THE NEW AMERICAN "SIGN PAINTERS"
G. R. Swenson
A golden hand with a pointing finger (applied in gold leaf to a piece of now broken glass) hangs on a wall in Stephen Durkee's studio. It was once a sign of commerce and direction; now the hand, slightly etched and reworked by its owner, points nowhere and is a sign with a life of its own. The shining hand tells us more about its owner and his attitudes toward the world than about its original context.
This kind of sign has recently appeared in the paintings of a number of younger artists. Words, trade marks, commercial symbols and fragments of billboards are molded and fused into visual statements organized by the personality of the artist; they cannot be understood through formulas or some conventional pattern of visual grammar one or more remove from experience. The artists have shared - for the last few years, at least a common interest in the ubiquitous products of their artisanal cousins, the painters of commercial signs and designers of advertising copy.
Like all artists who are unwilling to imitate, these painters force a re-examination of the nature of painting and its changing relation to the world. James Dine and Robert Indiana are proving that, as Rauschenberg puts it, "there is no poor subject." Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andrew Warhol are proving you can have recognizable references (so-called images) without regressing to earlier fashions. Richard Smith and Stephen Durkee, with their striking individuality and their formal sensitivity, bring diversity and depth to the newest phase of the continuing revolution that characterizes painting in the twentieth century.
The content of their work is direct. It points to objects that are commonplace. Their techniques are without ceremony or pretence. Ordinary objects which prick our associative faculties, along with a technique almost shocking in its simplicity, create the tone of this new painting. At the same time, although composed of fragments which may derive from Wall Street and Madison Avenue, the subject of these works, to use a phrase of George Heard Hamilton, "is not what the world looks like, but what we mean to each other."
Both James Dine and Robert Indiana regularly introduce words into their paintings. In a painting dominated by two necktie shapes, Dine prints the word "TIE" twice. On a strip that looks like a riveted metal plate, Indiana stencils the words " THE AMERICAN
REAPING COMPANY." Like words on signboards they insist on our attention. They are not subordinated to the composition as in a Cubist collage, nor are they used as a psychological pun as in some Surrealist painting (for example, when an image of a pipe bears the inscription, "this is not a pipe").
The visual references in the works of Dine and Indiana are readily and easily recognized. Dine sews buttons down the center of a canvas that is painted in the pattern of a heavy overcoat. He puts twelve cloth neckties into one picture, covers it all with green paint and calls it Twelve Ties in a Landscape. Indiana makes more subtle and oblique references. In The American Dream, the circle with highway numbers stenciled on it is the same yellow and black as stop signs; the double row of triangles in The Great Reap suggests the cutting edge of a mowing machine. He uses words to conjure unlikely presences. The American Gas Works, a black, yellow and white painting with those words stenciled in it, conjures a metaphorical meter-reader; the incongruity of his imaginary presence is heightened by the decorative elegance of "hard edge" visual variations of the theme. The words and numbers stenciled into the painting tighten the composition and, like arrows, indicate the direction the eye should travel. The meter-clocks lack hands, but the painting is kept from fantasy by the vigor of its color, the straightforwardness of the composition and the tension between a beautiful appearance and incongruous subject matter. Dine's concern with the abstract nature of the anatomy and its coverings is bold and questioning; Indiana's concern with unsuspected artistic juxtapositions is subtle and concrete.
There is something impudent in these works, something so simple-minded and obvious as to be unexpected. We find Dine mocking the meanings we conventionally invest in words and images. Both the word and the image in his work may refer to something wellknown, like hair; in combining the two Dine has changed them both and revealed our arbitrary ideas of them. The image is merely an illusion we read into the work; yet it would also be an illusion to believe that we see only black, brown and flesh-colored oil paints squeezed out of a tube. The printed word seems superfluous; even in terms of pure composition the dotted "I" between "HA" and "R" is somewhat irrelevant. The redundant word underscores both the liveliness of objects and the deadness of definitions. The word and image have been willfully related until they - and our ideas of them - seem naked and slightly obscene. Repetition has blurred their commonness.
Both Dine and Indiana come from the Midwest: twenty-seven years old, Dine was born and raised in Ohio; Indiana, six years older, was born and raised in Indiana and Illinois. Both now live and work in New York; they are aware of each other's work, but disclaim mutual influences. Dine even dissociates his present work from the "Happenings" he himself was doing merely a year or two ago [see A.N., May'61]. The sculpture of one of his associates in the "Happenings," Claes Oldenburg, can be (and has been) superficially linked to Dine's work; but Oldenburg's papier-maché pastries deal - as one of their major interests with the difference between illusion and reality. That difference is largely irrelevant to Dine's work; Dine takes for granted that the way in which each of us knows the world is "reality" to us and "illusion" to anyone who disagrees with us.
Indiana, if he admits influences at all, prefers to associate his work with that of his friends Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman. His present style seems to have grown out of an interest in an old circular copper stencil he found when he moved into his loft; he liked the shapes of the lettering and their purely formal possibilities. When he finally used the stencil, however, the resulting words and even statements were not simply forms and their meanings not simply spice in an abstract composition; they were used by him to express concrete, vivid meanings - to convey the substance of an esthetic idea on which his forms then commented.
Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andrew Warhol have all had actual experience with commercial art. Thirty-nine-year-old Lichtenstein, a native of New York who now lives and teaches in New Jersey, had brief experience with industrial design and display work while living in Ohio. Several years ago he did some experiments using comic book designs as the formal basis for Abstract-Expressionist painting; in his recent work he has straightforwardly used the colors, stencils and Ben-Day dots of the comic strips as basic elements in his style.
Lichtenstein places a large face of a girl in one of his pictures; the girl may be pure although we cannot be sure, especially since the words "It's ... It's not an ENGAGEMENT RING, is it?" are written in the balloon next to her. To the left of the girl is a smaller man; size is the principal indication of space in these paintings. Partly because they are stenciled, the outlines do not contain mass or volumes, the space between them is as vacant as that between the wires of a mobile. The dots seem to waver like molecules; because of the regularity and the amount of white space between them, however, the screen of dots (by convention a solid in the comic strips) suggests merely a transparent plane. The picture is a stringent but amusing exposure of visual as well as social habits.
Although Lichtenstein attempts to make his color seem mass-produced, the objects he reproduces (for example, a kitchen range or a baked potato) seem neatly chosen and carefully arranged; they are not merely symbols of a type, just as his people are not merely symbols of general human traits. He is sometimes forced to vary the color he uses for the dots to make them seem the same "mass-produce d" color as his solid areas; his paintings force us to find something important, amusing or inflated in a cliché, in an ordinary event or in tabloid heroism.
James Rosenquist, born in North Dakota in 1933, learned some of his present techniques while painting twenty-foot-high faces of mothers and other All-Americans on Times Square. As a commercial billboard painter he had to try to see the images he painted with his mind's eye, asking himself how they looked three blocks behind him. The size and familiarity of the objects in his paintings at the present time, and the explosive force with which they are presented, seem to place us between the picture and the position from which its fragments were meant to be seen; the space of the picture comes forward to surround us.
Rosenquist uses recognizable fragments of our environment as echoes. The radiator grill of an automobile, canned spaghetti and two people kissing have ready associations and everyday references, although they are likely to have been dulled through commercial familiarity; by combining them in I Love You with My Ford Rosenquist has pointed up the death of our senses which has made these three things equally indifferent and anonymous.
The painting is also concerned with how love is made. The upper section, an obsolescent '49 Ford, comments on things which change (car models), or persist (making love in cars). The progressive enlargement of scale in the three sections parallels the increasing intimacy and loss of identity in the sexual act. The artist changes his palette from grisaille to a vivid orange in the lower section. Like the interlocking forms which tie the left and right panels together visually, every aspect is ultimately seen for its importance to the whole. It is not simply rebellion when Rosenquist says, "I want to avoid the romantic quality of paint." He speaks in the tradition of anti-Romantic Realist Courbet (not antiRomantic Classicist Ingres), objecting to imitated moods and ratified atmospheres (not to the ignoring of rules).
Andrew Warhol was born in Philadelphia in 1931 and now lives in New York; until recently, he depended entirely on commercial shoe designs and advertising layouts for a living. Partially in reaction to the artificial neatness of the commercial designs, he often used to make a drip or blot in the painting he did for his own interest; he made those "accidents," however, seem quite painterly - they had a beauty often found in the intentional "carelessness" of some New York School painting. In one painting of an old can of Campbell's soup, the texture of the weathered tin surface behind the tattered label has a quality of lofty elegance. In a black-and-white painting of an enormous Coke bottle done early in 1961, nervous scratches are made in an enclosed area and a "mistake" is corrected with some handsome white paint brushwork. A recent black Coke bottle has none of those references to art; the painted bottle is larger and a trademark to its right runs off the right-hand side of the picture as if the 6-foot-high canvas were not large enough. The older picture provided a setting and its own scalar referents; the sense of a disproportionately increased scale in the later work results from the bottle being related to the familiar object we often hold in our hand rather than to the size of the stretchers on which the canvas is tacked. Our awareness is not so much of a Coca-Cola billboard as of the shrunken size of the world we occupy; an image from a sign, never intended to be so consciously seen in focus, is stripped of its original signification. Far from symbolizing a civilization, the image loses even its ability to symbolize a product. It signifies a specific common object; the shape, size and color of its presentation characterize an attitude toward objects to which we seldom pay conscious attention, but which make up the preconceptions of our everyday visual experience.
Art of the recent past not only provides a perspective on our environment; it is part of that environment, and one of especially intimate appeal to the artist. The formal debt of Richard Smith and Stephen Durkee to Newman and Rothko is clear; the significance of their adaptation is the radically different tone they bring to their work. Scale seems to be their closest link with the works of the two older painters; certain images which they use, however, relate to things outside the picture and produce a scale more analogous to that of Lichtenstein, Warhol and Rosenquist. Abstract painting often suggests specific moods, sometimes even objects; in a picture such as Franz Kline's Shenandoah, a landscape maybe suggested by a few abstract brush strokes. In a Smith painting (as in an Indiana), an image (or word) transforms the work's abstract elements into comments on the concreteness of the image (or the word); in a Durkee, as in a Dine, specific objects are drawn as explicitly as possible, yet it is not their concreteness but their abstract qualities which are most striking.
Durkee may simply copy markings from the back of a truck, or refer to a lion from a circus poster with a few sketchy lines, or paint consecutive numbers in such a manner as to suggest the passage of time. One of his most impressive qualities is his attention to detail - the delicacy of his expression and the distinctions which it implies. Two acrobats hang from a trapeze which has no visible support in one of his pictures. Their physical posture and their proportions are so stiff and stylized that one might suppose Durkee had based them on an old advertisement or a cut-out (actually they were suggested by two broken wooden dolls he used in a construction); they also have delicately varied outlines and shadows - as if the artist had been unable to rid himself of sympathy for his subject and intended to give them an inner quality deserving of our sympathy. (Durkee once hired a commercial sign painter when he wanted perfect slickness and its quality of utter indifference towards the subject-matter.) The parable of one man depending on another might seem tired or commonplace without these details to give it intensity and vibrancy.
The distinctions he makes in Flowers are less subtle, but he maintains a similar tension between dubbed-in morality and intense concern. The three images are signs for three definite objects, although they may also be seen as symbols for the human, the mechanical and the natural. The relationship of each object to us (how we know and use it) is implied as well: the eye is closest and most abstract, the spokes of the bicycle wheels look like flowers, the natural object is known only through words. The various kinds and degrees of tension between image, scale and abstraction produce a sense of the vividness and complexity to be discovered in our examination of visual cliché.
Durkee was born near New York in 1938 and has lived in the city most of his life. Last year one of his neighbors in lower Manhattan was a thirty-year-old Englishman, Richard Smith, who has since returned to London. Both had their first one-man shows in New York in 1961.
Smith's Billboard, for the most part an orange surface varied only in the texture of the paint, has eight relatively small green rectangles around the top edge and along the sides with a strip of red across the bottom; with a few lines, Smith changes the red to bricks and transforms the entire tone of the painting. The unusual simplicity of the "billboard" image and its remarkable consistency with a beautiful solid-color expanse are both refreshing and unaffected. McCall's, the magazine that capitalized on the word "togetherness," is also the name of Smith's painting of a giant red, white and green heart. The heart shape is in part simply a device, no more concerned with its traditional meaning than the magazine's advertising campaign was concerned with human relations. Unlike the advertisements, the heart does to some degree revive old meanings while making its comment upon modern society; most of all, however, it moves us by the splendid beauty of its color and form. This beauty has the same irrelevance to the picture's subject and the same importance to the picture's comment that Christianity has to any good Baroque crucifixion. Like Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Warhol, Smith focuses on exhausted symbols and brings them to life with an exploded scale; the comment and tone of the picture are most effective not because they pretend to be universally truthful but because they are genuine and present concerns of the artist.
Does the work of these painters constitute a "movement"? One observer who believes that it does has dubbed it "commonism"; a few of the artists find that label unobjectionable if not very illuminating. As we have observed, many similarities can be found in their work. Nevertheless Richard Smith's most recent painting, for example, is quite different from the two works discussed above and probably should not be called "sign painting" even though, as Lawrence Alloway observed, it continues to show "approximations to marquee scale ... combined with the soft-focus and dazzle of slick magazine color photography." Artists exhibiting such vigor and imagination as these are not likely to be confined by any idea or label for long.
The seven young painters described here revitalize our sense of the contemporary world. They point quite coolly to things close at hand with surprising and usually delightful results. A nineteenth-century landscape painter once said that Manet's Fifer looked like a tailor's signboard. To this Zola responded, "I agree with him, if by that he means that ... the simplification effected by the artist's clear and accurate vision produces a canvas quite light, charming in its grace and naiveté and acutely real."
Art News, September 1962: 44-47