DORE ASHTON CAME OF AGE IN A GALVANIZING PLACE AND TIME—New York in the 1950s—when Abstract Expressionism was giving the art of the United States international significance and when partisan arguments over the proper way to interpret this art were flaring. The dominant voices in those arguments were male—Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg among others—but a number of women were also shaping the critical discourse, including Aline Louchheim Saarinen, Elaine de Kooning, Belle Krasne, Katherine Kuh, and Emily Genauer.
Even as Ashton’s early reviews covered a broad range of work, she was unafraid to lock horns with Greenberg and Rosenberg over some of their favorite artists. Unlike those prominent critical counterparts, Ashton took seriously what the artists were saying about their work. She read and listened to them—she even reported on one of Rothko’s public lectures for the New York Times—and she treated their art and their theories as mutually illuminating. She quoted Rothko in a direct challenge to Rosenberg that appeared in the August 1957 issue of Arts and Architecture: “It is cowardly to ‘live’ through the painter’s act alone. The only glory is in going beyond the gesture.” She strove to clarify the often cryptic pronouncements of the artists, writing, for example:
“Rothko claims that his is the most violent painting in America today. One can take that to mean that by supreme effort of will he has harnessed turbulence. He paints the paradox of violence. Those colors which create genuine, immeasurable tensions are grappling among themselves as symbols.”
Her writing on Rothko evinced her conviction in artists’ belief that their work had philosophical significance, that its formal innovations were intertwined with profound reflections on modern experience.
“Most of these paintings [in Rothko’s 1958 exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery] are in the great tragic voice (though one borders on irritable despair). They are, in their own way, equivalents to the ‘machine’ paintings of earlier periods, those large scale, ambitious canvases in which great painters tried to give form to great truths.”
And she accepted the challenge of articulating the truths rooted in their imposing abstract forms. “These large, resounding paintings embody Rothko’s deeply developed sense of the tragic. . . . I would like to suggest that the paling edges, the quavering areas of light, the completely ambiguous extremities of Rothko’s forms . . . are the crucial carriers of Rothko’s complex expression.”
Like some of the artists she admired, she appreciated paradox, and she did not shy away from framing it in her texts when she found it in the art and words of her artists. In Pollock’s paintings, for instance, space was the salient feature for Ashton; writing that his works “violently rejected established pictorial conventions for delimiting recessive space,” she elaborated:
“The labyrinth of lines, crossing and recrossing, occupies a narrow space, defined laterally. The spectator enters it and, led through the magical maze of the web, follows the chance succession of lines. . . . One can, like a spider, sit at the heart of the structure, and, behind the foreground, remain sheltered in the interior of the great web.”
The metaphors that helped Ashton articulate her experience of Pollock’s art conjured a space simultaneously sheltering and trapping, solid and delicate, magical and material.
Ashton’s willingness to employ abstract and complex language on behalf of Abstract Expressionism was a source of friction with her editor at the New York Times, John Canaday. “We have managed to eliminate the most esoteric phraseology from your articles but they are not yet satisfactory to me or to the editors,” he wrote to her in 1961. He also accused her of “using the columns of the Times for the professional and financial advantage of your husband and friends.” (She was married to the printmaker Adja Yunkers.) Outraged by the charges, Ashton stood her ground and brought her case to the Art Critics’ Association, which censured Canaday for bullying a fellow critic. Even as a young woman, she was not cowed by the most powerful male authorities in critical and institutional establishments.
Michael Leja is a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (1993).