Friday, 26 September 2008

ROTHKO'S ROOTS: HOW 1930s NEW YORK DEVELOPED MODERN ART

THE AMERICAN AVANT GARDE: A DECADE OF CHANGE

NOTE: With the Mark Rothko retrospective just opening at the Tate Modern, it seemed a good moment to revisit this 2000 show at the Bruce Museum. I wrote the following piece, in essentially the same form, for the FT, who, I think, were originally more interested in the possible appeal to their readership in the Greenwich area than in the subject matter, thus let it sit just a little too long to run in the end. But the issue of Rothko's development can't really be separated from that of the Abstract Expressionists as a group, nor can the ways in which their growth as artists was shaped by the events of the Depression years. In that sense, perhaps they echo the nation's struggles and rebirth after the war as something more direct and more powerful. The only changes of note are those of tenses; I eliminated some material about the Bruce which isn't relevant to today's story. The reference to the Tate Modern may reflect my early reaction to the museum's opening that same year. I'll have to post that essay here sometime.

The sheer power of the post-war explosion of American art which came to be known as Abstract Expressionism overwhelms the preceding decade, which gets dismissed as a period of chaotic, if not adolescent, development. To European eyes, that attitude confirms the New World’s essential paucity of talent, reinforcing the idea that New York, in Serge Guibault’s famous phrase, “stole the idea of Modern Art” from Paris, and that far from being an original and deeply meaningful epoch in art, Rothko, Pollock, DeKooning, Kline and the rest were merely the beneficiaries of economic imperialism; a CIA-funded US version of Saatchi and Tate Modern-promoted emperor's new clothes.

“The American Avant-Garde: A Decade of Change” at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, sought to redress this imbalance, and present that 'lost decade' from 1936-46 as one of vibrancy, not only a creative cauldron from which emerged the finely hammered steel of the New York School, but one which produced art memorable in its own terms. Organised by the Bruce’s Nancy Hall-Duncan and art historian Irving Sandler, it took a new look at well-known artists from the 1930s, giving a fresh perspective to their influence on the developing talents of Abstract Expressionism's icons, but also showcased a number of artists perhaps unjustly forgotten today.

It’s not enough to look at Rothko’s “Untitled: Two Nudes” (1936), imagine it without the figures, enlarged and turned to the horizontal, and see the doors, doorways, and walls creating the blocks of colour we associate with the painter today. I remember doing that the first time I saw the better-known “Entrance To Subway” (1938), and you could go back to Hopper's “Room In Brooklyn” (1932) for much the same effect. But this story goes deeper than that.

It’s a given that America’s young modernists in America in the 1930s rejected the prevailing Realist styles. Regional Realism is typified somewhat cruelly here by Grant Wood’s “Sentimental Ballad” (1940), painted to promote John Ford’s film “The Long Voyage Home”, and showing John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Jack Pennick, and the Ford Repertory company singing over pints in an Oirish pub. But at the peak of the Depression, Social Realism was also in its heyday. In Philip Evergood’s “The Pink Dismissal Slip” an artist brandishes a notice from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) firing him from the Federal Arts Project. Evergood himself had been beaten and jailed in a protest against the dismissal of nearly 2,000 artists. His painting’s power comes precisely from the primitive technique young American painters were feeling it was necessary to use, to escape the feeling of being captured by an unfair society.

This was at least partly a reaction to European modernism. The American Abstract Artists (AAA) were heavily influenced by the Cubists, but Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb belonged to The Ten, who took in a wider range of influences. They attempted to synthesise a position somewhere between propaganda and formalism by combining social consciousness with an mix of abstraction, expressionism, and even surrealism. Meanwhile, Jackson Pollock was the prize pupil of the leading regional realist, Thomas Hart Benton, who himself had studied in Paris before rejecting ‘elitist’ European styles as both introspective and neurotic. Benton’s family were populist politicians in Missouri, and that influence is apparent in Pollock’s “Cotton Pickers” (1935), originally painted for the WPA. It echoes Benton, while suggesting El Greco, Corot or Daubigny. It absolutely typifies the work which Pollock later called “something against which to react”.

A native American abstraction also flourished in the 1930s, and the works of less-remembered people like Balcombe Greene (“Two Forms” 1937) or Burgoyne Diller (“Construction no.16” 1938) suggest they were already seeking space in which their materials could be allowed to act. Particularly rewarding is Irene Rice Pereira’s “Untitled, 1944”, an assemblage of glass, fabric and metallic strips which would still be cutting edge today. With the start of the war in Europe, the surrealists had fled en masse to America. This may have been the final catalyst, or perhaps it was the Jungian analysis the alcoholic Pollock underwent at the same time. Whatever the spark, with Pollock’s “Man Bull Bird,” one of his last works for the WPA (1941), some sort of boundary has been crossed.It is no surprise to see artists like Arshile Gorky and John Graham heavily influenced by Picasso, as it was everywhere. Yet by the time Gorky painted “Horns of the Landscape” (1944) he was already adapting Cubism into a more specifically American vernacular. A bigger influence may have been Hans Hofmann, whose classes were a focus point in New York. Hofmann’s “Mirage (1946)” already contains all the elements we associate with the best of the Abstract Expressionists, while still showing its Picasso roots. The biggest step toward synthesis may have come from Milton Avery, whose Matisse-influenced landscapes, such as 'Autumn' (1944) were already reducing scenes to just a few well-judged shapes, and would clearly influence Rothko. The war is still on, but it's clear from works on display by Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning that they were already refining and inventing what would become the most dynamic painting of the second half of the century, and perhaps the end of the war was merely what set them free.

That they should have absorbed European influence is not surprising: Rothko, Graham, Gorky, Hofmann, de Kooning and Josef Albers were all immigrants. That their work should seek to adapt such influences to an “American Dream” is even less surprising. In many ways, Abstract Expressionism is about 'effete' art adapting to Americanism, in the same way immigrants or their children felt they needed to prove their Americaness. The two-fisted macho approach of most of the AbEx artists, the fights at the Cedar Bar, Pollack working in his T-shirt and jeans, were all part of a studied anti-highbrow approach. Ironically, their art succeeded in part because of the high-brow push given it by critics, who brought on board the very people these artists condemned in the 1930s, by convincing the moneyed buyers of the value of this new art. The same was true of the Impressionists, and the AbEx artists have followed their path to first popularity and then decorative ubiquity. Which would have surprised any of the artists represented in this exhibition.

What is also surprising is the way a relatively small museum like the Bruce, situated on hill overlooking the commuter rail station which links Greenwich with New York, has assembled such a spectacular collection. Significantly, they’ve borrowed not only from major institutions like the Whitney and Guggenheim, but also from smaller museums like the Neuberger at nearby SUNY-Purchase, where Sandler teaches, and the New Britain Museum of American art, upstate in Connecticut. The exhibition has been designed brilliantly by Anne von Stuelpnagel. Hung with strong black and red backgrounds, it allows you to see each work on its own merits, while inviting comparisons within rooms and from one space to the next. It’s like walking back into a more intense time, when depression and war made it seem everything was under threat, when everything seemed possible in art.

2 comments:

Del & Marilyn said...

Dear Mr. Carlson,
May I post your comment on Irene Rice
Pereira (my aunt) on her web site
(http://www.irenericepereira.com)? Also, where can her “Untitled, 1944” be found today?
Thanks,
Djelloul Marbrook
dmmarbrook@earthlink.net

Michael Carlson said...

Feel free to post or link to it as you will...I dont where the picture might be found, except perhaps in the catalogue to the exhibition.

A quick google image search revealed a different untitled 1944, but not the one I wrote about....