Unreal Nature

August 8, 2017

Extreme Ambivalence

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… There was a dangerously narrow line between the yearning for integration with America and the unwillingness to be entrapped by its provincialism.

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

… One of the editorials in View magazine of 1943, a periodical that was assiduously read when the New York School was in formation during the early nineteen-forties, cast a look back to the twenties and thirties and found that:

the two main themes of inspiration were the unconscious and the masses. The genuine artist, the pure poet, the authentic composer according to his political inclinations, believed either that his mission consisted in expressing the deeper feelings of the masses, or in giving form to his own dreams.

… At the time this editorial appeared, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, William Baziotes, and others were, in fact, deeply immersed in scanning distant archaeological horizons. Their quest had been prepared, as the View writer correctly noted, by the two most compelling issues of the previous decade: radicalism in aesthetic views and radicalism in social ideas.

… Their reverence — or at least the reverence that the rebellious students felt — was reserved only for artists proved in Paris. When Stuart Davis asked his young friend to write an article on his work for the magazine Creative Art in 1931, Gorky’s highest praise came in the form of associating Davis with his own modern heroes:

This man, Stuart Davis, works upon that platform where are working the giant painters of the century — Picasso, Léger, Kandinsky, Juan Gris — bringing us new utility, new aspects, as does the art of Uccello.

To work in the modern tradition was indeed a struggle. Very rare were the critics, galleries or museums that took the least interest in such work, which is undoubtedly why the charismatic figure of John Graham or Frederick Kiesler assumed such crucial importance.

… Picasso thoroughly dominated those who wished to enter the magic circle of modern art, and that commitment to ‘the new spirit’ in aesthetics was the deepest commitment made by those fledgling painters about to experience the Great Depression.

This alignment, which the editorialist for View generalized by speaking of the unconscious and the artists who sought to give form to their own dreams, often brought with it considerable conflict. The American artist, who was in fact a pariah and often doubted his right to be an artist, was never entirely comfortable with the doctrine of art for art’s sake. The unspoken need to be acknowledged by society as a professional was at least as strong as the need to be distinguished from the ‘true professionals,’ the Europeans.

[line break added] The same artists who assiduously studied Cahiers d’Art, or listened to Graham’s latest account of what Picasso was up to, often had moments of total rejection, in which they would praise, as did David Smith, the coarseness and directness of their own tradition, or speak deprecatingly of French cuisine in painting. Many artists in the Village suffered from episodes of extreme ambivalence (and continued to express it will into the nineteen-fifties).

At issue was the value of the sole historical distinguishing mark of the American artist: his isolation and loneliness. Individualism as an institution acquired in artistic circles a kind of hallowed legend, fed by both writers and painters.

… There was a dangerously narrow line between the yearning for integration with America and the unwillingness to be entrapped by its provincialism. Always during the twenties and thirties the political dangers, exemplified in numerous persecutions of ‘bolsheviks’ and celebrated breaches of the Constitution, worried the artistic community. The moment the concept of an ‘American art’ was broached, scores of reactionary journalists and entrenched special-interest groups sprang forward to denounce modern art. A progressive young artist, being trained in those years before the deep Depression, always sensed the risks in identifying with America as an ordained American artist.

My most recent previous post from Ashton’s book is here.




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