Our visual powers

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Lee Krasner, Celebration. 1957–1960. Oil on canvas, 92½ × 184½ inches. Cleveland Museum of Art.

The muted color sensa in Lee Krasner’s Celebration are intensified by the dramatic black curving lines. They suggest movement and create a sense of rhythm. The rounded red and pink forms may also suggest figures in motion, but we are drawn to the excitement of pulsing forms that seem to well up from the surface. The green shapes imply a connection to nature, but what we respond to is the magnificent motion achieved by Krasner’s attack on the canvas.


Abstract painting reveals sensa in their primitive but powerful state of innocence. This makes possible an extraordinary intensity of vision, renewing the spontaneity of our perception and enhancing the tone of our physical existence. We clothe our visual sensations in positive feelings, living in these sensations instead of using them as means to ends. And such sensuous activity—sight, for once minus anxiety and eyestrain—is sheer delight. Abstract painting offers us a complete rest from practical concerns. Abstract painting is, as Matisse in 1908 was beginning to see,

an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.2

PERCEPTION KEY Rothko, Krasner, and O’Keeffe

1. Rothko’s Earth Greens (Figure 4-10) is, we think, an exceptional example of timelessness and the sensuous. O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch Cliffs (Figure 4-11) also emphasizes the sensuous, especially the rich yellows and greens. What makes one presumably more timeless?

2. Examine the sensa in the O’Keeffe. Does the fact that the painting represents real things distract you from enjoying the sensa? How crucial are the sensa to your full appreciation of the painting?

3. What difference do you perceive in Rothko’s and Krasner’s treatment of sensa?

4. Look at the Rothko or the Krasner upside down. Is the form weakened or strengthened? Does it make a difference? If so, what?

The underlying blue rectangle of Earth Greens is cool and recessive with a pronounced vertical emphasis, accented by the way the bands of blue gradually expand upward. However, the green and rusty-red rectangles, smaller but more prominent because they stretch over most of the blue, have a horizontal “lying down” emphasis that quiets the upward thrust. The vertical and the horizontal—the simplest, most universal, and potentially the most tightly “relatable” of all axes, but in everyday experience usually cut by diagonals and oblique curves or strewn about chaotically—are brought together in perfect peace. This fulfilling harmony is enhanced by the way the lines, with one exception, of all these rectangles are soft and slightly irregular, avoiding the stiffness of straight lines that isolate. Only the outside boundary line of the blue rectangle is strictly straight, and this serves to separate the three rectangles from the outside world.

Within the firm frontal symmetry of the color field of this painting, the green rectangle is the most secure and weighty. It comes the closest to the stability of a square; the upper part occupies the actual center of the picture, which, along with the lower blue border, provides an anchorage; and the location of the rectangle in the lower section of the painting suggests weight because in our world heavy objects seek and possess low places. But even more important, this green, like so many earth colors, is a peculiarly quiet and immobile color. Wassily Kandinsky, one of the earliest abstract painters, finds Page 84green generally an “earthly, self-satisfied repose.” It is “the most restful color in existence, moves in no direction, has no corresponding appeal, such as joy, sorrow, or passion, demands nothing.” Rothko’s green, furthermore, has the texture of earth, thickening its appearance. Although there are slight variations in brightness and saturation in the green, their movement is congealed in a stable pattern. The green rectangle does not look as though it wanted to move to a more suitable place.

2Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” La Grande Revue, December 25, 1908.

The rusty-red rectangle, on the other hand, is much less secure and weighty. Whereas the blue rectangle recedes and the green rectangle stays put, the rusty-red rectangle moves toward us, locking the green in depth between itself and the blue. Similarly, whereas the blue is cold and the rusty-red warm, the temperature of the green mediates between them. Unlike the blue and green rectangles, the rusty-red seems light and floating, radiating vital energy. Not only is the rusty-red rectangle the smallest, but also its winding, swelling shadows and the dynamism of its blurred, obliquely oriented brushstrokes produce an impression of self-contained movement that sustains this lovely shape like a cloud above the earthy green below. This effect is enhanced by the blue, which serves as a kind of firmament for this sensuous world, for blue is the closest to darkness, and this blue, especially the middle band, seems lit up as if by starlight. Yet, despite its amorphous inner activity, the rusty-red rectangle keeps its place, also serenely harmonizing with its neighbors. Delicately, a pervasive violet tinge touches everything. And everything seems locked together forever, an image of eternity. When Earth Greens is turned upside down, the green rectangle weighs heavily down on the red—breaking the harmonious stability.


In the participative experience with representational paintings, the sense of here-now, so overwhelming in the participative experience with abstractions, is somewhat weakened. Representational paintings situate the sensuous in objects and events. A representational painting, like an abstraction, is “all there” and “holds still.” But past and future are more relevant than in our experience of abstract paintings because we are seeing representations of objects and events. Inevitably, we are at least vaguely aware of place and date; and, in turn, a sense of past and future is a part of that awareness. Our experience is more ordinary than it is when we feel the extraordinary isolation from objects and events that occurs in the perception of abstract paintings. Representational paintings always bring in some suggestion of “once upon a time.” Moreover, we are kept closer to the experience of every day, because images that refer to objects and events usually lack something of the strangeness of the sensuous alone.

Representational painting furnishes the world of the sensuous with objects and events. The horizon is sketched out more closely and clearly, and the spaces of the sensuous are filled, more or less, with things. But even when these furnishings (subject matter) are the same, the interpretation (content) of every painting is always different.


From time to time, painters have grouped themselves into “schools” in which like-minded artists sometimes worked and exhibited together. The Barbizon school in France in the 1840s, a group of six or seven painters, attempted to paint outdoors so

Page 85that their landscapes would have a natural feel in terms of color and light, unlike the studio landscapes that were popular at the time. Probably the most famous school of art of all time is the Impressionist school, which flourished between 1870 and 1905, especially in France. The Impressionists’ approach to painting was dominated by a concentration on the impression light made on the surfaces of things.

PERCEPTION KEY Comparison of Five Impressionist Paintings

1. In which of the following paintings is color most dominant over line? In which is line most dominant over color? How important does line seem to be for the impressionist painter?

2. In terms of composition, which paintings seem to rely on diagonal lines or diagonal groups of objects or images?

3. Comment on the impressionist reliance on balance as seen in these paintings. In which painting is symmetry most effectively used? In which is asymmetry most effective? How is your response to the paintings affected by symmetry or asymmetry?

4. If you were to purchase one of these paintings, which would it be? Why?

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Figure 4-13) was shown at the first show of the impressionist painters in Paris in 1874, and it lent its name to the entire group. Unfortunately, this painting has been stolen and not yet recovered. However, Monet’s many impressionist paintings grace museums around the world. The scene in Sunrise has a spontaneous, sketchy effect, the sunlight breaking on glimmering water. Boats and ships lack mass and definition. The solidity of things is subordinated to shimmering surfaces. We sense that only a moment has been caught. Monet and the Impressionists painted, not so much objects they saw, but the light that played on and around them.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise. 1873. Oil on canvas, 19 3 24 inches. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.

This painting gave the name to the French Impressionists and remains one of the most identifiable paintings of the age. Compared with paintings by Ingres or Giorgione, this seems to be a sketch, but that is the point. It is an impression of the way the brilliant light plays on the waters at sunrise.

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