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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
Like the Paris cafés where the heady wines of existentialism were sipped, the Club was where big and little issues—the crisis in subject matter, the issue of group identity and whether it was, as de Kooning maintained, “disastrous to name ourselves”—gained a hearing. Nothing ever got decided, though extraordinary things were said from time to time. Once, when the discussion dealt with the practice of signing paintings, Fairfield Porter made the show-stopping observation that “if you are vain it is vain to sign your pictures and vain not to sign them. If you are not vain it is not vain to sign them and not vain not to sign them.” In a famous quip Barnett Newman, one of the group’s foremost aestheticians, dismissed aesthetics by saying that it was “for artists as ornithology is for the birds.” That may well be the case, but aesthetic disputation not only enabled the artists to establish a sense of camaraderie but helped nourish the life of painting. De Kooning stated the case: “There’s no way of looking at a work of art by itself; it’s not self-evident—it needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it’s part of a whole man’s life.”
Sometimes dancing followed the talk. But the place was dedicated to words. The painters, as Tom Wolfe puts it, “outtalked any ten canasta clubs from Oceanside and Cedarhurst.” Lectures were given by philosophers, critics, composers; there was the occasional poetry reading, and parties for artists having one-man shows. There were gripes. Robert Motherwell was overheard to mutter that the place functioned as “de Kooning’s political machine.” Philip Rahv, Partisan Review ’s editor, a professional cynic, likened the Club to a trade union for painters. But the philosopher William Barren, Rahv’s Partisan Review colleague, detected few hidden motives. “The artists were simply bound together by an enthusiasm for art, and particularly the art that they, or some of them, were going to create and bring before the world,” he writes in The Truants , his memoir of New York intellectual life. “In this kind of innocence they harked back to an older bohemian way of life of Greenwich Village earlier in the century.” Barrett recalls the evening when one doleful painter explained that he had an angry landlady breathing down his neck for rent money he did not have. A hat was passed around, raising enough money to restore a smile to the painter’s face. It could have been “a scene out of Puccini’s La Bohèmia .” Such an innocence could not long endure the involvement of big-money gallery dealers. But in the early days of the Club this was not a problem.
As for the Cedar Tavern, the unadorned bar with its “no environment” (de Kooning’s phrase) was legendary for marathon boozing and brawling, for the parthenogenesis of the beautiful art groupie, and for the excitement of ideas, an excitement as palpable as the smoke in the room. The Cedar bar was where Franz Kline and the painter and critic Elaine de Kooning knocked back multiple shots of scotch, sometimes accompanied by the poet Frank O’Hara; where Elaine’s husband once socked Greenberg in the jaw; and where Pollock regularly picked fights, smashed glass and china, then played with the fragments, making designs with his blood on the tabletop. The peace was kept by Kline, who was big, comradely, well respected, and who “always got there before you did and was still there after you left,” as Rivers remarked.
By 1951 Pollock’s abstractions were smart enough for Vogue to run them as the backdrop against which fashion models posed.
The painters didn’t get along all that well. Sides were drawn: Greenberg sponsored Pollock, while Rosenberg and his fellow critic Thomas B. Hess backed de Kooning. Rothko absented himself from the Cedar scene, regarding it as a “clique” of desperately solitary men. (“Do you actually think that Pollock or Kline or de Kooning would go to the Cedar Bar if they did not suffer from solitude? It is because I suffer from solitude that I do not go to the Cedar Bar.”) Newman was so incensed by an Ad Reinhardt put-down that he sued him for libel and malice in 1956. Reinhardt, a clever satirist best known for the purism of his blackon-black paintings, did get off some spectacular put-downs. Asserting that there were two trends in painting, he put Rothko in the category of “the cafe-and-club-primitive and neo-Zenbohemian, the Vogue -magazine-coldwater-flat-fauve and Harpers-Bazaar bum, the Eighth-street-existentialist and Easthampton-aesthete, the ModernMuseum-pauper and international-setsufferer, the abstract-‘Hesspressionist’ and Kootzenjammer-Kid-Jungian, the Romantic-ham-‘action’-actor.” Reinhardt put Newman in his other category, that of “the artist-professor and traveling-design salesman, the ArtDigest-philosopher-poet and Bauhaus exerciser, the avant-garde-hucksterhandicraftsman and educationalshopkeeper, the holy-roller-explainerentertainer-in-residence.” Elaine de Kooning got back at Reinhardt and his “art-as-art” attitude in her wittily satirical “Pure Paints a Picture” in Art News that year.