PRINT January 1974


The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning

Dore Ashton, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (New York: The Viking Press, 1972).

DORE ASHTON HAS WRITTEN a book about the collective life and concerns of the Abstract Expressionist painters in New York. The New York School: a Cultural Reckoning gets off to a discouraging start, but picks up gradually, involving us more and more in some of the main preoccupations of the New York art world from the Depression to the 1950s.

What we get is straight reportage, which benefits from intramural knowledge, but we sometimes wish Ashton had used her control of inside dope to speculate on implications. Can or should Expressionism extend to the embodiment of pleasant emotions? In a sense the Abstract Expressionists disqualified themselves from even answering “No” by their unwillingness to entertain the question of whether they were denying or stretching the idea of the beautiful. To imagine the question of beauty being raised in the manly and tough Cedar Bar is an amusing fantasy. Generally, Expressionistic tendencies harp on anxiety, the irrational, and what Yeats called “a terrible beauty,” as an overcompensation for the fact that art which sets out deliberately to be beautiful tends to miss a lot of human nature. But is the deepest layer of the soul necessarily the darkest?

The notion that Abstract Expressionism was preoccupied with emotional intensity, and with tragic emotion in particular, is confirmed here. More than a little loyal to the ordinary American’s distrust of art as ease and (feminine) loveliness, these artists sought by a weighty puritanism to prove their worth by doing only what hurt. This doctrine may be said to date from June 7, 1943, when The New York Times published the famous epistolary manifesto of Gottlieb, Rothko, and Newman that includes the statement: “We assert that the subject matter is crucial and that only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” Intensity and darker human feelings had played an important part in German Expressionism, earlier in the century, but with more refinement than was desired in New York. (In this sense Hofmann was a link with Continental taste while Philip Guston and others link up with more recent, lyrical tendencies.)

Hans Hofmann was one of the greatest and most vital teachers the movement had, and Ashton explores his significance, including his impact on the young Clement Greenberg. A key textbook for Hofmann was Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy, 1908. Ashton observes that Hofmann used Worringer “in a special way, not wholly compatible with Worringer’s original definitions.” In fact, however, Hofmann rode roughshod over Abstraction and Empathy, not merely appropriating the parts he liked but overlooking the overall drift of Worringer’s thesis. The trouble is that for Worringer the empathic trend in the history of art is the naturalistic trend; the cool, geometrical tendency—what he means by abstraction—is a totally different matter. (Worringer: “Just as the urge to empathy as a pre-assumption of aesthetic experience finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic, in the crystalline or, in general terms, in all abstract law and necessity.”) To say that Hofmann used Worringer “in a special way” is like saying that Marx used Hegel in a special way. The important thing is that Hofmann freely combined contradictory ideas from Worringer, just as he combined design and color, abstraction and empathy, in his own art. The aggressiveness of the approach to Worringer’s thesis is even more characteristic of the movement than the content of the discussion.

Much of the Abstract Expressionists’ fascination with non-Western art and culture amounted to escapism. We are reminded that Meyer Schapiro pointed out early on that it involved an illusory divorce from history. They may have bemoaned the fact that as artists they would have had the status of experts on culture in Europe, but actually they were content with any idea, no matter how undigested, that fit in with what they wanted to do—all the better if its pedigree was non-European and non-Christian. Thus while the artists were interested in Jung they used him to subvert rather than vitalize European tradition. Dore Ashton discusses their desire to concoct a new mythology out of nontraditional materials, but she is too ready to take the artists’ statements at face value. One tends to lose a sense of their polemical thrust.

Outside the sphere of Europe, American Indian art especially that of the Northwest Coast tribes, was a special interest, as Ashton demonstrates. This is inportant because too often discussion of Indian stimuli is confined to the sand painting of the Southwest, particularly in regard to Pollock. (As another stimulus for Pollock’s departure from the easel picture Ashton cites his work under Alfaro Siqueiros.) We discover that John Graham, a thoroughly interesting figure, was discussing Northwest Coast art as early as 1935 in Art Front (the magazine being handed to Fiorello La Guardia in the frontispiece to Harold Rosenberg’s Arshile Gorky). Kurt Seligmann published an interview with a Tsimshian Indian in Minotaure (Paris), which was being enthusiastically read in New York. The remarkable Wolfgang Paalen was also involved with Northwest Coast art. Barnett Newman discussed the painting methods of a Kwakiutl artist in his introduction to the catalogue for Betty Parsons’ show The Ideographic Picture, 1947—although on the ideograph Ashton fails to mention the monumentally important essay by the old Boston Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound (1920; 1936; c. 1950). Finally, the December 15, 1948, issue of Tiger’s Eye included a Kwakiutl shaman’s song. With this kind of factual information Ashton’s book is helpful.

Heavy political arguing on the esthetics of modernism began with an article by John Graham in the Magazine of Art in 1935 on how abstract art is necessarily revolutionary, and how art is essentially a process. (Incidentally, Graham also had a theory of what he called “minimalism,” paraphrased by Ashton as “the reducing of painting to its minimum ingredients for the sake of discovering its ultimate, logical destination in the process of abstracting.”)

We also learn how Meyer Schapiro’s ideas on art and politics diverged considerably from Graham’s. Schapiro saw no direct relation between advanced art—art that moved first toward abstraction and then to ever purer abstraction—and radical politics. Here we benefit from pivotal quotations from a paper on “The Social Bases of Art” delivered by Schapiro to the first closed session of the Artists’ Congress at the New School in 1936. Similarly, Ashton discusses Schapiro’s more famous essay on the “Nature of Abstract Art” (Marxist Quarterly, 1937), a response to Alfred Barr’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition and catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art, 1936. Unfortunately, however, she sidesteps a confrontation with Schapiro’s classic text:

Paradoxically, Schapiro, in many situations a dialectician accepting the historical determinism of Marx’s theory, here becomes the strict upholder of the opposite view, denying that there can be a strict and mechanical determination growing from the modern art dialectic, and pointing to the many contradictions in the history of art.

That is strikingly unpenetrating. The determinism of Marxist history is more complicated (and more existential) than Presbyterian predestination, while “contradictions” are, in fact, the very means by which history moves from one node or phase to the next. If anything, the argumentative weakness is Barr’s, because when he says that modernism is the “logical and inevitable conclusion toward which art was moving” he tends to disguise a retrospective observation—involving one exclusive interpretation of a whole field of phenomena—as the prophetic key to a continuing historical trajectory.

Moreover, the dispute cannot be distilled down to the single question of whether the internal history of art is self-sufficient or whether art exists in thoroughly dependent and symptomatic relation to society, which Ashton attempts to do. Even our ordinary, everyday acts take place both within our own biography and within the whole array of actions of our antecedents and contemporaries. The point is not to oversimplify the problem and then tell the reader to pay his money and take his pick; it is that all forms of history are shaped and conditioned by prevailing social contexts. Even histories of strange and remote persons and periods, even histories of economics itself, are written by individuals enmeshed by a more or less conscious, more or less complex, web of positive and negative affinities with prevailing social systems that either encourage or discourage the pursuit of a particular thought.

Perhaps, however, the theory of intrinsic artistic self-sufficiency had a certain ironic utility to the Abstract Expressionists. It permitted them to act as though art were, in fact, separable from bourgeois determinants, minimizing their own personal contamination—if not eliminating it—and enabling them to take more constructive roles than if they were immobilized by sentimental guilt or if they dropped out only to be replaced by more cooperative toadies.

Ashton affirms the special attractions that Engels and Trotsky held for these artists in the 1930s. Julian Levy had quoted Engels in his own important early work Surrealism, 1937:

The world is not to be viewed as a complex of fully fashioned objects, but as a complex of processes, in which apparently stable objects, no less than the images of them inside our heads (or concepts) are undergoing incessant changes, arising here and disappearing there, which, with all apparent accident and in spite of all momentary regression, ultimately constitutes a progressive development.

The statement has many points of phraseology that reverberate in the statements of the artists. Trotsky had a special romantic appeal, which was reinforced by his having lived for the first half of 1917—legend has it—pressing pants in a tailor’s shop in the Bronx. Ashton doesn’t go into that, nor into the now square-seeming idea that one somehow had to choose between Trotskyism and Stalinism in order to be a good Marxist. And surely Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, 1924, with a whole chapter against literary formalism in Russia, must have had importance to the artists.

Frankly, I don’t understand why people who were supposedly looking with such sincere frustration for a rapprochement with the good folks of America, who at first welcomed the W.P.A. as an instrument of artists’ integration, and who felt so strongly about the Hitler-Stalin pact and then the Civil War in Spain—why such men should have responded so inactively to the Great Democratic War. It is almost as if the Abraham Lincoln Brigade had more stylistic appeal—as a heavy, intellectual, lost cause with high angst-potential—than the more thrilling and more universally appealing prospect of D-Day. Or else the painters’ combative attitude toward art had by then sublimated their previous distress over worldly events.

The New York School is subtitled a Cultural Reckoning. It does give overdue attention to the place of dance in New York artistic life—George Balanchine, Edwin Denby, Lincoln Kirstein. It also records the impact of existentialism. Toward the end there is a lovely handling of the arrival on the scene of the Beat Generation. However, with literary history and criticism Dore Ashton has a tendency to pursue tangential themes at the expense of more immediately relevant material. We delve into matters of only parallel importance to painting, yet miss something as significant as E. B. White’s poem on the Rockefeller Center murals, specifically the Rockefeller order to Rivera to paint out the image of Lenin—I Paint What I See; a Ballad of Artistic Integrity. We get more than we need on Kenneth Burke’s difficulties in getting his political head straight, but no mention of the literary-critical means by which the concept of sublimity was revived—Samuel H. Monk’s The Sublime; a Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England, 1935, with a chapter on “The Sublime in Painting.”

More generally, The New York School does not cut very deeply into the texture of New York cultural life in the 1940s and 1950s. For a beneficial supplement on these matters see Michael Harrington’s engaging article in the August, 1972, Esquire, “We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians.” Ashton touches occasionally on the affection in which many of the painters, perhaps especially de Kooning, held the city of New York. But there is no evocation of their sense of the city. Also, she misses the development of Orientalism in New York, in which D. T. Suzuki (not mentioned) was germinally involved, and which had important consequences for the esthetic of the act. No account that hopes to remain enlightening to the young can fail to mention books of such cult importance as Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which enjoyed six New York printings between 1953 and 1962, or Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea.

If Dore Ashton isn’t as comprehensive about intellectual culture as she could have been, she isn’t too interested in popular culture either. No Blackboard Jungle, 1955, no West Side Story, 1957. No early Hoovertown in Riverside Park, no late quonset huts in Canarsie. No jazz, no rhythm-and-blues, no McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, no Meyer Berger in the Times (1953ff), no bop talk, no Ogden Nash, no precoaxial television, and no art-opening parties in Chinese restaurants. We don’t even get a description of the Cedar Bar. The New York School is a useful book, but it tends to leave out just the sort of thing the artists may have taken for granted in the world around them. In a way it took the unsympathetic, critical, and ironic vision of Pop to discover that.