PRINT November 1965

How to Murder an Avant-Garde

Artists, in a frontier society like ours, are like cockroaches in kitchens—not wanted, not encouraged, but nevertheless they remain.
—John Sloan, The Gist of Art, 1939

You have been asked to come not because you are the greatest artists of the land, although in the judgment of those who made up this guest list, you may have been.
—Lyndon B. Johnson, White House Festival of the Arts, 1965

THIS SUMMER IN NEW YORK, several museum exhibitions raised crucial questions about the way in which American art is currently interpreted. How they dealt with it is a painful reminder of what the American artist has had to endure, not from hostile critics or official academies, but from the friendly museums created to enshrine and celebrate his art. And, as the old joke goes, with friends like that, you don’t need any enemies.

The most ambitious of these exhibitions was the Metropolitan Museum’s survey “300 Years of American Art,” which offered a recapitulation of the brief and uneven history of art in the United States from the anonymous colonial limners to the internationally celebrated Abstract Expressionists. Single chapters in American art were treated in the Gallery of Modern Art’s “Twenties Revisited” and in the “Homage to Stieglitz,” also at the Metropolitan, while the Whitney presumably brought us up to date on what the youngest generation of American artists is doing by assembling the work of thirty artists under thirty-five in a potpourri called “Young America ’65.” Taken together, these exhibitions, running through the summer while the galleries are closed, proved only this: that without the galleries to fill in the picture and to set up the genuinely provocative shows this city sees, New York could hardly call itself an art center. Such a devastating criticism gives some indication of the state of somnambulism and irrelevancy into which New York’s museums have fallen, at least with regard to serving the artistic community off which they feed.

Though the show at the Metropolitan extended back into the colonial past, in this context I wish to discuss only the twentieth-century section, organized by Associate Curator Henry Geldzahler. Because the installation was particularly tasteful and effective, few have acknowledged how Herculean was the task of making the Metropolitan Museum’s holdings in contemporary art look even reasonably adequate. From some 600 works in the reserves, Mr. Geldzahler chose roughly 120 to chronicle the development of twentieth-century American art. But, despite loans from private collections that had to be made to fill in all-too-evident lacunae, major gaps, mainly in the art of the most recent past, persisted.

The history of the Metropolitan’s policy toward native art gives some clue as to what Mr. Geldzahler must have been up against, despite the willingness to evaluate and understand recent art which he demonstrates in the accompanying catalog.

Until 1949, when the museum was forced to capitulate to an organized artists’ protest, the Metropolitan had no department of American art. Two years later, they were being picketed again, this time by Hofmann, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Reinhardt, Newman, Motherwell, Still, and Baziotes, among others, for being “notoriously hostile to advanced art.” Since then, a handful of works by New York School painters has been purchased, but otherwise little has happened to make one believe that the museum has altered its position. In fact, it is easy to suspect that Mr. Geldzahler, who is notoriously sympathetic to advanced art, is being used as a smokescreen for this inertia.

Except for a few undeniable masterpieces like Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer, Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, and de Kooning’s Easter Monday, whose presence in the company of so much inoffensive mediocrity is jarring indeed, the Metropolitan’s collection reflects, not surprisingly, an official taste comfortable only with such mediocrity. Pluck out the few gems and it might serve as an illustration of everything damaging de Tocqueville had to say about the future of American culture. As he foresaw, the questions: Who leads? Who guides? Who sets standards? are never more confusing than in a democracy. In this country, official taste, criticized as Establishment culture by critics other than those interested in the visual arts, is, in matters of art, set by institutions not in any way connected with the State. Unlike the Catholic countries of the Continent, where hierarchical systems of institutes and academies, patterned on church hierarchy, are organs of the state, we have no state-affiliated academies. So it is a little silly to talk about American artists revolting against the Academy. Real power and prestige are vested now in the museums.

Establishment art in America has two poles, one of which is represented by the Metropolitan Museum and like bodies, the other finding its locus in the Museum of Modern Art. The former reflects the position taken by Sir Purdon Clarke, a past director of the Metropolitan Museum, whose familiar speech might still find approval in many Establishment quarters. Early in the century he observed: “There is a state of unrest all over the world in art as in all other things . . . And I dislike unrest.” Continuing to dislike unrest, those who followed him institutionalized mediocrity which, if anything, is restful.

But why single out the Metropolitan’s Guy Wiggens, Eugene Higgens and Bernard Karfiol, Horace Pippen and Grandma Moses, Kenneth Callahan and Louis Bouche? Their works glut every collection of American art. Why pursue the issue of why Tanguy and Tchelitchew are Americans, while Duchamp, whose influence here grows by the minute, is not? And why look in vain for the Still, the Reinhardt, the Newman, the Louis, the Noland, the Frankenthaler, the Tworkov, the Glarner—merely to mention the first who come to mind? Whatever its deficiencies and imbalances, for which Mr. Geldzahler has tried to compensate, the Metropolitan’s collection is no worse than the official interpretation of American art it echoes. According to this interpretation, American art is an isolated phenomenon, with a development more or less outside the mainstream of Western art. Given these terms, primitives, provincials, epigoni, self-taught artists and society portraitists are as worthy of their historical place as artists whose works stand comparison with Picasso’s, Braque’s, and Matisse’s. Confusions between “contemporary” and “modern” have allowed such an interpretation to endure, preventing any real understanding of the development of an independent American art.

How did such an interpretation gain currency? No powerful state Academy forced the acceptance of the second-rate and the retardataire. But official taste in this country is not the taste of academy juries; it is the taste formed in art schools, and now perhaps in university art departments. It is provincial in outlook, has strong preferences for conventional art, illustrational content, a readable story line, and compromise solutions like semi-abstraction, still at bottom illustrational. In art, official taste has been institutionalized by trustees who have earned power in the cultural Establishment by virtue of economic or social power. Untrained in art history, ignorant of modern art, these men and women are often in a position to determine museum policy. Their taste in art is usually on a level with that of the man in the street; the only difference is that they are in a position to establish such taste as the official record. Official taste gained its first hold with the power wielded, not by the National Academy or anything like it, but by Chase’s and Henri’s schools and later by the Art Students League. It became firmly entrenched when government was an important art patron during the Depression. It is reflected in our public art commissions, and in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Whitney Museum. Though sensitive collectors like Dr. Barnes and Duncan Phillips knew better, this provincial taste for sentimental illustration ultimately triumphed, to fill museums with the work of artists who could represent American art only if there were not enough American artists to go around. Once, perhaps, there was such scarcity, though I doubt it. But since the Second World War American art has had a flowering comparable only with that of Paris before the First World War. Any balanced collection of American art would concentrate heavily on that period. As American art has reached its mature stage and joined the mainstream of Western art, we have a surplus of artists. It is time now to do some weeding, to leave the garden for the flowers instead of allowing the weeds to over-run it, as has twice happened already in the recent history of American art.

Avant-Garde is a French Word

In Europe the avant-garde is glamorous and historical. It belongs to the nineteenth century and the banquet years. If we can believe the memoirs of the gay troupe who enjoyed its youth, it was often fun. The avant-garde in America has never been fun. It has been a grim business, even grisly, its history scarred by madness, suicide, violent death, anti-social isolation—in short the avant-garde of Goya and Van Gogh, not that of Dali and Cocteau, though there is a rising feeling that it is being transformed into the latter.

One tends to think of the existence of the American avant-garde as a relatively recent phenomenon, born of the struggle of the American artist to reject, not neo-classicism, but Puritanism and provincialism. But in actuality the avant-garde here has died two deaths already, and is in danger of being extinguished again, this time not through apathy but through misguided approbation. The “Twenties” show at the Gallery of Modern Art and “Homage to Stieglitz,” shrunken though it was, record the fate of the first American avant-garde, whereas Mr. Geldzahler’s survey hints at the devastation of a second avant-garde whose activity was buried before it could bear issue. Now, a third American avant-garde, the only one to survive and blossom, is in danger of succumbing to the damaging effects of sensational publicity, the love of novelty, and to an assimilation which precedes, and hence circumvents, understanding or experience. The situation as it stands is full of the painfully acute ironies of which the American experience today is made. As millions of magazine readers thrill to the exploits of Andy Warhol, the single uncompromisingly avant-garde gallery in New York has closed for lack of funds. As dress manufacturers rake in Op fashion profits, artists who worked in geometric styles for thirty years or more can’t make a living. As the government’s Commission on Fine Arts issues platitudes and statistics, artists who have recently represented the United States in international exhibitions have been forced to stop working temporarily because they can’t buy materials.

Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer whose attic gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue was a lonely outpost of advanced art from 1908, when he showed Rodin drawings, to 1917 when he closed the gallery, might find the situation today bewildering. The attention given by the mass press to the activities of the avant-garde would surely come as a shock, for his “Secession Idea” was aristocratic and elitist. When Stieglitz gave his personal collection to the Metropolitan Museum (essentially what the current exhibition consists of), perhaps he hoped that eventually the largest museum in America’s art capital would accord his artists their proper due. He was wrong. We have yet to acknowledge the real quality, the daring and innovation of the work of the artists who showed at 291. Let’s say it now: Hartley’s pictures, especially those done in Munich in 1914, are among the major works of modern art. Dove’s experiments in abstraction may precede those of Kupka or Kandinsky, and the body of his work is as good, sometimes better, than that of any of the German Expressionists, save Kandinsky. O’Keeffe is an artist of great subtlety and depth—according to Edmund Wilson to be ranked as high as our best women poets and novelists. That she has not yet received a full-scale retrospective is scandalous. Maurer, Marin, Weber, Walkowitz, Sheeler and Demuth are more interesting than the second generation European Cubists whose work is constantly being reviewed.

No writer has yet adequately explained what killed Stieglitz’s “new spirit,” causing the artists associated with the gallery to disperse, and their art to become increasingly introverted and personal. Perhaps it was too aristocratic an ideal in the first place, or perhaps it was too radical and unconventional to take root in a democratic country dedicated to majority rule and preserving the status quo. It is curious that although individualism is a part of the American myth, non-conformism, whether artistic or personal, has always been feared: perhaps the answer is that Americans, lacking fixed traditions or conventions of long standing cannot tolerate a spirit, like that of 291, devoted to experiment. In any event, without a program that could be taught in an art school, without a tradition to relate to, without the interchange of cafe life, without sufficient critical literature to explicate it or official acceptance to establish it, the first wave of American modernism lost its center and faded into so many kinds of peripheral activity. Only Dove, floating around on his houseboat on Long Island Sound, was able to maintain his commitment to abstraction. For the others it appears that an American art was incompatible with a modern art, although the loneliness, frustration and frequent notes of despair in the letters Stieglitz received from his former proteges are moving documents of their struggles to marry the two.

Stieglitz’s avant-garde expired not because it did not produce works of quality but because it could not pass on its achievements to a new generation. Nor could it fuse into anything approaching a common style. With too small a base and too fragile a center, it could not last long, though its demise was probably hastened by an event usually only referred to in laudatory terms. The Armory Show, whose original purpose was to bring acceptance to the American avant-garde, was in many ways a Trojan Horse that let loose a gang of invaders. Instead of establishing the validity of American art, the Armory Show pitted it against the more accomplished European work, which dazzled or scandalized spectators to the degree that neither museums nor collectors felt it necessary to bother with the Americans, who looked plain and underdeveloped next to the Europeans.

By calling the attention of an unprepared public to advanced art, the Armory Show also helped to establish the stereotype, still fixed in the popular mind, of the experimental artist as lunatic or freak. Teddy Roosevelt’s equation of the avant-garde with the lunatic fringe was still, one suspects, in the back of President Johnson’s mind when he made some of his ambiguous remarks at the recent White House Arts Festival. In the mind of the practical American, artists are loafers on the fringe of society along with the political radicals and Mr. Kubrick’s “preverts.” For most Americans, art, if they think of it at all, is a form of light entertainment and artists are subjects of curiosity because they are freaks. So, Andy Warhol is copy because he is a freak, not because you’d want him to marry your daughter.

The Lesson of Form

For the most part the Armory Show was a good thing, the turning point, as all critics of American art are forced to acknowledge. Though some artists, unable to grasp the fundamental principles behind European modernism seized upon its superficial aspects, others learned the lesson of form that the Armory Show taught, even though they were not ready to accept the abstraction in which it was embodied. In the wake of the Armory Show, the Jazz Age in America, as it is documented at the Gallery of Modern Art, produced some good art. And one suspects that an investigation more thorough than the current one would reveal a great many more works of the first order. But let us be grateful for Curator Marrgaret Potter’s efforts. A show like this justifies the existence of Mr. Hartford’s jewelbox museum. Though the zeitgeist approach has probably given us too much zeit and not enough geist—we really don’t learn much from the endless series of society portraits—nevertheless works by Maurer, Bellows, Davies, Guy Pene du Bois, Demuth, Sheeler, Walt Kuhn, John Sloan, Peter Blume, and Arthur B. Caries make the exhibition more than worthwhile.

Unpretentious and fair, the show gave a clear picture of the various currents of American art in the twenties. But those who, like the above artists, understood the message of the Armory Show, were soon eclipsed by others who did not. Announcing itself in the twenties this current became dominant in the thirties, much to the delight of a consensus taste and to the detriment of American art. I am speaking, of course, of the Regionalist painters who established the American Scene as a chauvinistic subject, and the Social Realists who substituted a bathetic story-telling art for the hardbitten objectivity of the Ash Can School. That their art has come to represent American art of the thirties is grotesque.

The ascendancy of the students of Kenneth Hayes Miller and Kuniyoshi at the Art Students League may to some extent account for its acceptance, as may the fact that this art was closely tied to the social problems of the thirties and hence had immediate mass appeal. It was recognizable, it was understandable, and it had heart. It made you proud to be an American. But, except for Edward Hopper, heir to the best in the Henri tradition, and Thomas Hart Benton, whose vigorous compositions at times excel the apologies made for them, the vast majority of these painters were academic, provincial, uninventive, literary, and maudlin. Turning their backs on European modernism, the Regionalists and Social Realists tried to establish an American art which would be of the people, as intelligible to the common man as his favorite magazine cover. Their triumph obliterated the notion of quality Stieglitz had labored to introduce. Although this work became the official art of the thirties, it never fooled an artist as genuinely in touch with the American experience as John Sloan who maintained that Hieronymus Bosch was the first painter to capture the American Scene.

The acceptance by institutions like the Whitney and the Metropolitan of this art as the important American art of the thirties makes American art look worse than it is; moreover, such acceptance may be largely accountable for the still-birth of the second American avant-garde, whose collapse set off a series of personal tragedies that make the withdrawal and isolation of the Stieglitz circle look happy by comparison. Abandoning the advanced styles they had arrived at in Paris, the Synchromists, Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell retreated to figurative work on their return here (as, later, artists like Malcolm Greene and Harry Jackson were unable to sustain an abstract mode). In other cases, like those of the critic Willard Huntington Wright, and the painters Patrick Henry Bruce, John Covert, and John Graham, the ending of their stories is sufficient to make one wonder how many hermits and madmen the lack of recognition made or how many felt compelled to stop painting or relapse into more acceptable styles?

It is time to say that the best American artists of the thirties were the best American artists of the twenties and forties: O’Keeffe, Marin, Hartley, Sheeler, Demuth, Stuart Davis, Arthur B. Caries, and John Graham on the one hand and de Kooning, Gorky, Pollock, Hofmann, Tobey, Ferren, MacNeil, and Cavallon on the other. That there is no continuity between these two groups is at least as much the fault of the way American art was interpreted while it was being made as it is of anything else.

Cockroaches in the White House

Without a focus, a forum, or an audience, each fresh generation of ambitious young artists has been left to start out from scratch. This finally changed in the forties and fifties when, for a brief time, there was, if not a sense of community, at least the banding together against a common enemy, which gave rise to a sense of common purpose.

But American artists have lost a lot of the ground they once gained. They no longer have a common purpose or a forum for the interchange of ideas. Things once fought for—unburied exhibitions, no prizes, fees for exhibiting paintings—are battles lost. Yet in many ways the isolation, the breaking down into so many fragmented hostile clans, the discontinuity between generations that we are now witnessing is much more characteristic of the American artist than the clubbiness of the past two decades. Nevertheless, whatever its drawbacks, without this clubbiness and its even less attractive chauvinism, it is unlikely that any kind of avant-garde could have taken root here without such a unified front.

Today, there is no “scene.” Although the slick magazines have invented a fictional scene for public consumption, the experimental artist is more alone than he has been since the thirties. There are many disturbing signs: among art students one perceives a “make-it” mentality conditioned by mass press descriptions of artistic high-life; among collectors and dealers, some of whom may go full circle, from flushing out genuine art by unfashionable abstractionists to drawing crowds with sensationalistic gimmicks, one sees a fickleness and profit-seeking. Among older artists and critics there is a reluctance to communicate with younger artists or to acknowledge the validity of their art. And, as I think Sidney Tillim correctly pointed out, among the younger artists themselves there is the narrowing of range which has come from pinning everything on integrity.

There are other bad omens. As the pace becomes more frantic and distinctions are blurred, values are equally obscured. Museum work as a way of becoming upwardly mobile is forcing underpaid and overworked curators, harassed by trustees, to keep one ear to the grapevine and one eye on the fashion magazines just to keep their place on the escalator. Pseudo-art writing in mass magazines confuses issues, imputes artists’ motives while supposedly honoring them, and ends in provoking either suspicion or giggles. Government gestures toward incorporating art into the existing power structure as an ornament of the state make one suspect that another coincidence of the popular and the official, like that of the thirties, may be about to take place. And, as the sordidness of New York and the pressures of the spurious “scene” increase, serious artists are leaving the city and are being replaced by refugees from Dali’s and Cocteau’s avant-garde.

Having lost their common purpose on being accepted into the Establishment, and now rapidly losing their center as galleries and museums and exhibitions proliferate, is it any wonder that avant-garde artists are experiencing a crisis of identity? For a while the American avant-garde, never primarily bohemian, identified itself with the proletariat. But along with the embourgeoisement of the American proletariat has come what looks like the embourgeoisement of the American artist. Some, indeed, have adopted the protective coloring of middle-class costume, though others are still taken for bums. Yet, though material comfort has arrived for the fortunate artist, he is still in most cases a hermit, a recluse, a pariah who can’t hide his bewilderment at becoming a brahmin overnight. The reverse metamorphosis of cockroach into hero may bring him to the White House, but it will not help to explain what he is doing there.

Recipe For An Exhibition: Young America At The Whitney

By not presenting the best avant-garde art of the youngest generation, the Whitney in its “Young America ’65” failed to provide a meaningful focus for the young artists. As a portrait of a generation, the show allows few generalizations because it is incomplete. Not only are many of the best artists missing, but thirty-five, the cut-off age, is arbitrary. At least three of the leading “younger” artists—Judd, Irwin, and Lichtenstein, are older, but their work is central to an understanding of the younger avant-garde.

On the basis of what was shown at the Whitney, one assumes that the figurative work of this generation is weak, with the exception of Robert Barnes’ crammed and flattened paintings, full of strange symbols and effectively unsettling juxtapositions. So once again one is led to conclude that Pop Art is the figure painting of “young America,” even if the Pop Art at the Whitney is not the best being done. As for the sculpture, with the exception of Robert Murray’s consistently excellent painted metal constructions, Anthony Padovano’s most recent geometric pieces, and Robert Morris’ volumetric ring punctuated with slits of illumination, it did not seem to represent the emerging generation of sculptors as fairly as the Whitney’s own Annual had.

The best group of works in the show offered something approaching a coherent collective statement. These were the paintings of Peons, Avedisian, Zox, and Williams. It declared the primacy of vibrant color, the discreteness of the hard edge, and the abandonment of illusionistic space in favor of the literal assertion of the two-dimensional character of the canvas support. Of the works in the show, only these, it seemed to me had the aspirations for a monumental art of Abstract Expressionism. Yet, paradoxically, the paintings of Zox, Williams, and Avedisian and even to an extent those of Peons, rather than seeming the most professional, polished and fully realized, often struck one as the most tentative and precarious.

Often the works came dangerously close to failing—not partially but totally. Avedisian’s eccentric compositions might just as easily strike one as unbalanced, Zox’s color dissonances sometimes didn’t quite gel, and Williams’ shapes might just as easily fall flat. Yet this capacity for failure is what marked the genuineness of the art. Who could imagine the fashionable, highly accomplished shoe-and-light-bulb assemblages of Mike Todd, or the elegant novelties of Mary Bauermeister, or the stuffed, rope-bound fetishes of Joseph Kurhajec failing? But without the risk of failure, there is no possibility of art.

In general, there was an abundance of novelty items and of art in which a high degree of technical skill masked the absence of any expressive content. Absent as well were good artists working in painterly abstract styles. What was present instead were representative examples of all the going things—Pop Art, assemblage, figure painting, and hard-edge abstraction—par for a 1965 consensus. For, as always, the Whitney’s approach has been the consensual one which Dwight MacDonald has described as the scourge of our official culture. Lady Bird Johnson’s remarks at the White House Festival might have served as the catalog introduction: “There is something here for the taste of everyone. Each of us will like or dislike particular things. All contribute to the enormous vigor and diversity of the creative life in America.” The only trouble with this is, as Walt Sloan and innumerable other critics of American life have pointed out, as long as there is something for everybody, there is not going to be anything good for anybody.

My main objection to the Whitney show was that quality was not the criterion of selection. Rather, it seemed that a recipe for a pallid, tasteless dish to suit everyone’s taste had been followed. Take one Op artist (Bill Komodore), add two Pop artists (Dine and Wesselmann), beat in generous portions of the topical; leaven with one West Coast artist (Robert Hudson). Garnish with novelties, half bake, and serve lukewarm.

I objected also to including only artists who were in New York or had New York galleries, and to the reluctance to consider the work of enclaves of painters around the country like those in Philadelphia and Washington. By this I don’t mean to advocate combing the country for provincial artists in the name of an exhibition representative on geographical lines, but simply that a greater effort to search out good work not being shown in New York could surely have been made.

If I had to say, on the basis of the Whitney’s presentation, whether or not the avant-garde has a future in America, I suppose I would be forced to join those already mourning its extinction. The second generation has enough steam left to go on, even though they, too, have dispersed and lack a center. But Young America has a lot of problems. Unless it can focus its energies, work from a broad base, and maintain the avant-garde spirit established by its elders, we may yet see another victory for everything that is provincial and mediocre in American taste.

Barbara Rose