The New York School and the CIA

Ad Reinhardt, Composition in Black

Listed at for $200.oo. Described under media types as a lithograph. Then in another spot as a serigraph. Published in Amsterdam 1973.  Ad Reinhardt died on August 30, 1967.

We’re left to wonder how many prints are in the edition and who authorized it. Unless he was directing as a ghost, Reinhardt had nothing to say about it’s quality or whether it was approved to print. Welcome to the wonderful world of the contemporary art bubble.

I’m busily rereading a copy of Frances Stonor Saunders’ The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of American painting in the 1940s and 1950s. I’d also recommend parenthetically, her excellent  The Devil’s Broker: Seeking Gold, God and Glory in Fourteenth-Century Italy for those interested in cultural history at the dawn of the Renaissance. Both books are wonderfully original and brilliantly researched and written.

At the outset of commenting on the connection between New York School painting and the CIA I’m pulling this quote from the book, which I agree with and serves as my point of view here:

It is hard to sustain the argument that the abstract expressionists merely “happened to be painting in the cold war not for the cold war.” Their own statements, and, in some cases, political allegiances, cannot be reduced to the political history in which it was situated. Abstract Expressionism, like jazz, was–is–a creative phenomenon existing independently and even, yes, triumphantly, apart from the political use which was made of it.

The only amendment to this passage is that “Abstract Expressionists” doesn’t include every single one of the abstract painters existing in NYC at the time.

I pull this next quote from the same book :

Ad Reinhardt was the only abstract expressionist who continued to cleave to the left, and as such he was all but ignored by the official art world until the 1960s. This left him in a perfect position to point out the inconsistencies in the lives and art of his former friends, … whose group photos like “The Irascibles” of 1950 had been replaced by features in Vogue Magazine showing these angry young men looking more like the stockbrokers who listed them as”speculative or “growth” painters, and reported a market for Abstract Expressionism “boiling ” with activity. Reinhardt roundly condemned his fellow artists for succumbing to greed and ambition. He called Rothko a “Vogue Magazine cold-water flat-fauve” and Pollock a “Harpers Bazaar bum”. Barnett Newmann was “the avant-garde huckster-handicraftsman and educational shopkeeper.” And the “holy-roller explainer-entertainer in residence”… Reinhardt didn’t stop there. He said that a museum should be “a treasure house and tomb, not a counting house or amusement center.” He compared art criticism to “pigeon droolings” and ridiculed Greenberg as a Dictator-Pope. Reinhardt was the only abstract expressionist to participate in the march on Washington for black rights in August 1963.

I recall Reinhardt’s derisory comment that “sculptures are what I bump into when I’m stepping back to look at a painting.” I wonder if he at any time regretted his slashing remark about Rothko or would have amended it if he’d been alive when Rothko took his own life in 1970. Also interesting is the characterization of Greenberg, echoing the ecclesiastical status applied to Andre Breton.

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10 Responses to The New York School and the CIA

  1. People mention Frances Stonor Saunders a lot (and her book is great) but they should also look at Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. If FSS’s book describes, step by step, how the CIA implemented its cultural cold war, Guilbaut’s book explains what happend in the 1930s and 1940s, politically and artistically, to create the mindset that made said cultural war possible. It’s a remarkable insight into America’s belief in itself as a God-chosen nation that gave it the moral self-righteousness to reshape the post-war world in its own image. I think you’ll enjoy reading it.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks, Miguel. I’ve read Guilbaut’s book and, like you, I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the truth about that period of history. The emperor is naked, yet few people seem to be able to discern that obvious fact. At least few people seem willing to open their mouths. Other books I’d recommend that I just read recently and is quite short is Julian Spaulding’s Con Art (tracking Duchamp and Beuy’s charlatanism), Don Thompson’s “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark” (how the financial racket operates), Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. The high art world is a financial racket. And one stamped Made in America. Other countries ape our success by aping our empty art.

    Incidentally, America is becoming less a God-believing nation. I just read the latest Pew poll showing that religious belief is on the decline here ( America’s religion, first and foremost, is money. The art world has been a fantastic place to run the kind of financial fraud that has now gone global, swallowing up all of our art institutions along with it. With Reagan came the corporate takeover of everything. Public Art Museums/Galleries were simply another part of the public interest, like education, healthcare, etc. where profit prevailed over any kind of cultural concern or concern for the overall well-being of the citizenry. But it has to be noted that the citizenry went along with all of it with wild enthusiasm.

    The seeds for the total corruption that exists now were planted by Greenberg/Duchamp theories that reduced art to no more than entertainment and wall decoration. It’s not so much ironic as a logical consequence that these phony paragons of high culture have naturally produced a thoroughly mediocre middlebrow high culture. What exactly is the difference between Greenberg artists like Frankenthaler / Morris Louis and Thomas Kinkade other than the claim for some kind of “high” color design taste? Greenberg ended up defining art as whatever his taste declared it to be. And his taste is remarkable pedestrian, to say the least. Banal color designs. Incidentally, Greenberg was color blind as Dore Ashton seemingly unwittingly brings to light in her book The New York School. And we can easily note just how vulgar and tasteless are the CEO elite who collect artists like Koons, Warhol, Hirst, Currin, etc. That’s the American joke on “high art”. Invalidate the enormous achievements of the past with a smirk and a Mona Lisa moustache or a silkscreened Last Supper. Laugh all the way to the bank.

    Art (to the extent the word has any meaning whatsoever) is simply another arm of the Hollywood propaganda machine and Madison Avenue type advertising. Luxury living. The two are inextricable now. Saatchi, who was Thatcher’s PR flack, is a natural to rise to the pinnacle of the kind of art world that is little more than propaganda/PR for neoliberalism. Freedom Art. Everyone is free to indulge in a wild debauch. Throw paint around. Return to childishness to infantilism. Narcissistic performance. The more vacuous and puerile the better. Party on.

    I imagine you’re aware of all this, Miguel. The art world exists inside a self-enclosed, self-praising bubble that is no more than an empty conceit. The New Yorker heaps praise on shows like HBO’s Girls. American culture will go down in a debauched sewer. My guess that it will get even worse than it already is, as I’m unaware of any resistance to it whatsoever.

  3. Yep, I’m aware of most of it. Still I like your passionate replies. And you mention a few books I didn’t know.

    What book does Greenberg put forth his view of art more clearly?

  4. trueoutsider says:

    I don’t think that anything Greenberg wrote was clear at all. It’s made up of a lot of dogmatic assertions that are based on a lot of pseudo-intellectual posturing. The second paragraph of a review of Thomas Eakins, for example, drops the following names: Pre-Raphaelitism, Impressionism, Imagism, Poe, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, James, Longfellow, Bryant, Emerson, Tuckerman, Whitman, and Moby Dick. None of this sheds any light on Eakins work, but is Greenberg posing as an erudite cultural authority. Dwight MacDonald, who hired Greenberg as the Nation art critic, when asked about Greenberg’s knowledge of art remarked that he wasn’t aware Greenberg had any knowledge of art.

    Art and Culture collects his early essays and that’s where you can go to try to follow what his ideas are. They amount to very little. Strip painting of figuration, narrative, illusionistic space, academic drawing skill and so on and then one has entered the realm of sublime artistic achievement. One can even be color blind and dwell in that ethereal realm it turns out. We live now with the results of the triumph Greenberg and Duchamp and their anti-art theories and practices. Greenberg was advocating a complete destruction of all the values inherent in the great tradition of Western Painting. That’s been thoroughly accomplished. Americans are the happier for it, as outside of a very small minority they have no use whatsoever for European culture. They’re ecstatic with Las Vegas. Kitsch Dale Chihuly glass flowers. Kitsch Warhol. Kitsch Koons and Currin. Greenberg is a typical showbiz hustler of the American variety that Melville lays out in “The Confidence Man”. Melville’s novel was roundly detested by the critics and public. None of whom had any idea what Melville was writing about. Confidence man? What’s a confidence man?

    The first essay in art and culture is what put Greenberg on the cultural map (if you want to call America a culture, that is). It’s titled “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” When I look around at the art in museums all I can feel is total nausea, particularly when I’m comparing it to the art prior to 1950 in both America and Europe. And what I’m looking at is just what Greenberg was attacking: Kitsch. Of course, it was the attack of a con man. His recipes for painting are exactly what turned painting into kitsch. Warhol and Koons, ad nauseum, are pure descendants of Greenberg’s evisceration the tradition of European painting, which was enthusiastically joined in by his vast number of disciples/art critics who followed his lead.

    There are many things that converged to kill art. After all, art was primarily painting. If one goes to a major museum to see art, you’re primarily looking at painting. If you kill off painting, you kill off art. Painting didn’t die a natural death so much as it was buried under tons of empty critical writing of the kind Greenberg had so much success with. Of course it shouldn’t be seen that his success was due to his writing so much as it was due to the tons of cash invested to promote and prop up the gibberish he wrote.

    • Thanks for your long reply. I agree very much with you. It’s like Tom Wolfe predicted in The Painted Word, one day they’ll hang essays in museums and place tiny reproductions of paintings next to them. The word has taken over the image.

  5. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks to you, Miguel, for the interest in the subject. I’m not aware of many artists who have any interest in this old history whatsoever. As Gore Vidal wrote, we live in the United States of Amnesia. I have a deep, deep interest in history myself so I find all of these buried things fascinating. I also just ordered the other Julian Spalding book “The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today.” I’m looking forward to reading it. Like Wolfe, he’s an enormously witty and entertaining writer. I’ve also looked through his book “The Best Art You’ve Never Seen” which is a wonderful survey of little known art along with pictures.

    I’ve viewed Tim’s Vermeer recently and am thinking of writing up something on it. Totally deplorable. The most ridiculous hogwash I’ve ever seen. Tim’s Vermeer isn’t even remotely like an original Vermeer. It looks like a paint by number. He’s using lenses Vermeer would have never been able to access… and holding his sitters in prace with straps and harnesses so they don’t move. Fantastically absurd while the lame-brained David Hockney pontificates that it’s provides proof positive that the Old Masters used optical lenses to do their paintings. A theory so simplistic and absurd that only such a grotesque group of stooges who colonize art museums could ever take it seriously.

    And on that front, if you can possibly locate a copy of the documentary “Art and Craft” you’ll find a wily schizophrenic genius of a forger who fools a large portion of the art connoisseur establishment of American Art Museums forging old master art with materials he buys at Hobby Lobby arts and craft center and Lowe’s hardware store…. plywood with coffee stains on the back that pass as three hundred year old panels the the highly discriminating museum experts throughout our art loving land. He used cheap colored pencils to mimic the red chalk of a watteau or rubens…. and the bozos just slap on authenticated labels and register them into the collections. For three decades! And people wonder why I refer to the art world as a Barnum and Bailey act.

  6. What’s the name of that art forger?

  7. trueoutsider says:

    Mark Landis. The term “forger” should be qualified in the sense that Mr. Landis wasn’t making his copies for any kind of financial gain or profit. And I used the term”schizophrenic” to describe in tongue-in-cheek. I don’t have any belief whatsoever in the kind of labels the shrink industry prefers to put on complex human beings like Mark Landis.

    I looked at youtube and see that they have both the trailer and the full doc:

    This is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve watched on the just how insane the art community has become. Note him walking into Hobby Lobby in the first scene to select his cheapie art supplies which you then see him using to fake centuries old illuminated manuscript paintings which fool our highly qualified museum personnel. The first 10 minutes of the film are priceless. Instead of watching Orson Welles’ F is For Fake, ten minutes of Art and Craft will suffice to show just how effortlessly one can slip anything at all past Art Experts nowadays. I imagine it was little different in past history. Renoir made money forging Henri Rousseau paintings. Look at van Meegeren’s lame stuff that fooled all the so-called art geniuses of the day. Today, of course, all one needs to do as Landis demonstrates is take a xerox of a Picasso, paste it down on a piece of plywood, stain the back with coffee and paint over the xerox with acrylic paint. Instant Picasso masterpiece!:

  8. Thanks for this video. I know this reply has taken a while to arrive, but I’ve been busy.

    Your blog is always wonderfully instructive.

  9. trueoutsider says:

    Thanks, Miguel. I appreciate the appreciation.

    All the best,

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