Donald Kuspit Replies


Dear Prof. Götz:

I appreciate your appreciation of my article on “Romantic Realism.” You are quite right in remarking that I emphasized what you call the feelings of “anomie and confusion one sees in so many Abstract Expressionists.” There are more “peaceful, congruent, harmonious” Abstract Expressionists—the so-called Lyric Abstract Expressionists. But they are a later, derivative, modifying response to the first and primary Abstract Expressionists, what I call the Epic Abstract Expressionists. Epic Abstract Expressionism is known for its painterly energy, not to say violence. The term “Abstract Expressionism” first appeared in 1919 in Der Sturm, which is why it is typically associated with Sturm und Drang (storm and stress, more pointedly, emotional turmoil and upheaval). In contrast, Lyric Abstract Expressionism eschewed the violence and impulsiveness of Epic Abstract Expressionism for a more subtle, reflective, less reckless—more inhibited—handling of paint.

Both are species of so-called Action Painting, but the “action” of the Epic kind is wild, some say chaotic—thus the “Neue Wilden” of the eighties—while the “action” in the Lyric kind is more focused and purposive (some would say compromised). It is the difference between the peculiar, coarse, flamboyantly explosive, ruthless handling of paint by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and the more refined, studied, “friendly” handling of Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski and Mark Tobey. I attended to the Epic Abstract Expressionists because they are more fundamentally expressionist than the Lyric Abstract Expressionists, and because they can be traced back to “Romantic Realism,” more particularly, to Turner and Friedrich. One might say that the Epic Abstract Expressionists carry Romantic Realism to an abstract conclusion.

The difference between the Taoist “uncarved block” and Buddhism’s “objectless Samadhi,” and Epic Abstract Expressionism’s Sturm und Drang, is that the former involve a certain selfless, transcendental, “heavenly” experience, while the latter is “selfish,” hellish, regressive. One might say that the former reaches for the emotional heights, the latter plunges into the emotional depths. On the one hand, the possibility of mystical ecstasy, on the other, the reality of many seasons in emotional hell. I suppose it is the difference between traditional religious idealism and modern secular existentialism. Both are equally profound. Perhaps the question is: which is truer to human experience?

 American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2015, Volume 35, Number 4