The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning

As I started to explore in a more serious way the idea of working as an artist, I realizing how little art history I know.   I’ve been to many galleries – in many places around the world – but I never studied art history with any kind of disciplined approach.   Reading history and criticism I hope will deepen my understanding and appreciation of works that I see. And, maybe it will help me better understand what I’m doing and why.

My cousin, Lisa Scheer, who is a Professor of Art at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and has been working in sculpture for many years helped me get started by suggesting that I read “The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning” by Dore Ashton.  In August 2013, while on the beach at Fire Island, I did exactly that.  I read about 50-pages a day and took a lot of notes.  Those are provided below.

If something is presented in “quotes” it means it is a direct and verbatim copy from the book.

Notes from “The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning” by Dore Ashton, University of California Press, © 1972

Page 1:  Quote from The New Yorker; December 6, 1969 by: Harold Rosenberg; he wrote that style in modern art is determined not by place but by ideology … “individuals bewildered, uncertain, and straining after direction and an intuition of themselves”.

Check out the photographic work of Rudy (Rudolf) Burckhardt.  De Kooning and Denby were enthusiastic about his work … Burckhardt’s “sober vision of the city during the 1930’s”

Find passage about living with a “society of arts” …  a milieu or community of  artists.

Page 7: “Since America had long since decided that the artisan and craftsman should keep his place, many artists had unconsciously accepted the condition for their survival and stressed the craftsman’s neutral position.  Others struggled to establish a professionalism on the European model, but few artists could really believe in their professional status.  Each successive revolt, every attempt to create a national stand of professionalism, seem to be founded on the problem of patronage.”

Page 9: “The painters and sculptors who felt compelled to leave philistine American behind were doubly cursed, having been largely ignored both by the literati (with a few honorable exceptions grouped around Edward Stieglitz’s Camera Work) and by the public in general.  Moreover, they found little response to their efforts to their work.”

Read about:  John Graham (a bridge between Europe and America); Frederick Kiesler (new theatre?); Arshile Gorky (painter); Malcolm Cowley (writer/publisher); Henry Miller (writer); William Carlos Williams (writer); Milton Avery (painter);

Page 31: “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. … 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.”

See page 34 Clyfford Still; “Still’s eternal vigilance is against the encroachment of standardized mass democracy.”

Page 46:  Edward Bruce, head of the Public Works of Art Project, the first federally sponsored program, part of W.P.A. that last only one year (1933) noted, :the receipt of a check from the United States government meant much more than the amount to which it was drawn.  It brought to the artist for the first time in America the realization that he was not a solitary worker.  It symbolized a people’s interest in his achievement…  No longer was he, so to speak, talking to himself.”

Page 60:  Meyer Schapiro: “The notion that each new style is due to a reaction against a preceding one is especially plausible to modern artist, whose work is so often a response to another work, who consider their art a free projection of an irreducible personal feeling, but must form their style in competition against others, with the obsessing sense of the originality of their work as a mark of its sincerity.”

Find bit on art as it pertains to a historical, social and/or political context.

Page 69:  Find/Read:  “System and Dialectics of Art” by John Graham; New York Delphic Studios 1937;

Ashton:  “In the very beginning Graham announces one of the prime tenets of abstract expressionism.  Art, he says, is essentially a process.  He then makes a number of statements concerning the nature of abstract art, many of which were at the time they were written considered incontrovertible truths.  He regarded paining as purely two –dimensional proposition.  He stated repeatedly that ‘a painting is a self-sufficient phenomenon and does not have to rely upon nature.’  ‘Abstraction,’ he maintained, ‘is the evaluation of form perfectly understood.’  And, in direct contrast to a critic such as Schapiro, he insists on the hegemony of pure form:  “Form (both in nature and art) has a definite language of great eloquence. … In regard to the plastic arts, there are men endowed with absolute eyes who can evaluate every form seen in nature, understand its language, meaning, reevaluate it, transpose it, reevaluate it, abstract it.”

Page 71/72:  A.L. Lloyd, October 1937 issue of Art Front wrote on “Modern Art and Modern Society” ….”What Lloyd referred to as a bourgeois superstition was undoubtedly gaining ground with many artists.  Within the subsequent five years, one artist after another declared himself liberated from  the toils of dialectical materialism and linear history via personally transformed myths.  Among the artists who got out from under Marxist rhetoric as a result of the resurrection of hemispheric myths were Rothko, Gottlieb, Still and Newman.”

Page 94:  find/read:  “Surrealism” by Julien Levy; 1936

Page 101; “Unquestionably the political temper of the time affected the attitudes of American painters and sculptors, who found it increasingly difficult to rationalize the conflict of art and political conviction.  The easy polemical discourse that permitted Europeans, especially the surrealists, to deal with the problem in words was not readily adaptable to the New York situation.  Artists’ unions and artists’ congresses intervened.  And above all, the Spanish Civil War intervened.  …  Those who were firmly committed to modern art as an abstract idiom had second thoughts when the news of the disaster of western culture reached New York.  Those who had sought to infuse their art with a political meaning felt all the more justified.” …. On Picasso’s Guernica; “Picasso indicated how a painter might bring together the archetypal symbol advocated by the surrealists and the expression of the social consciousness of the artist. …”

Page 104:  Read  “Man’s Hope” by Andre’ Malraux; Random House 1937

Page 111/112; On the establishment of The Museum of Non-Objective Art, a collaboration of the wealthy collector Solomon Guggenheim and “an eccentric devotee of certain expressionist brands of abstract art”; Baroness Hilla Rebay.  “… the Baroness had carried her campaign into the New York press, insisting that ‘non-objective’ art has no ‘meaning’ and that it had an ‘inevitable’ progressive mission in the twentieth century”.  Kandinsky was shown and had a profound impact on Jackson Pollock and Gorky.

Page 113:  “The art education of painters was very nearly complete by 1940 when the final act of the drama of the nineteen-thirties brought them release from the dilemma – as defined in the View – between the masses and the unconscious.  The fall of Paris ….”

Page 117: “Myth, metamorphosis, risk, event-painting — these liberating possibilities were little by little impressing themselves upon the troubled psyches of many New York Painters.” … the closure of the WPA Project and the war, the ‘milieu’ of painters and artists feel apart, leaving many isolated … and then the European artists & critics began to arrive…

Page 118;  find/read catalog “Art of this Century”; first catalog of show edited by Peggy Guggenheim.  à see Andre’ Breton’s article: Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism, Hans Arp’s Abstract Art, Concrete Art and Piet Mondrian’s Abstract Art.

Page 119:  find/read à Eugene Jolas’s magazine, transition –

Page 123: “Jung maintained, the experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is not familiar, as are love or crime situations in the psychological mode. … He says that such works positively imposed themselves on the author, but yet ‘in spite of himself he is forced to recognize that in all this his self is speaking, that his innermost nature is revealing itself, uttering things that he would never have entrusted to his tongue.’”

Page 127/128: A letter dated June 7, 1943 to The New York Times art editor Edward Alden Jewell, by Adolphh Gottleib and Mark Rothko — with the help of Barnett Newman … in response to a critical reviews of the third annual exhibition mounted by American Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors  …

1)      To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take risks.

2)      This  world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.

3)      It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – no his way.

4)      We favor the simple expression of the complex thought.  We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal.  We wish to reassert the picture plane.  We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.

5)      It is widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long is it is well painted.  This is the essence of academicism.  There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.  We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.  That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitives and archaic art.

Consequently if our work embodies those beliefs, it must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures for the home; pictures over the mantle; pictures of the America scene; social pictures; the Whitney Academy; the Corn Belt Academy; buckeyes, trite tripe; etc.

Page 150:  “The perils of mass acceptance, or rather mass exploitation by cultural cartels, were keenly sensed by many of the vanguard painters in New York, who struggled in various ways to avoid being trapped.  But they were aware, at the same time, that only ‘success’ in the mythical American sense could insure their existence in the culture.”

Page 158:  “He (Clement Greenberg) assumed the role of leading art critic during the war years, forsaking the mantel of the man of letters.  He showed himself to be a good pupil of Hofmann, and in one of his first Nation pieces analyzed the characteristic bias of the American mind as its positivism, its reluctance to speculate, its eagerness for quick results, and its optimism. “

Page 162:  Motherwell, “Painting is therefore the mind realizing itself in color and space.  The greatest adventures, especially in the brutal and policed period, take place in the mind.”

Page 163:  From the magazine, Possibilities;  “Rosenberg and Motherwell declared that ‘through a conversion of energy something valid may come out, whatever situation one is forced to begin with … if one is to continue to paint or to write as the political trap seems to close upon him he must perhaps have the extremist faith in sheer possibility. … This pessimistic statement that something might come out of what realistically appeared a hopeless situation undoubtedly reflected one aspect of the abstract expressionists’ ambivalence.  As a statement of their last remaining value – that of their individuality somehow mirrored forth in their work – it represents both their despair and their wild hope.  It definitely indicates that their earlier faith in the value of political action, symbolic social-content painting, group activity and programmatic movements had been eroded.  All that remained was what Rosenberg later called their ‘action;’ on the canvas, and the ‘extremist faith in sheer possibility.’”

Page 175:  “As such sensation events s the Alger Hiss case swept the red scare into prominence, and as McCarthy easily destroyed the solidarity of the professionals he attached, the malaise of the intellectuals deepened. Silence fell.  Marxism, which had once been so vital to artistic discourse, faded into the background of new discussions of existentialism.   The old conflict between individualism and the collective ethic was interiorized.  While President Roosevelt could see the virtue of giving the artist his experimental head, Truman could publicly deride the ‘ham-and-eggs school’ of painting, while approving its suppression.  Times had changed indeed.”

Page 177:  deKooning speaking at a Museum of Modern Art symposium – spring 1951:  “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure.  I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity.  I do not think of outside or inside – or of art in general – as a situation of comfort.  I know there is a terrific idea there somewhere, but whenever I want to get into it, I get a feeling of apathy and want to lie down and go to sleep.  Some painters, including myself, do not care what chair they are sitting on.  It does not even have to be a comfortable one.  They’re too nervous to find out where they ought to sit.  They do not want to ‘sit in style.’  Rather, they have found that painting, any style of painting – to be painting at all, in fact – is a way of living today, a style of living, so to speak.  That is where the form of it lies.  It is exactly in its uselessness that it is free.  Those artists do not want to conform.  They only want to be inspired. …”

Page 181: “Even more important perhaps was Sartre’s often reiterated belief that in ‘choosing’ what he would be in essence, a man was choosing for all men.  By making the subjective existence an ethical existence, by suggesting that from his own willing and choosing a man could still represent all mankind, Sartre offered an invaluable buoy in a rough sea of contention.  The painter could thus pursue his individuality in the course of his acting on canvas and still maintain a thread of hope that what he was doing would have some value for mankind.  It was surely this hopeful salve for the individual conscience that attracted so many artists to the existentialist position.”

Page 187/188: On an on-going discussion of Apollo vs. Dionysian … “His (Nicolas Calas) analysis of the essence of tragedy which appeared in the same issue (Third issue of the Tiger’s Eye) shows his erudition, his imaginative volatility and his ability to gather in his speculative net the disparate but clear, leading ideas of the moment.  …  ‘It is because individualism is grounded in self-confidence that the individual who has extreme self-confidence and great will power can rise above others and become a hero,’ Calas wrote. ‘However, the hero’s self-confidence should never blind him to the fact that, as an individual, he, like all mortals, remains exposed to the vicissitudes of fortune.’”

Page 196: “The evolution of the legendary ‘Club’ has been described by various participating members, most of whom disagree in details, but all of whom recognized its value in establishing a sense of the importance of the artist in America.  The dynamics of this American kind of movement-building differed sharply from the dynamics that shaped European movements.  For one thing, those who gradually began to find that talk could be of great moment to the contemporary artists quite naturally made their discussions public and open to divergent points of view.  Whereas in France the discussion that made art movements was usually among artists who shared assumptions, in New York the dialogue took place within a heterogeneous and shifting population of impatient individualists who only assumption was that something unusual was happening.”

Page 199:  Magazine, published only once:  Modern Artists in America, 1951, edited by Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt and MOMA’s arts librarian Bernard Karpel.  Documents the three day symposium held in 1950 at Studio 35, April 21 to 23,  1950.

Page 210:  With the 50’s came success – sales and recognition …”If the painters had come to realize that by the mid-fifties something had changed drastically in their milieu, it was not only a question of how they themselves had changed in their maturity.  Not only they, but also their community had altered.  Despite the deep-seated suspicion of success on the part of the New York School, success was insidiously attacking their unity.  The genuine community of impoverished bohemians, all of whom had shared economic deprivation during the Depression, was disintegrating as prosperity swept post-war America into a different economic frame of reference. … ‘The fellowship of suffering lasts only so long as none of the sufferers can escape,’ writes Auden.  ‘Open a door through which many but probably not all can escape one at a time and the neighborly community may disintegrate. …  “

Page 212:  Not only were there rebellious younger artists such as Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, but there were also a great many converts to the abstract-expressionist idiom, particularly that associated with the expressionistic brushwork of de Kooning.  With profusion came surfeit.  Even the warmest adherents to New York School psychology became disaffected.  When, in 1958, Alfred Barr, Harold Rosenberg, and Thomas Hess participated in a panel at the Club, they all showed  signs of irritation with the widespread adaptation of New York school mannerisms.  Barr specifically called for ‘revolution’ and deplored what he called the ‘young academy.’  He was waiting for the inevitable ‘rejection,’ he said, waiting for the new generation to ‘make a statement.’  Many other critics had already acknowledged the ‘rejection’ and were hastening to find it its proper sobriquet, as the proliferation of ‘movements’ during the nineteen-sixties bore out.

Page 221:  “The resistance Mailer called for was becoming increasingly difficult as the fifties wore on, but the artists of the New York School struggled to hold onto what Mailer called ‘the sharp sense of what he is alienated from.’  By the very nature of the existentialist platform on which they had first appeared, the New York painters declared their independence from all institutionalized concepts of the artist’s role in society.  By becoming models of self-motivated individuals, who were able to sustain their creative course over long periods of time, even without affirmation from society at large, the artists were better able to resist the blandishments of a benign and neutralizing cultural establishment.”

Page 225: “Cage’s ideas were taken seriously by many painters.  They could easily comprehend his emphasis on the separateness of musical ‘events,’ having themselves rejected the classical canons of composition.  The idea of the ‘event’ itself was sympathetic, since the diction of vanguard criticism was at that very moment describing aspects of abstract expressionist painting as ‘events’ on canvas.

Page 227: “As fresh and unconventional as the local poets were (Frank O’Hara & Kenneth Koch), they were never as extravagantly alienated as the West Coast writers who began to appear regularly among the New York artists shortly after the publication of Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ in 1956.  Kerouac particularly, and to a lesser degree Ginsberg, sought out the painters.


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