Helen A. Harrison
A group of local artists, joined by a guest from California, convened at the Pollock-Krasner House on May 19 to discuss the contemporary relevance of expressionism, whether abstract or figurative, and how it relates to their own work. The event, sponsored by Drs. Marika and Thomas Herskovic, harked back to the early days of the New York School, when artists hotly debated such issues at The Club. It attracted a large audience, whose comments sparked some lively responses. As moderator, my job was to make sure everyone got his or her say.
For expressionists, they proved to be a remarkably well-behaved bunch, reserving any emotional outbursts for their interactions with the canvas. Actually not all of them are purely painters. Ruby Jackson also makes sculpture, and both Colin Goldberg and Carol Hunt use digital technology as well as brushwork, and are inspired by Asian calligraphy. The artists’ approaches were as varied as their media, so there was a general reluctance to embrace a unifying label. Haim Mizrahi set the tone when he quoted Willem de Kooning’s famous warning, “It is disastrous to name ourselves.” That said, there was consensus on the fundamental need for spontaneity, whether it’s an expression of internal impulses or a reaction to outside stimuli. The underwater world, with its marvelous creatures and intriguing shapes, is the key that unlocks Ruby’s imagination. In Carol’s case, what began as a fascination with fabric patterns has evolved into a complex vocabulary of abstract forms.
The term “abstract” has long been a bugbear, implying a lack of recognizable subject matter, but as Haim pointed out, “just because it isn’t evident doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Connie Fox was glad that the abstract qualifier has become divorced from expressionism, freeing the artist from prohibitions against figurative imagery. For her, as for others on the panel, the real task is to engage with the work as it evolves, to follow where it leads and dispense with preconceptions. Colin maintained that, far from constraining him, the computer encourages that kind of improvisation; he thinks of digital technology as “a tool to tap into the unconscious.” A question from the audience provoked several musings about the psychological aspects of creativity, and how the artist gains access to that Jungian reservoir. Our West Coast panelist, Linda Hatofsky, spoke on behalf of her late husband Julius, a longtime teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute, who told his students to “take your mind out of the work and let your hand guide you.” There were nods of concurrence around the table.
Art as a process of self-discovery—perhaps expressionism’s key defining quality—was a recurring theme. Linda described how her husband’s traumatic experiences in World War II, including the liberation of a concentration camp, were eventually manifested in his paintings decades later. For Haim, art is “a constant investigation of who we are,” while for Ruby it’s a vehicle that lets you “go someplace you have never been.” Connie mentioned how the act of looking inward helps focus attention where it needs to be. Sally Egbert eloquently evoked the artist’s “rare space,” a private realm shut off from daily life. Yet far from being lonely, or out of touch with reality, that space is filled with the residue of experiences that are carried into the studio and translated into meaningful imagery. Expressionism isn’t only about self-expression, she insisted. To her, “communication is key.” An audience member elaborated on the distinction between “painting your feelings,” which might be considered mere navel-gazing, and “painting with feeling,” implying a broader empathy with the zeitgeist, to which Sally replied that “really great art should be of its time, but timeless.” That’s something we can all agree on.