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American Realism

American Tradition in Painting

by John W. McCoubrey
Braziller, 128 pp., $4.95

The chief impulse behind the writing of American Tradition in Painting seems to have been Professor McCoubrey’s desire to counteract the tendency implicit in formal criticism to relate Abstract Expressionist painting to artistic developments in Europe during the first four decades of this century, and to place it instead, firmly and unmistakably, in the context of a uniquely American tradition that goes back virtually to the first paintings done on American soil. Professor McCoubrey does not deny the importance of what had been achieved in Europe: but he maintains that Abstract Expressionism “was born…in the American shape,” and that “it is imbued with ‘the material poetry of the country’ and is part of a native visual tradition that it both continues and illuminates.” His book, consisting of an Introduction and five short chapters, is an attempt to characterize this tradition, largely by means of comparisons with roughly concurrent events in European painting, and to demonstrate its relevance to our understanding of paintings by Pollock, Tomlin, Gorky, De Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, and Rothko.

The heart of Professor McCoubrey’s characterization is the thesis that American art is, and has been from the start, profoundly realistic. The comparisons he makes between American and European paintings are meant to bring this out: invariably, the Europeans are found to be preoccupied with conventions of composition and with the enjoyment of paint for its own sake, in contrast to the Americans’ overriding obsession with things as they are. But if American art is seen as fundamentally realistic, it is by no means clear how Professor McCoubrey would characterize what he calls “the great tradition” of European painting. In the end, it comes to represent the vague abstraction “Art,” understood as that which falsifies our sense of how things really are, in the name of decorative unity, fictive order, and sensuous exploitation of the materials of painting. For example, discussing the nature of the realism in one of the nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Cole’s less overtly symbolic landscapes, The Catskill Mountains; the author remarks that, “Constrained by the traditional devices which order and make habitable a Claudian landscape, or treated with the painterly bravura and elisions found in a Constable, his forest would lose its innocence, and its strangeness would be brought near by Art.”

There is, however, something we ought to balk at in a comparison that fits Claude and Constable into the same container and labels it “Art.” Against this, I would argue that Constable’s oeuvre constitutes one of the subtlest and most imposing monuments to realism in the history of western art. Admittedly, it is possible to consider the painterly bravura and elisions in his canvasses for their own sake; but their primary function is notational and realistic. And although one wholly admires the consummate mastery which Constable enjoyed over his medium, what gives his mastery point, and what lies at the core of his achievement, is his passionate objectivity: his almost Leonardesque ambition to become, by patient study and close observation of the natural world, the very mind of nature. On the other hand, Professor McCoubrey is right to characterize one effect of the bravura and elisions in Constable as being that of making the scene in question seem nearer, more accessible, more immediately related to us than the mountains and virgin forests in the Cole. But, clearly, it does not follow from this that the Cole is more realistic than Constable’s paintings. There is, then, something seriously confused, and dangerously confusing, in Professor McCoubrey’s comparison, as well as in his general opposition of American realism to European “Art.”

The source of this confusion is not hard to find. Throughout Professor McCoubrey’s book the term realism is used in two senses; more exactly, there are two separate and essentially unrelated “realities” to which the single term is made to refer, and there is no indication anywhere in the text that the author is aware of the intellectual chaos which this engenders. The first “reality” is that of quintessentially American experience, as Professor McCoubrey defines it: “This essential experience is of the individual standing alone in a sea of space and change.” It derives from the American’s awareness of his inability to comprehend or to master the immense, virgin country as he found it, or the overwhelming processes of change, construction and manufacture that he has set in motion. “Understood both in the original fact of its natural extent and the continuing fact of the changes being worked upon it, the American landscape is the great protagonist of our art.” The American’s awareness, then, is of his own perpetual alienation from the land: “Thus, figures in American pictures—like their viewers—are not given an easy mastery of the space they occupy. Rather, they stand in a tentative relation to it, without any illusion of command over it.” This last formulation is central to his argument, and the three chapters which Professor McCoubrey devotes to its demonstration and refinement—“The Colonial Portrait,” “The Landscape” and “The Figure in Space”—are by far the best in the book, and deserve close reading not only by art critics and historians but by students of American literature as well. It also explains how, in the passage quoted two paragraphs back, Professor McCoubrey was led to equate the sense of nearness or accessibility which one finds in a Constable study with a lack of realism. The “reality” to which the term realism refers in this context is the quintessential American experience of alienation from a natural or man-made wilderness. But it is unreasonable to demand of Constable that he render Hampstead Heath as if it were the Catskills or Rockies, and as if he were an American. What should be clear is, I think, the inappropriateness of the epithet “realistic” as applied to the American tradition as a whole, if one is searching for a characterization which will at least partly distinguish it from European art. American painting is, by and large, different from European painting, and Professor McCoubrey’s analyses of both the formal character and the content of eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century American paintings are often first-rate. But it makes no sense to argue that American painting is more realistic than European painting; it is, of course, more true to American experience but that is all.

The second “reality” to which Professor McCoubrey refers leads to more serious conceptual confusion. This “reality” is nothing less than things as they really are; and Professor McCoubrey seems to take it for granted that they are raw, entirely unstructured, without order of any kind, and that they behave in a mostly random fashion. For example, in the course of making a comparison between paintings by the American Franz Kline and the Frenchman Pierre Soulages, Professor McCoubrey writes:

In relation to real objects or events, the American painting is more realistic for Kline refers here to a real world of accident and chance, beyond his power to control. This reality is projected not only by the apparently haphazard relationship of forms but by the paint surface which, like reality itself, remains magnificently indifferent to the observer.

Similarly, discussing the work of the new American painters, in particular Pollock and De Kooning, he writes:

The old realism in a new guise is implicit in the methods of the new painters as it is evident in their finished work…The admission of chance and accident into the process of painting is their realism, the abstract counterpart of what our earlier realists chose to see in the concrete world of objects.

The reference to choice in the last sentence seems to me more a literary construction than a philosophical qualification; and in general, there is something breathtakingly pre-Kantian in Professor McCoubrey’s assurance, evident throughout his book, that he knows what reality is really like. There is, at any rate, no evidence whatever that he has considered the implications of Kant’s revolution in philosophy for questions of perception, or those of more recent work on the subject, such as Professor E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. He seems unaware that the act of perception involves an act of shaping what it is that we perceive. Realism, for Professor McCoubrey, seems to mean the wholly passive apprehension and faithful transcription of what is really there. Thus he can write that, “As a true realist, the American painter has never controlled what he has chosen to paint; he has only looked upon it and allowed what he has seen to remain inviolate as though he had never been there at all.” But it is just this myth of radical perceptual innocence which one would have thought Kant had demolished for all time. The meaning of realism in art history—like that of objectivity in philosophy—is a searing question precisely because it is impossible for man not to structure and control what he sees; he cannot leave inviolate anything he perceives, no matter how much he may wish to, or how hard he may try. So that it is impossible to equate realism with the accurate representation of things as they are: because there is no sense that can be given the phrase “things as they are” in this formulation. At most, one can try to speak of a painting being true to the artist’s perception of things, or to one’s own: though it is hard to know what ought to count as a criterion for the truth of either of these putative states of affairs. Moreover, one implication of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy—work which art historians can ignore only at their peril—has been to make highly problematic such notions as we might entertain of simply comparing our perceptions of things with particular paintings, in order to determine whether the latter are true to our perceptions (and hence realistic). It remains undeniable that paintings which one would want to call realistic have the effect of convincing us of their truth to reality; but if art historians wish to arrive at some more satisfying formulation than this vicious circle, they are going to have to take the plunge into the cold, choppy waters of contemporary philosophy. There is, inescapably, a large element of risk in this. But Professor McCoubrey’s book stands as an example of what can happen if they refuse to do so.

Finally, one ought to say at least something about the relevance of Professor McCoubrey’s basic thesis to the achievements of American painters since 1940. Can the paintings of Pollock, Kline, Rothko, De Kooning, Motherwell, et al be read in terms of “the familiar signs of American experience…in the nature of the space and of the things in it, and in the unique effects of a continuing American realism”? Ignoring the word realism, which has been discussed, the answer would seem to be both yes and no; it depends at whose work one is looking and even at which picture. When Professor McCoubrey writes that “The swirling, spattered drips in Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm do not order or shape the pre-existing emptiness of his canvas,” and compares his skeins of paint to the “thin webs” of Eakins, he is performing a valuable act of criticism upon the art of both men. But he is much less good on De Kooning, whose fleshy paint and baroque ambitions place him at least partly in the “great tradition” of European painting which Professor McCoubrey would like to keep him clear of. It is wrong to claim, as the author does, that paint in his canvases “is not put down for its own sake”; or to maintain that Rothko “has not chosen to possess his medium.” It is one thing to argue that recent American painting—not all of which, incidentally, can be subsumed under the term Abstract Expressionism—bears the pang of having been made in America. But it is quite another to undervalue what it has in common with European painting, or to search for parallels with American paintings of the past in cases where individual contemporary works more or less openly derive from European precedents. The most distressing instance of this occurs in Professor McCoubrey’s discussion of Robert Motherwell’s painting The Voyage, in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He compares it with a canvas by Copley, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow, in an attempt to emphasize the tentative nature of the relationship established in both works. Of The Voyage he writes:

The sense of importance in the abstract painting is further conveyed by the shifting relationship of figure to ground, for the white vertical on the left is read as figure sliding over the black, but, on the right, the white is seen to disappear behind a black and become, at the same time, fused with the white ground.

It should be clear at once from Professor McCoubrey’s accurate description that the formal character of The Voyage relates it intimately to Synthetic Cubism, and that a comparison with Picasso would have been far more relevant than that with Copley.

Still, the fact remains that there are three chapters in this book full of sensitive analyses of individual paintings. Especially when confronting works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Professor McCoubrey’s eye is subtle and alive and his characterizations precise and stimulating. He gets into trouble when he tries to make generalizations on the strength of what he has observed. He seems unable, or is perhaps unwilling, to deal rigorously with the concept of realism with which he has chosen to work: and in the end the confusion that results from this inability or unwillingness threatens to vitiate, or to make all but inaccessible, much that is valuable in the present book.

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