The New York School is a book by Dore Ashton an Art Historian who has also written a biography of Mark Rothko the outstanding Abstract Expressionist painter. This book is an appraisal by Ashton of the cultural scene in New York during the 1930’s and continuing to the 1950’s art scene. By the Early 1930’s art had moved from Paris , Berlin and other centres to New York which would depict the revolutionary art of Abstract Expressionism. The most important representatives of this new abstract art form would b Jackson Pollock , Mark Rothko ,William and Eileen De Kooning , Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. They would be referred to as the ‘Irascibles’.
Ashton starts the book with a statement about the cultural scene in New York at that time. ” Whatever artistic milieu that did exist however was in New York and it was cloely quartered with the literary bohemia that flourished in Greenwich Village”. . Greenwich village was the location of all the Bohemian , painters , writers poets and Beatniks that were to emerge and reflect the general radical tradition in New York at this time.
” Young Intellectuals shared the general interest in radicalism accented on the west coast by the existence of those strong anarchistic tendencies that were the heritage of the IWW Industrial Workers of the World”. .
This then was a complete break with European painting represented by Cubism through to Kandinsky, Mondrian and Van Doesburg .Rothko’s art was an attempt to erase all contact with the object . It earned several names including ‘Colour Field painting’
During the Period of the depression due to the great Capitalist crash felt more widely in the United States , President Rooselvelt and the new deal introduced some partial reforms including the WPA an arts project to help and assist new and emerging painters like Rothko and others.
” The reaction against European painting was very strong at this time around 1930″. . ” Throughout the 1930’s the WPA was a central fact in the lives of nearly all the Abstract Expressionist painters”. .
The importance of this Arts project which was initially influenced a number of radical artists towards Marxism and Anarchism. The influence of the ‘Masses’ a journal of the Stalinised Communist party would be strongly reflected in the years to follow particularly at the outbreak of the second world war.” The continuity of the artistic life which many experienced for the first time on the project proved to be the catalyst that was to change the diffident American painter into a professional who would finally see himself as an equal in the world of Modern art”. .
An artists Union with the help of Communists and anarchists would be set up. Ashton comments on this fact.” Within a year the idea of an artists Union gained sway and drew very broadly from the ranks of the artists”. . ” Among the artists who got out from under Marxist rhetoric were Rothko, Gottlieb, still and Newman”. . Referring to Milton Avery who had a great influence on Rothko Ashton comments ” Many years later Rothko wrote of the instruction; the example , the nearness in the flesh of this marvellous man”. .
With these last 3 images I have shown how Rothko gravitated from pictorial form towards total abstraction as part of his Revolutionary development .
Ashton now introduces us to the foremost critic and Art Historian who was to use and bend the Abstract Expressionists and establish himself as the foremost critic and architect of what we can refer to as Modernism. Clement Greenberg started out as a fellow traveller of Marxism and Trotskyism , but as soon as the going got tough he dropped his radical posture and was responsible more than anyone else for fashioning and ensuring that Abstract Expressionism would be used to support American Imperialism and culture during the second World War.
Ashton does show us how Greenberg learnt his trade ” The lessons of picture analysis Greenberg learned in Hans Hoffman’s studio are the really the fundamental tools of his trade”. .
” The idea of the picture plane as inviolable was especially appealing to critic wishing to defend abstract painting ( Greenberg and Rosenberg). The essence of the picture plane is flatness. Flatness is synonymous with two dimensionality”. .
Rothko himself had experienced automastic painting which was very closely identified with spiritual or mythical ideas. Rothko would remain attracted to Myth throughout his life and this development always drew him closer to anarchism than Marxism. ” Rothko recalled that he had experimented with automatistic drawing at sometime in 1938 and he was already at that time very much interested in the Oedipus myth”. .
Rothko , Gottlieb and Newman produced a statement in response to an American Senator who stupidly denounced abstraction. The artist were clear on their mission and what it represented. It is so important in explaining the reason for Abstract Expressionism and its fundamental abiding principles that I am going to reproduce the quote in full in Ashton’s book.
” To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take risks. This world of the imagination is fancy free and violently opposed to common sense. we favour the simple expression of the complex thought. we are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal .we wish to reassert the picture plane. we are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth. Mark Rothko, Gottlieb and Barnett Newman”. .
Ashton confirms Greenberg’s move away from Marxism to embrace a reactionary bourgeois academic analysis.” Before that time Greenberg had been largely interested in a socialist analysis of the arts -an attitude he later relinquished almost entirely”. . ” The most consistent writer was Greenberg who after 1939 abandoned Marxist analysis in favour of descriptive writing about specific artists and works of art”..
As I have explained earlier Greenberg used Hoffman’s views and enlarged on them. This is evident from Ashton’s next comment. ” The laws of which Hoffman had always spoken were very attractive to Greenberg”. .
Ashton tends towards the end of her description of the New York School to give an inordinate amount of comment to Greenberg and his influence in determining the role of Abstract Expressionism . Ashton writing in 1972 as a bourgeois academic would have been influenced by Greenberg. Today more and more Art Historians who have a Marxist perspective are taking a more critical view of Greenberg’s reactionary defence of culture in the USA.
” Greenberg’s tendency towards obiter dicta appears early and nearly always sounds prescriptive. His antipathy for the surrealists was unbounded and he would point out their deficiencies whenever he could”. . ” The growing interest around Kandinsky around 1945 incensed Greenberg who again employs eight street rhetoric to denounce Kandinsky’s paintings in which the picture plane are pocketed with holes and the negative space”..
Ashton continues to quote and comment about Greenberg and his importance with reference to the New York School . at times it is misplaced. ” Greenberg keeps his footing in the world of form. Everything that seemed to deviate from this position came in for criticism”. .
This is shown by Ashton with the following comment ” For instance when Gottlieb , Rothko and Still and Newman first appeared on the horizon Greenberg was distinctly hostile”. .
Greenberg and Michael Fried his disciple learnt very early to reject Mass culture including Pop Art , Neo Impressionism Art , Minimalism Body and Performance art and even visual media , Video art and conceptual art Greenberg and Fried rejected out of hand. Some accepts they accepted but if it crossed the strict line of Modernism , the picture plane and form it was just ignored and given no importance.
” The American artist early learned to resist mass culture-that artificial product of the technological society. Rothko and Still ranted against art appreciation museums while Rosenberg and Greenberg upheld the idea of High art in a defiance of mass culture”. .
To conclude I will in future postings critically asses the high gurus of Modernism Greenberg and Fried. Unfortunately the revolutionary development of Abstract Expressionism has been lost. What initially started out as Revolution abstract movement has in the hands of Greenberg and Fried been reduced to high elitist art. Critics like Robert Jones , Dan Flavin , Donald Judd and others were right to criticise the role of Greenberg and Fried. Mass culture , Pop art Performance , Body art Conceptual Art Photography and video and Installation art have all made important contributions. For Greenberg and Fried to dismiss them out of hand shows an arrogant and elitist attitude to Art. In my next posting I will consider other aspects of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School.
1) THE NEW YORK SCHOOL A CULTURAL RECKONING DORE ASHTON PG.15-16
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