Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Creeley's Oppen

I've written previously about George Oppen's Discrete Series, in a blogpost here under Minimalism Part IV, on July 30, 2009. As an example of an approach to verse that employed a reductive, spare concision to convey unusual effects, it has always struck me as an ideal example of the form. I loved that book, long before I knew the back-story of its composition and publication, and appreciated its value without realizing the context of its initial emphasis, or why it would eventually become symbolic in its temporal isolation in the middle of the 1930's.

I recently came upon a copy of Oppen's Selected Poems [New Directions, 2003], edited by Robert Creeley, with a Chronology of Oppen's life by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, a book which for reasons I can't explain I'd never seen before. Published well after Oppen [1908-1984] had died, it's a telling, though perhaps unintentional, piece of evidence about how Creeley saw the elder poet, a figure who had explored some of the same literary territory that the younger man would, thirty years later. 

As the Chronology makes clear, Oppen's earlier life was unusual in a number of ways. Born into a comparatively well-off Jewish family, his Mother committed suicide when George was only a toddler. Early difficulties in school lead to a restless youth, and much travel. While still in his 'teens, he meets and marries Mary, his life-companion, and together they commit to political principles that align them with the Communist Party, which they join in 1935, becoming active in union organizing and relief efforts. 

A young Oppen with the wife Mary

Creeley, born in 1926, is only 9 when Discrete Series is published in 1935. Oppen is a full generation older than Creeley. According to the Chronology, Oppen had virtually completed the book by 1930, when he was just 22. Discrete Series, then, is in fact a very young man's book, written at the end of the 1920's, just before the Wall Street Crash, at the beginning of the Depression, by a man whose political sympathies are, from an early age, Left. The young author decides at this key juncture, that the artistic life must be set aside, in favor of social awareness and action, sets aside writing altogether, and by the beginning of the War, he is working in an automobile factory in Detroit. Drafted into the Army, he serves in Europe where he is severely wounded in the field, and leaves the service a highly decorated veteran. During the early 'Fifties, he comes under pressure from the FBI for his political activity, and decides in 1950 to live in Mexico. The Oppens don't return to the U.S. until 1960, when he begins once again to take up his pen. In close succession, he publishes three books of poems [The Materials, 1962; This in Which, 1965; and Of Being Numerous, 1968]. This outpouring of work (he wins the Pulitzer for the third book) leads to a general recognition by a new generation of readers, who for the most part are unaware of the author's earlier incarnation as a 'Thirties activist. Though the first book is reprinted in 1966, the context of its original appearance, and the meaning of the long hiatus of publication, remain largely unknown. 

It would take a whole book-length study even to outline the literary developments which occur between 1935 and 1960, but suffice it to say that how Oppen's work was initially viewed during the 1960's, and later, must be understood as a part of a larger struggle taking place in American art and literature during this period, between the Depression and the beginning of the 1960's. Oppen's "underground" self-exile and prohibition effectively removes him from the time-line for 20 years, a period during which socialism is rejected, the country fights and wins a world war, then undergoes a tortuous period of anxiety and paranoia (The McCarthy Era), while experiencing its period of greatest broad economic prosperity. 

In the meantime, Creeley, who comes of age as a writer during the notoriously quiet and tradition-bound 1950's, begins to achieve recognition and success at precisely the same time as the "later" Oppen. Their respective careers run parallel through the 1960's and 1970's, each participating in what we now understand as the period of the New American Poetry, initiated by the publication of the anthology of that name [Grove Press, 1960] edited by Donald Allen. Ironically, Oppen cannot be included in that selection, because he hasn't yet written the poems that will place him among its company! 

Greeley older

Looking back once again, one notes that Oppen had been a key member of the Objectivists group, which included Reznikoff, Rakosi, Zukofsky, Pound, Niedecker and Carlos Williams. (Discrete Series is, in effect, a self-published book, since Oppen is the key funder to the Objectivist Press.) The associations thus formed, in the turmoil of the world-wide Depression (a period of radical political and aesthetic engagement) will be repudiated or abandoned by these writers, after World War II, effacing the memory and effect of their earlier commitments, only to be rediscovered, as if for the first time, by the younger generation of the 1960's.

Creeley younger

For Creeley, Objectivism was an historical artifact, whose causes and concerns had faded from memory. Like Oppen's first readers in the 1960's, he understood the older writer as a survivor from an earlier period, recollecting those life-experiences in a calm, meditative style. The marked differences between the method of the poems in Discrete Series and those written after 1958, suggest not just the transformations wrought by time, but an aesthetic about-face which undercuts the meaning and value of the earlier work. The divide between the earlier and later Oppen isn't linear, following the clear descent from a sharp eye to a thoughtful reappraisal, but a reemergence from nearly total obscurity. 

Oppen older

Turning to Creeley's selections, it is astonishing to see that he chooses only two poems from Discrete Series--"The knowledge not of sorrow, you were" and "The edge of the ocean"--as if that earlier volume were an afterthought, only to be remarked with a couple of small snapshots for the family album. Why, one might ask, would Creeley's appreciation of Oppen be so narrowly focused on the later writer, instead of upon the youthful (30 years earlier) revolutionary of 1928? 

The 1st Edition of Discrete Series

It's intriguing to wonder why Creeley would choose to de-emphasize the younger Oppen in favor of the later. Perhaps it's because he felt that the issues and concerns of the earlier writer were no longer pertinent to a later audience. Perhaps those early, "objectivist" priorities (sincerity and objectification) were no longer valid measures. Oppen had said (in retrospect) "a discrete series is a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each one of which is empirically true. And this is the reason for the fragmentary character of those poems [in Discrete Series]." It's instructive to place the poems in Discrete Series beside those of Creeley during his own "minimalist" phase--Pieces [Scribner's, 1969]. There can be no doubt that Creeley's indulgence in the minimalist form is parallel to Oppen's, yet there are clear differences in style and approach. While Oppen's poems are "fragmentary" and use parataxis freely, Creeley's are invariably grammatical and even narrative in progression, frequently reducing poems down to singular grammatical units, but never breaking them apart. Oppen's poems in Discrete Series are rather molecular, while Creeley's are constructive, using what lies to hand. 

Did Creeley's de-emphasis of the earlier Oppen also signal a political dismissal? It's a question that I leave open for the time being. I can only say that it's strange that he would choose fully 44 pages of work from the end of Oppen's career (the poems from Seascape: Needle's Eye [1972]; Myth of the Blaze [1975]; and Primitive [1978]), reprinting only two poems (two pages) from Discrete Series. In my view, the poems in Discrete Series are not merely stronger than nearly everything he published later; they are so much more original than anything that had come before, and driven by a vision which is so much clearer and and better defined than the poems after 1958, there is hardly any comparison. 

If we wanted to write the alternative literary history of America, we would certainly have to mark the publication of Discrete Series in 1935 as among a handful of signal events, many times more vital and predictive of later developments, than anything else that was being done at the time. Perhaps the point is that Oppen's earlier book had been so thoroughly effaced from literary consciousness that its discoveries and explorations would have to be completely reinvented by writers such as Eigner, Creeley, and others of the post-War generation; as if--as if!--Discrete Series had never happened! It is almost as if Creeley's deliberate suppression of that work were a new kind of repudiation of an earlier exploration and accomplishment--not on political grounds, but on aesthetic ones. 

The self-abnegation implied by Oppen's abandonment of verse as a kind of irresponsible activity in face of widespread social distress, is matched by the chastening after-effects of political suppression following the McCarthy Era. It is possible, perhaps, to deliberately "forget" the unfortunate events of a generation or two back--and the part played in them by active participants--but the written artifacts can't be so easily set aside. Creeley sees Discrete Series through the wrong end of his telescope, and judges it to have been unformed and relatively minor. 

Why is it that each generation tends to see the efforts of preceding ranks as the work of "old men"--and not the vigorous, hopeful, brave experiments of young men, just starting out, fresh and untamed, unswayed by caution, or fear of rejection? 

Discrete Series is the writing of a very young man. That tells us a great deal about the work, and about those who do or don't care to acknowledge the fact. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

On the Seventh Day of Summer

On the seventh day of Summer, my true love gave to me . . . 

a new cocktail recipe!

Summer is here, and everyone is floating along in oblivious continuity. Going about their business as if nothing had happened, working, sleeping, recreating, marrying, having babies, buying groceries, taking out the garbage, petting dogs, and generally staying out of mischief.

As I near old age, I keep having the rather unpleasant sense that some of the things I've done in the past, and may do again in the future, might be the "last time" I do them. This sense of unrepeatability is disquieting. I like reliable things as much or more than new things, and the thought that my next trip fly-fishing, or my next trip photographing the landscape, might be my last, is one of the liabilities of self-knowledge, or self-consciousness--something we possess that most animals don't. 

They say elephants mourn the loss of one of their tribe, and will even return to a place where one had died, to pay their respects, and share a feeling of grief. Elephants are also said to have long memories--another human trait. As I get older, some of the things I had not thought about for half a century, come back to me, unannounced, evoking feelings of regret or minor joy. More and more, I realize that I am the only surviving keeper of these memories, and that when I go, there will no longer be a surviving witness. 

I remember one day, perhaps 60+ years ago, when my parents and I went picnicking up on the Russian River--to a little place called Cazadero, on Austin Creek. In those days, people simply parked along the road and walked down to the water. On this day, I remember my Step-dad (whom I didn't know was not my "real" father yet) had persuaded my Mom to wear her bathing suit. Mom wasn't the outdoor type, and not the swimming type, and not the exhibitionist type either. I can still recall her tiptoeing across the rock shore, complaining about being cold, the sharp stones hurting her feet, refusing all appeals to come into the water, and generally just shivering and complaining. I can recall the green and white flower material of her suit, and how pale she was. The moment seems emblematic of my parents' relationship--how split their characters were, and how little they shared: Mom the indoors type, quiet, sedentary, Dad the outdoorsman, active, forthright. The thing is, I'm the only one who remembers this, and, like all the other memories locked in my head, it will fade into nothingness when I go. If my Mom were still alive today (she'd be 91 if she were) I'm sure she'd remember that day, just as I have, and it would be something we could share. But she's gone, and there's no one else in the universe who can confirm and tally what I've just described. I don't know why that should trouble me, except that such memories do matter to me. They comprise the pictures I have of my own past, which is not only rapidly receding from me, but from the history of my time. 

But this is the seventh day of Summer, and what better time to evoke memories, or to create new ones, than by toasting them with a novel new libation?!          

2 parts dry vermouth
2 parts white rum
1 part st. germaine 
2/3 part yellow chartreuse
1 part fresh lime juice

Shaken vigorously and poured into well-chilled cocktail glasses (makes 2). 

It's guaranteed to appeal to drinkers and non-drinkers alike, so have no fear of inebriation. One cocktail never killed anyone, though two might be inadvisable without a chauffeur. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Twin Obituaries

We keep losing people.

That's life. 

This last week two poets whom I knew, and had published early in their careers, both died within 48 hours of each other: 

Bill Berkson

Blue Is the Hero

Ted Greenwald

Common Sense

Both native New Yorkers. Both men I would not have had the occasion to know, had it not been for our mutual connections to the world of poetry. 

Bill died at age 76, Ted at 73. 

Ironically, both men suffered from the identical medical condition later in life--lung failure as a result of life-long smoking habit. 

It gives me pause to note that. Both my parents were heavy smokers--both two-pack unfiltered Camel people. Our house smelled strongly of tobacco, and I became inured to the smell, and the bad air, as I grew up. Later, when I went back to visit, I was nearly overpowered by the effect. I never smoked. There was nothing about smoking that I saw in their addiction that would have drawn me to the habit.   Yet neither died of lung disease, my Stepfather Harry dying in an automobile accident at about age 72, and my mom dying at age 84 from heart failure.

Berkson was heavily identified with Frank O'Hara at the beginning of his career. Bill became the official/unofficial keeper of O'Hara's flame over the years, editing his poetry, tending to his legacy, and moving beyond the association that had been so important to the both of them until the older poet's death in 1966. That was almost 50 years ago, hard to believe. Bill would pursue dual careers in poetry and art criticism in his later adult life, both successfully. Sophisticated, cosmopolitan, charming, confident, witty, and generous--an impressive man. 

Ted Greenwald, a confirmed and unashamed devoted New Yorker, was a much less visible cultural figure, without Bill's social connections and background. There was something essentially genuine about his "working clothes" approach to poetry and to his life. I like to think of him as an "urban primitive" who spoke the language of the street, but knew his art inside and out. 

My contact with these men over the years would hardly suggest we were close. But I always felt a kinship with them, and the deeper implications of what their respective artistic investigations and commitments stood for. 

I live in earthquake country, right on top of the fault line, and in the middle of a notorious slide zone. You never know when the earth might just start jiggling and shifting under the your feet. 

The death of these two men is a seismic shift in my life. Things will never be the same again. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Elephant Panorama

You'll need a big computer screen to see all of this image. It's uncredited on the internet, but it's so inspiring, I had to put it up. Stretch your window as wide as your screen will go. On my screen it's about 16 inches wide.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Indolence of Decadence - Lowell's Alfred Corning Clark

After initially establishing himself at the beginning of his career as a talented poet with a rhetorical style--marked by a dense, rich dose of metaphysical formalism--Robert Lowell "thawed out" in the 1950's, and produced two books leavened with autobiographical detail, and a relaxed manner, which belied the obligations implied in earlier efforts. 

Among the poems in the second of those two volumes of verse (Life Studies, 1959 and For the Union Dead, 1964), is this little elegy, notable for its brevity and seeming simplicity. Without knowing more about its subject than what we learn in the poem itself, any reader might suppose that Clark was likely a public figure whom the author had once known in adolescence, one seen rather from afar. The poem's justification, then, would derive either from the depth of grief which the speaker feels, or from the keenness of detail which he uses to evoke his subject, or both.   

Alfred Corning Clark (1916-1961)

You read the New York Times
every day at recess,
but in its dry
obituary, a list
of your wives, nothing is news,
except the ninety-five
thousand dollar engagement ring
you gave the sixth.
Poor rich boy,
you were unseasonably adult
at taking your time,
and died at forty-five.
Poor Al Clark
behind your enlarged,
hardly recognizable photograph,
I feel the pain.
You were alive. You are dead.
You wore bow-ties and dark
blue coats, and sucked
wintergreen or cinnamon lifesavers
to sweeten your breath.
There must be something –
some one to praise
your triumphant diffidence,
your refusal of exertion,
the intelligence
that pulsed in the sensitive,
pale concavities of your forehead.
You never worked,
and were third in the form.
I owe you something –
I was befogged,
and you were too bored,
quick and cool to laugh.
You are dear to me, Alfred;
our reluctant souls united
in our unconventional
illegal games of chess
on the St Mark’s quadrangle.
You usually won –
as a lizard in the sun.

This poem has always resonated for me. Though I was raised on the West Coast, not among the Boston Brahmin culture that was Lowell's birthright, I can still feel the generic sense of loss at hearing of the death of comrades known in youth. The people we had known in childhood, or adolescence, are a select group whose fates are involuntarily bound to ours. There is usually no reason to suppose that we should regard them either as special, or as important, simply on account of the circumstance of our shared ages or condition or proximity. People who become famous may be remembered by those who knew them "when they were unknown" though in the case of very rich, or very talented, individuals, it may become obvious early on, that we will have a reason to remember them eventually

In the case of Lowell, and Clark, there is the underlying social presumption of privilege. Though Alfred Corning Clark is easily identified, as the grandson (and namesake) of the co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, there is little detail that I can locate online to flesh out the character Lowell describes in the poem. As scion of one of the great industrial giants' fortunes passed down from the latter half of the 19th Century, Clark's inheritance would have meant he would never have to work, and would bear the burden of that privilege according to his nature.

Formally, the poem employs a simple rough three beat line, essentially prose chopped according to the natural rhythms of phraseology. It's an "easy" poem in that sense, which seems to ask very little in the way of complex comprehension, its ironies held in delicate suspension between simple description and the tantalizing suggestions of ambiguity. Lowell, as an adult, looks both forward from childhood, and back, through the lens of his vicarious adolescent gaze, and his later adult cynicism. 

The details we're given--what Clark wore, the bare lineaments of his character,  the games of chess that form(ed) the basis of their interaction--would suggest they weren't intimate. Indeed, it is precisely Clark's diffident character ("triumphant"), his refusal of exertion, and an intelligence that "pulsed" in the "pale concavities of [his] forehead . . . too bored, quick and cool to laugh," that the speaker recalls. It is precisely Clark's cool remoteness, his "reluctance" to "unite" even while playing an "unconventional illegal" game of chess, that attracts Lowell. Lowell, the powerfully precocious young poet-to-become, admires Clark's unflappability, his serene assumption of disengagement, without responsibilities, without obligation, without embarrassing passions. Or at least that is how Lowell wishes us to think he feels. It's a strategic choice, one that puts Clark in the cross-hairs of the ironies Lowell can't help expressing. 

The details--the wintergreen lifesavers--the "pale concavities"--the "cool" laugh--and that denouement, "motionless as a lizard in the sun"--all suggest a chill, clear as ice, all the controlled reservations of upper class superiority, barren, impotent, remote, selfish, streamlined, decadent, dry, enervated, dull. Yet it's just this emotionally impoverished sterility which inspires the poem. 

Elegies may be the occasion for an outpouring of grief, or of amusement, or of rancor.  We can't change the past, especially our childhoods, which were the given context of the lives we were born to. We may sense a shared bond that is irresistible, or inescapable, or best ignored and forgotten. In this case, we may feel that Lowell's embrace of his own past, filled with all the complexities of ambiguous affection, embarrassment and pride, is merely symbolized by his eulogy for a childhood companion. We can tell from the way Lowell describes him, that Clark was almost certainly NOT the warm companion we associate with friendship, or shared exploits. The Clark of the poem is someone seen from a little distance, with the same cool detachment that is the central significance of his character.  How might Clark have felt about Lowell's version of him?

Alice Darr [nee Alicja Kopzynska]

Interestingly, Clark, whose sixth wife inherited his fortune, had only been married to her for 13 days before "dying in his sleep" of "natural causes" at age 45! That sixth wife, born Alicja Kopzynska [aka: Alicia Darr] in Poland in 1935, had been raised in Lodz, but was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in 1950 under the so-called Displaced Persons Act. Soon thereafter, Kopzynska's exploits as a notorious playgirl and fortune hunter commenced. Initially linked to young John F. Kennedy, in 1951, with whom she may have become pregnant, she would later be linked socially (and romantically as well) to British actor Edmund Purdom [a British matinee idol specializing in "sword and sandal" epics], to whom she was married (1957-58)--

Edmund Purdom

--as well as Tyrone Power,  Richard Beymer, Stewart Wallach, Roberto Rossellini, French guitarist Oliver Despax, James Fox,  Omar Sharif, Marco Borghese, Norman Gay (her husband for a time in Nassau), William Holden, Gary Cooper, etc. Following Clark's death, at which point she scored ten million, in addition to a regular $100, 000 annuity pay-out, Darr/Clark would enter the jet set world of European capitols, Caribbean high-life, and engage in numerous affairs and liaisons with the rich and famous, and would make regular notorious mention in the gossip columns of the period. At one point, apparently, J. Edgar Hoover told then Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 that the FBI had information his brother John had paid a $500,000 settlement and had court records sealed in lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed to have been engaged to marry the former President in 1951; allegedly the money was paid to drop the case in 1961; Ms. Darr couldn't be reached for comment. It almost makes one wonder whether Clark's death in 1961 can have been so "natural" after all.  

                        The jet-setter in the Bahamas

Of the previous five wives, I can find nothing online. 

The closing picture of Clark, as a "motionless . . . lizard in the sun" has always stayed with me.  Lizards are cold-blooded reptiles, which is to say they don't preserve their own body heat, and must soak up heat from the sun by resting outdoors during daytimes. 

Lowell's reputation as one of America's best poets has always been somewhat colored by the fact of his presumed "entitlement"--as a function of his having descended from one of the famous "founding families" of New England. It is as if we ought to regard Lowell as having benefited, as an artist, by his associations--male, white, upper class, connected, intellectual, elite, safe, propelled by position and recognition into a natural, if undeserved, advantage. 

But people can't choose their inheritance. This is one of the ironies of our politically correct contemporary literary world, that we should demand that our writers and artists reflect the philosophical and religious and sociological pieties of the moment. Yet there is no evidence that the kind of advantage we identify with privilege should ever guarantee genius, or ability, or the effort required to make the best of one's means. Lowell's early work demonstrated that he was first interested in a religious poetry that expressed the conflicts and dilemmas of a tragic world view. It was only later, after he had suffered some serious personal crises, that he undertook to explore his own life in the crucible of his art. And as his reading public came to know, that life was anything but secure. Beset from the beginning by mental demons, difficulties with his parents, conscientious objection and imprisonment, multiple hospitalizations for bi-polar episodes, broken marriages and affairs, lapsed appointments, radical political resistance,  etc.,  Lowell came to see his own artistic life as a public drama carried on in full view of the literary world. But the accomplishments of his work could not be "excused" or "exonerated" by his life. In large measure, he may be said to have "invented" Confessionalism, the literary trope that played such a large part in the poetry of the Sixties, Seventies, and still exerts a powerful influence today in the work of Frederick Seidel, Sharon Olds, among many others. The notion of addressing the facts of one's personal life in poetry in a frank, uncompromising manner has something of the exhibitionistic about it. Personally, I find poetry which does only that, and nothing more, suffers a poverty of invention. But one could never say that of Lowell's work, even when it veered uncomfortably close. The ode to Clark is one example of how a direct response to real personal events, or connections, can be managed, without recourse to mawkish obsequy, or vicarious prurient revelation. I can share Lowell's sadness, at a certain moment in time, without in any way sharing the nature of his grief, no matter how ambiguous it may have been, or how conflicted his expression of it would be. Is wealth or privilege in the possessor prima facie evidence of decadence? 

What Lowell seems to be implying is that the qualities which privilege bestows, may be aesthetically inspiring, but still be arid in themselves.  The vanity or nonchalant negligence implied by cycling through six marriages may simply be a reflection of individual temperament, rather than an expression of class arrogance. Yet Lowell is able to have it both ways, since the tone of the poem is clearly not slavish, but measured, and deeply ironic in its regard. The speaker is fully implicated in the world he describes, which is what we want from writers. Not the easy condemnation of the smug ideologue, nor pathetic apologetics, but compassion mixed with rueful modesty. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Pearl


                                                          A poem is like a pearl
                                          in the poet's mind.
                                          An idea, like a bit of grit
                                          gets stuck there, and the
                                          mind worries it and fondles it,
                                          covering it in nacreous
                                          layers of iridescence--
                                          like a metaphor for
                                          the creative act.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Art Dump

Have you ever stood before a painting in a museum and asked yourself why it's supposed to be a work of art?

American Abstract Expressionism is very old news. It eventually won the day and became certifiably valuable. Canvases by any of the great Ab Exp names--Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, Francis, etc.--today command prices in the tens, even hundreds, of millions of dollars. 

There's no denying that human beings are capable of reading complex ideas and feelings into almost any kind of visualization. 

There's nothing wrong with seeing meaning in abstraction. The way people may feel about any work of human ingenuity is not governed by ethics, or religion, or pragmatic considerations. 

Dada, and the Surrealists taught us that we may find art anywhere. Duchamp discovered readymades, things not conceived as aesthetic objects, which nevertheless, when seen from a certain perspective, can become art.

What would you think if I told you that the piece above was worth a million dollars, based on the auction records? Would you shake your head in disbelief, or nod casually in grudging acknowledgment of the unpredictability of aesthetics?

Who would work to create a surface as seemingly random and disorganized as this, and ask us to accept it as the representation of something useful, inspiring, mysterious, or valuable?

Who indeed?

The plain fact is that this is a photo of a piece of plywood that I found at the local recycle center (read "dump"). It's probably a counter-top that was in someone's workshop. Or perhaps it was on the floor. It looks for all the world like one of those drop-cloths that house-painters use to protect the floor or the sidewalk. 

It was obviously NOT intended as a work of art. 

But when I looked at it at first, there was just that little blip of hesitation in my imagination: Was it a painting? Sometimes people will leave tired old paintings there, usually of the color-by-the-number variety. Was this someone's idea of an Abstract Expressionist piece? Then I quickly realized that it was just "too dirty" and haphazard to be that.

Does an event like this serve to undermine our presumptions about the meaning of abstraction in art?

Does it give the lie to all those drip/splash/smear/smudge canvases that we've all become familiar with in museums and galleries over the last half century?  

I don't know. I like and enjoy Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis and de Kooning as much as the next guy. But there's always the certainty that some small portion of our regard for abstraction is self-delusion, that what we're seeing in the art is at least partly editorial, constructed by our desire to respond to something which we've been told is worth the effort of doing so.