Man as Subject

Number 10, (1950) by Mark Rothko

Number 10, 1950 by Mark Rothko, 1950.
Oil on canvas, 90-3/8 x 57-1/8 in.
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)

I love drawing from life.  Perhaps my most revelatory art-making experience came in my first figure-drawing course, when we were introduced to gesture drawing, the super-short (like, 20-second) poses that force one to try to capture the essential energy of the stance in a simple, rapid action.  I quickly realized that I loved the bold attack that was required, and that it generated my best work – strong, fluid, fresh, honest.  I also learned that long poses bored me – often I’d said most of what I wanted to say in that first attack, and prolonged development did not usually improve on it.

But the human figure is rarely a subject in my work.  Nor is the drama and urge for story-making that accompanies it.  I experience almost a visceral rejection of narrative and drama as subject.  I view excising unnecessary drama from our lives as a step on the path to transcendence; portraying it in my art only reinforces it.

But is it necessary for the figure to be the subject for our work to be humanistic?  As we are ourselves human, cannot humanity help but be present in our work?

William C. Seitz, in his early classic Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, explores subject matter and content as used in the work of several fellow artists of the New York School, including the subject of “man”:

The subject of man, however, divides between an objective outer conception and inner expression.  God, in the traditional sense in which He was imaged on the Sistine ceiling, is seldom represented today.  Yet the personal quest for a transcendental reality, and for an absolute, has in no sense abated.  Recognition must be give to this all-important distinction between more or less objectively stated, often representational, subject matter and an inner existential, or transcendental, content. “

And further on:

A rationalized attempt to solve the dilemma of subject, means, and technique, if such it is, theoretically splits into two possible solutions:  first, and more conservative, a reciprocal modification of contemporary abstract form and the autonomy of the human body; second, the more daring solution which accepts the challenge of abstraction and seeks to contain and communicate human meaning without representation.  It is characteristic of the Abstract Expressionists to find plastic solutions in which contradiction is sustained.

…Let us direct our attention to the [first] solution.  In regarding the content we call “human” as synonymous with figuration, are we not in tacit agreement with the opponents of modern style?  Are we not committing ourselves to a philosophy of art which is, to say the least, a bit beefy?

The notably cantankerous Mark Rothko was achieving his classic style (as in “Number 10”, at the top of this post) in the early 1950s, the years when Seitz was interviewing him and observing his work.  But a decade and a half before his style was quite different:

Underground Fantasy, c.1940 - Mark Rothko

Subway (Subterranean Fantasy) by Mark Rothko, ca. 1936
Oil on canvas, 33-3/4 x 46 in.
(The Mark Rothko Foundation, New York)

Seitz considers Rothko’s development “especially instructive” in his examination of man as subject:

[Rothko’s] compositions of the thirties represent human figures in rooms and subways and streets.  Some of the reasons for his change in forms may be reflected in later observations:  “But the solitary figure could not raise its limbs in a single gesture that might indicate its concern with the fact of mortality and an insatiable appetite for ubiquitous experience in the face of this fact.  Nor could the solitude be overcome.  It could gather on beaches and streets and in parks only through coincidence, and, with its companions, for a tableau vivant of human incommunicability.”  Seen in relation to his verbal statements and conversation, the abandonment of traditional figuration in Rothko’s work appears to have been a breakthrough from the hampering representation of everyday situations to meanings hidden behind compromises which, though they must make up practical living, mask the inner drives, desires, and fears which form the core of experience:  “The presentation of this drama in the familiar world was never possible . . . The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.”

This is the challenge that interests me.  Seitz’ second “possible solution”.

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