PRINT September 1965

Postscript: The Forties

HAVING BEEN ASKED TO WRITE about the period during the late forties and fifties and since memory is not always accurate in details and the proper order of things as they happened, I am referring somewhat to a paper I wrote in 1950 for a course at New York University—called “Subject Matter of the Artist.” The term “subject matter” can be misleading when referring to abstract painting but it was then used to convey the meaning that the artist may have a subject even if it does not refer directly to recognizable objects or incidents; that his attempts to deal with more subjective feelings and ideas constitute subjects. I had been in New York only a short time but found the artists to be enthusiastic and quite involved in finding their own direction, with a kind of new independence from the Paris influence that was giving impetus to their work. To quote from the paper mentioned, “American artists have been characterized either by noticeable foreign influence or by reaction to this influence. When there was no access to what was being done abroad (during the last war) and no desire to emulate the work of previous American artists, some artists felt there was nothing left to do but turn to themselves to seek development. They were left on their own. They did not believe art was nationalistic, but rather universal; it should deal only with a language that might have meaning anywhere. Yet they felt that art did depend on subject matter and that the source of the subject was important, and, since landscape and figure painting had been dealt with to the extent of no longer being interesting or meaningful for contemporary expression, they began to try to find new subjects which might be available through turning to the subconscious mind.” This was my interpretation of the attitude of mind of those artists I knew who were in some way then connected with “Studio 35.” I interviewed William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman. They all seemed to feel optimistic and enthusiastic and there was a good feeling that seemed to pervade the art world. While each artist acted as an individual and had more or less his own direction, there was a strong group spirit that apparently arose from a fresh feeling of independence from the European scene and the idea that a New York school was emerging. I mention this optimistic spirit because that is what I most clearly recall from those years. After the impetus of that time the group began gradually to separate and go their separate ways and while many things have been happening since, I am not aware of the same strong sense of direction (though this may be because I now work more on my own).

Robert Goodnough