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.