Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere curated by David Anfam at Haunch of Venison
September 12 to November 12, 2008
1230 Sixth Avenue
New York City 212 259 0000
David Anfam’s monograph, Abstract Expressionism (Thames & Hudson,1990) remains the mostlucid and plausible account of that movement. It has been thirty-eight years since New York City has seen a full-blown exhibition devoted to its greatest School, so this large gallery show curated by Anfam provides a great opportunity to evaluate his claims. The canonical Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, de Kooning and others, are joined here by two women, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell; by the African-American Norman Lewis; by the photographers Harry Callahan, Barbara Morgan, Hans Namuth, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White. And there are strong paintings by a number of figures often thought marginal to Abstract Expressionism, William Baziotes, Richard Pousette-Dart, Ad Reinhardt, Charles Seliger (born 1926), and Mark Tobey among them. Anfam’s title comes from Richard Poirier’s A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. We need, he argues, to understand properly the Americanness of Abstract Expressionism, without treating it either as a triumph of chauvinistic mythmaking or as an episode in the Cold War.
I am modestly puzzled by the inclusion of Seliger and Lewis; by the Tobey which to me looks fatally finicky; and by the very large Pousette-Dart, Time is the Mind of Space, Space in the Body of Time (1979-82). And I am disappointed by the absence of Richard Diebenkorn. But no doubt even Haunch of Venison, situated in midtown Manhattan on the twentieth floor, has limits in its abilities to procure loans. The show include some marvelously strange Pollocks, Number 17, 1950 (Fireworks), for example, and strong paintings by Motherwell, Rothko and Still. Krasner is not my artist, but Another Storm (1963) causes me to reconsider that judgment. Tworkov’s Idlng I (1970), uncannily related to Cy Twombly’s all-over pictures, makes me wonder what else I have missed. I wish that Anfam would say more about why his photographers are peers of Abstract Expressionists. Siskind’s Jalapa 46 (Homage to Frank Kline) (1973) does, I grant, show a Klinean motif, but in a small image. To my mind, the comparison of this and the other photographs to abstract paintings seemsa pseudo morphism.
But it would be ungracious and inappropriate to evaluate A World Elsewhere critically simply as an exercise in taste. Since in a general way this art, though not all of the paintings on display, is mostly relatively familiar, what is most valuable here is the perspective provided by Anfam’s catalogue. As he rightly notes, most recent scholars tend to treat Abstract Expressionism as a step moving very quickly towards the next generation, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. But that narrative, he urges, fails to deal seriously with the visual qualities of this art, and its highly ambiguous place within American literary and political culture. That Anfam is British perhaps explains his marvelous sympathy with this movement, which he eloquently describes as “an indelible artistic episode in the history of a wish for a world elsewhere probably as old as human longing itself,” and why he then quotes Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden.”
When it withdraws into its happiness,
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas.
What then should a history of abstract art after Abstract Expressionism look like? Answering that question will take another exhibition, one I hope Anfam organizes.