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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
If one had to pick a single year as decisive in the rise of Abstract Expressionism, it would be 1948. It was a year of recognitions, innovations, and radical departures. Willem de Kooning had his first one-man show that year, a brilliant exhibit of black-and-white abstractions that confirmed his high stature, at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York City. Jackson Pollock (who’d had his first one-man show five years earlier) did the first of his “drip” (or “poured”) paintings earlier that winter. A monograph on Hans Hofmann appeared in 1948, the first on an Abstract Expressionist. Barnett Newman was doing his first “zip” paintings, each consisting of a narrow vertical line bisecting a huge field of color—Newman’s signature style. Mark Rothko was moving from his abstract multiforms to the classic geometry of his blue-chip style, which he arrived at a year later, consisting of one color-filled rectangle stacked on top of another. Robert Motherwell was on the verge of launching his celebrated series Elegy for the Spanish Republic . And Clyfford Still was turning out color-field abstractions in his newfound jagged-edge manner that reminded observers of Romantic attempts to realize sublime effects; Still exemplified what one critic later called the “abstract sublime.” The collective force of all this humming was a roar. “By 1948, the Abstract Expressionists had become convinced that the art they were creating was more vital, radical, and original than any being produced elsewhere and organized for the purpose of counteracting hostility from art officialdom,” Irving Sandier writes in his standard history of Abstract Expressionism, The Triumph of American Painting (1970). “What had begun as an underground movement finally came out into the open.”
The abstract urge was contagious. The estimable Philip Guston went abstract in 1948; Franz Kline underwent his conversion a year later, soon developing a unique style that (in Sandler’s words) “so strongly etched itself on the sensibility of the 1950’s that it was difficult then to look at any black-and-white picture without thinking of Kline.” Not only the results but sometimes the methods of composition were violently new. Pollock, for example, applied paint with a stick or a sponge (and sometimes directly from tube or can), discarded the easel, and put his whole body into the act of painting, as if it were a ritual dance and he were an initiate into the rites of a priestly magic. He liked working on the floor, he said, so he could “feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”
In 1948 Clement Greenberg, visualizing “a ‘decentralized,’ ‘polyphonic,’ all-over picture” instead of a picture with a perspectival center, saw clearly that a revolution in art was going on. Greenberg seemed to have Pollock in mind when he declared that easel pictures were virtually obsolete and that the new art would have the dimensions of a mural, or of the wall itself. An abstract painting was necessarily a flat painting, because the rejection of representational or figurative art entailed a rejection of the illusion of three-dimensional space. In a January 1948 issue of The Nation Greenberg wrote that Pollock would in time “compete for recognition as the greatest American painter of the twentieth century.” Greenberg himself, who died last year at the age of eighty-five, has few rivals as the greatest American art critic of the same period.
The painters of the New York school had clashing temperaments and personal styles. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman, Hofmann, Reinhardt, Motherwell, Still, Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, Richard Pousette-Dart, and a handful of others differed dramatically, sometimes vehemently, when they exchanged ideas, which was often; one thing they all did like to do was talk. A bunch of them formed a club for the purpose, renting “a small loft in need of a paint job, maybe two windows,” as the painter Larry Rivers recalls it, on Eighth Street between University Place and Broadway, Bohemia’s main drag. Laconically called the Club, it was formally organized in the fall of 1949 in disgust with the conditions at the old Waldorf Cafeteria on Sixth Avenue off Eighth Street, where the painters used to gather during the war years but whose management had turned hostile, keeping the toilet locked and forbidding smoking. At the Club the painters and the poets who were their guests met for Friday-night symposia of unusual intensity and then continued the discussion with different means at the Cedar Tavern, which was located around the corner on University Place. These downtown haunts became the stuff of romantic legend.