PRINT September 1965

The New York School in Los Angeles

AS IS FITTING AND PROPER, the first exhibition of contemporary art organized by the new Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an extensive, historical presentation of the artists of the New York School the largest of its kind so far organized. Selected by the new Curator of Modern Art, Maurice Tuchman, the exhibition, in a sense, serves notice that few of the future activities of the contemporary wing of the Museum will be truly understandable until the achievement of this group is understood; all modern art, for the foreseeable future, must, in greater measure or less, be seen with reference to their prodigious accomplishment.

The exhibition takes place at a time when the entire edifice of Abstract Expressionism is being tapped for hollow spots by another generation, and it is very much about time the world, and especially, perhaps, the West Coast, had a long look of this kind at what that edifice looks like. The great virtue of the current exhibition is its rigorous attempt to be as faithful as possible to the actual spirit of the times, and this is reflected in the catalog (which contains only contemporary material) as well as in the choice of paintings (a truly scrupulous avoidance of “precursor-type” paintings, “early intimation” type paintings and “surprisingly relevant” type paintings).

Until, perhaps, only a short time ago, there might have been, in general terms, rather universal agreement about “the actual spirit of the times,” but currently, even some of this agreement has been shattered. Showing concurrently, for example, at the Pasadena Art Museum, is a version of Michael Fried’s “Three American Painters,” (Stella, Olitski, Noland). It is an example of the kind of painting that could never have happened without the artists of the Los Angeles County Museum show, and Mr. Fried is anxious to establish certain formal connection. In part of his analysis of Pollock he remarks that:

“. . . Pollock was . . . a painter whose work is always inhabited by a subtle, questing formal intelligence of the highest order . . . whose concern in his art was not with any fashionable metaphysics of despair but with making the best paintings of which he was capable.”

It is a strange remark, gratuitous and full of hidden hostilities. Why should a younger critic be anxious to 1) disallow the possibility that a “metaphysics of despair” can go hand in hand with “making the best paintings of which he was capable,” 2) seek to drive a wedge into what had hitherto been a rather universal consensus that the forties and fifties, for the New York School, were indeed dominated by a sense of “angst,” of “crisis,” and of an overwhelming concern for the expression of a certain kind of content, containing these, in their art and 3) establish the primacy of “formal” intelligence, and this indeed for a period when evidence indicates a distinctly secondary interest in formal matter, and a distinctly primary interest in “subjects of the artist”? The answer lies in two areas. First, and perhaps most immediate, in the fact that much of the art of a succeeding generation does not seem to share the same “metaphysical” concerns of the generation of the New York School. One way, there­fore, to establish the validity of the new art is to demonstrate that the older art drew its strength not from its “metaphysics of despair” but from its “formal intelligence”—a quality which the new painting manifests in great measure (indeed, can be demonstrated to have improved upon). The second has to do with a sharpening resentment against an inundation of imitative paintings, especially during the late fifties, which considerably delayed the recognition of the more innovative artists of the second generation, constituted almost a parody of the achievements of the first generation and threatened to choke off all access to the unlimited possibilities which the initial breakthrough had opened up. In good measure, this inundation was attributed to too gross an understanding of the “metaphysics” and too little an understanding of the “formal intelligence,” and the root cause of the confusion traced to Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters.” Here, it was felt, was the precise moment at which the American artist was distorted into a gesturing existentialist, committing his romantic despair to canvas in a spurt of unpremeditated activity.

It is remarkable how many people understand Rosenberg’s expression “action painting” to refer to a speedy, spontaneous collision between artist and canvas, resulting in an image that is a surprise to both. But this does not seem to be behind Rosenberg’s now famous sentence, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. . . .” The “act” Rosenberg had in mind had precisely to do with the creation of a kind of painting which would give the most direct expression to the artist’s vision of himself in this world, in this universe, just as that vision might be reflected in greater or lesser measure in any other action a man might take. And thus, “The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence.” It should be noted that in this context, a Gottlieb, a Newman, a Rothko, or a Reinhardt is as relevant as any Pollock, de Kooning or Kline.

If the collision-type of action paintings that drenched the middle and late fifties cannot, therefore, reasonably be laid at Rosenberg’s door, two points of current controversy over the nature of the New York School can indeed be related to his essay. The first is, of course, the insistence on the importance of “metaphysical” content, and the second is the open indifference to formal questions where this content is concerned. “The apples weren’t brushed off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the act of painting.” Translation: Whatever formal innovations the New York School made, whatever solutions they offered to problems of color, space and scale which had plagued abstract art since Cubism were incidental to the main objectives of the movement. Whether their formal devices solved or didn’t solve, advanced or did not advance the totality of abstract art was a matter of indifference, for the “reactionary” or “advanced” nature of their art did not depend on these standards for their measurement. In short, one would be doing violence to the whole spirit of the New York School if one, in deciding the relative merits of, say, a de Kooning “Woman” and a Pollock drip painting, opted for one or the other on the basis of that artist’s “solution of the problem of Cubist space.” Neither made paintings to solve the problem of Cubist space.

The authority of Rosenberg’s position rests on its fidelity to the intentions of the artists, and it is perhaps because so many artists felt that his essay did indeed express their intentions, and that so much of the interested public at the time felt that the essay had caught the sense of what the artists were about that it has become so much more well-known than the essay which is in many senses its antagonist, Clement Greenberg’s 1955, “‘American-Type’ Painting.” Underlying Greenberg’s essay is a rather different set of assumptions. The intentions of the artists have little enough to do with the situation in which they find themselves. Whatever their reasons for making paintings, they must begin with the state of abstract art as they find it. The future may or may not understand the “zeitgeist” of the 1940s and ’50s as Harold Rosenberg does, but it will certainly understand the main directions of 20th-century painting, and the success or failure of the New York School, as any school, will depend on its relations to this direction. The moment which Rosenberg describes as one in which “the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act,” is described by Greenberg in much more verifiable terms:

“The first problem these young Americans seemed to share was that of loosening up the relatively delimited illusion of shallow depth that the three master Cubists—Picasso, Braque, Leger—had adhered to since the closing out of Synthetic Cubism.”

Because of his dependence on the actual mood of the times, a reaction like “Arena, farina, all I want to do is make pretty pictures,” might prove disconcerting to Rosenberg; but a reaction like “Cubism, schmubism, all I want to do is suffer,” would not bother Greenberg in the least, for to suffer (or to make pretty pictures) in the major leagues, certain confrontations with the state of the art as it is given must be held, and held successfully. (If not, your suffering is no more valuable than Mary Worth’s.)

It follows that those artists who most successfully understand, confront and solve the “problems” which the state of the art at the time presents will be the ones from whose work future artists will most profit. The standard of “fecundity” therefore becomes relevant in gauging the contribution of an artist, and among younger critics and artists today, the roughly three-fold division of the New York School (Newman-Rothko-Still, Pollock, de Kooning) is based upon the relative influence of each upon the painting that has happened subsequent to theirs. This is to say, for example, that the differences between Pollock and de Kooning, until subsequent artists come to examine the solution each offers to the problems they must themselves solve to evolve an important art, are not immediately apparent, or even that apparent differences can turn out to be similarities, and vice-versa. And when a Greenberg-influenced critic such as Michael Fried commences to examine the work of Kenneth Noland, it may lead him to explicate certain differences between Pollock and de Kooning which would appear the sheerest nonsense to Harold Rosenberg.

In the light of the complex scrutiny to which American painting of the last twenty years is currently being subjected, the task of mounting (or of viewing!) an exhibition such as the one at the County Museum is no longer as simple a job as it might have been even a decade ago. What criteria, after all, should most apply to the selection of the eight to ten paintings which will represent each artist? What, finally, is the New York School? A book-length, remarkable catalog accompanies the exhibition, reproducing each of the 122 works in the exhibition, 20 in color. It contains what is probably the most extensive bibliography on the New York School yet published, and a unique selection of statements by the artists and by the critics most closely associated with the movement. The selections are designed to present some insight into the nature of the milieu: what the artists were thinking about, how they understood their own actions, how the critics formulated the results. Curiously, the catalog contains no biographies of the artists or listing of past exhibitions (save as the catalogs are referred to in the bibliography), and, more seriously, no introductory essay by the show’s organizer.

The lack of a catalog essay, one feels, is a considered part of a valiant attempt to allow, as much as possible, the period to speak for itself, aided by the careful selection of statements and writings contemporary with the events. Perhaps, indeed, the most cogent way to indicate that the exhibition is shaped to no extraneous point of view is to permit it to speak for itself, and, in fact, it is in many ways refreshing to find the organizer stepping modestly behind the exhibition, testing, in a sense, the value of the recent custom of extended explanatory essays. But, because there is so little that is, in the end, self-evident about a show of this nature, one needs some insight into the basis for many of the decisions that have been made, if only to more thoroughly grasp their correctness.

The exhibition is entitled “New York School/The First Generation/Paintings of the 1940s and 1950s.” Even at this date, however, the precise meaning of the expression “first generation” is capable of producing the most heated dispute. Robert Motherwell, for example, understands the first generation of the New York School to consist only of those artists who exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of This Century” in New York during the early forties.* The 1958–59 exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art, and circulated throughout Europe, which was probably the most extensive exhibition prior to this one, was organized as “a show devoted specifically to Abstract Expressionism in America,” and while it avoided the question of first/second generation, it is noteworthy that the exhibition did not include Hans Hofmann, Richard Pousette-Dart or Ad Reinhardt, but did include James Brooks, Sam Francis, Grace Hartigan, Theodoros Stamos and Jack Tworkov. It is obvious that Mr. Tuchman does not agree with a narrow view of the first generation, and that he does not agree that younger artists like Sam Francis (who might be geographically unrelated) or Grace Hartigan belong in a show of “first generation” artists. The selection of artists in the exhibition makes it clear who Mr. Tuchman does think constitute the first generation, but it is not clear why he thinks so. In including Richard Pousette-Dart, for example, one feels that he is “correcting” a more prevailing view which sees this artist as somewhat apart from the main grouping of New York School artists, a peripheral figure whose contribution is not clear, who continued to develop the archaic, or Surrealist motifs that characterized the group as a whole long after the others had moved off into the more individualized explorations of the fifties. If Mr. Tuchman is right, his selection will influence future exhibitions and future histories. But, by the same token, we are somewhat at a loss to understand his position regarding artists like Brooks, Stamos or Tworkov. Without an explanation, one does not know whether to understand their absence as a matter of history (they are not to be classified as “first generation”) or as a matter of quality (while they may be first generation their work is not sufficiently excellent to place them with the masters).

The same need for a stated, clarifying criterion extends to the individual selections in the exhibition. The Gorkys in this exhibition, for example, are universally beautiful; there is not a bad, or even an indifferent one in the group. And yet, how one misses at least one of the soaring masterpieces: The Plough and the Song, or The Diary of a Seducer, or The Liver is the Cock’s Comb, or How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in my Life! As the labyrinth of amenities, proprieties of relations between a museum and other museums, collectors and artists becomes more complex, making the organization of an exhibition more an agonized ritual dance than the free movement of a sensitive and informed intelligence, one does not know whether to attribute their absence to their unavailability, museum politics, competing exhibitions, an obvious (and commendable) interest in stressing works from California collections, or a desire to exhibit lesser-known works in order, perhaps, to avoid the manner in which the well-known masterpiece might distract from the more important overall view of the artist’s development.

Indeed, for the most part the show is not oriented (there are spectacular exceptions) either toward the glittering masterpieces or toward a standard of quality alone. The exhibition does not hesitate to include not only minor works for many of the artists, but, for some, distinctly inferior works. In the light of a manifest intention to remain faithful to the spirit of the times, the typical painting would appear to be the one most called for (but within the range of typical paintings there are good ones as well as bad ones, and even masterpieces) and, certainly for the period of the fifties, this standard seems to prevail above all others. For the period of the forties, however the factor that seems to dominate all the selections is interrelatedness.

Surely what tipped the balance, for example, in favor of Pousette-Dart, was the remarkable (and possibly superficial) similarity between the 1943 work shown here (Dark Fugue No. 2) and Pollock’s work of the period, exemplified here by Pasiphae, also of 1943. Neither work is unrelated to the biomorphism which interested many beside Gorky, and this is an element which makes not only the untitled de Kooning of 1943 a preferred choice, but Hofmann’s 1946 Palimpsest, as well. An early Hofmann that seemed related to a Gorky of the same period is more desirable, when the interrelated concerns of the artists are being stressed, than either a fecund, typical or excellent Hofmann of the same period, and from this point of view, a painting like Fantasia, of 1943, with its remarkable early use of the drip technique is not as appropriate as Palimpsest. Under the same impetus, the Kline selection, which opens with a remarkably revealing small colored oil of 1947, represents the period between this oil and Clockface, of 1950 with a modest oil-on-paper of about 1948 included certainly for its Gorky-esque biomorphism, an uncharacteristic lightness of line and suggestion of organic forms.

Paintings documenting the presence of the “primordial field” out of which so many of the artists were to draw their later styles, as well as those relating to the interest in the archaic, the mythic and the prehistoric so much discussed in the catalog’s selection of artist’s statements are also sought out. Thus, the presence of Newman’s 1946 Genesis—the Break, and Still’s 1944-N, No. 1, affects our understanding of the choice of Reinhardt’s two small, beautiful paintings of 1943 and 1947, as well as Hofmann’s Third Hand, with its handprints inevitably recalling prehistoric Gargas. The earliest Baziotes in the exhibition relates to Gottlieb’s pictographic technique, as do several of the early Gustons. Utterly inconsistent, however, with this purposeful method of selection is the failure to include any of Rothko’s Surrealist paintings of the early and middle forties. It is a serious omission.

The rationale which seemed to govern the selection of the works of the forties might have tempted an installation which would group the paintings of the forties in one gallery, and present more individualized showings of the works of the fifties. Wisely, however, the exhibition is presented as fifteen one-man shows, for it is as such that it attains its extraordinary power and authority. The cumulative effect of the progression from one section to another is indescribably moving: it is as if one were experiencing fifteen consecutive miracles, and it is in the examination of the development of each individual that one begins to grasp the immensity of the difficulties that had to be overcome before here, on this alien, hopeless soil, the course of modern art could be altered, decisively, forever.

By far, the strongest sections in the exhibition are those devoted to Pollock, Newman, Still and Gorky. In each, the selections are unfaltering, assured, and present a remarkable view of the artist. The compelling quality of the three post-1950 Pollocks—Black and White #20, Four Opposites, and the magnificent Search, of 1955—make it difficult to understand a prevailing tendency to regard his work of this period as a falling off—or a retreat—from the great skein paintings of the late forties. The presentation here, especially in the light of the earlier work (Pasiphae), suggests rather, a despair in the face of the lyrical elegance of the skein paintings, and a return to the expression of certain darker, more demonic and tormented aspects of Pollock himself. Other paintings of extraordinary quality highlight these sections: Newman’s Euclidean Abyss, a most germinal work of 1947, Tundra, Onement No. 6; Still’s 1944-N, No. 1, and 1957-K, and the restored Orators of Gorky, beautifully back among the living.

The installation of the exhibition as fifteen one-man shows emphasizes what is perhaps the only flaw in Mr. Tuchman’s even sensitivity to the work of each artist and the period as a whole, and this is a seeming indifference to the matter of scale. It is unfortunate, for example, that the selection of Kline’s works follows an even progression of increasing scale and that no really large works appear before 1953; that Montauk Highway should loom as large as it does in the de Kooning section although it represents a period considerably less crucial than that represented by Dark Pond, Ashville or Woman V, (how the (undoubtedly unobtainable) larger Attic or the great Excavation might have helped here!); that there is no really huge Rothko. As the exhibition is installed, the shift from the small (28 x 22'') Euclidean Abyss of Newman to the enormous (102 x 120'') Onement No. 6, cannot be absorbed. With Reinhardt, the effect is perhaps even more jarring, for in addition to an abrupt escalation in scale from the two early works, there is an altogether different style confronting us as well; the progression to the three most recent dark paintings, installed together in all their quiet, chastising dignity, could, perhaps, have been illustrated more smoothly. By contrast, the massive uniformity of scale in the Still presentation is almost misleading. (The catalog reproductions, as well, pay no attention to the actual scale of the paintings: all works are reproduced full-page size, so that the smallest paintings appear as large as the largest.)

Even within the vast spaces provided by the new Los Angeles County Museum, a larger exhibition would have been impossible, and it is perhaps for this reason that no works of the current decade are included in the show. A decision to have included such works would surely have entailed some editing of the extensiveness of the documentation of the works of the forties and fifties, which would certainly have been even more regrettable. Nevertheless, because the exhibition is in no sense an obituary, but, on the contrary, an overwhelming affirmation of the continuing vitality of the artists in this group, the lack of works later than 1959 is unfortunate. One can only hope that the chronological limitations of the current exhibition make that much more feasible a future exhibition of the work of the sixties.

In the light of the accomplishment of Mr. Tuchman and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, almost all criticism of this nature is carping. The timeliness and breadth of this, the first contemporary exhibition offered by the new Museum has provided not only Los Angeles, but the entire art world with a much-needed view of the generation that flooded the barren soil of American art, and made it bloom.

The truly new is unverifiable, therefore lonely. It always seems like madness, not only to others, but to the very artists lacking verification of their own sanity. One tries to imagine how many days of how many years so many of these extraordinary artists must have spent convinced of his madness, only to draw again on whatever unheard-of reserves an artist has, to make another picture. Let this continue long enough, and the result is indeed madness, violence, early death. To grasp this as the price of failure is sufficiently difficult. To stand before the works of Pollock, Gorky, Kline, Tomlin, Baziotes (and now, David Smith) and realize that it is often the price of towering success as well is unbearable. Thomas Mann’s devil said:

You will lead the way, you will strike up the march of the future, the lads will swear by your name, who thanks to your madness, will no longer need to be mad. On your madness they will feed in health, and in them you will become healthy. Do you understand? Not only will you break through the paralyzing difficulties of the time—you will break through time itself . . .

The price is only hell.

Philip Leider



*See page 33, this issue. Motherwell’s view is more or less that followed by Sam Hunter in his Modern American Painting and Sculpture (Dell, N.Y., 1959, pg. 160):

“The period may generally be divided into two halves; to the years between 1943 and 1948 belong the rediscovery of Surrealism and the new synthesis with abstraction, a revived interest in ’myth’ and the primitive, and a growing sense of the autonomy of native tendencies. During this period such artists as Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, William Bazi­otes, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still held their first one-man shows. Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Philip Guston, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Esteban Vicente, and a whole new generation of younger painters emerged after 1948.”

But it is worth noting that in an otherwise excellent book, published as late as 1959, we find no mention of Pousette-Dart, Ad Reinhardt—or Barnett Newman!