The `Indivisible Four'

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, March 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

The `Indivisible Four'


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


THE PARK AVENUE CUBISTS

The Grey Art Gallery, which occupies the former site of the Museum of Living Art in the main building of New York University on Washington Square, is celebrating its legendary predecessor with an exhibition of work by the so-called Park Avenue Cubists, who embody the spirit of Modernism for which the earlier museum stood. The very conception of a "museum for living art" must have sounded discordant in 1927, when the institution was founded by Albert Eugene Gallatin, himself one of the "indivisible four" Park Avenue Cubists, as they were called, somewhat resentfully, by fellow members of the American Abstract Artists. There had of course been galleries given over to modern and contemporary art, but the concept of a museum implied that its holdings belonged to the past. Gallatin's collection of "living art" was selected to express the same present to which his museum belonged, and those with an appetite for modernity could for the first time in New York experience the advanced art of their time in a museum setting: Picasso's Three Musicians, Mondrian's Composition in Blue and Yellow, as well as work by Arp, Leger, Miro, Braque and other Modernists, and ultimately the work of the Park Avenue Cubists themselves. Their paintings were executed to be perceived as living art, and it is that dimension of their self-aware contemporaneity that still conveys a certain excitement. Part of what defines modern art is the fact that it was created for persons who conceived of themselves as modern, the art contributing to that identity through the fact of its difference from the art of the past.

The NYU art historian Robert Rosenblum visited the Gallatin Collection when he was a boy, and I find his recollection particularly affecting. "Here was the future in flat planes and clean colors, with lucid arcs and angles replacing old-fashioned realist imagery, and all laws of gravity repealed in favor of the aerial freedom appropriate to the new century of speed and flight." What is moving about the art of the Park Avenue Cubists is that it belonged to the dark reality of the Depression by expressing the same bright dream of the future that the 1939 New York World's Fair conveyed. The design language of the World's Fair was "modernistic," to use a term of the time; and though there was no gallery of Modernist art in the visionary city erected in Flushing Meadows, the fair's famous emblem--the Trylon and Perisphere--monumentalized forms from the vocabulary of Modernistic painting. The World's Fair complex of buildings and avenues was intended to be the future made present, and its visitors left their bleak world behind when they passed through its gates. It was a future in which everything, even domestic appliances, looked as if it were in a state of infinite velocity. Very little "living art" actually figured in the fair's iconography, though one of its most popular emblems was a sculpture by Joseph Renier called Speed, representing a kind of aerodynamic horse with the streamlined look of a Futurist radiator ornament on a colossal scale. The paintings of the Park Avenue Cubists by rights belonged on the walls of the Home of Tomorrow, even if they were still lifes. They embody the fair's optimism, which is why they still manage to lift the spirits, though they belong to what the historian Reinhart Koselleck calls a vergangene Zukunft--a future that belongs to the past.

In their own time they were felt to belong to a past that was past. Their work was criticized as "derivative." So much of contemporary art since the 1960s has been taken up with the appropriation of past forms that we are far less concerned with repetition than the 1930s or '40s were, when the Park Avenue Cubists had to defend their originality. One of their number, George L.K. Morris, argued wittily enough that it is "as though a Sixteenth Century critic, after examining a fresco of Raphael, could think of nothing to say but that he detected the influence of Perugino. …

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