In 1942 the Surrealist Max Ernst, looking back across the Atlantic from the safe harbor of New York City, painted "Europe After the Rain," a powerful image of the Earth following an unspecified catastrophe: burnt, eviscerated and populated by bones and horrifying mutants.
Ernst was one of the few great European painters whose art had focused upon the unfolding disaster of Hitler and World War II -- Picasso, in his "Guernica" and "Charnel House," was another -- and his prescient vision acquired a singular irony once the war was over. Ernst's imagined calamity had become a terrifying possibility: the Earth, we now knew, could literally take on the scorched, unlivable form he foresaw.
Artists, like the rest of us, have had a difficult time dealing with this unprecedented condition. None of the conventional definitions apply: If there is an atomic war, the artist as seer will have nothing to see; the artist as healer, nothing to heal; the artist as social critic, nothing to criticize . . . and so on. Faced with the possibility of such a conclusive finale, many artists -- believing not illogically that when art ends, life ends -- have simply continued to do whatever it is they do best.
Others, however, have devised strategies to confront or to reflect upon the fact of The Bomb and its various political, social and philosophical implications.
The most direct approach has been to employ creative skills as weapons to increase awareness of the nuclear danger. Political cartoonists are ideally situated for such an enterprise, and no one familiar with Herblock's pointed use of his "bomb man," as potent a symbol of nuclear danger as has been invented, would want to underestimate their efficacy.
Other artists from time to time join the effort. Graphic designers in the United States and Japan, for instance, recently produced the posters that are part of a circulating exhibition, "Images for Survival" (parts of which are on view through Aug. 16 in the atrium of the International Square building downtown and through Aug. 30 at the American Institute of Architects headquarters).
The brute fact remains, of course, that even as the arms race continues, humanity already has equipped itself with sufficient power to terminate existence. Of the singular images that have appeared in American art dealing with this dreadful situation, one of the more memorable is Alan Sonneman's "The Last Washington Painting," in which the capital city, viewed from a superhighway in the Virginia suburbs, is depicted in all its pristine beauty under a mushroom cloud. Despite its verisimilitude, the image obviously is not realistic -- all ironies, including the gorgeousness of the scene and the city intact beneath the cloud -- were intended.
Sonneman, like most artists, has dealt with the theme only intermittently. Robert Morris' "Firestorm" drawings of the early 1980s are another first-rate, though very different, example. In contrast to Sonneman's specificity, Morris' huge, richly textured works, in which architectonic posts are seen in the process of being enveloped by dark flames, rely, says one writer, "on abstract form to evoke feelings of nightmarish desolation." Their impact, too, doubtless is intensified by the variety within the repetition of the basic theme.
The Sonneman and Morris works, created during the past five years, are indicative of a drastically changed mood: From the late 1970s on, American art, for so long absorbed in formalist, art-for-art's-sake esthetics, has engaged the issues of potential and actual destruction, man-made or natural, with a vengeance.
Doubtless there is some trendiness and market manipulation involved, but the pervasiveness of the change should not -- and cannot -- easily be dismissed. In December 1983, Lynn Gumpert of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York was able to mount an exhibition of works by 24 artists under the title "The End of the World." The show included sculptures, paintings, drawings and mixed media installations -- almost everything but posters and cartoons -- that reflected, sometimes with chilling humor, a dead-serious concern: how to make art that matters under such urgent conditions.
What American artists have begun to do relatively recently, German artists have been doing for two decades, and more systematically. Even though they do not deal specifically with the idea of the nuclear end, those vast, messy, devastated, ugly -- but also strangely beautiful -- fields painted by Anselm Kiefer inevitably call to mind the final havoc our science and technology can wreak.
They also call to mind World War II and Max Ernst. The German artists, starting with Joseph Beuys (whose survival in the war was a near thing) in the 1960s and continuing through Kiefer and a host of others, clearly have felt a deep-rooted need to engage the cultural and political causes, as well as the symptoms, of the nuclear malaise.
One could argue that subliminal awareness of the malaise manifests itself almost everywhere in the visual arts since 1945, including, most unfortunately, in architecture.
After all, we humans, having seen the Earth as it appears from the heavens, can now better visualize the damage we've done to it, and from this view architecture, by definition the most social of the arts, can only be seen as part of the problem. No jeweled city is a more impressive testament to the architecture of our time than the mammoth holes, with their dreadful cargo, that pock the remote surfaces of the Earth.
The phenomenon of Earth art, begun in the 1960s, may in basic impulse express a simple desire to mark the beautiful deserts where the missile holes are before the landscape disappears.
It also could be said that the meticulousness of the New Realist painting of the 1970s in a way represents an effort to document the physical look of our cities before they, too, go away.
And one might wonder if the demonstrable lack of interest in the craft of painting on the part of so many younger painters does not symbolize, at least, an apocalyptic impatience with the idea of lengthy art careers built on mastery of painstaking procedures.
Such speculations could, I suppose, go on and on. I'll end with a most interesting and persuasive one. Kristine Stiles, an artist and art historian, posits that the whole phenomenon of performance art is a "deep response to a climate in which the body itself, the human being, is threatened."
Stiles, who is working on a book that will interpret a 1966 London event -- a "Destruction in Art Symposium" organized by the artist-son of Holocaust victims and involving a month of artist performances -- points out that the first performance in the short history of the genre took place in 1955, in Japan. Kazu Shiraga, a member of the Gutai group of Abstract Expressionist painters, conceived a resonant, if impermanent, piece called "Making a Work With My Body."
To perform it, he mixed pigments with the wet earth and then pressed himself into the ground.