Dialectics in Modernism: The Paintings of Stephen Posen
Dialectics in Modernism: The Paintings of Stephen Posen
Essay by Alwynne Mackie, Art International, vol. 8, December 1979
Modernism must surely be the most important development in modern art. It must also be the least understood and most abused one, the most common way of apprehending it (especially among critics and art historians) being one which crudely polarizes into abuse or adulation, with each side denying or claiming the seriousness and importance of the art the movement produces. Severe cases of anti-modernism quite often express themselves in what is really a quite different and separate (and to my mind, untenable) distinction, that of form versus content; but in reality, this argument is simply another instance of a long standing dispute (crystallized in a timely way by Matthew Arnold) about what is a fitting subject matter for art. This issue, however, while obviously a very important one, is not essential to modernism, but simply a symptomatic red herring.
It is curious that so little objective and systematic attention has been given to such a major development in art. Whatever one things about its influence in terms of some imagined end goal for art, the reality of the situation is that it is a development, a set of attitudes, to be understood and reckoned with, since it is impossible for the twentieth century artist not to be molded by it – one way or another.
Frequently its influences are felt but not recognized to be those of modernism – not that such self-consciousness is necessarily an important and desirable thing for an artist, but it is interesting to recognize the patterns of influence, and certainly essential for art historians and critics. If one were to put one’s finger on the most characteristic (an fundamental) and fundamental element in modernism, and the most influential (though frequently unrecognized as such), it would have to be its engagement with dialectic.
Modern (and modernist) art generates an argument or discussion within itself by blending elements of visual perception with elements of thought. This is true of all art of course, for perception always involves thought at some level, and usually in a very complex way; but in the twentieth century, art presents us with visual phenomena, whether they be representational symbols or forms to be considered in terms of their visual dynamics, and asks us, often pushes us, to think about the implications of each phenomenon in relation to the next, so that a complex network of meaning is set up which is equally evident in the work of Kandinsky, Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Kenneth Noland, or Joseph Beuys. What distinguishes this dialectic from the interaction of perception and thought in earlier art (even in Renaissance art, if one accepts Gombrich’s account of it as a more or less literary network of symbolic images), is its self-consciousness. This, of course, is what many anti-modernists object to, but mistakenly collapse it into an issue about form versus content.
To my mind this point about dialectic has been much neglected in discussion, given its importance, and I believe that examination of the ways in which it has worked in the twentieth century will bring us to a deeper, and also more comprehensive, understanding of what modernism is all about. The ways, of course, are many and varied, and need to be examined in many different artists. To that end then, I want to look at the work of Stephen Posen, a very gifted and also very complex painter, who has absorbed the traditions of modernism and created something personal and valuable out of it.
Posen’s principal subject is the exploration of the processes of perception, and he does this through the medium of realism. This is not to say however, that his pictures are realist ones, for his uses of the style and the purpose to which they are put, somehow put it outside the realm of that kind of stylistic categorization. To put it one way: Posen is not painting realist pictures as such, but pictures about realism and perception – in fact some of his very recent works are not even realist in appearance, though still about realism and its relation to perception. There are other ways of making perception the subject of painting, of course, but given that there is something which we take to be the ‘real world,’ which we believe we have accurate perceptions of (and parasitically, of a ‘realist’ representation of that world as well), it makes a great deal of sense to take that real world and its realist representation as the matrix for deviations of realism and explorations into perception. Such a realist base imposes its limitations, of course, the important and fundamental ones being at the conceptual level – and these are probably inevitable; at a more practical and immediate level, however, the hidden demands of style and the conditioned reflexes of traditional realist painting are likely to inhibit the artist’s imagination and set up visual and conceptual fences which make the transition from a particular manner of vision to a different mode of thought a difficult one to achieve. How to establish a level of reflection which transcends the demands of style?
New York artists in general have more facility perhaps in this approach to art than most others, and Posen is exceptional in this among the younger generation. Until the Flower series his work generated its dialectic through the interplay of the photographic image which serves as the ‘ground,’ and the second layer of image established by strips of cloth. His method of working was to take a black and white photograph of a complex subject and blow it up, usually to sizes like six by eight feet, so that the details threaten – but never quite succeed – to overwhelm the over-all coherency of the picture. Over this are arranged strips of colored cloth of varying thickness, pulled tight, hanging loose, printed, glued, or fixed with masking tape. This serves as Posen’s model, and he uses it much as a studio painter uses any model, except that his chair/fork-lift enables him to work on each section of the image from a full-frontal position.
The resultant image, apart from being very beautiful and arresting in the best of his work, is one which refuses to allow the spectator simply to enjoy – indeed, one cannot enjoy without engaging, and the engagement is one which tests our resources as viewer, just as it tested Posen’s as artist. Its oddness is that it presents us with several layers, perhaps degrees, of reality at once. The photograph-ground, for instance, provides one level of thought and perception, for it has its own internal image and pictorial space which ordinarily in life we accept as being the epitome of a realistic image. Of course when one thinks about it (and looks carefully) one realizes that the photograph is not a particularly ‘realistic’ images in that it flattens things much more than realist painting usually does, frequently distorts perspective, introduces patterns of light and dark the eye frequently does not see, and is often, of course, a work of black, white and grays: photographs are usually less realist than trompe-l’oeil painting, and never themselves serve as trompe-l’oeil. However, because the image was ‘captured’ (we say) at a split moment of time, and by a machine, we are more disposed to regard it as ‘real’ than we would a painting, which usually incorporates more than a single, uniform moment into its thinking, and is made, we know, by someone who has the capacity, and the will, to deviate from what is really ‘seen.’
Posen reveals this fraudulent reality with the utmost clarity by allowing the details to almost obscure the total coherency of the image, and by drawing painful attention to its absence of color through the contrast of live color in the cloth strips. Added to that, there is the powerful point that the reality that a photograph represents is emasculated as soon as it is presented as a photograph – that is to say, as soon as its status as a photographic object is pointed to by setting it alongside things which are not photographs. (To test the validity of this claim one only has to visualize a photograph, and then the same photograph within, say, a photograph of a room. Duane Michals demonstrates this very powerfully in his photo-essay Alice’s Mirror, 1971.) Despite the clarity with which all this is revealed, one does not feel that the point has been deliberately made: rather one simply notices the photograph’s diminished reality – as if we had always seen it to be so – so subtle is Posen’s handling.
At another level, and literally closer to the viewer, is the other main layer of reality established through the pieces of cloth. This is easy to see, but it is almost impossible to see it and not put to oneself the question “Since realism is realism, how can one superimpose a higher realism over another?” Of course realism is not simply realism, as one soon discovers upon examining even just the surfaces in three painters like Chuck Close, Richard Estes and Joseph Raffael. But even acknowledging that surfaces can be rendered with more or less detail and modeling, problems still remain, for within any depicted scene there will necessarily be surfaces which are less tightly finished than others – a means by which not only space (to whatever degree) is suggested, but also certain things are singled out as being more important and deserving closer attention. This being so, one can see that in a picture depicting more than one level of reality, the more painterly areas in one, may well be tighter than the tight ones in another, and this overlap could easily become a source of confusion or even incoherency. Sometimes this overlap can be rendered innocuous by simple structural devices within the subject matter: for instance, if one is depicting a picture, photograph, minor reflection, or the such like, within a picture, usually a frame around the item is sufficient to avoid any problems.
Posen does this to some extent by making his photograph image black and white, an in the later works, by simulating a grainy finish. But an important part of his dialectic arises out of the fact that he deliberately exploits this confusion of overlap to raise doubts, and questions, not simply about the status of reality (which is not a new subject) but aobut how we arrive at such judgments. In the works of around 1973-74, such as Untitled, 1974 (Francis and Sidney Lewis Collection), this process is explored by allowing the world of one reality to begin to merge into that of another. Apart from the absence of color in the photographic ground, the surfaces in both image and cloth are treated with much the same amount of detail, so that in fact the two worlds are really very close in that respect – indeed, part of the seduction of this picture (and it is a very beautiful image) is that it has a surface reading of being an abandoned, but lovely, old green-house enlivened with rich hangings of cloth: the absence of color in the ground is not disruptive or disturbing on this level of reading and functions as a psychological and emotional metaphor for the disuse and loss of the green-house.
Emotionally, it functions at that level, but it is also very obvious that one is dealing with two distinct surfaces, though not so distinct as to allow one to resolve the paradox by reading the cloth as hanging on a wall of glass which separates the viewer from the green-house. Instead, the cloth pushes into the space of the photograph in very subtle ways. The vertical piece at the lower right edge, for instance, both sits on the surface of the picture plane, and rests against the loquat leaves at the top and brushes against the ground on the bottom; the eighty-degree angled strip at the bottom center echoes the parallel angle of the iron stud on its left and shares its space whilst being clear at the same time that in that case, its upper point (and all of the cloth behind it) must be pinned in empty space; likewise the central vertical strips are draped both up the bougainvillea and on the surface of the picture plane.
In this work, the interpenetration of two spaces is achieved primarily by structural devices along with tonal control – thus the frame support of the glass roof is used to pull back the cloth, while the tones are balanced finely to both hold it with the metal, but also pull it away a little to connect it with the surface of the other cloth pieces. What is astonishing about it (and other works of the same period) is the way in which it reveals how easily one can tolerate paradox of vision. The cloth both inhabits empty space and conforms to the surface of an invisible support, yet they are not perceived as mutually exclusive, and therefore disturbing, alternatives; rather, it is this very ambiguity, this switch back and forth from one mode of seeing to the other, which generates the attraction and beauty of the image. Something affective is born out of contradictory (and therefore, in a sense, irrational) perceptions, and this is a dimension of perception and its relation to thought and feeling, which is rarely explored in art or anywhere else.
In the later works, such as Variations on a Millstone, 1976, and Boundary, 1977-78, the merging of the two worlds is wrought through an overlap of degrees of surface finish and an even more complex ambiguity of placement in space. In Boundary, for example, the pieces of cloth are much less tightly painted than earlier works, and space ‘between’ the two realms of reality is tightened up, so that the communication between them is made more intimate and subtle, and perhaps, less dramatic. The cloth almost appears to inhabit the world of the photograph – but does not, whereas in the Lewis picture it affectively enters the world of the green-house (presumably through its sweetness), but is at the same time pointedly held sharply separate from it, as if Posen is saying ‘Look here, there is a third kind of space here between them – a cross-category kind of space.’ To put the difference between the two periods another way, in Boundary, one sees the cloth pieces as being somehow ‘in’ the photograph, but knows that they are not, while in the earlier pictures one sees they are quite different worlds, but is drawn to connect them in affective ways.
In both cases, however, what is being not merely used, but probed is the capacity of the human mind to deal with, catalogue, or experience, the same piece of information in several different ways. At a simple level this is no new of course, for vase-faces and Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbits have been with us a long time. However, it is one thing to observe the phenomenon and quite another to ask interesting questions about it. And one of the most interesting questions must surely be that which seeks to uncover the mysterious mechanisms by which the mind sees such phenomena as one thing rather than the other, or as one thing then the other. For instance, in the very simple case of the duck-rabbit, the twin protuberances, the dot, and the indentation are elements central to the perception of either figure; yet presumably the eye perceives them in a different order in each case, or tends to move one element towards another rather than vice versa, or some such similar story.
Posen shows himself fully aware of such information about perception and its implications for art. Like Gombrich in his stimulating book on the subject, Art and Illusion, he is well aware that pictorial representation involves the development and use of schemata which in some sense are read as ‘standing for’ something, and even ‘looking like’ that thing. These schemata develop (or change) as a matter of convention and it is quite astonishing just how loose, or generalized, they usually are – even though we usually perceive them as being very precise; at one end of the spectrum there is the circle and three horizontal lines of a face, and, as a more typical case, the patches of light tone splashed across the surface of an image to denote a mirror. Anyone who has ever painted a picture of a mirror will know that there is a tremendous range in the kind of marks that will be read as successful in establishing this convention (though not all of them will be consistent with the aesthetics of the rest of the picture of course, but that is a separate issue)/
Usually painters, insomuch as they are concerned with the is issue, are interested in drawing attention to just how broad the range of tolerance in pictorial perception is – Ben Schonzeit’s Music Room series being a splendid example. This, of course, is fascinating, and raises serious questions about the nature of schemata, the role of convention, and specifically about the degree to which such signs or schemata are truly iconic. Posen, however, turns the thing on its head by narrowing the range of tolerance in the perception of something, and asks how precise something can be and still retain its ambiguity. For instance, in Boundary he pursues the problem o f the way something looks when it lies on something, and he brings his pieces of cloth to the brink of resting on the rocks and lying on the surface of the water in the photographic images. The point is that in a straight-forwardly representational picture (whether realist or not) they would be read that way without any trouble or doubt, especially the pieces at the top right. But here they are not quite right – and not because there is anything strange about scraps ob cloth lying around in this way, nor in the fact that the rocks and water are not painted in the same fullness of color, for that could be accommodated within an internal, non-realist aesthetic.
The reason why they look not quite right is because Posen has generated expectations of preciseness within the picture. However, he has not done this in the usual (realist) way by attention to detail of modeling, but by depicting in accurate detail the way things behave. That is to say, the rocks, the cloth and so on, are loosely painted with respect to surface, but their contours very precisely suggest every little inflection of their position in space. The surfaces therefore, are controlled tonally with wonderful skill, but not to suggest solidity of material substance and thus realisms (a connection deeply entrenched in our visual thinking), but to indicate place – which is a quite different indicator of realism. The work reveals just how realistic an image can be if spaces between things are precisely suggested (and that is distinct from whether or not they are accurately suggested) even when their surfaces are otherwise very loosely painted, and it raises interesting questions about priorities in our criteria for realism (not just in piectorial representation but in perception generally) and for this alone, Posen’s work is worthy of attention.
These implications aside, however, the answer to the question why the cloth does not look quite ‘right’ lying on the rocks is that thee is a asic tension between what is observed and communicated in the rocks and water on the one hand, and in the cloth on the other. In other words, the observations about space and position are so precise and detailed, that one can easily see that the spatial behavior of the cloth cannot be convincingly accounted for by the contours and surfaces of the rocks and water.
As I said, in any other kind of picture, the marks or schemata Posen employs would be sufficient to make the cloth read as ‘lying on.’ But the point is not so much how precise the schemata can be and still retain their capacity for ambiguity – for that, in a way, is a somewhat precious question – but more importantly howprecise they m ay have to be on occasions to avoid ambiguity. And that is really a quite frightening but also exciting prospect, for as piectorial conventions and the corresponding skill in employing them, become more and more sophisticated (but that is not to say realist), the margin of error becomes finer and the demands on the artist’s creativity and the viewer’s attentiveness become more and more tightly stretched. Or does this reaction imply a finite terminus in the potential of human perception? Might we not continue to refine visual perception and pictorial representation with no more and no less strain than in the past?
Obviously these are questions of profound importance, but having asked them Posen switches, in his very recent works, to different but equally difficult and important ( and associated) problems. The four flower pieces (Flowers I,II, Iii, and IV, all 1978) are conceived of as vehicles of expression for perceptions which seem to cut across rigid boundaries of vision, thought, and feeling, and involve experiences which in ordinary everyday terms are contradictions. If this sounds irrational, it is prudent to remember that much of our dream experience is of this nature and is frequently rich in experience and meaning.
To take a very mundane example, it is a very common experience fin dreams for events to take place in a spot which is both one place and another (and not just a blend of the two), or to withness and experience events as if one were inside each of the people and yet to feel oneself also to be an invisible spectator. In dreams these contradictions --- these impossibilities – casue no discomfort to all, and even in the re-telling one knows that however hard it might be to be articulate, nonetheless it was experienced. Surrealism of course trid to communicate these experiences simply by translating them, in a fairly literal way, into paint, as if the iconography of the imagery must have some power to trigger the sub=-surface operations of the mind.
Posen finds his sources not in dreams, but in ordinary perception, and through this avenue of enetrance begins to tap the mystery and depth of the human mind in action. In specific terms he pursues the life of a simple vase of flowers, weaving a texture of experience around it which almost reaches the point of a self-sustaining existence against the evanescence of the object: the material world around us may change or even decay, but the experience remains because it has been experienced and has therefore left its mark.
Flowers I, II, and III all use as their base image a black and white photograph of a vase of flowers taken from about thirty feet and blown up, so that it is very grainy, lacking in detail, and really just a shadow. In Flowers I, this is placed on a gray ground, and the whole image superimposed with ribbons of cloth in which the form is retained reasonably precisely, but the surface handling is very loosely painted indeed; there are also loose patches of color which float, having been, as it were, emitted from the ribbons. The space is tightly handled so that there is sufficient room for the ground to breathe, but not empty enough to have holes in it. The ground, in facet, is tremendously important – at least as important as the vase (though it is not really very profitable to think of these pictures in terms of figure and ground with all that that implies); it breathes with light, color, and vitality, reflecting (and therefore sharing) the complexity and basic homogeneity of substance of the world, which we normally only see focused in occasional, discrete, objects.
The real things – the vase of flowers – are no longer real of course, being represented only by a black and white photographic image, or more properly, its shadow, so that things are seen here rather like the shadows of things in Plat’s Cave, with all those metaphysical implications. The color, which otherwise would turn the shadow into a real thing (or a ‘real’ image, within the context of a picture) is displaced onto the ribbons – which themselves used to be realist in earlier work, but are no longer – and suggestively, into the ground. The painting then, is about abstraction, but an abstraction which recognized a basic, supporting homogeneity of substance across categories – rather in the manner of Kandinsky. But whereas abstraction usually works by a process of subtraction and exaggeration (distilling the ‘essence,’ we say), here it works by a process of displacement.
This is also a very dangerous operation, as there is a great chance that things will just separate out, so that the displacement connection is lost. In fact, the connection is held by a complex combination of visual metaphors (T.S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlatives’ in paint) and dialectic. In Flowers I, for instance, the flowers are typical spring flowers with romantic sweetness; but instead of just extrapolating their spring-time color, he rather seeks to find a correlative for this quality across a different, and unexpected, range of colors. The hues are all of about equal saturation, and have a sharp edge, or bite, which gives them great vitality and alertness; it is this, along with the clarity of color, which is abstracted from the flowers – the very essence of their life and the thing which makes them amazing as flowers and which dissipates when the begin to fade and die. So the relationship between the shadow-flowers and the ribbons is one of implied, earlier movement, of a passing of energy from one thing to another, a process that has taken place and snapped into crisp finality with the realization of the colored ribbons. Thus there is an invisible energy felt, depicted, in this picture, which is not merely energy but a basic, metaphysical energy of life process.
This theme is extended in Flowers II. But whereas Flowers presented us with an image of the displacement of life, color and energy from one form to another – the completed state in a kind of ‘it was here, is not there’ dialogue, Flowers II is more concerned with the process of change mid-action. As in all the flowers pieces, the ground – in this case a rich, mid-glue – is a spatially indeterminate atmosphere, charged with vitality, and more ‘live’ than the shadow vase and flowers. Hovering around some areas of leaves and flowers are patches of blurred red, as if the color and energy is actually in the process of seeping out of the plants. Rather than reading as a loss of vitality from inert shadow to live atmosphere however, an important ambiguity is cast over this action, so that it is also seen as a re-visiting of color and life upon the plants.
This is achieved through two means; the first of them being the very fine spatial and tonal relationship between the patches of red and the leaves, so that both the distance between them and the tenuousness of shading are held at the critical point where the eye hovers between seeing them as tending towards each other and drifting apart. The second means focuses around the ribbons, which have diminished in size and clarity of form, though without any loss of vitality; despite their vitality however, they look as if they could just pop out of existence at any point (looking like thin, air-borne balloons, as they do), and given the dialectics of energy and color in this and the earlier picture, obviously their color and vitality must go somewhere, so that a tension of exchange and potential change is generated between them, the plants, and the red auras. The energy could be coming or going; it does not seem important to decide which, since the ‘this way, that way’ suggestiveness itself generates a movement and energy that reinforces the meaning and character of the image. The point is that Posen has chosen the more difficult task of visually rendering a process (and a non-material one at that) in action, rather than depicting suggestive final states which hint at what had gone before.
A state of being even more difficult to articulate is the subject of Flowers III. Unlike the others in the series, this painting has a rather heavy and stable ground of dark, blackish-blue (with a lighter blue under-painting), while the image of the vase and flowers is painted in a pinkish-mauve tinted with black. This has the effect of separating the vase and flowers from the ground so that it no longer inhabits the atmosphere of the ground as a shadow-image. Instead, we are no longer looking at a ‘real’ shadow-image of a vase (how far down the scale of reality can one go, and still see something as ‘real’?), but at its disappearance, or absence. Posen achieves this effect by painting over the image so that the pink is ambivalent between coloring it and coverint it. This suggests that the disappearance fo the image partly through the blurring of all the edges, but more particularly through the generality of tones in the central area where ta whole lot of tonal variations are coverd over by the mauve. This creates a sense of movement, as if the whole thing has moved at the moment of vision and has blurred.
So the image is moving; but another dimension is added to this with the realization that the image is also a ghost – it has absolutely no depth and the color looks as if it has been bleached out: something which was there, is no longer, and an absence is recorded. The danger for Posen at this point is that the bleaching out will simply read as bleaching out and nothing more. However, he makes the connection to the idea of disappearance or absence by manipulating the tonal transitions so that they violate our perceptual expectations; that is to say, the tones do not get darker in certain places to define an edge, or a form. In other worlds, tone is not used (as it almost always is in painting) as a guide to perceptual identification – or at least the kind of perceptual identification one is normally involved in, where establishing levels of reality, or ontological states, is the primary end.
The coming and going in this picture is remarkable, and is pivoted on the vibrating life, the flutter and stirring into movement, of the ground, and the evanescence and evaporation of the vase of flowers. Thus the coming of the atmosphere and the going of the object are helf in a wonderfully suggestive and rich tension. And what the flowers might have been is suggested in the floating, dispersing fragments of biscuit-orange and the scarlet of a former ribbon (which was, by displacement, the former flowers). This meaning is reinforced in a different way through the retention of reference to the photograph: because of the dark ground and the light image, the painting also reads as a negative, and in that frame of reference, the image is once again, of course, fugitive.
Expressionists, of whatever sort, are concerned to find visual metaphors for states of mind (whether they be emotions or something more complex and subtle), and this is difficult enough, though some conventions have been established over the course of time, through synaesthetic correspondences. Posen however, is involved with something less common and more difficult, namely finding a way of depicting in a visual form, experiences which are difficult to articulate even in words. He catches the in-between moments of a perceptual process which is identified solely in terms of its terminal points: we understand that things exist, and that things cease to exist, but we have only the crudest conceptual means of articulating a situation in between (and the poverty of our conceptual language is well demonstrated in much of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy where other states of being are fundamental). To approach the problem from another direction and at a different level: how does one go about painting a ghost when the essential, inescapable context is that of a visual medium, and therefore of physicality? The medium has physical, material form, whereas much in perception does not, and especially in the perceptual process (which involves thought and feeling) itself. Of course it is usually through the medium of the arts that man finds the means to articulate new experiences, and the new conceptual apparatus passes into general language; poetic metaphor is probably the most obvious example of this.
Those are some of the very complex and profound issues running in Posen’s work, and I want to round off this discussion – as he does the series – with some remarks about Flowers IV. This is a stunning picture and though it is very different from the other three visually, it is closely connected to them conceptually. It was painted from life, so has no photographic image, and consists of a vase of flowers, though different ones this time, of a stronger, less delicate kind – white carnations or double daisies, with foliage of large, oval, very green leaves. It is a picture bursting with life and vitality – the apotheosis of the other three, in a way. The colors have enormous conviction, being strong, strong, and vibrant, without resorting to conventional combinations of hue. The ground is a dark, sea-green, with Windsor-green in a wide range of tones for the foliage, and marvelous wafts of sky blue/turquoise trailed by edges of pink. The flowers are white – the bleached white of over-exposure, but instead of reading as an absence of color, they vibrate with the bleaching like bounced off their whiteness. Everything is strong and definite without being the least bit realistic in the conventional sense. The flowers are real, alive, and strong, as if he catches the life spirit in its vitality and robustness.
Yet robustness would suggest physicality and therefore material substance. Posen’s thinking however, is that if one can find a way of abstracting these qualities (vitality and robustness) from their material substance, then theoretically one should see them in a clearer, stronger form. But since, for him, perception is inescapably rooted in the physical world, he is not prepared to forsake the connections with the physical. Other artists have had the same urges, of course, but so rigidly do we think in two separate categories of physical and spiritual, that the vitality of flowers in painters like Redon, Manet, Van Gogh and others, is expressed in terms of non-physical ‘processes of inner growth,’ which manifest themselves in the physical conformation of the plant. (Leonardo wrote in explicit terms about precisely this).
But Posen is not prepared to accept that division of categories, and insists that the vitality and robustness of the flowers are physical, not spiritual – and that is, after all, how we see them and think about them. The important thing, however, is that he does not equate physicality with material substance, a conflation that is deeply ingrained in Western art and presumably grounded in our conviction that solidity to touch is final and incontrovertible evidence of the physical existence of something. (One is reminded here of Dr. Johnson’s famous ‘reply’ to Berkeley’s esse est percipi idealism, by “striking his foot with mighty force against a stone, till he rebounded from it (and exclaiming) ‘I refute it thus!’”) Posen breaks down the suggestion of substance by allowing the atmospheric wafts of blue and white (the erstwhile ribbons) to shift in and out of the flowers – not through the spaces, but through the image and the flowers themselves, so that the one is equally real/non-real as the other: substance become irrelevant, and the entities are differentiated not in terms of their relative solidities, but in more important terms of energy. Besides this, the whole picture is ‘framed’ by lines at the edge which suggest the inner margins of a mirror edge; the line across the top also reads as a ceiling line in reflection, and the odd bits of purple, which have no particular identity, therefore suggest unrecognized and unimportant objects in the room reflected in a mirror. So the whole thing is an image in a mirror, and being an image does not have substance. (Things seen in a mirror curiously lack the appearance of substance, but we compensate for this lack from our knowledge of how things in the world really are.)
Thus Posen shows us that, approached in a certain way, some things which we take to be contradictions are not in fact so. We know, of course, from our own experience that there are many thoughts, experiences, and ways of seeing that are not readily absorbed into the conceptual structure of ordinary, everyday language; and that is hardly surprising since that conceptual structure has evolved primarily to deal with the more immediate exigencies of living, and is teleologically based.
Gradually, however, art refines our sensibility (even if it doesn’t make us better people) and with it our conceptual system, so that we slowly move, through initially unknown areas, towards a more extended and comprehending awareness of ourselves and human potential. Creativity always extends human personality and consciousness, even though the fruits of that creativity might sometimes be put to destructive uses; without it, we would not have developed beyond the cave-man stage. In this context modernism is obviously a very important development in art, since it opens up a whole dimension of potential not available to earlier art in the same way. It is not merely arts’ ability to comment on itself (which is often taken to be the hall-mark of modernism), but is more fundamental ability to generate internal argument and reflection, which suddenly extends, exponentially, its capacity for generating meaning. What the twentieth century has seen is the entry of poetics into art, by which I mean that the visual arts have become much more conscious of their capacity for bearing a collage of ideas supervenient upon visual impressions, and have exploited the dialogue between these ideas in a way which is verbal rather than visual – one might say literary, but for the pejorative connotations it usually carries in this context. Poetic, indeed, is the right word. Conceptual art is, of course, the most extreme and explicit manifestation of this tendency.
Indeed, one might say that all progressive art of this century, and especially in the last two decades, draws on this element as a source of its fertility, and very likely, that art which does not will turn out to be reactionary. What needs to be recognized is that modernism is much more than the so-called formalist art of the sixties and early seventies. To fail to understand that is to fail to recognize its most productive contribution to the development of twentieth century art – and to art which on the face of it is as diverse as has ever existed at one time. To fail to see this is to do a disservice to the particular art one professes to champion.