PRINT September 1965

Postscript: The Fifties

IN RETROSPECT THE FIFTIES IN NEW YORK had about them an aura of Early Christian simplicity, but it wasn’t like that at all. There was much more anxiety than we now want to admit and much more involvement with status, success, and money. This is all in the open now, and the idea of making it doesn’t have to be hidden behind artists’ piety.

We (my wife, Miriam Schapiro, and I) came back to New York in 1951 after many years in the Midwest. It was the time of the 9th Street Show, which now seems a turning point. Almost everyone who was part of the New York scene was in the show, and it must have made them feel less alone. The Cedar Bar and the Club were centers of the downtown scene. De Kooning and Kline were surrounded by young and not-so-young acolytes. Pollock was out in Springs, and Rothko, Motherwell, Newman, and others were aloof and not so available to the young.

De Kooning was our leader, but he reigned reluctantly, unhappy, perhaps, that so many of our paintings looked like his. Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan talked about a new generation, but we all painted in a corner of our elders’ world. We had inherited a successful revolution. Al Leslie and Mike Goldberg acted as if they had workers’ caps and peasant boots, but we were all the sons of Red Army generals and went to the best schools.

Another center was the group around John Cage. I met Cage through Morton Feldman. I was ambivalent about their music but was fascinated by their ideas of non-causality and mindlessness. Rauschenberg was there, identifying most with the group around Cage but also involved with the painters around de Kooning. His position then can be symbolized by his erasing (emptiness—silence?) the de Kooning drawing.

The scene wasn’t all one of artists. Like the Magritte painting, in which cubes and spheres displace the houses in an ordinary town, the others were moving in. The dealers and the collectors who collected artists came in geometric progression. The scene expanded. Pavia’s “The Boys” from the Waldorf Cafeteria were joined by newcomers, and soon there was no center anymore.

By the late fifties it seemed to me that the good ideas had been talked out and that the private myths that had animated the best paintings had become public myths.

The change in my own work from the collective permission of the fifties to its present state was preceded by several years of doubt. I first expressed these doubts in an article that I wrote for It Is entitled “Non Freedom.” Here I urged greater rigor and clarity and an end to autobiography in painting. Phrased as a manifesto, it was really a dialogue with myself. Many of my generation are still in the fifties in spirit; others of us have moved in our work and in our attitudes about our work to find, rather than inherit, our difficulties.

I have worked in the sixties to attain my own state of “Non Freedom.” It’s not so comfortable here either.

Paul Brach