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Irving Sandler, “Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation”

“There were giants in the earth those days.”

—Genesis 6:4.

“Terror can only exist if the forces of tragedy are unknown.”

—Barnett Newman,
“The New Sense of Fate,”1948.

The story of how Irving Sandler wrote the 1970 standard text on post-WWII painting, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism, is generally well known. The tale of an ideal viewer so moved by a chance encounter with a work of art that his life is reconfigured and involved with the world of artists.

A substantial literature has grown around the Abstract Expressionists since Sandler’s 1952 encounter with Franz Kline’s 1950 “Chief” at the Museum of Modern Art; much of it by writers lacking Sandler’s personal access to the artists. In his latest book, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation (2009, Hard Press Editions), Sandler provides a companion volume to The Triumph: a meditation on decades of discourse since that book, much of it triggered by the work of younger writers, but mainly a writer in his own territory, reflecting more deeply.

The major portion of the book grows out of a 1993 survey written for an exhibition of American postwar painting at the Royal Academy of Art in London. In that essay Sandler explores the idea of a subtle distinction between “nationalism” and the “national consciousness” (based in part on Leo Marx’s 1964 The Machine Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America) and the influence of the myth of the American landscape (and industrial cityscape) on the creation of an expansive “abstract sublime.” By 2009 Sandler has also added a third theme: the impact of anxiety and alienation produced by the experience of the Second World War and the subsequent cold war on the creation of Abstract Expressionist Painting.

The book focuses on a narrower period, 1940 to 1950 and, more closely, 1947 to 1950. It identifies the accumulation of influences on the painters collectively, as in the years the European Surrealists and Mexican muralists commanded attention in New York, and individually, as the New York artists identified their aspiration and began to influence each other. The postwar milieu, in Sandler’s estimation, demanded a new, personal and “authentic” response from each practitioner: a break with the past and rupture with a public that had only just begun to appreciate the accomplishments of European modernism. By 1942 it was necessary during a period Rothko called “mythmaking” to reject the school of Paris and the social and cultural climate responsible for cubism and geometric abstraction, and to explore primitive symbols, terrific imagery and Jungian forms. In this rejection of European art Sandler finds links to the American regionalist painters, mainly Thomas Hart Benton, an early mentor of Pollock and acquaintance of Newman’s.

The most visible example of this provocative idea was Clyfford Still, who worked briefly in New York, showed with Peggy Guggenheim, later with Betty Parsons, then abruptly left, declaring the New York art scene decadent.

Sandler’s reevaluation of the importance of Still in the early creation of Field Painting leads to a section on the American frontier, Western films, the philosophy of Edmund Burke, and the evolution of Field Painting from a “Terrible Sublime” to an “Exalted Sublime.” The range of topics is enormous. Each could justifiably require a book-length treatment and it is beyond the space allotted this reviewer to discuss the material even superficially, except insofar as it points out that the “American Experience” has been a topic of intense interest and debate since de Crevecoeur published his Letters From an American Farmer in 1782. Whether the transition from a “Terrible Sublime” to an “Exalted Sublime” is philosophically possible is an interesting question. What is certain is that non-traditional techniques such as automatist drawing and free, rapid improvisation during the “Myth Making” and “Biomorphist” periods parallel the challenge of jazz to classical music composition. The result was a radical eradication of traditional landscape and figure modes, completing the reconfiguring of these modes by European modernism.

Sandler has also adjusted his approach to chronology. While in The Triumph Sandler embraced a methodology in which “the multiple is far more common than the single discovery,” in the new book he suggests a competitive model in which “chronology counts,” a phrase borrowed from a lecture by art historian Meyer Schapiro. It is unclear to this reviewer whether exhibition dates during those particular years are enough indication of who showed whom what. If we grant, as we should, “authenticity” to the work of each of the Abstract Expressionist painters, that calls into question the kind of ranking that Sandler applies. On the other hand, Newman was decidedly collegial about the impact of Still’s early work, but defiantly adamant (and this reviewer agrees) that his own discovery a short time later had a greater influence on Still than Still’s work had on his.

An exchange of letters between Newman and Motherwell in the pages of Art International in 1967 and ’68 illustrates a period of creativity rich in permeable ideas and high ambition. The reader is left to wonder whether Sandler’s insistence on chronology was as relevant to the artists of 1947 as it might have become in other periods of artistic development where strategies and goals were more clearly defined.

In the field of industrial design there is a significant difference between a design patent and a mechanical patent. The latter is what abstract expressionism was attempting, and it necessarily takes precedence over chronology. R. Buckminster Fuller said “everyone is born a genius but the process of living de-geniuses them.” Maintaining the fresh prospect of an insight while paring away anecdotal effects is difficult, and arrival at resolution varies with artists individually. The process is often at odds with the initial impulse and is as variously individual as the “aesthetic” (if we can call it that) of Abstract Expressionism as an activity.

The strength of Sandler’s method as a historian is his autobiographical presence on the scene, in the studios, his close acquaintance with artists, and his sympathetic eye. He speaks for the complex concerns of the painters he knew. Like Jacob Riis, Sandler is a veteran of New York struggle: Riis in the tenement neighborhoods, Sandler in the lofts and galleries of struggling artists. Signing on in 1952 places him close to the particular years—1947-1950—he reconstructs. Perhaps, as with Riis, the American Experience he records is the recognition of spirit and common ground experienced by those who have participated in the good fight for human dignity and have shared new ideas and mutual aid.

The final chapters of Abstract Expressionism are given to the critics. Chapter Five includes a lengthy rebuttal of published material implicating the Abstract Expressionist painters in State Department and CIA propaganda during the cold war. Sandler traces institutional acceptance of advanced American art and it is clear from his informative discussion that the notion was, in the words of Clement Greenberg, “a lot of shit” (Sandler quotes from Robert Burstow’s 1994 interview).

Chapter Six is an assessment of critical response to the art work and the artists’ reaction to the aggressive turf battle between Greenberg and Rosenberg. While they had “little sympathy” for Greenberg’s formalism they felt “Rosenberg had carried the idea of Action Painting to an untenable extreme and had mis-stated how [Abstract Expressionists] actually worked.” The chapter ends with a gallery of thumb-nail sketches of critical positions taken since 1970, commenting primarily on statements emphasizing generational and psychological distancing between the 50s and the present and coming from New Left, feminist, and art historical points of view.

Sandler begins Abstract Expressionism with recollection, through the eyes and writings of the artists, of the sudden and terrible beginning of the age of nuclear warfare and the unimaginable shock it caused throughout the world. It is recollection, not reaction: transitional, not immediate. Did the reality of nuclear warfare change the nature of the individual act? Undoubtedly, Sandler adds thoughtful experience, reflections on the event, and while at times the reader wishes a clearer context in which words like “terror” and “fear” were used by the artists in their writing, he strongly conveys the creative climate of a time he knew well.

Was it possible to create an art, born out of subjective passion and intuition, that might counter shock and fear mongering with the ever-resourceful force of human dignity? Possibly. If there is a “heroic” spirit in Abstract Expressionism it is in that attempt. Sandler’s work is to confront the inertia of the historical past with lived history, his own and his comrades; a confrontation that refuses to allow interpretations of a time he knows well to ignore the intentions as well as the many varied works produced in that time. If his writing sometimes reads contentiously it is because he has much to contend. This new reevaluation may favor certain artists over others, and similarly, certain critics.

For the first part of the book, the opening in 2010 of the Clyfford Still Museum might clarify difficult issues. For the second part, familiarity with the critical terrain is essential. Sandler revivifies the past and perseveres in the telling of the complexity of a period whose players have passed into a pantheon of New York and American cultural history. That pantheon, Sandler reminds us, often requires reexamination.


Jim Long


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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