Jackson Pollock & the New York School

Article excerpt

The American artist with any pretensions to total seriousness suffers still from his dependency upon what the School of Paris, Klee, Kandinsky, and Mondrian accumulated before 1935.... All excellence seems to flow still from that vivacious, unbelievable near past which lasted from 1905 until 1930 and which not even the First World War, but only Hitler, could definitely terminate.

-- Clement Greenberg, 194-7

Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is his real subject, of which anything he paints is both a homage and a critique, and everything he says a gloss.

-- Robert Motherwell, 1951

We Americans have the technique to bring something to performance so well that the subject is left out. There is nothing we throw away so quickly as our donnees; for we would make always an independent and evangelical, rather than a contingent, creation.... We throw away so much and make so much of the meager remainder. We make a great beauty, which is devastated of everything but form and gait.

--R. P. Blackmur, 1958

Is it possible that the significance of the New York School has been misconstrued? Is it possible that the much vaunted "triumph" of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s--when, for the first time in our history, an entire "school" of advanced American painting commanded international attention and acclaim--might not, after all, have been the unqualified artistic success it is nowadays taken to be by all the organs of established cultural opinion? That the emergence of the New York School in the decade that followed upon the end of the Second World War brought an immense change in the fortunes of American art is certainly beyond dispute. That this momentous change was closely linked to a decline in the fortunes of modernist art in Europe--the art from which Abstract Expressionism derived its principal impetus and ideas--remains a far more contentious issue. That the implications of that decline did much to determine the scope of what it was possible for the New York School to achieve is a question which few chroniclers of the Abstract Expressionist movement have been willing to confront. From a critical perspective of this persuasion, however, the emergence of the New York School is best understood as at once an epilogue to and a quintissentialization and apotheosis of the great epoch of early twentieth-century modernist painting in Europe.

Such a view is, of course, very much at odds with current critical orthodoxies. On the one hand, there is the citadel of institutional opinion that insists on celebrating the New York School as a grand departure from European tradition, quite as if Abstract Expressionist painting was to be seen as some sort of analogue to Whitman's poetry or jazz. On the other hand, there is a counter-orthodoxy prevalent in the academy that holds to a belief that the American avantgarde somehow "stole" its artistic ideas from their legitimate European custodians under the malign auspices of the Cold War. The first attempts to aggrandize the New York School by exaggerating its originality and uniqueness, while the second attempts to demonize it for purely political purposes. (To this demonizing political agenda, moreover, the academic Left has lately added equally irrelevant charges of racism and sexism.) Yet neither of these critical orthodoxies seems true either to our experience of the art itself or to the historical circumstances in which it was created.

What is essential to understand about the historical origins of the New York School is that it emerged from a world in which the political geography of modernist art had suffered a severe contraction. Even before the Second World War brought the public life of art in Europe to a virtual standstill, modernism had been outlawed in two of its vital centers--first in Russia under the Soviet regime of Stalin, and then in Germany under the Nazi regime of Hitler. …