From its seventeenth-century beginnings through the Second World War, America produced no artist of sufficiently high stature to affect profoundly, in respect to quality or to historical innovation, the course of Western painting. Even the possible exceptions to this statement--Benjamin West and James Abbott McNeill Whistler--worked in a European and not an American milieu, so that the phenomenon of the last decade, in which American painting abruptly emerged as a school of major international importance, appears all the more startling, both to Europeans and Americans. In fact, it could well be contended that not since the invention of Cubism in Paris has Western painting undergone such fundamental reorientations as it has in the hands of some half-dozen Americans working recently in New York.
To explain the background of this traumatic reversal of America's earlier artistic provincialism, one must refer primarily to the upheaving cultural migrations from Europe to America that occurred during and after the Nazi terror. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, such masters as Tanguy, Hélion, Mondrian, Léger, Matta, and Lipchitz visited America or settled there. But of perhaps even greater impetus were the activities of American museums. In particular, the Museum of Modern Art provided, as it still does today, the richest and most diverse selection of contemporary European art to be seen in a public collection anywhere in the world. By the end of the war, in fact, the mainspring of artistic vitality seems to have shifted to America and, more specifically, to New York.
Nevertheless, the first tremors of new life appear to have been felt in the geographical and artistic periphery of America, the Northwest Pacific coast. There, facing the Orient and contemplating the remote, untrammeled landscape of pine, rock, and sea, Mark Tobey ( 1890-) evolved a most personal style that already prophesied the Eastern developments to follow. In White Night ( 1942; fig. 32), for example, Tobey explored a new vocabulary in which a wind-blown, gossamer line spins out a fragile web whose labyrinthine structure undermines that quality of major and minor accent and value contrasts that pertained even to the most diffusely organized paintings of Analytic Cubism. Furthermore, Tobey's images conveyed a kind of nature mysticism that saw matter in terms of teeming, infinite energies suggestive of twinkling constellations, bird migrations, seed fertilizations, or sweeping winds--an imagery, that is, which likewise foreshadows the insistence on endless change,