David Anfam

  • William T. Wiley

    If American culture had to be grouped into two camps, what neater divide could there be than between idealists and pragmatists? The Pilgrim fathers, Emersons, and Clyfford Stills of this world would then square off against the Ben Franklins, Hemingways, and Rauschenbergs. Of course, reality can’t be pigeonholed so easily. Indeed, the going gets tough, and most interesting, when such opposites interact. Mergers of this kind are evident throughout William T. Wiley’s art, and their aesthetic consequences may help explain his relative neglect since the 1980s. The current retrospective recuperates

  • “Action/Abstraction”

    THE BATTLE OF THE “BERGS”—Clement Greenberg versus Harold Rosenberg—is a scenario that has begged for serious treatment since Tom Wolfe’s crude, witty satire of its more absurd extremes, The Painted Word, in 1975. Together, the critics personified the dialectic behind Abstract Expressionism: matter/spirit, objectivity/ subjectivity, the optical/the textual, abstract/representational, and so forth. What better curatorial drama than one in which Greenberg might play an august Apollo to Rosenberg’s ecstatic Dionysus? The Jewish Museum’s “Action /Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art,

  • Louise Nevelson

    THERE WAS A TIME when Louise Nevelson’s reputation far outshone that of the other Louise of postwar American sculpture: Louise Bourgeois. By the late 1960s Bourgeois still ranked as a minor scion of late Surrealism. In contrast, Nevelson had featured with Johns, Rauschenberg, and Stella in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Sixteen Americans” (1959), attracted widespread acclaim, received numerous public commissions, and had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967. However, the two women’s subsequent historical fortunes are an object lesson in trading places. Bourgeois became a

  • Edward Hopper

    Tate Modern mounted a major Edward Hopper show only a few years back, but it never made it to the States. The current retrospective’s co-organizing museums (the MFA and the exhibition’s two travel venues) evidently feel the time is right for US audiences to view this most popular—and familiar—of national icons. Will the survey be a box office–friendly replay of the Whitney’s comprehensive 1980 Hopper survey or an altogether fresh take? Indeed, might Hopper here emerge as the crypto-modernist he was, his “realism” cloaking a canny grasp

  • Brice Marden

    HOW CAN AN ARTIST keep high modernism alive when rumors of its death abound? This is the question Brice Marden repeatedly confronts throughout the Museum of Modern Art’s majestic retrospective, organized by Gary Garrels. From the show’s first galleries on the building’s sixth floor (mostly devoted to paintings) to the works on paper three levels below, Marden’s answers mix pictorial dexterity and doggedness—cool yet assertive responses to a constant challenge.

    Starting in the early 1960s with canvases and drawings that exemplify the lessons of less, the selection ends with two extended

  • De Kooning: An American Master

    IN WRITING THEIR large-scale biography of Willem de Kooning, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan evidently faced several major difficulties. The first is that, notwithstanding his majestic creative achievements, de Kooning led a rather uneventful life. True, there was his adventure in 1926 as a stowaway aboard a dirty British ship that got him to the United States, plus the numerous affairs that, in later years, were increasingly interspersed with his drunken binges. But a boat trip, copious lovemaking, and booze do not a biography of more than seven hundred pages make––or at least not a gripping one.

  • TELLING TALES: PHILIP GUSTON IN RETROSPECT

    On the occasion of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s traveling retrospective “PHILIP GUSTON,” Artforum asked art historian DAVID ANFAM to examine the career of a painter whose “untimely” return to storytelling pointed the way “back to the future.”

    LIKE MANY A GOOD STORY, Philip Guston’s art starts in earnest with a bang. Although Bombardment, 1937–38, was not Guston’s first work, it certainly marks his most significant point of departure. True, its overly “plastic” modeling recalls the monumentalizing Art Deco staginess of umpteen WPA murals long since faded into historical oblivion. But we

  • Philip Guston

    Over the past decade, the golden oldies of Abstract Expressionism have made a big comeback. For some time it looked as if successive tidal waves of Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, performance, video, and their extended family of neo-this-and-that descendants had swept Pollock, Rothko & Co. once and for all into the hinterland of art history, a distant pantheon of heroic gestures, sublime transcendence, and signature styles. Yet recently these figures have gotten major shows—starting with reassessments of Kline (1994) and Rothko (1996–97) organized by the Menil Collection; de Kooning at the

  • Patrick Heron

    Patrick Heron is at heart a modernist in the tradition of Roger Fry and Clement Greenberg: the seventy-odd pictures on view at the Tate Gallery charted a logic of space, color, and rhythm evolving over six decades. There was no postmodern irony here, no heavyweight subject matter, not even a hint of concerns beyond the two-dimensional arena of the canvas itself. It is this attitude that allows Heron to assert in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition that the decorative is “the height of art.” The painter’s entire enterprise represents a struggle to keep alive Matisse’s vision of art meant