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Three decades ago in Artforum, Max Kozloff asked just what, beyond formal achievement, made Abstract Expressionism (and Pop art and Color Field painting on its heels) so triumphant after all. Managing editor JENNIFER LIESE looks back on the essay that opened the floodgates on political readings of postwar art.

"THE MOST CONCERTED ACCOMPLISHMENTS of American art occurred during precisely the same period as the burgeoning claims of American world hegemony.” Coincidence? Max Kozloff thought not. And with “American Painting During the Cold War,” he set out to prove it—placing the era’s dominant strains of political and material culture alongside its art and discovering in their juxtaposition a kind of symbiosis wherein the paintings professed, however unconsciously, a “profound glorifying of American civilization” and in turn reaped certain advantages.

Kozloff’s tract, published in these pages thirty years ago this month, appeared first as the catalogue introduction for the 1973 Des Moines Art Center exhibition “Twenty-Five Years of American Painting, 1948–1973.” Loath to reprise the tired but persistent chauvinistic endorsements exemplified by Irving Sandler’s Triumph of American Painting (1970) and spurred by his own Vietnam War activism, Kozloff, then an Artforum associate editor, decided to try something new. “My writing for The Nation in the ’60s had given me a platform to explore political resonances and repercussions in art,” Kozloff recalls today. “But I had never attempted anything so panoramic, so this was a thrill.” The author found his panorama scenic enough to offer it to Artforum editor John Coplans for reprinting.

Kozloff launched into his argument with a summation of Truman’s cold-war philosophy, which presumed that “all the world’s peoples wanted to be, indeed had a right to be, like Americans.” (Sound familiar?) Likewise, he posited, Abstract Expressionism, while imagining itself an apolitical pursuit of the sublime, and despite the generally leftist leanings of its practitioners, in fact precisely mimicked the period rhetoric of American superiority in its “naked, prepossessing self-confidence.” Painterly freedom—genius expressed in unfettered gesture—produced consummate symbols of personal freedom, as the United States Information Agency was quick to note. Beginning in the late ’40s, the agency, “abetted and amplified by the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art,” began exporting exhibitions of AbEx painting worldwide; the work, Kozloff wrote, was used as a “commodity in the struggle for American dominance,” a “form of benevolent propaganda” against the Communist threat.

As times changed, so did the art. The sensibility of the Pop and Color Field artists emerged from the “indigestible stew of sinister, campy, solid-state effluvia” of ’60s America. Rather than reject the onslaught of commercial media and technology, Pop artists discovered in them “source[s] of iconic energy”—and so their work was “instantly acculturated and coopted by the mass media upon which it preyed.” Color Field painting, for its part, reflected the “age of corporate technology [and] achieved in its striped and serialized emblems, its blocks or spreads of radiant hues, an acrylic metaphor of unsettling power.” Just as the mass media admired its reflection in Pop’s mirror, so corporate America found its taste met by Color Field abstraction, which soon “blazoned the walls of banks, boardrooms, and those corporate fiefs, the museums.”

Kozloff concluded his re-visioning with a passing mention of “Clement Greenberg, critic emeritus of formalism.” The invocation seems almost arbitrary, but the rub is in the “emeritus.” (Read: Formalist orthodoxy is dead.) The critic today admits he felt his critical awakening came late, but among his colleagues at Artforum, where “the residual influence of formalism had not dissipated at all,” there was resistance from “various power blocs.” Nonetheless, a spate of extra-formal coverage soon appeared in the magazine’s pages—from Kozloff’s own follow-up, “The Authoritarian Personality in Modern Art” (May 1974) to Carol Duncan’s “Virility and Domination in Early 20th-Century Vanguard Painting” (December 1973) and culminating with the so-called Art and Politics issue of December 1975.

“American Painting During the Cold War” also provoked a line of inquiry into postwar art that persists to this day. Following Kozloff’s lead, Eva Cockcroft, in “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War” (Artforum, June 1974), dug up MoMA’s CIA links. Nine years later came Serge Guilbaut’s incendiary study How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War. And as recently as 1999, Frances Stonor Saunders elaborated still further with Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War.

Is Kozloff pleased to have instigated such intrigue? Not particularly. “Some found my argument an affront, but those who liked it took a direction which I regret rather strongly,” he says. “I desperately wanted to preserve a balance between the personal and aesthetic response to the works and their contextualizing.” His sympathizers merely employed the art as “tokens to vent their political leanings,” as he puts it.

Looking back on Kozloff’s essay, one finds a far more nuanced and wide-ranging argument than one expects, given the muckraking studies that followed. But of course he inspired much more than these: In exposing the ties between power and paint, Kozloff helped render the rhetoric of artistic autonomy moribund, lighting the way for the prevailing social art histories of the following decades. The approach may seem abecedarian today, but his was among the first endeavors of the sort. Back then, Kozloff remembers, “I felt I was really twisting in the breeze.”