Art & Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics

By Paul Mattick | Go to book overview

10

THE AVANT-GARDE IN FASHION

The March 1, 1951 issue of Vogue contained four pages reproducing photographs made by Cecil Beaton in the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, which have become well-known images among art historians and theorists dealing with Abstract Expressionism (Figure 10.1). 1 They are part of a story called "American Fashion: The New Soft Look," which follows a "Quick Tour of the Paris Collections." The backdrops are paintings by Jackson Pollock, described in the accompanying copy as "spirited and brilliant," "dazzling and curious" pictures that "almost always cause an intensity of feelings." This aesthetic description is doubled by a social one: they are said to be admired by "some of the most astute private collectors and museum directors in the country."

It is easy to see why these images have come to haunt contemporary studies of Pollock's work: their elegant composition brings into juxtaposition a set of polar categories that have been used to talk about art throughout the modern period: avant-garde and fashion, abstraction and representation, autonomy and decoration, painting and photography, production and consumption, masculinity and femininity, art and commerce. As we have seen in earlier chapters of this book, these pairs are not independent of each other; as a group they structure the field of discourse concerning the making and receiving of modern art. Beaton's pictures take us to particular versions of these issues activated in New York in 1951, but which are still alive today, half a century later.

Thus T. J. Clark begins and ends his much-discussed essay on Jackson Pollock's abstract painting, reworked for his book Farewell to an Idea, with Beaton's pictures. The "idea" of Clark's title is modernism, which he defines in the tradition of Theodor Adorno and the early Clement Greenberg as an aesthetic analogue to socialist politics. In Clark's words:

1 So far as I know, the first art-historical mention of Beaton's pictures is in Phyllis Rosenzweig, The Fifties: Aspects of Painting in NewYork (Washington: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1980), p. 13. The historically best-informed treatment remains Richard Martin, "'The New Soft Look': Jackson Pollock, Cecil Beaton, and American fashion in 1951," Dress 7 (1981), pp. 1-8.

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