Jun 25, 2019 in Exploratory

From Painting To Performance

The history of art radically changed in the second half of the 20th century, transforming the status of the artist, the methods and means of implementation, the viewer, and the value of the art in general. Although modernist and avant-garde experiments had served as an aesthetical basis to these changes, the post-war American art completed the alteration of its essence. After the work of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, it seems impractical to talk about the art in classical terms, as by doing so the meaning of the new art practices would be misapprehended. The emerging artists experimented with their bodies, language, objects, environment, expanding the boundaries of art and its perception. Hence, while the boundaries between art and life were gradually eroded, the artist became a performer of reality. From being a transcendent object the art was transformed into a living creative act, where the process grew to be more important that result, and the discourse became a new form of aesthetic consciousness. Hereby, the essay illustrates the cultural shift of aesthetic paradigms from abstract expressionism to performance, when the position of the artist has changed from the static figure to a person who creates an open discursive field for creativity.

Ever since the Second World War the artistic self-determination has become a key problem for many artists. More traditional forms of expression would not meet the challenges of the time, and the fixed frames of the picture would not reflect the complicity of the new kind of modernity that  was subsequently named postmodernity. As the emotional experience of history could not be effectively conveyed by steel structures, a range of new artists started to exploit new methods of expression. Thus, establishing the process of creation as more imperative in regards to the result. Lippard named these processes and experimental practices as “the dematerialization of object,”  marking a starting point in creating a new language of art. Moreover, it also reflected to the conceptual art as “a bridge between the verbal and the visual.”  However, such movement as abstract expressionism was also crucial in the deconstruction of object, because it proposed a higher level of irrational as well as an unconscious motivation of an object. Accordingly, it was considered to be the most principal part of the process itself, because it released the hidden structures of the human psyche, therefore liberated the true human nature.

In particular, the method of spontaneous automatism was the most popular and, thus, the most used by painters within abstract expressionism. Its movement was regarded as a rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, in some cases, nihilistic art.  Jackson Pollock was a pioneer in this technique of expression. He would not use the stretchers, but spread the canvas on the floor, and randomly spray the paint from tubes or cans. The technique was called the dripping, and partly reminded post-impressionism, but in fact it was a first step to the rethinking the classical postulates of art. The dripping was one of the methods of action painting that rejected the traditionally painted surface of the picture. The paint appeared on the canvas or on the paper as a trace of a free gesture, random movements of the hand. Essentially, the artists believed that any unconscious action is a reflection of the character and the psychological state of the artist, and it conceives a real meaning of the image. However, despite of the chaotic dripping technique, Pollock constantly supervised the process, thus employing the active painting as a bridge between the traditional and the contemporary approaches.


One of the most significant Jackson Pollock’s dripping works is Lavender Mist (Appendix 1). It explicitly demonstrates the extent of applied paint, hence, the transformation of the process into a complete form of art. Siegel identified Pollock’s shapes as “world-lines”,  because they reflect the complexity of man in a world. The use of color contributes to the overall effect of the painting, which seems very earth, atmospheric and relatively quiet from white light in intense black band strikes.  It is hard to comprehend the right point that one should use to interpret the picture, as there is no beginning, no end, just purely chaotic process. It is principal that Pollock would not only reflect a completeness of Lavender Mist, but its procedural nature. As far as the artist admired sand painting of American Indians, he considered each of his creations similar to shamanic rituals. Gestures and movements of the hand caught the rhythm and communicated it to the picture in random order of drops, spots, and lines. Therefore, all of Pollock’s paintings incorporate an endless metalanguage, the flow of pure emotions of the artist’s unconsciousness.

Another major influence over the changes in the artist’ status was asserted by the reconceiving of art practices in the pop art. The exhibitions of such trend can be observed by any audience of a familiar object: some garbage, a half-eaten sandwich, or a stuffed chicken. The most famous piece of art and a trademark of pop art was the original tin of tomato soup. Andy Warhol, a commercial illustrator who became a successful author, publisher, artist and director, showed his Campbell’s Soup Cans (Appendix 2) in 1962.  They represented a combination of semi-automatic processes that was not quite picturesque, but creative due to a strong idea within. All in all, it was a direct outrage to the technique and philosophy of abstract expressionism, because there was no transcendental meaning, no status of creator, and, most importantly, no authentic result of work. Moreover, Warhol’s works had a conceptual framework and a lack of improvisation.

Furthermore, Warhol is considered to be an artist due to his ability to see the aesthetic in everyday life. The mission of the true artist is not only to bring beautiful, but also to create conditions in which it can be maintained. In fact, Campbell’s Soup Cans is utterly beautiful, because it saved the color, the compositional integrity, even a picture frame, which conceptualists and performers will soon disregard. Additionally, Warhol’s work originated such new phenomenon as the Factory, a center of workshop artisans. Therefore, the mission of the artist was rethought into not only inventing the idea and implementing it on the canvas, but also producing the creative process (which is still represented by Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons, and others).

Andy Warhol has produced a large quantity of one image, increasing its value in the aesthetic sphere. The basic idea of the creativity was that many routine things could be beautiful, so the artist’s goal was to find these objects and transform them into a piece of beauty, creating a special aura around them. In theory, the everyday items should be a cause of another, specific attention of the audience, if they are installed in a particular surroundings. Thus, the real artist is the one who has a talent to see the real objects. Even though such process consists of copying images, it is not negative, as it attracts attention to the deepest levels of our lives. Pop art became a new, publicly accessible art that laid the foundation for conceptualism, which is particularly expressed in the works of Robert Rauschenberg.

Conceptualism emerged in the middle of the 60s in England, and then expanded to the United States, where it evolved as the leading trend of modern art. Unlike the pop art focuses on the objective world, conceptualists argued that the only deserving artistic goal is to create ideas and concepts. Robert Rauschenberg was considered to be not only the creator, but also the undisputed leader of the American pop art and conceptualism. The compositions he mastered were based on the principles of abstract expressionism, although he used collages, formerly used by the cubists and the abstract artists. Additionally, he attached the fragments of matter to the painted surface of the canvas, and then partially covered them with paint. In the early works of the master dominated black and white colors, afterwards replaced by other materials. In the 1950s, Rauschenberg became one of the most prominent figures in the American art, his exhibitions caused absolute delight and, simultaneously, provoked public scandals.  The newspapers competed one another for the articles, in which they would criticize the provocative artwork that he dared to demonstrate in public.

Robert Rauschenberg believed that the artist should be completely independent in the process of defining the art. In fact, only the author could define their own meaning, have the right to pass the verdict or give any assessment to their creation while the public would merely have to believe in the artist’s words. For example, when the owner of the art gallery asked to paint her portrait, the artist sent her a telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert, if I say so / Robert Rauschenberg” (Appendix 3).   The purely conceptualist gesture was an ironic, partially cruel part of an idea, that was beautifully constructed by the artist. 

Nevertheless, the major scandal was afflicted by Bed (Appendix 4), another part of the conceptualist movement. The artist simply located comforters on the stretcher and attached the pillow pre-painted red. The work was introduced in the exhibition called Festival of Two Worlds, which was held in the city of Spoleto in Italy. For Richardson, Bed “is surely about the seminal role of paint in a painter’s life – the glorious mess it makes of dreams, sex, love.”  The work resembles a sculpture, whereas it is a combination of different elements, that might be also understood as a collage of the objects from real life, as a sheet, a pillowcase, and some paint. It indicates that the status of the artist was somewhere between art and life, so the their task is not to transform life into art, but to obscure the line between them. Rauschenberg, as well as previously Duchamp, tried to apprehend the border and find the distinctions between life and art. Accordingly, for conceptualism the border is conditional, so the aesthetical aim of an artist is to show how entertaining could be the process of rethought.

Conceptualism was very derisive and intense art that also enclosed the protest against the commercialization of art, thus its main purpose was the capitalism exposure. On the notion of conceptualists, the artist did not require perpetual creations, just the ones that would convey a sense of the present. For conceptualism, the image itself and its meaning were not important, but the idea was crucial, so their concepts were carefully documented. One example of it became widely known as the New York exhibition-manifesto of 1969, which announced a directory. However, the idea would not necessarily be implemented in the exhibition space, conceptual objects with comments may be exhibited on the beach, on the street, on the locality, on the engineering constructions, and near the monuments. What is more, the audience watching the creation of art would also be the co-author, elevating the meaning of the process over the result. The principle is embodied in the so-called procedure art. All in all, conceptualism influenced the performance and the status of an artist to a great extent.

Performance does not require special training to reach the adequate perception, unlike the painting, it involves the rejection of the usual expectations and approaches. Performance is a type of art preceded with living pictures that was finally formulated in the actions and conceptual art of the representatives of Dada. Goldberg stated that performance over the previous two years of the 60s and early 70s mirrored conceptualists’ rejection of canvas, a brush or a chisel . However, the main idea that defined performance was the new status of the artist, who reproduces certain actions their body. Performance always involves the presence of an idea that is implemented in place, but the artist’s body is a base of all art actions. For instance, performance Cut Piece (Appendix 5) by Yoko Ono illustrates that the human body is a plane, which could create a new art message. Likewise, artists removed the cloth on the body in order to be free of the classical rules in the artist’s body practices.

Another example of reassessment of the human body is the three-hour performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (Appendix 6) by Joseph Beuys. It was produced at the opening of his first solo exhibition. Through the window, the audience observed Boyce whispering to a dead hare, while his face was covered with artist honey and gold leaves. For Boyce, the hare was a symbol of rebirth, communication with the outer world, honey was a metaphor for the human mind, and the gold meant wisdom and enlightenment. Although until the 80s this idea was a central point for many artists, that was a point when it began to embrace technical brilliance. 

All things considered, the evolution of modern art shows radical changes in the position of the artist. Abstract expressionism tried to restore the practice of modernism and the avant-garde, using new creative techniques. The artist was considered similar to the shaman in extracting the images from the unconscious. Jackson Pollock’s created a new view where the artist was a medium between the artistic and the real world. In his turn, Andy Warhol represented the artist as a creator of own image, thus, he was a mastermind for others. Art promtly became a collective process with an artist as a craftsman. Conceptualists progressively shaped the line between art and reality, which is particularly reflected in the performance art. Performance reinvented the art canon, which, according to Pollock, already was neither a painter nor a poet, but just an artist. Accordingly, that emphasized the importance of the creation of a situation that would allow creativity, and where any possible aesthetic solution would be possible. All these processes have laid the foundation for the contemporary art that has since maintained its significant impact.



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