PRINT January 1974

The View from the 20th Century

THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF Art in Washington, D.C., has a capacious collection, and one that the director has recently decided should accommodate modern American art. Thus he has moved into competition with the museums of modern art that already exist across the country, though not, as it happens, in Washington. I am not sure that it matters too much if the National Gallery does or does not possess a Jackson Pollock or a Barnett Newman in the permanent collection. I don’t consider the acquisition of current or recent art as the only index of an institution’s vitality, though living artists and their friends understandably do. However, the decision has been made not to allow a cutoff date to emerge within the museum collections either from its delay in collecting modern American art or from the high prices such art now commands. The first result of this decision is the exhibition “American Art at Mid-Century I.” J. Carter Brown, the director, describes the occasion as a signal of the

desire to continue the collecting policies of the Gallery into our own time, building a collection of masterpieces primarily through gift [my emphasis], so that by the 21st century the National Gallery’s survey of American and European art since the Middle Ages will include high points of the 20th as well as other centuries.

It would have been better if the director had thought more about the view from the 20th century than the 21st. As it stands the exhibition is a curious one, as he acknowledges in the foreword. He thanks William C. Seitz, Kress Professor in residence, 1971–72, “whose early guidance set the exhibition’s thrust and spirit. Otherwise, the exhibition is the work of no one person [my italics], for besides Professor Seitz, several members of our staff, and other colleagues in the field have contributed substantially to its final form.” In conversation Brown gave the names of the staff members as Charles Parkhurst (assistant director) and John Bullard (a curatorial assistant) and denied any role in the selection himself. He at first denied, then conceded the participation of Gaillard Ravenel, who is in charge of installation at the National Gallery.1 The idea of using Seitz’s residency in Washington as the occasion for the first exhibition of Abstract Expressionism in the Gallery was certainly sound. Seitz’s dissertation at Princeton years ago was on Abstract Expressionism, a subject he reportedly had to force on a reluctant department. And, of course, Seitz has organized retrospectives of Gorky, Hofmann, and Tobey at The Museum of Modern Art. Why is it then that the exhibition looks so absent-minded, as if Seitz started it, and then went away leaving no heritage of “thrust”? A sign that the exhibition may, in fact, be “the work of no one person” is the case of Joseph Cornell. He is represented in the show by three very good boxes, although a press release had previously announced there would be 18. Obviously this would have been absurdly disproportionate, but this foolish choice went as far as being publicly announced. Now 15 of the Cornells have been dropped, presumably on the advice of one of the unnamed “colleagues;” a change of this magnitude suggests a show without a decent conceptual basis.

Carter Brown, in justifying the uneven emphases in the exhibition, suggested to me that modern art is uniquely vulnerable to subjective taste. Consequently, the criticisms I am about to make of the exhibition have no more substantive value than the choice of works under discussion: it is all a matter of taste. I hope to show that this is not the case, either in terms of my criticism of the exhibition, or in terms of the historical situation of Abstract Expressionism. If the National Gallery has decided to add “high points” of Abstract Expressionism to the “masterpieces” that it already possesses, it must have decided that the subjectivity is a tolerable risk. In fact, a quarter of a century has passed since the art was first produced in the late ’40s, in which time a great deal of analytical and sober evaluation has been done. Of course, opinions about the Abstract Expressionists are prone to distortion by subjectivity, but only to the extent that all art-historical judgments are subject to personal and ideological limits.

The National Gallery has treated modern American art in a very different way from other exhibition subjects. At the same time as the American show, for instance, there was an exhibition of “16th Century Italian Drawings from the Collection of Janos Scholz.” It is a marvelous collection, and the catalogue organizes the material according to regional graphology. It brings into English the analytic method of Bernhard Degenhart, who studied drawings according to variations in regional style. Thus, an important group of drawings is presented in a framework of germane and sophisticated ideas. It simply is not true to say that modern American art, by comparison, is methodologically up for grabs. Perhaps my view can be supported by a brief discussion of some works in the exhibition in relation to an important theme of the period.

Let us take the subject of the big picture, which is incontestably a characteristic innovation of the Abstract Expressionists. There had been big pictures before, obviously, but not with the same intention to use scale expressively, and in relation to protracted planes of restricted color. The most significant works in this area are by Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still, but the biggest works in “American Art at Mid-Century” are by Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Milton Resnik, and Rothko. Only the Rothko is representative of the innovative form of big picture. The de Kooning is Labyrinth, 1946; it was commissioned as a theater backdrop, partly executed by Resnik, and, though handsome, is absolutely incidental to de Kooning’s oeuvre. As de Kooning once said, all the space he needed was that between his outstretched hands. The Kline is New Year Wall: Night, 1960, a bumper painting, 16 feet long, but traditional in its massing of dark solids and light voids. It is best seen at a distance because its “sculpturesque” image is lost from close to, whereas the innovative big pictures were intended for close-up attention. The new factor is close-up viewing, and an immersive sensation generated by color or by repetitive forms. The Rothko, a horizontal (a little under ten by 15 feet) functions like this: its great spans of yellow have vaporous edges that threaten to dissolve the image, but sheer size preserves the physicality of the pale hues. It steals the show with its majestic delicacy, its subtle awe.

Pollock is represented by Blue Poles, 1952, a drip painting, but one without the alloverness of earlier works such as One and Lavender Mist, both 1950. The dark poles that tilt in sequence across the picture force the spectator back to see them properly; we are squeezed out of the intimate zone of the picture. The effect of space as proximity, which is what made Pollock’s big pictures so important, is absent from this harrassed late painting. One aspect of the intimate but large-scale space has been described by Clement Greenberg. He refers to the attempt by Newman, Rothko, and Still “to expel every reminiscence of sculptural illusion by creating a counterillusion which consists in the projection of an indeterminate surface of warm and luminous color in front of the actual painted surface.”2 He instances Pollock’s use of metal paint as producing a similar effect. The paintings in the present exhibition by Newman and Still avoid “sculpturesque illusion,” but are not of a size to involve the spectator’s attention immersively, the Newman being nine by eight feet, the Still roughly eight and a half by seven and a half. While the Newman is not a particularly potent work, either as image or influence, the Still is thoroughly representative of (a) what he does, and (b) his influence. The central plateau of one color, yellow in this case, with wavering parallel lines out close to the picture edge, and little rips in the main color entering from the picture edge, for example, has sustained Jules Olitski for years. It is a weakness of this exhibition that not many of the works are representative of a man or a theme in precisely the way that the Still is.

The patchy selection leads Seitz to some awkward maneuvers in his text for the catalogue.3 For instance: “In the period between Tobey’s Broadway, c. 1936, and Milton Resnik’s large canvases such as Mound, 1959–61, the American painters made the greatest advance in the utilization of the brush as a direct projection of human feelings and ideas in Western art.” Tobey’s early work certainly belongs here, but the presence of Resnik is debatable. Seitz observes: “much has been written about the influence of Monet in the mid-50s, but only Resnik went on from the large Nymphéas to an original and significant synthesis of form and space.” Translation: Monet’s influence was not as great on American abstract art as was thought, except for Resnik’s labored pastiches. This sticky and bilious picture, owing to the accident of availability, is thus promoted by Seitz to a misleading eminence. What is implied is that Tobey’s admirable “white writing” reaches a climax in Resnik, but only because Mound could be borrowed, whereas paintings of a higher caliber were not so easily come by.

Seitz writes about de Kooning’s Labyrinth in an extraordinary way. So close were de Kooning and Resnik, Seitz writes, that he can refer to the act of enlarging de Kooning’s sketch by Resnik in these terms: it is “as if a Picasso design had been executed by Braque in 1911.” This is, to say the least, a flattering comparison for Resnik. Seitz calls Labyrinth a “masterful composition” and “the largest Abstract Expressionist painting in existence, and one of the finest.” In fact, it is quite coarse and uninflected compared to the oil sketch on paper, c.1946 (collection of Edwin Denby and Rudolph Burckhardt), on which it is based. This flowing space with polymorphic figures, a transposition of Picasso’s Dinard to Fire Island, is beautifully given in de Kooning’s painting Pink Angels, c. 1945. Here biomorphic forms that equivocate between women and sharks are presented with a fluency and ardor that is simply not present in Labyrinth, which is an overelaborated version of the ugly intuition of Pink Angels. I am not convinced by Seitz’s praise of this picture, which is the codification of a theme stated elsewhere more vigorously, in The Marshes, c.1945 and Fire Island, c.1947, not to mention Pink Angels. Seitz’s critical standards must have been lowered for him to promote a collaborative work whose scale is dependent merely on its function as theater decor.

“The present exhibition is in no way intended as a survey of the period following World War II,” Carter Brown writes, and what it attempts “to emphasize is quality.” Can it be claimed, then, that apart from the incoherent handling of the big picture, the works themselves, in some curious state of isolation, are of high “quality”? The word is not one that I am anxious to use since it refers cloudily to the je ne sais quoi that trained eyes are supposed to find in the most excellent works of art. To get around this, let us consider the chosen paintings as they relate to other paintings by the same artists. The Baziotes is a characteristic late work, larger than some, and representative. The works by Gorky, Guston, Hofmann, Tobey, and Bradley Walker Tomlin can also be said to summarize fairly the phases of the artists’ work to which they belong. Motherwell’s Jour la Maison, Nuit la Rue, 1957, is one of a group of paintings with French inscriptions, but not at the same level of integration of word and image as is achieved by the Je t’aime group. The Gottlieb is completely deficient in what is usually understood by quality: it is a shrunken version of the Imaginary Landscapes, bearing perfunctory dabs of garish color. The James Brooks and the Richard Pousette-Dart are included for historical reasons (which are usually thought to be different from those of quality): Brooks for his early discovery of stain painting and Pousette-Dart for his mythical content. In fact, Pousette-Dart’s Symphony No. 1: the Transcendental, 1942, is especially interesting: it is very large for its time (seven and a half by ten feet); it synthesizes formal grid and mythologized symbols; and the pigment has the raw physicality of impasto under a raking light. This tough image of process reveals how mannered the wriggly lines and color dabs of Resnik in Mound really are.

Altogether, then, this show does not have the unity or purpose of a controlled temporary exhibition. In fact, since each artist is represented by a single work (except for Cornell with three and Tobey with two), it will be that the exhibition gives a very odd impression of the New York School. Carter Brown points out that, except for Blue Poles, just acquired by the Australian National Gallery, all the works are “of private ownership.” “They have not been widely seen and thus they afford a rare opportunity to our visitors to enrich their own experience.” (The term private is stretched a little here. It is true that no other public institutions are involved, but two of the lenders are the artists themselves, two are the widows of artists, and one is the dealer, one the ex-dealer, of the loaned artist. Such professional sources are not usually equated with private collectors.) The assembled works bear clearly the signs of their diverse origins, in which respect they are like the works in a museum’s permanent collection which arrive from many sources by various routes. In fact, that is what this exhibition is really about: it is a group of works, some of which the National Gallery hopes may enter its collection, now that the barriers to modern American art have been removed. Hence the emphasis I placed above on the expansion of the collection “primarily through gift.” The contacting of prospective donors is, of course, a standard aspect of museum operations. For example, it seems reasonable to suppose that Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Hess, who loaned the big Kline, might be happy if this picture by an artist they admire were, eventually, to enter the National collection, and the present showing would be one step toward this end. And, no doubt, Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Glimcher feel the same about the Louise Nevelson they ’have lent, inasmuch as Glimcher is the artist’s dealer.

The exhibition is intended to inaugurate a series of shows in relation to a new building, now under construction. The East Building, as it is called, will apparently include a modern American collection, and the shows will signal both the National Gallery’s approval of American art and its wants. The trouble is that what is available from different collectors, as strongly contrasted individuals, does not make much of an exhibition, certainly not an exhibition adequate to an institution whose scholarly standards in other fields are respected. The National Gallery would be advised to put on soundly conceived exhibitions containing appropriate works, and leave it to the normal contacts made in this way and to the interest raised by significant exhibitions to benefit its collection in the long run. It is no good putting an expedient policy in the place of thought and love of the subject. The National Gallery does not yet have a curator of 20th-century American art, but in his or her absence improvisations like the present affair are definitely no substitute.

Lawrence Alloway



1. The installation, incidentally, includes a dark room built around a black Nevelson which it suits nicely. However, a white Barnett Newman (The Name, II, 1950) is completely blanked out by the contrasting black wall, and a red Ad Reinhardt, spotlit in the dark, looks, for the first time, like a Richard Anuszkiewicz.

2. Clement Greenberg, “Byzantine Parallels,” Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, pp. 167–170 (originally published 19581. E. C. Goossen in “The Big Canvas” (Art International, November, 1958, pp. 45–47) defines a big picture as

a canvas whose footage in both directions is larger than the comprehensive image the eye is capable of taking in from the customary distance. The customary distance is that normally and previously satisfactory for a complete view of the average easel painting, prior to the increase of this average in the past ten years.

3. Apart from the inadequacy of Seitz’s text, the form of the catalogue is frivolous. It consists of loose-leaf color reproductions, some single page, some double spread, which I take it will turn up in the National Gallery’s print shop, framed, in the near future.