In Print

This is not a story (Part 3)

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To commemorate an exhibition of the late Bonnie Bronson's work on view in the Swigert Commons at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Randal Davis writes about the influences, context and history that shaped Bronson's development as an artist.

“Trying to pinpoint the start of cubism…is an illusory undertaking, because cubism is not a reality but rather a concept whose temporal outlines shift with the content imparted to it.”

—Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, 
“Periods: Cubism In Its Day” [9]

By the early 1960s, Clement Greenberg found the leading edge of criticism and theory passing over Abstract Expressionism, which “having produced art of major importance…turned into a school, then into a manner, and finally into a set of mannerisms.” [10] “Painterly abstraction,” Greenberg’s preferred term for Abstract Expressionism, was to be succeeded by “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” or what was more generally known as color-field painting. By the later 1960s, this development was, we shall see in subsequent parts of this essay, of immense significance to Bronson.

For now, my focus is on the particular turn that Bronson made in her work at this time. Kelly recalled, in conversation with Paul Sutinen, the feeling that there had been a “dissolution…a taking stock and pulling back.” [11] Although speaking for himself, recalling what led him to abandon painting for sculpture, it is not hard to imagine Bronson sharing similar feelings, though from a different perspective. Asked by Debra Trione, she recalled the immediacy of these early paintings, but also noted, perhaps a bit ruefully, “I would start with something simple and just start adding things to it and often I would go way too far.” [12]

The same year that he announced the coming of Post-Painterly Abstraction, Greenberg amplified his reasoning that ”the grafting of painterliness on a Cubist infrastructure was, and will remain, the great and original achievement of the first generation of Painterly Abstraction.” [13] This was itself nothing new, as the Cubist revolution had figured hugely in his accounts of Modernism from his earliest writings, as evidenced by his suggestion in 1939 that in Cubism we “witness the birth and death of three-dimensional pictorial space.” [14]

What I am especially interested in here is not just Cubism qua Cubism, but the more specific question of the relation of collage to Cubism. As Greenberg famously noted, “collage was a major turning point in the evolution of Cubism, and therefore a major turning point in the whole evolution of [M]odernist art in this century.” [15]

To this relation, a third term must be added to complete Greenberg’s view, adding yet another perspective to the “birth and death” of pictorial space:

Picasso…solved—or rather destroyed—the problem by raising the collage’s affixed material above the picture surface, thus going over into bas-relief. And soon after that he subtracted the picture surface entirely, to let what had been affixed stand free as a construction. [16]

Bronson’s move from painting to wall-mounted metal collage/assemblage reflects, I believe, something similar to this nexus, which was very much in the air at that time, and perhaps still is.

Sculpture, however, has always occupied an odd place in the Abstract Expressionist canon. Even Lisa Phillips, a very sympathetic interpreter, acknowledged that the “sculptors found themselves outside the rhetoric” of Abstract Expressionism, and that Greenberg, despite his enthusiasms for the lineage, ultimately “relegated most of the sculpture made during that time to a marginal position.” [17]

Bronson’s metal works of, roughly, 1965, first seen in her solo exhibition at Mt. Angel College in early 1966, were an almost literal instantiation of the “going over into bas-relief.” Bronson never made Picasso’s “subtraction”—her work remained consistently oriented to the wall, and, apart from several collaborations with Kelly, notably the “sculptural core” of Rankin House (1972) and Leland #1 (1975), she made only one free-standing work in her career. It is, therefore, her relation to collage that is paramount here. Collage had already played a large part in some of her paintings, notably Untitled [cream] (1963), which is worth returning to before going on.

According to William Rubin, “the essence of collage, then, is the insertion into a given context of an alien entity—not only of a different medium, but of a different style or, as the Surrealists would later insist, even of a motif drawn from a different context of experience or level of consciousness.” [18] At a glance, it might seem that the genteel harmonies of Untitled [cream] (1963) are rather at odds with this definition, but I assert that the structure of the painting is entirely dependent on the possibilities of collage.

There are passages, to be sure, of “pure” brushwork such as the light-grey inverted “L” of the upper-right corner. But the surface, particularly the central (vertical) half is dominated by a dense patchwork of canvas fragments. In some cases, the color and form of the fragments correspond, suggesting a cut-up of other paintings. In most cases though, the color and directionality of the brushwork remain largely independent of this irregular surface.

Two extraordinary series of paintings on paper confirm Bronson’s unusual approach to collage; one is a set of seven miniatures, averaging approximately 6 × 9in; the other, though compositionally very similar, is substantially larger, made up of works (typically) 20 × 30in. What they make clear is the extent to which she apparently regarded collage as a structural device as much as a material effect; a profile and review of her 1966 Mt. Angel exhibition confirms this, at least in general terms. [19]

In these works, Bronson departs from the examples of the two Abstract Expressionists most closely associated with collage, Conrad Marca-Relli and Robert Motherwell. Marca-Relli, who died in 2000, remains a perpetual oddity among first generation Abstract Expressionists. His liminal status within that canon continues, despite periodic encomiums and calls for reassessment, most recently from Donald Kuspit. [20] What separates him most decisively from much of the first generation is less his medium than his figurative bent, manifest in what are, perhaps not coincidentally, among his best-known works, The Battle and The Witnesses (both 1956).

His more abstract works at times resemble Bronson’s use of collage, but with some important differences. For example, in Marca-Relli’s Arras (1955) and Steel Gray (1962), the closely valued color schemes recall Untitled [cream] (1963), but the identification, the “equivalence,” one might say, of shape with color (Kuspit describes this as the way each of the “canvas patches functions as a cut-out painterly gesture”), is very different from the densely imbricated ambiguities of Bronson’s painting.

Her small abstracts of the early 1960s were, indeed, quite different; in works such as Untitled III [small abstract] (c. 1964-65) and Untitled VII [small abstract] (c. 1964-65), it is not so much that each of the elements functions as a gesture, but instead function as discrete, one could almost say “completed” compositions. This is particularly evident in the almost perfectly quadrated Untitled III [small abstract] (c. 1964-65).

It is surely more credible that Bronson would have been aware of Robert Motherwell’s work of the late 1940s and 1950s than that of Marca-Relli, who remains even today a marginal figure. H.H. Arnason observed of Motherwell’s work that his “collages, since they were particularly dependent on accident or automatist expression, …contrast [ed] with the architectural control of the major paintings.” [21] Arnason was not altogether wrong about Motherwell, and a glance at such well-known works as the collage Pancho Villa, Dead or Alive (1943) and the painting The Voyage (1948) shows the simple truth of his distinction. Motherwell himself, in a 1962 interview, likened collage to still life and positioned it in opposition to the “large simplifications” of his paintings, noting that he felt “more joyful with collage, less austere.” [22] But the truth is finally not so simple. The relatively stark collages Mallarme’s Swan (1942-1944) or Viva (1946) are clearly much closer in structure to the familiar architecture of Motherwell’s painting.

Yet the Motherwell most clearly invoked by Bronson’s use of collage elements in these transitional works are explicitly painterly—for example in The Voyage (1948) or the discrete zones of Room 8, Hotel Flora, Cannes (1950), where the clear horizontality of the complete “picture” is in fact the result of five distinguishable vertical regions.

In this regard, too, it seems reasonable to suppose that Bronson was aware of earlier work by Alfred Leslie, whose Abstract Expressionist paintings often employed quadratures. His Four Panel Green (1957) is an example of this structural division applied to what is otherwise a “continuous” composition, in which the gestures are neither shaped nor confined by the divisions of the panels. In Quartet #1 (1958), the composition is itself loosely quadrated, giving the four regions of the painting relatively distinct formal identities. Both of these devices are characteristic of Bronson’s paintings.

Often, though, Leslie made this structuration far more explicit, and works such as Four Panel Big Green (1957), Yellow 3rd (1958), and Arrivato Zampano (1959) are strikingly similar to Bronson’s. The somewhat later The Black Line (1961) is perhaps even more akin to Bronson’s work with its complex geometry; the lower half of the canvas is divided into two roughly equal squares, the top half into two horizontal bands, one approximately twice the width of the other. The larger band is itself split across the middle by the titular line, almost exactly in the manner of Bronson’s Untitled VII (small abstract). Richard Kalina correctly argues that Leslie’s practice was less the imposition of a formal redundancy than a defamilarization, in which the viewer is forced to make “a part-to-part, part-to-whole examination, rather than having the painting swirl away into an easily scanned allover field.” [23]

Interestingly though, Bronson’s work of this period most strongly resembles Motherwell’s of a much later period, namely his Open series, which began in the late 1960s. Struck by the fortuitous stacking of paintings, large and small, recto and verso, in the studio, Motherwell saw an unusual potential in this punctuated pictorial space, as Robert Hobbs describes Open No. 1 (1967):

Since this rectangular break in the ochre field could be construed as a doorway, Motherwell puzzled over the painting, both excited by its suggestion of an opening and troubled by its closure. Several months later, he reversed the canvas by turning it upside down, thereby transforming the door into a window, which is suspended from the top of the picture. This change released the background from its strict ties to the picture plane, permitting a new reciprocity between it and the rectangle inscribed within its parameters, leaving viewers in doubt as to whether the window, the ensuing coloured field, or perhaps both were hovering in a relatively shallow space. [24]

Doors and windows—as Hobbs correctly notes, Motherwell’s Opens were indeed a new kind of opening, taking his painting from Abstract Expressionism to something much closer to Minimalism, a movement similar to what we see in Bronson’s work.

Part Four >
 

Notes:

9. Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, “Periods: Cubism In Its Day” in Anne Baldassari (editor), Cubist Picasso (Paris: Flammarion SA, 2007): 36.

10. Clement Greenberg, “Post Painterly Abstraction,” The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, Volume 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 193-194. Originally written for an exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April-May 1964 and reprinted in Art International (Summer 1964).

11. Paul Sutinen, “Living in Sculpture: The Studio Work of Lee Kelly,” Lee Kelly: Thirty-five Years of Painting and Sculpture, 1959-1994 (Marylhurst: Marylhurst Art Gym, 1994): n. pag.

12. Debra Trione, “Oregon’s Quick-Change Artist,” Willamette Week (21-27 July 1981):3.

13. Clement Greenberg, “The ‘Crisis’ of Abstract Art,” The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, Volume 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 180. Originally published in Arts Yearbook 7 (1964).

14. Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” The Collected Essays and Criticism: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, Volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986):35. Originally published in Partisan Review (July/August 1940).

15. Clement Greenberg, “Collage,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (New York: Beacon Press, 1961): 70. Originally published as “The Pasted Paper Revolution” in Art News (September 1958), significantly revised and expanded for reprinting in Art and Culture.

16. Clement Greenberg, “Sculpture In Our Time,” The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, Volume 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 58. Originally published in Arts Magazine (June 1958).

17. Lisa Phillips, The Third Dimension: Sculpture of the New York School (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984): 10.

18. William Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989): 38.

19. Beth Fagan, “Artist’s New Work at Mt. Angel,” The Oregonian (20 February 1966):14.

20. Donald Kuspit, “Patching It Over,” Artnet (30 September 2009) n. pag. .

21. H.H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1982): 73.

22. Robert Motherwell, “Robert Motherwell: A Conversation at Lunch,” The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999): 135. Essay dates from November 1962, originally published in An Exhibition of the Work of Robert Motherwell (Northampton: Smith College Museum of Art, 1963).

23. Richard Kalina, “The Right Moves: Alfred Leslie in the Fifties,” Art in America (April 2005): 132.

24. Robert Hobbs, “Motherwell’s Opens: Heidegger, Mallarrne, and Zen,” in Robert Motherwell: Open (London: 21 Press, 2009): 51.

— Posted on 08/31 at 05:23 PM

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