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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
An Ad Reinhardt collage that appeared in Newsweek in 1946 depicts “Art” as a fair damsel in distress standing paralyzed on railroad tracks. A runaway locomotive approaches; the tags attached to it are “Sin,” “MoneyGrubbing,” “Corruption,” “Inferiority Complexes,” “Drink,” “Linguistic Stereotypes,” “Prejudice,” and “Banality.” Leaping out of the bushes and over a fence to rescue the damsel from her plight is a well-groomed young gallant identified as “Abstract Art.”
The question remains, How did this come about? How did the Abstract Expressionists rescue art from the speeding train of certain obliteration? How did New York beat Paris at its own game?
The question provokes a long answer, two short answers, a pair of paranoid theories, some speculation, some disputation, and much rich history. The long answer is what remains when the dust clears.
One short answer was given by Clement Greenberg, who figures in everyone’s account as a prime protagonist and sometimes even as the hero of the piece (or villain, depending on whether the writer approves of modern art). In 1946 Greenberg commented to a friend, the director of a midtown gallery, that in his opinion Paris had been “limping along” as the world center of art; it had already begun to decline in the 1930s. “But what will replace the School of Paris?” the gallery director wondered. “The place where the money is,” said Greenberg, “New York.”
This sounds like the right answer, or part of a right answer, though it’s misleading. It gives the impression that the artistic breakthroughs of the New York school were somehow marketdriven—that savvy collectors and curators put their money where Clement Greenberg’s mouth was and paid for the abstract revolution. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The inconvenient fact is that abstract art was shunned by both private and institutional collectors for years after it had fought its way to prominence. Betty Parsons, whose gallery represented Pollock, Hofmann, Rothko, Reinhardt, Still, and Newman, was generous with her walls but had trouble selling paintings. Even the Museum of Modern Art, its progressive reputation notwithstanding, did not set about acquiring Abstract Expressionist works with any zeal until the late 1950s. For the Abstract Expressionists, in short, the money did not match the recognition; it took many years before the art market caught up with the critical reputation of a Pollock or a Rothko. We are so used to the vagaries of an inflated market in which huge sums are lavished on mediocrities that it may come as a shock to realize that success for the Abstract Expressionists meant being able to sell a couple of paintings for a few thousand dollars apiece when a year earlier there had been no sales at all. Pollock, whose major paintings would sell for seven figures today, never made more than eight thousand dollars from a painting in his lifetime.
Nevertheless, there is an important sense in which the economics of the moment was crucial to the development of the New York school. It was miraculously cheap to live in New York City in the late 1940s and all through the 1950s. Rents were low, apartments were available, and a subway ride cost a dime. The pursuit of aesthetic ideals and spiritual values was as affordable as the loft spaces that became popular at this time. How cheap was cheap? Bill and Elaine de Kooning paid $35 a month for their New York digs in the 1940s. Lee Krasner’s rent in 1941 was $10 a month; on the back of an envelope she itemized a typical month’s expenses, which came out to $26. (By 1948 she and her husband, Jackson Pollock, were living in East Hampton, where their mortgage cost them just under $38 a month.) For younger artists just starting out, city rentals under $20 were not uncommon. The poet Kenneth Koch paid $16 a month for an apartment on Sixteenth Street and Third Avenue in 1948, the year he graduated from Harvard. The painter Jane Freilicher once lived in a sixth-floor walk-up on East Eleventh Street between Avenues B and C, paying $11.35 monthly for three rooms. “And,” she said, “it was safe.”
And the city was tremendously stimulating in ways that did not tax one’s pocketbook. In 1995 you have to pay a princely sum if you want to hear some first-class jazz at the Blue Note on West Third Street. In the 1950s you could catch Thelonious Monk or Billie Holiday or Miles Davis for a few bucks. “My arrival in New York [in 1949] coincided with the cresting of the ‘heroic’ period of Abstract Expressionism,” John Ashbery writes, “and somehow we all seemed to benefit from this strong moment even if we paid little attention to it and seemed to be going our separate ways. We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing. But there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage’s music, Merce Cunningham’s dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone: I could see all of this entering into Jane’s [Freilicher] work and Larry’s [Rivers] work and my own. And then there were the big shows at the Museum of Modern Art, whose permanent collection alone was stimulation enough for one’s everyday needs.”