Michael West: The Artist was a Woman

MICHAEL WEST: PAINTINGS FROM THE FORTIES TO THE EIGHTIES

ART RESOURCE GROUP

Newport Beach

June 5 – September 25, 2010

The Fifties. According to Gore Vidal, the worst decade in the history of the world—unless, of course, you happened to be white, male, heterosexual and an artist. For the American artist with the appropriate characteristics, it was the best of times. The Second World War left the United States in a position of dominance, militarily, politically, and, thanks to decades of conservatism in Paris, artistically in the lead. The art scene and the art market migrated from Paris to New York; and New York, as Serge Guilbaut stated, “stole the idea of modern art.” Operating out of the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, the new American artist had to shake off the “feminine” qualities of being an artist. Sensitivity and intuition were replaced by a strident masculinity, reflecting the military posturing of the Cold War era. Women who were artists were not welcomed in this male dominated arena where tough, ugly, alcoholic men like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline belched and bellowed like bull elephants. Harold Rosenberg wrote of “art as act” and imagined the (male) artist as a modern gladiator bringing himself into being through the act of creation. Females could create only through motherhood. Women were girlfriends, mistresses, wives, groupies, or all three. Some were allowed to have the privilege of being patrons and collectors, like Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. This is the world of Michael West, one of the best artists of Abstract Expressionism. Present at the beginning of the New York School, she was relegated to the footnotes and left behind by art history, all because she was a “she.” To be forgotten was the fate of female artists from the Fifties, the worst of times for women.

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Michael West in 1948

Although best known as the reputed girlfriend of Arshile Gorky, whose legend overshadowed her, Michael West was, in fact, one of the stronger women of the New York School. Unlike Lee Krasner, who reacted to Jackson Pollock, she never allowed Gorky to impact upon her art, unlike Elaine de Kooning, she never made the mistake of marrying a colleague and taking his name. As a result of her independence, the art of West remained true to her own vision and she continued to develop and evolve even after her untimely stroke in 1976. West bravely continued to paint until her death in 1991. The way in which she continued to make art, undeterred by the chauvinism and bigotry against women, undismayed by the way in which critics and dealers ignored women artists, and un-swayed from her course by her marriage to combat photographer, Francis Lee, resembles the career of Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler married into the New York School when she became the wife of Robert Motherwell; but her art continued to be sponsored by the smitten art critic, Clement Greenberg. Thanks to him, Frankenthaler would be knitted into the critical fabric of modernism. With little support from critics and dealers, like most women, like West would be left out of the modernist meta narrative. Finally, in the twenty-first century, the artists who were the historical actors in the art world are being, slowly but surely, replaced in the history of art.

It is often overlooked in the circles of art history, that art dealers are on the front lines of primary research, and it is to Miriam Smith and Nora Desruisseaux of the Art Resource Group that much credit is due in bringing Michael West to the attention of the art world. Located in Irvine, the Group deals with the secondary market in art, handling estates and bringing to light artists who need to be remembered. A striking full page in the summer issue of Art in America announced their full scale show of Michael West’s work. West was born in 1908, a year after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon changed the course of modern art. Her original name was “Corrine,” and it was under this name that she began a career as an actor. Photographs taken of her in the style of Edward Steichen show a beautiful woman, her face glowing in the key light. Later photographs reveal that she never lost that sophisticated beauty and sense of elegant style, which must have beguiled Arshile Gorky, the Armenian immigrant painter. As though the event was the closing act of the theater chapter of her life, there was a brief marriage to an actor, quickly over. An unusually ambitious and determined woman for the period, West simply started all over again.

A talented pianist and gifted poet, she had many possibilities before her, but she chose to become a painter. Few women would have gambled in a career in the arts during the Depression, much less go to New York. But she was one of the first students of the new European refugee, Hans Hofmann, at the Art Students League in New York. In 1932, West was joined by artist, Lee Krasner, sculptor Louise Nevelson, and future gallery owner, Betty Parsons, during a period when women were tolerated in an art world devoid of prizes and competition. Undoubtedly Hofmann would have preferred to teach men, but as a newcomer to America, he needed the students. Hofmann was an autocrat, equaled perhaps only by Joseph Albers who was to arrive later. Both were known for bringing European ideas to America and for teaching a combination of Cubism and German Expressionism. Albers was fascinated with color and mixed media, bringing the idea of collage and assemblage to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Hofmann remained a total painter, combining the structure of Analytic Cubism with the color play and expressive brushwork of Der Blaue Reiter. The impact the conservative Cubism of the Twenties shows clearly in his work, reflecting his belatedness to the pre-war avant-garde. But his combination of avant-garde styles was part of the prevailing ethos of the art market in Europe where the collectors wanted the “look of” the radical but nothing actually innovative.

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Michael West. Poet With a Brown Hat (1941)

Being of the post-avant-garde generation made Hofmann the ideal candidate to transport European studio talk and German art theory to the New York artists. Clement Greenberg, a fledgling writer, learned the aesthetic discourse at the master’s feet and would translate it into his theory of Modernism. Although Hofmann’s students started out together, they would show little loyalty to each other. Krasner, once so promising, would give up her career to support Pollock. Betty Parsons would run a gallery that excluded women. Working under Hofmann’s strong willed dogmas, West quickly caught on to the basic lessons of post-war Cubism, which incorporated the multiple viewpoints of Analytic Cubism with the large colored shapes of collage but replicated everything in paint. The women trained by Hofmann would have been well ahead of their male counterparts, none of whom were his direct students. When Krasner introduced her lover to Hofmann, the older and more experienced artist famously warned Pollock to work from nature, rather than depend upon his personality. Offended, Pollock insisted arrogantly, “I am nature.”

Like Pollock, West rejected Hofmann and left this breeding ground for new American art. Her reasons were different from Pollock. Hofmann was too domineering and his patriarchal ways did not sit well with the independent American women. In 1934, she began studying under the American Modernist, Raphael Soyer, who seems to have left little trace on her mature work. What did leave a mark on her life was an introduction to a man who had reinvented himself as a Russian, Arshile Gorky. Because of his posthumous fame, she would be recast as his “muse,” although at the time she was his equal as an artist. In 1935, she sifted her locale to start her art career outside of New York. To save money, she lived with her parents in Rochester, where she apparently became a bit of a local art star, showing with the Rochester Art Club and lecturing on the current theories of modern art and about “The New American Art.”

This apprenticeship probably served the same purpose as working for the WPA did for other artists—an opportunity to make art and to learn how to be an artist. The sojourn in Rochester would have been an ideal place to develop a career. Here she could get opportunities that would not have come her way in New York, such as a commission to paint fourteen panels for a local production of the Ballet Petrouchka, originally developed by the Ballet Russes for Nijinsky, with music by Igor Stravinsky. Although the ballet was twenty-five years old, in the Thirties, it was still a very modern take on ballet and the fact that the city was supportive of avant-garde theater and hired a modern artist to do the backdrop speaks volumes of the sophistication that could be found in the provinces.

Since their meeting in New York, Gorky was smitten and deluged West with love letters and poems, mostly purloined from the writings Surrealist poet, Paul Eluard. A telegram he sent her in 1936 was probably the most authentic words he wrote to her: “Dear Corrine, Please come to New York for a few days. Let me know when coming, Arshile.” There are intimations that the separation, bridged by letters, had weakened the relationship, as she later explained, “We planned to marry but changed out minds at least 6 times.” Having learned her trade and craft in the visual arts, in 1938, she returned to New York. Whatever the reasons for leaving Rochester, West had come back at a good time. The clock was ticking down on artistic freedom in Europe and in a year, Hitler had overrun the continent. What followed was the greatest intellectual and artistic migration in modern history. Half the greatest minds and talents in Europe arrived in New York and the rest found themselves in Los Angeles. The Surrealist artists from Paris arrived and became a major presence in New York, sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim and shown at her gallery, Art of This Century. For many artists these haughty painters, who refused to speak English, brought with them the key to the next step for abstract art, automatic writing, écriture automatique. But Michael West seemed to be influenced by the Surrealists in that she assimilated the ideas and reshaped them for her own use more than the actual techniques, while she also stayed true to her Cubist roots.

For this second period in New York, West ceased to be “Corrine” and became “Michael,” upon the advice of Gorky. Undoubtedly, his suggestion was based upon the very real prejudice against women, who had a long history “passing” as men: Georges Sand and George Eliot, for example. West went beyond signing her work as a man; and, like Lee Krasner, she used her new name in all aspects of her life. Becoming “Michael” could not obliterate her beauty and men in the art world probably had a hard time forgetting her gender, but West, like all her generation was consumed with the art problem of the day. How could Cubism become abstract? Hofmann remained figurative for years until he made the shift to painting squares of strong vibrating colors, alternatively roughly and smoothly painted. It should be noted, in comparison to the later works by West, that Hofmann tended to be a flat painter. In his earlier works, he wove a thick and active web of broken brushstrokes, which built up his post-Cubist compositions, featuring favorite cubist still life subjects. Later, he further flattened the picture plane and developed his famous “push-pull” effect, which solved the problem of how to keep abstract painting from going dead. The juxtaposed colors vibrated against one another, cool colors receding and warm colors advancing, activating the surface.

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Michael West. Transfiguration (1948)

The decisive move away from her Cubist figuration can be traced from West’s A Girl with a Guitar of 1944 to Harlequin of 1946 to Transfiguration of 1948. The jump to abstraction took two years, but it was not a complete transformation until the Sixties. Like de Kooning, West returned to figuration in the 1950s. What is clear is that she understood the basic lesson of Cubism well: the entire surface had to be activated or what would later be called the “all-over” effect. With Cubism, the problem was to equalize the figure and ground, to reduce all areas of the canvas to a pattern of shattered shapes. Without the armature of the object, the question for abstraction became how or perhaps why to fill the canvas. The solution, which we also see in Pollock of the same period, was to cover the surface with dense biomorphic marks, built up into rhythms of painterly movement—a visual horror vacui. Transfiguration of 1948 demonstrates the same denseness and thickness that would characterize her compromise between geometric Cubism and biomorphic Surrealism. But West was still in the process of becoming. The last years of the decade would be critical for the development of American painting as the artists had to take the final step that would free them from dependence upon European Modernism.

Because we have become so familiar with the history of the American avant-garde in New York, it is important to remember that the scene among the artists was not as clear-cut as it would seem with historical hindsight. In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut recreated the confusion and uncertainty during the late Forties. By the end of the war, representational art disappeared from the galleries, replaced by abstract art. But abstraction was the only certainty. There were pressing questions of the relationship between the European tradition of Modernism and the newly emerged American art. American artists needed and wanted a complete break and sought to create an “American” art. Michael West had been on the forefront of the pioneers who moved forward to create abstract art in an American idiom. However, as a definition of Abstract Expressionism, American avant-garde, American painting emerged, it would be specifically constructed to eliminate certain elements and players, including and especially women.

Politics was removed from art. This removal was part of a rejection of previous art, such as Social Realism and a reaction against wartime fascist propaganda. It was clear to American observers that the French post-war entanglement in politics was harmful to the recovery of their art. In America, there was a conservative reaction against “elitism” and anything that seemed “un-American” such as European based art. Added to the fact that “modern art” became suspect in many quarters was the chilling fear of the coming Cold War and communism. American insularity and hostility to new ideas was on display against the important show of 1946, “Advancing American Art,” a show that traveled to Europe, organized by J. LeRoy Davidson and sponsored by the State Department. Attacked as being “Red Art” made by “left wing artists,” the “travesty of art” was designed to cause “ill will” towards America which would be made to look “ridiculous” by “half-baked lazy people,” who made that “so-called modern art.” An image of Hiroshima by Ben Shahn was singled out for criticism. For any artist who might have qualms about atomic warfare, it would be wise to forego comment, as America apparently quickly became desensitized and brutalized during the war to dropping “the bomb.’ Fortune Magazine’s chilling 1946 account of the dropping of the atomic bombing of Bikini atoll shows either ignorance or fear,

….there is no reason why only one bomb should be dropped at one time. Some bombs might be detonated mainly for blast effects, others underwater to contaminate the whole harbor area. Some military men even foresee the release of clouds of radioactivity without bombs to act as an invisible gas.

Not every observer was so sanguine. By the end of the Forties, West married again to a combat photographer, Francis Lee. It is unclear what impact this marriage to a man who knew war so well had on her opposition to the Cold War, but her horror over what the war had wrought was shared by many artists in New York. This was a generation that had survived the hopelessness of the Depression and the daily fear of defeat by ruthless enemies, only to be faced—after victory, after the peace—with what proved to be a state of permanent war. In an age of total abstraction, when political art or art with any overt content was unwelcomed, many artists had to hide their horror at the continual testing of atomic weapons. Written after American had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese to win the war and after the American government began systematically testing nuclear weapons, one of Michael West’s poems related the plight of the artist in such a dark time:

Rebel March 1948

Black Hands Crowd the Angry Dark
With Tales of Fire Coughing —
Money — genius —
unlimited or even limiter
What a ludicrous price —praying —
Dismantled — disarmed —
the artist in society —suffocates —

During the Sixties, Adolph Gottlieb did a series of paintings, called Burst, an oblique reference to the threat of immanent annihilation. West had also “blasted” her early work, Harlequin, with a dull silver paint, the color of a bomb casing. The spill of paint obliterated the earlier surface, stunning it into submission. This old work was transformed by her Cold War protest, the silver color acting as a metaphor of the Frankenstein effects of technology. Other works of this period show the cultural dis-ease with the Cold War. West’s Nihilism (1949) and Dagger of Light (1951) have titles which predate those of Gottlieb, suggesting a veiled statement, implied but not stated, except in the use of industrial enamel paint splayed across the canvas.

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Michael West. Dagger of Light (1951)

After those splashes of violence, the art of West began to include landscapes and still lives on white ground. Her 1950s return to figuration would have been regarded as tantamount to treason in the New York art world after the hard fought battle for abstraction. De Kooning was roundly attacked for his Woman series of 1952. West joined the Dutch artist in being one of the few who dared to challenge the new orthodoxy. The flurry of brushstrokes in Flowers of 1952 and Road to the Sea of 1955 are an entirely new form of mark making for West. The works of the Forties retain a sense of the biomorphic that is, in and of itself, a signature of the era. The straightened marks, applied individually in a slashing movement prefigured her later mature work and were characteristic of the Fifties. What remains a constant for this return of figuration were the colors of the early abstractions. West was a colorist, a very inventive and subtle one, creating cool in-between tones mixed to unusual hues of thinned out reds and metallic greens. Green is a very difficult color for artists to work with, but West not only mastered the color but also invented a new version of her own: dense and acid with a sense of transparency, pale and dark at the same time. A Coke bottle green. This green appears in Space Poetry of 1956 and Study of 1962. As West wrote,

The future of art lies in color—but I/ am personally interested in an/ effect of dark and light/ The color explains the space/ The more complicated the space/ the simplier the color/ (this sounds wrong—but it is right for me)

The work of West during the decade when the New York School and Abstract Expressionism became the dominant movement in the international art world demonstrates the current aesthetic zeitgeist, on view at The Stable Gallery in 1953. In an homage to the famous Ninth Street Show of 1951, Eleanor Ward invited the best and the brightest in New York, including all the (remaining) artists of Abstract Expressionism, including both de Koonings, Motherwell, some future Pop precursors, Rivers and Rauschenberg, and all the notable women of the scene, Frankenthaler, Bourgeois, Mitchell. West was in this famous exhibition, which was prefaced with an interesting and telling introduction by Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, seeking to make his mark as an art critic, echoed the macho rhetoric of Rosenberg, writing of the “indispensible” “rivalry” among artists. The ironic juxtaposition of the presence of many women in an important exhibition and the masculine rhetoric of the short essay boded ill for the future careers of artists who were women. By 1952, the new artist, according to Harold Rosenberg, was an “action painter,” modeled on a militaristic fantasy, echoing American triumphalism.

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce…

Rosenberg continued,

Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating.

So by the time of The Stable Gallery show in 1964, it was already too late for women. Like politics, they were in the process of being written out of art history. The new artist had to be masculinized and Americanized. Stung by accusations of being “left,” the vanguard art world put forward a group of men who were too old or too unfit to fight in the Second World War and who had to be turned into cowboys and fighters. Most importantly the artist had to be depoliticized as well, a feat that was accomplished by elevating “him” to the status of individual, merged with “life” but not with current events. The male artist had to be male in order to symbolize the true subject of modern art: “man.” The independent male individual was alienated—had to be alienated—in order to create transcendent art.

Constructed during an era when men were supposedly suffering from a “crisis in masculinity,” the new American artist became an extreme figure, modeled on Jackson Pollock, a troubled alcoholic. Above all, this male artist must have “freedom.” In contrast, women in the post-war society were shaped for domesticity, were devoted to her husband and family, and were delighted by housework. Without “freedom,” they were unable to open their own bank accounts. Their individuality disappeared under their husband’s names. They were not individuals, but were defined in terms of their family roles. As “wives” and “mothers,” they could not alienated, nor could they ever be independent. This new post-war woman certainly did not even remotely resemble the newly fabricated American artist.

It is necessary to “re-place” Michael West in the history of art, because like all the women of her time, with the possible exception of Frankenthaler, she was written out of the New York School. By Sixties, she had moved back to abstract art, bringing together all she had learned over the past thirty years. Having experimented with avant-garde abstraction and figuration, in the Fifties, she made the choice to stay with her generation and did not attempt to follow figuration into Neo-Dada. She was a woman, and due to her gender, she has been mistakenly located historically as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist artist, but this designation was because the art of women were assumed to be derivative of the work of men.

In fact, West was part of the First Generation and her development during the Forties as an abstract artist paralleled and paced with that of Pollock. He, of course, was given credit for what de Kooning called the “breakthrough,” or the breakaway from the dominance of European art. Her path to abstraction, unlike that of Pollock, was not through the automatic writing of Surrealism, but was through Cubism. Her transition would have been more like that of Mondrian or Malevich, in that she retained the cubist structure; but she utilized the expressive brushwork of Hofmann and broke free of the outlined strong Cubist blocks. Unlike Pollock, she never worked on the field painting scale but she solved the problem he presented in his Mural of 1943-4—how to paint large scale with kinetic strokes over a large expanse of canvas. Unable to work on an easel, Pollock threw an unprimed canvas onto the floor in 1947 and flung paint onto its surface, solving his found problem with a solution found three years later.

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Michael West. Enamel 10 (1960)

West apparently learned that she could work in large brushstrokes with a big paintbrush and keep the canvases to a large scale. She maintained the easel painting tradition, like de Kooning, but, when one measures her canvases, one can see that they were sized to fit her body: the size of the brush her hand could hold, the distance her arm could travel from end to end, as she swept across the surface. The canvases were as tall as an average woman’s height, minus a few inches and as wide as her outstretched arms. The term “kinetic” is often applied to Pollock’s work, referring to his throw of paint but the term can also be applied to the way in which West must have interacted with her surfaces and materials. Unlike Franz Kline who painted black against white, creating an intermix of contrasts, which flattened his surface, West laid stroke upon stroke, building up and out. In response to the increased use of the entire body in painting, artists of the Fifties often thought of themselves as performers and many allied themselves with body oriented activities, such as the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College.

The idea of a performance or of a kind or proto-body art did not include women at the time, but an examination of the canvases of Michael West immediately demonstrates the sheer physicality of her painterly style. Her strokes of strong paint drew a map of figure on top of ground, applied with the rhythm of the sway of her body. As can be seen in her paintings of the 1960s, she left behind the packed and built up surface of the forties abstraction and became a figure-ground painter, seen as early as 1955 with a simple black Still Life. The use of dripping, small splashes on the canvas, which will become part of her work begins to appear. At times, she would take advantage of the liquidity of the paint and allow the paint to flow down but she never allowed the direction of the flow to dictate the orientation of the painting. In Narkisses of 1966, the canvas has clearly been flipped on its head.

West’s paintings were built up with gestures of strong over-painting, often allowing the ground to show through. The strong vertical slashes of the figurative paintings of the Fifties were carried over into the next decade and used on a large scale as though the brushes and the brush strokes had been greatly enlarged and blown up to fill a larger stage. Her colors became stronger and deeper, blacks, dark reds (Untitled, 1961), slate blues (Moments 1970), with touches of white (Vietnam Summer, 1963), and pale lemon yellow (Gento Niese, 1978) were applied with great and confident freedom. Despite the stroke of 1976, she painted on. Little was allowed to deter West—not the death of Gorky in 1948, not her second divorce in 1960, not an illness which was defiantly followed by the beautiful Save the Tiger of 1980.

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Michael West. Save the Tiger (1980)

Over and over, from decade to decade, Michael West always moved with and was part of the cutting edge of the art world. But just when Michael West hit her stride as an artist, just as she found her own voice, the art scene shifted and abstract art became a historical artifact. Pop Art ascended, followed by Minimal Art, both of which repudiated Abstract Expressionism, and, unfortunately, attention shifted away from abstract painters. We know that she was close to the painter Richard Poussette-Dart, but women received little support in an art world dominated by men and she did not get the exhibition exposure equal to her male colleagues. West simply kept evolving, independent as always.

The question is why did such an interesting artist, so in tune with her artistic time, get left behind and written out of the history books? The answer, as was indicated, is two fold. First, Michael West was a victim of the passing fancies of an art world, increasing driven by an activated art market. New York began to look like Paris before the First World War, becoming home to a dizzying series of “isms.” But there the comparison stops. Before the Great War, the avant-garde movements built one upon the other, but in New York, true to the new martial Cold War fervor, each “ism” ousted the other. The “rivalry” Greenberg wrote of began to infect the art world.

The older Ab Ex artists sparred with each other and the group, never a close one, splintered in the fight for recognition and patronage. Even worse, the New York School was superceded, first, by the upstart Neo-Dada trend, and then, by the Pop artists, who were followed by the Minimalists, who were overcome by the Conceptual artists who eliminated the object. All of the new movements rejected the pompous pretentions of myth and poetry and spirituality that were part of the credo of Abstract Expressionism. Michael West, who was interested in what she called “the new mysticism,” Zen Buddhism, and Henri Bergson’s élan vital, was now in an art world charmed by popular culture and dedicated to literalism. The spontaneous art of personal gesture gave way to artists who hired fabricators and mailed instructions to installers. In this new world, one group was suddenly out and old-fashioned and the new group was in favor. The generation that had fought so hard to break away from the Europeans witnessed the uprising of the young artists, who not only mocked them but also obtained, too easily, the financial rewards they had worked so hard for.

Michael West was left behind by history, but so were Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. Rothko and Newman were not truly appreciated until the Minimalists during the late Sixties. But regardless of the fact that West produced stunning abstract paintings, such as Mt. Siani Clinic of 1962, she still would have been ignored, unlike her male counterparts, because of the art world gender ideology. The second reason women were left out of art history had to do with old-fashioned gender bias and male prejudices against the female. Harold Bloom, the literary theorist, wrote of the history of literature as a contest, an “agon” between fathers and sons. In A Map of Misreading, Bloom wrote,

A poet, I argue in consequence, is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.

Artistic rivalry was Oedipal, between men only. Given the succession of movements in the New York art world, with each generation rejecting the other, a male enterprise; women were not and could not be part of the canon. The ideological construct of men defeating men precluded any role for artists who were female. It took decades for new generation of art historians to recognize that it was not “history” that had been written but a male-based belief system—a belief that only men could be artists. Many years after her death, Michael West is joining the long line of women who paint in the rewritten art history.

Bibliography

Ashton, Dore, The New York School. A Cultural Reckoning, 1973

Belgrad, Daniel, The Culture of Spontaneity. Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, 1998

Bloom, Harold, A Map of Misreading, 1975

Bloom, Harold, Anxiety of Influence 1973

Frascina, Francis, ed., Pollock and After. The Critical Debate, 1985

Guilbaut, Serge, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, 1983

Lewis, David, “Michael West: More than Gorky’s Muse,” in Michael West. Paintings from the Forties to the Eighties, 2010

McNamara, Chris, “By Any Name,” in Michael West. Painter-Poet, n.d.

Olds, Kirsten, “The New Mysticism in Art,” in The 1950s Paintings of Michael West, n.d.

Pollock, Lindsay, The Girl with the Gallery. Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market, 2006

Rosenberg, Harold, “American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New, 1959

Sandler, Irving, The Triumph of American Painting, 1970

Spender, Matthew, ed., Arshile Gorky. Goats on the Roof. A Life in Letters and Documents, 2009

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

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

[email protected]

Fluxus as Experience

ART AS EVENT

Compared to the brief flash of the Happenings in New York City, in Europe, Performance Art was a far more important part of the post war experience for artists in Germany and France. Many of the European artists re-connected with the old Dada spirit, going back to art as it existed before the First World War to retrieve avant-garde art in order to play out the final fate of the pre-war art movements. For German artists, it was necessary to go back in time to the decade before Nazi art had polluted all art forms, except for “Degenerate Art” or Modernist Art. For the French artists, the period between the wars was a conservative one, ultimately leading to New York taking the lead. So there is no place to go but backwards in order to move forward. Dada had been a performance based art movement, derailed by New Objectivity and Surrealism and it was with performance that the Europeans could combine their own heritage with the kinetic art of the painter Jackson Pollock.

If the origins of Dada were “disgust” as Tristan Tzara put it, the origins of Fluxus were American. The founder of Fluxus was George Macinuas, a Lithuanian expatriate, an entrepreneur and art dealer who coined the term “fluxus.” Maciunas, who was working as a designer-architect with the American Air Force, discovered the word “flux” as the result of a random search thorough the dictionary, much like Tristan Tzara found the term “dada” in the Larousse dictionary in 1916. The movement was born in Wiesbaden, West Germany in September 1962 at the “Fluxus Internationale Festspiel Neuester Musik,” the first public appearance of the word, “Fluxus.” Although many of the Fluxus artists are still alive and active, the international art movement, Fluxus, dates from approximately 1949 to 1979, and the glory days of Fluxus were between 1962 and 64. When Maciunas, who published the works of Fluxus artists and produced their concerts and exhibitions, died in 1978, it was said, “fluxus has fluxed.”

Just as its prototype Dada was shaped by the First World War, Fluxus was profoundly impacted by the philosophical change in Euro-American culture following the Second World War. The Post-War world was a brave new world recovering for a Holocaust and facing immanent annihilation from the newly invented atomic bomb. Existentialism, a philosophy developed by Jean-Paul Sartre, insisted upon a nihlism—total despair in a world now without meaning or purpose. With all institutions of church and state discredited, the human being could exist only through act or “acting out” a life. The pure act was the only means of self-affirmation and of self-confirmation of individual existence. Existentialist philosophy had influenced the writings of Harold Rosenberg, the famous New York art critic, who used Existentialism to explain “American Action Painting.”

Beyond philosophy, other changes, more material and social, shaped Fluxus. Mass media was becoming a genuine force in society, spreading knowledge of art movements from one continent to another; and economic changes made it possible for artists to travel and maintain close contact with each other. As a result, Fluxus was an international and racially diverse movement, made up of men and women, European, Asian and American. Fluxus members included the Danish musician and artist Erich Andersen, the Korean video artist, Nam June Paik, Dick Higgins, Robert Watts, Alison Knowles, La Monte Young, Jackson Marlow, Philip Corner, and Benjamin Patterson, an African American artist who was a student of John Cage, Daniel Spoerri, Terry Riley, Ben Vautier, the Fluxus power couple, Toshi Iohiyangagi and Yoko Ono, the performance and word event artist and musician, George Brecht, master of the pure word event, painters Georges Mathieu and Lucio Fontanta, Robert Filliou, Addi Kopcke, and Emmett Williams, author of My Life in Flux–and Vice Versa, 1992.

Former enemies, German, Japanese, and American artists, became friends and collaborators. Women artists, Shigeko Kubota and Yoko Ono, were able to create and work as equals in an art world that excluded women from other movements, because Fluxus was outside the mainstream art world and outside of the white cube. In such a movement, a Japanese woman who was an American expatriate, Yoko Ono, could find acceptance and a venue for her conceptual art works and performances. An African-American musician, Emmett Williams, could escape American racism in Fluxus. Fluxus was not placed in museums, was thought to be not object based and, therefore, not collectable, and for many decades was ignored by the art world and its critics.

The post-war mood produced a dialectic of creation and destruction, seen in the performances of Gutai in Japan, and a preoccupation with the temporal dimension of art–the act, the performance. The act or the performance existed only in the moments of time when it was enacted and then it ceased to exist. The emphasis was upon the process of artistic innovation and creation during the performance. Unlike the lone “performance” of Jackson Pollock “dancing” around the canvas, Fluxus allowed and even demanded that the audience participate in the act. Performance Art existed, however briefly, in contrast to the supposed timelessness of solid or material art works, such as paintings or sculptures. Planned but not repeatable, Performance art vanished completely at its conclusion, could only be preserved in documents and in artifacts.

Performance art could not be “art,” according to Modernist critics because it was not permanent and could not be judged in terms of its formal properties. Any arguments against performance art would be intensified in relation to Minimal Art. Installation art, like performance art, was audience-dependent and temporal or temporary. In a word both movement were “theatrical” or acts of theater. Therefore, Fluxus was a profound challenge to Modernism. In contrast to Modernism’s emphasis on the lone creative artist, Fluxus artists worked together and in reference to one another’s work. In contrast to Modernism’s insistence on purity, Fluxus art was hybrid, a combination of objects, images, sounds, music, theater, and audience participation. Neo-Dada in America was already working with the confluence of art and life and, indeed, John Cage merged easily from Neo-Dada to Fluxus. No clear line separates the art of Fluxus from life’s ordinary actions.

The Fluxus Weltanschauung was shaped by the concerns of John Cage who was interested in redefining “sound” as “music,” Merce Cunningham, who was interested in redefining “movement” as “dance,” and of Marcel Duchamp, the discoverer of the “found object,” or oject trouvé, who was still alive and well as an underground artist in New York City. Cage and Duchamp felt that the effects of personality and taste should be removed from art, which should also be purged of aesthetics. Fluxus exhibitions were about the commonalities of everyday life and of ordinary everyday activities. Slices of life were transported onto a stage where the ordinary was made to look extraordinary. For Fluxus artists, the very environment was art: life flows into art, art flows into life.

Blurring of the boundary between art and life, Ben Vautier, a French performance artist, brushed his teeth on the street, as a Fluxus Happening for the Parisian passers by. Daniel Spoerri, another French artist, displayed the remains of his meals, fixed to a tray, and hung from a wall like a painting. Fluxus, like Dada is also anti-art, meaning that the artists eschewed aesthetics, that is they rejected (like Duchamp) attractive and beautiful art. Fluxus pushed art out of museums and galleries and into the streets. George Maciunas understood Fluxus in social terms and as a stance against wasting materials and human energy. Like Joseph Beuys, who advocated people as “social sculpture” in Germany, Maciunas thought of all people as artists. In his 1963 Manifesto for Fluxus, Maciunas wrote (by hand):

“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual,” professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art—PURGE THE WORLD OF EUROPANISM!” (sic)

Inspired by the early anti traditionalist works by John Cage, such as 4’33”, a performance, which used silence or ambient noise as music, the Fluxus artists proceeded boldly without traditional musical or conservatory skills into a new definition of music. In order to pay homage to John Cage’s Chance methods of production and the indeterminate results that followed, Fluxus musicians and artists produced “Event Scores,” often of a single word, such as George Brecht’s “EXIT.” “Composition 1960 #10 to Bob Morris” by La Monte Young read: “Draw a straight line and follow it,” and was realized by the late Korean artist, Nam June Paik, in his performance “Zen for Head,” “Destruction in Art,” 1968 symposium and performance by Charlotte Moorman and Paik at the Judson Memorial Church, New York City, in which Moorman repeated Paik’s Word Event by destroying a violin. Because of John Cage’s work on the Prepared Piano, 1941, the piano was the preferred instrument of Fluxus.

The title of Hannah Higgins’2002 book, Fluxus Experience is an apt one, for Fluxus is an experience, difficult to interpret. The historian is very much limited to a description of a fluid and fluctuating event that almost certainly escaped any intentions the instigator may have had. Key to erasing the old-fashioned separation between art (incarcerated in museums) and life (existing everywhere else) was audience participation in the Fluxus experiences. On no account was any spectator allowed to simply spectate. Yoko Ono asked the people who attended her 1965 performance, Cut Piece, to cut off her clothes while she sat still until everyone had had their turn in the acts of “cutting.” According to Fluxus member, Ken Friedman, “The radical contribution Fluxus made (to art) was to suggest that there is no boundary to be erased.”

When the Fluxus artists made objects, they were not called “art” but “Fluxkits.” These Fluxkits were a cross between Duchamp’s Boîte en Valise (1935-40) and a children’s game. One was encouraged to handle, touch, pull, poke, and explore, sometimes at one’s own peril. Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark’s 2005 book, At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet, compare Fluxus acts and kits to play or what the authors call “infinite play.” According to the authors, the Fluxus kits were like informal games that are continuous, without beginning, middle or end; play that is “expansive” and as “open ended” as Fluxus discourse that “stresses relations rather than a linear production and discrete pieces of information.” Although there are no particular rules to these forms of free play or activities without purpose, the Fluxus artists had very particular reasons for making these “kits.”

In 2011 the Fluxus artist, Alison Knowles explained that the Fluxkits and mechanized objects were part of an effort to combat “the work of art” hung on a wall with a multimedia and multi-art, as it were, combination of creative encounters. These Fluxkits were extensions of art books which within Fluxus became cans, like containing objects which, unlike unique sculptures, for example, can be replaced. One of the best known Fluxkits was the Finger Box by Ay-O, a wooden box with a set of instructions on the front: “Put your finger in the hole.” The player would insert finger…at his or her own peril. Of course, as soon as Fluxus became encoded into official art history, these playful, toy-like objects became “works of art” and the viewers were discouraged to keep their distance. Sadly, playtime was over.

The humor and the wit of the well-crafted objects in well-constructed boxes are a visual signal that Fluxus was an anti-art movement that sought to make “art” more inclusive. In contrast to Dada, whose surviving members denounced Fluxus, Fluxus did not emerge from the Second World War with the intent of rejecting the entire premise of Western civilization. As the activities of Joseph Beuys would demonstrate, Fluxus was a social and often a political activity the aim of which was to change the world for the better. In 2010, Dorothée Brill argued in Shock and the Senseless in Dada and Fluxus that the difference between neutral and passive position of Abstract Expressionism and Fluxus was the political activism of the decade of the sixties. There are powerful examples of Fluxus as social critique such as Yoko Ono who worked with John Lennon to end the war in Vietnam but ultimately Fluxus was mild-mannered and benign. As one of the pioneers of Fluxus Dick Higgins wrote in his 1979 A Child’s History of Fluxus,

…Fluxus has a life of its own, apart from the old people in it. It is simple things, taking things for themselves and not just as part of bigger things. It is something that many of us must do, at least part of the time. So Fluxus is inside you, is part of how you are. It isn’t just a bunch of things and dramas but is part of how you live. It is beyond words.

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

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New York Art and the Happenings

THE HAPPENINGS: AN INTERACTION OF ART AND LIFE

The so-called “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock may have “broken the ice,” as Willem de Kooning put it, and put American art on the map, but the most lasting legacy of the artist was not his large abstract canvases, but a series of photographs and a short film. In 1950 Hans Namuth filmed Pollock in the act of painting, slinging arcs of paint through the air as he moved with surprising grace around the edges of the fabric on the ground. Two years after his tragic death “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” was published in Artnews in 1958. Written by the artist Allan Kaprow, this article is arguably one of the best descriptions of Pollock’s art. Kaprow took note of Pollock’s use of unorthodox materials and expansive kinetic movement: “With Pollock however, the so-called dance of dripping, slashing, squeezing, daubing and whatever else went into a work placed an absolute value on a diaristic gesture…”

Indeed, Harold Rosenberg, one of New York’s leading art writers, had already written about the concept of “art as act” in 1952. In “The American Action Painters” Rosenberg stated,

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

While the art cticic, Clement Greenberg emphasized the object, Harold Rosenberg put stress on the artist as an actor. The physical, that is kinetic, aspects of art making on the part of the artist, were foregrounded. The painting was the mere outcome of the action and the marks on the surface bore the imprint of the artist’s psyche. Although today, it is assumed that the essay was about Jackson Pollock, the artist Rosenberg had in mind was almost certainly Willem de Kooning. In 1952 when Rosenberg was writing, Pollock was deep in decline and deKooning was the most respected artist in New York.

Rosenberg and Greenberg (Red Mountain and Green Mountain) were rivals with rival points of view and championed rival artists: Rosenberg supported deKooning and Greenberg supported Pollock. Nevertheless, thanks to Namuth’s iconic film, “Action Painting” and “Pollock” were inescapably linked. Rosenberg envisioned the artist as a kind of warrior, stepping into the arena of art to do battle with painting. Art was an existential act. Art had become performance and process. In the end, it could be said, with hindsight, that it was not the paintings of Pollock that had the lasting impact upon art but the films of the painter’s performances.

This combination of photographs, films and critical articles about Pollock as a dancer who performed shifted attention away from the finished product, the painting, to the process of painting. The young generation of art makers were interested in art-as-process. If art was a process, then there was no particular reason to produce an object—the action alone would be sufficient. On the heels of Pollocks’ death his legacy, as Kaprow put it, there was a shift to “process,” which had a number of names—Actions, Events, Happenings—became known as Performance Art.

In New York, the performances were called “Happenings,” and were singular events, planned but unscripted, acted out but unrepeatable, performed by non-actors, artists who made no attempts towards theatricality. The Happenings were “preformed” by artists such as, Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg at the Green Gallery and at the Hansa Gallery, 1952 in New York. Inspired by the current literary Beat culture and its casual poetry readings, Allan Kaprow created environmental installations as a total work of art with common and informal materials, ephemeral arrangements, and a participatory aesthetic.

One of Kaprow’s most famous events, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959, appeared to be based upon chance but was actually a scripted and staged event, determined in a advance. The audience was given a number of a cubicle to enter where certain actions had to be enacted until a bell rang and then the individual had to move to another section of the installation. The event, like the others that followed, could not be replicated, nor, as a February 2012 article, “What Happened at Those Happenings?” noted, were they well remembered. “It is now known as the first Happening, a mythical event that knocked painting and sculpture from their previously unassailable perches and paved the way for performance art,” Carol Kino stated. She continued, “But what actually happened at the Happenings? Because they were so ephemeral, and documentation is so patchy, art historians have spent decades trying to figure that out. So have their creators.”

Happenings moved art out of the White Cube. Some of these early Happenings took place at the City Gallery with Red Grooms, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenberg, who then moved to the Judson Memorial Church, a Baptist church expanding its ministry to artistic community. Claus Oldenberg’s The Street and Snapshots from the City, featured his alter ego “Ray Gun,” an outlaw fantasy character. “Ray Gun” reappeared in his Ray Gun Manufacturing Company installation in a real storefront for his art in 1961. Kino’s article in The New York Times quoted Claes Oldenberg as remembering:

“The audience was made to suffer. At one performance the only person allowed to sit was Duchamp. He said, “I am very old, and I cannot stand, please let me sit down.” I thought, “Maybe it’s a trick. But then again, he was very old.” I think Duchamp went to everybody’s performances. “Nekropolis I” ended with us all becoming mice, dressed in burlap bags. We crawled out into the audience slowly; we couldn’t see. Then we were supposed to just drop somewhere and not move until they went home. According to the story I wound up on the feet of Duchamp. But I couldn’t see who it was. It’s a good story, but as time goes by you wonder, “Did this really happen?”

Wedged in between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, the moment of the Happenings was as brief and as ephemeral as the performances themselves. Red Grooms explained Happenings as “It was like a sandlot sports game or something, where you just choose sides. Somebody’s the director and makes up the plays, like in football. It’s very improvised, but it’s been directed a bit.” Inheriting the idea from the Happenings that art was life and that life was art, Pop Art was always Concerned with the vernacular environment, its ordinary Facts, and its humble Objects. But Pop Art was a style of objects, paintings and hybrid sculptures that were bought and sold on a now-burgeoning art market.

The significance of the Happenings was that there were no objects that could be collected. Ephemera could be produced but it was not well understood at the time that the flotsam and jetsam left floating in the wake of chaos might have some numerical value in the future. The late fifties were the last years before the art market in New York was able to support a substantial art production. The Happenings were as spontaneous as Abstract Expressionism but unlike the solemn and serious painters, the antic artists of the out law actions were exploring something new, anything else. Ellen Pearlman noted in “When New York was Really Happening” that, “These hijinks revolutionized the art world. Almost no one witnessed it, and almost no one cared.” Only years later did it become obvious that the Happenings opened the door to a new way of thinking about art—not as a single object but as an activity.

In 1958 Allan Kaprow defined this new way of thinking as “a total work of art,” not in the Wagnerian sense but as in the way the Happenings merged life and art. In the opening paragraph of “Notes on the Creation of a Total Art,” he noted that “Conscious thoughts about a total art did not emerge until Wagner and, later, the Symblists. But these were modeled on the earlier examples of the church…” He continued, “Paradoxically, this idea of a total art has grown from attempts to extend the possibilities of one of the forms of painting, collage, which has led us unknowingly toward rejecting painting in any form,without,however, eliminating the use of paint.” Kaprow concluded by noting that the “success” of art such as his “Happenings” resulted in total immersion of the spectator and thus depended upon that very person’s comprehension and participation.

In looking back over the days of the Happenings in a short statement in 2002, Kaprow stated the the Happenings were a reaction to the “overrefinement” in painting (Abstract Expressionism) in the fifties. In this brief reflection, the artist recalled that his “Notes” was written to accompany his own art exhibition and, in retrospect, he realized that “art” itself needed to be interrogated and the concept of “exhibiting” “art” should be reexamined. “Bypassing art had to be systematic. Art itself was the problem” and he noted that he came to the conclusion two years later to give up galleries. In his conclusion he asked, “What is everyday life? he asked. “What is life of any kind?…this is the central questioning from the Environments and Happenings of 1958.”

The Happenings came and went, because, as Kaprow pointed out, the “events” happened in relation to the gallery system and were catalogued as “art” by historians. Indeed, Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine became object makers and Lucas Samaras who wandered into the Happenings as a refugee from the world of New York theater became a visual artist. The world that the Happenings created, carved out from something they called “life,” was translated by galleries and museums into “Installation Art.” Although the phenomenon of the Happenings may have been tamed, the memory of the anarchy of the Happenings would linger in American art and in the 1970s, its descendent would emerge: Performance Art. Meanwhile in Europe, Performance art would become the central defining raison d’être of Fluxus, the child of Dada.

 

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Events in Abstract Expressionism

EVENTS FOR ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, 1945-1955

In 1946, former British prime minister, Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in March at Fulton, Missouri. According to Churchill, who had always been suspicious of Stalin, traditional fascism verses democracy had been replaced by a new confrontation between communism verses democracy. The Cold War was on. With the advent of Atomic Power, the world became used to the “normalization” of the Bomb and accepted the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction. After the Second World War, in 1947-48 a new identity for the avant-garde developed with the beginning of a New Liberalism and the beginning of a New Conservativism. The rise of Nationalism in America impacted Abstract Expressionism. On one hand, the style was touted by the American government as an expression of “Freedom” abroad, while being assailed as un-American at home.

That same year, 1946, marked the end of Surrealist activity in New York and the Truman Doctrine introduced American aid to combat communism in Europe. To combat Communism at home, the Employee Loyalty Program introduced the infamous “Loyalty Oaths.” While the Marshall Plan began the “struggle for souls” in Europe, to make the continent safe from Communism, Americans at home were subjected to increasing surveillance. “Modern art equals communism,” thundered George Donders, the Pat Robertson of his day. “..lazy, nutty Moderns,” grumbled President Harry Truman. For American conservatives, “modern art” was equated with the avant-garde which was equated with Europeans which was equated with Communism. In the first decade following the Cold War, modern art, particularly Abstract Expressionism, became a pawn in the political struggle with Communism. As both Max Kozloff (1973) and Eva Cockcroft (1974) pointed out, the Museum of Modern Art frequently played the role of go-between, negotiating between the United States government (the CIA) and European venues for American art.

Forty years later, their consternation seems a bit naïve, given the extent to which governments have always deployed art for political purposes. As for the artists and their collectors, international showings and celebrations of their art could well have been welcome, regardless of the underlying motivations or sponsoring agencies. After all, the entire modus operandi of the Abstract Expressionist artists had been to “breakthrough” the stranglehold of European art. Indeed, the earliest exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art had the word “American” in the titles: “Fourteen Americans,” 1946, “Fifteen Americans,” 1952, “Twelve Americans,” 1956, “The New American Painting,” 1958, “The New American Painting and Sculpture. The First Generation,” 1969 and so on. American government became involved with using art as propaganda: “We will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City,” said one U.S. Senator.

Under these circumstances in which American art was used to connote “freedom,” Peggy Guggenheim returned to Europe and gave away all but two works of her collection to “provincial” museums. Jackson Pollock’s important Mural (1943) went to the University of Iowa where it languished for years in obscurity. For cautious artists, there was a new ideology, a third way, and a non-commital abstraction provided a way out of the vise of nationalism against the international avant-garde. In the MacCarthy era it was prudent to avoid political extremes and unwanted exposure with a political apoliticalism, while continuing the Modernist tradition of abstract art.

The New York intellectuals had already turned to psychoanalysis and to myth to avoid Marxist aesthetics, using the emergence of biomorphic art, linked to automatic writing and Surrealism, and the increased interest in primitivism to do work connected to contemporary events. For the Abstract Expressionist artists, the violent and frightening content of primitive art, archaic art could express the contemporary fate of individual facing chaos and the horror of modern condition could not be represented figuratively. To these artists, to represent is to accept the conditions. Recalling the censorship of Rivera’s murals, the head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt eliminated from mural in San Francisco as too “political.” Even the Partisan Review moved to the right and stresses psychology, focused on the individual. Greenberg, likewise, jettisoned his early Marxism for apolotical formalism as a means for analyzing art.

Meanwhile, Abstract Expressionism was taking hold, with “The Ideographic Picture” being presented at Betty Parsons’ gallery in 1947. Parsons, the last of the amateur dealers, took over most of Guggenheim’s stable of artists, keeping Jackson Pollock but removing his wife, the painter, Lee Krasner, from her stable. In 1948 the Subject is Artists School was set up by Motherwell and Newman with lectures on Friday evening. In contrast to pre-War informality and close friendships, the School formalized Abstract Expressionism and the debate scene mirrored the rifts among the artists. Friday night lectures at Studio 35 absorbed groups from the Waldorf Cafeteria and became known as the “Eighth Street Club.” By 1949, the Eighth Street Club or “The Club” became the focal point of Abstract Expressionism. And the Cedar Street Tavern became the hangout for all the artists who wanted to drink and argue about art.

“The Sublime is Now,” by Barnett Newman, 1948, was published in Tiger’s Eye and Clement Greenberg announced the end of the School of Paris and the ascension of American art in his article “The Decline of Cubism.” In 1948 Arshile Gorky died by his own hand, and Mark Rothko abandoned Surrealism under the influence of Clyfford Still in San Francisco. Struggling to make ends meet, Jackson Pollock gave away Lucifer to settle a doctor’s bill, but a collector, Alfonso Ossario, purchased Pollock’s No. 5 for $1500. Life Magazine ridiculed Pollock as “America’s Greatest Artist” in 1949, after it organized panel of experts to “Clarify the Strange Art of the Day” in October, 1948. Pollock was photographed by Arnold Newman in February for his feature story in Life: “Jackson Pollock–Is he the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” Pollock was pictured in a denim jacket and jeans and work books, aligning himself with the working class. He exemplified “cool” with a cigarette dangling from his lips and his cocky attitude. The artist, however, was broke and he offered to sell Newman one of his paintings. The photographer declined the offer.

According to Elaine de Kooning, Pollock became “the first American artist to be devoured as a packaged by critics and collectors,” when he developed his “Drip Technique” from 1947 to 1950, finally abandoned in 1953. He sold No. 4 to MOMA for $250 and had his second show with Parsons, from January to February, 1949. A year later, in 1950, Hans Namuth photographed and filmed Jackson Pollock at work. These famous images would prove to be as interesting as Pollock’s paintings to the new artists in the Fluxus group. The sight of Pollock moving within and around canvases placed on the floor of his Studio, the Barn, evoked comparisons to “dance” from Jack Tworkov.

Performance art of the Fifties responded to Pollock as a performance artist and to the idea of art as an “act.” In 1952, Harold Rosenberg wrote “American Action Painters,” an article often seen as a “companion piece” to the Newman photographs. However, Rosenberg was more than likely writing about Willem de Kooning, widely respected as a lone artist who had given up a very lucrative and successful career as a commercial artist to suffer years of privation as a “fine artist.” Krasner was furious at the betrayal of her old friend, Rosenberg, who was now supporting the other side—de Kooning.

New York began to divide between the supporters of Pollock, led by Clement Greenberg and the supporters of de Kooning, led by Rosenberg. In 1951 “The School of New York” exhibition was organized by Motherwell as the American counterpart to The School of Paris. Italian dealer and businessman, Leo Castelli, was in New York with the intent to support contemporary American artists. Everyone was waiting to see who he would select for his stable. By 1952 the Ab Ex artists begin to disband and the term the “New York School” gained ground as not really school of painting but as more diverse individuals in loose community of artists.

But over the decade following the Second World War, each of those artists had found his or her own style: Pollock the drip, Kline the slash, Newman the zip, Rothko the stacked rectangles, Gottlieb the Blast and Burst, Krasner the Little Image, and with these signatures the artists withdrew into the competitive corners of the Uptown group and the Downtown group. Sculptor David Smith moved to Bolton Landing and created his own world of metal sculptures dispersed across his own fields. Willem de Kooning summed up the dialectic of the New York art world with his signifiant black and white paintings of the late forties which contrasted with his colorful and figurative Woman series of the early fifties.

By the mid fifties, Abstract Expressionism as an impactful art movement was over; its time was passed and at the very moment when the artists began to find some form of museum and gallery recognition. Figuration returned in the work of Jackson Pollock as well in his last great series of the early fifties. To some, representation was a retreat from the hard won victories of abstraction, but, Pollock’s shift to the figure was a portent of things to come. It was de Kooning who would be most closely related to the up-coming challenge of Neo-Dada. It was a drawing of his that would be “erased” by Robert Rauschenberg, whose random collages inspired by what the art writer and artist Brian O’Doherty called the “vernacular glance,” another version of de Kooning’s famous “slipping glimpse.” “Content,” he said, “is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It is very tiny—very tiny, content.” Art and Life would now intersect.

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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.

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Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part One

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Content

To work as an artist in New York City during the 1940s was to work in what the Chinese curse called “interesting times. The Abstract Expressionist artists of the New York School struggled to make art during a catastrophic world war while the entire nation was engulfed in the effort to preserve and protect democracy. For the past decade, during the 1930s, art had been socially conscious and politically activist and its illustrative approach was well-suited to conveying informative content to the public in the Depression period. The efforts of the government to bringing art to the people through New Deal public mural projects elevated the overall national awareness of art and these local murals focused on the task of recounting history through visual culture. But the events of the Second World War implied that art might have a new role–to express a collective consciousness that transcended any one nation or any one location.

As the result of unprecedented world events, a war for civilization itself, art now had a serious role and a high purpose. Likewise the artist had a serious role and a high purpose. The social responsibility of the artist was nothing less than the renewal of art itself. The spiritual responsibility of the artist was to translate the felt experience of his or her time into art. The Abstract Expressionist artists lived through the Depression and the Second World War. For them, content and the aesthetic values of art were important, as opposed to the literary component or the illustrative role of representational traditional art so beloved by Americans. Their social consciousness raised by the Depression, these artists asked, not just what should I paint but more importantly why should I paint? What was the existential reason for making art? Moving away from the American Regionalists and from the Social Realists, these new painters turned from representation and looked towards a more ancient and more archaic form of human expression: myth. They scorned the Modernism that had become an academic European art for a collective experience in atavistic symbol making, using the “primitive” and the “primeval” as sources of inspiration for a new art in newly terrible times. The response of a group of artists in New York City to the perceived crisis in subject matter was a new way of making art and new way of seeing a painting.

Abstract Expressionism re-defined subject matter in that time of a crisis in subject matter–how to make an art that expressed an era in crisis? Art had been caught between specific content—representational art and and art that had no content but formal content–totally abstract art. But as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko stated in 1943, “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject matter is crucial…” The Abstract Expressionist artists were concerned with ancient myth and primitive art as way to question an insular European tradition and to show their opposition to Social Realism and American Scene painting. Seeking a profundity that would respond to the shift in mood, Newman and Rothko were particularly interested in the tradition of tragedy from ancient Greek myth. The role that myth played in the painting of Jackson Pollock has been debated and discussed among art historians for decades, and it seems likely that the artist picked up on the zeitgeist and used mythic themes in his art of the last thirties and early forties, such as She Wolf (1943). That said, Pollock dropped the crutch of myth as his subject matter and moved towards exploring new ways of making the act of painting itself the content of painting. Painting was seen as the elimination of past traditions to clear the way to return to primal means of expression. The artists, alienated from society, attempted to devise a new language for mythic thought, a language that was non-discursive, expressing the deep truth of myth.

Indeed, the Abstract Expressionist artists also had to establish their own territory in New York City. Pollock is often given the credit for a “breakthrough,” as Willem de Kooning expressed it, or a breaking away from European art. But, for the New York artists, the process of discarding a tradition had to begin with the reexamination of Modernism. To counter the American Modernism of the aging Alfred Stieglitz and his venerable circle of painters, who tended to be representational and local, the younger artists looked to the waning styles and movements of European art to see what they could salvage. The American artists were less interested in the theories and philosophies of Dada and Surrealism and were more interested in the possibilities of Dada’s use of chance and displacement and in the neutral and innovative practices of automatism they learned from Surrealism. The task was to wrest chance from the idea of “anti-art” and to appropriate automatic writing to the practice of painting, as seen in the work of Joan Miró, in order to apply a hybrid mix of old ideas to make new art.

For Mark Rothko, the goal was to eliminate figuration and to retain his vertical zones of stacked content. During the 1940s, Rothko shunned the dream content of Surrealism in favor of multiple floating areas of color roaming a raw canvas. For some artists, such as Jackson Pollock, the work of art was understood as a “duration,” supported by the “directness” of art. Art was an act, a process that proceeded over a period of contemplative thought and active making. Derived from the “automatic writing” of Surrealism, Pollock’s “drip technique” shifted the content of art from an illustrated scene to an abstract kinetic process captured on his unprimed canvas and sealed beneath skeins of paint. For other artists, such as Robert Motherwell, abstraction could be used to express the lingering sorrow over the failure of the Spanish Republic. The hanging pendulous black figures slung against the raw blank white background of Motherwell’s Elegy series evoke the black and white ethos of an era of great sadness and loss. After not painting for years, Barnett Newman took up art again and began a remarkable and long-lasting series of “zip” paintings, in which, acting like a god, he cleaved the whole of his canvas into two separable worlds of color. Onement I of 1948 is a statement of oneness and division made by a Holocaust survivor. “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone,” he stated, “as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”

Each Abstract Expressionist artist had his or her own way of creating a unique expression for the post-war era. Abstract Expressionism re-defined the purpose of art from Social Consciousness to Human Consciousness, stressing the universal instead of particular. The artistic and conceptual gulf between illustrative nationalist art practiced by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and art that communicated through the collective unconscious of Jungian myth is vast and deep and unbridgeable. Abstract Expressionism marks the transition from lack of subject matter—abstract art—to abstract content with “meaning” as concept. Meaning is to be Felt rather than spoken or directly explained. Art as Experience became one of the defining characteristics of Abstract Expressionism.

Art must be a response to modern life and thus, in order to move forward into the next half of the broken century, the New York School rejected the exhausted European tradition of Modernism in favor of a tradition more universal. Willem de Kooning whose birth city of Rotterdam was pulverized by Nazi bombers renounced figuration and began creating layers of shards of crashed paint, enhanced by painful attempts at rudimentary drawing. The Dutch artist alternatively built and destroyed, constructed and excavated a series of mid-sized paintings that he was notoriously reluctant to finish as if no reconstruction would suffice. As can be seen, the shift into totally abstract art brought formal elements and formal innovation to the fore as artistic statements to create a new way for art to communicate on a more profound level. Adolph Gottlieb was deeply concerned with the state of the post-war world. As a fortunate individual who had survived the Holocaust by dint of being an American, he spoke eloquently of the times he lived in:

The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.

The search for the atavistic roots of art led to a return to an almost Ur manner of painting. The painters ended traditional European play between line and color by combining the two, thereby eliminating relationships among elements as content, such as seen in Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. The act of painting was stripped down to its essence—marking the canvas and covering an expanse with colors. Once the idea of composition was pushed aside, Mark Rothko’s great fields of morphing colors obliterated the division between line and shape, implying a spreading atmosphere rather than a bounded easel painting. Franz Kline swept large swarths of black paint crashing into chunks of white paint in an expression of clash and combat so characteristic of the era of the warrior. What was left on the canvas was the artist’s experience—the marks of his making. He explained,

There is imagery. Symbolism is a difficult idea. I’m not a symbolist. In other words, these are painting experiences. I don’t decide in advance that am going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me.

Over time, the mere mark of the artist, his touch, the slash of the loaded paint brush was the total content of the painting. The personality of the artist replaced figurative content and the cult of the artist replaced tragic meaning or universal truths. To critics, such as Harold Rosenberg, the physical action of the artists’ mark-making was sufficient in and of itself for the art to become an “act.” Rosenberg’s American Action Painters of 1952 recreated painting as an existential act, the sole means of existence in a world without God. A 1948 statement by Barnett Newman: “Terror can only exist if the forces of tragedy are unknown” was replaced by the idea that painting was revelation, a revelation of the artist. The critical shift, seen best in the formalist approach of Clement Greenberg, can be seen as a political neutralization of Abstract Expressionism, removing the artist’s personal convictions and replacing individual feeling with pigment in motion. Following the frightening hostility towards left-wing intellectuals during the MacCarthy era, Greenberg preferred and supported the (apparently) apolitical work of Pollock, and the anti-war messages of Gottlieb’s Blast and Burst series of the sixties were out of step with the increasing (Greenbergian) critical need to separate art from the conflicts of the Cold War.

By making the artist himself (women were usually not included in the ranks of the New York School) the content, Abstract Expressionism became more formal in its content and the very real need of many of the artists to come to grips with the tragedies of their century was covered over by a new discourse of “American triumphalism” over European Modernism. To come full circle, in 2009, the art historian Irving Sandler recently published his own reevaluation of his 1970 history of Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation. The period during which Abstract Expressionist artists were struggling with the problem of how to express an entirely unprecedented historical content was a complex one, fraught with political peril, roiled by critical rivalries, and marked by rival artistic camps. A balance between the intentions of the varied group of disparate artists and the need of historians to define movements can perhaps be reached, but before we can get to that point, we need to have a fuller view of the landscape.

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Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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Podcast 40 Painting 6: Art In New York

Modernism in New York City

Why and How did the impetus for Modernist painting move from Paris to New York? This podcast traces the historical and artistic reasons that resulted in New York becoming the center of avant-garde painting the Fifties. The presence of the European exiles in the city, the availability of innovative art in the Museum of Modern Art, and the sense that European modernism was exhausted combined to give rise to a new school of art called The New York School or the Abstract Expressionism.

 

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Important Announcement

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by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

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Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

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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

this link: Art History Timeline

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Charles Baudelaire, Author of Modernism

BAUDELAIRE AND MODERNITY

Every age needs its observer and every era requires an interpreter. To elevate the culture above mere description, that individual has to be an odd cross between a poet and a reporter. Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a renegade poet, a syphilitic art critic, and, above all, a disaffected and alienated student of a society undergoing the pressure of a transition. That Baudelaire was a marginal character who lived on the fringes of a cynical consumer society was crucial to his ability to describe and define the new phenomenon, “modernité.” Although the poet wrote extensively on a variety of topics, he is especially significant for essays, prose poems, poetry and art criticism that articulated a new way of life. In 1947, Jean-Paul Sartre accused Baudelaire of “bad faith” due to the many contradictions in his life and work. However, a self-destructive poet and drug addict, who lived in debt on the run from creditors, while, at the same time, taking part in the intellectual and artistic life of Paris, can hardly be expected to be consistent. The very times of Baudelaire were paradoxical.

The art critic straddled the divide between waning Romanticism and emerging Realism, watching the painter Eugène Delacroix after his creative peak but not living long enough to see Èdouard Manet reach his full artistic potential. While there may never have been an artist who coincided with the poet’s desire to describe modernité, Baudelaire addressed the unfolding of a new way of life in a dense urban environment of the “crowd” and noted the impact of industrial technology upon society and art. By the 1840s, not only was Romanticism over but the art being produced by the salon system was also becoming increasingly irrelevant. The excuse for academic art was that it portrayed the “heroic” life of the ancient world, but, for Baudelaire, it was necessary that artists to be of their own time. But what did that “their time” mean?

The industrial revolution came slow and late to France, not in small part because many of the technological changes had been developed in the homeland of their hated enemy, England. While England was already adjusting to industry, France, by mid-century, was just beginning to cope with the transition from an agricultural society to an urban and industrial one. It is possible to see the process of artistic adjustment to these changes in the paintings of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet. Millet presented the countryside as frozen in time while Courbet showed the class tensions even in small villages. Meanwhile, the mainstream salon artists chose to ignore the present in favor of the historical past. In Baudelaire’s time, few artists had to ability to see their age in all its uniqueness. To be fair, the cultural changes caused by the Industrial Revolution were so extensive and far-reaching that it was easier to look away. The problems for the artists during this long transition period were, first, content of art—contemporary or traditional? and second, what new artistic techniques would be appropriate for the new age?

More than anyone, Baudelaire articulated both the new content and the new way of expressing the new content. In doing so, he impacted many of his contemporaries and influenced later generations of writers and poets who would be known as Symbolists. As an art critic who had to work the salon beat, it was his job to discern a trend or a concern with each annual exhibition. One of his most important salon statements was penned in 1846. In this early essay published as a section of “The Salon of 1846″: “On the Heroism of Modern Life,” Baudelaire argued that modern life was as heroic as ancient life and that men in frock coats were as brave in their own time as the Roman gladiators were in the arena:

It is true that this great tradition has been lost, and that the new one is not yet established. But what was this great tradition, if not a habitual everyday idealization of ancient life—a robust and material form of life, a state of readiness on the part of each individual…? Before trying to distinguish the epic side of modern life, and before bringing examples to prove that our age is no less fertile in sublime themes than past ages, we may assert that since all centuries and all peoples have had their own form of beauty, so inevitably we have ours. That is the order of things…But to return to our principle and essential problem, which is to discover whether we possess a specific beauty, intrinsic to our new emotions…The pageant of fashionable life and the thousands of floating existences—-criminals and kept women—which drift about in the underworld of the great city; the Gazette des Tribunaux and the Moniteur all prove to us that we have only to open our eyes to recognize our heroism. For the heroes of the Iliad are but pigmies compared to you—-who dared not publically declaim your sorrows in the funeral and tortured frock coat which we all wear today!—you the most heroic, the most extraordinary, the most romantic and the most poetic of all the characters that you have produced from your womb!

The “hero” is male but not just any male. The poet’s hero is not the contented businessman who had prospered under the Citizen King, Louis Philippe, but the hero of la bohème, a cultivated and well-educated man who was also an outsider: the dandy. “…a dandy can never be a vulgar man,” Baudelaire said. The dandy wears the new uniform, the habit noir, the black suit, with distinction, proclaiming his proud middle class status. And yet the dandy keeps himself apart from the bourgeoisie, the newly rich and powerful class, by moving with the “crowd,” where classes mixed and mingled, without ever being part of the crowd. Being a dandy, meticulously well-dressed, standing aside and watching the stream of life flow past, is a strategy of self-defense in an urban landscape. Although he moves in cadence with the ebb and flow of pedestrians, all of whom have destinations and purpose, a dandy, par excellence, is also a man who is able to walk the city, free of ties and responsibilities.

Baudelaire is the new man, the flâneur, the detached man who strolls the side streets, peruses the new arcades and watches the ostentatious carriages pass down the wide boulevards, made for spectacle. At the same time the arcades were ushering in a new form of looking, the art and craft of window-shopping, a new nocturnal Paris sprang into being with the introduction of gaslight in the 1820s. Here, in the darkness, is where we find the poet’s world of marginal people who live a “floating existence,” and it is here were we find the female counterpart to the dandy, the prostitute, the only kind of woman allowed to go abroad at night. Modernism and its heroes is not for the respectable nor for the faint-hearted.

Baudelaire, like many inhabitants of the changing city, felt the stresses of the transition. The city he had been born in was vanishing before his very eyes, crumbling under the determination of urban renewal and bending to the will of Georges Haussmann. Former inhabitants were being pushed out and a new group of aspiring writers, poets and artists moved into slums, scratching out a living before Haussmannization eliminated the buildings. According to one of Baudelaire’s greatest biographers, the German writer, Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire was part of Bohemia, la bohème, the new avant-garde, the alienated, the aspiring artists in waiting. A Marxist writer, Benjamin linked Baudelaire to the territory of the dispossessed by quoting Marx on the precarious position of this social class:

…Their uncertain existence, which in specific cases depended more upon chance than on their activities, their irregular life whose only fixed stations were the taverns of the wine dealers—the gathering places of the conspirators—and their inevitable acquaintanceship with all sorts of dubious people place them in that sphere of life which in Paris is called la bohème….the whole indeterminate, disintegrated, fluctuating mass which the French call la bohème….

By the time of the Second Empire, the chasm between rich and poor had stranded a number of middle class people on the wrong side of prosperity. “It is bourgeois society that Baudelaire holds guilty of the suffering of the post-aristocratic period, and not the least that art has gone to rack and ruin, that poets and artists like himself now belong to the déclassés,” John E. Jackson remarked in 2005. Baudelaire actually came from a well-to-do family, but he was terminally unable to manage his finances. His family put him on a budget with an allowance, which he always overspent–usually on clothes–causing him to go into debt. Being reduced to a child was highly irritating to the poet, who was always at pains to remove himself from the class that fed him. Thus Baudelaire wrote as an outsider, not an insider, taking advantage of an unprecedented expansion of the press. But the press, while expanded, was not free or uncensored, as he learned with the publication of Les fleurs du mal in 1857, a scandalizing collection of poems (some of which were withheld from the public) for which Baudelaire was prosecuted.

Over the past two decades of the early nineteenth century, new opportunities had emerged for writers, such as Baudelaire, who was able to find his unique voice as a poet and to carve out a position as an observer and witness, a stance that appeared in his essays and in his art criticism, where he mixed art and social observations. This poet was a character composed of unabashed contractions who had no problem in proclaiming, “Any newspaper, from the first to the last is nothing but a web of horrors….” As a writer (who wrote for newspapers) he tried to defend traditional art making against the onslaught of technology, mainly photography, while, at the same time, rushing out to be photographed many times.

In “The Salon of 1859,” there was a section, “The Modern Public and Photography,” where Baudelaire complained about the clash between art and photography:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude, which is its natural ally.

These two essays, “On the Heroism of Modern Life” and “The Modern Public and Photography,” written over ten years apart, are indicative of the contradictions and confusions over the role of modern life in art. On one hand, Baudelaire was convinced that the “heroism of modern life” was worth of depiction, but, on the other hand, that depiction had to be hand-made, done in the old fashioned “art” way. A machine can never replace art. But more should be said of the difficulty of writing in a moment of social becoming, for Baudelaire, like Denis Diderot, was looking for the artist who could capture modernité or the pulse of his (or her) own time. Courbet painted contemporary life, but this life was rural and, hence, not the “urban modern” condition that was the daily life of Baudelaire. The poet was clearly looking for someone who expressed modern life in Paris, the city that Walter Benjamin called “the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.”

Baudelaire found his candidate, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in a fellow member of the fringes of society, an obscure illustrator named Constantin Guys. The result of the relationship between the poet and the illustrator, both inhabitants of la bohème, was a long essay, almost book length, which described the social condition Baudelaire called modernité. That essay was the famous The Painter of Modern Life. The poet states, “By ‘modernity,’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable…” Guys, an illustrator and a quick sketch artist, was the outsider, who, because of his position on the fringes, was able to produce hundreds of quick studies of all that was fast-moving and fleeting in modern life. Modernism, for both Baudelaire and for Guys, becomes defined by the concept of constant change, or what the art critic, Harold Rosenberg, would term, a hundred years later, “the tradition of the new.”

See also: “Baudelaire as Art Critic” and “Baudelaire and The Painter of Modern Life

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

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