New York

“Action/Abstraction”

THE BATTLE OF THE “BERGS”—Clement Greenberg versus Harold Rosenberg—is a scenario that has begged for serious treatment since Tom Wolfe’s crude, witty satire of its more absurd extremes, The Painted Word, in 1975. Together, the critics personified the dialectic behind Abstract Expressionism: matter/spirit, objectivity/ subjectivity, the optical/the textual, abstract/representational, and so forth. What better curatorial drama than one in which Greenberg might play an august Apollo to Rosenberg’s ecstatic Dionysus? The Jewish Museum’s “Action /Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976” takes its subject seriously. It is a punchy show with some knockout blows and a few missed swings, and it never fails to entertain. Norman Kleeblatt, who organized the show in collaboration with Douglas Dreishpoon of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, merits applause for the tenacity of his thinking. No things, as it were, but in ideas. Certainly, at every turn in the installation, the question looms: How to hang criticism upon the wall? A corollary is whether this project is a catalogue in search of an exhibition. Yet even if so, the visuals alone are, as Michelin would say, vaut le visite.

The exhibition’s opening passages pit one masterpiece against another, seasoned with fascinating smaller pieces. A 1951 Pollock on paper that belonged to Greenberg himself—laden like a doodled-on napkin with various inscriptions and calligraphy—complements the larger dynamism of Pollock’s Totem Lesson 2, 1945, itself facing a grave rejoinder in his black pouring Number 9, 1951. De Kooning pitches in with Black Friday, 1948, the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s coruscating Woman, 1949–50, and the Albright-Knox’s Gotham News, 1955, looking magnificent, though disquietingly dry in texture.

At the Jewish Museum, before the spectator was tempted to linger, Pollock’s Convergence, 1952, exploded on the far wall in a riotous, messy reprisal of the poised “classic” canvases of 1947–50. Here the wisdom of co-organizing the show with the Albright-Knox—arguably the strongest collection of Abstract Expressionism and its legacies outside New York City—became clear. Arshile Gorky’s summa, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb, 1944, again from Buffalo, reiterates this strategy. It stood alongside three glowing Hans Hofmanns and Gorky’s grisaille Diary of a Seducer, 1945. In Buffalo next year, the stellar Clyfford Stills there will augment the array.

Beyond these initial galleries, matters became more uneven, the dichotomy between “action” and “abstraction” less clear. At times it was hard to follow the inner logic of the installation without resorting to the wall texts, Acoustiguide, or time lines. At regular intervals, a context room beckoned to restore order and, well, didactic “context.” Rightly, the curators highlight Greenberg and Rosenberg’s blind spots for blacks, homosexuals, and women by including works by Norman Lewis (albeit not one of his best), Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, and so forth. Yet why don’t, say, Louise Nevelson and Bradley Walker Tomlin (let alone the gay Cadmus-Tooker-French group) get a mention, too? Likewise, the omissions to which the selection itself seems blind include photogra- phy—no narrative of Abstract Expressionism should lack Aaron Siskind and Hans Namuth—and the West Coast. Wherefore Mark Tobey and Sam Francis? Upstairs, combining Color Field works, Anthony Caro’s landmark sculpture Twenty Four Hours, 1960, and sundry snippets ranging across Pop, a big black Stella, and Kaprow’s environmental Happening Words, 1962, suggested alternative exhibitions lurking within this one show.

With nine authors making a hefty contribution to scholarship, the catalogue at once buttresses any fault lines in the curatorial edifice and prompts further questions. After reading it from cover to cover, I marveled at the long-standing art-historical obsession with Greenberg (fetishizing Rosenberg should soon follow) as well as the breathtaking chutzpah of his hijacking of Abstract Expressionism and its fallout in the ongoing denigration of Color Field art, which, disastrously, he also championed. To quote Robert Motherwell’s pithy conclusion, “Greenberg arrogantly became a self-appointed and completely misleading spokesman.” This fixation upon the two “bergs” has in turn fostered the underestimation of such outstanding commentators as Meyer Shapiro, William Seitz, Lawrence Alloway, and Dore Ashton.

Nevertheless, if Greenberg and Rosenberg had not existed, history would have had to invent them; they spoke to far wider currents in American culture. Dreishpoon’s essay hits home by noting that Rosenberg’s mentality was in place in 1932 before he encountered Sartrean existentialism. In fact, the title and contents of a book such as the erstwhile-well-known philosopher Baker Brownell’s Art Is Action (1939), offer just one of many signs that the ideology of “action” runs deep in the American psyche. Among its darker flip sides were the key “Gothic” qualities that Greenberg first discerned in Pollock—fissures that his teleology would ultimately resolve, by dialectical conversion (as per Donald Kuspit’s exemplary analysis of the critic), into an art of pure, uniform visuality. This seminal notion of the “Gothic” almost certainly came from F. O. Matthiessen’s highly influential literary study American Renaissance (1941). That Greenberg’s eyes took inspiration from literature and Matthiessen—a gay left-winger who committed suicide in 1950 at the height of McCarthyism—to launch his imperial campaign for American painting’s supremacy is a small irony in the mismatch among life, art, and its critics. “Action/Abstraction” goes far in doing justice to the larger misprisions.

Travels to Saint Louis Art Museum, Oct. 19, 2008–Jan. 11, 2009; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, Feb. 13–May 31, 2009.

David Anfam is commissioning editor for fine art, Phaidon Press.