“The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial survey of contemporary painting (which has been praised by some and disliked by many more) is, amazingly, its first major painting show since 1958. We’re flashing back to that period in this week’s Retrospective post.
That year saw the opening of “The New American Painting,” a show of work by 17 American painters at the Modern. Following its appearance in New York, it traveled across Europe—first to Milan, and then to Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and London. The European response was mixed. Depending on the political situation of the country in question, reactions varied. In summer 1959, as the exhibition was finishing its run in Europe, Kenneth Rexroth wrote an article about “The New American Painting” and a Jackson Pollock retrospective that toured at the same time, and the hostile responses that followed both of them. Rexroth, a critic and poet known for helping the Beats become famous, took European journalists to task for their political bias and praised audiences for their thoughtful responses to the show. Read Rexroth’s thoughts on some of the scathing responses below.
“Americans Seen Abroad”
By Kenneth Rexroth
During the past winter two shows of American painting organized by the Museum of Modern Art have traveled about Europe. One, “The New American Painting,” just opened in New York and runs through the summer. It is a representative selection, some four or five pictures each, of William Baziotes, James Brooks, Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin and Jack Tworkov. In Europe at the same time was a large one-man show of Jackson Pollock. In Basel, Berlin and Paris the two exhibitions were shown together. In Amsterdam and London “The New American Painting” followed the Pollock show. In three cities—Milan, Madrid and Brussels—the Pollock exhibition was not shown at all.
This is the first chance most Europeans have had to see this aspect of American painting. Most other shows have taken in the whole range of contemporary and not-so-contemporary styles, from Grant Wood to Clyfford Still, and so have been, to strangers certainly, confusing rather than informative. Most informed people would consider this selection, give or take a few names, representative of the most important recent tendencies in our painting. And certainly it is among these painters that the first American “movement” to exert a powerful, world-wide influence was generated.
How did Europeans react? On the visible surface, how did the critics react? Beneath the surface, what was the real reaction? How did the artists, the people one knows—how did the people in the show respond? By and large, as might be expected, the two levels had little in common.
Newspaper art critics prepare themselves for their careers by memorizing a collection of acceptable stereotypes. This works just fine, year after year after year. Who will dispute that Cézanne is powerful, van Gogh is forceful, Picasso is inventive, Vermeer is lucid, Tintoretto is noble? By judicious extrapolation, you can keep pretty well up to date—three paragraphs of Cézanne, one paragraph of van Gogh, one paragraph of Ryder, apply to Marsden Hartley and rub well. Once in a great while something comes along that can’t be handled by stereotyped response and then all breaks down in confusion. It is just a simple fact that most journalists over the world are quite incapable of looking at pictures, and seeing painting and canvas and not preconceptions.
The press reception of “The New American Painting” and the big Pollock retrospective by most European newspaper critics was, by and large, a parade of busted clichés and demoralized preconceptions. The majority didn’t, apparently, bother to go to the show (or shows, since sometimes the two collections were shown together, sometimes separately). They just went to the newspaper morgue and had the librarian fish out the press notices of Buffalo Bill’s first European tour, and went to work with scissors and paste. Even those who did go somehow got a hold of the wrong catalogue and were under the impression the pictures were painted by Wyatt Earp and Al Capone and Bix Beiderbeck. This is a generalization. It isn’t altogether true, but it is certainly the first impression you’d get from reading the clippings. A few evenings spent struggling through artistical jouranlese in six languages and you’re in complete agreement with George Washington—”America has nothing to gain from European entanglements.”
There were exceptions and there was a definite pattern in the exceptions. Those countries which are too small to even dream of competing with America politically and economically were, to judge from their press, more receptive. Not only were most of the Swiss, Belgians and Dutch receptive, some of them were very astute. A Belgian said wryly that Sam Francis should be the most popular because he is so perfectly in the French taste. A Swiss noted that Grace Hartigan would be liked because critics can pretend to like her “abstractly” while really approving of her because she is mildly “figurative.” A Dutchman said that it would be a mistake to think of de Kooning as a missionary of European Expressionism in uncultured America just because he once lived in the Netherlands. Another said flatly that we must never forget that it is America that first appreciated the masters of modern art, and that painters like Kandinsky, Picabia, Klee had a great influence on American painting before they were known outside of small circles in their own countries. Again, a Dutchman: “These painters have been criticized because they make a great deal of money. Is it a fault in the Americans that they pay their artists well, that most European painting is now in America, and that the Americans are slowly buying up all the so-called Art Treasures of Europe? Is this a fault? If it is, all we have to do to overcome is go and do likewise.” This may not be art criticism of the highest order, but it is certainly astute observation.
Vulgarity is international. We expect the lower British gutter press to make bad jokes, run solemn features under the byline of newspaper “psychiatrists” and generally behave in a rowdy (what they call “American”) manner. Still, it’s a bit of a shock to find an apparently civilized man in Lausanne saying, “One turns away from this violence, fraud and depravity to stand in reverence before the Angelus of Millet.” Honestly, the man said that.
On the other hand, thinking back over the long struggle that modern art of every variety has had in Great Britain, it is more surprising to discover that the best-tempered and most judicious reviews were in the better English papers. However, these very reviews did reveal one thing. By chance of location, the Tate, a most perfect and valid comparison lay right to hand, but nobody used it. Housed in the same building as the abstract Turners, the show never once elicited the comment that Turner was the artist who, of all British painters, was an ancestor of this show. The old imaginary gulf between moderne and passéiste art still seems to act as an effective banner in England.
If this was true in London, it was far more true everywhere else. With the exception of a few scholarly historians, mostly German or German-trained, everybody accepted those pictures as either utter novelties or subversive of all tradition whatsoever, or as just amateur provincial imitations of their own painting of years gone by—Ecole de Paris, or Expressionism, or Futurism, depending on the nationality of the critic.
The French, as might be expected, were by far the worst. It is an embarrassing task to review the French press on any subject involving America. In France the words “United States” do not mean a country—they mean an extremely disagreeable reaction-pattern common to almost all Frenchmen, a purely subjective phenomenon. The vulgar press was just vulgar, like its British counterpart, but it is always a little startling to see the ravings of the American Weekly of the 1920s about lunatic modernist painting, or, still worse, “the pompiers of American charlatans financed by the Guggenheim billions,” translated into the French language. Most of the criticism was entirely political, and had nothing to do with any kind of painting. Even civilized papers like Express and Combat had their men bone up by going to a Western movie and reading some of the more inflammatory statements of American generals. They may have read the catalogues, too, but there is little evidence they entered the galleries. They agreed that these Americans, like all other Americans, were dangerous and ignorant barbarians, redskins, in fact. On the other hand, critics of the “official” Left were singularly open-minded and judicious. One of the most intelligent reviews was in Aragon’s Les Lettres françaises. The reason may be that it was Be Kind to Americans Week in the Kremlin, but still it must be admitted that here was a man who had considerable intelligence and insight when he was permitted to use it. The review ended, “Fine. But this is only a beginning which has itself already come to an end. What next” Since this is exactly what the boys themselves are saying along Tenth Street, it is hard to quarrel with it. The best French reviews were in Le Monde and France Observateur, representing the Moderate Right and the Independent Left, respectively. Both critics pointed out that although the paintings were truly American, their sources were in the whole European tradition, but mostly in Expressionism, Klee, Matisse, and the organic Surrealism of André Masson and Miró. The critic for France Observateur made the specific comment that these American painters were among the founders of a new international style and ended his article: “Jean Cassou in their behalf speaks of waterfalls and fields. In Soulages it is the forest. Truly all these works discover a new Nature. Abstract painting? No. Natural Painting.”
The French, however, even the best intentioned of them, like the English, did insist on always talking as though these painters were quite novel, with no roots in the older past. No one mentioned Guston’s connections with Monet and Turner. No one noticed the influence of Tintoretto or Delacroix. This sort of comparison appeared only in the culture area of German art history, except for Italy, where of course painting like this is almost as old and well established as in the United States. It is in my opinion that Le Monde, France Observateur, and Les Lettres françaises represented real opinions of the bulk of the educated visitors to the shows, Left, Right, and Left-Center. Almost all other criticism was simply a workout of the given paper’s editorial policy vis-à-vis the State Department, Standard Oil, Coca-Cola, Rock ‘n Roll. “The subversive and dangerous plot of a barbarous people.”
Consider the following crypto-political diagnosis from a Geneva journal: “Baziotes, Brooks, Gottlieb, Gorky, de Kooning, Newman, Pollock, Rothke [sic] and Tworkov were all realist painters, most of them socialistic, when they started. It is only under mccarthyism that they got frightened and renounced their own politically committed past to hide among the esthetics of abstract art which, because it has no ideological content, can shelter the artist from all political inquisitions.” (And this is by one Edouard Roditi, who claims to have lived in America, and so, one concludes, is committed to propaganda, not ludicrous misconceptions.)
So much for the press. What did all this expensive wordage in six different languages mean? Practically nothing. It simply reflected what a hundred or so newspaper men and/or their editors felt about America and sometimes about some paintings. But, as is well known, newspaper men are picture blind unless pictures are taken with flashbulbs. How did the artists and the people who look at pictures respond?
The France Observateur man was right. Most artists are quite well aware that one of the major contemporary international styles started in America with some of these painters. In 1949 I attended a small showing of pastels in this idiom in Paris. Plenty of French painters came, but with few exceptions they all thought the pictures were frauds, not bad, but actual jokes on the public. It was quite apparent on their faces and in their kind remarks. Ten years later, during the time the shows were in Paris, there was an abstract show in Aix-en-Provence, where we were living, and the oldest painter there, Engel-Pak, a man about Picasso’s age, was very obviously influenced by Rothko. That same month a friend of mine who works on Cahiers du Sud and the newspaper, Le Provençal, came back from a journalistic stint in Central Africa with three “Abstract-Expressionist” paintings done by a young Negro student at a Brazzaville lycée—a painter who had never been out of Africa. Except for their slightly tropical color sense, they might well have been done yesterday in the California School of Fine Arts.
Older painters like André Masson are proud of their influence on this American painting. Masson has been accused of boasting, but he is perfectly right. In 1929 my first wife and I were both conscientious compass-and-ruler painters and the appearance of the first Massons with their spontaneous, organic line had a tremendous effect on us and on all our contemporaries. Masson himself, of course, started out as one of the most rigorous Cubists—and a painter of birds, like Morris Graves! So he knows how hard the break was. Most older painters and most older serious critics, like Waldemar George, are still monogamously wedded to the Cubist tradition and find it very difficult to see anything else. If a picture doesn’t look like Poussin and Raphael, it just isn’t there, or worse, it is totally reseen, not just reinterpreted, in terms of early twentieth-century classical, architectural painting.
Nobody except journalists talked about Primitive Energy and Fantastic Vitality. The people you knew seemed all to have actually looked at the paintings. In fact, a considerable number of them traveled to Basel to see the show the first week it opened in Europe. Pollock, whose thirty-three large paintings were hung apart from the rest, towered in prestige. Most European painters have seen a Pollock or two and a lot of reproductions. His own statements, and the sometimes unfortunate praise he received, had prepared people for a combination of James Dean, Davy Crockett and Jack Kerouac. Pollock, they discovered, in his completely achieved later paintings, as a very quiet, very lyrical sensibility, one of the least violent painters who ever lived. It is remarkable how quickly intelligent people faced with the record of his accomplishment (with, incidentally, plenty of storm and stress visible in the early paintings on the way to the final goal) made an immediate adjustment and took the paintings on their merits, not on their propaganda. It was a little like dropping in to hear Eddie Condon and discovering you are listening to Debussy, but almost everybody managed the readjustment. I think, in fact, that this was the biggest achievement of the show or shows. They demonstrated once and for all, to people who are not picture blind, that these painters are precisely the opposite of what their newspaper critics—and for that matter, sometimes their anti-verbal selves, say they are.
Pollock, de Kooning, Gorky, Rothko, Guston, Hartigan—all these painters have some obvious link with “the European Tradition,” if not with the specifically Cubist-Classical one. Everybody with any sense managed to see them. But Clyfford Still, who didn’t bother to furnish a “statement” (the catalogue quoted some remarks from long ago) or even a photograph of himself—Still was another matter. People came up to his vast pictures very quietly, and toppled over into them without a murmur and came out with nothing to say. It was all very still. It was really wonderful to re-live the first years of his reception in California, where now, alas, the Still Style has become a mass produced cliché. I should say that we can expect a lot of echoes of his painting to crop up in Europe in the next year.
Everybody knows that from Barcelona to Warsaw, probably even Moscow, in spite of all the billions spent by the American government to lose friends and influence people, the most powerful American influences are modern jazz and these very painters. “Everybody knows” that these paintings were the beginnings of a new way of seeing things; as the man said, a new natural painting of Nature. Huge pictures into which you can walk like Alice, marshaled on wall after wall—and so quiet.
It was the sense of achievement which impressed many European painters. To quote from a letter from Edwina and Barney Rubenstein, two painters in the same general tradition as most of the painters in the show from, from Boston (the home, as somebody in Switzerland pointed out in attack this show, of “the great American school of Bitter Realism”) but now permanently resident near us in Aix-en-Provence:
“The sour note was struck by a not-too-young French painter who remarked that while it was good to see what had been done during a powerful creative period, one felt that it was as much finished as Paris, in exactly the same sense. Not that no more painting could or would be done, merely that the thing had ‘set,’ the mold was formed. He could not understand how all this stuff got to be hanging on the walls of a museum, catalogued and labeled Great Art for all the world to see. What we see here on the wall, is it still happening, or have we been invited to a funeral?”