Modernist Method

An example of modernist practice in its purest form might be the paintings of Paul Klee. He starts with a formal idea, a method, a sense of how relationships should play out, and the work is generated from that. Whether or not the work contains an image or is fully “abstract” is unimportant, because the primary, essential stance—organic improvisation—includes both possibilities, and, in fact, cancels their difference.

Paul Klee, Double Tent 1923

This mode tends toward the lyrical and works well on a smaller scale, though the abstract expressionists tried to overcome those limitations. Stella stands for something entirely different, for his works are montages of pre-existing elements. He takes his ready-made forms as steps that lead up to a truly grand level of ambition—to challenge the old masters. Obvious is that the great European painters of the past were all montage artists, building their compositions from many prepared parts. Construction in parts, techniques of preparation (sketching compositions, life drawing, photography, “appropriation” of parts of other works) and a semi-public, objectivized studio practice are all typically European ways of building better pictures, though they can also be found in Japan and China, and perhaps in the Mughal period. Two thoughts arise. Firstly, the apparent resemblance to cubism of this

Frank Stella, Ambergris 1993

print, for example, may be misleading, obscuring the closer relationship to Rubens or Caravaggio. But then that embarrassment might be avoided by the observation that all the fuss made of montage as a distinctively critical modern practice is itself a mistake. Maybe Hannah Hoch and Raul Hausmann were just returning to an academic practice—neo-cons reacting against the radical implications of Cézanne’s organicism. Actually, that was an insight that emerged in my early Vancouver days, in conversations with Jeff Wall. The equation is something like this: montage equals academicism equals critical practice. Whew. As far as radicality goes, this blog points out that organic picture building is an analogue of organic social form, and so has some connection with the anarchism of Pissarro, Cézanne’s teacher, though Pissarro was more interested in objective social reality and Cézanne was politically conservative. Today we can postulate a connection that never occurred—between Pissarro’s politics and Cézanne’s method.

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