John Graham, The White Pipe (1930), oil on canvas mounted on board, 31.1 x 43.2 cm.; courtesy the Grey Art Gallery, New York University
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What is there left to say about the New York School? Its advent, fruition, notoriety, and success are staples of twentieth-century art. So, too, is the pop-fueled backlash that followed on its heels and the daunting shadow Jackson Pollock and company continue to cast on world culture. Innumerable exhibitions, scholarly tracts, gossipy tell-alls, documentary films, and Hollywood biopics have delved into the whys, wherefores, and who’s who of this distinctly American phenomenon. In the past few years alone, the Museum of Modern Art, a significant arbiter of establishment taste, mounted a sprawling exhibition devoted to “Abstract Expressionist New York,” as well as a retrospective of one of its most revered figures, Willem de Kooning. The shows garnered huge crowds—in part, I think, because the museum tapped into a historical moment when art had not yet become a plaything for billionaires and a platform for theoreticians—when art was, in fact, a serious and ambitious pursuit.
Nostalgia isn’t the sole factor accounting for the pull Abstract Expressionism has on the popular imagination. Not a few masterworks populate the canon. Still, it’s prudent to be wary of misty or, in this case, hairy-chested notions of artistic integrity and the clichés they can engender. Truth be told, the New York School—or, at least, the typical accounting of its accomplishments—has been coasting on received wisdom for some time. Even the vogues of feminism, multiculturalism, or any extra-aestheticism you’d care to name haven’t truly shaken up the AbEx orthodoxy. Not a few admirers of the style found their enthusiasm reiterated—merely reiterated, one wants to add—by MOMA’s de Kooning show. It’s a good thing to celebrate important accomplishments; it’s a better thing to endow them with the force of revelation. Toeing the cultural line makes for handsome but humdrum bedfellows.
Gallery-goers expecting more of the same with “American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and Their Circle, 1927–1942”1 will be pleasantly taken aback. The exhibition features the usual suspects, sure, but not the usual emphasis. To get an idea of how the curatorial team of William C. Agee, Irving Sandler, and Karen Wilkin pull off this feat, you’ll want to sit down with the catalog. In the essay “All for One: A Dedication to Modernism,” Wilkin—scholar, critic and a regular contributor to these pages—makes an intriguing aside regarding de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. Noting that both men continued working on representational imagery even as they pursued abstraction, Wilkin admits being tempted to “speculate about what the evolution of modernist painting in New York might have been, had these two virtuosos of the enigmatic portrait not abandoned figuration.”
There are quarters of the art world where such a “what if?” might qualify as heresy. Wilkin isn’t alone in her speculations. In their respective essays, Agee, the Evelyn Kranes Kossak Professor of Art History at Hunter College, and Sandler, author of the seminal work The Triumph of American Painting, touch on similar tangents. Agee spends a good amount of time pondering the egg—yes, the kind that comes by the dozen at your local supermarket. Tracing the motif from Piero’s Brera Madonna, in which an ostrich egg suspended over the heads of the Virgin and Child provides “the psychological center of the painting,” Agee brings it forward to an early still-life by de Kooning, and beyond. “The egg’s interchangeable role in both abstract and figurative works suggests . . . just how much de Kooning, [John] Graham and Gorky valued their figure compositions.” Stuart Davis, too, never lost sight of “the classic function of art—bold assimilation of the environment.”
The pivotal and, at times, causal relationship between observed phenomenon and abstraction in the work of the New York School has long been remarked upon. De Kooning never abandoned the human form, Pollock sought (and failed) to reappropriate it after his signature drip paintings, and Gorky’s abstractions, those lyrical elisions of biomorphic shape and washy veils of pigment, are nothing if not figure painting by other means. But what Agee, Sandler, and Wilkin have accomplished isn’t a wholesale revision of a standard historical narrative. It’s a deepening of the narrative’s locus. In doing so, they complicate and, given the exhibition’s basis in camaraderie, humanize its trajectory. The tone is set as one enters the exhibition. The first thing we encounter is a suite of portraits—some playful, others moody—by and of various participants in the art world of the time, including Adolph Gottlieb, Alexander Calder, David Smith, and Gorky. This note of intimacy is sustained throughout “American Vanguards.”
By concentrating on the cross-fertilization of (sometimes contradictory) artistic currents and temperaments, the organizers offer a “rightly deserve[d] celebration” of American art in an era typically dismissed as “backward-looking.” Politics are touched upon. How could they not be? The exhibition takes place during the Great Depression. “Socially aware” art, whether in the form of Regionalism or Social Realism, was deemed, by some anyway, the only parlance appropriate to the time. The philosophical struggles artists underwent in the attempt to square artistic choices in hard economic times were significant, much discussed, and distracting. But the American vanguard didn’t lose its focus. Davis, a one-time Marxist and dedicated political animal, put his studio priorities in order, arguing against the hoary bromides of Regionalism and insisting that aesthetics trump social issues. “Formal relations,” he wrote, “have another content which continues to have special meaning for us and this content can only be Art.” Gorky, in a deathless turn of phrase, dubbed Social Realism “a poor art for poor people.”
“American Vanguards” is centered on friendships predicated on artistic radicalism and—there’s no other way to put it, really—the American spirit. The curators infer that the two are, in the case of the four painters named in the exhibition’s subtitle, inextricable. Three of them were immigrants who, to one extent or another, reinvented themselves. Vosdanig Adoian came to the United States in 1920 and adopted the name “Arshile Gorky,” claiming to be Russian-born and a relative of the writer Maxim Gorky. De Kooning, born and trained in the Netherlands, arrived on these shores in 1926 as a stowaway on the S.S. Shelley. Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski was born in Kiev, Ukraine to Polish nobility, studied law in Russia, and was later imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. Upon coming to America, he assumed the name “John Graham,” enrolled in the Art Students League, and became a go-to in progressive art circles. Davis, the only native-born member of “The Four Musketeers,” was as American as Mom, apple pie, and Louis Armstrong. It’s there to glean in his bluntly stated writings and, especially, the paintings—brash abstractions that, notwithstanding their strong ties to European precedent, can only be considered out-and-out American.
The Dumas references can be traced to a comment made by de Kooning and were indicative of the ties between Graham, Davis, and Gorky, “the three smartest guys on the scene.” (De Kooning was particularly close to Gorky, dubbing the Armenian’s Union Square studio the place “[I] came from.”) They were, as Wilkin notes, an “unlikely trio” in terms of appearance and sensibility. At this date, it can be hard to imagine how Davis and the enigmatic Graham could be fast friends—their visions seem diametrically opposed. The older American held no brief for Surrealism’s woozier tangents. Graham, in contrast, was intrigued by and later fully embraced them. Yet at the onset of their careers, the Four Musketeers were united by an unshakable sense of purpose. “American Vanguards” is installed with an eye toward underscoring that bond. Discrete themes—the still-life, the city, abstraction (both pure and not), and what can only be termed Ingres-worship—are grouped together with a keen sense of rhythm and commonality. Continuity is the leitmotif, and it’s elaborated upon with understated and, at moments, thrilling nuance.
The curators have a hard time not singling out Graham for special emphasis. Or, perhaps it is better said, Graham emerges as the most individual of the musketeers. Certainly, the pictures—invariably sophisticated, wildly uneven, and hugely peculiar—make their presence felt. Taking into account his role as Modernist proselytizer and his direct contact with the Parisian avant-garde, Graham proved a magnetic and inescapable figure. He had pull, too: In 1942, Graham organized “French and American Paintings,” an exhibition at McMillen, Inc. that mixed and matched Modernist giants like Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, and de Chirico with Davis, Pollock, de Kooning, “Lenore Krasner,” and others. Graham’s theorizing can be found in System and Dialectics of Art, a 1937 tract that embodies his passions to bracing, if at times, obtuse effect. (“What is American Art?” It is “art made in America by American artists.”) Though he would eventually repudiate Picasso, the touchstone for all the artists featured in “American Vanguards,” Graham’s contrarian and, at times, frustrating example does answer Agee’s call for “a new classicism, an alternate modernism.”
“American Vanguards” features a wonderful and wonderfully unexpected array of objects. It comes as something of a relief, in fact, that many of the paintings, drawings, and sculptures are off the well-beaten path of American masterworks (though there are, admittedly, a handful on view, particularly in the case of Davis). Graham’s The Yellow Bird (c. 1930) is a lumpishly elegant Cubist still-life that foreshadows the nubbly obsessions of Richard Pousette-Dart. An untitled de Kooning canvas (c. 1934) is almost hallucinatory in its brutish concentration of form and figuration. Elsewhere, the exhibition’s purview is broadened with works by Gottlieb, Pollock, Dorothy Dehner, Jan Matulka, Lee Krasner, and David Smith, who sneaks in the back door as the fifth and possibly most energetic musketeer. The final gallery is largely dedicated to Smith’s welded steel sculptures and it’s fairly engaging. As someone who has always considered Smith a painter-in-sculptor’s-drag, I found this particular arrangement of pieces the most convincing argument for his shambling brand of scrapyard Constructivism. This is but one of many understated pleasures in an exhibition that does much to illuminate a pivotal and much misunderstood juncture in American art.
© 2012 Mario Naves
Originally published in the March 2012 edition of The New Criterion.