The Park Avenue Cubistsby James Kalm
GREY ART GALLERY|JANUARY 19, 2003 – MARCH 29, 2003
A Cole Porter tune crescendos: “You’re the top, you’re the Coliseum. You’re the top, you’re the Louvre Museum” Park Avenue Cubists and its accompanying catalogue thrust me into the world of New York haut monde of the interwar years. A milieu where Nick and Nora, or Fred and Ginger would be totally at home. A world of black ties, top hats, and tails. Albert E. Gallatin, George L. K. Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, and Charles G. Shaw, members in good standing of the elite, did through their efforts as artists, collectors, and critics, mold and influence the flow of modernist thought here in New York. The era bracketed by this show is complex. It’s a juncture between America as a provincial nation with great potential, and its accession as a world superpower and cultural leader. The cast of characters reads like a Who’s Who of art history. The battles, secret alliances, financial support, publishing, and lobbying are as intricate as the plot of an Agatha Christie mystery. Politics, the Depression, and WW II all play a role.
Albert E. Gallatin could be said to be the founder and godfather of the Park Avenue Cubists (PACs). The scion of a Pennsylvania furniture manufacturing family, his grandfather helped establish New York University. Though a late bloomer as far as his painting career is concerned, his efforts as a collector and promoter of European Modernism undoubtedly had a greater influence. The unkind could even say that he was a wealthy wannabe, who made up for his lack of talent by buying a legacy of great art from more capable painters. It was under his auspices that the Gallery of Living Art was established at N.Y.U. in the same space that is now occupied by the Grey Art Gallery. Gallatin inherited his family’s wealth at 21 and installed himself as one of New York’s most eligible bachelors. His collection began with works on paper by Aubrey Beardsley and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Through his frequent visits to Paris, he was soon introduced to the cutting edge of Modernism. By selecting Cubism as the foundation of his collection, and exhibiting the works of its masters—Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger—Gallatin was spreading seeds on a fertile New World soil that would flourish in coming generations. His own paintings, though modest and in the beginning derivative, do have a unique quality of distilled elegance, or as the artist himself described it a “severe selection.” “Untitled” (1943–45) is a simple still life with a palette limited to blue, black, red, white, and brown. The forms are simplified to rectangles, a few curves, and fine lines. Gallatin creates a striped down, pragmatic American version of the classic cubist painting. Other paintings owe a debt to Léger, but a series of abstract paintings from the late ’40s show a striking originality and seem to fulfill his desire for rarified form. These paintings are composed of simple black curving or cut oval shapes with smaller accents in solid primary colors on monochrome, mostly white or gray grounds. These works parallel a type of painting that, though scaled up considerably, became popular about fifteen years later with painters like Kelly, Nolan, and Sugarman.
Suzy Frelinghuysen is another unique personage who seems to have escaped from a Fred Astaire movie. With dual careers as painter and opera diva, Frelinghuysen arrived at her mature style with the help and influence of her husband George L. K. Morris. She produced perhaps the most consistent, though derivative, body of work of any of the PACs. Many of her compositional devices were borrowed directly from Gris and Picasso. Most of the pieces on view are still lifes, and her use of collage elements like corrugated cardboard, stenciled pattern, sheet music, and labels add a level of originality and provides her a zone where she could construct visual puns, references, and rebuses. Perhaps the area where Frelinghuysen displayed her most personal statement was her palette and sensual paint handling. “Evian” (1944) is an interpretation of the standard cubist still life, a bottle on a table. The picture has an oval motif, blocks of light and dark distinguish objects on a tabletop; all standard École de Paris stuff, but Frelinghuysen builds up the forms with layers of glowing, contrasting hues. A pentimento of violet is overlaid with a warm translucent burnt orange. Cobalt blue has whispers of green or red peeking through. Perhaps as a singer, Frelinghuysen could appreciate the value, if not creating the original version, then at least of adding personal interpretive flourishes in her own rendition.
George L. K. Morris and Charles G. Shaw in this exhibit represent painters of an all together more accomplished and original achievement. Morris was also a child of privilege and worked with Gallatin as the first curator of the Gallery, later Museum of Living Art. Though a fine painter, doing work that ranks with any American abstractionist of the time, Morris also had a missionary zeal to spread the ideas of European Modernism. His commitment to his own views on aesthetics made his work as an art critic as important as his painting. All the PACs collaborated and were members of the American Abstract Artists group from its founding in 1936. In 1937, Morris and Gallatin began publishing Plastique, a journal for the direct expression of artistic ideas without the mediation of critics or theorists. They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows and so does art, as when without fanfare, the “blue blood” Morris became a financial backer of the newly revived Partisan Review giving voice to an entire generation of Marxist Socialist critics, including Meyer Schapiro, Leon Trotsky, Harold Rosenberg, Hannah Arendt, and the guy who would become his nemesis for decades, Clement Greenberg. Morris and Shaw were also on the Board of Control of the Museum of Modern Art, but they resigned their positions in a disagreement with Alfred H. Barr over his refusal to include American artists in his landmark exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art. As a painter, Morris was to peruse his vision of refinement and purity, while at the same time trying to inject elements that were uniquely American into his compositions, in some cases with unprecedentedly weird results. “From a Church Door” (1944) is an odd mélange of cubistic architecture and collage like cartoon figures, whose flatness is highlighted by the trompe l’oeil shadows. Though based on a true story of an Indian attack, this painting has the visually beguiling dissonance of a good Piacabia, and foreshadows the more “Hana Barbaraian” mischief found in the recent works of Carroll Dunham. Although Morris was quick to eliminate any vestiges of figurative reality from his paintings by the mid ’30s, as in “Nautical Composition” (1937–42) or “Indian Composition” (1942–45) he wasn’t above reintroducing figurative elements as a way of adding cultural notations to his abstract designs. “Arizona Alter” (1949), one of the latest pieces in the show, depicts what appears to be a cross-carrying priest, candelabras, drapery, and patterned fabrics. There is looseness to the finish witnessed by the exposure of raw canvas and under drawing. Perhaps Morris appreciated the rougher look of the Ab-Exers who were on the move downtown.
Finally, Charles G. Shaw seems the most original, most unencumbered with historic precedent, and therefore, perhaps the most truly American, or at least New York representative of the PACs. Rich, handsome, and of noble heritage, Shaw’s development of the shaped panels in paintings like “Plastic Polygon” (1937) characterizes a fracture between the Eurocentric abstraction of the other PACs and the emergence of a kind of American pictorial pragmatism. With the shape of his polygons mimicking the silhouette of the New York skyline, Shaw implicitly subverts the cubist collage dictum of using elements from the real world to allude to themselves. Using an artificially created shape covered with related shapes to allude to reality, Shaw cleverly turns this gambit on its head. This device was used fruitfully decades later by the likes of Frank Stella, Ron Davis, and David Novros. After visiting the show several times, I found myself drawn to Shaw’s beautifully painted “Wrigley’s” (1937) as the capstone. Though painted on a standard rectangle canvas, the skyscraper forms have an ironically striking resemblance to a view of lower Manhattan with the World Trade Center, albeit with slightly uneven towers. Floating across this shining utopian metropolis is a wonderfully rendered pack of “Wrigley’s Spearmint, the perfect gum.” Seeing this painting, one couldn’t help but realize its portend as a time capsule to the future, to a world of pop art and postmodernism. When viewed in its totality, Park Avenue Cubists is rife with impulses, ideas, and concepts that carried on to influence younger generations. The Park Avenue Cubists affected our perceptions of art not only through the artifacts they created, but through their passions, their desire to elucidate the ideas of Modernism, and also their willingness to take up arms (metaphorically speaking) in the battle of cultural aesthetics. All this must have seemed to their wealthy friends and families as self-indulgent frivolity, but then no more so than a top hat and tails.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.