Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

ONE MORE TIME—WHAT IS ART?

This year has brought two very good films on the art world, first, The Art of the Steal about the Barnes Collections (reviewed on this site) and, now, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The title refers to the museum blockbuster, which routes the audience through a maze of galleries so that they can “exit through the gift shop.” Here, one can buy tee shirts with art works printed on the front, famed posters of the art in the exhibition, mugs with the paintings wrapped around, note cards, post cards, sometimes backpacks and scarves, even jewelry—all copies of work of art. There is no end of the ways we can all own works of art, albeit in a reproduced form. Exit through the Gift Shop is a commentary on the art world, with the museum being guilty of money changing in the temple with the auction houses as accomplices. By inference, the film presents the street artists as being the last purists. Indeed many street artists, such as JR, pride themselves on keeping a distance from the art market.

Outlaws, who are the ultimate “outsider” artists, literally working outside, invading the streets and posting art by night, uphold the lost honor of the myth of the artist. The artist, the true artist, according to Bruce Nauman, speaking in neon, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” He or she works for the common good, without hope of money or fame, willing to die for art. The real truth of the “true artist” is that s/he is a small business owner, producing a luxury commodity for a small group of consumers. The work is made on spec, as it were, and the reward is more fame and less fortune. Only a chosen few are ever noticed in this potlatch culture of inverted economics. The hero street artists of this film, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, are master strategists who have used the “rules” of the art world to gain recognition, gangster style. Primal insurrectionaries, they turned the art game into a guerilla war.

On the surface the documentary, narrated with careful solemnity by Rhys Ifans, is a record of one man’s obsession with the camera, directed towards stealthy street artists. But the mere employment of Ifans immediately tells the viewer that the presence of this supporting player, who chewed the scenery in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is a sign of sarcasm. A tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, the movie is to be a witty one. At the heart of the absurdity, lurking at the fringes of the art world, is an unlikely knight-errant, or more precisely the squire of the art warriors, Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a French expat, living in Los Angeles with his long-suffering wife. He is the classic manic, filming compulsively with no end in sight, pointing his camera at the artists who come out at night.

Street art has been around for decades. One can be very erudite and point backwards in time to tympanums over cathedral doors or become historical and mention Diego Rivera or the WPA or the murals in Chicano neighborhoods, but a more precise analogy might be the New York street artists, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the lone survivor, Kenny Scharf. During the golden age of Graffiti Art, they spray painted the streets and subway corridors in the SoHo neighborhood where the chic art galleries were located. Well educated and ambitious, they were the sophisticated counterparts of lower order street artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, and those who spray-painted New York subway cars with images of Andy Warhol soup cans. To some their work was art and these artists were duly and quickly absorbed into the mainstream and appropriated by Mary Boone. To others, graffiti was simply graffiti and, like broken windows in a building, was symptomatic of crime to come. Graffiti was vandalism, pure and simple.

Whether or not one agrees with either position, the situation of the artists who work the streets rather than the galleries is that of someone operating outside the law. Although the streets are supposedly “public” and belong to us all—-after all we paid for them—-the public spaces are, in fact, private and patrolled. Property developers and private entrepreneurs own the buildings. The police control the streets. No unauthorized signage is allowed. The great street muralist, Kent Twitchell, has tales to tell of the ruination of his works of art at the hands of property owners. For the artist with a taste for adventure, the streets are a short cut to fame. Anyone can take the safe route, the gallery system, but there, in these white cubes, control, as stringent as that practiced by the police, awaits. The real freedom is not in the art schools or in the studios; it is out in the open, late at night, in the dark, on the fly.

Thierry Guetta began his career as a documentarian of street artists, who keep their identities secret and use street names. He was introduced to the underground world of art makers through his cousin, the French artist named, “Space Invader,” after a video game. “Space Invader” makes small designs from Rubik’s cubes and pastes them to the odd corners of Paris. Reminiscent of the environmental artist, Charles Simonds, in the 1970s, the street artists leave works of art, some large and some small, in odd, hard-to-reach spaces. Simonds, a recognized fine artist, would leave tiny earthen “cities” tucked away, like treasures, for the pedestrian to stumble across. All of these works were, of course, carefully documented with an eye to posterity. The street artists, who worked alone and who knew each other through a network of subterranean communication and silent respect, had no one to record their methods or their art until Thierry came along twenty years ago.

Thanks to the filmmaker, we have hundreds of hours of film, saving the secret practices and the ephemeral art from oblivion. But Thierry, being manic and undirected, was never able to get beyond compulsive acts to actually take all of his material and create a coherent shape. He got sidetracked, thanks to a causal suggestion by Banksy, and became an “artist,” of sorts. As “Mr. Brainwash,” he began plastering the walls of Los Angeles with a soon-to-be iconic image of himself with sunglasses and a camera. Guetta went beyond Photo-shopping a photograph and began “finding” available images, taken from art books and art magazines. The result was a manic compulsive obsessive hoarder’s dream of an exhibition in 2008, “Life is Beautiful.” In the former CBS Studios, MBW presented a cacophony of every known work of art, seized by Guetta and imprinted with his idea of what an “assisted Readymade” might be. If he even knew who Duchamp was, that is. The collectors, who, as their name might suggest, collect, began to acquire his “art,” because that is their nature: they are acquisitive. Guetta certainly provided plenty of opportunities for the acquirers to acquire. Remember, this is the last year before the Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods of Wall Street and every one was under the illusion they had money.

From a seller of used clothes to a documentary filmmaker to an art world phe-nom, the trajectory of Thierry Guetta seems to be the story told here, with Banksy and Fairey as supporting characters. But if that is all the film is about, the art lover will be in despair and the art skeptic will say, “I told you so.” The offended reaction of Banksy and Fairey in the end gives us a clue that the story of Thierry Guetta is about more than the lunacy of the art world and a person one reviewer described as the “village idiot.” The credit for this film belongs to Tom Fulford and Chris King, who are listed as editors and constructed all those incoherent hours of footage into a story of sorts. The movie is less about any particular artist, even Banksy, who is listed as the “director,” and more about the century old question: what is art? Guetta is the nightmare of aestheticians and art critics come true. He is an ultra appropriator, ripping off everything and everyone. How hard is it to be an artist if originality is no longer necessary? All you need to do is expose yourself…like a dirty old man in a raincoat.

For the art critic of the Sixties, the question, what is art? was a crisis. Arthur Danto faced this Waterloo at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The occasion was an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s installation art, all replicas of objects both low and commercial. It was said that Eleanor Ward hid in her office during the opening. As he stared at the replicas of stacked boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, Danto pondered the meaning and definition of art. What was to distinguish between the actual cardboard boxes of Kellogg’s products discarded and tossed behind the grocery store and Warhol’s screen-printed wooden boxes? Eventually incorporating obvious answers such as “the artist’s intent” and “the maker’s ideas,” Danto and another aesthetician, George Dickie, proposed the now famous “Institutional Theory of Art.” An object, or a candidate for “art,” becomes designated as “art,” once it has gone through a process of legitimation, moving though one Station of the Art World after the other. To the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, the artist was Christ; for the generation of Andy Warhol, the artist was a self-promoter. Warhol is the hero and role model for all street artists, not because he sold himself, but because he appropriated the look and feel of popular imagery and elevated it to “art” through sheer chutzpa.

By the time of Basquiat, Postmodernism had ended that mystic notion of “origin” and “genius,” and admitted that all art had to come from somewhere else. But acts of appropriation, gestures of quotation, performances of borrowing were the activities of very sophisticated, art school educated, theory permeated artists. They knew what they were doing and why. But that was decades ago. Thirty years after the debut of Jeff Koons, we are confronted with a truly naïve and unschooled artist, Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees without knowing why, takes without understanding how, imitates with the innocent eye of a child. He is a true “primitive,” a modern day Henri Rousseau, who knows just enough to be dangerous to others. All he knows is that “Life is Beautiful.” He has probably never heard of Roberto Benigni.

To the trained eye, Banksy is an educated artist who has shrewdly found his place in the streets of the big cities of the world, especially London. He learned from Basquiat. A true “outsider artist” does not make art “outside” the art world, in a place such as Des Moines or Birmingham, for example. You must place your art, in London or Paris or New York or Berlin, otherwise the art is like a tree in a forest empty of humans. It will fall, making no sound. Like Banksy, Shepard Fairey followed the strategy of maximum visibility. The graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design looks and acts like a nice frat boy and now lives and works in Los Angeles. A clean-cut family man, he became well known for his ubiquitous “Obey” posters of Andre the Giant and famous or infamous for his Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Although we know more about Fairey than Banksy, both artists hide in plain sight. And even better, we can’t see Banksy beneath the dark and shadowed hoodie. His visible invisibility makes him even more sought after.

Fairey and Bansky and the other street artists filmed by Guetta are genuine guerillas, striking by night and fleeing the scene. By morning light their work will be “discovered” and by the end of the day scrubbed out of existence, if possible. But like all guerillas, these artists have to be well financed. The documentary clearly demonstrates that even guerilla art is not cheap. There is much more to their art making process than that of Basquiat, who used a can of spray paint, and Keith Haring, who used white chalk on black paper. The new generation of street artists are more like Renaissance mural artists, complete with the workshops and assistants. We see preliminary sketches and cartoons, the enlarged Xerox prints, made in pieces. Some of the street art comes from stencils and we watch Banksy carefully cutting out an elaborate web of cardboard components. Other images are prints on a grand scale, applied with long brushes like huge rolls of wallpaper. All of this costs money. Someone is funding the enterprises of these highly successful artists and along the way smart art dealers made a smart investment.

But the question still remains, is Thierry Guetta an artist? From the perspective of the Institutional Theory of Art, he is. He has been through an apprenticeship and has earned his place. Guetta is the true result of the Institutional Theory and perhaps the reason why the Theory has been so controversial and debated for forty years. But that does not answer the real question: is he making art? The short answer is No. The long answer is No Way. Therry Guetta takes art; he does not make art. This statement is not intended to be a critique or a criticism. I am not condemning the man. I am simply describing how he works. Guetta is what Walter Benjamin would call a “cultural producer,” although today, in the time of post-Post-modernism, we might call him a “cultural re-producer.” But he is so far removed from any precise source, we cannot even dignify his practice as a type of simulacra. What lies beyond repetition? beyond replication? Thierry Guetta. Both Banksy and Fairey have come to look askance upon their former companion. By dismissing Guetta as a faux artist, they validate themselves as authentic artists. If this film demonstrates anything, it is that something we sense as “real” art actually exits. Whether or not we can explain art, we recognize it and we know when and what it is not. Like pornography.

That said there is nothing wrong with what Thierry Guetta is doing and he has a place in the art world. He grasped the basic psychology of what Banksy and Fairey were doing: they were muscling their way into the world of visual culture through the use of signature styles and trademark imagery. Their tactics were simple: visuality and repetition. Despite the apparently public nature of their work, which could be “owned” by all, their art was the ultimate “unobtainium” for a long time. They would give their art; the authorities would take it away. Part of the thrill was the sheer danger of the act. Guetta filmed street artists running from the law as if they were playing games of parquet. The sheer athleticism of the artists and their audacity made them a breed apart—outlaw gangsters always ready to break and run. The street artists were like cultural Robin Hoods: they robbed the landlords to give to the poor. The art could be seen but not for long. It could not be owned nor possessed. The stencils and the posters were placed just out of reach. The inaccessibility of the accessible created desire. That is the lesson that Thierry Guetta, who gave his art in excess, did not comprehend. He tried to create art through the Gift Shop. But it is Desire that creates art.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast 58: New Deal Art, Part Two

NEW DEAL ART AND ARTISTS

In the decades before local community museums were common, New Deal art was, for many communities, the only access to art. Although often disparaged as being too “folksy,” New Deal murals were only one part of an extensive government program which not only supported artists but also professionalized these groups. This podcast makes the case that New Deal art was the part of a process of “readiness” of American artists to challenge the hegemony of European Modernist art.

 

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Important Announcement

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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Post-War Art in California

POST-WAR ART IN LOS ANGELES AND SAN FRANCISCO

At first glance, California would seem to be an exceedingly unpromising place for major art to emerge in the second half of the Twentieth Century. A new state with a throwaway culture without a history, California had small pockets of local art scenes, more or less picturesque and more or less obscure, with most of the available money going to architectural development and occasional decorative embellishments, with the bulk of the financing going to film. Art was often allied to these enterprises, acting as a pictorial inducement to move to the Golden State or as a partner to movies. Unlike New York City, which had Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 as the gathering place for local and European avant-garde art, California tended to be geographically isolated and culturally limited.

There was a small group of individuals who supported avant-garde in their own diverse ways: Walter and Louise Arensberg and Galka Scheyer. Hollywood attracted artists and the oldest art schools, Otis and Chouinard, had an internationally known faculty: Alexander Archipenko, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Hans Hofmann. In San Francisco, the California School of Fine Arts dominated the San Francisco scene and was the site of important works by the Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera. In 1940, Rivera created a mural, Pan American Unity, (today located at the San Francisco City College, for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco. California, like other American states, benefited from the WPA mural program and, even today, murals by Maynard Dixon and Millard Sheets and Helen Lundeberg remain in Los Angeles from those days.

The main avant-garde scene in Los Angeles could be characterized as a Surrealist scene, both European and home grown, supported by collectors from the movie colony, such as Sterling Holloway, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price. Man Ray lived in Los Angeles from 1940 and showed in San Francisco at the de Young and at San Francisco Museum of Art. Ray married Juliet Browner in a double wedding with Max Ernst (now divorced from Peggy Guggenheim) and Dorothea Tanning in 1946. The art of Ernst did not necessary please all Angelinos. Indeed, the famous actor, John Barrymore, got drunk and urinated on one of Max Ernst’s works at an art opening.

The remnants of Dada lived on with the Arensberg, in their important Duchamp collection, and from the occasional visits of the famous artist himself. While New York City contemplated Surrealism as painting or as “plastic automatism,” Los Angeles understood Surrealism from the standpoint of the found object and in relation to anti-art subversive forces. While New York City artists extended Modernism along formalist lines and were forced into de-politicizing their art from the late Forties on, artists in California, alone and neglected, were able to be engaged and political, producing content-saturated art.

This local Los Angeles taste for meaning and content in Los Angeles art existed in large part because of the Surrealist sunset in L. A. Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim had visited the city in 1941 and their colleague Julian Levy rented space next to the (Frank) Perls Gallery. Other gallery owners included Guggenheim associate Howard Putzel, Stanley Rose, and Earl Stendahl. Of particular importance to the conceptual trend in the art of post-war Los Angeles was the trace of Man Ray who lived in Los Angeles until 1951 and had an important retrospective there in 1966. In contrast to the lingering influence of Surrealism, artists in Los Angeles, now the dead center of a post-war military industrial complex, were impacted by the experience of being at Ground Zero during the Cold War.

The aging Surrealists arrived in a land of continuous boom and mass suburbanization on an unprecedented scale. Between 1940 and 1960 no fewer than 60 new cities were incorporated, many of which served highly specialized constituencies in greater Los Angeles. Despite the apparent clash between the past and the future, the artists of Los Angeles embraced the nostalgia of the found object in a culture that threw everything away. As will be discussed later, the artists of the fifties were witnesses to the possibility of immanent nuclear destruction, because this center of the defense industry would be ground zero for any atomic attack.

Los Angeles had been “made” by the Second World War. An important port city, LA was ideally situated on the Pacific Rim, a jumping off point for the Pacific Theater. People streamed into the city from all over America to work in the war industries and the boomtown bustled with the constant presence of service personnel. The region’s prominence did not end with the fighting. California had recovered quickly from the war, thanks in no small part to the large petroleum production. The vast defense industry that emerged during the Second World War and remained intact for the Cold War continued the prolonged economic prosperity and population growth.

But for artists, the prosperity had a dark side. It seemed probable that at any moment a button could be pushed and everyone and everything would be blown away. The assemblage works of Ed Kienholz and the casual craft of Wallace Berman was a mute testimony to their alienated state of mind—one gathered detritus and made comments upon a society that could not last in the shadow of constant atomic threat. Art, for these artists, could not be permanent or universal or humanistic, as it was in New York. Art could only be fleeting and ephemeral for tomorrow all could vanish in a mushroom cloud.

While artists contemplated an uncertain future in Los Angeles, the movie business or “the industry,” bounced back from wartime restrictions and stringencies and remained the largest filmmaking center in the world. In short, California was developing industries for the late Twentieth Century and becoming a high-tech industrial base while the East Coast was still dependent upon the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and heading towards a post-War future as the Rust Belt. Without much fanfare the United States government shifted federal largesse to the West Coast, the site of the race to the future—outer space.

Art in California was very different from New York in the post-war era, but these distinctions were complex, ranging from the mindset of the artists to the realities of the art scene. While New York was a single focused center, California had two art sites, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In contrast to the relatively homogenous scene in New York, the two cities had entirely disparate traditions. In San Francisco, the heritage European expressionist painting established a firm foothold; while in Los Angeles, the artists were more responsive to the lingering influences of Dada and Surrealism. In New York, the impact of Duchamp could become Neo-Dada, which is rather different from the influences of Surrealism in Los Angeles. These two movements, Dada and Surrealism, could not be comfortably accommodated to the Modernist line of art development and was termed the “Other Tradition” by art historian, Rosalind Krauss.

The father of the Other Tradition, Marcel Duchamp was an active presence in Los Angeles and was well known in San Francisco, long before his work was remembered in New York City. The Dada tradition, an old one, dating back to the First World War, is both preserved and reawakened in the two major sites for art, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Art in California is essentially a post-World War II experience, in the sense that the region emerges as a particular site for art forms that would have international impact.

If one disregards, for the purposes of discussing contemporary art, the California Impressionists and contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement, then serious avant-garde art is a product of the wartime environment. Before the Second World War, California was best known for its thriving scene in photography to the North and for its role as the movie capital of the world to the South. Less well known was the region’s importance for architecture. Some of the most innovative early Modern architects practiced in the Los Angeles area, from Charles and Henry Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra.

With ample opportunity for building single-family homes and small housing units, these architects, several of them immigrants, could forge forward into modernism. Modernism in California, especially in Los Angeles is worth discussing in relation to the barriers of politics and war in Europe. In contrast, the West Coast with its polyglot non-tradition of many styles was a fruitful site for experimental architecture. Irving Gill’s now-destroyed Dodge House was built as early as 1916, predating Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, 1929. While Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene Brothers were descended from the arts and crafts tradition, but Neutra and Schindler produced very important examples of what would be called The International Style. Both Neutra (Lovell Health House, 1929) and Schindler (Lovell House, Newport Beach, 1926) built houses for Philip Lovell, which were two of the best examples of modernist white walled architecture outside the Bauhaus.

As this international group of architects suggests, California was a land of migrants and immigrants of many cultures and ethnicities: an uneasy mixing bowl where Anglos insisted on maintaining a cultural, political, and economic domination. The history of Los Angeles, for example, can be written in terms of the movement of ethnic groups around the city, shifted at the will of the Anglos. Their voices will not be heard until the Sixties, making the Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia one of the rare public monuments asserting diversity and ethnicity and personal commitment to a sense of place. But the Watts Towers were more than a statement of one person’s determination, they became, over time, a symbol of art in Los Angeles and the peculiar direction art in Los Angeles has taken. Rodia worked as a bricoleur, a hunter and a gatherer, who worked with the objects found in his environment. Like the artists of Los Angeles who would begin their mature careers shortly after Rodia mysteriously left in the early fifties to return to his native Italy, he worked in isolation, without support or audience or appreciation, except by the few who were open-minded. Under such circumstances, without major museums, without patrons, with few galleries, the artists were in a curiously “pure” situation, making art for art’s sake alone, showing art for a truly elite audience–themselves.

In summation, both Los Angeles and San Francisco and their two very different art scenes have traditionally been ignored in favor of art in New York. Broadly speaking, regardless of brief deviations, New York has always been a painting town, as was San Francisco, until the sixties. Although people have always painted in the City of Angles, Los Angeles has always been an object making town. To repeat, a very important factor the artists in Los Angeles was the shadow of the Cold War. Acutely aware of the militarization of the nation, the artists of Los Angeles expected the world to end at any time. There seemed no purpose to make art that was lasting, much less archival. The LA artist has always worked with stuff, junk, detritus, and objects without history, without recognition, only to find out—over time—that something important had been wrought and their art was validated after the fact.

In contrast to this homegrown culture of the found object in Los Angeles, the artist in San Francisco was in a considerably more traditional milieu that of European painting and modern art, imported by artists from New York City, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. The impact of their influence as teachers and as artists was the famous Bay Area Figurative School, which evolved out of abstraction on the East Coast. The New York aura was a short lived phenomenon, however, and the San Francisco period of Figurative painting soon gave way to something more home grown: object-based “funk art” created in a Dada frame of mind. Indeed, Dada and Surrealism have an extended, albeit it American, life in California, north and south.

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Art in San Francisco, 1940-1950

ART IN SAN FRANCISCO

1940-1950

San Francisco was the center of high culture on the West Coast, boasting an opera and art museums and art schools while Los Angeles was a provincial oil town. Remarkably, the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute, was established in 1871.The H. M. de Young Memorial Museum honored the de Young family in 1895. The original building, which had been built for the California Midwinter International Exposition, was damaged by the Earthquake of 1906. The museum was rebuilt in 1929 and again in 2005. The College of Arts and Crafts was established in 1907, which became California College of Arts and Crafts in 1936 and the California College of Art a few years ago, almost a decade before Otis College of Art and Design was opened in Los Angeles. The Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, brought the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bernard Maybeck, to the city on the Bay. Maybeck went on to become the designer of the Los Angeles Public Library. The California Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park was built in competition with the de Young family, the family of Adolph and Alma Spreckels. In other words by the beginning of the twentieth century, San Francisco was the major and only site for art on the Left Coast.

As Nancy Boas points out in her book, The Society of Six: California Colorists, the artists who made up the Society of Six: August Gay, Bernard von Eichman, Maurice Logan, Louis Siegriest, and William H. Clapp were exposed to Impressionism in the 1915 exhibition. California produced its own “California Impressionists” or plein air painters who took inspiration from the colors of Monet and Renoir. These kinds of landscape artists, working in the clear and strong California light, could be found up and down the coast, depicting the extraordinary landscapes with a combination of post-Realism and late-Impressionism. Although we appreciate the Society of Six today, Boas mentions that these artists, like most of the landscape painters, were ignored in favor of more avant-garde art, which could actually be found in San Francisco.

In Painting on the Left. Diego Rivera, Radical Politics and San Francisco’s Public Murals, Anthony W. Lee points out that the Panama Pacific Exposition left an empty building behind, inspiring the idea of a San Francisco Museum of Art. The founding families of San Francisco were devoted art patrons and the family of railroad baron, Charles Crocker supported the idea of a museum, just as the family of Mark Hopkins had founded and art school. William Randolph Hearst also used the might of his newspaper to sponsor art in the city. Equally prominent in the effort to establish museums and art galleries in San Francisco was the legendary Bohemian Club. In fact the Galerie Beaux-Arts, founded by Beatrice Judd Ryan was a cooperative space and the first private gallery devoted to contemporary art, including artists who belonged to the Bohemian Club. Not to be outdone, the famous collector, Galka Scheyer, showed the Blue Four (Kandinsky, Klee, Jawlensky and Feininger) at the Oakland Art Gallery in 1926–27.

While the twenties might be remembered as a decade of building art patronage and art museums for the city, the thirties is marked by the powerful presence of Diego Rivera who left three major mural projects in the city: The Allegory of California for The San Francisco City Club, located in the Stock Exchange, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City for The San Francisco Art Institute, and Pan American Unity for the San Francisco City College, located in the Diego Rivera Theater. For a fuller account of Rivera’s impact on the city, read Lee’s Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and in San Francisco’s Public Murals but the arrival of the artist in San Francisco announced the arrival of social realism, the prevailing style of the Depression. As would be typical of Rivera’s career, his mere reputation as a Communist, set off waves of anxiety in the city.

A reporter from Time Magazine paid a visit in September 1931 to the California School of Fine Arts to write of Rivera disrespectfully as “famed, fat and 40.” The article goes on to describe the artist’s “plump posterior squashed comfortably down on a plank” while he painted. Although the article was mostly descriptive and not entirely unfavorable, the reporter, who is not named, concluded his article, ”Art: Rivera in California,” with the final facts: “A huge, roly-poly man, he sometimes works 16 hours a day. Once he exhausted himself, fell off his scaffold, split his head.” Diego Rivera also found time to do a mural for the dining room of the Sigmund Stern (later transferred to Stern Hall at Berkeley) entitled Still Life and Blossoming Almond Trees, 1930-1931.

But the period of the art patronage of the Works Progress Administration and the age of murals with social content had arrived, so too was the antithesis, the European avant-garde in the person of Hans Hofmann who arrived at Berkeley, in the summers of 1930 and 1931. Although Hofmann would go back and forth between Germany and America for the next few years, in 1934, he received his permanent visa and remained in America. Hofmann pointed the way to the future direction of the painters in San Francisco, but there were other modernist contenders in the Bay Area. Erle Loran, devotee of Paul Cézanne who had lived in his studio in 1927,would become famous for his formalist diagrams of Cézanne’s works, published in 1943. In 1936, Loran established Cubism as dominant mode at Berkeley, but, as can be imagined but there was a gulf between the Berkeley School and the followers of Rivera.

By the time the Second World War broke out, San Francisco had a thriving art scene, with contending perspectives on art. Presiding over what would be an important shift from European Modernism to American contemporary art, was the newly established San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art. Opening in 1935 with Grace L. McCann Morley as its first director. It was unusual if not outright rare for a woman to have such an important and influential position and Morley made adventurous and farsighted important purchases, such as Arschile Gorky’s Enigmatic Combat (1941), which was exhibited in1943 and Jackson Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret (1943), exhibited 1945. At that time, both artists were unknowns, but these two purchases would begin the foundation of what would become an important West Coast collection of Contemporary Art.

Indeed, Rivera returned to San Francisco to paint “art in action” mural to be displayed at World’s Fair on Treasure Island, 1940 and Gorky was in San Francisco the summer of 1941. But the time of one of these artists was ending in America and a new day was dawning. The California School of Fine Arts hired a new and ambitious director, Douglas MacAgy in 1945. MacAgy signaled that the old was out and that the new was in when he draped Rivera mural at the school. Another signal that it was not only the end of mural era was Clay Spohn, who instigated what would later become a West Coast outpost of late, late Dada when he organized the “Museum of Unknown and Little Known Objects” in 1941 at CSFA. Some day this iconoclastic impulse would be known as “funk.” The rest of the faculty included the famed photographer, Ansel Adams, and the painters David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Hassel Smith. It was at the School of Fine Arts that East Coast Abstract Expressionism arrived and changed the artistic landscape of San Francisco.

The powerful and impressive artist and art teacher, Clyfford Still made his career between New York and San Francisco, teaching at CSFA starting in 1946. He took an unlikely trip to Richmond Professional Institute, a vocational school in 1944 and moved to New York in 1945. Still who did large, dryly painted abstract works had one of the last shows with Peggy Guggenheim in 1946 before she left for Europe. Still had a romantic notion of the role of the artist, who he saw as a persona set apart from ordinary people. From 1947, he refused to allow his works to be shown in commercial gallery, but he allowed Betty Parsons to represent him. He taught his students that museums should come to them for their art, not the other way around. To make sure that his flock was beholden to no one, Still founded the Metart Galleries in San Francisco. This was an alternative space, a co-op where he and twelve of his students, co-op could show their art.

Clyfford Still’s exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1947 marked the death of the School of Paris and established CSFA as the counterpart to the “Berkeley School.” For his part, Loren was not impressed with Abstract Expressionism, about which he said, “We call it the drip school, even the shit school. It was pretty repulsive,” he continued. ”We saw it as a revolt as Hofmann’s and our teaching—which was very concrete, and based on real knowledge—Giotto and so on.” In retrospect, this statement by Loren seems odd, given the impetus that Hofmann had given to Abstract Expressionism in New York. However, Loren seems to have wanted the development of Cubism-Expressionism to be stopped at the point of synthesis seen in Hofmann’s work and not imaginatively extended to abstraction. Still continued his strong presence in San Francisco and at the California School of Fine Arts by starting a graduate painting class at a time when many veterans of the Second World War were returning to school, picking up the pieces of their interrupted lives. However, in 1950, Still left San Francisco and returned to New York, were a very different art scene was poised to become very important indeed.

Despite the powerful local objections from the art department at the University of California, Berkeley, by 1950, Abstract Expression was an accepted style in San Francisco, As Thomas Albright pointed out in Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, the local “resistance” the style had been “exaggerated.” Given the general acceptance and promotion of the style as being quintessentially American, it is odd that in the histories of Abstract Expressionism, San Francisco is often left out and its importance in developing the large-scale works of important artists is less well known than that of New York City. One can assume the relative lack of emphasis is due to the fact that the Bay Area developed its own “brand” of expressionism, which was not abstract but figurative. In other words, painting in the Bay Area did not follow the orthodoxy of New York art critic Clement Greenberg who insisted that the proper destiny for avant-garde art was total abstraction. That said, two of the most important abstract painters, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, emerged from the Bay Area Figurative School. It was Still who encouraged Rothko towards abstraction and towards larger canvases while they were working together at the California College of Fine Arts.

Although Clyfford Still left San Francisco for New York permanently in 1949 and resigned in 1950, a more accessible and more congenial teacher, Mark Rothko, was on the CSFA campus between 1947 and 1949. Rothko was just emerging out of his figurative Surrealist phase when he began working with Still and it is during these important years in San Francisco that he transitioned away from his early Surrealism, typical of his generation and made a definitive move to a more reductive abstraction, reducing the number of shapes on the canvas and enlarging the forms. While Rothko shifted towards a simpler means of organizing areas of free floating paint, his “multiform,” and with Ad Reinhardt on campus in the summer of 1950, it seemed that CSFA was the place to be. “Under the leadership of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko it is absolutely true that a new trend in painting has been marked off…it recalls the group feeling that we have read about among the French Impressionists,” Loren admitted. But the college’s moment had passed. After finding his mature and signature style in the Bay area, Rothko returned to New York in 1949. The warning bell signaling that Abstract Expression had peaked sounded in 1950, the year of Clay Spohn’s mocking last exhibition in which he left behind a book of “instructions” for Abstract Expressionism. In other words, the style was rapidly becoming academic, a “kit” of painterly gestures. Albright states that the Bay Area School was indeed “academic.” In New York, the academic was becoming marketable and profitable.

Perhaps Douglas MacAgy sensed the winds shifting away from painterly gestures and personality cults for he left CSFA, because, as the story went, he was not able to hire Marcel Duchamp. Although no one would have predicted it at then time, Duchamp was destined to become a seminal artist for the remainder of the century, taking art in a conceptual direction. Leaving aside for the moment the strange spectacle of Duchamp teaching in an art college, MacAgy denied this version of why he left the school. He felt that the student body was changing from males wanting to be serious artists to females on the hunt for husbands and students who wanted to teach art rather than be artists. In other words, instead of Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis (who attended Berkeley and hung around Clyfford Still) as students, the college would go into a decline. MacAgy’s strangely sexist attitude and his willingness to disparage female students and women artists seems archaic today, but his conviction that the presence of the female automatically lowered the standards proved to be totally wrong–as the art of Jay de Feo and Joan Brown attests to this day.

With Still and MacAgy gone, other faculty followed. Ed Corbett and Spohn left shortly after, then Hassel Smith was dismissed by the new director and David Park and Elmer Bishchoff resigned to protest the change in direction of the college. But in those short years of development, the Bay Area artists created a very different sort of Abstract Expressionism with figuration. But the representational aspect is only part of the story. The New York painters were engaged in formal play with the tradition of European modernism, but the Bay Area artists responded to the landscape of the West Coast. Even when painting abstractly, Diebenkorn always had a sense of sea, land, sky, and moved easily from the colored zones of thick gestures to the deeply colored interiors with lone inhabitants. When he moved to Ocean Park in the sixties, Diebenkorn, flattened his canvases, simplifying that natural creases in the northern landscape into the stripes of the freeways of Los Angeles. Away from the Bay, the artist became totally abstract and never returned to figuration.

Figurative painters, Bishchoff and Park showed more of the outdoor life of Northern California with figures on the beach—once again sky, sea, land—all painted with broad strokes of paint laid on with the strength of Still and the zones of Rothko. In contrast, Hassel Smith and Frank Lobdell were drawers not painters, in other words they were draw-ers who painted in writerly wire-like gestures. In the end it was the thick and assertive approach to paint itself deployed by Bishchoff and Park that eventually characterized the Bay Area Figurative School. These artists utilized the gesture as style and technique used to paint large and powerful figures, often in sea scares or beach scares, rendered timeless by the deep strokes of pigment. What was left of the glory days of Bay Area Figuration, the group of painters more or less disbanded before the color school wing, inspired by Mark Rothko. of the Abstract Expressionists in New York became prominent in the sixties.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part Two

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The Abstract Expressionist artists translated “meaning” from subject matter to the broader and deeper intent of the word. For these artists, “meaning” had to be profound and transcendent so that art could rise above the rather minor role it played during the Thirties as handmaiden to politics. But first, this group of local New York artists had to go through the process of being schooled by the European masters. As mentioned in earlier posts on this website, what was interesting about this apprenticeship was not what was accepted by what was rejected by the New York School. As the critic Harold Rosenberg later explained it in 1972,

“The legacy that New York artists inherited from Paris consisted of the tradition of overthrow of unlimited formal experimentation and parody and fragments of radical ideas. It was on the basis of the consciousness of loss and renunciation of support by the past that a new creative principle was sought by the New York painters.”

The famous expatriate teacher from Germany, Hans Hofmann, presented a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and the works of Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. The abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and the Surrealist techniques of André Masson and Matta were promising but the American artists proceeded cautiously. In addition, they were also wary of abstract or decorative art as being empty.

The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning. The artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence. Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns. Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica (1937) was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion and was shown in the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War. Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. Picasso used the visual language of Cubism and the metaphorical approach of Surrealism and adapted fragmentation and dream to the nightmare of total war.

For each artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement, the journey towards a new, modern and universal meaning had to take them through a journey that cut a path through an American tradition of realism and a European tradition of post-Cubist and post-Expressionsit art. Jackson Pollock denied the folk ways of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton and traveled through a flirtation with Surrealist automatic writing married to vaguely understood Jungian theories. Lee Krasner, the most promising young artist in New York, moved away from her mentors Hoffmann and Mondrian towards a cautious abstraction of her own. Franz Kline shifted his attention from industrial landscapes to the possibilities of making a painting from brushstrokes alone. These, and other odysseys, were slow and sometimes painful and happened over a decade marked by the Second World War.

In order for the experience of a painting to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned. One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Piet Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was at the same time balanced and infinite. But to the American artists, seeking a way out of European modernism, Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked the kind of American spontaneity and improvisation expressed in jazz. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content when compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image, spread all over the surface, implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, as in the way Mondrian brought black lines and primary colors to the end of the canvas.

But the key break from European art was the departure from easel painting for an exploration of the possibilities of mural painting. On a mural scale, the viewer’s peripheral vision could be engaged, rendering a centered composition irrelevant. Part of this severance from old traditions was a paradoxical return to artistic elements that were primal or, as the favorite term of the times expressed it, “primitive.” It was the atavistic that allowed the New York artists to assert their American ways through Native American art. The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb came the closest to understanding the essence of Native American culture. During the Forties, the artist placed inscrutable symbolic forms within a grid with the conviction that symbolic language preceded written language. Unnatural culture was an interruption or an interference with a more universal language. In the same period, Pollock investigated the possibilities of Native American art in paintings such as She Wolf (1943). Art should be able to communicate on the Jungian level of the collective unconscious. As Gottlieb stated,

“If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for the niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”

By the Fifties, as American art took a leading role in international visual culture, Abstract Expressionist art and artists took up new positions in society and new roles in the making of culture. Mythically, the artist became a medium between the mute public and the expression of the need of ordinary people to express their fears and longings. The artist, as a human being, was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of self discovery. The writings of André Breton suggested that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event for the viewer rather than an intellectual act of perception. The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.” This ego-oriented art put the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves. The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As Robert Hobbs pointed out in Abstract Expressionism. The Formative Years, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The painters also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950) by Barnett Newman measured 96 x 216 inches, stretching out horizontally, creating a journey for the overwhelmed viewer who paused here and there at the “zips.” But for Newman, this transit was not simply an aesthetic one but a moral and ethical one as well.

“The self, ” he said, “terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting and sculpture…The artist emphatically does not create form. The artist expresses in a work of art an aesthetic idea which is innovate and eternal.”

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint, followed by the question of what to paint at the time of the end of painting. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

 

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The American artists had early training from Modernist masters in New York City that prepared the ground with the abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and with Surrealist ideas and techniques of André Masson and Matta. The famous expatriate teacher, Hans Hofmann, taught a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and through the works of Pablo Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. On the other hand, they were also wary of decorative art as being empty. The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning.

Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica, 1937 was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion of for the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War. Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. The Abstract Expressionist artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence. Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns.

With Abstract Expressionism, art and artists took up new positions and roles. The artist as a human being was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of discovery. The writings of André Breton were of help by suggesting that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event rather than an intellectual act of perception. The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.” This ego-oriented art puts the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves. The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As art historian, Robert Hobbs, pointed out, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The artists also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. The painting becomes the universe and universal. But in order for the experience to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned.

One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was also balanced. But Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked spontaneity. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content. Compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, just as the way in which Mondrian brought black lines and colors to the end of the canvas.

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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