The Feminine Sublime:
The Abstract Paintings Of Seven Women Artists
Exhibition curated by Donald Kuspit
Whatever the differences in their manner and method, the paintings of the seven women artists in this exhibition—Alex Chowaniec, Carol Brown Goldberg, Hisako Kobayashi, Jill Krutick, Carol Ross, Sonia Stark, and Marlene Yu—have something in common: they all show the feminine sublime in aesthetic action. The feminine sublime is a concept developed by the feminist scholar Barbara Freeman(1) to characterize woman’s creativity and distinguish it from man’s creativity, conveyed by the concept of the masculine sublime. Freeman convincingly argues that the concept of the sublime, as it was developed by male philosophers, particularly Kant, unconsciously conveys their sense of what it means to be a man. Thus the masculine sublime is an expression of phallocentrism and with that the consummate assertion of male narcissism and autonomy—absolute difference from woman, implying that one can make art without being inspired by her: the sublime masculine artist does not need a muse. In contrast, the feminine sublime is an expression of wombcentrism and with that the consummate assertion of female narcissism and autonomy—absolute difference from man, implying that one does not have to follow his lead to make art: the sublime feminine artist does not need a male mentor or master to make art. The sensibility and Weltanschauung of a phallic-centered male artist and a womb-centered female artist are radically different, which may say something about the war between the sexes.
Freeman points out that for Kant the mountain, rising to great, seemingly immeasurable heights, and exemplary of what he calls the mathematical sublime, is in effect a phallic symbol. It is a penis in a state of permanent erection, the penis in all its “transcendental” glory and majestic power. The totemic zips in Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis(Man, Heroic and Sublime), 1970-71, epitomize the masculine phallic attitude. Similarly, Freeman points out that the ocean, ceaselessly moving and unfathomably deep, and mysteriously dark as one descends into it, and exemplary of what Kant calls the dynamic sublime, is in effect a symbol of the womb, all the more so because life originated in the ocean as it does in the womb. The “dark, forbidding” cavities and holes in the sculptures Lee Bontecou made in 1959 and the 1960s, and, secondarily, the lush vulva-shaped plates in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1974-79 epitomize the feminine womb attitude.
More pointedly, Freeman argues that insofar as the sublime signifies “unrepresentable excess” or “limitlessness” and “unrepresentable difference” or “otherness,” the feminine sublime is more authentically sublime than the masculine sublime, for the mountain and phallus are limited and representable compared to the ocean and womb. One can see the mountain and note its height—it seems immeasurable and overwhelming at first sight, but one can climb and conquer it, taking its measure as one does so. To take the measure of something is to represent it, that is, size it up and with that see its limits. But one cannot see the womb, making it seem all the more mysterious—thus the “mystery of [in] woman”—and with that unrepresentable. The cavernous womb is thus more “other” than the elevated mountain: woman is thus more other than man, if man is the measure. She is radically different from man, and with that more difficult to represent.
The boundless, generative, immeasurable ocean, with its mysterious depths, is an ancient, timeless symbol of woman: she is identified with it, as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, ca. 1486 shows. As Romain Rolland wrote in a 1927 letter to SigmundFreud, “oceanic feeling” has no “perceptible boundaries.” They are negligible and nominal, convenient more than consequential, when they appear, as they do in Alex Choweniec’s paintings of the brain. She shows us its tissue, eccentrically shaped to convey the brain’s abstractness, vividly colored to convey its vitality. Her brain is a living organism rather than a dead laboratory specimen. Her scientific titles—Brain (Acanthocereus tetragonus)and Brain (Euphorbia lacteal Cristata)—belie its aesthetic appearance. The brain is as self-contained as the womb, but they are both open to the world beyond them, responsive to stimuli from the outside—necessarily so. For without such receptiveness they would wither way: without external input they would have no creative output.
All the paintings in the exhibition are spontaneously alive with oceanic feeling—“cosmic emotion,” as Roger Fry called it--however differently they convey it. Sometimes it appears as atmospheric foam, as in Jill Krutick's The Giving Tree 5, a lyrical take on her love of the sea, and a symbol of Venus the genetrix, as Lucretius called the goddess of love in De Rerum Natura. If The Giving Tree 5is Mother Nature in a benign mood, Ice Cube Black and Redshows her in violent meltdown, self-conflicted and aggressive rather than loving. An ice cube is colder than a tree, and an explosive ice cube more dangerous. Sometimes the cosmic ocean is turbulent and restless, its Dionysian excess evident in the grand gestural waves—the gestural excess, not to say explosiveness--of Ross’s paintings. They bring to mind the female devotees of Dionysus in Euripides’ The Bacchantes, driven out of their minds by his intoxicating presence, more female than male, as Michelangelo’s sexy, drunken Bacchus1496-97 makes clear. I suggest the intoxicating violence—the all but uncontainable energy, not to say passion--evident in Ross’s paintings is the same dramatic violence that led two of the bacchantes to murder the king of Thebes.
In sharp contrast, the ocean in Hisako Kobayashi’s paintings is serene rather than stormy, soothing rather than dangerous, but the peacefulness is deceptive, for one can detect strong currents beneath the placid surface. The currents are naturally conflicted—often overtly at odds, as the fiery reds and cool blues in Sonia Stark’s paintings are--indicating that oceanic feeling, like the ocean itself, is in perpetual dialectical motion. Stark’s abstractions are the distilled essence of wombcenrtic oceanic painting: the black whirlpool, with its irresistible power, is in effect the womb in creative action. Drawing the blue and red into itself, the blackness resolves a core aesthetic problem, as Kandinsky thought: for him red and blue—passionate, “hellish” red and sublime, “heavenly” blue--are irreconcilably opposed, the aesthetic friction—not to say emotional tension—between them all but impossible to overcome. But Stark shows them converging and dissolving—and with that oddly uniting--in blackness. It is even more fluid and alive with energy than they are, as its swirling form shows. Do they emanate from it? Like Matisse and many modernist painters Stark treats black as another color—perhaps subliminally containing all the other colors, like light. Stark’s blackness is not a foil for red and blue, but their dynamic source. She suggests their interchangeability, much the way the two faces of Janus—the Roman god of beginnings and endings--are interchangeable. They face in opposite directions but are the same—in my beginning is my ending, in my ending is my beginning, as a poet wrote. So Stark’s antithetical red and blue are uncannily the same. Flowing together in infinite oceanic space, they implicitly meet in infinity, as parallel lines supposedly do.
The pulsing “pixels” in Marlene Yu’s Black and White Valleyand Molten Lava in Circle—both all-over expressionist paintings--convey the abstractness of the oceanic experience of nature. The pulsing pixels are in effect Lucretius’s material atoms in ceaseless motion—being in perpetual becoming. They are the fundamental substance of nature, shown at its grandest in Yu’s panoramic paintings, their luminous colors and intense tones conveying its inherent beauty, the least aesthetic detail suggestive of its infinite variety. At once abstract and descriptive—they bring out the abstractness of nature in the act of rendering its materiality—they convey its “plenitude of presence,” for Clement Greenberg indicative of great modernist painting. That “plenitude of presence” is in effect the “excess” of the feminine sublime, an excess evident in the panoramic glory of Yu’s paintings of nature—mother nature in all its self-fertilizing glory, in endless metamorphic process. Carol Brown Goldberg’s NT 21 and NT 23are self-contained, but within their inner frames they are vigorously alive, paradoxically excessive, as the innumerable modules of the grid that blankets every inch of their surfaces indicates, announcing that they are all over paintings—geometrical rather than gestural all-over paintings, but nonetheless dynamic rather than static. The modules implicitly extend beyond the canvas, forming an infinitely expansive geometric space—a geomorphic space, for the grid is flexible and malleable, in tense process as it were, as the whirlpool-like poles in the lower right and upper left corners—the opposing extremes--of NT 23indicate. I suggest that Goldberg’s grid is a symbolic womb, as its generative power—epitomized by the bold red gesture that impulsively erupts, unexpectedly rippling across the surface in a defiant assertion of uncompromising otherness—makes clear.
All the paintings in the exhibition have the spontaneous plenitude of presence that women have by reason of their innate creativity—the creative potential of their womb. I suggest that these paintings, whether gesturally or geometrically “excessive,” are quintessentially female, and as such parthenogenetically produced. The origin of the Latin “parthenogenesis” is the Greek “parthenos,” meaning virgin, and “genesis,” meaning creation. The abstract paintings of the female artists in this exhibition are “virginal creations,” that is, not inspired—“fertilized”—by or indebted to the abstract paintings of male artists. The women artists here have not internalized any male muse, for they have their generative wombs. They are inherently creative as men are not. Art historically speaking, their works may all belong to the same broad category of abstraction, but the difference between womb-centric female abstraction and phallocentric male abstraction is self-evident the moment one recognizes the difference in their details—attends to the dynamic subtleties of their nuances.
Woman is the saving grace of life when it is threatened by death, as Goethe argued when he had the “the eternal feminine” of the heavenly host save Faust when the devil came to take him to hell. Ironically, the devil did so because of a creative act: Faust was finally satisfied with life when he reclaimed land from the sea, a gift from mother nature, whom he lovingly embraced with his hands as well as mind. In the last analysis, the feminine sublime subsumes the masculine sublime, the way Mars submitted to Venus. The prodigal son returns to the mother not the father.
(1)Barbara Freeman, The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Woman’s Fiction(Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1995)