Tuesday, November 11, 2008


On Sunday I went to see the current exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum which they call Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976. We rented the ipod audio guides that went along with the exhibition so that we could learn more about the art on display. Surprisingly the narrative turned out to be as much about Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, art critics from the time, as about the artists and their work.

The museum made clear that the exhibition was not intended as a survey of American Abstract Expressionism. It was, the web site proclaimed, "thesis driven". The works were chosen so that Expressionism could be re-examined taking into account the perspective of influential, rival art critics [Clement] Greenberg and [Harold] Rosenberg.

This is the second time in the last two years that I've gone to an exhibition and discovered the narrative was not about the artist. The first was an exhibition of Picasso in which the works were chosen to reflect the influence of the art dealer who promoted his work.

This exhibition took that tactic to a whole new level. One portion of today's exhibition involved no actual art works but instead displayed cases filled with art journals and magazines and even video of the chimpanzee from the Today Show creating 'art' back in the 1960's.

In magazines as diverse as Partisan Review, The Nation, ARTnews, and Vogue, Greenberg and Rosenberg wrote incisively about seismic changes in the art world, often disagreeing with each other vehemently. Their advocacy propelled the artists and their art to the forefront of the public imagination, and by the late 1950s, Pollock and de Kooning were virtually household names. Their reputations were cast not only in the rarified milieu of the New York art world, but also were well-known in the popular culture, thanks to the reach of television and publications such as Life magazine.
I suppose this is a valid way to look at art history. After all, many artists exist but few become famous. And talent alone will not necessarily lead to fame. One always needs a patron. But it was a bit disconcerting; imagine going to an exhibition of Michelangelo only to have the ipod tell you mostly about Pope Julius.

One small section that I found particularly thought provoking was a display about how abstract expressionism was attacked as un-American during the 1950's because it didn't reflect American "values". This seemed unfathomable to someone like me who is an advocate for freedom of expression. And yet, I found the counter idea that this work should be defended as VERY American equally difficult to fathom. Mostly because I doubt that most Americans like it or understand it.

The idea that art is representative of the values of the body politic seems misguided to me. Art is representative of the artist and, to a certain extent, the person who pays for the art. The art of David should not be seen to represent French peasants but certainly might represent the views of the existing French government who paid for the works. Likewise, it seemed to me that this art represented the artists who created it and the art "kings' of the day - Greenberg and Rosenberg. But certainly not "America". Only if all of America was buying it could it approach being representative of "America" and maybe not even then.

I'm glad that I went, although Expressionism is not my favorite type of art. I tend to feel that an art form that still needs lots of explanation 60 years later has some inherent problems. And although it was interesting to hear about Greenberg and Rosenberg's theories of modern art, I still feel that there is a bit of PT Barnum behind some of exclamatory adulation of this type of modern art. I liked the stories of the artists who refused to care about Greenberg and Rosenberg's criticism even though I didn't necessarily like the art they created. Like them, I reserve the right to ignore the critics and like what I like. And dislike what I dislike even if the critics tell me it is a masterpiece. But even when I don't like something, I'm always willing to learn about it.

I hesitated about finding some images for this post because reproductions don't really do this style of art justice. After all, a digital image of the black-on-black painting is likely to come out as just ... black.

But here's one from the exhbition that I really liked called Twilight Sounds, by American artist Norman Lewis, from the collection of the St. Louis Art Museum - you should go see it in person: