Paint & Politics

How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War.
by Serge Guilbaut.
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. University of Chicago Press. 276 pp. $22.50.

Looking back at the art scene in New York City as shaped during the war years and early 50’s, a critic might well find much to criticize in past descriptions of the Abstract Expressionist movement, both by those who championed and by those who opposed it; he might also raise questions about the motives of the artists involved, as of their champions and their detractors. And if such an inquiry were pursued with an informed sympathy and a readiness to cover a wide range of fact—as we find, for example, in T. J. Clark’s essay “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art” in the September 1982 issue of Critical Inquiry—the results might be clarifying. But Serge Guilbaut’s review of the art movement during those years is hardly an inquiry; it is much more like a prosecutor’s brief. The motives of those who championed the Abstract Expressionists are not scrutinized, or searched out, but “revealed” in all of what the author takes to be their political misguidedness. The actual works of the painters are not even once described, nor are there photographs of them to remind the reader that so much agitation and disagreement is about actual paintings. The artists are of course mentioned, but almost always in connection with some manifesto they had drawn up, never in connection with some painting one of them had actually taken the trouble to bring off. Barnett Newman, for example, is mentioned almost as frequently as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, though Newman, who later produced some remarkable canvases (among them the lovely Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue), was known during the critical years of the movement mainly for his formulation of the demands and resolves of artists with whom he was associated.

And there is worse. Serge Guilbaut’s title is How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, and the subtitle is “Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War.” Now the title is patently a fraud, for there is nothing in the text to suggest that anything whatever was stolen, or that Abstract Expressionism is in fact the idea of modern art. Some reviewers have seen the title as a yielding to commercialism. They have not reacted sufficiently to the charge of theft—no small matter, that—a charge not made good by any argument in the text itself. And how does the commercialism in the title, if that is the real intent of it, go with a text which suggests that the city of New York was far too imbued with capitalist interests, with commercialism, if you please, to become the center of an art movement entitled to wrest leadership from whatever was still stirring in Paris?

Moreover, the author is often wrong in his restatements of what others have said. Writing on Meyer Schapiro’s article, “The Nature of Abstract Art,” in the Marxist Quarterly of 1937, Guilbaut says that this essay “. . . marks a conceptual and ideological shift in Schapiro’s work. Whereas in 1936 Schapiro had argued in ‘The Social Bases of Art’ that the artist had a place in the revolutionary process, . . . by 1937 he was arguing . . . that the artist was cut off from all revolutionary hope.” Now the descriptions of both of Schapiro’s texts are false. He did not find a place for the artist in the revolutionary process in his earlier article, nor did he, in the Marxist Quarterly article, assert that the artist was cut off from all revolutionary hope. And it is not the case, as the author maintains, that Delmore Schwartz criticized Schapiro “. . . for attributing too much importance to aesthetics. . . .” Quite to the contrary, Schwartz criticized Schapiro for treating sociologically the abstract art which Schapiro’s title suggested would deal with its “nature.” In fact, much of Schapiro’s originality lay in his departures, often inspired, from the aesthetic. And what can it mean to say that Schapiro’s article was “the first sign of a breach in the Communist wall that would later be widened (by Breton and Trotsky in 1938, Greenberg in 1939, and Motherwell in 1944)”? The judgments here are inaccurate; the assumptions behind them are utterly questionable.



The author does not distinguish between the politics of the art world and the politics of the U.S., as pursued by its executives and diplomats. His thesis is that Abstract Expressionism was a tool of the American government in the cold war which, according to him, was declared by Washington, not by Moscow. (This is of course the thesis of the revisionist historians, which has had to be rejected by historians interested in facts. Among these facts are Stalin’s expulsion of Earl Browder from the Communist party for favoring moderation toward the U.S. and the aggressiveness of Soviet foreign policy from 1945 on.) But fact is of such slight interest to the author that he can allow himself to accuse Winston Churchill of flinging down “an iron curtain” across Europe in the very speech in which Churchill asked the Soviets to lift the iron curtain they themselves had flung down. He says of the Marshall Plan that it “permanently alienated the Soviet Union from the United States.” To ascribe the permanent alienation of the Soviet Union from the United States to the Marshall Plan is to regard as unworthy of attention any of the political actions, or rationalization of such actions, by the Soviet leaders since the war.

In any case, world politics is not art politics. However one explains the purposes of Truman or Acheson or Churchill, or Stalin for that matter, what can such purposes have had to do with the paintings produced by Robert Motherwell, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock, or with the championship of such paintings by the critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg? As Guilbaut sees the matter, the success of Abstract Expressionism was helpful to American policy-makers in Washington. If American painters could rule the world of art, then what objection could there be to letting American policy-makers dominate the states of Western Europe?

Certainly the success of Abstract Expressionism was no hindrance to Truman, Acheson, Eisenhower, or Dulles, but I see no way in which it can be said to have been a help in carrying out a foreign policy which was often improvised, unstable, and at times incoherent. But even supposing the political line of Washington was clearer than I think it to have been, how could it have been helped by the New York painters, whatever the worth of their productions? As I remember, after the defeat of France in 1940, Archibald MacLeish wrote accusingly of the “Irresponsibles,” the avant-garde writers of France, Proust among them, charging that they had hurt France in the war against Hitler. This accusation is as worthless as the counter-accusation of Serge Guilbaut that the American Abstract Expressionists, aided by Messrs. Greenberg and Rosenberg, helped American Presidents from Truman to Kennedy carry on their cold war against Soviet Communism.



Whatever may be said to have influenced the New York City painters to take the abstract turn they made decisive in the 1940’s must surely be distinguished from whatever it was that made for the success of Abstract Expressionism. It is characteristic of Serge Guilbaut’s crude thinking that he tries to merge the distinctly different processes of individual creation and public success. For him the cause of the abstract turn taken by the painters is to be found in their negative politics, which is to say their depoliticization (furthered by Greenberg and Schapiro); the cause he gives for the success of Abstract Expressionism is the rising nationalism of the country, of the nation’s ideological leaders like, for example, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and the anti-Soviet bias of our art critics after the war.

On both matters, the cause of the movement—about which, in the nature of the case, one cannot be too certain (there has to be a certain mystery in the emergence of any really good art)—and the success of the movement, the author is a historian without a feeling for facts, a judge without any gift for judgment.

As to the first matter: I think one important fact was the increased confidence of the American painters (in New York City, at any rate) when they had direct contact with the European, and most especially the French, painters they had admired for years, and who were now at work alongside them in the very same studios. De Kooning told me this in 1948 when I was about to go to Paris. He showed me a canvas he had just completed—I think it one of the very best of his paintings. It was, as I recall, neither ambiguously abstract nor ambiguously figurative: the one clear object in it was an iron hoop (of the kind, when we were kids, we used to direct down the sidewalk with a stick) against a colored background. I cannot say just what it was that gave the canvas its intensity and affirmativeness; it was yea-saying in spirit and not merely because it did not say “No” either to the abstract or to the figurative. I remember saying at once, “This painting is just wonderful, you’ve made a breakthrough of some kind.” “I really have,” he said, and of course I wanted to know how this had come about. Here is de Kooning’s account: “I was painting in this studio right next to Léger and Hélion, whom I had always thought were better painters than I. Then one day it struck me that they were not, and that I was just as interesting. . . .” He had made the painting I admired to celebrate the discovery of his own worth.

The new event in what occurred during the war years was this: the American painters of New York City came to have a confidence they had never felt before as they measured themselves against the European painters whose powers distance and publicity had magnified. This was true only of the painters in New York City, for it was to this city that the European painters came, and some of the very best were here: Mondrian, Miró, Chagall, Masson, Matta, Tanguy, Max Ernst, Léger, Hélion, Duchamps. In all the talk since that time about the new American art which developed in New York City and took the play away from Paris—talk which Serge Guilbaut does absolutely nothing to refine—there should be some recognition of the fact that the outstanding Parisian painters spent the years of the war in New York, and the ones who benefited artistically from acquaintance with them were the American painters in the city.



Let me describe a most revealing event of that period. The year, if I remember rightly, was 1944, and the Julien Levy Gallery was showing Tanguy’s exquisite paintings, of lost bones on forlorn beaches. Many painters came to the opening, and Max Ernst, who was then married to Peggy Guggenheim, invited everyone at the opening to their apartment on Beekman Place. Among those who came were some American painters and art critics, the Surrealists, and Mondrian.

At the party which followed at the Beekman Place apartment, there was much praise for Tanguy, and at one point the painter, who had been drinking, turned to Mondrian, a slenderly built man, modest of demeanor and thoroughly sober in a crowd that was trying to get drunk. Tanguy said: “I’m most interested in your opinion of my show.” Mondrian answered immediately, and what he said sent a shock through everyone, including his own followers. What Mondrian said was: “Your paintings are excellent in most respects. I have only one fault to find with them. They are too abstract.” And then Mondrian went on to deny that his own paintings could properly be called abstract. They were not copies of existing objects, they were themselves objects, and objects never before seen in more material guise than he himself had granted them. This is all I now recall of what he said, but I still retain the shock to me and to others of Mondrian’s remark on that occasion. Here was indeed a Parisian event and of historic interest; it took place in New York City.

There was yet another factor which may be said to have stimulated the new art movement in New York. Among all of the painters at that time, the Europeans as well as the Americans, this question was regularly raised: how can one make a revolution after Picasso? In general, the view held was that one could not make any such revolution, but also that one should try to do so. And I think the one painter who answered affirmatively, “I can,” was Jackson Pollock. His way of doing this was typically American. He refused to draw on anything in the past tradition of painting, and this was a step more radical than either Gorky or de Kooning was prepared to take at the time. Now it was Pollock, de Kooning told me, who opened the door to the other American painters.



Such was the idea—environment, if I can be allowed that term—of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and in all this I see nothing political. What caused the success of the movement had little to do with politics either. The abstract painters were simply better and more interesting artists than those belonging to other schools, and people who cared about painting saw the value of their work. And the American Abstract Expressionists were not the only abstract painters who won the approval of the critics. Such abstract artists as the German Wols, who did his work in Paris after the war, and the Canadian painter Riopelle, were also sought after by collectors, and neither of them furthered the political purposes of the American government. Collectors purchased their works all the same.

Finally, the American painters were not depoliticized during the 40’s and 50’s. During the war, they were for victory over Hitler, and during the 1952 presidential race, the members of the Eighth Street Art Club, whose heroes were Pollock and de Kooning, rallied to the support of Stevenson against Eisenhower. And this was at a time when Irving Howe, whom I have never known to be depoliticized, was preaching that there was not a dime’s worth of political difference between the two candidates. Now this is perhaps beside the point. All I want to stress here is that at the time when Abstract Expressionism was being created, the painters responsible for its creation did not think of themselves as alienated from this country or its politics, even as they went about creating what is surely a nonpolitical art.



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