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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
While the strong competitive urge made it natural that the painters would quarrel among themselves, in the larger world they were the New York school: a unified force, a coherent movement. Their elective affinities added up to something that could be copied and codified, something ultimately responsible for twin seismic revolutions in art and in public taste. They often acted in concert for the sake of “advanced art,” challenging the decisions made by hidebound museum directors. In their art they stretched the limits of what it was possible to do. They shattered the representational ideal—formerly the cornerstone of Western painting—as only the most advanced painters in Europe had done and in a style and manner all their own.
The New York school supplied energy and inspiration enough to sustain an entire generation of younger artists—not only abstract painters on the order of Helen Frankenthaler but such “second-generation” mainstays as Larry Rivers, Jane Freilicher, Alex Katz, and Nell Blaine, who were nourished by the example of the abstract painters even as their own development took them back to figurative painting. (Fairfield Porter, though not “younger,” was in this category, a figurative painter nourished by de Kooning’s example.) Because of the Abstract Expressionists, New York became the place to be for the young painter learning his or her trade and for the young poet eager to participate in that exhilarating impulse. It was, as Larry Rivers says, taken for granted that avant-garde was what you wanted to be if you wanted to be taken seriously. “If you weren’t interested in the avant-garde, in being avant-garde yourself, no one was interested in you.” The same could be said for an emerging group of poets who were drawn to the Club and the Cedar Tavern, who wanted to expand the possibilities for poetry in much the same way that the Abstract Expressionists had done for painting. “New York poets, except I suppose the color blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble,” wrote the poet James Schuyler in 1959, summing up a decade and more of unprecedented creative ferment. “In New York the art world is a painters’ world; writers and musicians are in the boat, but they don’t steer.”
You could plot out the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the popular magazines of the time, especially Life . Initially the press played its part by scoffing. In 1947 Time reproduced paintings by Pollock and Hofmann and a sculpture by David Smith as if the work were sell-evidently junk. But perhaps the more important happenstance was that Time had seen fit to broadcast the claims that Clement Greenberg had made on behalf of those three artists. In its issue of August 8, 1949, with America’s girl Debbie Reynolds cute and wholesome in a straw hat on the cover, Life asked if Pollock was “the greatest living painter in the United States?” The question was asked with a jeer, yet it introduced a possibility that could not be dismissed. The intent may have been to mock, but the strategy backfired for the simple reason that notoriety was the best possible publicity. That was the turning point. In a trice Pollock emerged as the art star with the greatest cachet. He was still “Jack the Dripper,” but now everyone knew it. Soon the press ceased to scoff and started expressing bewildered fascination, and from then on there was no stopping the New York school juggernaut.
While beginning as a mouthpiece for resistance to the new art, the media served willy-nilly as a powerful publicity machine for it.
In January 1951 Life ran a soon-tobe famous group photograph of the leading Abstract Expressionists, and though the caption remained derisive (“from the dribblings of Pollock to the Cyclopean phantoms of Baziotes”), the photo itself cast the painters in a heroic light as the leaders of an avantgarde rebellion. That year Pollock’s abstractions were smart enough for Vogue . In the March 1951 issue of that magazine, a fashion spread of photographs by Cecil Beaton featured “the dazzling and curious paintings of Jackson Pollock” as the backdrop against which the models were posed. Two years later Look (which was usually two years behind Life ) showed its readers the new Hans Hofmann that a wealthy Wall Street investor had just acquired. And just two years after that Fortune suggested that readers with the means to buy art should consider doing so as a solid long-term investment that would simultaneously protect against inflation and reduce income tax liability. Fortune used Picasso as its blue-chip standard; Rothko was rated a “speculative or ‘growth’ issue.” A Rothko purchased in 1955 or 1956 for $1,250 would, Fortune said, be worth four or five times that sum by 1960, and between $25,000 and $30,000 by 1965. Abstract art had gone pretty far pretty fast in gaining respectability. Although no one was aware of this then, the whole episode attests to the growing importance of the media in determining the actuality they are naively supposed merely to reflect. While beginning as the mouthpiece for the resistance to the new art, the media served willy-nilly as a publicity machine of greater power than anyone had supposed.