Most of what I know about art I learned by listening to artists in their lofts; at The Club (which I ran from 1957 to 1962), where the Abstract Expressionists met for panel discussions, lectures, drinking, and dancing; the Cedar Street Tavern; and the Tenth Street cooperative galleries, notably the Tanager Gallery (which I managed from 1956 to 1959). I became a friend of de Kooning, Kline, Guston, Rothko, and Reinhardt. De Kooning, whose studio was next door to the Tanager, became my most valued mentor. Whenever he came down for a breather, he would drop into the gallery or I would see him out of the window and join him on the street, and I visited him in the studio too. De Kooning’s ongoing dialogue with European modernism and his bridging of avant-garde and tradition was particularly important in forming my conception of contemporary art in New York.
Also critical in my art education were members of the Tanager Gallery: Angelo Ippolito, Alex Katz, and Philip Pearlstein, and artists who showed across the street at the Brata Gallery, notably Al Held and Ronald Bladen. They cued me in on the change that was taking place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, Pop art, and Hard-edge Abstraction. My friendship with artists and my admiration of their work led me to write criticism with their studio talk in mind.
Thomas Hess, the managing editor of ARTNews, was the most important figure in my career. It was he who talked me into becoming a critic. Like me, he was friends with artists and listened closely to their ideas and the issues that interested them. Hess then found critics who could deal with these topics, enabling the magazine to be up to date and relevant. Intent on presenting studio talk in ARTNews, Tom commissioned a series of articles titled “[The name of the artist] Paints A Picture.” Above all, Tom taught me to write clearly. He blue-penciled from my copy all glittering generalities, which he called “glidge.”
The leading elder critics in the 1950s, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and John Cage, were also important in my thinking. For me, of the three, Rosenberg was the most significant. He claimed that the Abstract Expressionist painters had internalized, personalized, and expressed what Auden termed the “Age of Anxiety.” It is not surprising that de Kooning titled a talk he gave in 1949 “A Desperate View.” As Rosenberg viewed it, existing styles and their subjects no longer seemed relevant; new ones that spoke to their historic moment had to be created. I was sympathetic to this view but I would not accept Rosenberg’s imaginary construction of the painters’ artistic process or his refusal to deal with the formal qualities that actually concerned artists.
Greenberg’s criticism was utterly opposed to that of Rosenberg, confined as it was exclusively to formal analysis. Greenberg focused my attention on formal questions. However, what most moved me in art was its emotional, social, and conceptual content. I engaged in formal analysis and judged the quality of art, but my conception of art encompassed much more.
Nonetheless, I have continued to grapple with the questions Rosenberg’s and Greenberg’s criticism raised. How are we to reconcile the art-ness of art with its extra-aesthetic content, its evocation of emotions, such as the tragic or the lyrical, as well as its moral, social, and psychological references? Does our consideration of content blind us to the aesthetic dimension of art? Moreover, if art is to be of consequence, must it not have multiple layers of meaning and feeling? In my own criticism I have tried to make sense of these questions—not to do so misses the point of art. Nonetheless, in the end, the issue of what art signifies remains an open question and what makes it great is unfathomable. As Alfred North Whitehead said, “We experience more than we can analyze.”
John Cage was opposed to Rosenberg’s angst-ridden rhetoric and Greenberg’s formalist art-for-art’s-sake point of view. He called for art to break down the barriers between art and life. The purpose of art, as he conceived of it, was to open up one’s eyes to just seeing what there was to see, and one’s ears to just attending to the activity of sounds both in art and the environment. Cage’s paean to “art” and “life” is seductive but has been of little use to me as a critical method.
Meyer Schapiro was my most useful mentor, more like a guru. The power of his mind was without equal, at least in my world. He taught me how philosophical, historical, and sociological disciplines could inform art criticism and history. Above all, he showed me how to situate art in a social context.
I was most taken by Schapiro’s address on the social bases of art to the First American Congress against War and Fascism in 1936 (a talk I encountered in the Museum of Modern Art’s Library in the early 1950s). Schapiro began by saying that art writers should not “reduce art to economics or sociology or politics.” Art has its own conditions, which distinguish it from other activities. However, with these conditions alone one cannot understand why styles change. In Schapiro’s view, the social need for a new style plays a decisive role. Confronted by an existing art that embodies old values and no longer seems real or relevant, artists sensitive to changing social needs respond in deeply felt ways and develop new values and way of seeing. This, of course, entails the rejection of previous styles and the creation of new. Above all, Schapiro inspired me to be receptive to the new in art.
IRVING SANDLER was an art critic, art historian, and writer. The second volume of his memoirs, Swept Up By Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era, was published by Rail Editions in 2015.