“Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years”

Whitney Museum of American Art

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A museum, almost by definition, offers its art as art historical document and the Whitney is no exception.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

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