Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making, Politics and the Everyday in Postwar European and American Art

Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making, Politics and the Everyday in Postwar European and American Art offers a new understanding of the aesthetics and politics of postwar European and American art. Questioning the widespread assumption that the most innovative practices were non-representational, it shows how a powerful realist impulse operated alongside a strong commitment to abstraction. Alex Potts makes the case that the ambition to create work that engaged with the everyday and political realities of the world motivated much of the period’s vital experimentation with medium and artistic process. Experiments in Modern Realism is a refreshingly unorthodox account of the artistic and political impulses shaping the diverse practices that emerged in mid-twentieth century art.

In this article, author Alex Potts describes the impetus behind the composition of his book and introduces the foundations of Experiments in Modern Realism.

I was motivated to write this book about experimental forms of realism in the postwar period –stretching roughly from the mid-1940s through to the 1960s – partly because the materials I had to work with were so rich and took such a fascinating diversity of form. The art involved ranges from radically ambitious painterly mark making and experimental assemblages of images and materials to curiously evocative happenings and actions using everyday substances and objects. I was also drawn to this project, however, because I was intrigued by the persistence of realist ambitions over a period that is usually seen as dominated by an abstract aesthetic  focused on the reinvention and disruption of formal and representational conventions. At issue here is something central to a broader understanding of modern art.  The new forms of artistic abstraction developed in the twentieth century are usually seen as involving a rejection of realist or figurative representation. But was modernist abstraction inherently at odds with the ambition to fashion a representation or picturing of things found in earlier European art? Such a question allows of no easy resolution. I came to the conclusion that it did not do so even for artists working in the moment of high modernist abstraction just after the Second World War – a moment when radically a non-representational painting and sculpture came to be widely accepted as valid and was seen by many critics as representing the most vital and innovative tendency in the art of the time. Key questions about the nature of realism as well as of abstraction were posed by the art produced at this moment, dominated by painting, and in its immediate aftermath, the later 1950s and earlier 1960s when a variety of alternative practices emerged.

Experiments in Modern Realism explores in depth the fascinating realist and also self-consciously modern tendencies in the different forms of art produced over the whole period. Abstraction was a vitally important tendency at the time, but experimenting with more naturalistic forms and disrupting prevailing conventions of visual depiction did not mean being committed to an art that was exclusively  concerned with artistic forms and structures. Artists were creating work that may not have represented the world in an illusionistically life-like way. However, they were often intent on creating a picturing of things or evoking a world beyond the art work that, like any convincing world  fashioned by an artist, was as much real as it was imaginary.

It is often been argued that a valid, truly critical or politically engaged modern art does away with conventional representation and depiction. Standard forms of image-making, it is claimed, often very persuasively,  have become so debased in the late capitalist world that they are no longer usable by artists wishing to convey anything of real significance in their work. Readily recognizable visual images have become so much part of the meaningless chatter of modern consumer society that they can only deployed with a strong dose of irony or utterly negated.  At most, a modern work can engage with the spectacle of the image in the modern capitalist world, either by exposing the emptiness of the spectacle, or by throwing into disarray the representational forms operating in this society’s systems of communication and publicity.

My book takes an alternative view, arguing that a key ambition of earlier artistic realism – namely that a valid art has something of considerable importance to say about the world in which it is produced and that a lot of modern art, even some very abstract art, continues to represent a world of some kind that in significant resembles the real world. Realist ambitions have not been abandoned but rather have taken different form. Even at moments when an anti-naturalistic, radically abstract aesthetic seemed to prevail, as in the immediate postwar period, artists continued to draw on a commonly shared language of forms and motifs, with all the baggage this brought with it, debased and inadequate as it might be. Often they took to experimenting with these forms and motifs in an attempt to wrest from them a resonance that they did not have in normal everyday life.

Experiments in Modern Realism singles out the work of artists whose commitment to radical experimentation with artistic materials and processes making involved a continued grappling with everyday images and motifs – ranging from painters such as Jackson Pollock who operated on the boundary between an utterly non-representational abstraction and a curiously suggestive figuration,  to those of more obviously realist bent, Pop artists such as Andy Warhol  or artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Beuys who fashioned their work from  the actual stuff and imagery of the  everyday world and exploited the banal but also quasi-mythic resonances of this material.  The repetitive labour-like actions and processing of the discarded remains of the throwaway society in the happenings of Allan Kaprow, the concatenations of found text and imagery in Eduardo Paolozzi’s prints, the curious scribbles and half decipherable marks arrayed on atmospheric white expanses in Cy Twombly’s paintings, all made use of recognizable representational elements to make specific reference to a larger reality beyond the art work. At the same time these artists harnessed the resources of art to convey something of the texture of lived reality in the modern world. They exploited the intriguing substance and atmospheric effects of paint work, the proliferating interaction of heterogeneous images and materials and actions casually arrayed within a frame of some kind in assemblages and happenings, or the suggestive transformation of prefabricated visual images through reprinting or repainting or recontextualising them in New Realist and Pop work.

How does politics come into this? A politics was inevitably there in the materials and images and the artistic resources on which artists drew. It was an integral to the lived reality of the world they inhabited. At the same time politics also entered into their work in a more active way – whether the politics of the ideological struggles and the devastation of the  Second World War, or those of the new realities of the Cold War, or of  the left and anarchist radicalism and countercultural activism that culminated in the explosion of protest in the years around 1968. The more experimental art of this period did not in any simple way reflect these larger politics, but it did respond to specific issues being played out in the broader political arena. Artists with political commitment often brought to bear in their work concrete references to the politics that mattered to them – at times allusively, so a viewer had to look for them, at times in a deadpan or humourously offhand or ironic mode, and at times echoing the banal take it or leave it or flattened immediacy of mainstream media representations of politics.

In writing this book, I have focused on work in which a commitment to artistic process, to working intensively with artistic means and processes, operated alongside an equally powerful commitment to engaging with the material and cultural realities of the larger world. This is work in which an involvement in art and an involvement in life, or in the non-art world, were both powerfully present even while being somewhat at odds with one another. The postwar art which most interests me was kept alive by the conflict-ridden interplay between these differing imperatives – between art and non-art – that was not only disruptive and unsettling but also deeply suggestive and productive.  This I claim is as true for the painting of postwar artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Asger Jorn as it is for the more overtly non-art like work of figures  such as Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, Edward Kienholz and the Swedish and transatlantic artist Öyvind Fahlström. The latter’s Doctor Schweitzer’s Last Mission, a detail of which features on the cover of my book, is a work whose complexities and contradictions, and crazy vernacular immediacy, I feel sums up rather well what drew me to the art of the postwar period. I hope my book conveys something of this excitement I felt while writing it.

– by Alex Potts, author of Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making, Politics and the Everyday in Postwar European and American Art

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