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The Artistic Triumph Of New York

June 2024
36min read

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.

Mark Tansey is a definitively post-modernist painter. His pictures stand at two removes from nature; not art but art history (or art theory) is his subject. Tansey deals in theories and notions, presenting them with the sort of sharp irony found in editorial-page cartoons. At the major Tansey exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts last year, the most striking and I think best example of the painter’s work on display allegorizes a world historical event in the annals of modern art. The picture, an oil painting dating from 1984, is called Triumph of the New York School . It records a thrilling moment presumed to have taken place in the late 1940s, the moment New York supplanted Paris as the art capital of the world and home of the international avant-garde.

One of Tansey’s ironies is that his picture is wholly committed to the representation of a scene and as such stands in diametrical opposition to Abstract Expressionism, the movement that vaulted the New York school of painting into a position of international dominance. In sepia tones suggestive of an old photograph, with a war-ravaged landscape as backdrop, Tansey’s huge canvas depicts one set of military men surrendering to another. The defeated group of soldiers on the left of the painting is dressed in French uniforms from World War I. The victorious men facing them wear the battle fatigues of American soldiers in World War II. At the center of the picture is a table on which the surrender is at this moment being signed by André Breton, the leader of the French surrealists and the presumptive spokesman of his era.


Breton, who was known as “the Pope of surrealism,” is observed approvingly by the commander of the victorious Americans, the art critic Clement Greenberg, champion of “Americantype painting” (his name for it), whose pronouncements on painterly matters were supposedly heeded, in the galleries and lofts of New York, as though they were the orders of a five-star general. Breton’s forces include Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Juan Gris, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Rousseau, and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who brilliantly promoted the school of Paris, launched cubism, and championed surrealism. Greenberg’s adjutants are such mainstays of the New York school as the painters Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Arshile Gorky, the sculptor David Smith, and the critic Harold Rosenberg, who vied with Greenberg for the distinction of being the group’s chief hierophant. Not only the uniforms but the placement and posture of the figures suggest a clash of periods. The French have a cavalry; the Americans, a news photographer kneeling to take his shot of the magic moment. The French are formal, the Americans at ease. Greenberg, genially slouching, keeps his hands in his pockets. So does Pollock, his prize discovery, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

The Cedar Tavern was legendary for boozing and brawling, for the parthenogenesis of the art groupie, and for the excitement of ideas.

In composition and scale Triumph of the New York School evokes the grandeur of a classical surrender scene to make a point. The picture illustrates the allegorical thesis stated succinctly in its title; in effect Tansey visualizes a dead metaphor to revive it. The conceit of the artist as soldier derives from etymology—from the military origin of the term avant-garde . If the “vanguard” of an army is its assault troops, vanguard artists are the elite officers planning raids on culture or society, forays into the uncharted regions of the imagination. But Triumph of the New York School is based on something more than impressionable conceit: the conviction that what it depicts did in fact happen, and in just this metaphorical way.

It is generally accepted that the old school of Paris, which dominated the first part of this century, was eclipsed by the New York school in the late 1940s. The success of Abstract Expressionism is seen, moreover, to have coincided with a triumph for the city of New York as a milieu, a market, an ambiance, or a headquarters for art and the arts. It could be said that the artistic movement concurrent with Hiroshima and the death camps had superseded the ones associated with the earlier “war to end all wars.” The “lost generation” (Gertrude Stein’s term) was history; “action painting” (Harold Rosenberg’s catchy, existential-sounding term) was now. All this Tansey’s picture proclaims, and more: that the avant-garde artist is a militant figure, accustomed to adversarial behavior, for whom conquest and capitulation are the only available choices, because changes in style and fashion in art occur violently, amid competition, and in the face of stalwart resistance.

Some events in the history of art really do seem to occur with the speed and decisiveness with which, for example, the sinking of the Japanese carriers at Midway determined the naval war in the Pacific. The shift of the world’s center of artistic gravity from Paris to New York would appear to be one such event. It was as momentous as it was largely unexpected; it happened suddenly—over the course of a few years commonly thought of as the “heroic” period of the New York school.

If one had to pick a single year as decisive in the rise of Abstract Expressionism, it would be 1948. It was a year of recognitions, innovations, and radical departures. Willem de Kooning had his first one-man show that year, a brilliant exhibit of black-and-white abstractions that confirmed his high stature, at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York City. Jackson Pollock (who’d had his first one-man show five years earlier) did the first of his “drip” (or “poured”) paintings earlier that winter. A monograph on Hans Hofmann appeared in 1948, the first on an Abstract Expressionist. Barnett Newman was doing his first “zip” paintings, each consisting of a narrow vertical line bisecting a huge field of color—Newman’s signature style. Mark Rothko was moving from his abstract multiforms to the classic geometry of his blue-chip style, which he arrived at a year later, consisting of one color-filled rectangle stacked on top of another. Robert Motherwell was on the verge of launching his celebrated series Elegy for the Spanish Republic . And Clyfford Still was turning out color-field abstractions in his newfound jagged-edge manner that reminded observers of Romantic attempts to realize sublime effects; Still exemplified what one critic later called the “abstract sublime.” The collective force of all this humming was a roar. “By 1948, the Abstract Expressionists had become convinced that the art they were creating was more vital, radical, and original than any being produced elsewhere and organized for the purpose of counteracting hostility from art officialdom,” Irving Sandier writes in his standard history of Abstract Expressionism, The Triumph of American Painting (1970). “What had begun as an underground movement finally came out into the open.”

The abstract urge was contagious. The estimable Philip Guston went abstract in 1948; Franz Kline underwent his conversion a year later, soon developing a unique style that (in Sandler’s words) “so strongly etched itself on the sensibility of the 1950’s that it was difficult then to look at any black-and-white picture without thinking of Kline.” Not only the results but sometimes the methods of composition were violently new. Pollock, for example, applied paint with a stick or a sponge (and sometimes directly from tube or can), discarded the easel, and put his whole body into the act of painting, as if it were a ritual dance and he were an initiate into the rites of a priestly magic. He liked working on the floor, he said, so he could “feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”


In 1948 Clement Greenberg, visualizing “a ‘decentralized,’ ‘polyphonic,’ all-over picture” instead of a picture with a perspectival center, saw clearly that a revolution in art was going on. Greenberg seemed to have Pollock in mind when he declared that easel pictures were virtually obsolete and that the new art would have the dimensions of a mural, or of the wall itself. An abstract painting was necessarily a flat painting, because the rejection of representational or figurative art entailed a rejection of the illusion of three-dimensional space. In a January 1948 issue of The Nation Greenberg wrote that Pollock would in time “compete for recognition as the greatest American painter of the twentieth century.” Greenberg himself, who died last year at the age of eighty-five, has few rivals as the greatest American art critic of the same period.

The painters of the New York school had clashing temperaments and personal styles. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman, Hofmann, Reinhardt, Motherwell, Still, Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, Richard Pousette-Dart, and a handful of others differed dramatically, sometimes vehemently, when they exchanged ideas, which was often; one thing they all did like to do was talk. A bunch of them formed a club for the purpose, renting “a small loft in need of a paint job, maybe two windows,” as the painter Larry Rivers recalls it, on Eighth Street between University Place and Broadway, Bohemia’s main drag. Laconically called the Club, it was formally organized in the fall of 1949 in disgust with the conditions at the old Waldorf Cafeteria on Sixth Avenue off Eighth Street, where the painters used to gather during the war years but whose management had turned hostile, keeping the toilet locked and forbidding smoking. At the Club the painters and the poets who were their guests met for Friday-night symposia of unusual intensity and then continued the discussion with different means at the Cedar Tavern, which was located around the corner on University Place. These downtown haunts became the stuff of romantic legend.

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.

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.

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.

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.

It is sometimes argued that the idea of the avant-garde has in the last several decades lost its force in American life. The avant-garde is dead because there is no longer any significant resistance to artistic innovation. The time-honored bohemian battle cry, “Shock the bourgeoisie,” requires the existence of a middle class capable of being shocked and shamed, but Court TV and supermarket tabloids have rendered that impossible. Today the old forms and formulas of the avant-garde are in use but are often denuded of meaning or content; the result is a species of parody, whether witting or inadvertent. There is a degree to which success, especially early success or success attained without obstacles, must terminate the vanguard pretensions of any piece of art. It is all but inevitable. Janet Malcolm sums up “the common perception” in a recent piece on David Salle, who made a fabulous amount of money as a thirty-something postmodernist painter in the 1980s. “The spectacle of young millionaires who made their bundle not from business or crime but from avant-garde art is particularly offensive,” she writes. “The avant-garde is supposed to be the conscience of the culture, not its id.”

How different from the conditions confronting the Abstract Expressionists fifty years ago. What they faced was hostility, not indifference; ridicule, not grants from the government and major foundations; cafeteria meals and park benches, not champagne brunches and celebrity status. The abstract painters hanging out at the Waldorf Cafeteria, at Riker’s (where the food was better), or in Washington Square Park had every reason to suppose that public acceptance of their art was not a realistic possibility. The routine philistinism of the time was matched only by the ingrained anti-intellectualism.

It was precisely this resistance that made the idea of the avant-garde such a compelling one in the postwar era. The strength of the resistance, and the urgent need to overcome it, gave Abstract Expressionism as a movement both its impetus and its characteristic seriousness, which distinguished it so dramatically from the whimsicality of pop art, the movement that succeeded it as the art world’s fashion statement in the 1960s. There is a world of difference—not only in degree of quality but in kind, in temper, and in aspiration—between Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral (1947) and an Andy Warhol brand-name soap pad or soup can twenty years later. White-hot, the Pollock radiates the ferocity of defiance; laid-back, the Warhol is content to be a copy of a mass-produced copy, an icon of consumer culture. Pollock’s is the art of refusal, Warhol’s that of acceptance.

Is the avant-garde, as an idea or an ideal, through, kaput, obsolete? For the moment, yes. Once avant-garde has been identified publicly as a good and rewarding thing to be, there is no stopping the hordes from invoking the gods of vanguardism to justify their productions. In an application of Gresham’s law, the bad art committed in the name of the avant-garde will chase out the good. So it has happened. The fact that something advertises itself as avant-garde art is no guarantee that it is either art or avant-garde. The term is therefore in bad odor, though that is subject to change—or to redefinition. I tend to Fairfield Porter’s view that there will always be an avantgarde “if we define the avant-garde as those people with the most energy.” But there is no denying the detrimental effect that indiscriminate acceptance can have on new art. The absence of cultural resistance gives rise to the seemingly unquenchable thirst for novelty, which leads in turn to Warhol’s conception of fame as an erasable interval lasting fifteen minutes. The Abstract Expressionists had a grander sense of fame and a loftier notion of time.

It was Clement Greenberg who made the case for American avant-gardism in his first major essay, which he called “AvantGarde and Kitsch” and which ran in the fall 1939 issue of Partisan Review . Greenberg had just turned thirty, but he’d already had the seminal experience of taking classes with Hans Hofmann, the German-born abstract artist who as a teacher had a decisive influence on many of the painters in the so-called second generation of the New York school. As Greenberg framed the terms, the avant-garde had to do battle with kitsch, or “ersatz culture,” which was everywhere in America, where the “debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture” were on sale. “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations,” Greenberg wrote. “Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.” The task of the avant-garde artist was to oppose this “rear-guard” action—“to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” (This is another difference between Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock: Warhol coolly mimed the monuments of kitsch; Pollock fought them all the way.)

The future of Western art, wrote Greenberg, “depends on what is done in this country” by a small group of “advanced” artists.

Greenberg identified the avant-garde artist as a painter, and necessarily an abstract painter, for the subject of an abstract painting is implicitly itself. This was a good thing, since it would help liberate art from the traditional task of slavishly reflecting the world of appearance. In the act of encompassing a world, the artist would have to renounce the world. Art itself would have to take the place of religion in our spiritual lives: “It has been in search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at ‘abstract’ or ‘nonobjective’ art—and poetry, too. The avantgarde poet or artist tries in effect to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape—not its picture—is aesthetically valid; something given , increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals. Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself.” This barrage of pronouncements can be read as uncannily accurate prophecies—or as imperatives with prescriptive force, heeded by artists or disobeyed at their peril. What Greenberg is formulating is one of the fundamental paradoxes of Abstract Expressionism: It does away with subject matter, rejecting the idea that the artist must communicate something, yet proclaims the spiritual and even religious value of the statements it makes “on its own terms,” as if it did have subject matter after all, only it happens to be invisible. The paradox enlivens the work of Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman, who issued statements insisting on the primacy of subject matter in their art. In a sense they were rethinking the whole concept of subject matter; they also elevated the importance of titles and altered our understanding of the relation between the title and the work it names. Newman has a series of paintings called The Stations of the Cross , though nothing that meets the eye would necessarily make a spectator think of Christ’s ordeal.

The American avant-garde succeeded beyond Greenberg’s wildest predictions, though it could not have done so without them. Greenberg, the Bronxborn son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, was not only a fearlessly opinionated critic but a highly persuasive rhetorician who made his boldest claims with blunt self-assurance. Between October 1947 and March 1948 he wrote a series of articles announcing the coming supremacy, the global supremacy, of American abstract painting. He aired his maverick views in highbrow journals of opinion, such as The Nation (whose art critic he was), Partisan Review , and the British Horizon . Time and Life rebuked him, but this worked to his advantage since it had the effect of circulating his views to a much wider audience. “Americans,” he wrote in January 1948, were “the most advanced people on earth, if only because we are the most industrialized.” And the best, the “most advanced” American painting was abstract—and was better of its kind than anything turned out in Europe.

Grasping the importance of the sea change taking place, Greenberg became part and parcel of the change. The future of Western art “depends on what is done in this country,” he wrote, and the future of American art depended in turn on a small group of “advanced” artists. He was specific about the makeup of that small group: It consisted of Pollock and the sculptor David Smith —the only two American artists Greenberg considered major—and approximately “fifty people” who had studied painting with Hans Hofmann in New York City. They painted, these fifty, in bohemian isolation, in cold-water flats on the upper floors of seedy walk-ups in Greenwich Village west of Seventh Avenue. They suffered from “the neurosis of alienation.” The “ferocious struggle to be a genius” together with the “frantic scrabbling for money” made it difficult to get along with them. Their paintings went unsold, and they were often broke, but they were serious, very serious, about art. And they possessed a capacity for “rigor and correctness” unmatched in Paris or London. In short, they were the American avant-garde. They were eccentric, isolated, desperate individuals. “What,” asked Greenberg plaintively, “can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?”

Quite a lot, evidently. In Greenberg’s analysis, cubism, the dominant European art movement, was in a state of irreversible decline. The disarray in Paris afforded an unmistakable opportunity for the American artist. What was more, the terrible “isolation” of the avant-garde artist in New York was a blessing in disguise, for isolation (wrote Greenberg) was “the truth, the natural condition of high art in America,” “the condition under which the true reality of our age is experienced.” In degrees of isolation America was miles ahead. “The alienation of Bohemia was only an anticipation in nineteenth-century Paris,” Greenberg wrote. “It is in New York that it has been completely fulfilled.” He wrote that in January 1948; by March he was willing to up the ante. “The main premises of Western art have at last migrated to the United States, along with the center of gravity of industrial production and political power.”

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.”

The second short answer has it that New York unseated Paris as the home of modern art because of the war. The Nazi occupation of Paris, lasting more than four years, had left that city and its cultural institutions in a demoralized and lethargic state. The contrast with the intensity of the experience available to artists in New York City was sharp. Paris retained the foul taste of occupation in its mouth long after the Allied forces liberated it. Thomas B. Hess put it memorably. In World War II, he wrote in 1951, “the division between collaborators and résistants left the artists and intellectuals of France “variously stained and cleaned, abject and heroic, until finally Paris, as a world symbol, is ‘engaged’ in compromise, in the most existentialist sense of the verb.”

The money did not match the recognition; the art market took years to catch up with the reputation of a Pollock or a Rothko.

At this moment of national doubt and guilt in France, American confidence was at its peak. The war had drawn a number of major European artists to the safety of American shores, where they proceeded to stir things up. The influx of talent had multiplied the kinds of influences available to American painters. All sorts of good things might happen if a struggling young painter got the nod from a major European master. In 1943 Piet Mondrian, than whom at the time no abstract artist was more major, picked out a Pollock among hundreds of competitors in Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” gallery, making an instant convert of Peggy Guggenheim. “This is the most interesting work I’ve seen in America,” Mondrian said. “You must watch this man.” At the same time, Hofmann was teaching in his Eighth Street school, where his students included Lee Krasner, Nell Blaine, and later Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. “Hofmann was the great turning point,” said Freilicher. The experience “was like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool if you didn’t know how to swim.”

Virtually the whole of the surrealist movement, including André Breton himself, was in New York. Marc Chagall had come to America, and so had Max Ernst (who was married to Peggy Guggenheim), Salvador Dali, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, Jean Hèlion, and Pavel Tchelitchew. The presence of these prominent artists, so worldly and so advanced, was an enabling experience for their younger American counterparts. “I was painting in the same studio on Tenth Street with Léger and Hélion during the war,” de Kooning told a friend, “and one fine day it struck me that what I was doing was just as interesting as what they were doing.”

One of the theories I have characterized as paranoid was put forth by Tom Wolfe in his 1975 book, The Painted Word . When I am asked to name a book that I admire as literature and deplore as history, this one comes right to mind. Wolfe’s thesis is that a couple of art critics, most notably Clement Greenberg and to a slightly lesser extent Harold Rosenberg, were responsible for the worldwide triumph of the New York school. Wolfe’s larger point is that abstract painting, lacking the content and subject matter that representational art automatically has, came to rely more and more on a priori critical theories, such as those put forth by Greenberg and Rosenberg. How without a theory could patrons, spectators, collectors, journalists decide whether the stuff was good or bad, worth owning, worth talking about? It had long since reached the point that the paintings themselves were judged on the basis of whether they fulfilled the theoretical obiter dicta propounded by a resident guru. “To say that Abstract Expressionism was a baby that only its parents could love is not to downgrade its theorists in the slightest,” writes Wolfe with the panache that makes him so much fun to read. “Quite the opposite. For a good fifteen years, with nothing going for them except brain power and stupendous rectitude and the peculiar makeup of the art world, they projected this style, this unloved brat of theirs, until it filled up the screen of art history.”

As a stylist Wolfe is irresistible. And there is something to be said for the thesis that abstract art tends to rely more and more on the written word, on criticism and theory, and that this tendency has its attendant danger. Fairfield Porter anticipated Wolfe’s argument in The Painted Word when he observed in 1955 that “almost all discussion in New York of painting that is by writers like Greenberg or Rosenberg, or by painters or sculptors at the Club, is influenced by writing, and especially by sociologists and critics who think of themselves as sociologists or as anthropologists, and … therefore miss what each art is about.” (And what was each art about? At least partly “about itself,” wrote Porter, quoting E. M. Forster: “to insist that art exists for its own sake is not to say that life exists for the sake of art.”)


Wolfe, however, lets his delight in caricature get the better of him. He carries on as if the whole New York school phenomenon were a shameless con job from start to finish. He sees dark designs in the fact that its painters’ work, being abstract, provoked more written theory and criticism than any previous generation had done, and simply disregards the possibility that they were possessed of artistic genius. Casey Stengel, the manager of the New York Yankees in their postwar heyday, said when congratulated on the team’s amazing string of pennants (ten from 1949 to 1960), “I couldn’t have done it without my players.” Wolfe’s analysis leaves out the players—the painters whose work had the force of a new idea.

Accounting for the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Serge Guilbaut advances a theory at least as paranoid as Tom Wolfe’s.

That said, I confess that I myself would never wish to underestimate Clement Greenberg’s role in the rise of the New York school. You can measure it several ways. Fairfield Porter, one of the century’s foremost figurative painters, liked saying that he became a figurative painter in the first place out of a perverse imperative, since Greenberg had said that all the important painting going on was abstract. When de Kooning reintroduced the female figure into his pictures, Greenberg told him, “You can’t paint this way nowadays.” Porter overheard the remark. “I thought, ‘If that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do! That’s all I will do.’ I might have become an abstract painter except for that.” “If this is indeed true,” John Ashbery comments wryly, “then modern painting owes an even bigger debt to Greenberg than was previously imagined.”

Greenberg’s power was indeed considerable, his influence palpable. But not everyone was ruled by his dictates. Most painters didn’t sit around and wait for him to tell them what to paint. The idle assumption that people were bullied or duped into accepting abstract art—and that collectors and curators followed Greenberg’s lead like thoughtless sheep—is unfair to all who had an immediate, passionate, and uncoerced relation with the paintings of the New York school. Nor were Greenberg and Rosenberg the only critics of major importance in the evolution of the New York school. There was Tom Hess.

Hess, a great advocate of de Kooning, became the managing editor of Art News magazine in January 1948. Over the next decade the magazine became the major journal of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Hess was a brilliant and ardent editor. It was he who made Abstract Expressionism the name with the most currency for the New York school’s style of painting. He published the best critical writing of Elaine de Kooning and Fairfield Porter. Breakthrough essays by Rosenberg (“The American Action Painters”), Meyer Schapiro (“The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art”), and Robert Rosenblum (“The Abstract Sublime”) appeared first in Art News . Hess also provided a crucial point of connection between Abstract Expressionism and the New York school of poets, which was just getting off the ground in the early 1950s. Three of the New York school’s charter poets, O’Hara, Schuyler, and Ashbery, all wrote for Hess. It was in fact Hess who made it practical for Ashbery to return to New York City after spending the better part of a decade living in Paris. When Hess became the editor in chief of Art News in 1965, he hired Ashbery for his old job of executive editor.

Accounting for the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Serge Guilbaut in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983) advances a theory at least as paranoid as Tom Wolfe’s conspiracy of the critics. Subtitled Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War , Guilbaut’s book is committed to the notion that Abstract Expressionism must be understood primarily within the context of the Cold War’s political alignments. According to Guilbaut, Abstract Expressionism was America’s answer to Soviet socialist realism. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the abstract movement was actually a highly political program involving, or presupposing, a rejection of Marxism and a willingness to wage ideological war on behalf of the capitalist system. Guilbaut makes much of the fact that Congress passed the Marshall Plan in that annus mirabilis for abstract painting, 1948—as if the New York school were to be exported in a first wave of American cultural imperialism concealed in the package of economic aid. How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art is a noteworthy example of the tendency among academic critics to regard art as camouflage and the artist as either a willing or an unconscious pawn in a constant ideological battle in which art plays an integral, if secondary, role.

The germ of truth that Gilbaut elaborates (and distorts) is to be found in this oracular utterance of Clement Greenberg: “Some day it will have to be told how anti-Stalinism which started out more or less as Trotskyism turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.” What I have against Guilbaut’s theory is its onesidedness, the way it simplifies and exaggerates for the sake of a sensational effect or an idée fixe . Readers of How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art —and there are many, since it is in wide use as a college textbook—must imagine that Abstract Expressionism was immediately welcomed by the wielders of American power. Not so. Harry Truman made his one famous crack about modern art in 1948: It all looked like “scrambled eggs” to him. (He made the remark when an exhibition of contemporary American painting organized by the State Department and sent to Europe was returned home in disgrace after the work had been denounced by a rightwing congressman from Michigan.) Government support of the arts helped the next generation: New York-school poets and second-generation painters were direct beneficiaries of enlightened government programs, such as the GI Bill (which sent O’Hara and Koch to Harvard) and the Fulbright fellowships (which sent Koch and Ashbery to Europe). “I was a GI Bill bard,” says Koch. But first-generation Abstract Expressionists had no such luck.


I have no trouble accepting the notion that the Abstract Expressionists embodied American freedom, though Serge Guilbaut makes that sound like an unsavory CIA conspiracy. In fact, the painters defined themselves in Emersonian terms of self-reliance, on the strength of their conviction, unsponsored, free. Guilbaut claims that “artistic rebellion was transformed into aggressive liberal ideology” by “politicians” who “assimilated, utilized, and co-opted” the values of the avant-garde. This bald statement implies a relationship between politicians and paintings that did not exist. Indeed, the identification of Washington with the cause of modern art would have baffled and probably antagonized both sides of the issue. Far from regarding Abstract Expressionism in the light of the propaganda advantage it might bestow in Europe, Washington had banished modern art from the banquet table.

As for the artists, with the exception of Clyfford Still, they remained leftists. The painters in rejecting political art were not exactly embracing the values of the Eisenhower administration. “Politics per se, the news of the world at large, were often a passionate concern, but these considerations were apart from the passionate concerns of art,” Helen Frankenthaler recalls. “Striving to make beautiful new paintings that worked was one issue; McCarthyism, the Cold War, were something else. When art is really beautiful and moving, it brings with it not only growing pleasure but also a sense of truth. This truth, this reality—something so spiritual and unnameable, unprovable—is and has always been a political force in itself. Any other kind of political persuasion is usually empty fashion, or dangerous, or. both.”

The repudiation of a political mandate was one of the grounding principles of Abstract Expressionism. The New York school liberated painting from the social agenda of the 1930s, which had been ineffectual politically and had led to mediocre art. The painters had grasped the radical idea that an embattled avant-garde needn’t have any political orientation, just as painting itself needn’t be (and shouldn’t be) mere illustration. It is a sharptoothed irony that this school of painting, so intent on emancipating the aesthetic from servitude to the political, so emphatic in asserting the rights of the individual, should be subjected to a study in art history that virtually eliminates the artist in favor of the political forces manipulating us all.

The triumph of Abstract Expressionism is to be understood not as a minor instance of Cold War politics but as a major moment in the creative and intellectual life of New York City at its zenith as an art capital. We today might look at this moment with wonderment and nostalgia. But understanding what happened involves more than a heady whiff of the risk and the thrill of new possibilities refreshing the arts. It also means confronting some decisive changes in the very nature and purpose of art. As the twentieth century began, art was charged with a function it had never had before: It was to be a substitute for religion. By mid-century, art was being asked to serve as a replacement for politics as well. This was perhaps a burden that no art could ultimately bear, and the relative poverty of the visual arts today admonishes us to be a little skeptical of the claims made forty and fifty years ago, though it is easy enough to get intoxicated in the atmosphere of that era, so recent yet so far away.

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