On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

PREFACE

What follows--an anthology that covers exactly four decades ( 1958-98) of my writings about both the aging past and the youthful present of American art--inevitably prompts remembrance of very long-ago things, as well as meditations upon the here-and-now of my ongoing commitment to translating the visceral experience of art into the more rational modes of language and art history. Looking back to my professional beginnings, I realize that I had the enormous good fortune of being in the right place, New York, at the right time, the late 1950s and early 1960s. As a graduate student at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and then as an instructor in nearby Princeton, I juggled my ivory-tower academic studies in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century art with an eagerness to keep abreast of the startling visual events taking place at galleries run by such legendary dealers as Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, and Leo Castelli. Contemporary art back then was a battlefield of pro-or- con passions that continually erupted in combative reactions to everything from the seeming chaos of Abstract Expressionism to the ostensible impudence of early Pop and Minimalism. Although I was rooted in the discipline of art history and continued to write scholarly articles about Neoclassicism, I constantly sided with what seemed to be blasphemous assaults on respectable traditions: Rothko's numbing emptiness, John's fact-into-fiction copies of Old Glory, Stella's deadpan black stripes, Lichtenstein's alarmingly ugly blow-ups.

Luckily, I was early obliged to explain such enthusiasms. To help earn my keep in graduate school, I got a job in February 1954 writing back-page and occasionally front-page reviews for Art Digest, where I honed my skills by dutifully describing and implicitly evaluating the shows allotted to me each month. Although most of this was done on automatic pilot (one quickly learns to write quickly about mediocre art), there were also some spine-tingling encounters, thanks to the luck of the draw or to the discretion of the editor (first Sam Hunter and then Hilton Kramer), who sent me off to review some of the first shows by artists few had ever heard of--Pearlstein ( 1954), Lichtenstein ( 1954), Johns ( 1958), Rauschenberg ( 1958). Thinking grandly, I now realize this was like being a working critic in Paris sent to review an artist named Braque at the Kahnweiler gallery in 1908 or an artist named Picasso at the Vollard gallery in 1910. The muse of Art History, then hovering over New York, had blessed me.

By the late 1950s, however, the demands of full-time teaching and more ambitious writing projects meant a shift of balance between venerable past and journalistic present, prompting me to integrate my navigation of both the academic corridors of art history and the argumentative streets of New York's contemporary art scene. So it was that in the 1960s, I tried to relate my excited response to the structural and emotional extremes of Abstract

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