Feminism in Art and Culture

ART AND FEMINISM

According to Lee Krasner, the art world in New York in the late 1930s was an egalitarian place. Discrimination arrived in the persons of the French Surrealists, renowned misogynists, who considered women to be children or muses. In the 1940s, the few token women in the art world had been either sponsored by or associated with a male in the art world. In the pre-war era, the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe were among the most valuable in New York, but she moved to New Mexico and left the scene in the late forties.  A new generation of artists, mostly male, displaced the aging coterie of American Modernists led by Alfred Stieglitz who died in 1946. It was only after the Second World War, when New York became the leading capital of art, that women began to be pushed to fringes of the gallery scene. The memory of important women artists, from O’Keeffe to Gertrude Greene to Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White, evaporated and these women vanished from history.

Krasner and Eileen de Kooning were overshadowed by their famous husbands and their art careers were doomed by the prevailing machismo left over from the war.  Although she too was married to a well-known artist (Robert Motherwell), Helen Frankenthaler survived the coupling and the divorce because she was sheltered by Clement Greenberg, the most powerful art critic in New York. Both O’Keeffe and Frankenthaler owed their careers to the attentions of amorous and powerful men who were willing to promote them. It is doubtful that either woman could have succeeded without this male support but, to their credit, they rose above their protectors and became significant artists.

With these exceptions in mind, it is fair to say that in the post-war period most women were ignored or belittled as artists and were rarely shown in galleries or taken seriously.  The main reason was economic. Given that art was an investment, a mini hedge fund, no collector would pay the same amount of money for a work by a woman as by a man. The work of women, whatever that work was, was universally devalued in comparison to that of men, and it made no economic sense for a gallery owner who was a business person to carry a commodity that did not bring the greatest monetary gains. The other reason for ignoring women who were artists was the universal male practice of dominating women by excluding them from the lucrative spheres reserved for men.

The Personal is Political

In the Sixties, women in the art world existed solely due to the tolerance of men and to their acceptance of the superiority of the male as the norm.  Thus in New York City, Carolee Schneemann was a favorite of the male community because she performed in the nude. But by the 1970s, for many women, the Women’s Movement was a revelatory experience and a means of articulating their experiences in a male world. Schneeman shifted her art to feminist issues and her performance, Interior Scroll, is considered a classic example of the reclamation of the female body.

Feminism was unavoidably a political challenge to the status quo of male domination.  As the post on the history of feminism suggested, for a woman to claim control over her own destiny was a political act in and of itself: “The Personal is Political.” Over time, Feminism developed its own discourse. The feminists appropriated the Marxist methodology of “consciousness raising” to help women to see the means of their oppression.  The prevailing ideology placed the male above the female by claiming that male supremacy was “natural.”  Because the secondary status of women was near universal, it took years of hard work on the part of feminists to lift the “veil” of ideology to reveal that male domination was, in fact, cultural and not at all natural.

The term the feminists used was “click”, meaning that something supposedly “natural” “clicked” into place as being part of the culture of male oppression. When the New York art world was introduced to feminist theories, surely one of those moments of raised consciousness had to be the contradiction between the prevailing practice of formalist art criticism which focused on the formal elements of the art work alone and the near complete lack of women and artists of color in the galleries and museums.  Clearly, critics and curators were not looking at the work only, as they claimed; they were looking first at the artist and then at the art. The resulting exclusion of women and people of color or gays and lesbians was disastrous for those who were rejected, denying them economic opportunities solely on the basis of gender, race or sexual preference.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time of pushback from  the gay and lesbian community and from the women in the art world. The American feminist movement was divided into two parts, East Coast and West Coast.  Broadly speaking, both feminist movements changed the art world but they did so in different ways.  To counteract the male domination in the art world, women in New York challenged the dominate institutions and demanded membership in the boys’ club of the art world.  They had to assault the fortresses of the museums and of the established galleries.  They had to fight to enter into male dominated fields, such as painting, that had been reified as sites of masculine struggles. They had to confront the entire tradition of humanism in academia, where women were considered problematic students or teachers.

Feminism in New York

Women protested and organized and marched during the Seventies. New York City was a bastion of male power, and museums and art galleries were supported by male curators, male art historians, male dealers, and male critics, and it was these powerful institutions that had to be assaulted. Thanks to the expansion of graduate programs during the Sixties, there were many educated women coming into the art world as art and art history teachers.  These women attempted to reform history and criticism by researching about forgotten “women artists” and by writing about contemporary “women artists.” In 1970 Linda Nochlin wrote the now canonical essay, Why Have there been no Great Women Artists? It was a brave question with a social answer: women were excluded, denied opportunity, pushed aside because of their gender and the roles that the culture had devised for women.

Nochlin went on to co-curate with Ann Sutherland Harris, Women Artists, 1550-1950,a landmark exhibition of women artists that restored women to the history of art.  The exhibition was a direct counter to the traditional art history “survey” texts that routinely and stubbornly refused to include women, even when they were, like Georgia O’Keeffe, historical figures. It was easier for courageous art historians to begin the archaeological re-discovery of women artists—Mary Garrard wrote on Artemisia Gentileschi—than for contemporary women artists to get a gallery in the 1970s.

This recovery and support effort was international, extending to England, where Griselda Pollock joined the efforts of Linda Nochlin and Lucy Lippard and Cindy Nemser, who began to specialize in writing about women in the arts in New York. Lippard, who had been key in writing of Process Art in her The Dematerialization of the Art Object, switched to writing of women and other outsider artists.  From the Center was another early work exclusively on women artists and Lippard could make this career move only because she was already established as an art critic. In London, film critic Laura Mulvey used Jacques Lacan’s male-made theories about women in order to demonstrate how men dominated women in Visual and Other Pleasures. Griselda Pollock followed up with Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology in 1980.

Feminism in Los Angeles

The courage of the women art historians and art writers in New York should be noted and applauded.  Each took great risks in taking up an unpopular and contentious topic—women artists—and in the process they laid the foundation for a historical discourse on women. If the name of the game in New York was seizing a place in the economic and intellectual terrains, the game in Los Angeles was re-educating women. Women in Los Angeles countered male bias in education by founding separate courses and classes. According to feminist theory, there was an essential “feminine” which would emerge in women’s art if they were allowed to make art freely, taught by women in an all female environment.  To those who came later, this discourse would seem “essentialist”, a mere reiteration of Freud’s “anatomy is destiny,” but to the women of the Seventies, it was a necessary concept that enabled them to understand their own art in their own terms.

There were no powerful art institutions in Los Angeles, but those that existed also managed to ignore the presence of women in the art world.  Because the art world was less visible and the territories were less guarded and not as well established, the women in Los Angeles had more opportunities to make a difference than those in New York City. The education of women through teachings in the classrooms became one of the main avenues of liberating women.  For the first time, women in large numbers were taking up teaching positions as the California system expanded to accommodate the baby boomers and the growing population.  Some women, such as Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, were political activists, demonstrating publicly against the treatment of women by law enforcement and the characterization of women by the press In Mourning and in Rage (1977). Many of these early feminist women became important teachers at prestigious institutions, such as Sheila de Bretteville now at the Yale University School of Art.

Other women attempted to reform the unequal education of women as artists.  Judy Chicago set up women only programs at California State Fresno and one of her pioneering programs in feminist art making and art teaching was the Feminist Art Program with Miriam Schapiro at Cal Arts.  Paralleling the co-ops of women artists in New York, the Woman’s Building was founded in Los Angeles in 1973 and all-women classes were taught there as well. The Woman’s Building, like the co-ops in New York, gave artists a place to gather together and exchange ideas, discuss and critique their art, and, most importantly to exhibit their work. In these early years, a key idea was the deliberate separation of women from men, with the assumption that, without men, women could flourish.

The climax of these separatist activities is The Dinner Party, 1979, conceived and designed by Judy Chicago and made by a cooperative workshop of women (and men).  An installation exhibition ahead of its time, this work was criticized for its sociological and anthropological bent and for its political-historical subject matter.  Encyclopedic in nature, The Dinner Party was an attempt to visualize and celebrate the history of women.  For the mainstream art world, the brief vogue of politically aware art was over and the implied critique of all that art theory asserted was irritating to conservative critics.

Aside from celebrating women and their contributions to history, The Dinner Party refuted the notion of the lone artist and refused to accept the distinction between art and craft.  The Dinner Party remained in storage for over a decade and was rarely exhibited.  Recently, through a generous gift of a woman donor, this large work was donated to the Brooklyn Museum, now its permanent home. In retrospect the best thing about The Dinner Party was and is the delighted reaction of the art audiences which have embraced the complex work.

When Feminism Becomes Art

For women artists, Feminism meant a new designation: “Women” artists became a new category to be not excluded but considered.  Previously, “artist” was a word referring to men and women-as-artists had existed as exceptions that proved the rule of male superiority. Feminism brought the problems and concerns of women in the arts to the fore, to the relief of those who hoped for an end to discrimination by museums and galleries and universities and to the irritation of women who merely wanted to be “artists” who made “art.”

Thanks to the G. I. Bill, meant to benefit male soldiers, a university education became common and many women naturally followed their brothers to college. During the Viet Nam War, graduate schools expanded and, for artists, it became more and more common to have an undergraduate and a graduate degree.  Thanks to Civil Rights legislation, it was difficult to deny women entrance to higher education. As a result, women, seeing an unprecedented opportunity, poured into colleges and into art schools.  By the 1970s, the sheer number of women in the art world made progress inevitable, if slow.

In the early years, many women sought refuge from male-orientated art schools where “toughness,” “hardness,” and “strength” were taught as necessary attributes of art and from the narrowness of art history which considered any work of art by any woman to be “derivative” (of men) by definition.  In theory, there was an essential “feminine” which would emerge in women’s art if they were allowed to make art freely, taught by women in an all female environment.  Forty years later it is difficult to understand the need to find “essential” female forms but certain landmark exhibitions such as the Womanhouse of 1972 where the intimate relationship between the female and domesticity was explored in a series of themed rooms and provocative performances showed the particularity of a woman’s life.

The first generation of feminist artists, such as Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero, were not successful or recognized until old age. Many of the younger women, such as the late Hannah Wilke, would become significant historical figures but not famous artists. But the next generation of women would benefit from the pioneering efforts of their predecessors and Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine learned how to speak “feminism” without saying the word.  They would become famous artists, leaving the qualifying adjective “woman” behind in the dust bin of history.

Some women welcomed the new visibility, others feared being ghettoized by the title “woman artist.” Some women felt that women as artists would make very specific forms of art, not just social content, but formal content.  Others felt that women were artists, period, and should make whatever kind of art they wished.  Although there were women who ultimately disagreed with the aims of the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, any woman who choose to do so benefited from the efforts of the pioneering women in New York and Los Angeles who felt that the only way to be equal was to be separate—at least they would be allowed to develop their art without interference.

The exhibition of The Dinner Party would be the high water mark of the Women’s Movement as the now-famous conservative revolution swept the nation in 1980.  One could argue that a decade is simply not enough time to change the habits of millennia. In the end, most women preferred to remain attached to the (male) mainstream traditions and inside preexisting (male) institutions, hoping to succeed within the male world and striving to eradicate the term “woman artist.”

The Feminist Art Movement not only opened doors for non-male, non-Caucausian artists, it also opened the doors for new content that was personal, political and expressive, even decorative and figurative art was made newly respectable, thanks to this new impact.  The  Pattern and Decoration Movement made “mere” decoration acceptable, if a male did the art; and New Figuration brought back representation, as long as it was a male representation. In a larger sense, feminism was part of art world Pluralism in general and part of a new demand for more content orientated subject matter in art. In the cultural and social sense, feminism was part of the Civil Rights Movement that liberated people of color, gays and lesbians, and that biggest group of all—women.

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Post-War Culture in America

FROM MODERNISM TO POST-MODERNISM

POST-WAR ART IN AMERICA

After the Second World War, the art world was characterized by “triumphalism” in New York and a feeling of having won, not just a military war but also a cultural war.  The French and their School of Paris had been routed.  Also defeated was American Scene painting and its nativist illustrations of a naïve nation.  Now, the triumphant society would be represented by works of art that expressed America metaphorically, through sheer size or potent symbols.  American art, like American culture, was a global phenomenon with New York at its core. There were “secondary” and usually ignored centers in the Midwest (Chicago) and on the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco), but New York seized the lead, consolidating major art critics, major artists, major art dealers, and major art nstitutions, from museums to art departments, and, perhaps most important of all—important art collectors.  Until the 1970s, this scene was the site of rival movements, co-existing and reacting dialectically—Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Pop Art, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, Op Art, and so on, until the great seventies dissolve into incoherent Pluralism.  It can be said that, after Abstract Expressionism, most of these movements defined and positioned themselves against the aging artists of the New York School and their continuation of the European tradition.

This cacophony of movements was presided over by art critics and art historians who wrote for a small number of magazines that fulfilled the function of legitimation and validation of artists, their art reputations and careers.  As a financial town, New York provided the support system willing to invest in contemporary art, but only the art went through the system of approval from what Arthur Danto called “the art world.”  Danto and the aesthetician, George Dickie, conceived of the “institutional theory of art,” meaning that “art” was designated, not on an aesthetic basis, but upon the basis of institutional acceptance.   From Neo-Dada onwards, the traditional definition of art was in a state of crisis, brought on by the acceptance of Marcel Duchamp’s alternative concepts of art.

Instead of an attractive object, characterized by “taste,” a work of art was a concept.  Instead of an artist who worked with hands and heart, the creator was a conceptualist who conceived of art as language.  Far more challenging than Duchamp’s insistence that art should be put “in the service of the mind,” was the logical consequences of Dada’s new artistic freedom.   If art was a thought manifested by an arbitrarily found object, then any item from the world outside of the confines of fine art could be termed “art.” Once “art” announced itself with its significant presence, its beauty, its grandeur, its profound intentions, by the Sixties, Danto pondered the difference between a “real” Brillo box and a Brillo box by Andy Warhol.

What is the difference between a mural sized field of glorious color titled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950), a painting hanging on the wall, where it belongs, and Monogram (1955) a stuffed goat with a tire girdling its middle, standing proudly on a canvas, laid down like a “field” on the floor?  The gap between the two is the distance between generations, the gulf between America before and after World War II.  What happened during the fifties and the sixties to produce such a schism between the nobility of “Man, heroic and sublime” and the ignobility of an abandoned goat, straddling a painted arena, where the heroic artist once did battle with the forces of art and tradition?

The Fifties seemed to be Clement Greenberg’s nightmare of popular culture come true, with the invasion of kitsch—Rauschenberg’s goat and stuffed chickens in the museum just one room away from the abstract purity of Newman’s absolute spiritual state.  Life had invaded art in a most unexpected way. Newman’s piece is all about the human spirit at its most glorified, idealized, spiritualized form.  Rauschenberg’s work is about life, the quotidian, the overlooked, the ignored.  But life in all its inglorious aspects, Rauschenberg is asserting, is worthy of our attention.  The distance between Newman and Rauschenberg is the long delayed consideration of Duchamp’s challenge to high art and all its serious pretensions.  Instead of the involvement of gesture, we have the detachment of gesture.   Instead of the triumph of art, we have the success of art’s acceptance of anything and everything as art.

The ground was fertile for the ideas of Duchamp by the 1950s because of the need to debunk Abstract Expressionism and because of the commercial success of American art.  The burgeoning demand allowed the artists scope and freedom to defy rather than to extend and re-define tradition.   The success of American art was inseparable from the tragedy of Jackson Pollock.  Pollock took a deep breath about 1947 and managed to hold it and his life together for about three years. During this dry spell, Pollock produced some of the most sublime images of the century, and then willfully, capriciously, childishly, he exhaled.  His life’s breath drifted out and his art drifted away, and one August night in 1956, Pollock drove his car into a tree, killing himself and a passenger.  Great story.  American art now had its martyr.  The New York School now had its Grand Récit, complete with the tragic arc.   Greenberg would recall Pollock’s “run” of about ten years, leaving behind a cult of personality and a Studio full of relics and a keeper of the flame, “the art widow,” Lee Krasner.

In order for the art world to move on, this hagiography had to be combatted.  Piece by piece the vaunted characteristics of Abstract Expressionism would be attacked and discredited and discarded, and by the Eighties, the movement was consigned to a Modernist history. Ironically, the “triumph” of the New York School was immediately followed by the challenge of Neo-Dada.  Neo-Dada eschewed originality for appropriation, bringing the jewel in the crown of modernism—creativity—to an end. It is here that Modernism ends and Postmodern begins. The art world’s continuing challenges to Modernism and its defenders, Clement Greenberg and his followers, would be expanded to that of a critique of Enlightenment and all that it had wrought.  That critique was Postmodernism.  Postmodernism was a re-examination of Modernism and was based in philosophy and literary theory, rather than in the visual arts or aesthetics.  Therefore, postmodernism could not generate a style or a movement.

As a philosophical critique, postmodernism or post-structuralism was a European phenomenon, dating from the decade of the mid to late Fifties to Sixties.  Fueled by the collapse of the Left, following “May, 1968” in France, postmodernism was a re-reading of Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that had proved inadequate to the challenges of the Twentieth Century.  In Germany, postmodernism was really a form of post-Marxism, again, generated by the inadequacy of traditional Marxism to social and cultural changes, especially mass media.  As an exercise of re-examination, postmodernism took the stance of “belatedness,” everything had already been done, all had been said, and the kind of historical progress promised by the Enlightenment was unlikely to occur.

For years, most Americans in the art world paid little attention to postmodern theories, whether out of philosophy or literary theory.  The reason for this neglect are various and include American self-satisfaction with the leadership position in visual culture, the slowness of translation, and the entrenchment of traditional art historical methods.  When Americans became aware of the significance of postmodern thinking in the 1980s, most of the important works had either been written or were well underway.  Suddenly belated, American art could only try to respond and to catch up to European thinking.  The visual arts shifted into “theory” and language and philosophy, as artists began to critique Modernist art and to reject or re-examine its precepts.

With the occasional exception excluding women and people of color, the post-war art world was an all male, all white enclave.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s challenged the art world and revealed the racism and the sexism that favored the production of white men.  After the Stonewall Uprising in 1968 and especially after AIDS, the gay and lesbian community also demanded more visibility.  Coincidentally or not, postmodernism became prominent in America during the Reagan presidency, which was characterized by attempts to roll back the gains of women and people of color and by neglect of the AIDS epidemic.  Because postmodernism re-reads traditions of the past, it is an inherently conservative study, re-examining the work of white males, mostly dead.  That said, “theory,” especially post-Marxist theory provided women, gays and lesbians, and people of color a theoretical basis to challenge the more reactive elements of postmodern theory.

For the visual arts the consequences were profound: there was freedom and anarchy and lack of a center.  Without an avant-garde, postmodern artists seemed doomed to reactiveness to the past.  But folded into the postmodern period, were Late Enlightenment adaptations of social theories, co-existing with postmodern assertions that revolution was now impossible. The so-called “minorities” had the tools to resist the hegemony of the status quo.   The question that begs to be asked is, if late modernism and postmodernism co-mingle, when did postmodernism begin or when did modernism end?  The answer depends upon where you are, which culture you come from—the Sixties in Europe, the Eighties in America—in terms of response to Enlightenment philosophy.  But if one uses another criteria, “the postmodern condition,” then the shift is more cultural, rooted in mass media, and therefore global.  This “condition” that is Postmodernism is a post-war response to the loss of mastery and the disillusionment in a disenchanted world.

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Events in Abstract Expressionism

EVENTS FOR ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, 1945-1955

In 1946, former British prime minister, Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in March at Fulton, Missouri.  According to Churchill, who had always been suspicious of Stalin, traditional fascism verses democracy had been replaced by a new confrontation between communism verses democracy.  The Cold War was on.  With the advent of Atomic Power, the world became used to the  “normalization” of the Bomb and accepted the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction.  After the Second World War, in 1947-48 a new identity for the avant-garde developed with the beginning of a New Liberalism and the beginning of a New Conservativism.  The rise of Nationalism in America impacted Abstract Expressionism.  On one hand, the style was touted by the American government as an expression of “Freedom” abroad, while being assailed as un-American at home.

That same year, 1946,  marked the end of Surrealist activity in New York and the Truman Doctrine introduced American aid to combat communism in Europe.  To combat Communism at home, the Employee Loyalty Program introduced the infamous “Loyalty Oaths.”  While the Marshall Plan began the “struggle for souls” in Europe, to make the continent safe from Communism, Americans at home were subjected to increasing surveillance. “Modern art equals communism,” thundered George Donders, the Pat Robertson of his day.  “..lazy, nutty Moderns,” grumbled President Harry Truman.  For American conservatives, “modern art” was equated with the avant-garde which was equated with Europeans which was equated with Communism.  In the first decade following the Cold War, modern art, particularly Abstract Expressionism, became a pawn in the political struggle with Communism.  As both Max Kozloff (1973) and Eva Cockcroft (1974) pointed out, the Museum of Modern Art frequently played the role of go-between, negotiating between the United States government (the CIA) and European venues for American art.

Forty years later, their consternation seems a bit naïve, given the extent to which governments have always deployed art for political purposes.  As for the artists and their collectors, international showings and celebrations of their art could well have been welcome, regardless of the underlying motivations or sponsoring agencies.  After all, the entire modus operandi of the Abstract Expressionist artists had been to “breakthrough” the stranglehold of European art.  Indeed, the earliest exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art had the word “American” in the titles: “Fourteen Americans,” 1946, “Fifteen Americans,” 1952, “Twelve Americans,” 1956, “The New American Painting,” 1958, “The New American Painting and Sculpture.  The First Generation,” 1969 and so on.   American government became involved with using art as propaganda:  “We will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City,” said one  U.S. Senator.

Under these circumstances in which American art was used to connote “freedom,” Peggy Guggenheim returned to Europe and gave away all but two works of her collection to “provincial” museums. Jackson Pollock’s important  Mural (1943) went  to the University of Iowa where it languished for years in obscurity.  For cautious artists, there was a new ideology, a third way, and a non-commital abstraction provided a way out of the vise of nationalism against the international avant-garde. In the MacCarthy era it was prudent to avoid political extremes and unwanted exposure with a political apoliticalism, while continuing the Modernist tradition of abstract art.

The New York intellectuals had already turned to psychoanalysis and to myth to avoid Marxist aesthetics, using the emergence of biomorphic art, linked to automatic writing and Surrealism, and the increased interest in primitivism to do work connected to contemporary events.  For the Abstract Expressionist artists, the violent and frightening content of primitive art, archaic art could express the contemporary fate of individual facing chaos and the horror of modern condition could not be represented figuratively.  To these artists, to represent is to accept the conditions. Recalling the censorship of Rivera’s murals, the head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt eliminated from mural in San Francisco as too “political.”  Even the Partisan Review moved to the right and stresses psychology, focused on the individual.   Greenberg, likewise, jettisoned his early Marxism for apolotical formalism as a means for analyzing art.

Meanwhile, Abstract Expressionism was taking hold, with “The Ideographic Picture” being presented at Betty Parsons’ gallery in 1947.   Parsons, the last of the amateur dealers, took over most of Guggenheim’s stable of artists, keeping Jackson Pollock but removing his wife, the painter, Lee Krasner, from her stable.   In 1948 the  Subject is Artists School was set up by Motherwell and Newman with lectures on Friday evening. In contrast to pre-War informality and close friendships, the School formalized Abstract Expressionism and the debate scene mirrored the rifts among the artists. Friday night lectures at Studio 35 absorbed groups from the Waldorf Cafeteria and became known as the “Eighth Street Club.”  By 1949, the Eighth Street Club or “The Club” became the focal point of Abstract Expressionism.  And the Cedar Street Tavern became the hangout for all the artists who wanted to drink and argue about art.

“The Sublime is Now,” by Barnett Newman, 1948, was published in Tiger’s Eye and Clement Greenberg announced the end of the School of Paris and the ascension of American art in his article “The Decline of Cubism.”   In 1948  Arshile Gorky died by his own hand, and  Mark Rothko abandoned Surrealism under the influence of Clyfford Still in San Francisco.  Struggling to make ends meet, Jackson Pollock gave away Lucifer to settle a doctor’s bill, but a collector,  Alfonso Ossario, purchased Pollock’s  No. 5 for $1500.  Life Magazine ridiculed Pollock as “America’s Greatest Artist” in 1949, after it organized panel of experts to “Clarify the Strange Art of the Day” in October, 1948.  Pollock was photographed by Arnold Newman in February for his feature story in Life: “Jackson Pollock–Is he the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” Pollock was pictured in a denim jacket and jeans and work books, aligning himself with the working class.  He exemplified “cool” with a cigarette dangling from his lips and his cocky attitude.  The artist, however, was broke and he offered to sell Newman one of his paintings.  The photographer declined the offer.

According to Elaine de Kooning, Pollock became “the first American artist to be devoured as a packaged by critics and collectors,” when he developed his “Drip Technique” from 1947 to 1950, finally abandoned in 1953.    He sold No. 4 to MOMA for $250 and had his second show with Parsons, from January to  February, 1949.  A year later, in 1950, Hans Namuth photographed and filmed Jackson Pollock at work. These famous images would prove to be as interesting as Pollock’s paintings to the new artists in the Fluxus group.  The sight of Pollock moving within and around canvases placed on the floor of his Studio, the Barn, evoked comparisons to “dance” from Jack Tworkov.

Performance art of the Fifties responded to Pollock as a performance artist and to the idea of art as an “act.”  In 1952, Harold Rosenberg wrote “American Action Painters,” an article often seen as a “companion piece” to the Newman photographs.  However, Rosenberg was more than likely writing about Willem de Kooning, widely respected as a lone artist who had given up a very lucrative and successful career as a commercial artist to suffer years of privation as a “fine artist.” Krasner was furious at the betrayal of her old friend, Rosenberg, who was now supporting the other side—de Kooning.

New York began to divide between the supporters of Pollock, led by Clement Greenberg and the supporters of de Kooning, led by Rosenberg.  In 1951 “The School of New York” exhibition was organized by Motherwell as the American counterpart to The School of Paris.  Italian dealer and businessman, Leo Castelli, was in New York with the intent to support contemporary American artists.  Everyone was waiting to see who he would select for his stable.  By 1952 the Ab Ex artists begin to disband and the term the  “New York School” gained ground as not really school of painting but as more diverse individuals in loose community of artists.

But over the decade following the Second World War, each of those artists had found his or her own style: Pollock the drip, Kline the slash, Newman the zip, Rothko the stacked rectangles, Gottlieb the Blast and Burst, Krasner the Little Image, and with these signatures the artists withdrew into the competitive corners of the Uptown group and the Downtown group.  Sculptor David Smith moved to Bolton Landing and created his own world of metal sculptures dispersed across his own fields.  Willem de Kooning summed up the dialectic of the New York art world with his signifiant black and white paintings of the late forties which contrasted with his colorful and figurative Woman series of the early fifties.

By the mid fifties, Abstract Expressionism as an impactful art movement was over; its time was passed and at the very moment when the artists began to find some form of museum and gallery recognition. Figuration returned in the work of Jackson Pollock as well in his last great series of the early fifties.  To some, representation was a retreat from the hard won victories of abstraction, but, Pollock’s shift to the figure was a portent of things to come.  It was de Kooning who would be most closely related to the up-coming challenge of Neo-Dada.  It was a drawing of his that would be “erased” by Robert Rauschenberg,  whose random collages inspired by what the art writer and artist Brian O’Doherty called the “vernacular glance,” another version of de Kooning’s famous “slipping glimpse.”  “Content,” he said, “is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash.  It is very tiny—very tiny, content.” Art and Life would now intersect.

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Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part Two

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The Abstract Expressionist artists translated “meaning” from subject matter to the broader and deeper intent of the word.  For these artists, “meaning” had to be profound and transcendent so that art could rise above the rather minor role it played during the Thirties as handmaiden to politics. But first, this group of local New York artists had to go through the process of being schooled by the European masters. As mentioned in earlier posts on this website, what was interesting about this apprenticeship was not what was accepted by what was rejected by the New York School.  As the critic Harold Rosenberg later explained it in 1972,

“The legacy that New York artists inherited from Paris consisted of the tradition of overthrow of unlimited formal experimentation and parody and fragments of radical ideas.  It was on the basis of the consciousness of loss and renunciation of support by the past that a new creative principle was sought by the New York painters.”

The famous expatriate teacher from Germany, Hans Hofmann, presented a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism.  The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and the works of Picasso.  The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques.  However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based.  The abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and the Surrealist techniques of André Masson and Matta were promising but the American artists proceeded cautiously. In addition, they were also wary of abstract or decorative art as being empty.

The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning.  The artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence.  Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns. Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica (1937) was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion and was shown in the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War.  Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. Picasso used the visual language of Cubism and the metaphorical approach of Surrealism and adapted fragmentation and dream to the nightmare of total war.

For each artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement, the journey towards a new, modern and universal meaning had to take them through a journey that cut a path through an American tradition of realism and a European tradition of post-Cubist and post-Expressionsit art.  Jackson Pollock denied the folk ways of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton and traveled through a flirtation with Surrealist automatic writing married to vaguely understood Jungian theories.  Lee Krasner, the most promising young artist in New York, moved away from her mentors Hoffmann and Mondrian towards a cautious abstraction of her own. Franz Kline shifted his attention from industrial landscapes to the possibilities of making a painting from brushstrokes alone.  These, and other odysseys, were slow and sometimes painful and happened over a decade marked by the Second World War.

In order for the experience of a painting to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned.  One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Piet Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was at the same time balanced and infinite. But to the American artists, seeking a way out of European modernism, Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked the kind of American spontaneity and improvisation expressed in jazz. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content when compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image, spread all over the surface, implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, as in the way Mondrian brought black lines and primary colors to the end of the canvas.

But the key break from European art was the departure from easel painting for an exploration of  the possibilities of mural painting. On a mural scale, the viewer’s peripheral vision could be engaged, rendering a centered composition irrelevant. Part of this severance from old traditions was a paradoxical return to artistic elements that were primal or, as the favorite term of the times expressed it, “primitive.”  It was the atavistic that allowed the New York artists to assert their American ways through Native American art.  The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb came the closest to understanding the essence of Native American culture.  During the Forties, the artist placed inscrutable symbolic forms within a grid with the conviction that symbolic language preceded written language. Unnatural culture was an interruption or an interference with a more universal language. In the same period, Pollock investigated the possibilities of Native American art in paintings such as She Wolf (1943).  Art should be able to communicate on the Jungian level of the collective unconscious.  As Gottlieb stated,

“If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for the niceties of color and form seem irrelevant.  All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”

By the Fifties, as American art took a leading role in international visual culture, Abstract Expressionist art and artists took up new positions in society and new roles in the making of culture.  Mythically, the artist became a medium between the mute public and the expression of the need of ordinary people to express their fears and longings. The artist, as a human being, was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge.  Making art was a journey of self discovery.  The writings of André Breton suggested that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.”  The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event for the viewer rather than an intellectual act of perception.  The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.”  This ego-oriented art put the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves.  The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience.  The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As Robert Hobbs pointed out in Abstract Expressionism. The Formative Years, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The painters also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience.  Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950) by Barnett Newman measured 96 x 216 inches, stretching out horizontally, creating a journey for the overwhelmed viewer who paused here and there at the “zips.”  But for Newman, this transit was not simply an aesthetic one but a moral and ethical one as well.

“The self, ” he said, “terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting and sculpture…The artist emphatically does not create form.  The artist expresses in a work of art an aesthetic idea which is innovate and eternal.”

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint, followed by the question of what to paint at the time of the end of painting.  In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America.  Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

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Abstract Expressionism, The Definition

DEFINING ABSTRACTION EXPRESSIONISM

“Abstract Expressionism” was term coined by Alfred Barr in 1929 in reference to Vasily Kandinsky’s art.  “Abstract Expressionism,” as a term, was revived by Robert Coates in The New Yorker in 1946  to characterize work by American artists in the Fifties in New York.  Abstract Expressionism refers to the style used by a certain group of artists in New York, a style that is, as its name states, abstract, non-figurative, and expressionist, nonrepresentational.  The movement, called the New York School, dated from 1942 to 1952, according to some sources.  Stylistically, total abstraction was developed by different artists at different times in their art making.  Jackson Pollock became totally abstract by 1947, Willem de Kooning by 1949, but both de Kooning and Pollock returned to figuration by 1950. Therefore, “The New York School,” as a designation can encompass both abstraction and figuration as practiced by the artists. While de Kooning and Pollock went back and forth from abstraction to figuration, the other artists of Abstract Expressionism remained totally abstract for their entire careers.

Over time, stylistic variations among the artists resulted in a division between the Gesture and Color Field branches of The New York School.  There was also a division between a downtown group and an uptown group that roughly coincided with the binaries of painterly and linear.  In the Gesture group were de Kooning and Pollock and Franz Kline with the possible inclusion of Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston. In the Color Field Group were Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko with the possible inclusion of Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottileb.  As a group the artists knew each other well, but their friendships tended to fluctuate with the passage of time.  As the School became commercially successful, the support system became a group of rivals, all competing with each other.

Thanks to early and important exhibitions on Cubism, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the ironies of art history is that it was the rude, crude, ignorant barbarians of America, the lowly “colonials absorbed, adapted and advanced European avant-garde art years ahead of the Europeans.  During the years of the Second World War, the Americans reshaped and reformed European intellectual and spiritual and psychological abstractions into a more “American” idiom.  The painters, who were mature artists reaching the peak of their collective powers, sought to both use and to get beyond their European precursors and create work that expressed their unique contributions.  The New York School implicitly rejected the small (and feminine) size of the easel paintings favored by the market driven European artists.  They had been impressed by the mural of the Mexican artists and wanted to adapt the wall-sized works for portable paintings that would be as big as America.

During the War, most of the artists experimented with combining old traditions of European modernism into new forms.  Arshile Gorky seemed to take the early lead in rethinking the inherited tradition, but he committed suicide in 1948. After the war, American artists were aware that Europe was in ruins and that they had momentum of European art had been broken by war.  Just as America had “won” the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism reveled in the American post-war spirit of “triumphalism” and celebrated yet another victory over the exhausted Europeans and their dead traditions. Riding high in the Forties and the Fifties, the group of New York artist who came to be called the Abstract Expressionists revitalized a tiring European tradition by infusing abstraction with an idealistic desire to fuse and merge with a (Jungian) universal consciousness, replacing a Freudian neurosis with a Jungian dream of deep, trans-cultural connections common to all living culture-creating beings. In other words, the New York School rejected a “local” European theory from Sigmund Freud and preferred his erstwhile follower, Carl Jung, who had a far more universal approach to collective consciousness.

Jung, like Freud, worked with symbols that could be decoded as messages from a deep consciousness and although Pollock worked with Jungian archetypes, he ultimately abandoned figuration. When working on a large painting for Peggy Guggenheim’s hallway, fittingly called Mural of 1943, Pollock faced the difficulties of painting abstract forms that were energetic and spontaneous on an easel format. Physically, such painting strokes were difficult and Pollock would mull over the final solution to the problem of how to paint freely on a large scale for the next four years. Only in 1947, when he was removed (by his wife, Lee Krasner) from the hard-drinking artists in New York, did he solve the problem. In a small shed, called the “barn” on their rental property in The Springs, Pollock had the room to spread a large unprimed canvas on the floor. Once the canvas was flat rather than vertical, it was possible to redefine “painting.”  Instead of stretching and straining up and down a painting propped up against a wall, Pollock could now toss, throw, fling thinned down paint, which arched in the air and fell according to the laws of gravity. Line and color and form became one. “Drip Painting” in which chance and accident became the raison d’être for his work, paintings that were now totally abstract.

From the beginning, the members of The New York School coalesced around two leading figures, Willem de Kooning, respected by all, and Jackson Pollock, admired by many. It was Pollock who “broke through” the wall of European traditions when he fused Cubism and Surrealism and created a new form of painting as drawing and of kinetic accident as automatic writing.  In contrast to de Kooning’s continuation of the easel tradition, Pollock tossed a large cut of canvas onto the floor of his studio on Long Island and turned the paintbrush into a throwing tool.  It was de Kooning who managed to take the European tradition of Cubism and abstracted fragmentation and turned the idea of multiple points of view into multiple layers of paint.  De Kooning constructed or built up his paintings while Pollock flung his paintings through the air and dripped them off the end of a stiffened brush.

Suddenly, the art scene in New York was awakened to this new School that had at last overtaken the Europeans, beating them at their own game. In contrast to Surrealism’s tastefully small home decoration-sized easel paintings that reeked of self-absorption, their works showed an ambitious desire to create huge, all-encompassing works of art to enfold, engulf, and envelop the artist in the creative process and to swallow up the viewer’s vision.  Perhaps because it ws a post-War movement, Abstract Expressionism was as high-minded as it was ambitious: genuine high culture at its best, seizing the falling torch of Western culture before the onslaught of totalitarianism, before the six years of Total War could extinguish it.  Aware that they were, in effect, Holocaust survivors, Newman and Rothko were especially sensitive to the need to make sure that art mattered, had power and majesty, that art inspired and moved the viewer as a bastion of humanity in an inhuman world.

Whatever their concern with abstraction as a transcendental art, the Abstract Expressionist artists were members of a boy’s club, an all male enclave, with  a “no girls allowed” attitude.   Wives, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, were relegated to secondary status and their art was overshadowed by their husbands’ reputations.  The male artists were supported not just by the “wives,” but also by a coterie of male art critics, including Thomas B. Hess, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg.  Unfortunately for these artists, the New York art world may have inherited the European mantle of modern art, but this world had to recover financially from the war.  They would have to wait for some years for the evolution of a gallery system that supported contemporary American art.

Ironically, just as the artists were beginning to find gallery support, museum recognition, and a respectable level of income in a New York recovered from the Second World War, they were challenged by a new generation of artists, the Neo-Dadaists, Rauschenberg and Johns.   By 1955, Abstract Expressionism had been rejected by younger artists at the same time the style was finally achieving some acceptance.  After Pollock’s death in 1956, de Kooning assumed the mantle of leadership.  Unlike Pollock’s idiocyncratic style, de Kooning’s style or his touch or brushwork was easy to assimilate and his followers were characterized as having the “Tenth Street Touch,” after the de Kooning studio on Tenth Street.  At the moment Abstract Expressionism garnered the Second Generation, the older artists were eclipsed, much to their dismay, by the young upstarts of the Neo-Dada group.

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The Making of the New York School

THE ART SCENE SHIFTS FROM EUROPE TO AMERICA

In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed?  While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order.  The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men.  The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism.  The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia.  As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example.  Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative.  In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War.  The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.  The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism.  Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality.  The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world.  The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture.  In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government.  The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War.  At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity.  The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans.  Art was a useless luxury.  What art there was existed in New York.  Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves.  Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth.  Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg.  The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests.  The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn.  The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists.  The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities.  Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them.  For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work.  Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent.  However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown.  The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage.  Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted.  The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations.  The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation.  Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated.  The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City.  As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky.  And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr.  The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931.  And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936.  Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts.  The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism.  However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history.  American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York.  Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art.  The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti.  A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe.  Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art.  Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture.  As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s.  German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America.  Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935.  The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile.  Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism.  Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic.  Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place.  Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums.  In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix.  John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927.  A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art.  Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art.  Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting.  Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools.  The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles.  Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort.  As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both.  By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory.  Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists.   Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works.  She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto.  This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946.  In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940.  But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis.  He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal.  Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock.  Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition.  Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists.  Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art.  The stage was now ready and the scene was set.  All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Piet Mondrian

PIET MONDRIAN (1872-1944)

Although Mondrian’s painting and his artistic convictions evolved in France, his art is most closely identified with the Dutch movement, “De Stijl.”  Mondrian spent most of his life in Paris where he lived and worked and developed his definitive style of abstract art and he died in New York. But these simple facts are lost when he is identified with the Dutch group with which he was reluctantly and loosely affiliated for only five years. Mondrian was caught in Holland, visiting his family, and when the Great War broke out, he was thrown together with a number of artists he would otherwise have never met. Despite the French origins of his style, much ink has been spilled trying to link Mondrian to the flat Dutch landscape because Mondrian’s paintings were “flat.”  Such morphological formalism does little to elucidate what his art was really about.

An important indication of the underlying meaning of Mondrian’s art is one of his last representational paintings, the Evolution triptych of 1910, a symbolic evocation of a human journey to spiritualism.  Mondrian had been an adherent of the pan-philosophy, Theosophy, since 1909, and embraced its idea that absolute laws rule the universe. Founded by Madame Hélène Blavatsky at the end of the nineteenth century, Theosophy attempted to explain why neither science nor religion could provide the answers to life’s mysteries.  Theosophy was widespread and many early twentieth century artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich and Klee, were adherents of the philosophy.  The Dutch artist, J.L.M. Lauwerkis stated that, “The concepts of Theosophy are preeminently suited to be expressed by art because of their magnitude and profundity.”

Lauwerkis was referring to abstraction.  However, Mondrian’s triptych was too literal to express concepts that should not be illustrated.  According to Blavatsky, “The interior world has not been hidden from all by impenetrable darkness. By that higher intuition acquired by Theosophia–or God-knowledge, which carried the mind from the world of form into that of formless spirit, man has been sometimes enabled in every age and every country to perceive things in the interior or invisible world.”  In Holland, the local Theosophical Society was interested in visualizing their concepts through mathematics.  Blavatsky’s prominent follower, Rudolph Steiner described Theosophy, not as a religion, but as a philosophy, which explained religion.  As Steiner stated,

“Put shortly, and in the language of the man of the street, this means that God is good, that man is immortal, and that as we sow so we must reap. There is a definite scheme of things; it is under intelligent direction and works under immutable laws. Man has his place in this scheme and is living under these laws. If he understands them and co-operates with them, he will advance rapidly and will be happy; if he does not understand them–if, wittingly or unwittingly, he breaks them, he will delay his progress and be miserable. These are not theories, but proved facts. Let him who doubts read on, and he will see.”

When Mondrian saw Cubist art at an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1911, he moved to Paris to pursue the possibility of employing the new style to express his Theosophical ideas.  By 1912, he was making “abstract” paintings of the sides of buildings in Paris, which had retained ghost traces of the structure built next to it and then torn down.  Clearly Mondrian rejected Cubist content—the life of the artist—for a universalist content discussed by Theosophy, but he went through several years of “apprenticeship” to the analytic phase. He moved from his Cubist-inspired Still Life with Ginger Pot of 1912 to his Oval Composition of 1914, which is totally abstract. Composition VII of 1913, another Cubist abstraction, is painterly, but this working of the surface would change. Mondrian had abandoned a twenty year career as a Symbolist, and this decade would be one of struggle and transition and philosophical meditations as he moved from one perspective to another. By the time he was stranded in Holland, Mondrian was ready to develop his unique and individual style combining the tenets of the Parisian avant-garde and Theosophy.

It is in Holland in the town of Laren that Mondrian developed his characteristic approach to painting, the grid composition.  The grid evolved out of his observation of the ocean and the way the piers jutted out into the water.  His Piers and Ocean series of 1915, became Composition in Line of 1916-17 with “plus” and “minus” lines. The reduction of nature to horizontals and verticals and the monochromatic approach of Cubism marked a turning point of his work.  Picasso and Braque had reduced their colors in order to explore the disintegration of form.  But Mondrian was not interested in fragmentation of objects in the real world; he was interested in disclosing the unity underlying reality.  The purification of his paintings continued, and, just before he returned to Paris, his approach began to cohere. Composition with Grid 8 (1919), like Composition in Line (1916-17) was inspired by nature, a walk Mondrian took along the seaside at night and was his “reconstruction of a starry night.”  Unlike Vassily Kandinsky, Mondrian’s abstraction came from nature and from his desire to find the harmony of the universe through repetition and standardized elements.

Mondrian’s five years in Holland were necessary to the development of his art.  It is important to understand that the artist had abruptly changed course from a late Symbolism to a radical avant-garde Cubism in his middle age.  His output during these years of transition was relatively small while he slowly digested what he had learned and decided what he wanted to do with this new approach.  The move to Holland and the isolation during the Great War was yet another jolt that disrupted his art.  He lived in the small rural town of Laren where he worked with a new friend, the painter Bart Van Der Leek.  In Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, Carel Blotkamp, noted that the two artists produced “a radicalization in the formal language of their paintings” and that they helped one another eliminate any traces of the “old” and to seek the “new.” A younger artist, Van Der Leek was already making abstract paintings that were completely unrelated to anything going on outside Holland.

In 1917 Mondrian and Van Der Leek were approached by Theo van Doesburg, who was forming a group of artists to represent De Stijl, “The Style” that would be the only possible style, the ultimate style of modern art.  Both artists were reluctant to join with van Doesburg, but it is clear why he wanted to recruit them.  Although their purposes were somewhat different from De Stijl, Mondrian and Van Der Leek were seeking a universal language that was modern, and both were working with abstraction, obviously the next step beyond Cubism.  De Stijl sought to make the universal concrete, a project similar to what these artists were attempting.  In addition, van Doesburg was publishing a journal, De Stijl, as a vehicle for discussing modernity in art.  Both artists published in the journal and one suspects that they were more interested in circulating their ideas than in being part of a group.   Under the influence of Van Der Leek, Mondrian reintroduced colors, temporarily eliminated line, and eventually he reduced the number of his colors to the primaries, red, yellow and blue.  He also learned to paint without inflection and the areas of color were smoothed out.

These wartime paintings show that there were formal questions for the artists to debate. What colors should be used, should they be mixed or pure, should there be lines, should the lines extend to the edges or not, what shape was best to contain the painted manifestation of the absolute?  Tiny decisions, maybe, but a major reworking of visual language for the artists was being developed.  Mondrian attempted to combine his Theosophical beliefs that painting his art was an “outward sign” of the philosophy with his formal artistic journey to purity.  The resulting essay, “Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plastic Equivalence” was published in De Stijl over a number of issues in 1920. Although the essay was long and obscure and difficult to read, it was published in French in 1920 and in German in 1925, the year Mondrian would finalize his break with De Stijl. The essay on new form seems to parallel his slow struggle to formulate a new language.

Mondrian’s opening paragraph appeared to be a re-statement of the goals of De Stijl, which was to free art from individual expression and to seek the universal.  Rejecting the subjective, Mondrian wrote that art “must also be the direct expression of the universal in us—which is the direct expression of the universal outside us…” For Mondrian art was an expression of opposites: that of which we are “conscious” and that of which we are “not conscious.”  We are aware of the reality of forms but what we are actually seeing is but a manifestation of the universal.  Art has to express the universal through a “new plastic expression” that would reconcile these opposites in an “equiliberated relationship.”  Mondrian stated that this equilibrium could not be achieved through nature; therefore “plasticity” expressed these relationships, not specific forms.  He equated the “new spirit” with “pure plastic expression,” something he would achieve only years later.  What Mondrian needed was a structure in which colored elements could be balanced harmoniously.

By 1918, the grid appeared in a spring series of paintings,  but the grid was regular and the colors were still muted and mixed.  One of the big issues facing the artists was whether or not to start with nature or with an aesthetic principle, and when he returned to Paris, Mondrian was able to get beyond any consideration of nature and arrive at complete abstraction.  By 1920, he had arrived at his signature style of vertical and horizontal lines, the use of the right angle, the restriction to primary colors, red, yellow and blue, confined within a grid of black lines on a flat white plane.  Gray, seen in Composition A: Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow and Blue (1920), was allowed but disappeared in the 1920s only to reappear in the 1940s.  Mondrian evoked Aristotle in his utopian ideal of exact and equal relations of pictorial elements that signified the invisible but absolute harmonies that ruled the universe.

In Mondrian’s mature canonical style, the grids became irregular so that the colored units had to be formally balanced. The black lines of the grid became more assertive and the shapes are not equal, nor are the colors evenly distributed, nor are they of equal size.  However, Mondrian learned how to balance the elements, turning asymmetry into symmetry, harmony and balance.  The red, yellow and blue, the primary colors signified the unchanging and absolute elements of the universe; the vertical and horizontal, the eternal and unchanging laws of the absolute. Eventually the lines met the edges, implying a larger and wider field stretching beyond the painting itself.  Mondrian carefully considered the demarcation of his surfaces and brought the frame forward, rather than allowing the canvas to be set into a surround, giving the impression of depth.

Mondrian’s studio in Paris was a place to paint, a place to live and think and a gallery where his art could be exhibited.  26, rue de Départ was sparsely furnished, resembling the plain Protestant interiors of a Dutch church.  The visitor was met with an artificial tulip, painted white, rising out of a white vase. Unlike his old friend, Van Der Leek, Mondrian understood that there was an affinity between painting and architecture and the studio was a visual expression of De Stijl principles as much as it was a place of display and exhibition. Although Mondrian stayed true to these principles, as he understood them, Theo van Doesburg came under the influence of Dada and the art of the Russian Avant-Garde.  By 1924, van Doesburg’s paintings began to display geometric forms tilted on a diagonal.  The diagonal implied movement and dynamism and, above all, change.  Mondrian’s art always revealed the changelessness of the universe and sought the absolute.  He could no longer be associated with De Stijl or van Doesburg and wrote a letter explaining his withdrawal to his Dutch associate.

Although Mondrian could not abide the diagonal, his studio in Paris had a triangular, rather than a straight, set of walls at its far end.  Ironically, as Nancy Troy’s sketch of the studio shows, the room itself, like van Gogh’s bedroom in the Yellow House, was an irregular shape, something that never appeared in his paintings. During the twenties, Mondrian’s grid opened and expanded and large blocks of color played off one another.  However, Suzanne Deicher, in Mondrian, suggests that his art took a more decorative turn because the post-War style, Art Deco, had abandoned the utopian role for art.  Her comment could explain why the rigid grid was elaborated by the addition of multiple lines painted close together in the 1930s.  His work remained complex and the scale of the units was reduced but these paintings, bristling with lines, look less serene and more energetic.

Mondrian’s time in Paris was once again interrupted by another war.  In 1938 he fled Paris and went to London, where the house next door was bombed.  From London, Mondrian went to New York, a city he fell in love with.  New York in 1940 was a city giddy from being on the edge of another great war.  Mondrian, a lover of “jasband” and of modern dance, was in the capital of jazz. For him, jazz, like the color white, was the essence of modernity.  Jazz dancing was made up of straight lines in contrast to the old fashioned round waltz.  In Holland, he had long been known for his stylized dancing and his spiritual upward gaze, which won him the nickname “the dancing Madonna.”  Wearing his neat round eyeglasses, Mondrian went dancing with the likes of Lee Krasner.  He was surprisingly active in the New York art world, urging Peggy Guggenheim to support Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock.

One gets the feeling that the artist became a social being in his old age.  In Paris he was alone and not much celebrated; in New York, he became a respected and sought-after artist.  The abstract painter, Charmoin von Weingand, wrote eloquently of his pristine white studio and after his death the famous room was open to the public. Under the influence of the bright lights and the syncopated rhythms of the new city, Mondrian painted New York City of 1942. In Painting as Model, Yve-Alain Bois pointed out that Mondrian preferred the electric lighting of New York to the gaslights of Paris and he preferred to paint at night.  After 1942, Mondrian eliminated the black line. He may have looked for the “truly modern man,” meaning the human who understood the essence of his or her time, but he was equally enchanted with jazz music and bright lights of Broadway, which may or may not be essential to modernity.

Mondrian honored the city of his exile with a series of three paintings that took advantage of a newly discovered material, the colored tapes seen in the New York City series. The artist had always worked intuitively and constantly adjusted the  grid lines of his paintings. Suddenly, with tape, he had a easy way to make these adjustments.  As one tape crossed over another, the two colors combined to make a third and the intersection became a three dimensional point. These tapes promoted him to tape and re-tape until he had canvases hanging on the stark white walls festooned with bits and pieces of color. This new approach to composition would give rise to the question of finality of these final works.  His last great paintings were Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie. Gridded with colored lines, Victory Boogie-Woogie was in progress when Mondrian died of pneumonia in 1944.

With his life devoted to art, Mondrian had never married. His close friend, Harry Holtzman, was his sole heir and executor to his estate.  Holtzman had been an admirer of the work of Mondrian from the 1930s and, as Gail Levin recounts in her biography of Lee Krasner, went to Paris in 1934 to meet the artist.  The two artists became such close friends that, when the war broke out, Holtzman brought Mondrian to New York and helped him get settled in.  After Mondrian’s death, Holtzman spent years collecting his old friend’s writings and finally getting them published.  However, even the availability of Mondrian’s thinking, which showed that his art was a manifestation of Theosophy, could not prevent the elimination of his spirituality in favor of a more formal reading of his paintings.  As late as the 1970s Holtzman wrote in protest about an art critic describing Mondrian’s work as “geometric.”

“Geometric” implied a particular style of painting: Cubist derived and opposed to Surrealism.  This was New York thinking but not Mondrian’s purpose.  His use of geometric forms was linked to the regularity of the rules that guided the universe.  But under the spell of pragmatic American art criticism and art history, Mondrian became a exemplar of “flatness”—Clement Greenberg’s theories.  Mondrian’s adherence to Theosophy, a philosophy unfamiliar to contemporary Americans, did not come to light again until the 1986 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, The Spiritual in Art; Abstract Painting. 1890-1985.

The next post deals with De Stijl Architecture.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

info@arthistoryunstuffed.com