New York

The New York Painter

Marlborough-Gerson

So little data linking the various generations of American artists exists that an exhibition like The New York Painter, which documents such connections, is indeed welcome. Representing a capsule survey of American art, the exhibition, a benefit for the N.Y.U. art collection, assembles an entirely respectable if not exactly overwhelming group of works. The main point of the show is to establish relationships between teachers and students. For this purpose a useful chronological chart is made available, which provides us with a few interesting historical footnotes, such as, for example, that Reginald Marsh, John Graham, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb were all students of John Sloan.

The picture of American art education that emerges from such a survey has to be partial, however, because, outside of Henri, Chase, Sloan and Hofmann, the most influential American art teachers were not primarily artists. Arthur Wesley Dow, Denman Ross, and Jay Hambidge contributed concepts to American art education at least as influential as those of the artist-teachers. But even the partial picture represented by the exhibition makes one thing unbearably clear: American art would have remained the retarded provincial affair it had been for most of the 20th century without the influx of Europeans like Hofmann and Albers that the war brought. (In this connection it is odd that Albers, the most influential art teacher of the fifties and sixties, whose students include Noland, Rauschenberg, Anuskiewicz, and a legion of Op artists, is not represented.)

The misfortune of the Americans is that, when they decided to throw off “the dead hand of Europe,” as they put it, they had no strong academic tradition to fall back on; instead they reacted against something they never possessed to begin with. Would-be modernists like Maurer and Morgan Russell (who eventually did get off a few major pictures, like the latter’s Albright masterpiece) struggled manfully, if unsuccessfully, to understand what Post-Impressionism was all about. Their partial, tentative efforts are painful to look at now; but the courage it took to make such an effort is still touching and admirable. The only other alternatives appear to have been a pat derivative style like the belated Impressionism of Lawson, or, what was more typically American, the naive backeye painting of the self-styled visionary, the primitive, Louis Eilshemius (whose mystique still eludes me).

Although John Graham is included in the exhibition as a student of Sloan, it is common knowledge by this time that he was perhaps the most important teacher of American artists, outside of Hofmann, during the thirties. That he never taught a class, but deeply influenced both Gorky and de Kooning, among others, is symptomatic of the informal, unacademic way in which esthetic ideas actually gained currency in America. Graham’s Celia, painted shortly before his death in 1961, exerts the curious fascination one always feels before the works of this bizarre, compelling personality. Still intact in this late work are the sinuous linearity, graceful silhouette and suggestions of a biomorphic Mannerism that mark de Kooning’s early women, done while the young painter was still under Graham’s spell. But Graham, despite some fine Cubist still lifes of the thirties not in the exhibition, remains a distinctly minor artist, whose vision found exalted expression only in the work of his young friends. (In this context, one might mention that Gorky’s Cubist abstraction is incorrectly dated 1932 in the exhibition catalog. Obviously based on Picasso’s Guernica style, it must have been painted in 1936–37.)

In general, the examples in the show are not particularly distinguished by their quality, although they are typical of American painting. A handful of works, however, stand out: Morse’s classical landscape, the works of the Hudson River School, the Inness Sunrise, a strange Whistleresque nocturne by J. Alden Weir depicting, of all things, the Queens-borough Bridge (which never looked so glamorous). The Eastman Johnson and the Harnett reveal the heights of American genre, which were considerable, while a comparison of Kenneth Hayes Miller’s lumpen middle-class Shopper with Graham’s elegant, aristocratic Celia gives one all too clear an idea of its decline into the democratic, illustrational art that was the legacy of Henri. The Hartley, the O’Keeffe and the magnificent Patrick Henry Bruce provide some indication of the high points of early American modernism, while the Pollock, small Gottlieb and Rothko, and the eccentric inch-and-one-half wide Newman, The Wild, are inadequate to illustrate the triumph of modernism in the work of the New York School.

The general feeling one gets from this exhibition, as from virtually every exhibition of American art yet assembled, is of its pervasive vulgarity, a vulgarity mitigated only by its concomitant vitality. Has any national art in the world—with the possible exception of the Russians, who romanticize pop culture as much as we do—ever produced anything as garish as Bellows’s The Beach with its Sunday-supplement color, or as vulgar a caricature as Benton’s July Hay? This is the question some, who consider 20th-century American art as a whole a failed enterprise, are still asking. It’s a question, unfortunately, that has every right to be asked.

Barbara Rose

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