Does Abstract Art Have a Future?

By Kramer, Hilton | New Criterion, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Does Abstract Art Have a Future?

Kramer, Hilton, New Criterion

It is hard to tell if abstract painting actually got worse [after the 1960s], if it merely stagnated, or if it simply looked bad in comparison to the hopes its own accomplishments had raised.

--Frank Stella, Working Space, 1986

It must be acknowledged at the outset of these observations that the question of whether abstract art has a future is anything but new. The question of abstraction's future has been raised many times in the past. Historically, the question of abstraction's future is as old as abstraction itself, for the birth of abstract art some ninety years or so ago immediately prompted many doubts about its artistic viability. No sooner did abstract art--particularly abstract painting--make its initial appearance on the international art scene in the second decade of the twentieth century than the doubts about its future course began to be heard.

Many good minds have raised such doubts, and many benighted minds have done so as well. There are highly accomplished artists and critics who have taken sides on the question, as well as respected museum curators, art collectors, and art dealers. Over the course of time, in fact, debate about the future of abstract art has been an equal-opportunity enterprise to which the smart and the dumb, the advanced and the reactionary, the informed and the misinformed have all been eager to make a contribution.

I have a particularly vivid memory of an evening in 1954 at the Artists Club in New York when no less an eminence than the late Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, announced that the age of abstraction was drawing to a close and would now be succeeded by, of all things, a revival of history painting. The occasion was a panel discussion on what was then called the "New Realism:' It was organized by John Bernard Myers, the irrepressible director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which represented a number of the painters under discussion--among them, Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, and Grace Hartigan.

The Artists Club had been founded, of course, as a forum dedicated to the advancement of Abstract Expressionism. It was therefore inevitable that Barr's provocative pronouncement--and indeed, the very subject of the panel--would be greeted with a vociferous mixture of skepticism and hostility. It had clearly been Johnny Myers's intention to create such a stir on that occasion, for he knew very well that public controversy would have the effect of making some of the figurative painters he represented better known to the art world. He also knew that Barr had just acquired Rivers's Washington Crossing the Delaware, a modernist version of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's well-known nineteenth-century history painting in the Metropolitan Museum, for MOMA'S permanent collection, and could therefore be counted upon to acclaim Rivers's picture as a significant development on the contemporary art scene.

To discuss this controversial development, however, Myers had deliberately convened a panel that could be relied upon to be evenly divided about the significance of Rivers's painting. Joining with Barr in extolling the virtues of Washington Crossing the Delaware and the shift in direction it was said to represent was Frank O'Hara, already well-established as a poet and art critic. Opposing this view, not surprisingly, was Clement Greenberg. Although he had praised Rivers's earlier work, Greenberg clearly had a low opinion of both Washington Crossing the Delaware and Barr's claims on its behalf. Relations between Greenberg and Barr had never been anything but icy, and Greenberg remained, in any case, firm in his often-stated belief that abstraction represented what he characterized as the "master current" of the modernist era.

I was the fourth member of the panel, a newcomer to the art scene whose sole claim to attention on that occasion was an essay I had recently published in Partisan Review that was highly critical of Harold Rosenbergs theory of "Action" painting, then a hot topic in the art world.

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