Sub Rights

John Haber
in New York City

How New York Stole the Idea of the Sublime

When I hear about the sublime in art, I expect a rapid descent into the ridiculous. I fear all of art elided into Romanticism. One can easily end up with some supposedly universal longing, rather than the specificity of art. At best, one gets trapped within something else just as specific—the agenda of great artists, past and present, who have sought to connect the universal and the work.

For a fan of modern art, however, the sublime has more to it than a dead ideology. Like art, nature, the imagination, or indeed any concept, the sublime has another way of dying: it can take on new social constructions, new frames, and new meanings. And for almost two centuries, it did exactly that. For Modernism anyhow, a descent to the ridiculous only gave art its searching intellect and emotional depth. Newman's Cathedra (Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, 1951)

Barely a year has brought a fresh look at the sublime across that span. Thanks once more to the Frick for bringing together John Constable's last two versions of Salisbury Cathedral and to the National Gallery for Mark Rothko's retrospective. My reviews aside now, what changed between them? A third show, the Modern's Jackson Pollock exhibition, put his generation firmly back in the present, after some impressive critical revisionism relegated him to the past. A comparison, I shall argue, may help explain why.

Paradoxically, old terms trap one in the past and yet free one to define the present. The Abstract Expressionists did just that when they rediscovered and, I shall claim, utterly redefined the sublime. Do not look for it in the Romantic garden. To capture what they sought, I want in my own turn to relocate it—and them.

Location shots

First, however, why bother? Why claim any difference between relocating past art and co-opting it? Surely art had long questioned the human relationship to nature and the ineffable. I can see myself obscuring art with my own historical biases, just what I was trying to avoid. In fact, the sublime mattered, and I can take an artist's word for it. Barnett Newman called a magazine article back in 1948 "The Sublime Is Now." The title of his most familiar painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimus, "man the sublime hero," repeats his interest in Longinus.

Newman's generation had little patience with heroes, sublime or otherwise. While critics were ditching artistic heroes in favor of the "intentional fallacy" and "pure painting," heroic titles largely gave way to numbers or simply the work's colors. Yet titles and artist statements matter. In the critical period leading to their fame, Newman, Adolf Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko tried over and over to provoke the press. What they said defines them as a group, because this provocation served as their way of becoming an avant-garde. When a letter made it into The Times, they felt they had made history.

Besides, the decade had begun to adopt the era of Romanticism. Thanks to Clement Greenberg, the now-standard canon was already taking shape. He proclaimed the steady march of European art toward abstraction. By Greenberg's death, Robert Rosenblum had made a visit to the late work of J. M. W. Turner in the Tate all but obligatory. Critics like these made earlier notions of the sublime or Northern Romanticism all but synonyms for "proto-abstract."

I can easily see why. Jackson Pollock's expansive canvas, his western childhood, and his admiration for Indian sand painting all played a part. They made people spot outsize landscapes charged with religious symbolism everywhere. Need to explain—or perhaps create—America's newfound dominance in the art world? Roots in a specifically American art help, and so critics pointed from Pollock's wide open spaces to the Hudson River School, with its own European reference points. F. E. Church's fabulous volcanoes and sunsets not only capture the Romantic sublime, but also served American art history even better than Turner's.

I do not mean just subject matter, however. Painters before Pollock, like Oscar Bluemner, had come to the New York region and found an eerie wildness in its natural surroundings. But how many blew up what might seem oil sketches to the size of history painting? The first moderns, Impressionism, had turned from Romanticism to a smaller scale. Their intimacy between viewer and the painted canvas colors not only Cubism, but Pollock as well. Yet critics were also rediscovering what the first decades of Modernism had left behind from Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to Guernica.

Naturally, the sublime itself spoke up for its relevance, too. For Burke or Kant, it meant the experience of human limits, notably the limits of rationality. One can find a parallel in many midcentury concerns. I think of the stress on the unconscious and symbol making in psychology, the Other in existentialism, Isamu Noguchi's private garden, primitive cultures in the critical examination of imperialism. All these fed into American art soon after Surrealism. (Forget the idea of a postwar American century.) As Michael Leja has described, their influence ranges all the way from Abstract Expressionism to film noir.

Canon fodder

If I really can get away with talk of Newman's sublime, I still need to find the difference between it and Romanticism. To start with the obvious, just how interested in today's alleged canon were they? One searches artists' interviews and published statements in vain for references to Turner, Church, and the like.

In an interview, Pollock called Picasso and Miro his most-admired artists, and he showed it, too. Hans Hoffman and Lee Krasner, in turn, cited Cubism, Matisse, and Mondrian. Gottlieb and Rothko, ever the learner, sought common ground with primitive art generally. In an infamous cartoon parody of canon formation, Ad Reinhardt found his roots in European Modernism and American regionalism. Nell Blaine could not shed those roots so long as she remained an abstract painter. These artists had no American dominance to proclaim, and they would have had no part in it.

If these artists hardly cared about the old sublime, I have already suggested why when I mentioned Impressionism. The new art depended on its this-worldliness and its human scale.

For Constable, a modest canvas could evoke extremes of space and time. In contrast, the astounding scale of the new art, from the span of Pollock's drips to the Rothko chapel, creates an intimacy between painter and paint. This intimacy translates into a refusal of distance between painting and viewer as well. Forget transcendence.

Manet had shown them how to shock the viewer. Paintings such as A Bar at the Folies-Bergère leave the viewer no comfortable place to stand apart from the work, savoring its beauty. A man cannot simply contemplate a nude woman. He confronts himself, and he finds himself at risk. Picasso's women take up that tradition of risk and self-examination.

"Abstract painting is abstract," Pollock said. "It confronts you." By the time American art set to work, then, intimacy and a denial of transcendence went hand in hand. Let me itemize the terms of the denial.


Forget eternity first of all. For a Kantian, the mind works through universal categories. For the New York School, painting takes place in time—the present. Look again at Newman's title: the sublime is now. A zip or drip makes a painting unfold before each viewer. Harold Rosenberg's "action painting" focuses on process, the unfolding present of art, as opposed to product, the unchanging truth of a completed work.

Forget idealism. In the Romantic theater, as still seen today on video by Bill Viola or Tacita Dean, nature stands apart, waiting for the artist to heed its call. For the new painting, reality lies in materialism—the materials of art. In The Nation, Meyer Schapiro contrasted "the dungeon" of the Surrealist's unconscious with the reality of American art. When Turner boasts of strapping himself to the mast to capture a storm, his apparent realism holds echoes of Ulysses hearing the sirens. Drip painting turns the artist loose from the mast to act on nature's call, in all its material being.

Forget nature's depth. Older artists build painting through layers of oil, corresponding to perception's penetration into nature's depths. A buzzword of the new painting, flatness, means that light cannot sink into the work. I already spoke of drips as something into which one enters, as part of a single, unbroken substance.

Forget singleness. The sublime looks toward a unity outside humankind. The new art sought fragments, like the concept of the self in psychology and existentialism. T. J. Clark has compared the gaps in a drip painting to gaps in the supposed unity of artistic identity. In the same way, the fits and starts of making art correspond to the lack of a fixed creator, and an emphasis on free association means a breakdown of artistic intention. Just as imperialism was already giving way to multiculturalism, unity had fallen into multiplicity.

Forget humanity's limits. With Romantic poetry, the imagination started to color nature. In this century, even before postmodern skepticism, the active mind has taken over the joint. By moving toward abstraction, art removes entirely the dialectic of nature and the imagination. The old hushed humility gives way to the pride of modern man. The Other now constitutes a gloriously challenged, fragmented self.

Forget the limits of gender. Even the finest criticism of Abstract Expressionism stresses its sexism, that "vir" again, and I have just highlighted its fascination with "modern man." It is time, however, that people stop equating Pollock's drips with semen. For the Romantic, nature (a woman or a bird, like those of the early Richard Pousette-Dart) speaks to the artist (a man or a beast). Once the Other moves into the self, the jig is up. The anima may still construct Jung's unconscious, but as just one more fragment in the active artist, almost like Lacan's mind as a hall of mirrors.

Anonymity and intimacy

When late Modernism reached for the sublime, it landed firmly on earth. Newman's zips or the drips in a Pollock announce an abstract painting's material fact, including its scale, refusing to be either larger than life or dwarfed by nature. They suggest motion, as in the verbs "drip" and "zip," the motion of a painter at work, rather than confronting nature as a foreign substance. They suggest a place, too, for the viewer within the work, in the space between drips.

Like the earlier century's sublime, this one responds with perverse pride to the terrifying anonymity of modern existence. Fashionable titles like The Organization Man suggest how much lay at stake. Both centuries pull it off by taking refuge in a different kind of anonymity beyond the mundane particulars. If late Modernism took some of the gender out of man, it did so only by giving the word a capital M. Anyone can become Vir because anyone is.

What has changed is the familiarity of it all. Anonymous threats and universal promises lie within—within the mind, within human constructs such as culture and class divisions. Blake's mills and the new industrial society may appear equally dark, but no one called the latter satanic.

An account like this suggests what the two rival theories, Greenberg's and Rosenberg's, have in common. It also suggests where the word "presence" was getting them into deep trouble, just in time for the New York School's more ironic successors to tear it apart.

Superficially, the inward turn of abstract painting sanctifies individualism. Ultimately, however, it also lays the basis for a postmodern critique of the individual. A singleness of vision dissolves into multiplicity, the ever-present flow of consciousness and its material effects.

At least it opens the chance for a dialogue, and hence the emphasis on closeness. Newman creates a painting called Cathedra, but on a human scale that could make even the marvelously human artefacts of Rachel Whiteread today look pretentious by comparison. Rothko paints for an actual darkened chapel, big enough for only a few and attached to no church. Both drop the Romantic sublime's soaring Gothic revival in favor of a new-found intimacy.

Myth and Mrs. Pollock

The changed sublime also sheds light on the politics of the New York School. For over a decade, critics have made these artists out to be overblown male instruments of Yankee imperialism. Just a bare reference to the sublime gives that criticism some validity.

The sublime maintains the mythic component of art along with Newman's Cathedra and Gottlieb's hieroglyphs. It fit easily indeed into a growing middle-class public, ready to appreciate art in terms of sheer grandeur and beauty. A market that can excerpt the cherubs from Raphael's Sistine Madonna has little time for meanings. The market certainly has no desire to imagine that it, too, has its religion.

The new sublime reinvented the primitive in its own terms, as a positive value, not as the work of grinning savages. Still, it could not dispense with the category of the primitive. It kept a layered, gendered unconscious that too now seems a myth.

The incomplete critique of gender and domination no doubt ties in with the macho side of individual artists. Books start to count up neglected women and African American artists. I hope that the Krasner retrospective will change that history. The rhythms of her art never subsided and never stopped influencing their generation. I believe that another woman, Janet Sobel, invented the relationship of drip painting to intimacy that I have found so important. Still, the criticism has a valid point.

Everyone knows by now how harshly Pollock's career dominated Krasner's. She had to find living with his creative ability and media attention at least a part-time job. In looking after a drunk, she already had a full-time one. Biographers tell of Pollock's last binges after those photo sessions that haunted him with stardom. He went from one shoot to a party, where he overturned the center table. Forced to play the sane one, not to mention the perfect hostess, Krasner quietly moved the guests—and dinner—to the next room.

As Leja has observed, photographers often caught Elaine de Kooning and Krasner in their husbands' studios, never the other way around. When Picasso called Braque his wife in Cubism, he accepted a feminine role for the artist. Yet he created a marriage that excluded actual women from their art. In Abstract Expressionism the old terms had hardly disappeared altogether.

Stolen kisses

The 1940s did not invent male-dominated society. Its achievements expressed a culture's limits, struggled against those limits, and also gained meaning from them. As I have already made clear, I have no doubt that their work reflected the artists' leftist agenda. Political protest must always take on an air of failure in retrospect, without losing substance. It may even gain a little added pathos along the way. The Pollocks' summer home could stand for the dilemma of their art—in a cheap neighborhood on the edge then of the Long Island gentry, now expensive as anything.

The attacks on this generation have set impossible standards, while adding some dubious connections. The most famous attack, How New York Stole the Idea of the Avant-Garde, begins by stressing that liberalism valued dissidence. Serge Guilbaut has to concede at least that much, or else he cannot link the ideology he disdains to the artists. Before he finishes, however, it becomes as monolithic as Cold-War conservatism. In his eyes, anything that serves as background images for the propaganda machine fails to challenge its users adequately. Perhaps, but "adequately" hides far too much.

What could escape reinterpretation, just as outcries against elephant dung on a Madonna reverse the artist's point? Barbara Herrnstein Smith makes the same mistake. To qualify for her as protest, Abstract Expressionism would have had to be "radical" and "effective." Yet what can break radically with the established order? Indeed, does Postmodernism—and should it? The French revolution kept right on with the Enlightenment, no matter how many heads rolled. Perhaps the only model for a break with the existing order would be carpet bombing.

If Postmodern criticism makes any sense, one should not even talk about reinterpretation as a limit. Interpretation is all one has. Unfortunately, even Leja's nuanced account sometimes falls into demands for more. Those choices not to shoot Krasner in her own studio might reflect the photographer's sexism—and the mass media's—more than her husband's.

As I mean in elucidating the sublime, the mythic self will not go away without a fight. It gave the generation after Abstract Expressionism something to admire—and yet something to put aside. Later artists build on each of the terms that went into the modernist sublime. At the same time, they demythologize it, replacing cathedrals and chapels with Minimalist boxes and dung-laden Madonnas. In the process, they destroy the whole idea of the sublime pretty much for good.

In English, cathedra also has connotations of a dead certainty, as in ex cathedra, or speaking from a pulpit. The certainty of Newman's public voice, like his earnest letters to the press, sounds far in the past. Minimalism removes a myth of the sublime, while leaving each of its terms intact—art's presence, material reality, love of enveloping surfaces, multiplicity, human scale, and art too cool to stand for man or woman. Pop and Postmodernism instead highlight the myth, so as to examine skeptically whether any culture can dispense with one. Perhaps I myself never will.

BACK to John's arts home page

I nearly finished a draft of this essay before encountering Michael Leja's Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s. It came so close to saying everything I intended to say better, though, that I can no longer disentangle my debt to him. Among books on Lee Krasner and gender in Abstract Expressionism, I also must particularly thank Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O'Keeffe, by Anne Middleton Wagner. Neither bears responsibility for my consideration of the sublime, much less my residual formalism.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME