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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
The second short answer has it that New York unseated Paris as the home of modern art because of the war. The Nazi occupation of Paris, lasting more than four years, had left that city and its cultural institutions in a demoralized and lethargic state. The contrast with the intensity of the experience available to artists in New York City was sharp. Paris retained the foul taste of occupation in its mouth long after the Allied forces liberated it. Thomas B. Hess put it memorably. In World War II, he wrote in 1951, “the division between collaborators and résistants left the artists and intellectuals of France “variously stained and cleaned, abject and heroic, until finally Paris, as a world symbol, is ‘engaged’ in compromise, in the most existentialist sense of the verb.”
The money did not match the recognition; the art market took years to catch up with the reputation of a Pollock or a Rothko.
At this moment of national doubt and guilt in France, American confidence was at its peak. The war had drawn a number of major European artists to the safety of American shores, where they proceeded to stir things up. The influx of talent had multiplied the kinds of influences available to American painters. All sorts of good things might happen if a struggling young painter got the nod from a major European master. In 1943 Piet Mondrian, than whom at the time no abstract artist was more major, picked out a Pollock among hundreds of competitors in Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery, making an instant convert of Peggy Guggenheim. “This is the most interesting work I’ve seen in America,” Mondrian said. “You must watch this man.” At the same time, Hofmann was teaching in his Eighth Street school, where his students included Lee Krasner, Nell Blaine, and later Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. “Hofmann was the great turning point,” said Freilicher. The experience “was like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool if you didn’t know how to swim.”
Virtually the whole of the surrealist movement, including André Breton himself, was in New York. Marc Chagall had come to America, and so had Max Ernst (who was married to Peggy Guggenheim), Salvador Dali, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, Jean Hèlion, and Pavel Tchelitchew. The presence of these prominent artists, so worldly and so advanced, was an enabling experience for their younger American counterparts. “I was painting in the same studio on Tenth Street with Léger and Hélion during the war,” de Kooning told a friend, “and one fine day it struck me that what I was doing was just as interesting as what they were doing.”
One of the theories I have characterized as paranoid was put forth by Tom Wolfe in his 1975 book, The Painted Word . When I am asked to name a book that I admire as literature and deplore as history, this one comes right to mind. Wolfe’s thesis is that a couple of art critics, most notably Clement Greenberg and to a slightly lesser extent Harold Rosenberg, were responsible for the worldwide triumph of the New York school. Wolfe’s larger point is that abstract painting, lacking the content and subject matter that representational art automatically has, came to rely more and more on a priori critical theories, such as those put forth by Greenberg and Rosenberg. How without a theory could patrons, spectators, collectors, journalists decide whether the stuff was good or bad, worth owning, worth talking about? It had long since reached the point that the paintings themselves were judged on the basis of whether they fulfilled the theoretical obiter dicta propounded by a resident guru. “To say that Abstract Expressionism was a baby that only its parents could love is not to downgrade its theorists in the slightest,” writes Wolfe with the panache that makes him so much fun to read. “Quite the opposite. For a good fifteen years, with nothing going for them except brain power and stupendous rectitude and the peculiar makeup of the art world, they projected this style, this unloved brat of theirs, until it filled up the screen of art history.”
As a stylist Wolfe is irresistible. And there is something to be said for the thesis that abstract art tends to rely more and more on the written word, on criticism and theory, and that this tendency has its attendant danger. Fairfield Porter anticipated Wolfe’s argument in The Painted Word when he observed in 1955 that “almost all discussion in New York of painting that is by writers like Greenberg or Rosenberg, or by painters or sculptors at the Club, is influenced by writing, and especially by sociologists and critics who think of themselves as sociologists or as anthropologists, and … therefore miss what each art is about.” (And what was each art about? At least partly “about itself,” wrote Porter, quoting E. M. Forster: “to insist that art exists for its own sake is not to say that life exists for the sake of art.”)