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February 02, 1964 - Image 10

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The Michigan Daily, 1964-02-02
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Mobile Painting No. 32 by Jerry Okimoto 22" x 52"


The Abstract World of the New Formalists

T HE EXHIBITION of New Formalist
works presently at the Museum of Art
(through Feb. 9) provides several inter-
esting perspectives on the hard-edge
world of abstract painting. Viewing the
eight artists as a group, one notices that
they are not all really formalists at heart,
but that it is their style of crisp, clear
contours which forms theirtartistic bond.
Within this stylistic limit the eight art-
ists have developed in eight different
artistic directions, from Richard Anusz-
kiewicz's purely intellectual manipulation
of color combinations and geometric
forms for optical effect to the personal
and symbolic statements of Leon Polk
Smith on the loneliness of man and the
vastness of the universe.
Anuszkiewicz's experiments with color
have made his works shimmer with the
violence of his color juxtapositions. One
is hypnotized by the bright blue and
green crosses against a crimson red in
"The Eye of Consciousness," and becomes
puzzled by the apparent change of the
green crosses to blue and the blue to
green at close range. One must concen-
trate on discovering the rationale of the
composition, and so a game develops in
which the intellect and the eye tug in
opposite directions, making Anuszkie-
wicz's works fascinating exercises, but
hardly great art.
Leon Polk Smith, while not always
completely successful in his use of color,
has a great sensitivity to the possibilities
of contour and silhouette. Combined with
this is a fine sense of meaningful use of
empty space and placement of the sil-
houette against it. In "High Plateau" the
bottle-like silhouette stands firmly, yet

isolated, at the side of a great white
emptiness. In "Moon Edge," the loneli-
ness of the dark green landscape against
an infinity of deep blue creates a sense
of the eternal loneliness of matter in the
vastness of space. The contours of Polk's
forms are not smooth and regular like
those of Alexander Liberman's, but their
irregularity gives them a strength and
substance, making them heroic symbols.
GEORGE ORTMAN is another artist in
the exhibition who has often been
termed a symbolist. However, in general
his works seem too forthright and open
to be masking any message behind the
bright colors and picture puzzle pieces
that he uses in his compositions, while
interested to some extent in color com-
binations, best seen in his composition
"Southern Totem,' Ortman has developed
systems of circles within squares, crosses
within other circles, all carefully arranged
inside an ameoba-like form. His "Journey"
and "Portrait" are very close in compo-
sition; however, the emotive power of
the blue-purples and blues in the former
create a depth of mood which his other
two works lack.
Oli Sihvonen is the most traditional of
the group, in technique if not in ap-
proach. Still, the subtlety of his colors
and sensitivity of the placement of his
forms make his works a touchstone for
the exhibition. In "Yellow Circle, Yellow
Square" the glowing yellow disk against
a slightly more golden square is carefully
calculated to be almost tangent to the
sides of the square, creating a sense of
expansion and contraction in the size of
the disk, as well as a shifting of bright-
ness. Similar in idea to Anuszkiewicz's
paintings, Sihvonen has managed not to
strain the viewer's eyes and instead draws

one constantly into the picture through
color appeal and the compulsive nature
of his formal relationships. In "Fenestra
No. 7," the more complex contours of
color areas and the deadness of the black
cut off and refuse the freshness found
in his other two works. The blue areas
above and below the purple and black
rectangle create an unbearable ponder-
ousness of rich color. In general there is
a stateliness and refinement in Sihvonen's
art which the others lack.
OF THE remaining four painters, per-
haps Kenneth Noland is the most
impressive, if only for the size and in-
sistence of his images. Currently working
with a basic chevron plan in all his works,
he paints what at first appear to be fancy
necklines for tennis sweaters. Unfortun-
ately, his interesting color arrangements
are overwhelmed by the urgency of his
wedge-shaped pattern. In contrast, only
one work, "This," (1961) reveals his abil-
ity to use color rhythmically in a pattern
system close to that of a bulls-eye, yet
less aggressive in its contour than his
current works.
Unfortunately, Alexander Liberman is
so superficial and slick that one would
by pass him for the neighboring Marca-
Relli collages, if not for the fact that the
latter's works have become so sterile and
repetitive as to have lost any meaning.
£he last of the eight, Jerry Okimoto,
claims attention through the subterfuge
of a gimmick. Each of his works is com-
posed of a canvas painted in two areas of
flat color. A sliding panel of another color
is placed on a track in the picture frame.
By changing the position of the panel,
different relationships between the three
or four colors of each work can be ob-
tained. It is comparable to receiving
three paintings for the price of one.
The technical methods of the artists
are as diversified as their styles, and on
the whole more imaginative. American
ingenuity has certainly come into play in
the exploitation of an essentially two
dimensional art. George Ortman cuts

shapes out of the canvas and replaces
them like puzzle pieces, thus underlining
the integrity of their form. Alexander
Liberman attains the sharpness of his
line by cutting one color area out of can-
vas and pasting it atop another, and the
sliding panels in Okimoto's work have
many possibilities if developed further.
WHILE maintaining separate artistic
identities, the New Formalist painters
on exhibition at the Museum of Art are
the American heirs to the European tra-
dition of abstract painting. All of them.
save Okimoto, have had some contact
with Continental art and artists; but, it
is important to note that in none of these
artists' works are the compelling in-
tellectualism of analytical cubism or
Mondrian's intricate and essential geo-
metrical relationships overwhelming. In
fact, only the clarity of their statements
and the crispness of their lines connect
them with the strong intellectual puritan-
ism of their predecessors. There is in most
of them a vigor and brashness of ap-
proach which is purely American. When
geometric forms are used, such as in the
works of Anuszkiewicz and Ortman, these
are subordinated to the more sensual
element of color.
The artists themselves, although rough-
ly categorized as New Formalists, are
separated from one another in their
artistic aims so that they are only nom-
inal formalists. Certainly Leon Polk
Smith's looming and lonely silhouettes
against endless empty white or blue
grounds are more symbols than expres-
sions of intellectually realizable relation-
ships. Perhaps, hard-edge abstractionists
is a more apt title for the group, since it
is the clarity of statement, the sharp and
positive contours of color areas which are
common to all these artists. It is the
great amount of independence in their
works which provides a refreshing view
of current abstract art. The exhibition
as a whole is an optimistic comment on
the integrity and value of the directions
being pursued by contemporary artists.

A FEW YEARS AGO George Steiner,
the American critic, announced in the
"Reporter" that German literature was
dead. His diagnosis of the cause of death
was that the language which had been
used in Hitler's concentration camps
could not possibly serve to create litera-
ture again. In the indignant uproar that
followed, two facts were generally over-
looked. One was that Mr. Steiner's con-
tention was not original but had, in a less
axiomatic form, been put forward by the
German philosopher, Theodor Adorno,
some ten years before Steiner: "To go
on writing lyric poetry after Auschwitz
is barbaric." The other was that (at least
in this form) the verdict presented a
meaningful moral challenge, and one that
indeed had to be met if German litera-
ture was not to be buried once and for
Factually, Mr. Steiner's pronouncement
was easily refuted by pointing to the con-
siderable volume of literature written,
published and read, or performed, year
after year, in Germany, Austria and
Switzerland. The defending critic could
have referred to over thirty poetry mag-
azines and to more than twenty anthol-
ogies of poems written between 1945 and
1960. He might have used an an argument
the innumerable literary prizes given
every year by cities, provinces, acade-
mies and other institutions, or he could
have mentioned the popular Young Poets
Series that many publishers undertake.
He might even have suggested that Ger-
many is presently one of the few countries
where a young author can live by his
pen without having to sell out either to
teaching or to newspaper hack work:
the number of young German free lance
writers living comfortably on a volume of
poetry, some prize or another, and the
occasional contribution to a literary mag-
azine or to the very literary-minded
radio network is astonishingly large. Or
again, such an apologetic critic might
quote the latest statistics indicating that
this season will offer, in West Germany
alone, first performances of more than
forty new plays by young German play-
wrights, many of them in several thea-
tres simultaneously.
But while sheer quantity might dispose
of Mr. Steiner, Prof. Adorno's subtler
challenge would obviously have to be met
differently. The question is, what could
possibly justify all this activity to some-
one who expects nothing of the German
nation but that they be silent? Clearly,
the assurance that these writers are only
"doing what comes naturally" will not do,
nor will citation of their clean political
records. And lyrical poetry is still being
written in German. The answer to Prof.
Adorno is probably that there is no
sense in which it could be said of this
poetry that people "went on writing it."
In saying this I don't, of course, want
to make the obvious point that no Nazi
poetry (whatever that may be) has been
written since 1945. Nor do I wish to make
too much of the fact that the people who
wrote before 1945 and who are writing
now largely belong to different genera-
tions. What strikes me as important, how-
ever, is the fact that the break between
the literature written before and after
1945 (the Nullpunkt, or point zero, for
the Germans) was nowhere as complete
as in that country.
A long tradition of unengaged, ivory-
tower L'art pour L'art literature drew to a
close at the end of the war. The strange
moral schizophrenia that allowed a poet
to marvel at the steady sequence of the
seasons, as -reflected in the village pond,
while a few miles down. the road the
smoke was rising from the gas chambers
-this caricature of Romantic German
"inwardness" is no longer a possible at-
titude for a young writer. Even the most
apolitical poets, Celan for example, or
Krolow, or Bachmann, do not turn their
back on the issues of the day. Nor do they
ignore, or take lightly, the moral sham-
bles to which they fell heir in 1945. What

Gottiried Benn, technically one of the
fathers of the new German poetry, called
the "double life": doing what is expected
of one within the narrowest frame of
everyday life, and for the rest dedicating
oneself entirely to the creation of "poesie
pure" in some realm of timeless spirit-
such a philosophy seems no longer ac-
ceptable in a world that has been found
to be of one piece.
Concommitant with this change of out-
look, there is an equally striking radi-
calization of formal elements. As might
be expected, it took the young German
writers several years to re-establish con-
tact with the literary developments that
were so severely interrupted in 1933 and
to re-integrate what had gone before this
date, namely, the revolution of Western
literature that went under the names of
Expressionism, Surrealism, Imagism, Fu-
turism, and Dadaism. Still, what is pub-
lished by young German writers today
has, almost without exception, succeeded
in assimilating, and in fact taking a step
beyond, these various spearheads of our
century's early literary revolution. As A.
Andersch, the editor of the magazine,
"Texte und Zeichen," stated, the poems
submitted to him for publication are in-
variably "so radically modern that Rilke
and Benn seem like naturalists by com-
Two other things should perhaps be
mentioned before discussing some indi-
vidual writers. One is the fact that there
are, among German writers of today, no
identifiable groups or movements with
clear-cut social or aesthetic platforms.
The closest approximation to such an in-
stitution is the "Gruppe 47," a group,
founded in 1947, of writers who meet
informally once a year, arrange readings
.nd award an annual prize. They have
neither a specific philosophy nor an
agreed-on program other than that it is
more worthwhile to support talent than
the lack of it. The recipients of these
prizes seem fully to justify this liberal and
eclectic method both by their variety of
purpose and by their quality of perform-
The other remarkable fact is that there
is nothing in the contemporary literary
scene in Germany that corresponds to
the American division between the cau-
tious and clever academic poet and the
hoarse and hairy beatnik. Both the most
academically trained poeta doctus (and
Ph.D. degrees are not rare among them)
and the most untutored iconoclast in Ger-
many seem to inhabit a poetic middle-
ground, somewhere between the two ex-
tremes of inconsequential cleverness on
the one hand, and inarticulate outrage on
the other.
IF WE SET UP as a criterion for the
health of a country's literature the
number of young writers that have suc-
ceeded in evolving a recognizable per-
sonal style, one that goes significantly
beyond the established grand old men of
the literature and that, at the same time,
permits of a wide scope of expression,
an expression, finally, by which the writ-
er's audience feels itself both addressed
and transcended-if we accept some such
criterion and apply it to the young Ger-
man writers of today, our judgment is
likely to vary from one genre to the next.
Despite an enviably active and uncom-
mercial theatre life, the drama would
seem to fare worst in such a comparison.
Prose fiction would come next, with some
outstanding talents and enough minor
ones to put flesh on the bones. Lyric
poetry, finally, is the most vigorous of
the three genres: one could easily name
ten or more poets that have achieved
an independence and excellence that gives
them European stature. Also, there is an
avant-garde, of experimentalists in this
area that I see neither in the other lit-
eratures with which I am familiar, nor,
to that degree, in the other genres in
What, then, is wrong with the drama in
a country that produces over forty new
plays a season? There is, clearly, no ;lack

of young people writing plays; what is
lacking is the significant step beyond the
classics of the century and the unmistak-
able hand of even a few outstanding tal-
ents. The two most successful younger
playwrights writing in German, Max
Frisch ("The Chinese Wall," '46; "Bied-
erman and the Fire Bugs," '56; "Andor-
ra," '62) and Friedrich Durrenmatt
("Romulus the Great," '49; "The Visit,"
'56; "The Physicists," '62) are both Swiss,
In spite of a fairly consistently high level
of output, neither of them can be said to
have gone decisively beyond their spiri-
tual father, Brecht (died 1956), even
though both of them, and particularly
Durrenmatt, show also traces of influ-
ence from the French absurdist theatre.
Both are strongly contemporary in their
themes, morally engaged and often satiri-
cal in their attitude, and moderately
non-realistic in their method. And while
both of them are in great demand in Eu-
rope, neither succeeded in this country,
largely, I think, because of misguided di-
rectors who insisted on presenting nat-
uralistically what, essentially, are highly
stylized parables of modern life.
Besides these two playwrights, there
exists an old guard of dramatists like
Fritz Hochwalder ("The Strong Are Lone-
ly," '43) or Carl Zuckmayer ("The Devil's
General," '46); but there is nothing to
suggest that they will again reach their
level of productivity of some twenty years
ago. There is also a long list- of plays by
various authors that succeeded in arous-
ing public discussion more for their topi-
cal interest than for their artistic merit.
The most recent of these is Rolf Hoch-
huth's mammoth play, "The Representa-
tive" ('63), which has, for several months
now, kept the German-and not only
German-newspapers and magazines en-
gaged in, heated battles because of its
central issue, the failure of the late Pope
Pius XII, to take an official stand against
the Nazi extermination of the Jews.
A side branch of the dramatic genre,
the radio play, has developed more vig-
orously in Germany than anywhere else:
from Borchert's "The Man Outside"
('47) to the more recent works by Eich,
Bachmann, Hildesheimer and Rys, there
has been a steady stream of excellent
and highly literary "Horspiele." Whether,
on the other hand, such young dramatists
as Siegfried Lenz, Tankred Dorst, Karl
Wittlinger or Gert Hofmann will be able
to follow up the success of their first
plays and turn into more than promises
only the future will tell.
cerned, German literature produced
nothing comparable to the realistic war
novels of young American writers. Even
Theodor Plivier's 'novels ("Stalingrad,"
'46; "Berlin," '54), hybrids of fiction and
documentary that they are, do not rank
in a class with the early novel of Mailer,
Jones or Shaw. And the same should be
said, although for different reasons, of
the novels on the war and Nazi Ger-
many by Hans Werner Richter ("Beyond
Defeat," '49), Herbert Zand "The Last
Sortie," '53) and Gerd Gaiser ("The Last
Squadron," '53). Their value lies mainly
in documenting some of the complexities
of the period of which foreign observers
will, on the whole, not be aware. Their
literary ambitions are still clearly be-
low much of what had gone before these
writers. It was only with the novels by
Heinz Risse ("Earthquake," '51), Hein-
rich Boll ("Acquainted with the Night,"
'51; "Adam, Where Art Thou?", '51; "Bil-
liards at Half Past Nine," '59), and Max
Frisch ('I'm Not Stiller, '54: "Homo Fa-
ber," '57) that the generation of writers
between forty and fifty began to bridge
the gap to the grand old men of the
genre, such as Thomas Mann (died 1955),
Alfred Doblin (d. 1957), Hermann Broch
(d. 1951) and Heimito von Doderer. Both
Risse and Boll are irrationalists of a reli-
gious bent. Boll, in particular, has been
championed by young Catholic intellec-
tuals for years. However, by his keen eye
for the sundry hypocrisies that pass for

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High Plateau by Leon Polk Smith
Page Four

Journey, 1961
George Ortman

The Eye of Consciousness,
by Richard Anuszkiewicz

67"1/2 x 53"


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