From East Looking West: Revisiting and repositioning the work of Irving Kriesberg
By Tuong Linh Do (2019)
Among the iconic artists of American Figurative Expressionism, a movement described by art historian Adam Zucker as “a psychological strive for a state of otherness”, Irving Kriesberg has traditionally been considered and celebrated through the lenses of formalism and modernism.
In the age of globalization, revisiting Kriesberg’s work from a perspective other than the Western canon offers new insights into his world, evident both through the artist’s eyes and our own contemporary understandings of the diverse relationships between past and present civilizations.
In order to make sense of his works in today’s world, this writer, who is based in Vietnam and travels frequently between Asia and Europe, seeks to find a parallel connection with Kriesberg’s own journeys between Asia and the West. In doing so I find new ways of perceiving and deconstructing what might otherwise remain unseen by virtue of the social and cultural categorizations that prevailed during the time Kriesberg produced his work. If along the way the binary divisions of East and West, Us and Them, Oriental and Occidental are disrupted even in the most fragmentary way, so much the better.
Although he was deeply connected to the burgeoning mode of American Expressionism, Kriesberg was motivated to travel far beyond the studio and the American art scene to see and study the world. Soon after his graduation from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1941, he took up residency for three years in Mexico City. The animistic and proletarian art in Mexico at that time strongly influenced his early work. His belief in the existence of spiritual powers that derived from the realm of the supernatural and non-human, originating from his years in Mexico, continued to evolve as he worked in India two decades later.
The Republic of India was not yet twenty years in existence when in 1965 Kriesberg disembarked from a freighter docking in Bombay and found an India engaged in a struggle between conflicting ideologies of tradition and modernity. Reflecting on his travels at that time he wrote: “To visit India after Nepal, Calcutta after Kathmandu, Delhi after the Bengal, is to move through centuries.” For him, cognizant of how South Asia was then internally constructed, it was a journey of time traveling.
After encountering a variety of styles in Indian art, Kriesberg began to question the differences between Western and non-Western art, as well as forms of identity and spirituality in Western and non-Western contexts. He wrote that the artists and art academy he visited in India possessed a “fine ethereal vibration that put them outside the Western tradition.” Through his writings Kriesberg also documented his awareness of his privileged position as a Western outsider traveling and studying non-Western cultures. In his work of that time and thereafter, one sees critical thinking about how selfhood is constructed and deconstructed.
Reconsidering Kriesberg’s work today offers new insights into what we consider to be the line separating human nature from zoology, posing an essential question: Does human subjectivity always have to manifest in human form? It brings to mind Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), the surreal story of a man transformed into an insect. Kafka tackled metaphysical questions of the existential relationship between body and mind.
Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, argued for a need to detach from the monomorphous Western understanding of human beings:
The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe; a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world's cultures. Rather than attempt to place the experience of others within the framework of such a conception, which is what the extolled "empathy" in fact usually comes down to, we must, if we are to achieve understanding, set that conception aside and view their experiences within the framework of their own idea of what selfhood is.
This argument reflects Kriesberg’s understanding of the self and the other, and his visual experimentation through his work to capture and depict a multifaceted perspective of identity. He challenged the way that objective categorization limits our imagination of different worlds or beings, refusing to frame them in a conventional sense of what a subject is supposed to represent.
In an essay Kriesberg wrote late in life he stated, “We know at once that these are not animals in the biological sense nor are they humans either. They are not animals acting as humans nor humans masquerading as animals. They exist outside of such categories. We recognize that they confront, they converse, they confer. Yet we do not know their purpose. Such unanswered questions create tensions - a psychic tension so that the elements of painting, color, mass, direction, interval all become charged. The arena is an abstract psychic field; the particulars of the drama matter less. Acting within that psychic field, I see no distinction between the image of an owl and a white painted mass having a certain weight, direction, and role within the canvas.”
With these words Kriesberg reveals that he was unencumbered by presumed meanings of the figurative world, because he regarded imagery from the perspective of an abstractionist. He invited the viewer to enter his world through a “psychic field” in order to see beyond what is displayed or known, to grasp the meaning of what is undisplayed or unknown. Aligning this intent with the concept of “aniconic” images in Buddhism and “Darshan” in Hinduism opens up a more complex reading of Kriesberg’s works, considered through the lens of Buddhist and Hindu philosophies.
Some Buddhist scholars believe that aniconism is an emblem, or an image that represents something different from itself. For example, in Buddhist art, the likeness of the Buddha would not be anthropomorphic, but rather abstracted through the use of symbols or archetypes such as the Bodhi tree, an empty throne, or the Buddha’s footprints. In contrast to this view of absence, Hinduism can be understood as a “religion of the eyes”. Hinduism defines the concept of Darshan as to see and to be seen by the deities. Christopher Pinney, the British anthropologist specializing in the visual culture of South Asia, wrote: “Darshan can be thought of as a physical relationship of visual intermingling.”
Inspired by both visual traditions, Kriesberg occupied a fine line between the dramatic dynamic of forms and colors in his paintings and giving hints of metaphor, with other meanings implied.
In Kriesberg’s Dormition series (paintings from 1997, 1998 and 2004) he offers an overwhelming feast of images, overtly referential to what both Buddhism and Hinduism embrace as the notion of “embodiment” comprising transfer, transformation or mirroring between the corporeal and the material. Clearly Kriesberg never forgot that traces of Buddhist and Hindu religious material did not just exist within holy temples or other sacred places, but in the streets, landscapes and public spaces of everyday India. What we regard as animalistic imagery in Kriesberg’s works might just as well be another way of understanding and experiencing the body and its being in the world, beyond the binary division of human and non-human, East and West, spiritual and material.
When did animals, represented as messengers in pre-modern cultures and civilizations, turn into objects of conquest and consumption in today's world? There has been much debate about the meaning of cave paintings. The fact that animals, not human beings, were the first subject matter for painting reveals something profound about the relationship between humans and animals. Shifting back and forth between metaphor and symbol in his use of animal imagery, Kriesberg offers the opportunity to meditate on the existential dualism of an animal as an object of both dominance and worship, breeding and sacrifice, and a subject secular and sacred, mortal and immortal. Kriesberg’s art opens up space to imagine not just his own personal transformative journey, but also to contemplate larger questions of humanity and human impact on other species on Earth. Those questions, highly relevant in our time, demonstrate how some art challenges our embedded perceptions of the world.
In an undated essay on the topic of animals Kriesberg wrote : “The current increase of interest in animals on the part of society and scholars is not due to a sudden rise in the feel-good sentiment felt toward our fellow creatures. It is because there is a growing awareness that in animals we see variegated expressions of our own faculties, impulses and social organization which can help us understand fundamental aspects of our own nature.”
Kriesberg here maintains that human beings come to realize the relevance and importance of learning about other beings in order to make sense of themselves. No being exists solely without a complex relational interaction with other beings. In today’s context of political turmoil and climate change, the question of what constitutes a being has expanded beyond dimensions merely of race, ethnicity, and nationality. In this sense, the works of Irving Kriesberg open up space for the encounter of different world beings and thus stand at something of a distance from both the Abstract and Figurative Expressionist canons, distinctive not only within Western art history but in a wider artistic context.
Đỗ Tường Linh pursued her B.A in Art History and Art Criticism at Vietnam University of Fine Art and her M.A in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa at SOAS (University of London), UK. Her research and curatorial practice range from art and politics, conceptualism and post-colonial studies. She has engaged in the art scene in Vietnam since 2005 with collaborations with Art Vietnam gallery, Dong Son Today Art Foundation, Open Academy, Nha San studio, Hanoi Doclab, British Council and Goethe institute. She is currently the artistic director and co-founder of Sixspace (sixspace.vn), an independent platform for art, education and community projects in Hanoi, Vietnam.
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