August 24, 2008

"Action/Abstraction" at The Jewish Museum

The 1940's were a watershed period in American painting. Europe was in the middle of a terrible war and American artists were seeking to establish themselves as a separate and important group in the art world.

Two New York critics were particularly influential on the art scene at that time and the rivalry was fierce. Harold Rosenberg's contention that "action", the creative physical act of making art, was the most important factor differed substantially from Clement Greenberg's promotion of "abstraction", the formal purity of the art object, as the main ingredient, and the two men battled to prove their points in every article they wrote for magazines and newspapers.

The Jewish Museum's current exhibition "Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976" seeks to explore these conflicting theories and how they influenced the birth of Abstract Expressionism and its subsequent schools. This revolutionary art movement pitted the two critics and their followers against each other but also launched the first truly American avant garde art scene to influence the rest of the world.

A 1952 quote by Harold Rosenberg sums up his hypothesis - "At a certain moment, the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act...What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event...The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation...". He championed such Modern masters as Willem de Kooning (his painting "Woman V", 1952-3, is at left) who embodied Rosenberg's ideal of action and physical intensity.

Meanwhile, Clement Greenberg's proposal that "The essence of Modernism the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself...Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art. Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else" reiterates his belief that color and formality are the basis of Abstraction. Greenberg's artists of choice included Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann (see his oil "The Gate", 1959-60, at right).

It seems odd to me that Greenberg was a huge promoter of the work of Jackson Pollock as I have always found Pollock's drip paintings the ultimate "action" painting, more in line with Rosenberg's arguments of physical involvement in the creation of art. But Greenberg considered Pollock to be the "epitome of aesthetic value" and admired the purity of his paintings, the formality of his "making marks on a flat surface" while Rosenberg considered Pollack's work to be an "existential drama". History has placed Jackson Pollack solidly among the top echelon of 20th Century artists, and Pollack and de Kooning were both cornerstones of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Pollock, de Kooning and other pioneers of Abstract Expressionism are well represented in this show by important works lent by major institutions. The exhibition follows the metamorphosis of this school into its offshoots - Color Field painting, Fluxus, Neo Expressionism to name a few, with excellent examples by such artists as Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston and Mark Rothko.

While this exhibition may not have answered all the visitor's questions about the philosophies of these critics, it left no uncertainty about the importance of the movement and Rosenberg and Greenberg's profound influence on the art world of the Post World War 2 era. The balance had shifted and the new world had assumed the leading role in forward thinking, not just in the world of art, but social, business and political arenas as well.

"Action/Abstraction" is on view at The Jewish Museum until September 21st.

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