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Irving Sandler (1925–2018)

The American art historian and critic Irving Sandler passed away yesterday in New York City at the age of ninety-two. The cause was cancer, said his wife, Lucy Freeman Sandler. Sandler was well known as a champion of artists and a cofounder of Artists Space in New York in 1972. He was a senior critic of Artnews from the late 1950s to the early ’60s and a contributor to Artforum, among other publications.

In a poem, Frank O’Hara called him “the balayeur des artistes,” or the sweeper-up after artists. Sandler employed that name as the title of his first memoir, which was published in 2003.

Sandler was a tireless educator as well: After teaching at New York University, he accepted a professorship at Purchase College in 1972, from which he retired in 1997. Shortly after that, he began teaching periodically in the graduate art history department at Hunter College.

Sandler was deeply inspired by his relationships with artists, and this led him to compile several histories of Abstract Expressionism and ensuing movements. He interviewed numerous artists, including Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Phillip Guston, and Franz Kline. In 1972, he cofounded Artists Space with Trudie Grace.

Sandler was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 22, 1925 and was raised in Philadelphia. At seventeen, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps and served for three years during World War II. He next received a bachelor’s degree from Temple University in 1948, and a master’s degree in American studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1950. He did some additional graduate work in art history at Columbia University and completed a doctoral degree at New York University in 1976. In 2008, Sandler received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Art Criticism from the International Art Critics Association.

Sandler authored many books and monographs on individual artists, in addition to a crucial four-volume survey, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (1970). His other books include The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (1978); American Art of the 1960s (1988); Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (1996); and Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: a Reevaluation (2009). Sandler also wrote two memoirs. His first novel, Goodbye to Tenth Street, which transpires in the art world of the 1950s and ’60s, is to be published this fall by Pleasure Boat Studio. 

Writing in Artforum in 2004, Robert Storr called Sandler’s sweeping narratives “readable and deeply informed by their author’s unrivaled access to the artists and art-worldlings about whom he writes.”

Storr continued: “No one has seen more exhibitions in New York galleries or sat on, or in on, as many panels for as many years. Nor has anyone more scrupulously set down what people said in such forums, at openings, or in intimate studio or bar conversations than Sandler. Name a painter, sculptor, curator, critic, or idea man or woman and he will have talked to them and made notes.”

Sandler’s papers, including five decades of notes, transcripts, and audiotapes of interviews with artists and art professionals, materials documenting art organizations and associations, and correspondence regarding publications, lectures, and academic appointments, are in the Special Collections of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.