The Triumph of Abstract Expressionism

And the tragic aftermath….

America–and especially New York–now had become the center of the world politically and financially and, of course, it had become the center culturally, too. Well, what would a great power be without an appropriate art? You couldn’t be a great power if you didn’t have art to go with it, like Venice without Tintoretto or Florence without Giotto.
—Jason Epstein, interview, NYC, June 1994

Oversized abstract watercolors [had become] the single style of the American museum, forcing two generations of realists to live in basements, and pass still-lifes around like samizdat.
—Adam Gopnik, The Power Critic, New Yorker, March 16, 1998

By 1954, Abstract Expressionism was at the zenith of its popularity, to such an extent that an unknown artist trying to exhibit in NYC couldn’t find a gallery unless he was painting in a mode derived from one or another member of the New York School.
—John Canaday, New York Times, August 8, 1978

The above remarks pertain to the period in the 1950s that applied roughly up until 1958 with Johns show at Castelli. From that point the totalitarian conditions of New York Art are as described above. What is being described is a period where Clement Greenberg ruled as a virtual Pope-Dictator (as Ad Reinhardt used to accurately described him).

I recall when I was in art school reading John Canaday’s NeoClassic to Post-Impressionist Painters where Cézanne was paired with Thomas Eakins. I’d never heard of Thomas Eakins and wondered how on earth any American painter was being singled out for comparison to the mighty Cézanne and I’d never even heard of him as an American artist in art school in the 1970s. In art school the name Thomas Eakins wouldn’t have registered. It was a settled matter in 1972   that figurative painting was dead and retrograde. A full-blown ideology had been established that was little more than brainwashing for art students. They weren’t being taught art or its long history in any complex way. Art was reduced to a simple formula. If Stella did this then I do the next step. No one ever questioning that Stella did little more than what now passes for lobby decoration at a shopping mall.  They were being instructed by a faculty asserting that the only art that mattered at all was American art and the only American art that mattered at all in the 1950s was Abstract Expressionism. And Stella had solved Abstract Expressionism, with the help of Clement Greenberg, by making pinstripe paintings. This is analogous to  Mao or Stalin’s state mandated art. Small wonder Reinhardt’s apt description of Greenberg as Dictator Pope.

It accounts for the ultimate provincialism of American Art and the current degradation of painting as a language with any sense or purpose.  The pure hubris and arrogance of denouncing the art of the past as irrelevant and trumped with a housepainter brush and housepaint following linear geometric patterns that could be painted by anyone with a day’s training with a brush has led ineluctably to the present decline.

Small wonder that museum goers would rather see a Tim Burton retrospective or Nude sessions with Marina whatever her name is than day glo protactor designs and piles of aluminum junk claiming to be the next stage after Caravaggio.

Abstract Expressionism had broken down when I was in school, largely because theory spouting  arrogant art grad students like Frank Stella, were instantly mainstreamed by museums and collectors. “Show me the money” was all that counted.

Instead of  the long training that de Kooning, Pollock and so forth had apprenticed in to arrive at their mature work, all that was necessary to rise to the pantheon of greatness was to spout Greenbergian gibberish and become overnight stars. Drawing was something for suckers to labor away at. Greenberg’s paramour Helen Frankenthaler could pour and dribble with genius from the moment she picked up a paint can. Incidentally, while at the Phoenix Museum I overheard an official telling someone with them that the Frankenthaler had just been returned after it’s long residence with Helen’s great friends in Wyoming…. Liz and Dick Cheney. No Commie, that Helen.

In the youtube video below you can hear the arrogance of Stella as he claims he’s one-upped both Pollock and Picasso because he’s solved the problems they run into in the corners.  Stella as even in the same practice as Picasso and Pollock is a joke, much less the notion that he’s somehow comprehended either of them or advanced their work.

This kind of ridiculous nonsense is what has been applied since its Greenbergian inspired advent within the American Art world. The triumph of the pigeon drooling, as Ad Reinhhardt would no doubt have it. A key thing to notice with Stella is that he’s calling his work his “pictures”. This is no doubt inadvertent but it calls to mind Guston’s astute observation that “a painting is NOT  a picture.” Stella’s pictures don’t even rise to the level of a moderately accomplished tourist landscape painting. But somehow he’s managed to be an institutional giant. Big mystery there. We’ll see if we can solve it.

What Stella says in the interview below is so idiotic as to be laughable to anybody but the brain dead art world legions thinking what he is doing is painting, much less art. He describes Pollock as being an “illustration” of energy which Stella has apparently solved with house painter brushes moving in a near inert way along straight edges to show viewers real energy. This is absurd comedy of the highest order:

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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