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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue
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Rorschachian Chance in Flow and Ebb

It is impossible to reason upon chance.

—George Boole

A certain 18th-century British aesthetician of classical ilk complained about the randomness of the stars, saying that the night sky could have been more beautiful had the stars been arranged in geometric patterns. The 19th-century logician Boole, a pioneer in mathematical probability (and digital computing), had more respect for the layout of the stars as by no means happenstance.

In youth, the aesthetic regularity of classicism is reassuring; and once creative types bust out, seeking chance as freedom, some of the obsessiveness of regularity and symmetry may linger. I’m mulling over my first experiences, as a teenager, of Jackson Pollock. Visits to the Modern always included, as I recall, One: Number 31 (1950) which at 17 feet, 5 inches, was practically as big as the Monet Water Lilies lost to fire on April 15, 1958 (I could tell my parents, watching the news that night, that I knew that painting). I loved to stand in front of One’s wild strands of paint, contemplating the received wisdom that if this was a masterpiece it must be perfect in every detail.

You did have to wonder if you were expected to imagine Pollock calculating every detail to meet this standard. The big Monets were easier because you could picture Monet standing back to effect a next touch. But with Pollock there was the problem of how much a dribble or a splat could possibly be consciously determined on a millimeter basis. You couldn’t get any further without acknowledging chance, perhaps even including the metaphysical question of whether chance exposed the mechanism of nature or creation to a point where the inflections of Pollock’s One might have been predestined (Spinoza could agree with Calvin on that). Soon Duchamp wormed his way in.

As a student, I tended at first toward classicism in architecture, hoping to crack the bourgeois code even before I knew about that, yet always with an eye toward the modern—which hardly seemed anti-classical to me. I was also drawn to worthy exceptions to the rule, and the closest I came in my studies to the psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach’s willfully freeform clinical inkblot drawings was a fascination with the arbitrary “blot” technique of Alexander Cozens (1717–1786), a teaching device by which heavy inky splotches on paper inspired imaginary compositions in light and shade. Cozens wrote up his process in A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape (1785), which I knew as reprinted in a 1952 edition of A. P. Oppé’s Alexander and John Robert Cozens, contemporaneously with Pollock’s most blotty black enamel compositions. Aware of Leonardo’s advice to artists to study chance cracks and stains on walls, Cozens considered his compositions “‘production[s] of chance, with a small degree of design,” the blots themselves being “assemblages of accidental shapes.” His resort to early Romantic imagination was akin to Dr. Rorschach’s expressionistically aware blottings, though in both cases chance determination was qualified: not only by selection of good ones, but also by the detachment and objectification of stamping the forms in reverse on paper—though not in symmetrical Rorschachian pairs, like lungs or (as below) other bodily organs. Nevertheless, Cozens prepared me for Rorschach.

I’d like to have seen that offbeat art scholar Jurgis Baltrušaitis go to town with Rorschach’s famous cards: that could have been the opposite of the hopelessly square, hyper-illusionistic anamorph that people still associate with him. Confronted by the 10 standard cards with inkblot accidents and would-be accidents (Rorschach had also studied art), Rorschach’s patients and I—piqued by a student purchase of the plate volume of his Psychodiagnostics (Bern and New York, 1948)—came up against their insistent symmetricalization as something associated with classical formal rectitude. The high-voltage result—screwy forms in doggedly orderly symmetry—provoked, in a patient, unguarded chance reactions indicative of one or another psychic malaise, or none.

Rorschach died as surrealism was taking off; but automatism needed little explanation as a matter of chance, much as my personal Pollock-as-perfect problem had dissolved away. And in an ironic response to abstract expressionism came the tit-for-tat re-iterability of Rauschenberg’s Factum I (1957) reconstituted as Factum II (1957). Note that here all generalization pertains to the latter painting, as having something to live up to, playing on chance but opposed to it, as if in sibling rivalry—an utterly Duchampian idea—with the former.

When I received my doctorate in 1973, H.W. Janson invited me to do an “Artists in Perspective” book on Andy Warhol; but I asked to do Duchamp instead. Already impressed by his brainy objects, I wanted to get at his nuancing of chance. A decade later, in the mid-1980s, Warhol actually took the crypto-anatomical aspect of the Rorschach plates as prototypes for an extensive series of brushed and splattered, 20 × 16-inch paintings that include colors like the pastel red and blue that Rorschach himself used in half of his otherwise black and white drawings; plus huge black and white canvases, some 13 and a half feet high, as if to monumentalize Rorschachian chance-determination. Despite his penchant for laxity, Warhol souped-up the most anatomical aspect of Rohrschach’s forms, highlighting—thanks to the bodily symmetry of their folded paper prototypes—their connotations of anatomical pairs, even slimy pairs, like mucus membranes and internal organs, if not just as rigorously symmetrical (and also slimy!) sea-creatures.

A decade later still, Mike Bidlo made a series of “Fountain Drawings,” including black and white Rorschachian forms melded with the likewise symmetrical form of Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain urinal, and quite like the bodiliness of Warhol’s. And in the early aughts, Bidlo satisfied Warhol’s precedent by producing huge canvases of flat, silhouetted black and white Rorschachian forms in a “Pollock Rorschach” series. Seeing them made me think that a certain phenomenal circuit had become a closed case, a lingering (malingering?!) chapter on Dr. Rorschach in the chronicle of chance in modern art.


Joseph Masheck

Art historian Joseph Masheck received the CAA’s Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art in 2018.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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