American Art in the 20th Century (2023)

AMERICAN PAINTING TRIUMPHED SOMETIME after 1945 and began a golden 25 years of New World dominance in avant-garde art. That familiar thesis underpins the exhibition “American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913–1993,” seen in Berlin over the summer and in somewhat modified form this autumn at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Saatchi Gallery in London. But the show’s organizers, the long-standing team of Norman Rosenthal and Christos M. Joachimedes, have given the truism a new historiographic twist by interpreting it to mean that American painting did not exactly triumph over Europe; rather, it succeeded on Europe’s behalf. Modern art, in their view, was—and has returned to being—an essentially European proposition. The devastation of World War II threatened to extinguish its development for a generation or perhaps forever, but the Americans, at a safe remove from the conflict, were able to keep the sacred flame of the avant-garde alight until the early ’70s, when Europeans were once more prepared to resume their natural priority.

The theme of Old World tutelage runs throughout the show. The first artist visible at the entrance is the Marcel Duchamp of the New York readymades, mentor of Man Ray and the Alfred Stieglitz circle, from whom all vernacular-image and appropriation art is understood to follow. Artists who worked for extended periods in Europe—Alexander Calder, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly—receive generous representation in comparison to their stay-at-home counterparts, many of whom are left out entirely.

On native ground, there is a nearly absolute focus on New York as simultaneous outpost of and window on Europe: to operate even at a small distance from the New York/European axis means relegation to the minor leagues. Bruce Nauman is the only artist who made his career outside the city to figure in the show, but this exception reflects the prominent role of Europe in securing his commercial and critical success.1

There is no question that the core of the exhibition, from the teens to the end of the ’60s, offers viewers in Europe a concentrated experience of American art of the first order. On a conceptual level, however, its guiding assumptions continue a tradition of discriminating enthusiasm for American prodigies going back to the ecstasies of the French over Benjamin Franklin and James Fenimore Cooper. So, in an entirely unsurprising fashion, a single artist emerges in whom the great American awakening of the ’40s truly manifests itself. This, of course, is Jackson Pollock, whose legendary persona so closely corresponds to stereotypes of the violent, elemental American hero. Only Pollock’s work spans the ’40s in the Royal Academy hanging (the earliest Willem de Kooning, by comparison, is a cabinet-sized canvas from 1948; Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still are represented only by work done after 1950).

The centrality of Pollock in the concept and presentation of the show thus introduces an apparent break with the surrounding emphasis on Europeanized refinement. The second gallery, which functions as a kind of staging area for visitors, gathers eight Joseph Cornell boxes and five paintings by Arshile Gorky under a canopy of eight constructions by Calder. From this shrine to the American adaptation of Surrealism, one can turn left into a cul-de-sac containing small, prewar canvases by early Modernists from Arthur Dove to Georgia O’Keeffe, with a wall of Edward Hopper in his vein of urban melancholy—or right into a vast open space filled with commensurably large and explosively vibrant paintings by the textbook heroes of the New York School. In the narrative of the hanging, the acolytes of Paris provide the catalyst whereby the scale and power of the landscape (as seen in miniature through, say, Charles Sheeler’s views of Ford’s new River Rouge plant in Detroit) pass from the realm of subject matter into the commanding physical presence of the paintings themselves, and that defining break sustains America’s first and only independent generation of Modern artists.

While this initial sequence of rooms makes a neat story, its explanatory value collapses into tautology—the observer’s point of view becoming identical to the thing observed—when one looks harder at the actual origins of the big abstract canvas. For that very “view from Europe” was consciously applied to Pollock in 1943 as part of the external coaching that resulted in the first painting of the breed.

That canvas was Mural, commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim to cover the entry wall of her apartment. Although Rosenthal has lamented the team’s failure to secure a “classic” among the large poured paintings, the inclusion of this pivotal work, now in the collection of the University of Iowa, confirms their underlying thesis on a more profound historical level than they appear to recognize. Mural’s location at the flyover heart of the continent has kept it hidden from coast-bound viewers, and for that reason, I suspect, it remains the great absence in the literature.2 The painting is the biggest Pollock ever made (some 8 by 19 feet), and he managed it on an upright stretched canvas using conventional brushes and oil paint. Having stared at the blank wall of white for six months after receiving the commission, he then—so the witnesses relate—covered the entire field in a single night of painting in January 1944.3 In that concentrated moment, he discovered how the wall-sized canvas could force a new gestural rapidity and a broadening of physical movement in the handling of paint. Here was the new compositional logic, based on repetition of calligraphic figural notations, dispersed and accumulated to the point that they make their own nonfigural and nonhierarchical order, coextensive but not identical with the rectangular support. It would be three or four years before he or anyone else caught up to its full implications.

In the exhibition, Mural is preceded by the much smaller canvas Guardians of the Secret completed during the previous year, which shows that his solution was there in front of him all along. The horizontal rectangle, suspended in the middle of that painting and surrounded by totemic beings, reveals itself as a rehearsal in miniature of the abstract order he then applied to its enormous neighbor. But this extraction and exponential expansion of scale were not entirely Pollock’s own idea; the innovation came from the deeply Europeanized group of advisers around Guggenheim.4 This group had turned her toward sponsoring Pollock in the first place. Howard Putzel, the Francophile American dealer, played the leading role in bringing artist and patron together, and he is remembered as wanting to see whether the colossal scale of the wall would release the energies held in check within the smaller paintings.5 Then it was Duchamp who made perhaps the most decisive contribution by suggesting to Guggenheim that it be painted on stretched canvas rather than directly onto the plaster, so that she could take it with her when she moved.6 Duchamp’s intervention, whether by intention or effect, bestowed on the work its objective ambiguity, inaugurating a series of (as Pollock himself would later put it) “large movable pictures which will function between the easel and the mural.”7

The midwives of the big American canvas were thus the least Americanized group imaginable. But they, and certainly Guggenheim herself, had come to realize that the exiled Surrealists, huddled together in defensive rituals of solidarity, were objectively out of their element in New York and in no position to exploit what America had to offer an innovative and ambitious artist. They knew that the avant-gardism in which they had invested their lives was in jeopardy unless the perception of a European monopoly was broken and artists capable of functioning in an American environment were given room and an aura of their own. They projected Pollock expressly into a space that was exotically other to themselves and promised an art that was as different as possible from Surrealism without rejecting its terms altogether. Clement Greenberg came behind this group and obediently found the decisive terms of his admiration in the results of their original conception.8

Precisely because Rosenthal and Joachimedes were unable to procure the big poured paintings for the Royal Academy—to no diminution of the artist’s importance—it is possible to free one’s thinking and seeing from the fetishism that now surrounds those works and Greenberg’s particular take on them. But the organizers unfortunately reveal an incomprehension of their own achievement—indeed, of Pollock’s, and by extension, of the New York School as well—by hanging Mural well off the floor, in violation of the low position in which it was made and intended to be seen, canceling its environmental character in favor of a spurious sublimity that is both overbearing and weightless.9 Newman, who similarly liked to place his pictures just above baseboard level, receives the same high hanging in an enclosed chapellike space, at the far end of which Rothko’s Yellow, Orange, Red on Orange of 1954 is visible from a distance like a radiant altarpiece elevated above the faithful.

Their message of course is that no further development could proceed from such transcendence: in the wake of that moment, significant American art divides into the noisy clutter of borrowed commercial imagery on one hand and the obdurate reticence of monochrome painting and Minimalist objects on the other. No fewer than six early Roy Lichtensteins serve to sum up what I take to be the organizers’ view of the normal content of the American mind. Three of Frank Stella’s wall-hungry black paintings monopolize the moment shared in history with the absent Morris Louis’ “Veils” and “Unfurleds,” a choice that can be seen as an effort to divorce expressivity from the formal discipline of postwar abstraction, indeed to demonstrate that Americans lack no significant expressive gifts after the first generation of the New York School.^^10^ Given the organizers’ well-established commitment since the later ’70s to European modes of incorrigible neo-Expressionism, the unstated ending of their story is easy to complete. They frame their presentation of the same period in America (which requires a bus ride off-site to the Saatchi Gallery) in terms of fragmentation and incoherence, to which end they provide what is largely a selection of European dealers’ favorites ca. 1985, good, bad, and indifferent works, all looking lost in an overlarge space.11 The visitor will—and is meant to—come away feeling that the primary drive and life of art must have migrated elsewhere.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum. He teaches history of art at the University of Sussex and is the author of Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

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NOTES

1. Though Edward Kienholz, for whom this is equally true, is left out entirely.

2. The very recent and conscientious study of the ideological formation of the New York School, Michael Leja’s Refraining Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1993, contains no discussion of Mural, Peggy Guggenheim, or any of the circumstances of its making sketched below. Stephen Polcari, in Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge: at the University Press. 1991, contents himself (p. 248) with a few lines of free association on the painting before moving on to other topics.

3. See Pollock’s letter to his brother Charles (July 1943) in Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene V. Thaw, Jackson Pollock: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978, IV:228. The various accounts of witnesses to the making of the painting are usefully summed up in Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1989, pp. 866–87. Guests atthe opening of Pollock’s 1945 one-man show at Art of This Century were invited to inspect Mural in situ (“March 19, 1945, 3–6, 155 E. 61st Street, first floor,” reads the invitation: see reproduction in O’Connor and Thaw, IV, pp. 234–35).

4. On Howard Putzel and James Johnson Sweeney, their backgrounds and relations with Guggenheim, see Jacqueline Bograd Weld, Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim, London: Bodley Head, 1986, pp. 194, 300, 330–32; also Melvin P. Lader. “Howard Putzel: Proponent of Surrealism and Early Abstract Expressionism in America,” Arts LV1, March 1982, pp. 85–96.

5. See Weld, p. 306–7, which quotes Lee Krasner: “Howard Putzel really got Jackson his contract. Surely Peggy made the gesture, but the fact is I doubt that there would have ever been a contract without Howard. Howard was at our house every night, and he told Jackson what to do, and how to behave. Otherwise, I doubt it would have happened. The whole thing was based on our friendship with Putzel.”

6. See Peggy Guggenheim, Out of this Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, London: André Deutsch, 1980, pp. 295–96. Duchamp continued his role as midwife to the enormous canvas by agreeing to supervise its installation in Guggenheim’s apartment. When it was discovered that Pollock’s measurements had been too long for the actual space by almost a foot, the French artist took the decision to cut off the excess, and no one complained that the work suffered any significant violence. David Hare told Weld (p. 236) that he assisted Duchamp at the installation and witnessed the cropping. The present appearance of the canvas (which sags badly in its stretcher) gives little sign of the alteration.

7. In Pollock’s application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, in O’Connor and Thaw, IV: 238.

8. In his brief review of Pollock’s 1943 show at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, Clement Greenberg had spoken disapprovingly of certain paintings veering between “the intensity of the easel picture and the blandness of the mural.” By 1947, however, he had assimilated Putzel’s and Duchamp’s vision of Pollock and would write in celebration of the fact that the artist “points a way beyond the easel, beyond the mobile, framed picture, the mural, perhaps— or perhaps not.” See Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian, Chicago: at the University Press, 1986, I:65. II:125.

9. There is no inkling of any of this history in the short-winded and elementary essays that make up the catalogue, from which the first rank of historians and critics of modern American art are largely absent.

10. In a quiet response to this absence, the Tate Gallery has brought one of each out from storage, along with two paintings from the ’60s by the likewise excluded Kenneth Noland.

11. One sign of their loss of touch in handling the later period is their segregation—no other word will do—of Martin Puryear and David Hammons in an isolated gallery to one side of the main sequence of works at the Saatchi.

American Art in the 20th Century (1)
American Art in the 20th Century (2)
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