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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
Wolfe, however, lets his delight in caricature get the better of him. He carries on as if the whole New York school phenomenon were a shameless con job from start to finish. He sees dark designs in the fact that its painters’ work, being abstract, provoked more written theory and criticism than any previous generation had done, and simply disregards the possibility that they were possessed of artistic genius. Casey Stengel, the manager of the New York Yankees in their postwar heyday, said when congratulated on the team’s amazing string of pennants (ten from 1949 to 1960), “I couldn’t have done it without my players.” Wolfe’s analysis leaves out the players—the painters whose work had the force of a new idea.
Accounting for the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Serge Guilbaut advances a theory at least as paranoid as Tom Wolfe’s.
That said, I confess that I myself would never wish to underestimate Clement Greenberg’s role in the rise of the New York school. You can measure it several ways. Fairfield Porter, one of the century’s foremost figurative painters, liked saying that he became a figurative painter in the first place out of a perverse imperative, since Greenberg had said that all the important painting going on was abstract. When de Kooning reintroduced the female figure into his pictures, Greenberg told him, “You can’t paint this way nowadays.” Porter overheard the remark. “I thought, ‘If that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do! That’s all I will do.’ I might have become an abstract painter except for that.” “If this is indeed true,” John Ashbery comments wryly, “then modern painting owes an even bigger debt to Greenberg than was previously imagined.”
Greenberg’s power was indeed considerable, his influence palpable. But not everyone was ruled by his dictates. Most painters didn’t sit around and wait for him to tell them what to paint. The idle assumption that people were bullied or duped into accepting abstract art—and that collectors and curators followed Greenberg’s lead like thoughtless sheep—is unfair to all who had an immediate, passionate, and uncoerced relation with the paintings of the New York school. Nor were Greenberg and Rosenberg the only critics of major importance in the evolution of the New York school. There was Tom Hess.
Hess, a great advocate of de Kooning, became the managing editor of Art News magazine in January 1948. Over the next decade the magazine became the major journal of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Hess was a brilliant and ardent editor. It was he who made Abstract Expressionism the name with the most currency for the New York school’s style of painting. He published the best critical writing of Elaine de Kooning and Fairfield Porter. Breakthrough essays by Rosenberg (“The American Action Painters”), Meyer Schapiro (“The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art”), and Robert Rosenblum (“The Abstract Sublime”) appeared first in Art News . Hess also provided a crucial point of connection between Abstract Expressionism and the New York school of poets, which was just getting off the ground in the early 1950s. Three of the New York school’s charter poets, O’Hara, Schuyler, and Ashbery, all wrote for Hess. It was in fact Hess who made it practical for Ashbery to return to New York City after spending the better part of a decade living in Paris. When Hess became the editor in chief of Art News in 1965, he hired Ashbery for his old job of executive editor.
Accounting for the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Serge Guilbaut in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983) advances a theory at least as paranoid as Tom Wolfe’s conspiracy of the critics. Subtitled Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War , Guilbaut’s book is committed to the notion that Abstract Expressionism must be understood primarily within the context of the Cold War’s political alignments. According to Guilbaut, Abstract Expressionism was America’s answer to Soviet socialist realism. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the abstract movement was actually a highly political program involving, or presupposing, a rejection of Marxism and a willingness to wage ideological war on behalf of the capitalist system. Guilbaut makes much of the fact that Congress passed the Marshall Plan in that annus mirabilis for abstract painting, 1948—as if the New York school were to be exported in a first wave of American cultural imperialism concealed in the package of economic aid. How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art is a noteworthy example of the tendency among academic critics to regard art as camouflage and the artist as either a willing or an unconscious pawn in a constant ideological battle in which art plays an integral, if secondary, role.