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Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: a Reevaluation by Irving Sandler


Is there anyone in our Manhattan art world who does not know Irving Sandler? Much loved, he is our Vasari, the tireless chronicler  who attends every lecture, goes to every show, and knows every artist and critic. In this well illustrated book, a revision of his classic The Triumph of American Painting, he focuses on 1942 to 1952, that seminal decade for Abstract Expressionism, retelling a familiar story in serviceable, always clear prose.  Sandler asks some good questions. “Why did certain Abstract Expressionists achieve recognition when they did, while others did not? Why have only those artists whose painting of the 1940s was marked by anxiety, alienation, darkness, aggression, and ambiguity continued to command attention?” (p. 12). Why, indeed, is this art thought to be so very American? When he describes the 1930s sources of Abstract Expressionism, and Surrealism, there is nothing essentially new in this version of a much-told story, though some added details are certainly welcome. “Wright was Still’s architectural counterpart. Both men were born on Western farms and were monomaniacal elitists who sought to create new American democratic works.” (p. 129) I liked that suggestion, as I liked the note that “from 1942 to 1952 (the heyday of Abstract Expressionism), 228 Westerns were produced by Hollywood” (p. 126). But Sandler’s modest new proposal, that we call Newman, Rothko and Still Color-Field painters, will surely create confusion, since most people identify Greenberg’s artists- Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski- by reference to that label.

The body of Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience never seriously responds to more recent scholarship, though Sandler does acknowledge its claims in his notes. “The chaos in Pollock’s painting seems to well up from deep within his psyche, as a kind of upsurge of primal energies, which provides the work with its authenticity. Chaos, however, not only was the result of Pollock’s individual psychology but was informed by the turbulent state of the world, which, like his adventitious process, seemed unmanageable and beyond rational control.” (p. 27). Nowadays historians need to consider how such very diverse scholars as David Anfam, T. J.  Clark, Pepe Karmel, Ellen Landau and Rosalind Krauss, who often argue with one another, have challenged this traditional way of thinking.  Maybe their ways of thinking are totally misguided. Still, in 2009 a revisionist history needs to address them. Pollock sought to paint abstractly, Clark argues, because he needed

to achieve either some kind of absolute wholeness, before the parturition of the field into representational units, or some kind of absolute priorness, before a mark transforms itself for its (primitive) maker from the index of his or her presence . . . into a representation or image or figure of that presence *

Robert Morris and the other process artists, this Octobrist analysis goes on to claim, rejected this reading of Pollock, believing “that antiform was structurally incompatible with the creation of the figure—any figure.” What gives passionate energy to this debate is the recognition that we cannot grasp Abstract Expressionism without considering how later artists responded to it.  By contrast, Sander’s purely historical account is sadly academic.

“The advanced New York painters made use of accidental drawing and painting, but they recognized that reflection and critical appraisal were required to invest a painting with a convincing sense of emotional truth and a cogent pictorial structure. Actually, their painting was more improvisational than spontaneous.” (p. 71). This is old fashioned art history with a vengeance. “When Newman was asked what his painting “really means in terms of society, in terms of  the world, in terms of the situation,” he responded–in a phrase which became famous, “if my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism” (p, 140). What Newman had in mind, Sandler says, “ was that the openness and decentralization of his allover painting was a metaphor for his Anarchist beliefs.” (p. 131). His interpretation of Newman’s over the top analysis is a little mundane.

Chapter five reprints an essay by Sandler about Abstract Expressionism and the cold war, an attack on Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Here, too, he goes over familiar material. “It’s the art of the victors,” Sean Scully rightly notes in his more pithy account of Abstract Expressionism. Since other scholars have noted why Guilbaut’s analysis is terminally implausible, Sandler beats a dead horse. Someday, Greenberg wrote in 1957, “it will have to be told how ‘ant-Stalinism’, which started out more or less as ‘Trotskyism’, turned into art for art’s sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.” I think this claim still is plausible. Maybe I am mistaken, but Sandler doesn’t adequately discuss this political concern. “Unlike Pollock, who relied primarily on drawing, Still, Rothko, and Newman employed color as their primary pictorial means” (p. 109). Here, again, we need an account that rethinks this traditional claim.  Sandler’s account doesn’t.

“Abstract Expressionism took place in now very distant era. Art historians and critics who ignore this fact risk misunderstanding so much about this art, including why it has been able to transcend its now distant epoch” (p. 217). The ways of thinking of Jackson Pollock and his peers now seen antediluvian. Their art world in some ways is as distant as Caravaggio’s Rome or Manet’s Paris. No one today can say, unironically, “I am nature.” And yet, Pollock’s painting, like Caravaggio’s and Manet’s, though it no longer offers a model for contemporary art, continues to inspire total respect. How is that possible? ‘Historicize, always historicize’ (Fredric Jameson). That, I think is what a scholar of Abstract Expressionism must do. But Sandler doesn’t do that. “In the twenty-first century, more than fifty years after its inception, Abstract Expressionist painting at its best continues to resonate deep in the human psyche and transcend its time and place.” (p. 228). This, Sandler’s way of thinking, is too dated to still inspire full respect. Perhaps I am especially sensitive to the culturally parochial dimensions of this analysis because I am presenting Clement Greenberg’s analysis here in Beijing, and so am very aware of the dangers of narrow nationalism. “While asserting that Indian art was universal, Pollock also claimed it as his American heritage.” (p. 82). What could my gifted Chinese art students make of such a claim?

* I quote the summary and critique of Clark’s position from Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, 357, 358.

Irving Sandler Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Revaluation (Hard Press Editions and the School of Visual Arts in association with Hudson Hills Press, 2009. 1-55595-311-5 – $45)


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