A Tribute to Irving Sandler

Portrait of Irving Sandler, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amei Wallach

Irving Sandler died in the midst of life. Until the last possible moment, he spent his days doing what he had always done: championing art, the artists who made it, and the curators, critics, and colleagues who were committed to it.

Just short of his 93rd birthday—Irving called 93 “the new 92”—he was throwing himself with accustomed passion into preparing his first novel for the publisher, collaborating with curators on a fest exhibition of artists he had written about, and researching a major talk.

The talk was to accompany the exhibition, Herbert Ferber: Space In Tension at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and was scheduled for April 25th. The weekend before, Lucy Sandler called to say that Irving wondered whether I would be willing to discuss Ferber and his sculpture in his stead. He’d just been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him, but he was as intent as ever on doing right by the artist and the museum. I said that I knew almost nothing about Ferber, though I’d be willing to read his talk. Irving had different ideas. The museum, he instructed, would do well to invite me to talk there at any time on any subject.

That generosity of spirit defined Irving Sandler as surely as his sweetness of temperament and the intellectual rigor he shared with Lucy—she in medieval pursuits. In a world of professional jealousies and petty ambitions, his were always larger concerns. His pleasure was in helping others do what they did best, even as he chronicled each new generation of artists, never afraid to change his mind. “The Situation Now,” had been his focus of inquiry in the 1950s, and he lobbied critics to broach the subject anew in 2018.

A few weeks before his death, three of us from the AICA-USA board went to tell him about the inauguration of a new Irving Sandler Award for Distinguished Art Criticism. When we arrived, he’d been pretty much just sleeping, on the settee under the double portrait that Alex Katz had painted for the wedding of Irving and Lucy Freeman Sandler nearly six decades before. After a time Irving stirred. “Am I dead yet?” he asked, comically slicing through the atmosphere of dread. Fully revived, he talked with purpose about the new award. “We’ll have a meeting to plan it,” he said. “Here,” he declared, pointing an emphatic finger. The meeting never took place, but the award will.

And Irving Sandler lives on, not only in the words he wrote, the institutions he instigated, and the lives he touched, but in his latest accomplishments. The fest exhibition Irving Sandler: Points of View opens at the Neuberger Museum of Art on September 26, curated by Karen Wilkin and Neuberger Director Tracy Fitzpatrick. The novel, Goodbye to Tenth Street, will be published this fall. The Alex Katz double portrait will eventually hang in the National Gallery of Art.

 

Joel Shapiro

Irving was a dedicated and insightful chronicler of his time, which stretched from the fifties—he was one of our last links to the heyday of the New York School—to just last month. He was not theoretical or ideological, and he saw through style and fashion. His response to work was deep and visceral, and he went way out for the art and artists that moved him. He was an essential part of the conversation, and his presence will be sorely missed.

 

Barbara Rose

Some consider writing about art a job. For Irving Sandler, it was far more than that because he was far more than just a critic. He was the artist’s friend, a fellow soldier in the war against philistinism, a one man fan club and cheering section for all those who needed understanding and support. He lived in artists’ studios, visited the most obscure exhibitions, knew what was important long before it was ratified by museums and extolled in the official press. In an art world that was full of malice and competition, Irving with his cheerful, generous personality was a mediating influence. He was impossible to dislike. He seemed to have time for everyone and generations of artists considered him a friend.

By now everyone knows his 1970 “The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism,” which defined the New York School for the rest of the world. Born in Brooklyn, Irving was a typical culture vulture in a time when Manhattan was still a mecca for creativity instead of a coffin built by real estate speculators. A member of “the greatest generation,” he enlisted in the Marine Corps at seventeen, although assigned to a radar unit he never left the States. Like his artist buddies, he used the GI Bill to study, although his interest was American studies, not studio art.

 I met Irving circling the file cabinets in 1959 when he was in charge of the dozens of ARTnews short art reviews, often written by poets, and I was the newly hired editorial assistant hiding the fact I was still a student. Tom Hess, the brilliant but caustic editor, barely gave me the time of day, but Irving was friendly and talkative, happy to fill me in on what was going on uptown and downtown. He seemed driven not by ambition but by a kind of endless curiosity. Obviously he loved art, but often I thought he loved the artists even more. We kept in touch as time went by and for the most part liked the same artists like tough guys Al Held, Philip Pearlstein, Al Leslie, and Mark di Suvero. Irving was not overtly a tough guy. His “toughness” was not reflected in his mild manner but in the way he always stood his ground, never compromised or caved in to the market.

Irving was also remarkable because he was not a misogynist like virtually all his peers. On the contrary, he was among the first to recognize the importance of women artists of the New York School. I remember especially admiring an early Joan Mitchell at his Greenwich Village apartment, which must have been a gift since he never made enough money to buy the art he wrote about. Moreover, he was supportive of the academic career of his wife, Lucy Freeman Sandler, an outstanding medievalist in her own right. He curated exhibitions of women artists like Judy Pfaff early on and remained closely in touch with the events and lectures of the New York Studio School.

 He had not only run the Tenth Street Tanager Gallery, he was also the program director for the Artists’ Club. Irving craved dialogue and when there seemed to be none—he and I put together a questionnaire about what were the issues in the art world and sent it to our artist friends—which meant a spread of several generations. Our findings were published in Art in America in 1974 as “The Sensibility of the Sixties,” which remains a barometer of what was actually going on, not in the official press, but in the minds of the artists. In recent years, we would run into each other at Brooklyn Rail events that Irving religiously attended to keep up with the latest art of the younger artists. His attention gave them the strength to be independent. Surely they will miss him as much as I.

 

Irving Sandler moderating the ArtistsTalkOnArt panel, “Questions of Size and Scale,” on March 31, 1978. © ArtistsTalkOnArt, Inc.

 

Jon Kessler

I first met Irving when I was a seventeen-year-old kid, a freshman enrolled in his “Art Since 1945” class at SUNY Purchase. Irving tended to show up at the last minute with a stack of Kodak carousels in his arms, and while his analysis of the art on those slides was impressive, it was his vivid stories about the artists, many of whom were his friends, that made the biggest impact on me. I feel so fortunate that he soon took a similar interest in me and agreed to be my thesis advisor. Decades later, he wrote about my thesis, a site-specific performance and installation about a cousin who had recently been killed in a car crash, in his book Swept Up By Art.

After I graduated, we remained close. He made regular studio visits and came to all of my New York shows, including my very first one in 1983, at his beloved Artists Space. Speaking of Artists Space, I’ll never forget an evening of artist talks there only a few years ago. It was a scorching August night—sweltering outside and even hotter indoors. When I walked into the backroom, there was Irving, undeterred by the heat, waiting for the talks to begin. He was always present.

By this point, I too was a professor. I think the most important thing I learned from Irving is to be generous to young artists. Irving didn’t go to random openings for the sake of being seen; he knew so many people and he supported them with his presence. After teaching at Columbia for more than two decades, I have many hundreds of students out in the world showing their work, and I try to give a part of myself to as many of them as I can by doing studio visits and going to their shows. I learned this from Irving.

 

Deborah Kass

Dear, dear Irving. There will never be another. He was the art world’s enthusiastic witness for over sixty years. He was part of the geography of New York City.

A giant, a beautiful, perfectly accessible writer, the greatest eye, game changing historian, champion of artists, raconteur, model citizen, proud Marine, boxer, tough Jew, genius, mensch, cheerleader, and the dearest, kindest, generous, most wonderful, loyal friend.

I was lucky to have spent so much time with Irving, including the unforgettable precious day at the De Kooning show at MoMA. In a limo down to Princeton for my talk, gallery hopping, dinners, the beach with Lucy, panels, articles, and interviews—we did it all.

Irving, if not on stage, was always there in the first row of every panel you ever went to. Irving was simply the most exemplary citizen of our world. Artists Space, Tanager Gallery, The Club, Sharpe Studios, countless boards and committees here and in D.C., Irving’s belief and devotion to artists was unbounded, chronicled in his many books, most recently his two volume memoir. It fueled his creativity as he wrote and rewrote and challenged history and himself always. He was the bard of the art world. His first novel, Goodbye to Tenth Street comes out this fall.

I propose New York City renames 10th Street between 3 and 4th Aves., home of Tanager Gallery, countless co-ops and studios of artists who changed his life, who he championed in return, “Irving Sandler Way.” Let’s make this happen.

 

Susan Harris

A folded paper construction of a boat sits on my desk where I work and eat. A paper construction of a boat sits on my desk.

One year ago during an AICA-USA Board meeting I was hosting in my home, Irving Sandler sat folding and transforming the meeting agenda into this boat, which he playfully presented to me as his “signature artwork.” Now that Irving is gone, the paper boat is a cherished memento.

When I was invited to join the AICA-USA Board thirteen years ago, I felt honored to be part of a group of esteemed art writers that included Irving Sandler. Irving Sandler! I revered Irving for his definitive work on the history of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School of the fifties—subjects, by the way, that were still too novel for the staid curriculum at The Institute of Fine Arts when I began graduate school. As I grew into my career as an art writer and curator, Irving was crucial for inspiring and affirming my instinct for engaging in the art of my time, and was a role model for his commitment to and love for art and artists.

During my terms as president of AICA-USA, Irving consistently advocated for programs to address the crisis in art criticism which he felt was excessively driven by market issues rather than by art. Shortly before his death, the Board unanimously voted to establish the Irving Sandler Award for Distinguished Art Criticism. When Phong Bui, Amei Wallach, and I visited Irving to present him with the award, he perked up and became engaged in conversation about young art critics. Asked what the age limit of the award recipient should be, he didn’t miss a beat: “Probably younger than 92.”

It was a privilege to have known Irving as a colleague and friend with shared ideas and values. His passion for art (and the boat) is his legacy to the world and to me.

 

Irving Sandler taking notes at an ArtistsTalkOnArt panel in the 1980s. © ArtistsTalkOnArt, Inc.

 

Bonnie Clearwater

Irving Sandler made art history. As a chronicler of the New York School and beyond, he held a privileged position as an active participant in the scene he documented. Affable, approachable, and wise, Irving's insightful writing balanced his personal affection for his subjects with the objectivity of an art historian. Right to the end, he was attending openings, following the careers of new artists, and writing reviews. His landmark book, The Triumph of American Painting, produced an indelible origin study of the struggles and success of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists that remains a valuable resource. Irving was an exceptional mentor to all who knew him. It goes without saying that I owe my career to him. As a former New York University art history student of Irving's wife, the eminent medievalist Lucy Sandler, and a recent graduate in the same subject from Columbia University, Irving tapped me for the position of curator of The Mark Rothko Foundation in 1980. Although Lucy would always feign displeasure at Irving having "corrupted" me by turning my focus to contemporary art, working for the Rothko Foundation, where Irving was a Board trustee, was a life-changing experience. Fortunately, a few months ago, my husband Jim Clearwater and I had the chance to thank Irving in person for opening the world of contemporary art to us. His history ultimately became our history.

 

Elizabeth C. Baker

When I picked up Irving Sandler’s most recent memoir, Swept Up By Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era, I wanted a quick shot of inspiration from a book I’d read and liked when it came out in 2015—just enough to jog my memory and help me write this. There was so much to be said about Irving, an extraordinary figure central to the history of the art world from the mid-1950s on; but where and how to begin? I couldn't put Swept Up down, and re-read it all the way through. It's a memoir, but it's also an engrossing critical history—the last of his art-world histories, each a close-up study of a period or phase of radical changes in art. His justifiably famous Triumph of American Painting (published in 1970) cuts off in 1952, leaving much to be said, and subsequently he said it in multiple volumes. Adding to these his many monographs and catalogues, along with pieces for magazines and newspapers and contributions to books with multiple authors, one is tempted to ask, was he ever not writing?

Irving mixes a wealth of factual information with judicious critical scrutiny and straightforward readability. I don't know who else could have done what he did. (After their enthusiasm for Abstract Expressionism ran out, none of his leading critical contemporaries really stayed the course, but that's another story.) Many of Irving’s writer friends saw or went to "everything"—though probably not as much of “everything” as he did, nor over such a span of time. But memories are fallible and highly selective. Irving, on the other hand, kept notes. Right from the beginning. His verbatim exchanges with artists, his highly specific accounts of key events as decade followed decade, his thoughts about what he was witnessing, his close attention as he weighed changing approaches to art—all are crucial. He recreated both the intellectual and psychological climate surrounding events and situations. Over time, he sometimes revised his critical assessments, evidence of an open-mindedness and flexibility essential in dealing with present-tense subject matter.

Irving’s interests were broad. Besides the Abstract Expressionist artists, he wrote on many realists. There are monographs on Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein, among others, and in Swept Up he has much to say about Chuck Close, Robert Berlind, Rackstraw Downes, Janet Fish, and Harriet Shorr. Other monographs focus on Al Held, Mark di Suvero, Judy Pfaff, Natvar Bhavsar, Stephen Antonakos, and Beverly McIver.

In 1956, at the invitation of Tom Hess, Irving began writing reviews and articles for ARTnews. An early piece (1957) was “Joan Mitchell paints a Picture”—one of very few in that legendary series to focus on a woman artist. When I came to ARTnews as an assistant editor in 1963, Irving’s exhibition reviews, and the chance to talk with him from time to time, were among the pleasures (and learning opportunities) of the job. At the time he was also writing for the New York Post—still, in pre-Murdoch days, a lively, liberal afternoon daily. Irving gradually became an encouraging friend as he was to many other young critics. Over the years I worked with him in my editorial posts at both ARTnews and Art in America

In fact, however, Irving was not always, or not only, writing. He was a public-spirited participant who played many active roles. Early on, he managed the Tanager Gallery, an artist-run co-op, and also programmed events for the Artists’ Club, both in the late ’50s. He was a co-founder of Artists Space in 1972, thus involving himself with yet another generation of artists. He was on the faculty at SUNY Purchase from 1972 to 1997 and was briefly (1978) acting director of the Neuberger Museum. He subsequently taught art history to graduate students at Hunter College. He was involved with the New York State Arts Council as well as NEA advisory committees, panels, and juries. He advocated for public art. He was president of AICA-USA in l969 and later a long-time Board member. Just before his death, AICA announced an annual award that will bear his name, to go to a young critic. He lived long enough to enjoy this news. His death brings an intense sense of loss to those who knew him personally and to the art world at large.

In New York, I crossed paths often with Irving and his wife, Lucy Sandler, a medieval scholar. She was, at various times, president of the College Art Association and for many years head of the art history department at NYU. I also ran into them at international events or in London, where they spent summers. As time passed and invitations to organize far-flung shows or to write about them increasingly came his way, Irving was as likely to turn up in Moscow, Mexico City, Japan, or Kiev as Venice or Kassel. Some of my clearest memories include an evening in London when we discussed Robert Smithson’s shocking death, which had just happened; a millennial New Year’s Eve celebration with critics and art historians as the sun set on the beach at Westhampton; and in recent years several gatherings of critics which Irving brought together to discuss “the crisis of criticism.”

Irving’s personality comes across in his writing. He was warm-hearted, generous, humorous, sensitive to others, as appreciative of individual eccentricity as of individual accomplishment—and his wide-ranging multi-generational friendships testify to this. As a critic, he was generally not combative. Yet he could and did take strong positions. He was actively engaged in the unsuccessful struggle to save the NEA art critics’ grants which (with Hilton Kramer’s help) fell victim to the Congressional culture wars of the 1990s. In his article “Abstract Expressionism and the Cold War” (Art in America, Summer 2008), he took on and pretty well decimated Serge Guilbaut’s characterization of the New York School artists as disreputable pawns of the U.S. government in How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. (He had also tangled with Guilbaut earlier.) More recently, the final chapter of Swept up by Art is a highly critical take on today’s market-driven art world.

Irving left us a parting gift: an art-world novel scheduled for publication this fall titled Goodbye to Tenth Street. The leading characters, while perhaps resembling well-known artists and other art-world figures, are fictional; but they operate in a context of real artists, dealers, critics, collectors, along with a curator at the Met. In 22 dated chapters, the Abstract Expressionists are under assault by younger artists on the rise. My thanks to Lucy Sandler for this enticing preview.

 

Richard Armstrong

Being a witness is most often accidental; being an observant witness is an effort. Irving Sandler had no peers in the later 20th century as a witness to the changes in art and the lives of artists. His assiduous note-taking and powers of synthesis are legendary, rightfully so. History itself is an accretion, and made richer in its retelling by participants. For more than 60 years, Irving was near or at the center of the New York scene. Part of his charm was in his assumption that you were in the epicenter as well, hence the reliable opening, “Tell me what is happening”—often in my case embellished with the additional “young fellow.” If his curiosity ever flagged, I didn’t see it. His insatiable taste for the new coupled with a manifest enthusiasm for art and artists, made Irving Sandler a special, even unique figure. A creature of mid-century Abstract Expressionist aesthetics, he kept looking until the end. Modern art in America has lost its most senior, accurate, and industrious historian. We have lost a generous friend.

 

The original ArtistsTalkOnArt board of directors (left to right): Bruce Barton, Lori Antonacci, Douglas I. Sheer, Irving Sandler, and Corinne Robins. Missing are Cynthia Navaretta, and the late Bob Weigand. © ArtistsTalkOnArt, Inc.

 

Lori Antonacci and Douglas I. Sheer

In January of 1975, at the Open Mind Gallery on Greene Street, ArtistsTalkOnArt ®, then a new artist-run art talk series held its first of more than 1,000 panels and programs (which continue to this day) with one of its founding board members, Irving Sandler, in attendance.

ArtistsTalkOnArt was conceived the Summer of 1974 by three co-founders: Lori Antonacci, a multimedia artist, Doug Sheer, a painter and video artist, and Bob Wiegand, also a painter and video artist. We then set about assembling steering and programming committees that included Bruce Barton, Corinne Robins, Cynthia Navaretta, and Irving Sandler. When we got around to incorporating several years later, the seven of us became the first official board of directors.

ArtistsTalkOnArt took its initial inspiration from the (Artists’) Club, which started in 1949 and ran into the early 1960s. While the two of us were too young to have participated, the rest of our team had. Bruce had been a member. Cynthia, who could not be a member because she was a woman, attended as a “guest.” Bob had done a stint as its “doorman” and had shown in Tenth Street Galleries. Irving had not only attended and participated but had served as its program organizer from 1959 to 1962.

However, ArtistsTalkOnArt was very different from the Club. Whereas the Club had operated (however loosely) like a private, exclusive membership organization, ArtistsTalkOnArt was designed to be inclusive, egalitarian, and pluralistic. Any artist could suggest a topic, and once vetted by a program committee of artists, was given carte-blanche to organize and present. All staff and presenters agreed to work and participate for free (augmented by an occasional grant). The admission fee was kept low, initially $1.00 and everyone paid the same. The evening started with coffee and often ended with a spirited, audience-participation debate.

Perhaps that’s the reason why Irving accepted our invitation to join the board, and continued as an active board member, sometimes panel organizer and moderator, and then valued advisor, until his death.

ArtistsTalkOnArt fit right in with Irving’s well-known openness to new artists and his democratic embrace of new styles and movements. As he has said, “Wanting to learn as much as I could, I found out where the artists met and used to hang out there.” 

As the art community grew and encompassed new styles, ArtistsTalkOnArt provided Irving with the perfect place to “hang out,” a focal point where artists representing every genre and art movement of the 1970s and beyond came to talk, debate, and formulate new ideas.

Which is why, on many a panel evening, you could find Irving seated off to one side, listening intently, notebook and pen in hand.

While Navaretta brought us deep feminist art world connections and Barton was on a first-name basis with “Bill” and “Jackson,” Robins was seen the new gal on the critic/curator block, and Sandler was from the onset seen as the “grand master” of the art world. He exuded the seriousness of a college professor yet treated us as equals, and was willing to share his connections to the Abstract Expressionists and New York School artists who became our first cohort of talkers. Among those who appeared on our panels were Peter Agostini, Nell Blaine, Herman Cherry, Ed Clark, Dorothy Dehner, James Gahagan, Michael Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Budd Hopkins, Leonard Horowitz, John Hultberg, Buffie Johnson, Wolf Kahn, Bill King, Ruth Kligman, Marisol, Mercedes Matter, George McNeil, Alice Neel, Pat Passlof, Philip Pavia, Milton Resnick, Larry Rivers, Sal Romano, Jane Wilson and Athos Zacharias.

Besides lending his guidance and advice, Irving also organized and moderated several early panels including: “Questions of Size and Scale” with Ruth Abrams, Judith Bernstein, Natvar Bhavsar, Suzanne Harris, Pat Lasch, and Judy Seigel (March 1978); and “What Artists Want from Critics/ What Critics Expect from Criticism and from Artists” featuring Leon Golub, Philip Pearlstein, Jeff Perrone, Deborah Remington, Corinne Robins, and Barbara Zucker (November 1978).

In the Winter of 1979, he helped organize a series of color and pattern panels, moderating one, “Color as Painting,” with Frances Barth, Natvar Bhavsar, Virginia Cuppaidge, and Robert Swain. In 1983, he led Hilton Kramer, Donald Kuspit, Barbara Rose, and Ingrid Sischy in talking about “Art and Art Criticism: Criteria for the ’80s.” There were many more.

ArtistsTalkOnArt differed from the Club in one other important aspect. We documented everything, first by audio then video. So, when we began a campaign to find a home for our growing archive of documents plus more than 1,000 digitized audio and video recordings, Irving once again lent his expertise and connections.

He wrote letters of introduction, cajoled museum contacts to meet with us, and let the world know, “Beginning with members of the New York School and working its way through virtually every movement since then, ArtistsTalkOnArt has created a unique oral history of contemporary art.” He was also the first to congratulate us when we successfully placed the entire 1974 – 2016 archive with the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution.

Today, ArtistsTalkOnArt is the art world’s longest-running and most prolific aesthetic panel discussion series. We are now programming the 43rd Fall Season at the National Arts Club. It continues to be artist-run and a place where artists can share ideas and debate theories with each other. 

Our favorite Irving quote sums it up perfectly, “I have found the most interesting and lively ideas about art were and are generated within artist circles, within artists’ talk.” And we honor Irving for helping us to create and sustain that with ArtistsTalkOnArt.

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