Nature in the Art of Irving Kriesberg
by Allan Kaprow
Art International, January 1964
Creativity has been the subject and the method of much art in the last seventy five years. Following the popularization of Darwin's evolutionary theories (recurring in Spenglerian historical cycles, Marxian class conflicts, Bergsonian intuitions, Freudian dreams and Jungian archetypes, all emphasizing an organic view of nature in progressive flux) there has developed a widening circle of different kinds of art concerning themselves, directly or indirectly, with such questions as: what is creation? what should one create? how does one create? and, why does one create?
Instead of art being thought of as a decorative appendage to life: a glorification of the Church or State; or even as social criticism, it is associated with obscure, quasi-fundamental, natural and spiritual forces in which it attempts to participate, and of which, in its most rarefied form, it is the purest crystallization. The frequent preoccupation of artists and writers on art with folk-lore. Cultural anthropology, the paintings of primitives and the insane, reflects a vague if largely unsystematic conception of the artist as a sacerdotal figure, put into the world to reveal its workings. I know of no other reasonable interpretation of the oft-repeated declaration that "Art is a way of life".
"Creation", therefore, becomes a matter of transformation, of a producing process, of movement, from something, through it, and toward something else. In its dialectical sense, it aspires to some higher (or deeper) state of awareness which, never quite reached, forces the process to repeat ad infinitum. And bearing a resemblance to the processes of nature and human-nature. it also-occurs in time. As examples, Impressionism snap-shoots a fragmentary moment out of a life that, by implication, is continuously changing-and, one gathers, for the best. German Expressionism, more cataclysmic, sees nature constantly suffering from itself, malformed as much by its inherent pressures as by the intense glare of the artist's eye and the violence of his hand. Cubism's roving viewpoint searches, analyses, destroys and then builds-first appearances, then structures, and so on. Creativity in the sense of free-association, profoundly underscore both the calligraphic journeys of Klee and the opiate reveries of the Surrealists. It is at the heart of the unmeasurable, unbegun and unfinished arenas and inscapes of Abstract Expressionism. Assemblage and many of the Environments and Happenings extend the latter tradition and bring into play both an accented time and the creative participation of the public. While much of the above is indirectly an "imitation" of nature's operations, Irving Kriesberg literally makes creation his central theme. He directly describes generative action. Time for him is palpable and sequential, moment following moment. He ponders organic energy, seeing it as an event, embodied in hieratic transmutations from animal to human to inanimate nature. Back and forth, a simultaneously progressive and retrogressive Darwinism. Obliquely, he is thus referring to the creation of art. His imagery. His composing methods. His unusual demands on the onlooker. Derive from this concern. Creation for Kriesberg is purposive transformation, often revealed state by state, in defined rhythms which allude to the seasons, the heart-beat and the sex act. The animals which fill his bestiaries strike us as mythic in effect and their pulsations are ritual.
The long horizontal field of Frogs and Turtles (fig. I) compels us to read it strictly, from zone to zone, as though it were a heraldry or a processional. It resembles as well the polyptych altarpieces of the Middle Ages but without their themes. Grouped symmetrically, three rock-like turtles stand at the sides and in the center. Facing us nearly frontally, the middle one most so. In between them are two narrower vertical bands of four frogs each, superposed, turned right and left respectively. The beasts are compartmented (again, as in Romanesque art) with strong dividers separating them, acting as stops in tempo, thereby affirming their isolation as much as their unity. That is, the oval bodies of the frogs with their four bandy legs are roughly similar to the forms of the turtles, just as each kind of animal is similar within its class. Then, their more subtle variations of expression and treatment, direct our focus upon each as an individual in a family.
Because of their likeness to one another, the turtles can be seen as one, in three views and at three times; as the frogs can be understood as eight versions of the same filial dependant. Looking to the right and left at their larger potential, the frog(s) face in that more solid and complex form, their own eventuality, summed up in the tank-like beast in the center, bristling with upright projections. On the other hand, emphasizing their differences causes us to see the three turtles as distinct parent images: either the two outer ones each have a brood of four and the middle one remains alone; or the latter stands protected by its eight mocking young, against encroachment by the flanking monsters.
Finally, this series of intentional ambiguities suggests still another possibility: that the frogs are a higher species on the evolutionary ladder rather than an early one (as was implied by their subordination to the turtles). They are readily identifiable as frogs; the expression of mouths and eyes, and the movements of the legs are relatively more life-like and defined compared with the rudimentary, inert and partly fantastic shapes of the reptiles. Thus the relationships observed initially are now reversed and their meanings further enriched. Yet throughout, the clear, austere form of the whole gives to this work the quality of a high ceremonial, a banner of some primordial doctrine, to be carried through the streets on holy days.
In the more organic phases of this process, margins enclosing animals tend to become smaller and unclear; strong outlines and edges give way to thin, discontinuous notations, and large spans between dark and light patterns are reduced to moist proximities of varied grays in motion. Instead of seeing everything clear and still, as individual frames of the film, we watch the mutations take place before our eyes. And in the manner of certain popular cartoons, the action is carried on not only within frames but across them. In Storyboard with Frogs (fig. 2) the restless surface of the whole is contrasted with teeming clusters of strokes in agitation, animals which over-crowd the confines of their boxes, or single animal forms that are too large for the assigned place. At the middle right, the left flank of a large bull-like image, seen as though from the rear, passes into the adjoining compartment containing a turtle and dog. The drawing here expresses this intrusion through shiftings and interruptions, giving to the animals' flesh, the dividing band and the shell of the turtle, a marked transparency as an acknowledgment that things in confrontation must of necessity alter one another. (Unlike German Expressionism, however, distortion, which presumes a norm, is not present; and therefore there is no felt strain. Al stages Kriesberg's Nature are "normative.") Along the top, in the center, the buttocks of a similar beast dominate its dimly lit area so much that the frame is obliterated and the head emerges suddenly on the other side into brightness with the features of a moustached man with rabbit-mouse ears. Flashes of such Lewis Carroll humor often arise unexpectedly in the otherwise serious note struck in Kriesberg's paintings.
The themes continue to change identity, passing into one another without cease. The hooped serpent at top left (an uroborus) also appears as a spider, a crab and an abstract, loosely-woven knot. It recurs in the bull’s crossed tail, in the weaving neck of the turtle, in the rubbery members of the frogs, in the furrowed fleece of the sheep at bottom left, and is alluded to in the projections dangling from the strange, inverted mushroom of thistle in the rectangle at left center. The near-symmetry of the snake points downward to this bursting flower and echoes in the paired sheep, the diamond designs on the turtle's shell and the four "lips" poised around the thistle. The opening in this great seed-pod is also a variant of the lips (tipped vertically) giving to us the feeling that we are witness to some original enactment of nature, seen up close, dramatically as in glassed-in cutaways of living bee-hives. The whole painting is a cross-section of Noah's Ark, as well.
Cast in another mode, such as in works like Reversible Quadriptych (figs. 3, 4, 5) these morphogenic changes may first occur rapidly in the painter's mind and only emerge when they have become an imagery of synthesis. Not however, in order to define a final point in creative evolution, but to permit a still more complex set of permutations to take place. Paradoxically they now appear simple: the thin lines suggest bare, sparse allusions to the human sexual act, the creased and bulbous forms passing before us like a slow-motion movie. But complexity follows.
Four upright panels are suspended on pivots within a frame, where, like louvers, they may be turned freely. They are painted on both sides so that by manipulating their order, sixteen absolute combinations are possible. Or, viewing the work on both sides (it is placed within the room rather than on the wall) these are doubled, since right and left are turned around.
Therefore, our possible uncertainty over whether these diagrammatic divisions of areas refer to living forms or are solely arcane abstractions, is matched by our uncertainty over the kind of category the work fits into. When we touch such quasi-painting and feel its "thingness"; and moreover, understand this to be followed by meaningful manipulations in a slow and measured time, panel by panel—then limitation and classification is discouraged while process is patently manifest in the actual operations we must perform.
Change is thus implied by the character of the images we see (they are X-moment in the evolutionary series) and by the spacing of the panels, as much as it is literally demonstrated in their recombinations. In a comparable way, we are able to stand motionless as spectators before the work, grasping its sources and purposes as an idea in motion (somewhat like Futurist painting), but here this is not enough. To complete the work we must also affect its transpositions by turning the panels, changing our stance before the whole, shifting our focus on the panels (singly, in pairs and in groups) and by experiencing time as real and rhythmic duration, where the gaps between panels serve as rests between phrases.
However, this is different from reading a poem or listening to a sonata. Rhythm moves both forward and backward, right and left, reciprocally, as we do with our bodies. As observed before, all moments for Kriesberg are equivalences; thus time cannot progress without returning on itself. Mystery exists at every point on an endless scale, but nothing is casual. Nature is viewed as an elemental function. When drama or culmination occurs (figs. 1 and 2) it is not the dénouement of an earlier action, but rather is the consequence of unforeseen genetic causes which are in turn ready to mutate again. In this respect, besides the other uses of the compartment, the frame denotes the importance of its image while limiting it, as italics do a word, but the accent need not fall within every frame. There is no prescribed order to this art which declares order: it is discovered in its continuous becoming.
Kriesberg's method of enumerating his themes (or more precisely, his enactments of creation) into evenly-cadenced and often symmetrical groupings, induces in the beholder a response which customarily accompanies religious or mystical experience (ancient hieratic arts, like the Egyptian's, knew this well), though no nameable cult is here referred to. Marking off and centering objects or signs which are deemed revelatory, suggests not only their potency, but heightens their discreteness, as in the tick of a clock. The multiple panels and "charts" of animals are like periodic tables in some grand geneology. Their chemistry is cosmic and Kriesberg in directing it is a High Priest, but the potential lesson in this conception of art is of importance to all artists.