Strong on the Margins: AbEx New York at MoMA
Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture at The Museum of Modern Art
October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011
11 West 53 Street, between 5th and 6th avenues
New York City, 212 708 9400
Because Abstract Expressionism is recognized as the great American art movement, and MoMA as the greatest museum anywhere devoted to modernism, we naturally think of them as allies. The brief remarks in the exhibition catalogue by director Glenn Lowry and curator Ann Temkin, as well as the photographs from the museum’s archives, certainly reinforce this way of thinking. But in fact, the story is more complicated. In 1949, Clement Greenberg complained about “how remiss the museum has been lately in its duty to encourage modern American art.” And in 1957, he noted that Alfred Barr, “betting on a return to nature,” turned down a request of the American Abstract Artists to hold a show there “with the intimation that they were following what had become a blind alley.” The museum, Greenberg commented, “belonged more to the ’establishment’ than to the avant-garde.”
Given then that MoMA has the power and will to collect this classic movement, what is striking about this exhibition—which does not draw on any loans—is both its weaknesses in the presentation of the canonical figures and the presence of some surprising pictures by marginal figures. The account it presents is a little different, in interesting ways, from the much-told story of the triumph of American-style painting. Jackson Pollock is irresistible, for the transition from The She-Wolf (1943) to One: Number 31, 1950 (1950) marks his dramatic advance, though White Light (1954) then shows his equally swift decline. It was also good to see his Number 7, 1950 (1950) albeit set so oddly high on the wall in the gallery with David Smith’s Australia (1951). Sam Francis’s Big Red (1953) is a fully realized masterpiece. And Willem de Kooning looks great thanks to the inclusion of Painting (1948), A Tree in Naples (1960), and Valentine (1947), which, I grant, is more a promissory note than a fully realized masterpiece. Joan Mitchell’s Ladybug (1957) shows how wonderfully gifted she was.
But where Mark Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944) nicely marks the transition into his mature style, No. 1 (Untitled) (1948) is a disaster. And comparing Philip Guston’s The Clock (1956-57) with his figurative North (1961-62) demonstrates, as Sean Scully has said, how little ultimate gift he had for abstract painting. As for Robert Motherwell’s Western Air (1946-47), Lee Krasner’s Number 3 (Untitled) (1951), and Helen Frankenthaler’s Trojan Gates (1955), they are fascinating mistakes, pictures of historical interest that add nothing to the reputations of these distinguished artists. Krasner’s Gaea, (1966), shown on the billboards for this exhibition, is a large, but undistinguished painting. But Number 9: In Praise of Gertrude Stein by Bradley Walker Tomlin (1950), is a great all-over picture that gives him a place in the canon, and Grace Hartigan’s Shinnecock Canal (1957) demonstrates how good she might have been. She attracted support from the influential critic Frank O’Hara and so had every reason to be optimistic: “I believe I am the first woman of major stature in painting, and I feel that given a long life and sufficient courage and energy, I may become a great artist.” (The Journals of Grace Hartigan, 1951-1955, Syracuse University Press, 2009, p.62.) But when she left New York to live in Baltimore, she lost touch with the art world.
Hedda Sterne, the one woman who appears in the famous group portrait of the Abstract Expressionists, the “irrascibles,” is represented by an interesting, but not entirely convincing painting, New York, VIII (1954). And while Norman Lewis was gifted, his Phantasy II (1946) does not really belong in this exhibition. As always, Louise Nevelson is hard to place. Maybe her Sky Cathedral (1958) should be set alongside the paintings by Clyfford Still, the most unclubbable of these artists. As for Hans Hofmann, his Memoria in Aeternum (1962) remains too indebted to Analytic Cubism—notwithstanding the persuasive supportive accounts of Bill Berkson and T. J. Clark—to be part of Abstract Expressionism. But Ad Reinhardt appears very consistent and the etchings by Barnett Newman are great.
This exhibition was a challenging exercise in connoisseurship. 1945 was a great moment in art’s history, one of those rare magical times when extremely influential large-scale radical change occurred very suddenly. After long apprenticeships to European modernism and Depression-era social realism, the American Abstract Expressionists found themselves. Soon they produced original masterpieces that changed how older modernist art was understood, inaugurating an ongoing tradition that continues today. The Great War stunted the development of cubism1914, terminating the collaboration of Picasso and Braque. Abstract Expressionism began as the art of the victors. World War II came, and by 1945 Europe, Japan, and the USSR lay in ruins, while the newly powerful United States became the home for Abstract Expressionism. As the catalogue says: “With Europe a postwar shambles, the very concept of modern civilization was thrown into question; this art developed exactly when Americans were absorbing the facts of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the bombings in Japan. These artists read their historical moment as a spur to action and an invitation to stage a rebirth of painting, this time on American shores.”
In some ways, this dramatic change was well prepared for. The Museum of Modern Art, which opened in 1929, mounted ambitious shows of European modernism.
And there were sophisticated art dealers, such as Henri Matisse’s son Pierre, and collectors with deep pockets interested in contemporary art; intellectuals who became art critics—Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and others; and interested academic art historians, Meyer Schapiro being the most notable. And Mondrian and other important European artists came to New York as refugees. But these at most are merely necessary conditions for the development of great art. Circa 1945 Latin America also had prosperous elites, important emigrant European artists and gifted native painters. But what they created cannot be compared with American Abstract Expressionism.
Given the great difficulty of understanding the origins of Abstract Expressionism, comparing the beginning of an artistic tradition in a distant culture is helpful. Starting in the seventh century, Muslims employed and appropriated a rich Eastern Mediterranean heritage, the art of Greco-Roman antiquity and its Christian aftermath. Their problem was how to use this visual culture without being overwhelmed by its exotic sacred and political character. These artists, Oleg Grabar argues in The Formation of Islamic Art (Yale, 1987) for instance, legitimately feared the power of this religiously hostile tradition. Just as the Grand Mosque of Damascus reinterprets the decorative schemes of Christian churches, substituting foliage for images of saint, so Pollock and his peers reworked inherited European styles. Like the Muslim artists, they had to establish their identities by radically transforming the overwhelmingly rich tradition they borrowed.
Author’s Note: Thanks are due to Pepe Karmel, who is not responsible (how could he be?) for my use of his corrections and suggestions.