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.