What do you see in this painting?
Do you see the aerial view of a sprawling neighborhood? Vintage cameras stacked one on top of the other? Or a labyrinth?
Though this painting is evidently a work of abstract art devoid of realistic depictions, the mind seeks to discern any point of familiarity. The desire to demand, “what is that?” is almost instinctual to our engagement with the work. Yet it seems nearly impossible to deduce anything other than shapes from this painting. Only the artist could tell us what she was trying to convey, but she chose to title the painting merely “White Squares.” In order to understand the motives for such radical depictions in art, we can choose to look at political history.
Many art movements of the past century have intentionally shared political messages. In the 1980s, artists created work that openly criticized the US government. For example, gay artists in New York City commented on their experience as homosexuals amidst a conservative and traditional political climate. Keith Haring designed posters for the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), one of the largest AIDS activism groups in the country. Felix Gonzalez Torres, one of the artists of the new conceptual art movement of the 1980s, created a series of “dateline pieces” with an amalgamation of unconnected historical events to make viewers reconsider their biased understandings of culture and politics. In 1987, Alfredo Jarr installed an exhibit in Times Square featuring a neon outline of the United States with the words “This is Not America” splashed against the backdrop. Engaging with this art demanded that viewers not only appreciate the pieces as a creative expression but also ruminate on the political and social contexts in which they had been created. As such, these artists were fully-fledged activists. Their medium of protest was their artwork.
Art as a form of political protest is a practice that comes up time and time again in history. However, artists did not always splash their dissent across the canvas as they did in the 1980s. The intent of most art movements was aesthetic, rather than political—that is to say, they did not directly share a political message with the viewer. Nevertheless, many of these artists’ philosophies were inspired by the political realities of their eras.
One such art movement, detailed in length in Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, was the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Though their paintings were abstract on canvas, this abstraction could be seen as a form of political dissent.
It was quite confusing to understand the meaning behind the first painting included in this article: White Squares by Lee Krasner. However, as abstract expressionist Elaine de Kooning would tell you, “You don’t ask people to explain… Explanations are for other people… burdened by logic.” To her, artists were free from the need to give meaning to everything they came across in life. This was the consensus of many abstract expressionist painters during the American “abstract revolution” of the mid-20th century. Artists no longer wanted to follow the rule book of perfect proportions and photographic landscapes which rendered art perfectly discernable. To many, that rule book was symptomatic of the same society that caused the Great Depression and the Second World War. Norms allowed mass starvation on the streets of New York City, enabled the instantaneous deaths of thousands at Hiroshima, and were the reason most young men couldn’t close their eyes at night without dreaming of bombshells and their own impending deaths. As World War II veterans, poverty-stricken young couples, and cynical creative souls flocked to New York City, artists ruminated on the implications of portraying the devastation of their world. Instead, they chose abstraction.
This was a decisive break from the long-standing artistic tradition of realism. The viewer is not supposed to discern anything from these tableaus because they are not inspired by our shared landscape. On these canvases, not only is the devastated world undepicted, but something much more individualistic takes its spot. These paintings are creative endeavors which draw inspiration from the realities inside one’s mind. Unconstrained by reality, artists invigoratingly explored the limits of their own freedom and found it to be quite far-reaching.
Elaine de Kooning was right. We must not seek to understand what is being painted. With a second glance at Lee’s painting, the white lines become nothing more than strokes of paint which begin, continue, and end beyond the borders of the canvas. The lines, intensely illuminated, seem to remain in motion while stuck strictly still. Just like the other abstract expressionist paintings included in this article, nothing is discernible besides shape and colors. This nothingness, this complete lack of recognizable objects, is an almost seamless escape from reality.
Within a span of 20 years, we examined two very different reactions by artists to the political state. The New York School artists often used art to escape their social frustration, while artists of the 1980s used art to confront that frustration. Born of political grievance, both movements fostered incredible revolutions in the world of art.
The philosophies which drive new art movements are usually symptomatic of larger social discontent. When politics dictates the amount of food one can buy, where one can live, and who gets to live and die on the battlefield, it is impossible to detach oneself from the political system. As citizens, all aspects of our lives become shaped by politics. Just like any informed citizen, artists’ perspectives are formed by their immediate reality and therefore, deliberately or inadvertently, come to represent the zeitgeist of their era.