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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
There was a strong element of doubt as well as of risk in the Abstract Expressionist enterprise, and this is bound up with the quasi-religious impulse that one often feels in a Pollock or a Rothko. Among the most audacious things about Abstract Expressionism was that these artists did not shrink from the challenge of the philosophers who had declared God dead. If it was to be expected of art that it provide the religious imagery for a godless age, the painters were ready to oblige with their abstract affirmations of a personal order and a personal spiritual journey. John Ashbery explains the religious parallel with eloquent irony: “A painter like Pollock for instance was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America, for if he wasn’t, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter. It must have often occurred to Pollock that there was just a possibility that he wasn’t an artist at all, that he had spent his life ‘toiling up the wrong road to art,’ as Flaubert said of Zola. But this very real possibility is paradoxically just what makes the tremendous excitement in his work. It is a gamble against terrific odds. Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing. We would all believe in God if we knew He existed, but would this be much fun?”
Years before the cinematic images of Marion Brando and James Dean glamorized the idea of rebellion, the New York painters embodied it. They were lifelong underdogs. They drank too much. Romantically self-destructive —several of them committed suicide, several others perished in car crashes—they were rebels with a cause. The New York Herald Tribune called them the Irascibles because of their implacable and articulate opposition to the artistic establishment—as when they, the self-appointed spokesmen for “advanced art,” fired off an angry letter announcing their intention to boycott the “monster national exhibition” of contemporary American painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950. Pollock, de Kooning, and company charged that the Met’s directors —one of whom was on record calling the abstract artists “flat-chested” pelicans “strutting upon the intellectual wastelands”—were “notoriously hostile to advanced art.” Back then few observers on either side of the Atlantic would have predicted that the same institutions that had shunned the Irascibles would someday fall over themselves to woo them. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted its centennial exhibition to the New York school in 1970, it was the ultimate confirmation that the infidels had been converted. “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970,” which was curated by the late Henry Geldzahler, was a triumph not only for Abstract Expressionism but for the Met and for Geldzahler personally, who had had to overcome quite a lot of resistance from the museum’s trustees.
Besides an unsympathetic museum establishment, the abstract painters had gone up against a public weaned on sentiment and ease when what they had to offer was difficulty and rigor. The dominant styles of pre-war American art were hopelessly provincial when measured against the experiments in modernism that had dazzled Paris and Vienna. European painters had embarked on the uppercase adventures of Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, Constructivism, Expressionism; Americans still seemed hung up on folksy regionalism and dreary social realism. Europe had Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Matisse, Bonnard. What did we have? Grant Wood’s American Gothic —that indelible image of the farmer, his wife, and the pitchfork of rectitude—and Ben Shahn’s illustrations of man’s inhumanity to man. Next to Guernica , Picasso’s powerful outcry against horrors of the Spanish Civil War, Shahn’s eulogies to Sacco and Vanzetti were little more than political cartoons. And so it went up and down the line: Anything we could do, they could do better. Paris was the home of the international avant-garde, the place where you went if you wanted to learn how to paint.
The painters had gone up against a public weaned on sentiment and ease when what they had to offer was difficulty and rigor.
And then came the war, and then New York went avant-garde, and everything changed.