“it’s a beautiful spring day,” my professor said as he sat down behind the podium at the front of the room. i looked up at him, and then back down at my crossword puzzle, waiting for him to finish the banter and start the lecture. 2 down was HORDES.he went on. “i woke up early this morning and went outside to check on the roses in my backyard.” (oh. TAKEN.) “as i walked around and looked at the flowers i felt very grateful, because i could do that knowing that i was not going to be a victim of an air raid.” i looked up. the small light on the podium reflected off his glasses. i couldn’t see his eyes. “i was not going to have to hide underground. none of my friends or family members were going to be killed unexpectedly in their homes or on their way to work. this,” he said, “is a perfect day to talk about abstract expressionism. it’s a perfect day to talk about artists who rose out of the depression only to be faced with the horrors of the holocaust.” i listened to the rest of what he said, and at the time i thought he made a good point and did it quite eloquently, but now i can’t remember what he said. AGITATE. i think he mentioned a few individual artists, but i’m not sure. after he finished talking about that, i went back to the crossword puzzle, taking sporadic notes while the slide projector clicked and hummed through willem dekooning, whom i don’t like. 34 across was FOOTNOTE. but i thought about it later. my professor always says that the abstract expressionists suffered from a so-called “crisis of subject matter.” with thousands of years of religious imagery, portraiture, still life, and landscape behind them, the abstract expressionists worried that they were left with nothing new or innovative to do. even the surrealists used the same old classical technique, presenting merely new things to be seen rather than a new way of seeing. i’ve never really felt like i got abstract expressionism. you can take two still lifes or portraits or landscapes, put them next to each other, and be able to tell which one is better: which painter has been able to represent the subject more accurately, which work has the better use of color, which one catches the light in just the right way. surrealism, as stated above, utilizes classical technique; to be successful, surrealism must depict the “new thing to be seen” so hyperrealistically that the viewer will believe that it’s raining men, that the “young virgin” really is being “auto-sodomized by her own chastity.” but when my professor clicks through slide shows during class and tells me that he thinks barnett newman is one of the greatest, most underrated abstract expressionists, that jackson pollock’s work went downhill later in his life, that lee krasner’s painting improved drastically after her husband’s death, i can never, ever understand why he thinks that. if you put two abstract paintings next to each other, i could certainly tell you which one i preferred, but i couldn’t tell you which one was supposed to be better or why. to me, most abstract expressionist paintings i’ve seen are like wallpaper: the colors and shapes and textures are appealing to me, but they never make me feel anything. bear with me now, because i think we’re going to get somewhere soon. i’ve made a handy illustration of what some noted abstract expressionists came up with between 1941 and 1945:
my professor indicated that perhaps the abstract expressionists had some of the same thoughts and feelings during world war two as we may be having in our own time. leaving out technological advantages which give more immediate information to us than was avaliable to people in the 1940’s, they too heard about the horrors taking place thousands of miles away. they worked and ate and slept and lived relatively normal lives, with the torture blood destruction murder occurring outside their sphere of experience. looking at the paintings above, it’s hard to believe any of those artists thought about war much at all. after class that day, i drove home from campus, listening to classic rock radio and drinking what was left of my coffee. an AM radio station broke in, announced themselves as the news counterpart of the classic rock station, and began to give war updates. the person speaking got as far as “50 Iraqis dead…” before i spaced out, thinking about taking a shower, checking my email. that afternoon i went and ate sushi with some friends from work. ESPN was on in the restaurant, the TV right in front of me, the audio loud, and i tried to ignore it as i listened to trina talk about feeding her herds of monkeys at the zoo. when sportscenter became a news update, i was using my chopstick to stab at the green smears of wasabi floating in their little lake of soy sauce. there was something about bombs. after we ate, i went home and took a nap. later that evening, i sat down and tried to paint. i’d bought a medium-sized canvas, and i was planning to use acrylics, some oil paints i had left over, and a few black-and-white postcards i’d cut up. after carefully cutting stencils for each of the postcard pieces and painting around each stencil on the canvas, i stuck the postcard pieces to the canvas as well. looking at my work, i decided more paint was needed, so i mixed a few oils and acrylics together and brushed the color on, not really knowing what i was doing. when i ran out of paint on the palette, i squeezed out more oil and acrylic, mixed more colors, and put more paint on the canvas. each time i did this my brush was thicker with paint, my strokes broader and heavier, my colors more haphazard. i needed more paint. picking up the red oil, i emptied the tube onto the canvas and smeared the paint around with my hands, making angry lines and squiggles with my fingers. i couldn’t stop, didn’t stop until i had to leave the house, a half-hour later than i should have. the resultant painting looked sort of like a darker, muddier version of this:
, and if you put lee krasner’s painting next to mine, i could definitely tell you i don’t prefer mine. maybe, like me, the abstract expressionists didn’t really know what to think. maybe everything came to them in flashes of feeling they didn’t quite know how to express. maybe they felt as guilty as i do that the faraway conflict seemed small to them compared to their coffee, their lunch with friends, their art classes, their crossword puzzle in the newspaper.