What you didn’t learn in college By Piri Halasz

Art Review: “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture” at MoMA (through April 25, 2011)

What you didn’t learn in college

moma-smith-pollockpress-image.jpg By Piri Halasz                                                   

Many recent college graduates this winter are finding “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture” at MoMA something of a revelation. They are impressed by this huge show of abstract expressionism, the movement at stage center in America---and the world---during the fifteen years between 1947 and 1962, the movement which first established New York as the international capital of the art world. Some of these younger art-lovers find themselves blown away among the 100 paintings on view, which are often large and freely rendered, or fascinated by some of the 60 intricate sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs that are also on display. The show occupies the entire fourth floor of the museum (an area normally devoted to art from around the world, and from 1945 to the present).                                                                                                    


Such museum-goers have told a friend of mine that abstract expressionism received very little attention from their professors, at most perhaps the occasional segment on a few of its best-known artists: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Mark Rothko. This oversight startled me. The last time I attended undergraduate courses in 20^th century modern and American art was in the 1970s, when I was a “reader” in graduate school. The professor for whom I was reading term papers did his best to present abstract expressionism as a movement, in addition to dealing with some of its outstanding figures. I can’t say that he was overly enthusiastic or knowledgeable about the movement, nor (to the best of my recollection) did he present its lesser-known but still towering figures, like Hans Hofmann or Adolph Gottlieb, but he tried to handle the movement conscientiously and emphasized its importance.


Still, that was a long time ago, so to bring myself up to date, I emailed Alexander Nemerov, a distinguished art historian who did his graduate work nearly thirty years more recently than I did, and who now teaches American art at Yale, where he recently led a graduate seminar on abstract expressionism. “I think it’s fair to say that many undergraduates would not know much about abstract expressionism, and that even art history majors might be relatively unversed in it,” he very kindly emailed me back. “Probably it’s true to say that it’s given less attention in academic art history than art since 1960. The paradox, however, is that the superannuation of this art can make it look fresh when people come across it more or less for the first time, and without an oppressive set of expectations and attitudes concerning its greatness.”


In so generously giving me this illuminating statement, Prof. Nemerov revealed himself to be both objective about and representative of academic attitudes. On the one hand, he showed himself aware of the pitfalls so many professors teaching abstract expressionism in the past have fallen into, of emphasizing “oppressive expectations” and “attitudes concerning greatness,” instead of offering the livelier, more genuinely sympathetic sort of interpretation which might have enabled their classes to see that this work was truly great, and truly deserving of the highest expectations. The fact that so many younger art-lovers are spared such counterproductive teaching may indeed make it easier for them to enjoy the MoMA show. On the other hand, when Prof. Nemerov used the word “superannuation” and the phrase “looks fresh,” he implied that he himself considers abstract expressionism out of date, and stale (though, as an honest man, he added that he might not be the best possible interpreter of it).


My research, published in /A Memoir of Creativity/ (2009), indicates that such resistance has long been with us: academia has always had trouble teaching abstract expressionism. This was already true in the ‘50s, when the movement was still new, and corresponded – then as now – to the difficulties that the general public had with it, as expressed in mass-circulation magazines like /Life /in the ‘50s and newspapers like the /New York Times /in the 21^st Century. Not that either of these publications indicated they couldn’t deal with the subject. On the contrary, they set themselves up as experts on it, and initially presented it in what they considered an enthusiastic manner. But /Life/ subsequently commented on the “bafflement” felt by the general public at abstract expressionism, and several critics on the /Times/* *this past fall have sniped away at the MoMA show.

In the ‘60s, the resentment felt by so many art-lovers at the prestige enjoyed by the abstract expressionists led to rapturous acceptance of the pop art that was itself a reaction against abstract expressionism. Thanks to the popularity they speedily achieved, the pop artists – led by Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein and Warhol – changed the artistic climate so completely that today we still live in the Zeitgeist that they created. Today’s conceptual art, videos and performance art may not look like the pop art of the ‘60s, but they share the same outlook or mindset --- one radically opposed to the mindset of “ab-ex.”

What are some differences between the mindsets, and why is it harder to discuss abstract expressionism in the classroom? Most importantly, pop is figurative (though not necessarily representational), and professors have always been more at home with figurative art. It has “subject matter” they can present. Abstract expressionism, being abstract, has subject matter, too, but it’s not easily discussed, being incorporated unconsciously, not intentionally, and merged with the artist’s feelings about that subject—or rather, those subjects, for an abstract painting is ambiguous, referring (without the artist’s being aware of it) to many subjects, in a simplified, stylized manner, by an instinctive synthesis of them into a single image. “Ab-ex” is art about feeling, as opposed to thinking. It has a warmer ambience; pop is cool, laid-back. The best abstract expressionists had personality, each with a unique way of handling the brush or (in Pollock’s case) the stick; pop (and its twin, minimalism) favor the mechanical. Ab-ex is serious – not witty – but offers subtle colors and imaginative shapes that can only really be enjoyed if seen in the flesh.

Because of these characteristics, to enter “Abstract Expressionist New York” is to enter a new world, where to be moved by a painting is enough, pleasure an acceptable end in itself, and you don’t have to memorize how sociologically illustrative or intellectually stimulating the work is. You won’t find everything there is to know in college classrooms. Graduation --- for those who want to learn what life has to teach them --- is only the beginning.




1. Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella.  Sculpture (at left): David Smith (American, 1906–1965). Australia. 1951 Painted steel, 6' 7 1/2" x 8' 11 7/8" x 16 1/8" (202 x 274 x 41 cm), on cinder block base, 17 1/2 x 16 3/4 x 15 1/4" (44.5 x 42.5 x 38.7 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of William Rubin © Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.  Painting (at right): Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956) One: Number 31, 1950. 1950 Oil and enamel paint on canvas. 8' 10" x 17' 5 5/8" (269.5 x 530.8 cm) Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange) © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

2. Willem de Kooning (American, born The Netherlands, 1904-1997). Woman, I. 1950–52. Oil on canvas. 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2010 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS),

      3. Adolph Gottlieb (American, 1903-1974) B    last, I. 1957, Oil on canvas, 7' 6" x 45 1/8" (228.7 x 114.4 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Philip Johnson Fund ©Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

4. Hans Hofmann (American, born Germany, 1880–1966) Memoria in Aeternum. 1962. Oil on canvas, 7' x 6' 1/8" (213.3 x 183.2 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist ©2010 Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

      5. Mark Rothko (American, born Latvia, 1903–1970) No. 10. 1950. Oil on canvas, 7' 6 3/8" x 57 1/8" (229.6 x 145.1 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson ©1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York