I’ve been giving some more thought to Jock Macdonald’s late abstract expressionist paintings. I may have been too quick to judgment in my previous post, so I’m going to take another run at them from a different angle.
My re-think was prompted by a comment made by Robert Amos in a review of the same exhibition in the weekend’s edition of the Times Colonist:
From a distance the paintings appear to be spontaneous gestures, but closer examination reveals the hand of the artist fussing over the edges and touching up the patterning of every image. [http://www.timescolonist.com/life/islander/robert-amos-museum-highlights-canadian-art-1.1997859]
I’d noticed that particular characteristic myself, but didn’t think it was important enough to mention in my review. The more I think about this group of paintings though, the more I think the deceptive appearance of spontaneity is probably their most interesting quality, and one that complicates my previous reading of them as well-made but basically derivative.
My new reading is at odds not only with my earlier take, but with Robert Amos’ take as well. Amos asks the rhetorical question “If they weren’t the spontaneous expression of his subconscious, what were they? It’s an excellent question, and I think trying to answer it might be a worthwhile exercise.
But first we need to situate these works in context. “Spontaneous expression” was a pretty big deal back in the late 50s. Thanks to the Surrealists, short-circuiting one’s conscious intentions had come to be seen as an act imbued with all kinds of significance. By mid-century, according to one of the dominant narratives, the technology-driven horrors of two world wars had wiped away any lingering confidence in Enlightenment values. In that context, the random spatters of a legion of Abstract Expressionists were seen to be frontal assaults against the bankrupt rationality of Western culture.
And yet from another point of view the same works were celebrated as an expression of the freedoms available in Western democracies, set against the conservative, rule-bound styles of painting prevalent in fascist and communist dictatorships of the day.
So gestural abstraction was beloved by yea-sayers and nay-sayers alike. But it was a consensus based on a contradiction, and it could not be sustained for long. Abstract Expressionism was still riding high in 1960 but would soon be eclipsed by a number of other styles, notably pop art but also post-painterly abstraction, op art, and the beginnings of conceptual art. All of these subsequent approaches returned at least some measure of conscious intention to the artmaking process. Conceptual art represented an almost complete about-face, from spontaneous gesture embedded in the physicality of paint, to the work of art as idea, whose physical embodiment was almost an afterthought.
Painted as they were in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Macdonald’s works participate in the valorization of the spontaneous gesture. But Macdonald, for what I think were probably excellent but largely aesthetic reasons, was never completely committed to that approach. True, he did some purely automatist works under the guidance of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, but as works of art they were pretty bad, and he must have been aware of that. He got far better results when in the mid-50s he used automatist techniques as a springboard for developing more consciously constructed watercolours.
It’s likely the same forces were in play when he turned from his watercolours to the large abstract canvasses. These paintings probably began with a spontaneous gesture or two, but such were Macdonald’s aesthetics that he couldn’t just leave them in their initial, unfinished state. So just as he did with his watercolours, he went back in and very consciously fine-tuned their colours and forms, preserving the appearance of spontaneity (unless you look really closely), but improving the composition, adding subtleties of colour and texture, and generally working them up into finished designs.
One could, of course, simply dismiss that approach as a failure of nerve, and anyone who bought into spontaneous expression as either critique or celebration would probably have done just that. But in retrospect we could position it rather as an anticipation of things to come, a recognition of the limits of the spontaneity. An acknowledgement that, for better or worse, we probably need to think about what we’re doing at least some of the time. In the artworld of the late 50s that would have been an interesting and somewhat controversial stand to take.