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The Artistic Triumph Of New York
World War I made the city the financial capital of the world. Then after World War II a very few audacious painters and passionate critics made it the cultural capital as well. Here is how they seized the torch from Europe.
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
Mark Tansey is a definitively post-modernist painter. His pictures stand at two removes from nature; not art but art history (or art theory) is his subject. Tansey deals in theories and notions, presenting them with the sort of sharp irony found in editorial-page cartoons. At the major Tansey exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts last year, the most striking and I think best example of the painter’s work on display allegorizes a world historical event in the annals of modern art. The picture, an oil painting dating from 1984, is called Triumph of the New York School . It records a thrilling moment presumed to have taken place in the late 1940s, the moment New York supplanted Paris as the art capital of the world and home of the international avant-garde.
One of Tansey’s ironies is that his picture is wholly committed to the representation of a scene and as such stands in diametrical opposition to Abstract Expressionism, the movement that vaulted the New York school of painting into a position of international dominance. In sepia tones suggestive of an old photograph, with a war-ravaged landscape as backdrop, Tansey’s huge canvas depicts one set of military men surrendering to another. The defeated group of soldiers on the left of the painting is dressed in French uniforms from World War I. The victorious men facing them wear the battle fatigues of American soldiers in World War II. At the center of the picture is a table on which the surrender is at this moment being signed by André Breton, the leader of the French surrealists and the presumptive spokesman of his era.
Breton, who was known as “the Pope of surrealism,” is observed approvingly by the commander of the victorious Americans, the art critic Clement Greenberg, champion of “Americantype painting” (his name for it), whose pronouncements on painterly matters were supposedly heeded, in the galleries and lofts of New York, as though they were the orders of a five-star general. Breton’s forces include Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Juan Gris, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Rousseau, and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who brilliantly promoted the school of Paris, launched cubism, and championed surrealism. Greenberg’s adjutants are such mainstays of the New York school as the painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Arshile Gorky, the sculptor David Smith, and the critic Harold Rosenberg, who vied with Greenberg for the distinction of being the group’s chief hierophant. Not only the uniforms but the placement and posture of the figures suggest a clash of periods. The French have a cavalry; the Americans, a news photographer kneeling to take his shot of the magic moment. The French are formal, the Americans at ease. Greenberg, genially slouching, keeps his hands in his pockets. So does Pollock, his prize discovery, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
The Cedar Tavern was legendary for boozing and brawling, for the parthenogenesis of the art groupie, and for the excitement of ideas.
In composition and scale Triumph of the New York School evokes the grandeur of a classical surrender scene to make a point. The picture illustrates the allegorical thesis stated succinctly in its title; in effect Tansey visualizes a dead metaphor to revive it. The conceit of the artist as soldier derives from etymology—from the military origin of the term avant-garde . If the “vanguard” of an army is its assault troops, vanguard artists are the elite officers planning raids on culture or society, forays into the uncharted regions of the imagination. But Triumph of the New York School is based on something more than impressionable conceit: the conviction that what it depicts did in fact happen, and in just this metaphorical way.
It is generally accepted that the old school of Paris, which dominated the first part of this century, was eclipsed by the New York school in the late 1940s. The success of Abstract Expressionism is seen, moreover, to have coincided with a triumph for the city of New York as a milieu, a market, an ambiance, or a headquarters for art and the arts. It could be said that the artistic movement concurrent with Hiroshima and the death camps had superseded the ones associated with the earlier “war to end all wars.” The “lost generation” (Gertrude Stein’s term) was history; “action painting” (Harold Rosenberg’s catchy, existential-sounding term) was now. All this Tansey’s picture proclaims, and more: that the avant-garde artist is a militant figure, accustomed to adversarial behavior, for whom conquest and capitulation are the only available choices, because changes in style and fashion in art occur violently, amid competition, and in the face of stalwart resistance.
Some events in the history of art really do seem to occur with the speed and decisiveness with which, for example, the sinking of the Japanese carriers at Midway determined the naval war in the Pacific. The shift of the world’s center of artistic gravity from Paris to New York would appear to be one such event. It was as momentous as it was largely unexpected; it happened suddenly—over the course of a few years commonly thought of as the “heroic” period of the New York school.