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Abstract Expressionism: The Politics of Apolitical Painting

  • David and Cecile Shapiro

For an understanding of why an art movement becomes dominant in any period it is necessary to look at some of the ideological and political views and social needs of its practitioners, its patrons, and even its critics. In many eras—say the medieval age or the Renaissance—artists and their patrons, power and ideology, were at one with each other. The artist was integrated with the established process of thought and government; the ideas of the artist and the needs of the patron were agreed upon by both. Personal caveats, when they existed, were rarely deliberately reflected in commissioned visual art—and scarcely any sculpture and painting came into being outside of direct commission. Art was made to order, as today's public buildings are still custom built for a specific purpose and to a prescribed plan. The goal to be achieved in a particular image destined for a known location—a fresco on the wall of a church, a portrait of a pope or potentate—was clearly defined, as was the technique, often by contract. Both the artist and the patron knew exactly the audience toward which the work of art was directed.

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1. Shapiro, David, “Social Realism Reconsidered,” in Social Realism: Art as a Weapon, ed., Shapiro, David (New York: Ungar, 1973), pp. 335.

2. Benton, Thomas Hart, “Answers to Ten Questions,” in Shapiro, , Social Realism, pp. 100101. Originally this essay appeared in Art Digest, 03 15, 1935, in response to an attack made by Stuart Davis in The Art Front on nationalism in art and the Regionalists in particular. The Art Front was the journal of the Artists' Union.

3. Davis, Stuart, “The Artist Today: The Standpoint of the Artists' Union,” in Shapiro, , Social Realism, pp. 111–17. Reprinted from the American Magazine of Art, 08 1935. Davis said that “this article deals with the artistic, social, and the economic situation of the American artist in the field of fine arts, regarding the situation in the broadest possible way, and does not intend to stigmatize individuals except as they are the name-symbols of certain group tendencies.” He ends the essay by saying that “an artist does not join the Union merely to get a job: he joins it to fight for his right to economic stability on a decent level and to develop as an artist through development as a social human being.”

4. Sandier, Irving, The Triumph of American Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 7.

5. Cahill, Holger, New Horizons in American Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936), pp. 941. A catalogue of an exhibition surveying one year's activity of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, this book is a valuable source for the ideas and intent of the Federal Art Project as seen by Cahill, its national director.

6. Breton, André and Rivera, Diego, “Manifesto Towards a Free Revolutionary, Art,” Partisan Review, 6 (Fall 1938), 4953. Translated by Dwight MacDonald. Republished in Theories of Modern Art, ed., Chipp, Herschel B. (Berkeley: Univ. of California, 1968), pp. 483–97. Although when originally published the essay was signed by Breton and Diego Rivera, its authorship was clarified by Breton in a letter to Peter Selz dated February 12, 1962. “In reply to your letter of January 21 [1962], I gladly authorize you to reproduce in The Theories of Modern Art the manifesto ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’ in the translation published in Partisan Review in 1938. There is, however, cause to specify (as I have done several times since then for reprints in French) that although this manifesto appeared under the signatures of Diego Rivera and myself, Diego Rivera in fact took no part in its inception. This text, in its entirety, was drawn up by Leon Trotsky and me, and it was for tactical reasons that Trotsky wanted Rivera's signature substituted for his own. On page 40 of my work, La Clé des champs [Paris: Sagittarie, 1953], I have shown a facsimile page of the original manuscript in additional support of this rectification.” Chipp, , Theories, pp. 457–58.

7. Greenberg, Clement, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), pp. 321. All quotations in this essay are from the 1965 collection. The original essay appeared in the Partisan Review in 1939. There were many changes in the text published in the Partisan Reader (New York: Dial Press, 1946), pp. 378–89, among them the omission of the following final paragraph: “Capitalism in decline finds that whatever quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence. Advances in culture, no less than advances in science and industry, corrode the very society under whose aegis they are made possible. Here, as in every other question today, it becomes necessary to quote Marx word for word. Today we no longer look toward socialism for a new culture—as inevitably as one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.”

8. Breton, and Rivera, (i.e., Trotsky), “Manifesto,” in Chipp, , Theories, p. 485. Trotsky's view of culture in this essay differs from that presented in his earlier “Literature and Revolution,” first published in Russian in 1923, and in English in 1957. Portions of this English translation are excerpted in Chipp's Theories.

9. Rosenberg, Harold, “American Action Painters,” Art News, 12 1952, pp. 2223, 4849. The essay describes the work habits and approach of some of the Abstract Expressionist artists, especially those doing “gestural” painting, such as Pollock and de Kooning, but on the whole the description fits most of them. It is certainly true that the artists echoed the ideas and even the language of Rosenberg over a long period.

The content of this essay accounts in part for the intense rivalry between Rosenberg and Greenberg. In response to “American Action Painting” Greenberg published “American Type Painting” (Partisan Review, 22 [Spring, 1955], 179–96). Rosenberg brought their differences into the open in “Action Painting: A Decade of Distortion” (Art News, 12 1961, rpt. in Encounter, 05 1963). Greenberg answered with “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name” (Encounter, 12 1962) and “After Abstract Expressionism” (Art International, 10 1962). Rosenberg's reply was “After Next, What?” (Art in America, 04 1964).

10. Life, (10 11, 1948), pp. 56 ff.

11. Sandler, , Triumph of American Painting, pp. 211–12.

12. Sutton, Denys, “The Challenge of American Art,” Horizon (London) 10 1949, pp. 268–84. As John Russell, then art critic of the London Sunday Times and (currently of the New York Times) put it in Horizon (London) in November 1959, “our first real intimation of the scope and stature of the new American school came … in an article … by Denys Sutton. Mr. Sutton gave a vivid account, not merely of Pollock, Baziotes, Tobey, Rothko, and other abstract painters, but of the environment in which their work had been received…. And Mr. Sutton put for the first time questions which were to become familiar: ‘Do artistic movements exist in America which may be considered on an equal footing with those of Paris, London, and Rome? Must we now look to New York in the same way as that city looked to Europe? He left his readers to draw our own conclusions: but there is no doubt that an attentive reader would have said ‘Yes.’”

Earlier in this same essay Russell quotes John Rothenstein's words in a 1941 Horizon piece claiming that “America today is developing a school of painting which promises to be the most important movement in the world of art since the Italian Renaissance.” Note the early date.

13. Sandler, , Triumph of American Painting, p. 211. “I have really had amazing success for the first year of showing a color reproduction in the April Harpers Bazaar—and reproductions in the Arts and Architecture,” Pollock wrote in a letter to his brother Charles. Quoted by O'Connor, Francis V., Jackson Pollock (The Museum of Modern Art, New York: 1967), p. 33.

14. Wagner, Geoffrey, “The New American Painting,” Antioch Review (0306 1954). Both Greenberg and Rosenberg responded to this article with anger and contempt in letters published in the following issue of the Antioch Review.

15. Canaday, John, “A Critic's Valedictory: The Americanization of Modern Art and Other Upheavals,” New York Times, 08 8, 1976. Some of the letters referred to were published in the New York Times, 09 6, 1959, and more were reprinted along with them in Canaday, 's Embattled Critic (New York: Parrar, Straus, 1962).

16. Kozloff, Max, “American Painting During the Cold War,” Artforum, 05 1973: Cockcroft, Eve, “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War,” Artforum, 06 1974: Matthews, Jane, “Art and Politics in Cold War America,” American Historical Review, 10 1976. Each of these examines cultural activities at home and abroad during the cold war.

17. Hauptman, William, “The Suppression of Art in the McCarthy Decade,” Artforum, 10 1973, p. 49.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., pp. 50–51.

21. Braden, Thomas W., “I'm Glad the C.I.A. Is Immoral,” Saturday Evening Post, 05 20, 1967, pp. 10 ff.

22. Ibid., p. 11.

23. Ibid.

24. Lasch, Christopher, “The Cultural Cold War,” in Towards a New Past, Dissenting Essays in American History, ed., Bernstein, Barton J. (New York: Pantheon, 1968), p. 353.

25. Greenberg, Clement, “Art Chronicle: A Season of Art,” Partisan Review (0708 1947), 414.

26. Lasch, , “Cultural Cold War,” pp. 323, 336.

27. Ibid., p. 344. His statement about the CIA and the Partisan Review is on p. 335.

28. Lynes, Russell, Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Atheneum, 1973), p. 384. MOMA's international exhibition program, Lynes said, was “to let it be known especially in Europe that America was not a cultural backwater that the Russians, during the tense period called ‘the cold war,’ were trying to demonstrate that it was.”

29. Cockcroft, , “Abstract Expressionism,” p. 40.

30. Taylor, Joshua C., “The Art Museum in the United States,” in On Understanding Art Museums, ed., Lee, Sherman E. (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. 60.

31. Rich, Daniel Catton, “Management, Power, and Integrity,” in Lee, , On Understanding Art Museums, p. 137.

32. Greenberg, Clement, “Art Chronicle: The Decline of Cubism,” Partisan Review (03 1948), 369.

33. Ackerman, James S., “The Demise of the Avant-Garde: Notes on the Sociology of Recent American Art,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 2 (10 1969), 375n. (Italics added.) Ackerman quotes from Poggioli, Renato, Theory of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, Mass.: 1968). The original lines were written by Gabriel-Desiré Laverdant, a follower of the socialist Fourier.

34. Ackerman, , “Demise of the Avant-Garde,” p. 375n. Ackerman is quoting from Egbert, Donald, “The Idea of the Avant-Garde in Art and Politics,” American Historical Review, 70 (1967). (Italics added.)

35. Kozloff, Max, “American Painting During the Cold War,” Artforum, 05 1973, p. 44.

36. Rodman, Seiden, Conversations with Artists (New York: Capricorn Books, 1961), p. 87.

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