Art In History Art Blog
Back in my days as a student of Architecture, I read with interest the writings of Charles Jencks on Le Corbusier, one of the giants of the modern movement in the 20th century. In advocating for the greatness of Le Corbusier, Jencks did someting much more ambitious: he propounded a theory of value to be applied to all art, based on multiple levels of meaning. All works of art, he says, fall somewhere on a spectrum from "Univalence" (single-leveled) to "multivalence" (multileveled), and truly great works are always multivalent.
He compares in detail Le Corbusier's apartment block in Marseilles, the "Unite d'Habitation", with a contemporary church design (of which I could find no image) in the form of a cross of thorns. In the church, the concept is striking but unyielding, with the functions of the church forced mercilessly into the symbolic form. Once we have grasped the symbol, there is little else to learn from it. In the Marseilles block, on the other hand, every element of the design serves multiple functions, with structural elements which are also sun screens, space dividers and surface pattern. The richness of the design continually yields new meaning.
I am intrigued by this idea which strikes me as a very fruitful standard of judgement for works of art, more because of its challenge than because of its unchallengeable truth. I applaud anyone who proposes a standard of judgement for art which attempts to encompass both traditional and modern art. Each standard challenges my own subconscious standards, helping me understand both art and my own prejudices.
As standard of greatness in art based on levels of meaning would immediately challenge all art we can classify as minimalist. The essential forms of Brancusi and Mondriaan depend for their force and perfection on the elimination of everything irrelevant. There is a striving for perfection, for the archetype, and when an artist achieves it we recognize the purity, the "hard won simplicity" as greatness. But perhaps these works are not really univalent; they force us to consider the full meaning of each line, each juxtaposition of form, achieving a richness in simplicity.
Well, what about Andy Warhol? His "borrowings" are aggressively unaltered, untransformed, except by the act of reproducing them and placing them in a gallery. For me, the image itself is quickly exhausted of any new levels of aesthetic experience; I know the image by heart and can turn away from it in a moment without loss. But the implications on other levels are richly thought-provoking. He is asking us to look freshly at our daily visual environment, and to begin to understand what it means about who we are and how we deal with images on a daily basis. Can we really handle an image rich in meaning if we are trained by our culture to proccess thousands of images quickly and superficially?
Then there are minimalists like Mark Rothko, whose color field works over many years seems to devote themselves to the juxtaposition of one or two colors displayed against a ground tone. Why are they so compelling? The answer seems to be that he chooses combinations that are alive, that "do something". What is really in front or really behind? Are the squares of color swelling? How does the choice of colors accord with or conflict with our sense of gravity?
But what I know about myself is that I prefer the richness of levels of meaning to the purity and simplicity of a single idea perfectly expressed. I will always respond more to Rauschenburg than to Rothko, to Klee rather than Mondriaan. It is also what I love most about nature itself: complex beyond comprehesion, but full of suggested patterns, possibilities, in short, levels of meaning.
Paul Klee is fascinating in his exploration of the basic elements of art - line, color, shape - but never forgetting the full richness of their possibilities. There is always texture, movement, the suggestion of space, the possibility of association. There is always the richness of seeing the process of making recorded in the final work. And there is alwys the whimsy which speaks of a dialogue with the emerging image, rather than the grand plan. I feel like I am creating the work with him, seeing a line trun into a grid, a grid become a surface, seeing each color suggest the next.His art is a wonderful melding of analysis and understanding, on the one hand, and impulse and intuition on the other.
I like levels of meaning in a work. I'll go beyond that to say that in images on a 2-dimensional surface, the tension between the demands of the surface and the evocation of our three-dimensional world are probably the richest source of ambiguity and levels of meaning. What separates the still lives of Chardin, or a century later of Cezanne, from the ordinary is our lively awareness of their position in the frame, their control of the surface shapes as well as the elements of form.
I know why Degas and Cezanne are my favorite artists of the impressionist era. They exploit this tension between the surface and the described reality to its utmost. Since the two levels of meaning are ultimately polar opposites, if you are unwilling to sacrifice one to the other, the result is a visible struggle, as satisfying as it is demanding. There are many other levels of meaning in the works, based on association, narrative, the psychological impact of color, but the life and death struggle of the space and the surface is for me the most exciting.