Unreal Nature

July 25, 2017

Elude All the Nets Cast

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… the indefinable sense of movement (movement toward many things, it is true, but movement nonetheless) …

This is from The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning by Dore Ashton (1972):

In the welter of criticism that accompanied the ascendency of modern American painting there is little to justify the legend of the New York School. Yet, whenever the New York School is mentioned, we know what we mean. The fact is that at a certain moment enough painters seemed to converge in a loose community, with sufficient aggressive energy to command attention both in the American press and abroad, to constitute an identifiable entity. Yet a refined study of the period roughly spanning a decade from the early nineteen-forties indicates none of the usual attributes of a ‘school’ of painting.

Long after the image of a New York School had been shattered by subsequent circumstances, Harold Rosenberg, one of the major critics of the golden moment, contended that the group he himself had identified under the umbrella of ‘action painting’ could under no circumstances be regarded as a school.

[line break added] In The New Yorker of December 6, 1969, he wrote that style in modern art is determined not by place but by ideology, and his examination of the ‘great flawed art of Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Gottlieb, David Smith, Still, Newman, Hofmann, Kline, Guston, and a dozen others’ indicated that they were ‘individuals bewildered, uncertain, and straining after direction and an intuition of themselves.’ Unlike the artists of the School of Paris, who were bound by the aroma of their ancient city regardless of their intellectual divergence, the New York artists lacked ‘the ephemeral influence that binds responses together beyond the antagonism of minds.’

… From the inside — from the point of view of the artists, that is — the movement appeared to be an extremely complicated set of prerogatives appropriated with a newfound zeal that could only be attributed to the peculiar circumstances of the post-war era. No single artist of this group voluntarily identified with the group, or accepted any of the sobriquets offered up by a succession of well-meaning critics. They did, however, accept the infusion of vigor that a communal activity sponsored, no matter how loose and ill-defined that activity was.

[line break added] Many of the artists were engaged in a surreptitious romance with the city itself, which became an almost mystical source of individuality. The ‘loft rats’ were proud of their penury, their bohemianism, and their absolute isolation from uptown city mores. Many of them took pride in their self-reliance, that old Emersonian ideal, and regarded survival as a sign of their artistic justification.

[line break added] The story that Willem de Kooning who, like everyone else, was starving during the early Depression years, refused a job decorating a department store and preferred to be evicted rather than sully his individuality and artistic integrity was often repeated. The streets of New York were de Kooning’s ‘place’ (and the ‘place’ of all the others who felt the mounting heat of creative activity in the city to be a true inspiration). The dance critic Edwin Denby, de Kooning’s close friend and most congenial memoirist, has told us how keenly exhilarated the painter seemed to be by the atmosphere of the streets:

I remember walking at night in Chelsea with Bill during the Depression, and his pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions — spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon light. … We were all happy to be in a city the beauty of which was unknown, uncosy, and not small-scale.

Aside from the sense of place, and the indefinable sense of movement (movement toward many things, it is true, but movement nonetheless), what seemed to draw artists together in the nineteen-forties was their common need to denounce all rhetoric and elude all the nets cast by ambitious cataloguers and historians.

[ … ]

… Once the European painter had accepted his inherited mantle as the enemy of bourgeois culture, he was free to concentrate on his own development within the ranks of the intelligentsia, where he had plenty of company. The American painter on the other hand could never find, as de Kooning once put it, a comfortable chair. To some extent the background against which he played out his internal drama served as a barrier to self-fulfillment.

[line break added] From Emerson’s self-reliance to William James’ pragmatism and John Dewey’s instrumentalism, all American philosophic doctrine tended to constrict the role of the dreamer. Practical consequences and action were the chief concerns of these anti-metaphysicians. The free-flowing discourse of the imagination, so essential to the nurture of the arts, was rejected the instant it appeared to lead to a body of theory (and theory, no matter how frequently modified, rejected, and overthrown, is still a vital part of the artist’s equipment).

… The strong modern influence from Europe made old-fashioned realism seem hopelessly provincial: to be an illustrator was to renounce all aspirations to art. At the same time the artist who renounced the language of the masses suffered the shame of becoming déclassé and the anguish of the solitary traveler. If he were neither reporter nor flatterer, America had little use for him; yet, a longing to be acknowledged was never overcome. Until the myth of the artist as inspired soothsayer took root in the late nineteen-forties, the American painter was almost always caught in his own conflicting desires to be wholly individualistic and, at the same time, a member of his society.

Until the Depression, then, there was little support for the artist’s view of himself as a necessary functionary in a sound society. If there had been a point of contact between society and the artist’s extreme isolation, many of the conflicts inherent in the early years of the century might never have erupted as violently as they did during the Depression. The absence of an artistic milieu — that median between society and the artist — was crucial. It was in the creation of such a milieu, in which the extraordinarily different temperaments of the abstract expressionist artists could find moral sustenance, that the nineteen-thirties mark a true art-historical epoch.




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