Magazine article Tate Etc.

Abstraction Sans Frontières

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Abstraction Sans Frontières

Article excerpt

The show at Tate St Ives this summer explores the international context which shaped the work of artists in the Cornish town from the 1940s to 1960s. As Éric de Chassey writes, the broad exchange of ideas was not limited to American artists such as Rothko and de Kooning, but extended to French painters such as Nicolas de Staël, which would also reflect a shared interest in nature and landscape

Since the 1960s at least, we have grown accustomed to seeing post-Second World War art through the lens of the New York/Paris rivalry. At most, some of us acknowledge the existence of peripheries: local champions who we may cherish, but we don't think compete in the same league as the New Yorkers or Parisians, be they from San Francisco, Berlin, Barcelona, or St Ives. It is only very recently that there have been efforts to consider a broader, more truly international picture, united by stylistic trends or a common chronology. Such a globalised vision logically leads to the idea thatthe dominant trend of post-war art was what I would call an international Abstract Expressionism with local variants-a largely anachronistic notion, but all the more operative in hindsight.

At the time of Abstract Expressionism, such a global view was indeed anathema to both French and American critics and artists. Forthose in France who felt the coming blast of defeat, the reaction was at best to try to construct a rearguard alliance. French critic and curator Michel Tapié, who was organising exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic, including in 1952 the first Jackson Pollock show in Paris, devised in 1954 the notion of a Pacific School to bypass New York by teaming up West Coast artists with the School of Paris, as well as Japanese painters.

For American critics, the consequences of the feud were too important even to acknowledge the existence of a US interest in Parisian artists: as early as 1947, Clement Greenberg consciously skipped the New York exhibitions of French painters when making his monthly rounds for Partisan Review. Only in England was it customary to entertain the view that there was such a thing as an international movement. This prospect was shared by critics and artists, before the advent of Pop Art made it possible to forge a strictly binational alliance, this time between New York and London.

In 1949 art critic Denys Sutton had identified the "challenge of American art", but added that "European and American painting must be studied together", citing in the same pages the "rich impasto" of Nicholas [sic] de Staël and the "dramatic design of Hans Hartung's pungent shapes, rhythms and exploration of the unconscious". He heralded a type of international curiosity that helps to explain why the English reception of Tapié's influential exhibition 'Opposing Forces', when it was shown at the London ICA in 1953, was quite different from that in Paris. There, the presence of American painters such as Pollock was quickly dismissed as a mere variation on similar French experiments (for example, Jean Dubuffet's). Whereas in London, even if the show was considered somewhat confusing and Pollock's paintings generally ridiculed, there was a tendency to consider all contemporary abstract artists in the same breath, united by a common gestural style and process-as can be seen in Patrick Heron's review, which singled out (with suspicion) both Pollock and Georges Mathieu, as well as JeanPaul Riopelle.

However, views shifted as opportunities to see the new American paintings grew. The 'Modern Art in the United States' exhibition, organised by MoMA and shown at Tate in 1956, prompted some younger critics, such as Lawrence Allowayand David Sylvester, to espouse American Abstract Expressionism as the most vital trend of their day, and British abstract painters quickly followed suit. In 1956 Alloway could report to an American correspondent: "I have just come back from a visit to St Ives and there, too, American styles are clear to see in the young artists. …

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