Three decades ago in Art forum, Max Kozloff asked just what, beyond formal achievement, made Abstract Expressionism (and Pop art and Color Field painting on its heels) so triumphant after all. Managing editor looks back on the essay that opened the floodgates on political readings of postwar art.
"THE MOST CONCERTED ACCOMPLISHMENTS of American art occurred during precisely the same period as the burgeoning claims of American world hegemony." Coincidence? Max Kozloff thought not. And with "American Painting During the Cold War," he set out to prove it--placing the era's dominant strains of political and material culture alongside its art and discovering in their juxtaposition a Rind of symbiosis wherein the paintings professed, however unconsciously, a "profound glorifying of American civilization" and in turn reaped certain advantages.
Kozloff's tract, published in these pages thirty years ago this month, appeared first as the catalogue introduction for the 1973 Des Moines Art Center exhibition "Twenty-Five Years of American Painting, 1948-1973." Loath to reprise the tired but persistent chauvinistic endorsements exemplified by Irving Sandler's Triumph of American Painting (1970) and spurred by his own Vietnam War activism, Kozloff, then an Art forum associate editor, decided to try something new. "My writing for The Nation in the '60s had given me a platform to explore political resonances and repercussions in art," Kozloff recalls today. "But I had never attempted anything so panoramic, so this was a thrill." The author found his panorama scenic enough to offer it to Artforum editor John Coplans for reprinting.
Kozloff launched into his argument with a summation of Truman's cold-war philosophy, which presumed that "all the world's peoples wanted to be, indeed had a right to be, like Americans." (Sound familiar?) Likewise, he posited, Abstract Expressionism, while imagining itself an apolitical pursuit of the sublime, and despite the generally leftist leanings of its practitioners, in fact precisely mimicked the period rhetoric of American superiority in its "naked, prepossessing self-confidence." Painterly freedom--genius expressed in unfettered gesture--produced consummate symbols of personal freedom, as the United States Information Agency was quick to note. Beginning in the late '40s, the agency, "abetted and amplified by the International Council of The Museum of Modern Art," began exporting exhibitions of AbEx painting worldwide; the work, Kozloff wrote, was used as a "commodity in the struggle for American dominance," a "form of benevolent propaganda" against the Communist threat.
As times changed, so did the art. The sensibility of the Pop and Color Field artists emerged from the "indigestible stew of sinister, campy, solid-state effluvia" of '60s America. Rather than reject the onslaught of commercial media and technology, Pop artists discovered in them "source(s] of iconic energy"-and so their work was "instantly acculturated and coopted by the mass media upon which it preyed. …