New York

Max Weber

Danenberg Gallery

Were we speculating—we, a small body of “in touch” mandarins of contemporary art—about ten years ago, on those American masters of the 1930’s and 1940’s Establishment who had contributed most to our pictorial sensibility, then, I suppose, that Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis’s names would fly to our lips; one for a Cézannishly rigorous form and utter neutrality before objects usually regarded by the “profane” as banal and devoid of esthetic merit, the other for the flagrant sensuousness and vulgar jazziness of his later compositions. The issue at hand would of course be the emergence of Pop. Were this same alert cenàcolo to have reassembled say but five years ago, they might have noted in turn the later compositions of Milton Avery for their seeped-in, turned-out, field-like shapes and the new issue would have been post-painterly abstraction. The present retrospective of Max Weber’s paintings also induces such speculation, for, while little affecting the prevailing impression of Weber as a second-string School of Paris painter, it does, at the same time, vividly underscore the fact that when at last Weber arrived in the decade of the ’40s (he was then in his sixties) after a lifelong bondage to Picasso and Braque, his work enunciated as clearly as any other (such as Masson) the automatic urgency and pre-emption which were subsumed into standard Abstract Expressionist practice—and which is falsely regarded as being solely the legacy of Surrealism and of the European Surrealists in exile from the Second World War on these shores at that time, such as the aforementioned Masson.

Some of my strongest impressions of Pollock of the so-called Mythological Period of about 1943–46 lies precisely in the affiliation of his developing automatism to the calligraphically erratic shapes found in Max Weber’s pictures from the ’40s onward. I think that this is a valuable observation insofar as it takes heed of the obvious, and, in so doing, acknowledges Weber’s enormous prestige in the period—not only as an American who had been the intimate of le Douanier Rousseau, but who also had shared in the first battles of Cubism in Paris, alongside Picasso, and who had contributed as well to the history of modernism here in America not only as a Cubist painter but also as the impresario of Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. The exalted rank enjoyed by Weber made ignorance of his production by a young, radically minded painter in the ’40s all but impossible.

What I am drawing attention to here is not based on an examination of the themes of Weber’s painting. These are, by and large, received arrangements of classical nudes out of Picasso and, in turn, are part of the Salon heritage of the 19th century. Added to these are Russo-Judaic types which tend, often as not, to cast Weber into the ungrateful role of purveyor of sentimental Jewishness to the new American bourgeoisie. Weber’s preferred themes are in every sense standard of the School of Paris, of Chagall and fantastic lyricism, itself a component of the now widely discredited later phase of the School of Paris. What I want to have the reader share with me are the formal characteristics of Weber’s painting in the early ’40s in which it is easily observed how the buildup of fine French surface is accompanied by playful, automatic linear intermeshings, dripped passages and abstract shapes all responding to a biomorphic urge at distinct and often overpowering odds with the theme at hand. It is in such “urges” that one can also point to affiliations between Weber, de Kooning and even Gorky. Moreover, the simultaneous dislocations of the eye and eye socket—itself a Picassoid clue of the first water adopted by Weber with alacrity throughout his entire career—are also evident in the sexual and Jungian mythos from which so much of the first Abstract Expressionist moment of about 1944 is said to have received a literary or symbolic content. By inadvertence—were Weber to have consecrated his painting purely to the radicalism of his free linearity this would be, of course, another matter—Weber too must be included in the first circle of Abstract Expressionism in very much the same way that Manet must be considered an Impressionist—that is avant la lettre.

From Rousseau and Matisse, Weber extracted a charming, coloristic folklorism. From Picasso and Braque, Weber developed a tight Cubistic and Futuristic vernacular, similar to Zorach’s as a painter, which would serve him well and mark him back home as a genuine original in an America which still regarded Frieseke and Hassam as dangerous modernists. In the ’20s, following Picasso’s return to pleasure-principle painting and the monumental figure, Weber too adopted the classical sculptural style into which, by the 1930s, he introduced a more baroque note. It is not until the ’40s, however, that Weber, in my view of him, becomes a great painter—because he is at last able to grant to his contours a liberty too often restrained by an essentially polite turn of mind. Not that his color will ever rise to the emotive heights of his liberated contours—nor will these same liberated lines ever guarantee the success of all the works (they serve, for example, only to testify to the empty mannerism of a Jack Levine)—so great, long and hard had been Weber’s investment in the classical figure composition.

Robert Pincus-Witten