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Gambit Weekly The Mythmakers

By D. Eric Bookhardt

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Well, well, here we are in the new year. It is, of course, a few days old already, but is presumably still new as such things go. Yet, curiously enough, it looks, feels, smells and tastes a lot like the old year. Hmm. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Funny how things change yet somehow stay much the same.

Sometimes things change and no one notices -- at least, not until it's too late. On the other hand, some things really do stay the same, but we change their labels because people change their outlook along the way. So much of what we think and feel results from fixed ideas and habitual attitudes. Air out the old cranium with some fresh perspectives, and suddenly the world seems fresh again as we see things in a new light. Something like this is happening now, with regard to what we call modern art.

America's original modern art was the abstract expressionism that followed World War II. Abstract expressionism was initially called "action painting" because the artists who popularized it were a legendary bunch of crazies on Manhattan's Lower East Side, artists known for their boisterous spontaneity. Actually, some were rather quiet and mystical, though not necessarily any less spontaneous than their raucous peers. The quiet group became known as the Mythmakers and included Mark Rothko (who later taught briefly at Tulane), Adolph Gottlieb and the equally prodigal talents of Clifford Still and Barnett Newman.

But life is change, and by the late 1950s the labels also changed as influential art critic Clement Greenberg fostered a new myth, namely that abstract expressionism was really about "formalism" -- a highly relative term that emphasized structure or design over content. The "formalism" shtick had the convenient side effect of making modern art safe for decorators by bypassing the sticky issue of symbolic content. But what was the content?

Until recently, no one remembered. Symbolic content derives its meaning from the context of the times, but by the time these artists made it into the history books, much had been forgotten or rewritten -- at least, until a new generation of art historians took another look. Now, thanks to the staff of the Newcomb Art Gallery, we can see for ourselves how these mid-century rebels evolved into the epochal figures they eventually became.

Rothko's Untitled, 1942 highlights the modernists' search for the connection between myth and the unconscious.
The Mythmakers is an impressive show for what it reveals of the evolution of Rothko and Gottlieb, two of the most significant American modern artists. As with any evolutionary process, it is occasionally messy -- some early paintings appear tentative or even derivative at times. On the other hand, when seen as the gestation the first major American art movement, it is a real revelation.

There are, of course, some vintage masterworks on view along with the more offbeat and improbable earlier works. For instance, Rothko's Untitled, 1952, a kind of amorphously shimmering orange rectangle emanating from a field of lemon and chrome yellow, is a classic example of the mystical, enigmatic style of abstraction for which he became famous. There is an almost aloof subtlety about such works that can be challenging, and it is indeed rather tempting to just write it all off as "formalism" and let it go at that. Tempting, yes, but accurate? No, most assuredly not.

In her thoughtful catalog essay, Thomasine Bartlett details the elaborate ideas that led up to all this, going back to the 1930s and '40s. Underlying it all was the artists' confoundment at the turmoil of the times and their quest for answers, a quest rooted in mythology, dreams, surrealism and Eastern mysticism -- the same currents that propelled many leading poets and writers ranging from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to Joseph Campbell.

The Mythmakers believed that all societies are defined by an implied mythology, a commonly held, if unspoken, sense of life as an ongoing story or legend that contains the underlying values of the culture. By failing to be more conscious of this, Americans may tend to mindlessly go with the prevailing flow of trivial pursuits, or so it was argued. These artists longed for something more, a sense of higher purpose expressed through their paintings.

Patently experimental works such as Rothko's Untitled, 1942 -- a totemlike cluster of figures suggesting human fragmentation amid the mechanized brutality of the 20th century -- explore the connections between myth and the unconscious. Such connections also are pervasive in Adolph Gottlieb's paintings, as we see in his pictographic yet psychological Labyrinth 1, 1950. Amazingly contemporary in effect, this evokes something of late Kohlmeyer with overtones of Keith Herring. All in all, The Mythmakers is a significant show -- a real eye-opener that puts the Newcomb Art Gallery, and New Orleans, on the revised map of modernism.

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