• News Retrospective

    Retrospective: ‘The Phony Crisis in American Art’

    And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

    100 YEARS AGO

    The news of the Democratic Senators’ changes in the art tariff created almost hysterical excitement among the art dealers in Europe and as a result the art business is stagnant. Owing to the general ignorance of American political methods the idea is prevalent among the dealers that the proposed changes become effective now. Consequently many dealers have curtailed their vacations to the health resorts and have returned to their galleries and are shipping all paintings and art objects possible to America. Especially the dealers in porcelains and antique furniture. Some of them are even arranging for a hurried return to New York.

    “Art Tariff Raised,” July 19, 1913

    75 YEARS AGO

    A Spaniard destined by his family for an engineering career, Gris was forced by financial troubles to abandon his scientific studies in Madrid and to fend for himself. Immediately he went to Paris, took a studio in the famous “bateau lavoir” in the Place Ravignan, and there found an all-important community of spirit in the company of such men as Picasso, Max Jacob, Braque, Maurice Raynal and Guillaume Apollinaire. French culture held a strong attraction for the young Spaniard. Gertrude Stein, who knew him well, writes in her introduction to the catalogue of the present exhibition, that for him “French culture was always a seduction . . . I am seduced and then I am seduced over again he was fond of saying . . . he had his own Spanish gift of intimacy.”

    “The Art News of Paris,” July 16, 1938

    50 YEARS AGO                                

    Claes Oldenburg, Cash Register, 1961, muslin soaked in plaster over wire frame, painted with enamel. LOCKSLEY SHEA GALLERY. PHOTO COURTESY THE OLDENBURG VAN BRUGGEN STUDIO ©1961 CLAES OLDENBURG.

    Claes Oldenburg, Cash Register, 1961, muslin soaked in plaster over wire frame, painted with enamel. From the “Americans 1963″ exhibition at MoMA.

    LOCKSLEY SHEA GALLERY. PHOTO COURTESY THE OLDENBURG VAN BRUGGEN STUDIO. ©1961 CLAES OLDENBURG.

    Modern American painting and sculpture are arts in, and of, the crisis of the West.

    The crisis is not a simple artists’ dilemma but a highly complex interconnection of threats, enigmas, fears, necessities, temptations, stupidities, manias, delusions, indignations, confusions, absurdities and chaos.

    In the past, the artist’s condition was comparatively plain. He faced every man’s death, for example, and continued to look at his work through the sockets of his skull.

    For the American artist at mid-century, however, the crisis has spread to everything he sees and knows, to his whole life and environment. His politics, ethics, manner of living, esthetics are all comprised by the situation. One painter said: “You have to work with the basic assumption that it is impossible to paint.”

    The familiarity of the crisis, its omnipresence, the dulling of its edges by the exhaustion of language, increases the sense of urgency. The fact that we are habituated to such phrases as “six million Jews” or “Freedom Ride” or “legal murder,” adds to the nightmare quality. Faced with the impossibility of continuing any prewar style, the issue that New York artists tore from the situation was that of the crisis itself: its revelation became the content of their art. Crisis is the hero, and in its aspects, artists find their unique self-portraits.

    This is why modern American art, despite its global influence, remains unexportable. In Paris, Rome, or Tokyo, the concept of crisis dissolves into mere extrapolations of history. The inevitable result of adapting New York painting to other locales has been international estheticism.

    Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1959, welded steel, canvas, black fabric, soot, and wire. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold H. Maremont ©2013 Lee Bontecou

    Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1959, welded steel, canvas, black fabric, soot, and wire. From the “Americans 1963″ exhibition at MoMA.

    COLLECTION OF MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. GIFT OF MR. AND MRS. ARNOLD H. MAREMONT. ©2013 LEE BONTECOU.

    The most extraordinary thing about American artists is that they were able to make the leap into the furnace and emerge with an enormous variety of works that take their place in the continuity of Western art. The second most extraordinary thing is their vitality and depth of resources; they have created their own tradition and constantly renew its energy and daring….

    The phony crisis is completely outside of art and the art world. Like a mirror in a fun-fair, it distorts as it mimics the artists’ values and anxieties. It deals in screaming irrelevancies—how much did something sell for, how fast was it resold, how crazy did it look, who got drunk, who made out? The phony crisis is complex, but not hard to analyze….

    The distinction between the real crisis (which can kill or forge a man’s identity) and the phony crisis which kills (mostly with kindness) is a standard that should be applied to all demonstrations of modern American art; for example to the Museum of Modern Art’s “Americans 1963” exhibition and the “Toward a New Abstraction” show a the Jewish Museum, both in New York [the former, to Aug. 18; the latter, to Sept. 15]. The first is the latest of Dorothy Miller’s anthologies and fulfills a policy of the Museum, recently enunciated by curator Peter Selz, to be a “selective mirror”—a gentle, old-fashioned mixed metaphor which may understate Miss Miller’s commitments to what, in her opinion, is the most vital work being done. The Jewish Museum attempts more rigid classifications “to illustrate a consistently emerging position” (although the Museum’s director, Alan R. Solomon, adds that this consistency embraces “painters of diverse styles”).

    “The phony crisis in American art,” by Thomas B. Hess, Summer 1963

    25 YEARS AGO

    Louise Bourgeois in her studio in 1988 with The Sail.  PHOTO: CLAUDIO EDINGER. COURTESY THE EASTON FOUNDATION. ART: LOUISE BOURGEOIS TRUST, LICENSED BY VAGA.

    Louise Bourgeois in her studio in 1988 with The Sail.

    PHOTO: CLAUDIO EDINGER. COURTESY THE EASTON FOUNDATION. ART: LOUISE BOURGEOIS TRUST, LICENSED BY VAGA.

    Bourgeois pauses. “So I do not want to use the stone for my own purposes. I want to bring out its highest potential. And I do this with my tools—a hammer, chisel, a drill. But always there is resistance. The urge to please someone, to want someone is very strong. Seduction is never finished.”

    Hands thrust into the pockets of her smock, the diminutive sculptor strides through her studio, gazing intently at objects that she seems to know as well as herself. “As soon as a work is finished, it leaves here. Whatever you see I am allowed to change. This is my privilege. But then art is a privilege to do what you damn want. If people appreciate it, if it sells”—she raises her shoulders toward heaven, she raises her eyebrows, too—“that is something else.”

    “Louise Bourgeois Makes a Sculpture,” by Paul Gardner, Summer 1988

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