New York

“Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years”

It is difficult to regard this show primarily as an esthetic event. The paintings do not appear to be selected on the basis of their relative profundity or delectability. They rather have the look of a few surviving artifacts of a curatorial dig. Not too much painting was being done at the time in question (1938–1948) and much less has survived.

A museum, almost by definition, offers its art as art historical document and the Whitney is no exception. But one has only to recall the fare at the Whitney at the time these paintings were made; (Marsh, Evergood, Levine, Shahn, etc.) to appreciate the ironical games history plays on its students. Tolstoy reminds us to beware of history, for it grants a clarity to past events that those events did not, in fact, warrant. This historical excursion only reaffirms Tolstoy’s argument.

As a museum exhibition (i.e. a curatorial event) this one might be called both conservative and provocative. It tends to raise all the appropriate historical questions such as “Who was where when?” or “Who was there first?” The important questions, of course, are not historical. What were these paintings? What was Abstract Expressionism? If, indeed, it was a quality that a painting could or could not possess, what can we do today with that knowledge? While walking through Ms. Levin’s selection one might raise the question, “Is this Stamos, or that Rothko, Abstract Expressionist?” One could easily answer “Yes and no,” or “It anticipates Abstract Expressionism rather than initiates it,” etc. Hence the subtitle “Formative Years” hedges the question as to whether there was indeed a threshold over which these sovereign few stepped.

The basic thing which has been lost sight of is that the term Abstract Expressionism was rejected by virtually every painter under its aegis. Now we are supposed to accept it as an entity, furthermore with a childhood (or does “formative years” constitute adolescence?). We are also to push back this germinal stage from postwar to prewar years. As previously noted, there is precious little art by which to form an opinion. Even by the time the term Abstract Expressionism was coined (in the early ’50s), much art had been destroyed by the WPA, by the artists themselves, or by circumstance. There is so much vagueness surrounding all of this that it is most surprising to see the same household names selected for this show. Nearly all, save Lee Krasner and Hans Hofmann, were in the famous “Irascibles” photograph that appeared in Life Magazine in 1951. One wonders about leaving Kline and Guston out of the show while letting Tomlin remain (as in the photograph). They were both supposed to have “joined up” in 1948, according to Clement Greenberg. Even more intriguing are lesser-known figures such as Resnikoff, A.B. Carles, Max Schnitzler, Resnick, etc. Their inclusion would have broadened the field, and perhaps, pushed the formative years back to 1935.

The museum, like the media, is a function of mass culture and contributes to its principal malaise, namely that what people believe about a historical event becomes ultimately a much more important historical event than what in fact occurred. Nowhere is there more evidence of this than in art world mythology. It cannot be otherwise, given the historian’s insistence on constructing art historical containers. The difficulty is then to figure out what these containers hold while the public insists that explanations are in order.

It is worth recognizing that there is an enormous gap, a chasm both esthetic and ethical, between the art in this show and today’s art audience. One gradually realizes that these older painters had a sensation, an anticipation of what painting might do. This did not take the form of an understanding so much as a suspicion of its capabilities. But they did not have a notion of what such a painting—i.e. “Abstract” painting—would look like. Nowadays the “look” of an artwork seems to be one of the first things to be considered by artist and public alike.

It is worth asking why this show, taken as a whole, coheres in so marked a fashion. This is particularly germane since these artists did not, indeed felt they could not, predetermine the look of their work. It seems as if everyone ate from the same pot. None had as yet touched upon the idea of applying a technical solution to the problems of abstract painting. This became a primary characteristic of the ’50s. Instead we perceive in the ’40s a cross-fertilization at almost every turn. Between the least likely persons, Rothko and Gorky, for instance (who did not really move in the same circles), we find a very similar inventory of shapes inhabiting a shallow, still-life space. Stamos and Baziotes are, of course, a much more likely coupling, but what about Pollock and Pousette-Dart? This is not to say that their paintings can be confused with each other, but rather to point out that they both pursued a “release,” a desire to cross large patches of canvas with an unfurled line. Admittedly Pousette-Dart’s arabesques reflect a stylized rhetoric which appears merely architectural next to the coarse, jagged sprawl of Jackson Pollock.

The numbers crazily scrawled on a small de Kooning, like his writing of ART on another painting, were likely not as corny or as quaint as they seem in retrospect. There has been a lot of esthetic water under the bridge in these intervening years. At that time it gave expression to this same “release,” which was to say that there was no way a painting ought to look. Actually it was throwing the “ought” out the window. One could call it an attempt to rid art of any moral pretense. Possibly this is what the “modern” in “modern art” stands for.

Much has been made of the influence of Picasso. Frankly none of the work in this show makes sense as an imitation of him. The space is articulated in a much looser, more scattered manner. One can question once again the meaning of Cubist armature. The armature in classical painting was a geometrical function of the edge. In these works, as in most of the earlier Cubist works, the edge acts as a container. Only in Gorky’s abstractions of the late ’30s where the paint looks like lava, in de Kooning’s paintings of 1945, and in Lee Krasner’s pictographic script, can we sense the plastic impacted approach as it had come down from Cézanne. This is not to imply that the other painters have atmospheric effects. Indeed there are few effects of any sort. The overall tone of the show is unaffected and concrete; dirty and dead serious. The colors tend toward acid, slate, rust and sulphur. The greens are fatigued while the blues and reds are given equal weight. This is an urban art, an indoor art. The skies have no air, and the illumination seems to come from a nighttime sun. The feeling for paint as matter, i.e. something to move and be moved about, is ever present. It can take the form of a sludge, chalk or sand; something to be incised into. There is no little disaffection here, an absolute unwillingness to look beautiful. The light is flat and steady-state. Looking back on that light Edwin Denby wrote in 1956:

For myself something in his [Picasso’s] steady, wide light reminded me then of the light in the streets and the lofts we lived in. At that time Tchelitchev was the uptown master and he had a flickering light. The current young painters seem for their part to tend toward a flickering light.

Finally, if we return to the question of what it was that brought these painters together even as these paintings bring this show together one would answer poverty—and loneliness. But in the midst of disaffection and occasional despair these artists hoped eventually to create a demanding art, an art that would require their utmost. Many of these artists ultimately settled for less, but there were a couple who didn’t. This show conveys the innocence of beginnings.

Geoffrey Dorfman