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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 rise of the New York avantgarde conformed to the pattern Gertrude Stein observed in her 1926 lecture “Composition as Explanation.” “For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause everybody accepts,” wrote Stein. She added that “the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between.” That sentence could have been written with Jackson Pollock in mind. Pollock (in de Kooning’s oft-quoted formulation) “broke the ice” for everyone else. He was the first to try out a new conception of painting and the first to become famous. Not only was Pollock unconventional in his methods of composition, he was a rebel and a misfit. The biker played by Marion Brando in The Wild One , when asked what he is rebelling against, says, “What have you got?” This could have been Pollock’s answer to the question. A deeply dissatisfied, irascible, and neurotic individual, Pollock “was always smoldering, always ready to explode, willing to pick a fight with anyone,” Lionel Abel told me.
Abel, the playwright and freelance intellectual, visited Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, herself an outstanding abstract painter, after the couple had moved from New York City to East Hampton. “We played poker, and when he’d lose, he smacked Lee,” Abel said. Moody, given to wild drinking sprees and spectacular tantrums, liable to rip the men’s room door off its hinges in the Cedar or to urinate in a rich man’s fireplace, Pollock lived the life of the outlaw artist—and died it, in a car crash—yet went from penury and neglect to the status of “a classic” almost without a pause. It is often said that Pollock found it hard to shuttle between bohemia and the wealthy uptown salons to which he had gained entrée when people began entertaining the notion that this scruffy native of Cody, Wyoming, just might be the world’s greatest living painter. The suddenness of the change, the sense of overwhelming acceptance after years of being rejected and getting used to rejection as the norm, was a shock from which he could not recover. “The crowning irony of that generation is that their moment of disintegration began when they were lavished with success,” the art critic Hilton Kramer says. “They were so practiced at dealing with failure.”
Like triumph, heroic is a word that figures in many accounts of the action painters. It is easy to romanticize the misunderstood artist, alienated from his peers, victimized by the major American currents of materialism and greed. And certainly Pollock and the rest of them were daring, risking everything on a form of painting that was anathema to the general public, mocked by middlebrow critics, and more or less ignored by the museum establishment. The word action in the phrase action painter refers to the notion that the abstract painters incorporated into their pictures the physical gestures and actions that went into their making; in a sense the paintings were to chronicle their own existence, to chart their own development.
“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined,” Harold Rosenberg wrote. “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” This idea was a powerful liberation for the painters—and for the poets they influenced, such as O’Hara, Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, the nucleus of the New York school of poetry that sprang up in the wake of the painters’ oceanic wave in the early 1950s. But while it has a very specific artistic application to such “gesture” painters as Pollock and Franz Kline, for whom the impulse and the process of creation were allimportant, action painter as a phrase is conditioned by the existentialism that was in the air. At the time, Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of action ruled the intellectual domain. There was something heroic in the existential notion that one could act upon one’s destiny —that one’s existence was not something given but something to be achieved—and that in an absurd universe in which God is dead and bad faith is general, the alienated artist could achieve meaning and authenticity through his actions.
Whether their paintings were in the “gesture” camp (Pollock, de Kooning, Hofmann, Kline) or the “color-field” category (Newman, Rothko, Still), the abstract painters seemed to live this life of existential risk. If you could not see this for yourself in their works, you could hear it in the talk of the New York intellectuals. “The big moment came when it was decided to paint … just TO PAINT ,” Harold Rosenberg wrote in “The American Action Painters” (1952). “The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from value—political, esthetic, moral.” Another great advocate of the abstract painters, the Columbia professor Meyer Schapiro, in “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art” (1957), emphasized that the abstract painter was participating in a “unique revolutionary change,” a celebration of “freedom and possibility.” The product of his labor “symbolizes an individual who realizes freedom and deep engagement of the self within his work.” Existentialism as a philosophy or way of life may have been a European invention, but as Schapiro’s rhetoric attests, it was in American abstract art that the existential act could be said to have found its most dynamic artistic vehicle.