Figuration and Gestural Abstraction is a revised version of a catalogue essay, the publication of which accompanied the exhibition, “Prints of Arthur C. Danto,” presented at the University of Illinois, Springfield, 27 August-23 September 2009.
In 1980, while writing about Shiko Munakata’s woodcuts, Arthur C. Danto claimed, “Of the graphic media, woodcut is perhaps the most direct and expressive and requires the simplest apparatus. Any piece of plank will serve, and the life of the wood – its grains and knots and splinters – can be transferred to the print itself.” Here, Danto is making not only a statement about the nature of woodcutting as a distanced art critic, but he is also referring to a very intimate knowledge of his own.
Before turning to philosophy, Danto was making works of art. He created black-and-white woodcuts that reflected both the strength and intensity of gouging and cutting and the spontaneity and fluidity of gestural drawing. Danto’s mature style embraced two different movements of expressionism – the tradition of rough and coarse German Expressionist woodcuts and the impulsive and energetic brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionist paintings. When artists such as Seong Moy, Louis Shanker, and Adja Yunker, inspired by Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, famously experimented with color woodcuts, Danto affirmed his loyalty to the tradition of black-and-white prints. He declared, “I prefer the black-and-white woodcut. It permits the directest statement with the greatest economy of means.”
His last one-man show took place in New York in 1960 at the Gallery of Associated American Artists. In 2000, Sylvan Cole, who had been Danto’s art dealer from the fifties and had been called “a doyen of dealers of American prints,” by The New York Times, was interviewed by art historian and art critic Avis Berman. Cole greatly surprised his interviewer when he mentioned Danto’s prints. Since the publication of his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Danto’s philosophy of art has been widely known and discussed, but his art has been buried in the past, in galleries, museums, and private collections, only occasionally emerging here and there. Not surprisingly, few people know that Danto was once an artist and even fewer have had the privilege to see his art.
Danto’s achievements as a philosopher provoked a confession from his esteemed colleague Jerry Fodor, who wrote, “I am eaten up with jealousy. Danto has done something I’ve been very much wanting to: namely, reconsider some hard problems in aesthetics in the light of the past 20 years or so of philosophical work on intentionality and representation. What’s more – and I do find this hard to forgive – he has done it very well.” Peter Kivy, a fellow philosopher of art and aesthetician, borrowing a plot from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, dubbed Arthur Danto a hedgehog, as opposed to a fox. Archilocus had claimed, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Further, Kivy simply acknowledged, “The publication of Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, in 1981, ushered in a period in the aesthetic revival of which I speak that, at least in Anglo-American circles, has been largely dominated by Danto’s philosophical presence.”
At times Danto refers to his two separate lives – his life as an artist and his life as a philosopher – emphasizing their parallel but seemingly disconnected paths. However, one work, “Posture of Contemplation” was reproduced – anonymously – on the cover of one of Danto’s books, Mysticism and Morality, and some of his prints, such as A Farwell to Lao Tzu, Kant, and Spinoza as a Young Man, are visual commentaries on his philosophical thoughts. Recently, Danto acknowledged that writing about artists had caused him to rethink his own life as that of an artist working in a certain period of art history. In fact, Danto’s experience as an artist became an integral attribute of his philosophical reflections on action, historicity, and ontology of art. Nearly all, and surely the most distinct of Danto’s art works are executed within the oldest of the relief mediums, the woodcut.
Making woodcuts has in common with all printmaking techniques in that it is a process rather than a one-time creation. First, Danto made a drawing. He approached it, as many Abstract Expressionist artists would, without any particular subject in mind, treating a sheet of unrolled paper as the vast expanse that invited improvisational gestures. Danto drew, using Indian ink with brushes, ink sticks and reed pens, allowing images to develop almost subconsciously. Brush-drawings look presumably airy and effortless, but actually, drawing with a brush soaked with ink requires a high degree of skill and concentration. For Danto the physical act of making marks on paper, brushstrokes, lines, or splashes of ink, became significantly existential. A drawing came to be “an event,” a revelation and incarnation of the artist’s mind. Moreover, gestural marks on paper remained as an intrinsic part of a work.
Unquestionably, as an artist, Danto incorporated the atmosphere of the art world of the forties and fifties, a time in which Action Painting, or, to use a term preferred by Clement Greenberg, Abstract Expressionism, dominated at artists’ studios. Nonetheless, brushing aside Greenberg’s domineering view of historical superiority of non-figurative art, Danto did not have any desire to make non-objective, non-figurative works. The stylistic experimentation with the artistic matter was not an end. He would, rather, wait for something to emerge, something that suggested a sketchy sign of a person or an animal, some presence of a figure that could be further refined and specified. Finally, a variety of fluent interlocking lines and more or less boldly spaced brushstrokes of various weights and splashes of ink created a complex interwoven web that supported the image of a figure.
Abstraction is traditionally conceived of as a process of distilling something that is essential or necessary. Thus in art, abstract paintings or drawings – as for example Mondrian’s paintings of trees, or Picasso’s lithographs of bulls – were gradually emerging. By stripping away details that were seen as irrelevant from realistic pictorial representations of concrete objects, the artist moved towards more and more abstract synthetic images. Danto’s approach to drawing epitomized a different understanding of the abstraction in art. Willem de Kooning – an Abstract Expressionist, but also as an artist who celebrated the human figure – discerned that all art, in some sense, is abstract. For artists, formal elements such as color, line, shape, mass, light and space, when released from the burden of objective context, become abstract artistic means, a matter that imposes its own forces. They can be employed in a less restricted manner, as an independent entity, things-in-themselves, to represent or indicate rather than to imitate or resemble.
Danto’s drawing developed from a freely formed, dynamic and painterly design towards a sketchy image of a more recognizable figure. There is no so-called transparency of drawing: we are equally aware of two-dimensional distinctive marks as well as of what they are supposed to represent. Danto drew mainly human figures and, sporadically, animals. He reconciled gestural abstraction and modern figuration that incorporated expressionist idioms. His drawings, although figurative and somehow illusionistic, are not a part of Alberti or Erwin Panofsky’s tradition of visual realism. They are not a “window,” a transparent glass of sorts, through which we can see a part of the visible world. Danto’s figures were created, neither as imitations, mimetic equivalents of actual subjects, nor as embodiments of universal symbols in particular images. They are visual reflections, sensible commentaries, signs of the artist’s sensibilities and awareness of characters of presented figures.
When drawings were brought to completion, they were translated into woodblocks. Through the process of cutting and gouging, Danto further reinforced his distinctive expressivity. The gestural dynamics, fluidity and painterliness of his drawing, the type of spontaneity that is associated with Abstract Expressionism, were preserved in woodblocks.
Blocks were made from pine planks cut parallel to the grain of the tree. The size of the drawings always dictated the size of the planks. When the planks were too small, Danto fastened two of them together. The drawing was attached, front side down, to the block. To make the design visible, the paper was soaked with linseed oil. The areas that were to be uninked were cut away. The cuts were directed according to form. A brushmark requires one swift gesture; a mark in a woodcut usually demands several incisions. Danto cut with a simple X-Acto knife and a gouge. The seemingly unfinished marks of cutting and gouging remained as a splashy indication of the intensity of the artist’s action. The uncut surface and variety of incised lines stood as a printing surface. The design of Danto’s woodcuts, however elegant, fluid, and painterly, assimilated also the commanding style of German Expressionist woodprints, evoking their jaggedness and directness of carving.
Danto made his impressions entirely by hand. To transfer images, an oil-based thick Western black ink was spread evenly on the printing surface and Japanese mulberry paper was placed on top. The paper was rubbed with a spoon or a roller. Occasionally, as in Horseman, the grain of a woodblock was brought out as a part of the impression. White highlights of the soft, semi-translucent paper became a tangible asset of Danto’s woodcuts. Equally valuable as velvety black marks of ink, together they unified figures and spaces.
Among the most interesting of Danto’s prints are Woman with Infant and Head. Woman with Infant displays what Dore Ashton noticed as the best of Danto’s woodcuts, that is to say, “the most distinctly varied cutting and thoughtful compositions.” The print is an image of a wife of a colleague of Danto. The woman’s figure faces a viewer, but her head is turned to the left, focusing on an infant, who is likely held on her back. The elusive likeness of the image is carried by the oval of the woman’s face, partially delineated eyes, nose, and mouth. The depicted face is integrated into the various abstract shapes that indicate, but do not realistically depict, the form of the woman’s body and the infant. The volumes are plainly suggested by the varied weights of lines and blobs. Both figures appear as if they were revealing themselves through the fluid slashing, brushwork, more delicate pen strokes, and strong, sometimes sharp, impulsive marks of carving. The feeling that the figures are emerging from within the velvety black marks is intensified by the lack of any additional details in the background. The vast but soft emptiness of mulberry paper and some striations that remained after carving create a calm but pronounced space for upcoming figures. The print is, at once subtle and bold.
The play between abstract and realistic can also be noticed in Head. The title is rather uninspiring, suggesting that this woodcut is a head study. However helpful, while reading this print, the language of technicalities is not enough to decipher the meaning of the work. It would be just a shibboleth of sorts, hiding rather than revealing the content of Head. The print depicts a slightly oblique and perhaps generic head. When asked about this work, Danto responded that Head reflected his experience of Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. Perhaps this print is not about a head. The ascetic, abstract and realistic, black and white woodcut is somehow related to the shining magnificence of the 6th century mosaics. It would be worth noticing a Latin inscription on the wall of the Archiepiscopal Chapel in Ravenna – Aut lux hic nata est aut capta hic libera regnat – light was either born or captured here, and here reigns freely. Perhaps, in his print, Danto made this light tangible and at the same time evanescent.
Successful as an artist, Arthur Danto gave up making prints in the early nineteen sixties. Since then, he has focused on philosophy instead. But the beginning of Arthur Danto’s philosophy was in his art.
1. Arthur C. Danto, Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays (University of California Press, 1999), p.168.
2. American Prints Today/1959 (New York: The Print Council of America, 1959).
3. See http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/cole00.htm.
4. More detailed information on Danto’s life as an artist can be found in a volume The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto, forthcoming from The Library of Living Philosophers, Open Court Publishing Company.
5. J. A. Fodor, “Déjà vu All Over Again: How Danto’s Aesthetics Recapitulates the Philosophy of Mind” in Danto and his Critics, ed. M. Rollins (Blackwell, 1993), p. 41.
6. Peter Kivy, “Foreword,” in Noël Carroll, Beyond Aesthetics (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. ix.
7. Dore Ashton, “Danto Woodcuts Seen Among Exhibitions,” The New York Times, May 8, 1959.
8. I owe the interest in this work to Liz Thomas Murphy, who put Head on a cover of the catalogue of the UIS exhibit of Danto’s woodcuts (2009).
2010 © Ewa Bogusz-Boltuc