Lafayette, We Are Here: American Art in the 20th Century

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American painting triumphed sometime after 1945 and began a golden 25 years of New World dominance in avant-garde art. That familiar thesis underpins the exhibition "American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913--1993," seen in Berlin over the summer and in somewhat modified form this autumn at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Saatchi Gallery in London. But the show's organizers, the long-standing team of Norman Rosenthal and Christos M. Joachimedes, have given the truism a new historiographic twist by interpreting it to mean that American painting did not exactly triumph over Europe; rather, it succeeded on Europe's behalf. Modern art, in their view, was--and has returned to being--an essentially European proposition. The devastation of World War II threatened to extinguish its development for a generation or perhaps forever, but the Americans, at a safe remove from the conflict, were able to keep the sacred flame of the avant-garde alight until the early '70s, when Europeans were once more prepared to resume their natural priority.

The theme of Old World tutelage runs throughout the show. The first artist visible at the entrance is the Marcel Duchamp of the New York readymades, mentor of Man Ray and the Alfred Stieglitz circle, from whom all vernacular-image and appropriation art is understood to follow. Artists who worked for extended periods in Europe--Alexander Calder, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly--receive generous representation in comparison to their stay-at-home counterparts, many of whom are left out entirely. On native ground, there is a nearly absolute focus on New York as simultaneous outpost of and window on Europe: to operate even at a small distance from the New York/European axis means relegation to the minor leagues. Bruce Nauman is the only artist who made his career outside the city of figure in the show, but this exception reflects the prominent role of Europe in securing his commercial and critical success.(1)

There is no question that the core of the exhibition, from the teens to the end of the '60s, offers viewers in Europe a concentrated experience of American art of the first order. On a conceptual level, however, its guiding assumptions continue a tradition of discriminating enthusiasm for American prodigies going back to the ecstasies of the French over Benjamin Franklin and James Fenimore Cooper. So, in an entirely unsurprising fashion, a single artist emerges in whom the great American awakening of the '40s truly manifests itself. This, of course, is Jackson Pollock, whose legendary persona so closely corresponds to stereotypes of the violent, elemental American hero. Only Pollock's work spans the '40s in the Royal Academy hanging (the earliest Willem de Kooning, by comparison, is a cabinet-sized canvas from 1948; Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still are represented only by work done after 1950).

The centrality of Pollock in the concept and presentation of the show thus introduces an apparent break with the surrounding emphasis on Europeanized refinement. The second gallery, which functions as a kind of staging area for visitors, gathers eight Joseph Cornell boxes and five paintings by Arshile Gorky under a canopy of eight constructions by Calder. From this shrine to the American adaptation of Surrealism, one can turn left into a cul-de-sac containing small, prewar canvases by early Modernists from Arthur Dove to Georgia O'Keeffe, with a wall of Edward Hopper in his vein of urban melancholy--or right into a vast open space filled with commensurably large and explosively vibrant paintings by the textbook heroes of the New York School. In the narrative of the hanging, the acolytes of Paris provide the catalyst whereby the scale and power of the landscape (as seen in miniature through, say, Charles Sheeler's views of Ford's new River Rouge plant in Detroit) pass from the realm of subject matter into the commanding physical presence of the paintings themselves, and that defining break sustains America's first and only independent generation of Modern artists. …