“Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Developments”

Since the beginning of the ’80s, a growing number of exhibitions have focused on American painting during the three decades preceding 1960. Two of these exhibitions—Barbara Rose’s opportunistic “Krasner/Pollock, A Working Relationship” (1981) and Paul Schimmel’s well thought out “Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955–60” (1984)—reexamined earlier interpretations and their resulting codifications and attitudes. In assembling “Abstract Expressionism: The Critical Developments” and the accompanying catalogue, curator Michael Auping had a wonderful opportunity to provide an alternative to currently accepted readings, but, sad to say, he played it safe instead. As a result, the exhibition existed in a fuzzy zone between a “greatest hits” survey and a timid reevaluation.

Among the numerous problems with the exhibition were its subtitle and its choice of artists—William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Mark Tobey, and Bradley Walker Tomlin. The exhibition featured work from 1936 to 1960, which was when a new generation of abstract artists (strongly aided by formalist criticism and codifications) began to emerge. Auping’s intention was to demonstrate how the work of the late ’30s and early ’40s paved the way for the breakthroughs of the Abstract Expressionists in the decade and a half before 1960—thus showing us the “critical developments” in the gestation of our first truly American abstract movement. Auping understands Abstract Expressionism as culminating in the emptying out of space, through either Pollock’s poured skeins or Newman’s field composition. His historicist elaboration of formalism’s codifications concentrates on field painting and thus continues the notion that Abstract Expressionism’s principal accomplishment was an empiric understanding of the surface of the picture plane. By emphasizing the formal and geometric, which were picked up by abstract artists of the ’60s, Auping gives us a limited view of Abstract Expressionism as a generation’s reactive response to Cubism’s definition of space and downplays their reinvestigation of subject matter, symbol, and metaphor.

Auping’s emphasis and omissions are the result of an understanding of Abstract Expressionism’s “critical developments” based on received definitions and formalist leanings. One example of this skewed emphasis is Auping’s choice of two unusually small grid-oriented paintings by Tobey from 1947. Although Tobey’s synthesis of symbols within a grid format parallels Gottlieb’s work of the same period, the decision to include two such diminutive works made Tobey’s accomplishment seem slighter than it is and shed little light on the relationship between Tobey’s work and that of his New York counterparts. More important, there were many artists interested in mythology, metaphor, and symbol during the ’40s. What about Richard Pousette-Dart? His absence from the exhibition was a serious error (although, ironically enough, he showed up in the catalogue’s frontispiece, in Nina Leen’s famous photograph The Irascibles, 1950). Auping included two paintings by Philip Guston but excluded work by James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, and Milton Resnick. Furthermore, he paid no attention whatsoever to Esteban Vicente and Alfonso Ossorio, who, like Pousette-Dart, were part of the scene but somewhat independent of it. And don’t artists such as Norman Bluhm and Joan Mitchell belong here? Hadn’t they already started investigating space, light, and gesture by the mid ’50s?

However, the exhibition did include such paintings as Krasner’s Milkweed, 1953, de Kooning’s Woman as a Landscape, 1953–55, and Pollock’s Ocean Grayness, 1953, Portrait and a Dream, 1953, and The Deep, 1953, all of which suggest what a number of Abstract Expressionists were interested in during the early ’50s: the “simultaneous investigation of metaphor and metonymy” (as Ann Gibson points out in her catalogue essay). They were also clearly interested in exploring the significance of space and light within the realm of abstraction—a point that was not addressed by any of the catalogue’s authors, including Auping (who discussed such issues only in orthodox formalist terms). No doubt this has to do with the lingering influence of Clement Greenberg and his disciples. There is the space and light of Mark Rothko, the space of de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock; there is the light of Philip Guston. These are not simply formal aspects of their work: they had something else in mind, something else they were after. Unfortunately, of the seven essays and an interview in the catalogue, three (including Auping’s “Beyond the Sublime”) focus on Barnett Newman. Although of interest, they don’t add much to the canon of what has already been said about this artist, and their redundancy makes us all the more aware of the other issues and artists that might have been dealt with here—such as the important issues raised by Serge Guibault in his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983). The conclusion to be drawn from this flawed effort is that there is much to be done, and that the process of reexamining modern American painting is still in its infancy.

John Yau