A Model Makes Peace With the Abstract Expressionists

In theory, a loyal, dedicated artist’s model should take exception to the Abstract Expressionists, right? It would be a justified reaction. After all, we are the subjects for figurative art, and the abstract expressionists were almost doctrinaire in their “anti-figurative” painting philosophy. You couldn’t find a group of artists who had less use for us, who declared us more irrelevant, than those guys. Is it legitimate grounds for hurt feelings? Sure, why not? It is a major dis 😥

The time was postwar America, and the abstract expressionist movement took the art world by storm. It was an avante-garde, largely male-driven group with a reputation as nonconformist rebels looking to shake things up in a repressive, conformist era. Based here in New York City, the abstract expressionists invited both fawning admirers and harsh detractors. And they managed to put art models on the unemployment line – temporarily at least – until we got “resurrected” in the 1960s (thank you Philip Pearlstein!).

For the record, I AM a fan of abstract expressionism. A big fan. Have been since I was a teenager. Ah, but I wasn’t an art model back then! So the question is this: has my career as an art model altered my opinion of abstract expressionism? Honestly, not much. Just a little. Because of faithful allegiance to my profession, a tiny part of my soul harbors some resentment. I”ll find myself in MoMA, for example, staring at a Franz Kline, and I start to feel slightly . . . offended. I think, “To hell with you, man! Didn’t use a life subject?? What the hell is a ‘color field’? Go screw yourself!”. Then I give it the finger, strip naked, and security comes and escorts me out of the building 😆 It sounds rather petty and juvenile, I know. But what can I say? I’m proud to be an art model, and no one likes to feel unwanted. Anyway, my bitter rant only lasts about ten seconds. Then I come to my senses and go back to just enjoying the art.

“Abstract Art” and “Abstract Expressionism” are not necessarily interchangeable terms. Most modern art IS abstract art. An artist can take a real life subject – a figure, a still life, a bird, whatever – and then abstract it (think Picasso and Matisse). The subject is always visually referenced in the work, even though it isn’t represented realistically. In some cases, if the abstraction is very heavy, the subject is barely recognizable, but still it’s there. It has to be, because the artist began with a real “thing”.

The abstract expressionists, however, went beyond that. They painted nothing that was derived from actual life. Instead, the application of the paint itself, whether through strokes, drippings, or splatterings – the very act of creation – is the focus of the work. Rather than a painting OF a subject, the painting itself IS the subject. This is not to say that abstract expressionist paintings are of “nothing”. They aren’t. The subjects may be events, emotions, actions, conflicts. The point is that they originate not from life but from the artist’s mind. It’s a key difference.

Here is a classic example of true “abstract expressionism” from its famous poster boy. By Jackson Pollock, this is Autumn Rhythm:

autumnrhythm-pollock

Some people argue that Pollock owed his entire career to the prominent art critic Clement Greenberg. A hugely influential man, Greenberg was among the critics who championed abstract expressionism and elevated the movement to great heights. Jackson Pollock was his darling, and that’s fine with me. What’s not fine with me, however, is that Greenberg ridiculed and discouraged the few abstract expressionists who occasionally chose to bring figurative elements to their work. And that’s my beef with the guy (like he’d give a shit what I think!).

Willem de Kooning was one of those abstract expressionists who sometimes created figurative works. He did a whole series in fact, entitled Woman. They are considered grotesque and misogynistic by some, powerful and provocative by others. Heck, I’m just glad he painted a woman!

This is de Kooning’s Woman III, from 1953. Certainly this image is hostile, almost violent. But I like it. I like de Kooning generally, as he is one of the most widely respected and admired of all the abstract expressionists.

woman3-dekooning

Pollock and de Kooning are usually the first names that come to mind when we think of abstract expressionism. But there were many others, such as the aforementioned Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and even a couple of ladies, like Lee Krasner (Pollock’s wife) and, one of my favorite abstract expressionists, the wonderful Helen Frankenthaler (Motherwell’s wife).

Another highly acclaimed abstract expressionist was Hans Hofmann. This is his painting The Conjuror, from 1959:

hofmann-conjuror

I must include an image by my ethnic “brother”, my Armenian compatriot and genocide survivor, the great Arshile Gorky. Chronologically, he was one of the earliest abstract expressionists, and one of the absolute best.

This is Gorky’s Agony, 1947:

gorky-agony

So in the spirit of goodwill, this proud, hardworking art model would like to break bread and offer a retroactive “pardon” to the abstract expressionists and, yes, even to that assclown Clement Greenberg. Fellas, here it is: regarding your disdain for human life subjects, your refusal to pay an art model for her valuable time, your attempts to deny our artistic purpose, and your utter disregard for faces and flesh, I pronounce you officially exonerated for your “crimes”. The truth is, I like your paintings, so I guess all is forgiven 🙂 Peace, boys.

16 thoughts on “A Model Makes Peace With the Abstract Expressionists

  1. Elaine says:

    As a young art student at Hunter College in the early 1950’s, I was fortunate to have Robert Motherwell as my teacher. He was one of the major artists of the Abstract Expressionism style. He had an imposing presence and his critiques of our work at times would make us wonder if we could have any success as an artist.

    In the late 40’s and early 50’s the desire for change was very strong among artists. When Abstract Expressionism became the new art form, the art elite and critics were ecstatic. However the public was slow to embrace this new art. A frequently asked question among museum goers was “What does it mean”. Not a figure, a tree, a vase, an apple that they could relate to. The artist wanted the viewer to be an active participant with him not just a spectator. He wanted you to think, to feel, to imagine.

    Can we imagine what Arshile Gorky was feeling when he painted “Agony”? It is a perfect example of a sense of heightened emotional expressiveness.

    I am grateful that I had the opportunity to study and paint during that period. Today those experiences have shaped my career as an artist and teacher.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Claudia,

    I have a slightly different take on the AEs. Many of them came out of representational art. My guess is that for many of them they, at least initially, didn’t have anything against representational art. But they did feel that they couldn’t find a way of using subject matter that didn’t seem cliched.

    So when they came to the nude they ended up with something like the deKooning above rather than Bouguereau, or even Degas. Pollock’s early painting as I recall were figurative or quasi-figurative. I’ve always felt that they didn’t want to paint in a cliched manner. In working through this they ended up with the many variations of AE.

    As certain critics saw this they combined what they saw with their own thoughts and came up with an often doctrinaire theory as to what ‘advanced’ art should be. Many artists agreed with this, especially as it was very complementary and seemed to give words, often eloquent words, to their art. But I think the best artists know that they are never really part of a ‘movement.’ There may be similarities between certain artists, especially early on, as with the Impressionists or the AEs.

    But artists generally hate to be labeled as part of a movement, especially if it takes away from their individuality. I don’t think this is really an ego thing. More that good artists always try to be truthful in some way. How can they be truthful if the laws of a movement stand in their way. So artists who once part of a movement eventually become known completely as their own man or woman, for instance Matisse and fauvism.

    The AEs themselves eventually seemed to be a constraining force for younger artists. So they went their own way into Pop Art, or whatever. I haven’t followed the art world in years because I think so much of it is ridiculous and worse, anti-art. But I’m also sure that there are artists around today, maybe some of them quite old actually, who are saying the same thing the AEs once did. Current art is all cliche. I have to find a new, fresh way to make it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that the ‘new fresh way’ is representational, though maybe not representations of the nude. I’d be willing to bet there are some artists right now who feel much like the early AEs. They like the figure and representation but they’re struggling to portray it in such a way that it doesn’t seem cliched. I should add that I’m not referring to myself. But I do think I understand the motivations of at least some artists. They want to tell the truth, in whatever way they see it, but without seeming cliched.

    Time will tell……..

  3. ColdSilverMoon says:

    I think AE has a place and was a necessary movement, but I personally don’t enjoy it. I’ll take a minor Bouguereau or David over a major Pollock or Gorky any day. And I agree with you, Claudia, it is hard not to harbor a little resentment – the figure is beautiful and infinite in its nuances and complexities – why make it into an abstraction? I was inspired to be an art model after seeing Michelangelo’s David in person, and seeing great figurative works of art still inspire me as a model. I guess I’ve always preferred realistic figurative work to abstract.

    I agree with Ken’s post that artists are trying to find ways to avoid being cliche. But sometimes I think they try too hard – avoiding a cliche can become a cliche in itself. I am thankful we live in a culture, society, and era that allows artists freedom of expression to find their voice however they see fit, rather than being “forced” to fit a certain artistic framework.

  4. Hugo says:

    Claudia,
    Thanks for you absolution from guilt for the mere act of picking up a brush and being attracted to abstraction. The motivating moment for me was a documentary on Motherwell, painting one of his big works. I came to painting rather late and it took a few years (about 5 or 6) to arrive at the style in which I work now. After that it still took another couple of years before finding myself working on people and faces. I just do what I do, and don’t question or analyse. But after some time I have come to realize that there is a parallel in my attitude toward people. Where for most of my life I did not really like people, I have come to change my mind (and heart) and I am now interested in sharing and conversing. I’d be interested to know what you think of how I approach the abstract figure. And what caused me frow just visiting to commenting were the thoughtful comments written by others. The reasons for me in doing my art are certainly the sharing of my vision of the underlying truth, elegance and beauty of my subjects.

  5. Rog says:

    Claudia,

    “I”ll find myself in MoMA, for example, staring at a Franz Kline, and I start to feel slightly . . . offended. I think, “To hell with you, man! Didn’t use a life subject?? What the hell is a ‘color field’? Go screw yourself!”. Then I give it the finger, strip naked, and security comes and escorts me out of the building”

    … now that is truly an expressionist. … thanks for teaching me again…

    …rog

  6. Hugo says:

    Hm, I just came across this from one of my guiding lights:
    Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model. (Vincent van Gogh)

  7. lkwinter says:

    The depth of your resources…incredible!

    I was asked what my favorite blogs were, but I didn’t know if you wanted advertising pointed your way, but then, what I do I know?

  8. artmodel says:

    Elaine . . . can I call you Mom? 🙂

    I’m not surprised you commented on this post after having survived Motherwell at Hunter College. You’ve always spoken fondly of your art education, and you were right there in the midst of the New York abstract expressionism 1950s.

    Yes, there are many people who look at abstract art and are confounded because they don’t know what it’s of. Where’s the subject? What am I looking at? etc. I guess I can understand that to some degree. Abstract expressionism is definitely not for everyone.

    Knew you’d appreciate the Gorky. I had you in mind when I posted it. He touches us profoundly, of course.

    Thanks for your lovely comments, Mom! I love you.

    Claudia

  9. artmodel says:

    Ken,

    To my knowledge, all the abstract expressionists were trained in representational art. You are correct. Jackson Pollock, for example, studied under Thomas Hart Benton. I didn’t mean to imply in my post that any of those guys had blatant, outright contempt for anything representational or figurative. I was sort of kidding around, playing the “indignant art model feeling snubbed” routine. We’re such a sensitive bunch. But like you said, the motivation to avoid cliches was a driving force among the abstract expressionists. Its funny, though, that deliberate attempts to break rules so as to avoid cliches, themselves end up becoming cliches! It’s a weird, self-defeating cycle sometimes. Something can only be “new” once.

    In your last paragraph, you speculated about the current trends and state of art. I have a bit of firsthand information about this as you know, and I can say unequivocally that representational figurative art is definitely back! 🙂 Lucky for me, and my utility bills.

    Thanks so much, Ken, for your thoughtful comments. Always great to have your voice and opinions here on Museworthy.

    Claudia

  10. artmodel says:

    ColdSilverMoon,

    You have the soul of a genuine, bona fide artist’s model. Your staunch preference for realistic human figures is evidence of that. I hear you, friend. And while I believe that many non-models can empathize (or try to), I don’t know if they can fully and truly grasp the highly personal, biased nature of our preference for figurative art. Although I appreciate the abstract expressionists more than you do, if push came to shove and I had to choose, I think you know perfectly well which way I’d go 🙂

    Thanks for your comments as always.

    Claudia

  11. artmodel says:

    Hugo,

    A very warm Museworthy welcome to you! Thank you so much for visiting and for sharing your sensitive and honest feelings about art. I’m glad to hear that your attitudes toward people have expanded in a more positive, open, and generous way. Clearly, your need to share and communicate prompted the change. That same need is the impetus for many.

    And thank you, Hugo, for mentioning that it was seeing other readers’ comments which inspired you to post one of your own. This blog has the best readership, and I’m not surprised that their intelligent commentary impressed you so. It impresses me all the time!

    I like that quote from Van Gogh, although I must confess that in my experience, it is the model who usually feels like the “slave”! Just kidding, of course. (always the wise-ass). I know what Vincent was getting at.

    Thank you again, Hugo. Please comment again in the future.

    Claudia

  12. artmodel says:

    Rog,

    Aaaah, you liked that! Now if only I could REALLY strip naked in MoMA . . that would be material for the ultimate blog post! Hmmm . . . sounds like a hell of an idea 😉 Yes, I’m willing to be handcuffed and hauled off to a police precinct for my blog. I’m one sick girl.

    Thanks Rog! Love hearing from you.

    Claudia

  13. artmodel says:

    lkwinter,

    While I like to fancy myself as a person of integrity, I’m in no way averse to free advertising. Shameless promotion makes the world go round (Ewwww . . . did I just say that?)

    Seriously, the answer is yes, of course! I’m honored that you would want to pass on the word that Museworthy is a kick-ass blog. Plus you’re awesome 🙂

    Claudia

  14. Ken Januski says:

    “But like you said, the motivation to avoid cliches was a driving force among the abstract expressionists. Its funny, though, that deliberate attempts to break rules so as to avoid cliches, themselves end up becoming cliches! It’s a weird, self-defeating cycle sometimes. Something can only be “new” once.”

    Claudia, I couldn’t agree with you more! ! It’s now over 100 years since Duchamp’s ‘shocking’ urinal! Time to ‘get over it’ as they say.

    I actually had a very strong affinity with the AEs at one point and still do to some extent. Gorky was once my favorite artist. Perhaps I’m wrong but I feel that their attempt to avoid cliche was more honest than many such attempts. I can’t prove it. It’s just how their art strikes me. I think it was Rosenberg in particular who talked about the ‘act of creation.’ But my guess is that some of the artists themselves knew that was a little too grandiose and self-important. They were just trying to fight their way through to a new art, based on all they knew about representational art, that seemed not to be a cliche.

    I’ve learned from my past reading that you are saying all of this with a grain of salt, and that you probably don’t really feel all that ‘snubbed.’ But it served as a launching point for me and my attempt to explain the AEs. Keep up the good writing. It does serve as a wonderful springboard for people who love art. And the illustrations are always terrific.

    As I was thinking about this I remembered someone who used to have the studio upstairs from me in the mid-1980s in Philadelphia, Vince Desiderio. He’s a figurative artist and from what I can see has become fairly well known. I haven’t talked to him since then. But I wonder what you think of his work. It IS figurative, and I think has the ambition of people like David.

    Most important though, in this cold weather, is that you are seeing firm evidence of representational art being back!

  15. Carl says:

    I studied with a student of Hans Hofmann in the early 70s. He modeled his school and teaching at Pratt, Columbia, and his school in Vermont after Hans Hofmann’s school and teaching. Hofmann and his students all worked from the model to practice and study their art and the creation of space (Hofmann’s push/pull) in their painting, sculpture, and drawing. At the James Gahagan School of Fine Art we worked from the model six hours a day drawing on 18 x 24 charcoal paper with sticks of vine charcoal, a kneaded eraser and a shammy cloth. We all studied the model and developed our skills from an appreciation of how to represent the space of the model and the space around the model on our 18 x 24 inch charcoal drawings. It was a wonderful experience.

    Because the model often did not appear in our work, or the work of Hans Hofmann and others, does not mean the model was not there in some capacity, even if only as the all so very important subject of our study and learning. The model had a huge place in Hofmann’s work and all of his students and followers. He built his considerable influence of many many artists around his use of the model to teach his deep understanding of the greatest masterpieces in art down through the ages, including his own.

    • artmodel says:

      Carl,

      Thanks so much for this. What a great insight into the world of the Hofmann school and it’s practice. It’s funny that you posted this at this time because my first big modeling job of the fall is going to be the drawing marathon at the New York Studio School where they do something very similar to “how to represent the space of the model and the space around the model on our 18 x 24 inch charcoal drawings.” -from your comment.

      I think one thing that models learn over time, as they become more seasoned and experienced, is that we serve an essential purpose in study and training no matter what road an artist takes afterward, or what they choose to do with the practice once they have it under their belt.

      Thank you again!

      Claudia

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