Abstract Expressionism Is So Overrated

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Jackson Pollock works on a painting in April 1949. Martha Holmes / Time Life Pictures-Getty Images

The abstract expressionists did not hurt for hubris. "It is one of the great stories of all time," the painter Clyfford Still declared, describing the work of the New York painters surrounding him, "far more meaningful and infinitely more intense and enduring than the wars of the bullring and the battlefield—or of diplomats, laboratories, or commerce." The audacious paintings of Still's postwar contemporaries—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko are the consensus champions of the period, though major contributions were also made by Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell—introduced "one of the few truly liberating concepts man has ever known." If only "others could read it properly," Newman insisted, just one of his own canvases "would mean the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism." The aesthetic regime of abstract expressionism would reign for a thousand years, Adolph Gottlieb promised in 1957—a kind of Third Reich of Western painting, following the long post-Renaissance tradition, and the charged course of European modernism, seemingly exhausted by the war just ended. But the ab-ex reign would end, too, and after only five more years, laid low by Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol. Given the pace of cultural change in the helter-skelter postwar boom, it would be an incongruously long reign.

The New York school was America's first true artistic vanguard, and the painters who led its charge—also called "action painters," and, by their great champion Clement Greenberg, "American-type painters"—might have appropriated their ambitions from the cultural imperialism of an earlier generation: the painting to end all painting. They worked large and they worked messily, recklessly. Pollock "broke the ice," de Kooning would say, but all those who followed in his wake, too, seemed to want to undo the entire history of art in the name of a painterly practice far more elemental and arcane, and to begin again from first principles. In fact there was something self-erasing, too, about the stated radicalism of the "American-type painters," whom Serge Guilbaut would later call, in his argumentative How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, "the American super-avant-garde," and who installed in our culture the principle of permanent revolution—albeit a merely aesthetic one.

In place of politics the abstract expressionists embraced hero worship. It was a self-embrace, with themselves as the heroes—the painter as shaman, as primitive, as cowboy existentialist, his brash and confrontational canvases addressing themselves to the spiritual void in an effort "to raise the condition of modernist doubt to a mythic level," as Robert Hughes would later put it. (The myths were perfectly nutty, imported wholesale from Jung via the clearinghouse of surrealism, and critic Harold Rosenberg would pointedly note the "comedy of a revolution that restricts itself to weapons of taste—and which at the same time addresses itself to the masses.") The canvases, however, were nothing if not assured. The "new painters" themselves were aspiring, through myth and self-myth, to a kind of timelessness by painting below content—Pollock and the action painters with bold theatrical gesture, Rothko and Newman at the elemental level of the color field. But their aspiration, even when achieved, was a retreat from subject matter beyond their expansive canvases, and cost the paintings the quality of timeliness, which would become the inevitable currency of the American avant-garde to follow them. Their canvases are among the most Romantic ever painted, but that naive Romanticism so resists being historicized that the work figures today only as a distant prehistory to the feverish cult of the new that the New York school itself brought into being.

Many of these canvases will be unveiled when a remarkable retrospective opens at New York's Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 3—remarkable in large part because it will be drawn entirely from the museum's own holdings, a reminder of how few enthusiasts forged the outsize reputation of abstract expressionism in its heyday, and how large a role a single institution could play (and continues to play) in an art world of small, critical clusters and long speculative collecting. MoMA has been mostly absolved from charges, leveled against it beginning in the 1970s, that the museum (through trustee Nelson Rockefeller, executive secretary and future CIA culture czar Thomas Braden, and museum founder Alfred Barr) actively conspired with government operatives to promote abstract expressionism—"the symbol of political freedom," as critic Eva Cockcroft put it. But the exhibition raises again the questions of patronage and provenance—how much was the "new painting" the creation of campaigns to discover, showcase, and export fresh American talent, and how much the result of a genuine and genuinely democratic cultural ferment? (The same question might be just as profitably posed, more broadly, about the enormously productive cultural apparatus that emerged in the decade that followed the end of the war.) The Life decade that closed with the Jackson Pollock cover began, after all, with Henry Luce's promise of an "American century."

But how American was abstract expressionism, really? The poster-boy Pollock was an American—born in Wyoming, no less—but de Kooning was Dutch, Rothko Russian, and Arshile Gorky Armenian. The sentinel émigré Hans Hofmann—itinerant painter, teacher, and mentor to much of the New York school—was German-born, had lived in Paris, and seemed to his students the living embodiment of a standing European tradition that the American painters would pillage and repurpose in their own canvases—most explicitly the work of Russian abstract painters Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich and the surrealist exiles Max Ernst and André Masson. When Peggy Guggenheim established her gatekeeping Art of This Century gallery in New York, in 1942, she installed in three of its four rooms a private collection, gathered in Europe over the preceding decades, that could stand in for the entire patrimony of continental modernism—Kandinsky and Cocteau, Picasso, Ernst, and Braque. The work that appeared in the fourth room, and which would establish the contours of the new paradigm, only emulated that in the other three, borrowing the biomorphic forms, the mythic conception and scale, and the assured and expressive use of liberated color. Robert Motherwell's harrowing black-and-white Spanish Elegies and Mark Rothko's mesmerizing color-block meditations are magisterial canvases indeed, but they belong, really, to another era, even another culture. The new standards the exiles helped establish in New York were less an advance on European modernism by a new vanguard than the belated introduction of that same senescent modernism to giddy postwar America, where it could hardly survive.

But MoMA would step in to safeguard it, preserving the work in a peculiar kind of midcentury time capsule that it is now set to crack open. The most truly and indigenously American thing about abstract expressionism was perhaps the critical rhetoric that celebrated it—the little-magazine polemics, chiefly by Rosenberg and Greenberg, that made matters of taste into moral and political crucibles, reduced aesthetic judgments to formalist tests of a triumphalist teleology, and presented the belated American embrace of European avant-gardism as a world-historical event. These polemics, which elevated abstract expressionism to a patriotic cause—and remind us that the United States has always been modernist in its politics, if never lastingly in culture—were written in what Hughes called an "American gigantism of style," and expressed, on their own, a gigantism of appetite more arriviste than imperial. When in 1948 Robert Motherwell, Harold Rosenberg, and John Cage endeavored to produce an ambitious little magazine of their own devoted to the emerging American vanguard, they called it Possibilities. It published only once.

Abstract Expressionism Is So Overrated | Culture