By Wallace-Wells, David
Newsweek , Vol. 156, No. 14
Byline: David Wallace-Wells
Abstract expressionism was America's great aesthetic movement--or so said the artists. A new MoMA show may (unwittingly) make us reconsider that claim.
The abstract expressionists did not hurt for hubris. "It is one of the great stories of all time," the painter Clyfford Still declared, describing the work of the New York painters surrounding him, "far more meaningful and infinitely more intense and enduring than the wars of the bullring and the battlefield--or of diplomats, laboratories, or commerce." The audacious paintings of Still's postwar contemporaries--Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko are the consensus champions of the period, though major contributions were also made by Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell--introduced "one of the few truly liberating concepts man has ever known." If only "others could read it properly," Newman insisted, just one of his own canvases "would mean the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism." The aesthetic regime of abstract expressionism would reign for a thousand years, Adolph Gottlieb promised in 1957--a kind of Third Reich of Western painting, following the long post-Renaissance tradition, and the charged course of European modernism, seemingly exhausted by the war just ended. But the ab-ex reign would end, too, and after only five more years, laid low by Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol. Given the pace of cultural change in the helter-skelter postwar boom, it would be an incongruously long reign.
The New York school was America's first true artistic vanguard, and the painters who led its charge--also called "action painters," and, by their great champion Clement Greenberg, "American-type painters"--might have appropriated their ambitions from the cultural imperialism of an earlier generation: the painting to end all painting. They worked large and they worked messily, recklessly. Pollock "broke the ice," de Kooning would say, but all those who followed in his wake, too, seemed to want to undo the entire history of art in the name of a painterly practice far more elemental and arcane, and to begin again from first principles. In fact there was something self-erasing, too, about the stated radicalism of the "American-type painters," whom Serge Guilbaut would later call, in his argumentative How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, "the American super-avant-garde," and who installed in our culture the principle of permanent revolution--albeit a merely aesthetic one.
In place of politics the abstract expressionists embraced hero worship. It was a self-embrace, with themselves as the heroes--the painter as shaman, as primitive, as cowboy existentialist, his brash and confrontational canvases addressing themselves to the spiritual void in an effort "to raise the condition of modernist doubt to a mythic level," as Robert Hughes would later put it. (The myths were perfectly nutty, imported wholesale from Jung via the clearinghouse of surrealism, and critic Harold Rosenberg would pointedly note the "comedy of a revolution that restricts itself to weapons of taste--and which at the same time addresses itself to the masses.") The canvases, however, were nothing if not assured. The "new painters" themselves were aspiring, through myth and self-myth, to a kind of timelessness by painting below content--Pollock and the action painters with bold theatrical gesture, Rothko and Newman at the elemental level of the color field. But their aspiration, even when achieved, was a retreat from subject matter beyond their expansive canvases, and cost the paintings the quality of timeliness, which would become the inevitable currency of the American avant-garde to follow them. Their canvases are among the most Romantic ever painted, but that naive Romanticism so resists being historicized that the work figures today only as a distant prehistory to the feverish cult of the new that the New York school itself brought into being. …