PRINT April 2004


Irving Sandler

FIRST, FULL DISCLOSURE: I make a handful of brief appearances in this book, having known its author well for twenty years and having worked closely with him on several projects. This neither qualifies me nor disqualifies me to judge the writer or his account in any special way. Hundreds of people inside the New York art world and out could make the same claim. Many of them are mentioned in passing and some are discussed at length in these pages. Not all are famous, though numbers of them were famous but have since slipped into obscurity. That’s the way it goes, and Sandler is nothing if not realistic about fashion, even as he remains respectful of the struggle artists endure to keep themselves and their work alive when public attention drifts or never quite arrives. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this memoir is that it remembers things and people otherwise lost in the shuffle, bringing forward a vivid and various cast of characters spanning more than half a century, and offering a fine, firsthand appreciation of the accomplishments, antagonisms, foibles, and failings of the hosts that made the scene Sandler has spent his life chronicling and celebrating.

The full-dress art-historical record he has drawn up is contained in four volumes published over the last quarter century: The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (1970), The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (1978), American Art of the 1960s (1988), and Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (1996). Narrative, untheoretical—at times antitheoretical—and unapologetically focused not just on what happened in the United States but principally on what happened in Manhattan, Sandler’s surveys have been widely criticized but even more widely used, not least because they are readable and deeply informed by their author’s unrivaled access to the artists and art-worldlings about whom he writes. No one has seen more exhibitions in New York galleries or sat on, or in on, as many panels for as many years. Nor has anyone more scrupulously set down what people said in such forums, at openings, or in intimate studio or bar conversations than Sandler. Name a painter, sculptor, curator, critic, or idea man or woman and he will have talked to them and made notes: Willem de Kooning (among his heroes) and Landes Lewitin (who’s Lewitin, you ask? and you will find out); Alfred Barr (whose papers Sandler helped see into press) and Thomas B. Hess (the great editorial champion of Abstract Expressionism and Sandler’s boss at Art News); Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and Allan Kaprow (their combined efforts kicked the struts out from under AbEx, and Sandler, its scribe, was game enough to find out how and why).

Then there are his art-critical nemeses: Clement Greenberg, Hilton Kramer, and Rosalind Krauss. Sandler’s blunt assessment of the influence of their respective dogmas is a timely reminder of how the will to intellectual hegemony operates in a sphere of activity so given to unpredictable change as modern art, and how brief the reign of any dogma is. In this context Sandler, who grew up in modest surroundings and never affected the manner of his mandarin—or faux-mandarin—adversaries, writes like a street-smart reporter describing the workings of party bosses and machines in big-city art wards. If the abuse of power comes as no surprise, in Greenberg’s case it nevertheless came in several forms. For Sandler, his meddling in the studio was as damning as his manipulations of the market. In fact, they were intimately linked, the first guaranteeing a product for the second:

Clem’s successful advocacy of Louis and Noland, and then of Jules Olitski and Anthony Caro, got him the reputation of being a “kingmaker.” This attracted artists. So did his formalist dogma and the implication that the entire history of Western art funneled through the artists who accepted his dictation or, more specifically, painted according to his specifications. . . . I was willing to grant that artists might find Clem’s theories useful, but the idea that he told artists how to “improve” their pictures . . . appalled me. . . . Clem was also heeded by dealers and collectors. He would pander to the rich, assuring them that what counted in art was taste; everything else was incidental. . . . Clem himself was in “business.”

Meanwhile the MO of Greenberg’s rebellious disciples was simple enough: “Krauss and her colleagues used art theory to gain art-world power, and they were expert at playing art and academic politics. Krauss had been a disciple of Greenberg but later categorically rejected his formalist theory. She had, however, learned from him how to acquire tastemaking power: Assume an identifiable aesthetic position with a few identifiable premises, repeat them again and again, and apply them to a relatively few privileged artists. At the same time, identify an opposing aesthetic—modernism, in Krauss’s case—and attack it vehemently or dismiss it contemptuously.” Turning to the conservative Kramer’s perennial attempts to get even with the succession of modernist and postmodernist avant-gardes from Abstract Expressionism on down, Sandler chronicles the role the former New York Times critic and New Criterion founder played in mobilizing public opinion against government support for the arts in the aftermath of the furor over Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. After recounting Kramer’s successful campaign to shut off NEA grants to critics in the mid-’80s, Sandler turns to the reactionary commentator’s campaign against peer-panel review, a system which insured that, rather than being handed down from on high by cultural bureaucrats or self-styled connoisseurs, grants to artists were fairly distributed to serious practitioners whose achievements were recognized by others in their field. Of Kramer’s role in all of this Sandler unequivocally states, “It was shameful that Kramer’s dead hand weighed so heavily on living American art.”

In the chapter called “My Pantheon,” Sandler sketches brief portraits of de Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and David Smith, all of whom he knew. Insofar as this is a personal account and not strictly an art-historical reckoning, Gorky and Pollock do not figure in this list because he had little contact with Pollock and none with Gorky. Although Sandler wears his admiration for these artists on his sleeve, the slipping glimpses—to use de Kooning’s phrase—that we get of them give us a sense of their complexity and vulnerability. As we know, success hit the Abstract Expressionists hard, causing them to doubt the authenticity of their work as soon as it began to find collectors. Sandler describes a chance encounter that brings this home more poignantly than the familiar takes of kamikaze drinking at the Cedar Street Tavern. “As an avant-garde artist, [de Kooning] had . . . chosen a life of poverty. Then, in 1959, his show sold out (to the “philistines”). . . . He had great difficulty coming to terms with his new riches. Once, in the early 1960s, he said to me with some bitterness, ‘I didn’t paint today. It cost me $10,000.’” Sandler is also alert to the eagerness of lesser talents for exactly the kind of acceptance that so troubled Abstract Expressionism’s hard core. Robert Motherwell’s self-aggrandizement is a case in point, as Sandler’s close reading points out:

Tucked away in Bob’s statement on Bradley Walker Tomlin in the catalog of Tomlin’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art was a mini-history of the influence of the European surrealists on the American abstract expressionists “with Joseph Cornell, David Hare, Noguchi, myself [Motherwell], and a little later, Gorky, as transmission agents.” That “a little later” was written in bad faith. So was Bob’s dismissal of his “friend” Tomlin as a “dilettante,” and in 1978, bitchily, as a “groupie.” . . . These were cheap shots which made my art-historical blood boil. The “groupie” remark appeared in an obscure English magazine. But Bob knew that “information” planted in out-of-the-way publications would be ferreted out by zealous young scholars. . . . Bob achieved some of the success that he did because he outlived most of his colleagues and kept himself available to young historians, indeed, cultivating them.

While all of these sources and some of this firsthand information appear in Sandler’s earlier volumes along with his more traditionally art-historical research, here he introduces himself as a principal protagonist and arbiter rather than as just an observer. In keeping with the author’s way of balancing modesty with pride, the book’s title is both self-effacing and a badge of honor. It was the Waspish poet and MoMA curator Frank O’Hara who gave Sandler the archly French moniker “balayeur des artistes”—sweeper-up after artists—for the role he played at the Tanager Gallery, the pioneering downtown co-op where he made the other crucial friendships of his career—with Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz, and with Al Held, who showed at the Brata Gallery across the street from Tanager (all of whom feature prominently in this book)—while sitting shows and, well, wielding a broom at the end of the day. But Sandler was not content to follow the elephants; he listened and looked and then set off on his own to check out the rest of the circus. These skills earned him the status of a “made man” in the social clubs of Tenth Street and, among the first of many institutional posts he has held, placed him at the head of The Club from 1956 to 1962. College diploma and downtown apprenticeships notwithstanding, Sandler has largely been a self-made man in the many spheres where he has operated, picking up work that interested him first and credentials only when they became necessary to continue doing what he was already doing. While combining the several overlapping professions that we read about in this book—critic at the New York Post and in art magazines, professor of art history at SUNY Purchase, prolific catalogue writer, and freelance curator—Sandler has devoted enormous time and energy to playing the role of behind-the-scenes spokesman for artists, extending the do-it-ourselves ethic of the old ’50s avant-garde into the new post-’60s reality of administered culture.

While the first half of the book is given over to the glory days of a close-knit though fractious bohemia, the second half recounts the culture wars of an exponentially expanding system from the perspective of someone on the inside who hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to be outside and is correspondingly determined to keep things open and moving in an increasingly stratified and ungenerous America. Traditional in some aesthetic matters but pluralist in his tastes and a staunch advocate of unqualified artistic freedom in the public domain, Sandler at seventy-eight is a liberal activist in a period largely given to radical critique without effective praxis. His youthful socialism may have given way to a pragmatic approach to cultural and political matters, but it would be hard to find anyone who has applied himself on more fronts to the task of defending the rights and improving the lot of “art workers” of all kinds—from the struggles at the NEA to cofounding Artists Space and convening panels on how artists should deal with the survival of their work after their deaths. His low-key manner and diplomatic approach do not preclude tart remarks about individuals with whom he has done battle or who he feels have betrayed the trust of artists, and in the last chapter he weighs his growing intellectual pessimism against basic self-acceptance and an unabated appetite for art, evidenced by an undiminished and, among his contemporaries, virtually unrivaled presence in galleries where new work is shown. If one can fault this book for anything, it is that this diplomatic stance leads to sometimes frustrating discretion about the messier parts of the world to which he has had privileged entrée. David Sylvester, another unrepentant “art lover”—but unlike Sandler an ardent womanizer as well—was gossipy and sharp-tongued about his peers in private; but when he began summing up toward the end of his life, he, too, balked at telling all, or at any rate much, of what he really knew. To ask Sandler to do so would be to challenge an utterly decent man to act against his natural good manners. Still, time reduces the cost of complete candor, and one hopes that another Sandler memoir will eventually surface that will to some degree be for his generation what the journals of Jules and Edmond de Goncourt were for theirs. At present, however, we should be very happy to have this one. There is plenty of juice in Sandler’s stories, and readers should not complain that the one kind that’s entirely missing is bile.

Robert Storr is Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.


Irving Sandler, A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir. New York: Thames & Hudson, 382 pages.