Why American Art is Happy Art


Larry Poons, Big Purple, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 98″ x 92″

Fortunately, as American Art began to get off the ground in the 1950s, the critic Clement Greenberg set the formula that would make it all be Great Art. He got to the heart of what art really was, and who it should be made for:

In the face of current events painting feels, apparently, that it must be epic poetry, it must be theatre, it must be an atomic bomb, it must be the rights of Man. But the greatest painter of our time, Matisse, preeminently demonstrated the sincerity and penetration that go with the kind of greatness particular to twentieth-century painting by saying that he wanted his art to be an armchair for the tired businessman.

–Clement Greenberg, “Art”, Nation, March 8, 1947

Fortunately for American artists, they had a leader with guaranteed to succeed instructions to follow in Clement Greenberg. Greenberg was far seeing enough to realize what the American Businessman really needed, not to mention the complete cultural ignorance of the clientele he was aiming to please. He also  had plenty of willing artists who would take him up on the challenge to make sure their art wouldn’t disturb tired minds, but instead offer them restful  abstract colors and designs to decorate their corporate their offices with. The AMC series Mad Men has many examples of soothing American paintings decorating corporate offices and wealthy homes in case younger folks don’t know what American Art was supposed to look like back in the 1960s if it was to please tired businessmen.

If you don’t know the series we can take a look at this one. And if you’ve seen one you’ve seen ’em all. Below is a spray paint masterpiece by Jules Olitski from the 1960s. Why bother with brushes? You can get the same optical effects (to the eyes of tired businessmen and art critics anyway) by using a spray gun. Plus you can knock out something the scale of a Monet Water Lilly in a weekend to meet the demands of demands of the new class of art buyers looking to show their high culture breeding, as long as it was a sound investment.

olitskiJules Olitski, Comprehensive Dream, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 112 x 92″

Viewing his art, one can sense the profundity of Olitski’s thought. To give you a sense of the breadth and depth of it, I’ve found a quote by him. “Someone looks at an abstract painting and they wonder what it means….well forgive me, but what does anything mean? You go to bed with someone and make love, do you pause in the middle and say what does it mean?”

To offer an interpretation, I think what this Zen master is telling us is: “When you’re paying big bucks for a load of crap do you stop in the middle of getting fucked and ask what does it mean?” Of course not! You’ve already got the way paved into public museums before an audience of  knuckleheads who will ooh and aah as if they’re in the Sistine Chapel. Incidentally, when it comes to color field painting and fucking people Size Really Does Matter because anyone with half a brain looking at a color field painting on a small screen can see that what this gang relied on exclusively was  the principle elucidated by H. L. Mencken. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

Just like Seinfeld pitched his award-winning show about nothing decades later, prescient American artists had found the ticket with  Art about nothing.

As numerous and infinitely gullible art critics compared  Olitski to Monet, another big 1960s color field painter Larry Poons has been compared to Cézanne. This is a time and shop-worn technique used by American hustlers down through time. Uninhabitable swamplands and scorched deserts  parceled off and sold as the new Shangri-las.

Below is the American Cézanne explaining that American painters in the 60s “had a common thing in common. They had a problem with paint handling.” I’ll fucking say they  had a problem with paint handling. They didn’t know how to paint was their problem.

But let’s listen in as one of our current Museum curators sits in stunned wonder listening to one of our still living masters explain why American Art is so great:

Note that Karen helps Larry out with the artspeak, letting him know that Frankenthaler had a great touch. Yes, pouring liquid paint out of a can is all in the touch. As Karen tell us, Helen always had a beautiful touch. It’s a genetic thing, you know. Never have to pick up a brush or pencil, really. At one point, Larry  corrects Karen, who somehow had the idea that Larry was throwing paint! No, Larry was pouring paint, Karen! Plus using a broom, which lots of touch. Notice that Greenberg came down to his studio to let him know he was doing things right… Tired businessmen like looking at something suggestive of elephant skin. We also learn that Greenberg told Larry he could throw paint! A revelation to Larry! And somehow he seems to have forgotten that he corrected Karen when she said he threw paint. Larry summarizes by letting us know that any painter who’s a real painter learns to throw paint. This is the bedrock revelation of American painting. Warhol, the greatest American painting genius of our time used a squeegee. Richter, the greatest German painting genius uses a squeegee. It saves so, so much time! And the effects are just as cool and exciting (for at least 15 seconds) as what the deliberation and thought of a Cézanne or Monet ever accomplished.


Gerhard shows how it’s done here. Be sure to wear gloves so you don’t get your hands dirty! Paint is really nasty stuff and hard to get out of clothes as well…. which is why Gerhard is staying well back and keeping his wits about him. The squeegee lets him finish the painting quickly before any fatigue might set in and just that little bit of tiredness might have him ruining his expensive threads brushing against the wet surface. Even for a astromillionaire like Richter, the spoiling of expensively tailored fabric is an abomination. This guy is no Francis Bacon-type slob, I can tell you that. Nor does he have the psychological problems that so many of those painters of the past had. One of the greatest advances in painting today is that the painters with psychological problems have been dispensed with. And we’ve adopted a more scientific and businesslike approach to the whole enterprise.

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
This entry was posted in Art and Money, Postmodernism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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