Tomato Patch, Midsummer, 1959
Oil on canvas
36 x 42 inches
MANOUCHER YEKTAI’s life has brought him through three cultures: Iran, France, the United States. This trajectory can be seen as a search for Modernism, and for a participation in Modernism, indeed, for a home in it. For a painter, the itinerary seems clear in its meaning: from Iran where, under Islamic strictures about imagery, free artistic expression was not available, first (with a brief pause in New York) to the ripe ambience of the School of Paris, then (more permanently) to the fledgling excitement of the emerging New York School.
But Yektai's development, seen in a larger frame, has not been entirely simple and linear. His trajectory through three cultures seems nomadic, and his identification with Modern New York seems an acceptance of hybridity in the post-Modernist sense; but at the same time, in a kind of artistic double life, he has been careful to maintain his rootedness directly in Persian culture. While he paints in a Modern Western style and is known as an embodiment of the idea of absolute freedom of expression as in Action Painting, still, with another part of his mind, or his heritage, he writes, in the Persian language, long poems which, while they share a sense of mysticism with Rumi, are modern free verse. These are published for an Iranian readership, partly in Iran and partly diaspora residents in the United States. His version of cultural hybridity is not so much shaped by different layers as by different channels: a traditional Persian poet, a Modernist American painter.
In 1945, a crucial turning point in western history, Yektai, age 22, graduated from the University of Teheran. At a time when the problems of modernization and westernization had scarcely yet dawned in his homeland, he put that issue behind him by deciding at once to move to France, in search of the Modernist freedom to seek oneself through expression that the School of Paris offered. But the war was not over and Yektai waited in New York for several months, where he began studying at Ozenfant's studio on 20th Street and at the Art Student League. This unforeseen stopover, it turned out, was crucial. By the time he went to Paris, he had already seen the next thing that history had in store. In Paris he studied at l'Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts, feeling his way into a position in terms of Modernist stylistics that would be his own, a position that would be almost a rebirth into a new cultural personality. He focused on the palette, on paint handling, the texture of the surface, the tradition of Cezanne, Bonnard,Vuillard, Matisse. After a year or so, missing the energy and sense of new options which he had felt in his brief stay in New York, he moved back.
This was 1947, the pivotal year in the emergence of the New York School. The full postWar force of the American sublime was about to be released. It was in 1947 that Pollock produced his first dripped or Action Painted works in Duco and aluminum, Cathedral and Full Fathom Five. In the same year Barnett Newman produced his breakthrough painting, Onement I, the first work with the zip. Landing in the middle of this bubbling ferment, Yektai resumed his studies both at Ozenfant's and at the Art Student's League, and had his first shows in 1948 and 49 at Woodstock. There he met Milton Avery, who introduced him to the gallerist Grace Borgenicht.At this point Yektai was only 25 years old, yet his grasp of an individualized late Modernist style was precociously sure; following his own instincts, as well as his sure antennae for ambient shifts in the wind, he was developing a pictorial sense that later would be compared to the investigation that Hans Hoffman was engaged in at the same time. By 1951 Yektai was exhibiting at the Grace Borgenicht gallery, where Joan Mitchell and Milton Avery were showing and where he held annual shows for three years that were classic in the clarity of their definition of the early New York School- or what would come to be called Abstract-Expressionism. These works involved heavy painterly impasto with emphasis on the physical presence of the paint-mass and a combination of dim or receding representation with an underlying grid-related abstraction.
In 1951 and 1952 Leo Castelli brought some friends, including early Abstract-Expressionist painters, to see Yektai's Borgenicht shows, and his work entered at once, almost too easily and smoothly, into the emerging profile of Abstract-Expressionism. Castelli introduced him to the 8th Street Club in 195 I and he soon became a friend ofRothko,Tobey, Guston, and others. In the mid-1950S he was included in classic group exhibitions of early Abstract-Expressionism at the Stable Gallery and elsewhere, with slightly older artists such as DeKooning, Pollock, Newman, and Kline. From 1957 till 1965 he showed at Poindexter.With this background it would be easy to regard Yektai as a member - almost a founding member - of the New York School. But the situation is not that simple.
Whether Yektai ever was really an Abstract Expressionist is a delicate question that has arisen repeatedly in the critical discourse on his work. I suppose "really" being an Abstract Expressionist could only mean that one regarded oneself as such and one's peers also regarded one as such. Yektai's peers seem to have felt sure - but it is not altogether clear that Yektai himself unequivocally regarded his work in that way. Certainly the surface configuration of his paintings in this period fits easily enough into the category. But there is a distinction at a deeper level, having to do with the philosophical premises of the work.
Though the classic Abstract-Expressionists were not all of one mind, still, under the influence of their great critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, they have been made to seem so. Certain statements have come to characterize the spirituality of the group as a whole, such as Newman's famous declaration, in Tiger's Eye, 1948, that "man's natural desire in the arts [is] to express his relation to the Absolute.1" It was, Newman declared, the sublime and not the beautiful that he and his colleagues (the other "Irascibles") sought. In Edmund Burke's sense of the terms, the beautiful indicates subject matter and treatment that relate directly to human life, that are human scale, pleasing, celebratory, and so on. The sublime, on the contrary, indicates subject matter and treatment that transcend human life, that tend to eradicate the scale of human life in favor of an infinite scale, and that do not please and celebrate so much as exalt and terrify.2 It seems clear that Newman, Gottlieb, deKooning, Rothko, and other key members of this art historical group cultivated the ambition of exalted terror more than that of the celebration of beauty, which may be said to have been the central force of the School of Paris. The Olympian gaze of what Rosenberg would call the "abstract sublime" is embodied in Newman's lofty proclamation that "the impulse of modern art was this desire to destroy beauty."3
Yektai's work reflects a somewhat different philosophy. The metaphysical absolutism that attracted what Rosenberg called the theological branch of Abstract-Expressionism did not attract him. His natural approach combined the celebration of the beautiful with something of the painting-of-everyday-life approach. Far from seeing himself as a destroyer of beauty, Yektai believes in the dignity of human life and celebrates the beauty of the forms it transpires among. In discussing Yektai's work of the early 19 50S John Ashbery contrasted its" opulent sobriety" with the "heroicism" of such as Pollock.4 Yektai himself never thought that he was an Abstract- Expressionist, though when Castelli brought some of his painters to the Borgenicht show in 1951 they immediately affirmed him as such, and so did the critics: a reviewer in Arts magazine in 1957, for example, wrote: "Yektai is in the Abstract Expressionist school, not as an undergraduate, but as a member of the faculty."5 In fact, Yektai himself always knew that, as he says, "I was a figurative painter." It was his insistence on the value of figuration that pointed to the underlying philosophical difference. He was not seeking the sublime to the exclusion of the beautiful; Malevich's desert of pure feeling beyond form did not seem to him an attractive residence.
In his insistence on at least residual figuration in even his most abstract works, Yektai retained awareness of what deKooning referred to when he said, about the origin of abstraction: "One day some painter used 'Abstraction' as a title for one of his paintings. It was a still life. And it was a very tricky title."6 For Yektai also it was obvious that gestural abstraction was rising out of the still life in a lineage that went back to Cezanne, and he did not wish to disguise this fact in his work. Yet in his paint-handling and his feelings toward painting as a medium he definitely shared a lot with the mainstream Abstract-Expressionists. Ashbery remarked that Yektai's work was "only superficially similar" to Abstract Expressionism,7 but the question whether paint handling is really a superficial issue in this art historical context remains open. "I must be some kind of Action Painter," Yektai acknowledges, in addressing the question. He has always felt a change of state, into something like the absorption of sex, while engrossed in painting, and all through his student years he had painted instinctively and with the canvas flat on the floor long before he had heard of Pollock's practice.
Those works of Yektai's which were admired by Abstract-Expressionists were still-lifes of 195 I-53 in which, as in deKooning's parable, abstraction grew and flourished. In these paintings of about his 30th year Yektai reached his first plateau of mastery. Five of these works are in the present exhibition: Open Window, 1951, Curtain and Still Life, 1952, Checkered Table Cloth, 1953, Fruit on Table, 1953, and Yellow Curtain, 1954. In addition Girl, 1953, and Head, 1953, though not exactly still-lifes, embody the same style. Working with thick impastoes often applied by palette knife and trowel, Yektai conjured up passionate lyrical homages to the properties of paint as a pure carrier of color and trace. His approach to paint presence in the works of these years is almost sculptural. The paint in Head, for example, does not so much depict a head as constitute one with the quasi-solidity of a molten flow. Conversely, the X-s at the top of Yellow Curtain are felt as virtually structural members, like extra stretcher bars somehow showing through the canvas.
There is a sense of personal spiritual discovery shining through these works along with a sense of the material being worked with a molten intensity. Each of these works looks as if it must have culminated, for its maker, in the ecstatic rush of a feeling of triumph. This period may be said to culminate, as far as the works in the show go, with Long Table, 1954, a powerful rapid flowing together from all sides at once from the nothingness of chaos into the near order of a center. Throughout the 50S Yektai worked with this intense painterly texture that presented the surface as a living membrane that would put forth beings almost three-dimensionally when stimulated by the artist's touch.
But at the same time, along with his thick swirls of quasi-sculptural impasto emphasizing the paint as paint and the surface as surface, Yektai has persisted in the maintenance of a residual illusory depth that refers to the spaces of everyday life. The inner tension in his work can be seen as an interplay between the space within the painting and the presence of the paint as itself. The positing of a volume within the painting, in which figures and objects may be placed as on a stage, is an approach to space that Greenberg and some others of his time disapproved of on the grounds that (to use Michael Fried's term) it involved the painting with theatricality, creating a stage, props, characters, and implications of narrativity no matter how slight. 8 Applying a theory based on Immanuel Kant, Greenberg argued that these attributes belong in other art media specifically literature and theater - not in painting. Illusionism or representationalism served, on this view, as a sort of cover-up for what was really there, which was simply a flat surface with paint on it. Thus abstraction was invoked as a purifYing process; the purgation of illusion would leave the surface pristine and truthful; although stamped by the artist's sensibility, it yet would express nothing except a pure rush of aesthetic feeling.
Under Greenberg's influence a dichotomy of great ideological intensity arose between the representational painting - the surface clouded and distorted by illusions of theatrical depth and objecthood - and the abstract painting - the surface purged and restored to itself as a pure meta-physical membrane. Whereas representation, on this view, would involve the viewer in his or her specific feelings toward the subject matter represented, the abstraction, on the contrary, was supposed to invoke only generalized or universal feeling. Greenberg designated this as aesthetic feeling; Rosenberg regarded it as a cosmic feeling or a feeling of infinity. In either case it was a pure and undifferentiated feeling with no finite object.
It was at or just before the moment when Greenberg's ideas about painting peaked in their influence on the New York School that Yektai arrived in New York. The fact that this influence would before long come to feel like a tyranny was not yet apparent. The cultural atmo~phere in New York felt exhilaratingly freer and more exciting than in Paris, where the death of a School was in the air rather than the enthusiastic youth of one.
Yektai's initial response to finding himself suddenly in the overheated atmosphere of the 10th Street School was to feel at once, with a deep pull of recognition, the seduction of abstraction, and to allow himself to be rushed along in that direction. It is from this moment that the still life/ abstractions of 1951- 19 54 emerged. Still, his residual School of Paris ornamental representationalism did not vanish. For years Yektai worked with his delicately balanced combinations of abstraction and representation. In his attempt to highlight the virtues of both the world-affirming School of Paris representationalism and the paint-as-presence mysticism of New York School reductionism, Yektai has been compared by critics to Nicholas deStael, Richard Diebenkorn, Elaine deKooning, Frank Auerbach, Henri Matisse, Hans Hoffman, Leon Kossof, Asger Jorn, Karl Appel, Pierre Bonnard, and others.
The dream of the sublime ended with the early period of the Cold War - that is, around 1960, when the threat of nuclear annihilation, and with it the spirituality of the bomb shelter, gave way to the internal inspection of social issues which culminated in the 60S liberation movements. When the moment of the sublime, with its terror and exaltation, passed, artists returned their attention to everyday things. Abstract-Expressionism faded into the emerging post-Modernist succession of minischools - Pop, Op, and Conceptualism. Yektai's special background led him to follow his own trajectory, as before. He neither dove into the waves of mini-movements nor continued to repeat the Abstract-Expressionist thematics. Rather, he patiently made a life's work of his own still-developing synthesis of figuration and abstraction, or, you might say, of elements of the Schools of Paris and New York.
In the later 1950S, as his work swung back toward increased figuration, Yektai abandoned the trowel and palette knife and returned to the brush. He also abandoned the metaphysical-hieratic quality seen, for example, in the classic Checkered Table Cloth, 1953, which glowed with Byzantine golds like an altar on which the plate was an offering. The work became more supple and lifelike in its celebration of the richness, the "luxury," as he has called it, of paint.
Yektai's paintings of this period involve deeply worked surfaces alternating between thick and thin, white and color. A certain initiation had been undergone through the troweled semi-abstractions of the 1950S, but it was primarily an initiation into the profundity of the material; he still wanted to develop a post-initiatory mastery of the place of subject matter in art and of the aliveness of space as paint embodies it. After the first five years or so of the great exhibitions of troweled abstractions, as a kind of disciplinary re-introduction to the idea of subject matter, he made 50 consecutive paintings of a lemon; his work was questing beneath the surface of the paint into the depths of objecthood.
In the late 1950S the series called "action portraits" began to appear. In the present exhibition, examples range from the classic Concierge, 1960, through Eleni II, 1964, to Seated Nude, 198485, and In Front eifWindow, 1990. The designation "action portraits" points to Yektai's attempt to merge the impulsive technique of Action Painting with the studied tradition of the portrait.
In these works the figure, either male or female, is shown in full, usually seated, clearly placed within a setting, whether indoors or outdoors, which somehow seems separate from it. There is always implied movement in the pictures, though the figure appears to be still. The movement arises in part from the nervous inner energy of the artist's brush, attuned to the momentariness of things that Monet once said he wanted to express; but it has a philosophical edge also, pointedly moving away from the static or universal implications of pure abstraction (even Action Painted abstraction) toward the particularity of the movements of everyday life. To quote Ashbery again: "Yektai wanted to render us conscious of our existence from second to second, of the joy of breathing, of the rapid changes of things."9
At the beginning of Abstract-Expressionism, almost as a decree announcing the terms of its birth, Greenberg had laid down the law against representation. But the fact is that not very long into the heyday of the New York School this taboo was being broken by both DeKooning and Pollock and before long it would be broken by Guston and others. Nevertheless the taboo seemed, as late as the early 1960s, to be in place. It is true that this Greenbergian decree had never wholly ruled Yektai's practice. Some Yektai works, such as Three Tomato Plants, 1960, would be regarded on a purely visual basis (that is, without the title), as gestural abstractions pure and simple. But these are comparatively few in the oeuvre. For years Yektai had both submitted to and resisted the full embrace of abstraction, preserving hints of the figure even if only in the titles (for example, Still Life with Plate and Tomato Plants, both 1960).But around 1959 he aggressively brought the figure back into the foreground of his work, asserting, on the philosophical level again, that his is a humanistic rather than a metaphysical art.
DeKooning's resolution of the apparent paradox of figuration versus Action Painting was to allow the Action of the painting to tear the figure apart without really putting it back together again, leaving it in tatters after the ferocious attack of the Action Painter. Yektai, rather, wished to show respect for the figure - for human life in general- and to allow it to retain more of a sense of wholeness. His own process also involves tearing the subject matter apart with the analytical application of the scalpel-like brush; but he gives more emphasis to the process of reconstituting it. In Pat and Concierge, both 1960, the figure looks rather like a doll that has been torn apart and somewhat clumsily put back together. She sits upon her chair with a certain sense of being unattached to it. Meanwhile in the background the ambience explodes and splatters in a compensatory reinstatement of the Action. So at this point the figure and the ground are somewhat contradictory to one another; the ground will sustain more of the artist's" cool violence" (as Ashbery called it) than the figure will. This distinction between figure and ground brings in the question of illusionism - basically the question of depth as opposed to flatness. The figure flattens out while apparently sitting in front of an abstract painting, or in front of a world whose inner energy is like that of an abstract painting. In terms of the energy of the work Thomas Hess expressed its basic duality in saying, "He is an intellectual artist who applies his paint in orgiastic gushes."10
It is above all in his landscapes, which became prominent in the I 970s, that Yektai manages to take the subject matter apart with lightning speed and throw it back down, again with lightning speed, into an arrangement that still makes sense though it is renewed. It is also in the landscapes that the increasing emphasis on white in Yektai's work of all genres since the 1970s appears most conspicuously, separating and levitating the elements of the composition. Among the works in the show, Corner oj Forest, 1977, and A Body if Landscape, 1978, show the flowering of this new style. For these works Yektai has simplified his means significantly. Not only is the palette greatly simplified, but increasingly extensive areas of canvas are left "unattacked."The skies are pure and clean, as in some works by Bonington and Corot, and shine with a quiet lustre that does not seem religious or metaphysical while also it does not seem quite everyday. Topographical features are reduced in number and simplified in detail, as in some works by John Marin or, for that matter, Cezanne. Often a road runs through the landscape, carrying its theme of passage, life-journey, time and flux.
Indeed, the most recent works in this show are of this genre - Flower Garden and Road by Water, both 1997.They seem to complete a trajectory that dominates Yektai's oeuvre as a whole, which proceeds from detail in the stililifes to middle view in the portraits to long panoramic views in the landscapes. Indeed, his recent portraits, such as Seated Nude, 1984-85, and In Front if Window, 1990, acknowledged this last opening of the lens by incorporating distant landscape views through windows, as was traditional in Renaissance paintings. It is as if the artist were engrossed in his environment in a series of stages. First his head is bowed as he stares at the table top, or at a detail upon it (the lemon); then he raises his head to look across the room and sees the figure seated in the chair before the window; then he gazes out the window and sees the vast world unfolding toward the horizon but framed by the casement; then he steps outside and sees the world directly; spreading in all directions, but with a roadway through it beckoning him onward. His trajectory through cultures has led him first to claim and earn a home inside - to claim and earn through the act if painting - finally, to feel at home enough in the world he has discovered and adapted for himself through paint to need no closure around it: he has worked, patiently and long, with the work of the artist, to conquer a world for himself and make it a home.