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Abstract Expressionism Theory: Media Purity

Media Purity

Introduction to Media Purity

In art and art criticism, particularly during the time of Abstract Expressionism, the concept of 'purity' was applied to mean an unmixed medium or singular style. Some prominent examples of media purity in Abstract Expressionism include the paintings of Pollock, Hofmann, Newman and Rothko, whose works strived to create "pure" abstractions, void of context, figuration or definitive meaning.

Breakdown of Basic Ideas

  • Throughout the 1930s and 40s, New York artists experimented with increasingly abstract imagery. By removing any familiar or descriptive subject matter, the paint and canvas itself became the subject.
  • Critic Clement Greenberg did not consider abstraction to be merely an artistic style, but an actual medium itself. By the early 1940s, Greenberg was promoting the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann, championing their work as pure abstraction. According to Greenberg, if a painting depicts some form of narrative content or figurative form, then it is impure by the fact that two mediums have been combined, painting and literature.
  • A work of complete abstraction is wholly pure because the canvas maintains its nature as a flat surface, and the paint maintains its nature by not representing anything other than paint.

Origins in "Art for Art's Sake"

Greek philosopher Plato spoke about the concepts of Truth, Beauty and Love as concrete and pure ideas that are unencumbered by outside forces. From this philosophy arose the idea of the autotelic (from the Greek autoteles), which implied that a work of art is complete within itself, representing itself and existing purely as a work of art. This idea developed into the phrase, "Art for Art's Sake."

Media Purity in Abstract Art

Theorists such as Greenberg and Hofmann updated the idea of 'Art for Art's Sake' and applied it to Modern art, claiming that pure forms represent nothing other than the form itself, i.e. a square represents a square, a circle a circle, and so forth. As well, the flatness and planarity of the canvas will remain pure only if the artist respects its nature, and doesn't complicate it with figurative forms or rendering it a surface in which a three-dimensional perspective exists. A work of art is pure only by limiting itself to a single medium. By remaining within those limits, Greenberg argued, the medium of abstraction may explore a virtually limitless number of possibilities.

Michael Fried and Minimalism

In the 1960s, critic Michael Fried, originally a disciple of Greenberg, took a stand against the artistic style known as Minimalism, believing it to be an essentially impure medium. Fried's argument was that artists, such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, whom he called "literalists," were intentionally creating non-art. This approach exaggerated the materiality of the works, focusing on an interactive experience for the viewer rather than the work itself. Therefore, what impedes a Minimalist work of art from being pure is its interaction with the spectator, thus rendering it a work of theater. This is what Fried refers to as "art and objecthood." When there exists no differentiation between the art and the object (two different media), as was Fried's claim with the literalist works of Judd and Flavin, then the work is not pure.

Critics and Artists Who Defied Media Purity

Harold Rosenberg did not take stand against ideas of media purity, nor did he offer much of an opinion on it either. Rosenberg's philosophy was concerned with what he called "Action Painting," in which the creative and emotional actions of the artist produced the abstract image. In turn, Greenberg accused Rosenberg of ignoring the importance of an Abstract painting's form and complete lack of subject matter, thus disregarding the purity of abstraction.

Thomas B. Hess, the editor of Art News, was clearly not bothered by issues of purity in Abstract art because he celebrated artists who worked in mixed media. One possible exception was Willem de Kooning, who worked solely with oil paints and canvases. However, since de Kooning often painted abstracted figures, as seen in Woman and other works, his paintings are what Greenberg would consider not entirely pure, as he combined painting and narrative.

There were many artists working at this time who cared little for maintaining the purity of abstract forms in their work, but arguably no one more so than "Combine" artist, Robert Rauschenberg. By placing everyday objects such as blankets, glass and miscellaneous hardware onto his painted canvases, Rauschenberg's work achieved the antithesis of media purity.

"Towards a New Laocoon"
By Clement Greenberg
Originally published Partisan Review, 1940
    Key Points:
  • Greenberg takes the word "laocoon" from two sources; Gotthold Lessing's 1766 "Laocoon: An Essay Upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting," and Irving Babbit's 1910 essay, "Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts." Greenberg's use of the word in his own essay clearly denotes his concern with one of Modern art's critical debates: whether the existence of limits within specific media ultimately has a beneficial or negative effect on the value of an artwork.
  • Greenberg stressed the importance of the Purist's attitude toward art. He wrote that a Purist's concern with art translates to, "an anxiousness as to the fate of art, a concern for its identity. We must respect this." A desire for a pure form of art, therefore, is a desire for the survival of painting and the plastic arts. Additionally, Greenberg created the foundation for one of his more controversial positions in this essay, writing, "...it is not so easy to reject the purist's assertion that the best of contemporary plastic art is abstract."
  • "Now," Greenberg wrote, "when it happens that a single art is given the dominant role, it becomes the prototype of all art: the others try to shed their proper characters and imitate its effects. The dominant art in turn tries itself to absorb the functions of the others." He went on in future writings to further explain how Abstract Expressionism, what he preferred to call "American-Type" Painting, was not only the dominant art form of its day, but the purest art form to have emerged in the Modern or any other era.

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

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