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Dore Ashton (1928–2017)

Dore Ashton, a celebrated art historian, critic, champion of the New York School, and author of books on Abstract Expressionists, many of whom she knew personally, died on January 30 at the age of eighty-nine, El Pais reports.

Commenting on the role of the critic, Ashton said, “The mission of the contemporary critic is often construed as a purgative activity, aimed at ridding commentary of ornamental maunderings . . . But in the passionate effort to deal with essences, or things in themselves, much modern criticism has deleted a whole realm of experience . . . The first effort of the critic should be to see the unique quality inherent in a work, the quality that immediately attracts the receiver and moves him. But the critic must also remember that other action of a work: its expansiveness. If it moves us, it can move us emotionally, morally, psychologically, intellectually, historically, depending on a host of subtle considerations. It seems to me that twentieth-century art must be considered in a double perspective . . . Like a big city, twentieth-century art has many quartiers.”

Born in 1928 in Newark, New Jersey, Ashton studied at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Fernand Léger School of Art in Paris. She earned her master’s in art history from Harvard University in 1950. She wrote criticism for the New York Times from 1953 to 1960, when she was fired supposedly for her avant-garde views. Ashton taught at Cooper Union for many years and was a lecturer at Yale University.

Ashton wrote more than thirty books, including The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (1973), Noguchi East and West (1993), About Rothko (2003), American Art Since 1945 (1982), and Picasso on Art (1977), and contributed to numerous publications. After reviewing her work on painter Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell said, “Dore Ashton has got inside the artistic mind of Mark Rothko, and in doing so, has come upon the sensibility, ultimate concerns, and ideas of the Abstract Expressionists milieu . . . [She is] an incomparable guide, whose scholarship and personal testimony must not be ignored.”

Among the many honors she received throughout her life are the Frank J. Mather Award for Art Criticism (1963), a Ford Foundation Award (1965), a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Humanities for Fine Arts Research (1964 and 1969), a National Endowment for the Humanities grant (1980), and three honorary doctorates. Ashton was on the boards of the Foundation for Education in the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the International Association of Art Critics, the PEN Club, and the Dedalus Foundation.