Academic journal article The Space Between

Baziotes, Surrealism, and Boxing: "Life in a Squared Ring"

Academic journal article The Space Between

Baziotes, Surrealism, and Boxing: "Life in a Squared Ring"

Article excerpt

The boxer, as a cultural icon who stands at the center of debates on class, race, politics and sexuality, has held a seemingly endless fascination for artists and writers from ancient times to the present. Our story here dates to the early forties when Surrealist writers turned their attention to a fierce and flamboyant Senegalese boxer called Battling Siki, at the moment when a young boxer artist, William Baziotes, fell under their orb in New York City. Baziotes, who exhibited with the Surrealists in New York in the early forties and was to become a key figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement later in the decade, spoke frequently of his passion for boxing and identified with the boxer figure as a heroic loner and an individualist. The Surrealists, on the other hand, identified with the boxer as anti-hero, a marginalized, criminalized and anarchistic figure whose actions undermined the powers of the authorities and dominant discourses in a manner that was deeply resonant with their politics and practices. Unpacking this seeming dichotomy helps us to understand not only the artists and movements involved but the transgressive role of rituals of play, subversions of class, and performances of masculinity in the interwar years.

Abstract Expressionist paintings, Baziotes's included, became the model for sublime expressivity and artistic engagement with materials for generations of artists. Championed by critics such as Clement Greenberg, their practice represented the elite just as mass culture remained modernism's subversive other. On the other hand, in the wake of postmodernist criticism and the aftermath of the controversial 1990 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, many authors have revisited the territory and destabilized this arbitrary binary. Some have contextualized Greenberg's pronouncements while others have argued for the abstract artist's attraction to the vulgar and the commercial (Willem de Kooning's paintings of women come to the fore in this regard). Others investigate broader issues of subjectivity such as Michael Leja's work on Abstract Expressionism and "Modern Man" literature or T. J. Clark's study of the group in relation to questions of bourgeois taste and the vulgar.

The present essay, in line with this body of revisionist literature, aims to further complicate our understanding of the avant-garde reception of mass culture by focusing on a lesser explored chapter of this narrative that begins in the late thirties and early forties with the arrival of the Surrealists in New York City and the publishing of their magazines VVV (1942-44) and View (1940-47). In the Surrealist émigré culture represented by these magazines, the separation between modernism and mass culture is further diminished. Among their pages, reviews of popular music (jazz above all) and entertainment (exploits of boxers) share space with illustrations of painters like Fernand Léger and Max Ernst. And it is here that many Abstract Expressionists cut their teeth in the interwar and war years. Not only did American sculptor and Abstract Expressionist David Hare edit André Breton's magazine, VVV, but the work of many of the artists who were to become canonical Abstract Expressionists, such as Baziotes, adorned their pages. This article will examine this moment in the early forties not just to establish a broader picture of canonical Abstract Expressionism by amplifying the narrative of its origins, but to expose different readings of race, class, gender, and politics at this formative point in time. Boxing, as we shall see, forms the perfect conduit for this alternative narrative.

Debates on the relationship of modernism to mass culture proliferated in the late thirties and early forties in the wake of Greenberg's 1939 essay "Avant Garde and Kitsch." While folk art was seen as nourishing the soul of the artist and as a rich source of "anonymous" hand-made production (Naremore 170-75), works of mass culture were the enemy. …

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