Painters Painting, Emile de Antonio’s celebrated documentary of the mid-century New York art world, begins with a panning shot of lower Manhattan and the self-possessed voice of art critic Phil Leider summarily dismissing the history of American painting before the emergence of what he trumpets as “a national art of genuine magnitude.”
“Against the consistent attack of Mondrian and Picasso,” Leider booms, Americans had only “an art of half-truths, lacking all conviction. The best artists began to yield rather than kick against the pricks.”
Though Leider never utters the term “Abstract Expressionism,” the rhetoric is familiar enough for anyone watching to anticipate the following footage of macho painters aggressively circling large canvases with cigarettes screwed into their lips. That’s because we’ve all heard the story before: Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, et al., taking the struggle for world artistic supremacy upon their shoulders, came back swinging and kicked the asses of those Parisian pricks.
Evidence of that actual struggle is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in an engrossing show curated by Ann Temkin called Abstract Expressionist New York. Rolling out an unprecedentedly broad survey of artworks and collateral materials from its own collection, it shows us in nuanced and comprehensive terms what Leider and others have long argued about the ambitions of the New York School. Iconic works like Barnett Newman’s “Onement 1” (1948) and Willem De Kooning’s “Woman, I” (1950–52) are included, but so are paintings by less familiar artists like James Brooks, George McNeil, and Hedda Sterne, less known for her work than for being the lone female in Nina Leen’s legendary photograph, “The Irascibles.”
Two quieter, supplemental exhibitions provide context for the iconic essentials filling the fourth floor. Rock, Paper, Scissors examines Abstract Expressionism, a movement most associated with oil paint and canvas, through non-painterly means, and Abstract Expressionist New York: Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942–1962peers into the activities of the legendary Greenwich Village social organization that became a forum for artists of all sorts to trade thoughts on topics ranging from Jungian psychology to Zen Buddhism.
Despite the formal and morphological variety on display at MoMA—from photos by Aaron Siskind to sculptures by Ibram Lassaw to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings—the work is unified by the sense that these are individuals engaged in an intense existential battle with their own psyches as well as the history of art.
Philip Pavia, one of the founders of The Club (who is also featured in Painters Painting) boldly claimed that “The first half of the century belonged to Paris. The next half-century will be ours.” In the same spirit, Barnett Newman once wrote that “I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer…We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions.” Heavy stuff for the pampered ears of an artist in 2010, who might question the extent to which Newman and others stood behind their rhetoric. Ann Temkin throws in her two cents in an interview conducted for the show, featured on MoMA’s website, noting that the New York School expressed “a collective burst of ambition to put New York City on the map in a way that would both respect but challenge and overturn the clear domination of the early 20th century giants like Picasso and Matisse.”
Like most of the people reading these words, I grew up in a generation that would view claims of painting’s or New York’s supremacy as somewhat chauvinistic and confrontational. Our way has been more polite, less opinionated, and more circumspect, opting for the more slippery strategies of relativity and irony to make our points. The tendency has favored not being wrong over being right. If irony is to state one thing and to mean another, our generation has carved an entire worldview out of not actually meaning anything. This is the legacy of Andy Warhol, the high priest of cool detachment. So it’s not such a leap for the children of Warhol to assume that those AbExers were playing fast and loose with meaning as well, when in fact they meant every word they said.
Curiously, MoMA is running a modest exhibition of Pop Art, called On to Pop just outside the main entrance to the AbExNY show.
Serge Guilbaut’s book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, provides a fascinating look into the socio-political circumstances behind the convictions of the New York School. It demonstrates how difficult, yet how important it is to, try to interpret the work of a generation through the prism of its historical conditions. Can anyone holding an MFA today imagine the pressures on an artist in New York or Berlin in 1948, the year Barnett Newman painted “Onement, 1”? Berlin was divided into quarters by the victors of a war that killed over 60 million people, and palettes of food and supplies were being airlifted to its starving citizens. Nowadays, when things get slow in Bushwick, everyone I know sublets their studio on Craigslist, packs up, moves to Berlin, and then Facebooks me for the next year about how much more vitality it has.
After I had seen AbExNY, someone emailed me a clip of Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O, a quintessential Millennial artist if there ever was one, being interviewed face to face just as Barnett Newman was 60 years ago in Painters Painting. The differences in speech and manner are remarkable, reflecting on a syntactical level the psychological chasm separating generations. Newman’s unwavering grandiosity and severity is replaced by O’s equivocating, hedging lilt, broken by “kind ofs,” “sort ofs,” “likes,” and “you knows” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhAK2flDdXA&feature=related).
In the half-century since Philip Pavia claimed the next half-century for American art, a lot has happened to justify the cooler, more self-conscious approach we sense from Ms. O. The United States arrived as the commercial center of the art world while countless other cultures emerged on an increasingly globalized stage. Our planet has heated up, literally; new enemies have emerged; the long-term viability of the free market has been shaken.
One wonders how long detachment and equivocation will last if things keep shaking.
While viewing AbExNY, I noticed that at least half the spectators were experiencing the paintings through a camera viewfinder, snapping digital photos, saving the experience for later. The younger the viewer, the less likely they were to engage the work directly. Jackson Pollock mediated through an LCD screen seems an apt metaphor for generational detachment given his determination to dissolve the barriers between him and his painting, the exterior and interior universe: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing,” he declared in 1948. We want distance from the world and our consciousness; Pollock didn’t.
There might be a significant lack of self-awareness guiding the angsty, rugged individualism and arrogance of the New York School, but you can’t deny their willingness for a good, hard fight. Self-awareness may have been Hamlet’s tragic flaw, but for now it’s our solution. When the world looks like it’s falling apart, though, perhaps ironic detachment will begin to look less like an antidote to chauvinism and more like a banal evil, unequipped to fight the pricks of history.
If the art world, indeed civilization itself, is around after that next big cataclysm, I wonder if its historians and spectators will connect with the spirit of my generation more effectively than we do with the spirit of mid-century New York. Will they fetishize it or see it as an honest response to a unique historical milieu? Will they construct a convenient and oversimplified mythology around it? Or will they really get it... I mean, will they really, really understand how my generation was, like, so cool with everything being so, sort of, whatever?