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I FEEL KIND OF BAD FOR AB-EX. At sixty-something, the old bird’s gotten the gimlet eye from just about everybody: It’s vulgar, it’s the phallocracy, it’s nothing but an empty trophy, it celebrates bourgeois subjectivity, it’s a cold-war CIA front, and, well, basically, expression’s really embarrassing. A dandy wouldn’t be caught dead doing something as earnest as struggling, or channeling jazz with his arms. An old-style dandy, at least. T. J. Clark’s 1994 text “In Defense of Abstract Expressionism” made AbEx’s connection to the vulgar perfectly clear, rendering it bathetic in all its ridiculous glory. But his writing touches only briefly on one of the most important aspects of this vulgarity—the fact that it is gendered. And it’s precisely the gender vicissitudes of AbEx that I’d like to examine here: I would draw the dotted line back to 1964, when Susan Sontag mined this territory in her “Notes on ‘Camp,’” declaring, “The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity.”
How is it, exactly, that we forgot the new-style dandy? How is it that, despite the complexity of AbEx, its reputation has boiled down to the worst kind of gender essentialism? Its detractors would have it that the whole kit and caboodle is nothing but bad politics steel-welded around a chassis of machismo—that the paint stroke, the very use of the arm, is equivalent to a phallic spurt, to Pollock whipping out his dick and pissing in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. (This sexualized reading is itself, of course, a reversal of Clement Greenberg’s earlier—but no less testosterone-driven—notion of AbEx as a pure and transcendent optical experience.) Meanwhile, AbEx’s legacy presents us with a tangle of still more gender clichés, a strange terrain inhabited by fake-dude-women like Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell, wielding their paint sticks like cowboys; and Pollock and de Kooning operating as phallic she-males, working from their innermost intuitive feelings, a “feminization” that introduces another twist in this essentialist logic.