The Abstract Sublime: Jill Krutick’s Paintings
by Donald Kuspit
Reading Jill Krutick’s statements about her many series—the Geometric, Ice Cube, Dreamscape, Shangri La, Aurora Borealis, and Swirl—the one that strikes me as most relevant for an understanding of her oeuvre as a whole, is her “love for the ocean in all its glory.” Sailing Day, 2017 conveys the experience “of being on the water on a beautiful, sunny day.” Beach Day, 2016 “capture[s] the beauty of the high seas in all its splendor.” Dreamscape Small, 2016 “captures the motion of the seas and the splash of the waves against a twilight sky.” Waves 2, 2015 is “a serene montage of the sea,” informed by its “ebb and flow.” Dreamscape Surprise, 2016 “signifies” Krutick’s “passion for the ocean and the intimate relationship shared between the sky and the sea.” Dreamscape Diptych Surprise, 2017 “captures the motion of the seas and splash of the waves against a twilight sky.” “Trickling Waterfalls, 2010 was inspired by a love of the water and all the amazing colors one sees when diving in the great deep.” The “Swirl paintings are rooted in my love for music,” Krutick writes. Music and the sea have something in common: both are complexly rhythmic—seemingly “organized chaos,” like that in Cutting Edge, 2015, their rhythmic “shapes” in “whimsical dialogue,” as they are in Dangling Conversation, 2014 and the “whimsical” Seashells 1 and 3, both 2017, eloquent examples of so-called eccentric abstraction. And of course an ice cube is a solid that becomes liquid—Krutick’s paintings are invariably liquid, that is, are always in the “flow,” to use the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term.(1)
These statements suggest that Krutick’s abstract paintings—whether categorizable, art historically, as impressionistic, expressionistic, geometric—convey an “optimal experience,” to use Csikszentmihalyi’s term, of what Kant called the “dynamic sublime,” more particularly, what the philosopher Edmund Burke called “the great and sublime in nature.”(2) “When we estimate nature as dynamically sublime,” Kant writes, “our idea of it must be fearful.” We fear “the boundless ocean in its anger, a high waterfall in a mighty river,” to mention two of Kant’s examples of dynamic nature at its most fearful that seem relevant to Krutick’s “oceanic” paintings—her Aurora Borealis paintings among them, as their awesome space and luminous dynamics suggests. “But,” Kant quickly adds, “the sight of them is attractive in proportion to their fearfulness as we find ourselves in security”—in the security of art, I venture to say. “We readily call such things sublime because they elevate the powers of our souls above their wonted level,” that is, their everyday level. Finally, and unexpectedly, “nature is not aesthetically estimated to be sublime so far as it excites fear, but because it calls up in us the power which is beyond nature”—the power that created nature, the creativity that is the “inward meaning” of nature.(3) It is the creative power implicit in Krutick’s imaginative response to nature’s innate aesthetics, at their most ingeniously and irresistibly dynamic in the flowing ocean. One might say she abstracts the creative flow of nature from its material manifestation in moving water, treating it as an aesthetic phenomenon in itself. For Krutick, fearlessly creating art is the way “the mind can realize the proper sublimity of its own destiny as surpassing nature itself,” as Kant suggests. It is as though what psychoanalysts call the primary creativity of the mind and the primary creativity of nature are indistinguishable currents in her art.
An optimal experience of the dynamic sublime in nature is ecstatic. “In blissful ecstasy there is the feeling of having given oneself up to something bigger”—“the beauty of nature,” as the psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson writes,”(4) more particularly the beauty of the ocean, where the colors of the sky and sea meet in ever-changing intimacy and immediacy, even as they have a lasting effect on the psyche, leave a mnemonic trace of themselves in its dreams, as Krutick’s dreamscapes suggest. The beauty of nature has a good deal to do with the beauty of color, “the type of love,” as the connoisseur and theorist John Ruskin said in Modern Painters,(5) more pointedly of libido, to use Freud’s word. Libido is a manifestation and expression of the “life instinct,” a “great force” that involves “sexuality and self-preservation,”(6) suggesting that Krutick made her libidinous art to preserve herself and assert her sexuality—dare one say femininity?--while working as a business analyst on the male-dominated Wall Street. Color is charged with emotion, suggesting that color, emblematic of love, as Ruskin suggested, made Krutick, an exquisite colorist—a master of nuanced colors, free floating even as they intimately relate--feel emotionally alive in the loveless business world.
Interestingly, her “first job…combined my love for music and analytics,” and her “next job brought my interests full circle—taking on a senior corporate role in a music company”—but neither job, however creative they were in their own right, involved making art for herself and as end in itself—as an expression of her True Self and for its own sublime sake--which seriously began when she began to take classes at the Art Students League in 2011, studying, ironically, with Charles Hinman, Ronnie Landfield, Mariano Del Rosario, and Frank O’Cain, all male masters. By 2015, when she left the League, she had become a master in her own right—an autonomous master with a vision of her own. Her color was already “visionary,” as such works as Lady Liberty, 2012 and Tie Dye, 2014, among many others made when she was a student, indicate.
Fluid color is prior to fixed form, according to the philosopher George Santayana, and affords a “purely sensuous delight” he adds,(7) suggesting that Krutick’s engulfing flow of delightful colors affords an intense sensuous experience. At its most consummately libidinous it affords what the psychoanalyst Marion Milner calls a “primary sensual experience” and the aesthetician John Murungi calls “lived sensuousness.” The experience is all the more sensationally sensual when the geometrical ice cube dissolves into an orgasmic explosion of liquid color. Krutick’s colors are delicious to the visual palate which is why they intoxicate us. Her color seems like light materialized, which is why it touches us however vaporous.
Art historically speaking, Krutick’s abstract paintings are composed of tachist gestures, sometimes boldly textural, as in Sand Dunes, 2010 and Pink Orchid, 2011, sometimes more texturally subdued, as in Dreamscape, 2015 and The Looking Glass, 2017. Tachisme officially began with Manet’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862 where it was used for a representational purpose—the figures were said to be composed of so many taches or touches—and the tache, or non-gestalt gesture, as the psychoanalytically informed art historian called it, became an established expressive mode with Kandinsky’s seminal abstract expressionism (1912-1914). While Krutick acknowledges a debt to Monet and Van Gogh, her “soulful” colors suggests she shares Kandinsky’s romantic view that “color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul,”(8) not just a characteristic of nature—a physical phenomenon--as it was for Monet and Van Gogh.
A tache, the French word for “stain,” is a spontaneous gesture, and as such an expression of the personally creative True Self, as distinct from the impersonal, socially compliant False Self, according to the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. It is a sign of authenticity and autonomy, as distinct from inauthenticity and obedience. One might say that for Krutick making tachist art—sometimes called art informal or lyrical abstraction, meaning art without a predetermined or preconceived structure--was an unconscious expression of social disobedience, certainly of (unwitting?) resistance, perhaps rebellion, against her structured, disciplined, constrained life as a stock analyst: however successful she was on Wall Street, it somehow failed her, stifled her. As her account of her life and artistic development suggests, she felt liberated when she left it to begin a new life at the Art Students League. It was an assertion of her separateness, her “difference”: giving up the business job on which she was economically dependent to devote herself full-time to independent tachist painting, with its introspective demands, necessitating self-analysis—as distinct from stock analysis—may have been a way of dealing with a mid-life crisis.(9) Whatever it meant emotionally and existentially, being a painter was certainly different from being a stock analyst. One can’t help comparing Krutick to Gauguin (however different their art), who gave up being a banker—a successful one—to become an artist, in the conviction that making art was the only means of self-actualization in modern times, to use the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s concept, religion no longer serving that purpose. Certainly Krutick’s paintings afford what Maslow called a peak experience—a peak experience of color for sure—indicating that they are masterpieces of their kind.
The non-conformist, individualistic, self-expressive—peculiarly private, not to say deeply subjective--modern abstract tachist painting is in a state of perpetual becoming as distinct from the socially conformist and publicly meaningful representational painting, with its resolute objectivity. In other words, Krutick’s works are ongoing process paintings rather than finished products. Krutick’s paintings seem to be in a state of what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls “creative flux”—they seem to constantly change, and as such seem ever-fresh, offering new aesthetic vistas, new oceanic experience—rather than a final and fixed image of the ocean they ostensibly engage. The titles of such works as Where the Wild Things Are, 2017, Bedroom Slippers 1, 2015 and 2, 2016, Rocking Horse, 2017, among others, allude to narratives—Maurice Sendak’s famous children story in the first work—and objects, but they are non-objective, uncompromisingly abstract, as their oceanic aesthetics—exquisitely evident in the fluid surface of Where the Wild Things Are, makes transparently clear. One could just as well title it “where the restless ocean is.” These objects have personal meaning for Kutrick, but they function as creative stimuli. They are not pictured—the painting would fare aesthetically well without the associations suggested by their titles. Krutick’s paintings are pure abstractions, needing no subliminal “humanizing” narratives to distract from their aesthetics—their sheer beauty.
Are Krutick’s paintings feminine, considering the fact that she is a woman? Some of her paintings have the in-your-face power, rawness, and epic quality supposedly typical of the masculinist Abstract Expressionism of Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline, among other “classical” New York Abstract Expressionists, while others have the tender touch, refined softness, and lyrical quality characteristic of the paintings of such female Abstract Expressionists as Helen Frankenthaler, Alma Thomas, and Judith Godwin. Their paintings have much in common with the new Miami School of Abstract Expressionism, with which Krutick is affiliated, rather than the old New York School of Abstract Expressionism, which they ingeniously finessed. There’s little doubt that most of Krutick’s paintings have a loving, refined, civilized “feminine” look rather than an aggressive, coarse, barbaric “masculine” look. They are a far cry from the primitivism of Gauguin and its elaboration by the New York Abstract Expressionists.
But I think Krutick’s paintings are feminine not because of their beauty—their aesthetics--but because of their creative depth. It is evident in her capacity for an ecstatic oceanic experience--an immersive experience in the ocean in which life began, a life-giving water with which she clearly identifies with, which she makes her own and which owns her. Woman has a greater capacity for creativity than man because she has an oceanic creative womb. Ecstatically at home in the depths of the life-creating ocean, Krutich unconsciously finds herself in the depths of her life-creating womb, enabling her to parthenogenetically give birth to her living paintings.(10) Having a womb, woman is a natural artist, while for man making art is compensation for his lack of a womb, which is naturally creative, rather than “artificially” creative. Woman has the primary creativity attributed to God—“Woman is God,” the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion famously argued. Man has secondary creativity; he has to struggle to be creative: it doesn’t come naturally to him. I suggest that the turbulent anxiety-ridden gestures in masculinist New York Abstract Expressionist painting are the signs of that struggle.
I think Moonstone, 2017 is Krutick’s unconscious way of acknowledging the femininity of her art, a projection of her own femininity. “The Moon is water” and a symbol of “the fertility of women.”(11) Krutick is a remarkably fertile painter, and lively water is her expressive medium, as her oceanic experience suggests. Her art endlessly dwells on it, distills its aesthetics. It is unforgettable, and she seeks it out again and again, for it is the catalyst of her creativity, and the expression of her feminine originality. Aphrodite, “the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation,” was born from the sea, suggesting that Krutick’s oceanic paintings are abstract renderings of Aphrodite, the epitome of femininity.
(1)Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper, 1991). The book deals with “the positive aspects of human experience—joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow” (xi). “The flow experience,” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “is not ‘good’ in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.” (70) Krutick’s oceanic experience is a version of the flow experience, with the difference that her art absolutizes the flow experience, suggesting that for her it is the ideal good in life because it gives her the strength to be herself.
(2)Quoted in E. F. Carritt, ed., Philosophies of Beauty (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 89
(4)Ralph Greenson, “Enthusiasm,” in Salman Akhtar, ed., Good Feelings: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Positive Emotions and Attitudes (London: Karnac, 209), 13
(5)Quoted in Kenneth Clark, Ruskin Today (London and New York: Penguin, 1964), 155
(6)Akhtar, “Psychoanalysis and Human Goodness: Theory,” Ibid., xxvii
(7)Quoted in Carritt, 199
(8)Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 160
(9)A “midlife crisis is a revolutionary turning point in an individual’s life, occurring in middle age, involving sudden and dramatic changes in commitments to career and/or spouse and family and accompanied by ongoing emotional turmoil for both the individual and others. The powerful unconscious conflicts that precipitate such behaviors are centered on the difficulty in facing growing awareness of the inevitability of limited time and personal death, and the refusal to engage the narcissistically injurious reality that not all one’s goals, ambitions, and dreams will be realized in this lifetime. The result is a frenzied attempt to throw away the present and the past and to magically begin life anew.” It is what Krutick did when she entered the Art Students League in 2011, twenty-seven years after she received her bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. Elizabeth L. Auchincloss and Eslee Samberg, eds., Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press and the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2012), 155
(10)The psychoanalyst Hanna Segal argues that creating a work of art is like “creating a new baby.” Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock and Routledge, 1991), 95
(11)Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London and New York: Penguin, 1996), 670
–Donald Kuspit was the winner of the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism (1983) given by the College Art Association and is a Contributing Editor at Artforum, Artnet Magazine, Sulpture and Tema Celeste, and the editor of Art Criticism. He has doctorates in philosophy and art history, as well as degrees from Columbia, Yale and Pennsylvania State University. He has received fellowships from Fulbright Commission, NEA, Guggenheim Foundation and Asian Cultural Council, among others. Kuspit has written more than twenty books, including The End of Art (2004); Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries (2000); Idiosyncratic Identities; Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde(1996); Daniel Brush: Gold without Boundaries (with Ralph Esmerian and David Bennett, 1998); Reflections of Nature: Paintings by Raffael (with Amei Wallace, 1998); and Chihuly (1998). He has written numerous art reviews, including critiques on Hunt Slonem, Maurizio Cattelan and April Gornik.