single ‘Story of Modern Art’ is in part created by the post hoc narrative of the various movements and schools; our innate drive to make sense out of mess (much like we are forced to do in the presence of these paintings). The galleries and dealers naturally have interest in a connecting story justifying the value of works from the various schools. But there are real ideological connections as we have seen. The aesthetics have been driven by external concerns; moral, political, and social. But the image, even in its minimalist form, eventually speaks for itself, as Rothko said. And so the pragmatist has to ask, if a plain field of blue, why not the details of an ocean, a sky and sand at our feet?

There have been rebellions against the iconoclasm of the Modern era in art. The various phases of Photorealism are a good example.  But often even these movements reveal the victory of iconoclasm; if by icon we mean an image common to the souls of a given community: a prompt for worship or contemplation. The objects portrayed in much photorealism reveal the degradation of the state of collective meaning into mere materialism. Common objects, with a nostalgic, at times even sentimental value.


John’s Diner with John’s Chevelle; John Baeder, 2007

I do not mean to condemn these works. They are important documentations of what an artist with real visual acuity can produce in the contemporary world. We might consider them as belonging to the tradition of Pieter Bruegel’s honouring of peasant life. That the artist is willing to spend hours contemplating the bedraggled, mundane corners of the contemporary urban landscape is admirable. It betrays a romantic spirit. These paintings are twice reactionary; in both the image and in subject matter. Thus they are a pictorial kick against the stultifying dogmas of Modern Art. Yet they also betray an acquiescence to Modernity. Nothing is great; nothing coheres into a Narrative of a people. They are radically democratic, isolated, individual.

Though likely unintended by the artist, we may find a ground zero for our reassertion of space in this work by Catherine Murphy.

Catharine Murphy; blankets-2006

Blankets; Catherine Murphy, 2006

The red-orange planes in Blankets are reminiscent of Rothko’s colour fields. The sliver of view beyond into the yard is reminiscent of Newman’s compositions. Though with him it would be a sliver of flat colour. As the yard space is so harshly cropped by the blankets it functions as an icon of space more than space itself. As if to say the old assumption of the illusion of space lies just beyond the dogmatist’s delusion of flatness. Or we might be so bold as to subtitle this piece, “Who’s afraid of form, space and illusion?” The blankets are in their own right masterfully presented, as with all of Murphy’s work. Revealing the artist’s love for the visual world and her ability to contemplate it in a patient interaction with paint, canvas, eye, and intuition..

These early posts have been an expurgation of some of the enduring false preoccupations of the Modern era in art. We have said almost nothing on the subject yet of course, but we have exposed some basic delusions that have been passed on to several generations of Western artists. These ideals are totally foreign to this artist, though in school I was taught to integrate them into my artistic motivations. For a good deal of time I kept them in the back of my creative mind, feeling them prod me like an inner snob, “You want to be relevant don’t you.?” Now I wish to be free of them. For whatever masterworks of art these machinations over paint and canvas and honesty have produced, the conversation is now kind of silly. At least it should be exposed as such.

If we are not Communists, don’t hate the tradition of Western art, and have no issue with creating illusions on canvas, what part in Modern art do we share? The questions of how to present art in a traditional way is difficult. There are no intact traditions in the West. (apart from Orthodox Christian iconography perhaps [but that’s another subject]). Western art is fragmented. It is not just a matter of reasserting the canvas as a place for formal imagery, that is only a small part of it. Content, method, style, context and market all need to be restated. Something more profound than Commie wranglings over ‘decptions’, or arid Atheist spirituality, or pop and kitsch nostalgia, or even pure love of visual contemplation is needed as well. It is easy to tear down, but what will we build?


2 thoughts on “What is Art III: Modernity as Iconoclasm

  1. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2017/07/30) - Social Matter

  2. Pingback: Tradition p1 – FOLKWAYS

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