“We didn’t think it was a movement” – meet the 1940s critics of Abstract Expressionism

Published 6 December 2016

Seeking advice as she co-curated our Abstract Expressionism exhibition, Edith Devaney went to New York to meet Dore Ashton and Irving Sandler – two commentators who championed the likes of Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, and entertained them in their kitchens.

  • The emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s is, in relative terms, recent history. Although its first-generation artists are no longer alive, two of the movement’s most important champions are still with us: the art critics Dore Ashton and Irving Sandler. In December 2015, I met both on a visit to New York in preparation for the Academy’s exhibition of Abstract Expressionism. They were full of curiosity as to how the show’s British curators – David Anfam and I – would examine this most American of movements from a 21st-century perspective. Ashton said that she and Sandler were “probably the last eyewitnesses”.

    The most notable art critics of the period were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Their fierce disagreements on interpretation, played out in print with much vigour over many years, did much to focus attention on the new art emerging from, in the main, New York. Sandler and Ashton, in different ways, became part of the artists’ milieu: befriending and supporting them, documenting and interpreting their development and social interactions.

    But Ashton and Sandler were no social gadflies or art groupies. They were, and are, intellectuals of the first order who recognised at close hand that they were witnessing something remarkable in the history of modern art. They embraced the opportunity with a genuine passion, providing us with a number of publications that, to this day, inform and enrich our understanding of this remarkable period of art history. Indeed the first publication to chart the history of Abstract Expressionism was Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting (1970), which documented its transformative role in modern art. Ashton’s The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, published two years later, captured the cultural coalescence in the city from the 1930s to the 1950s.

  • I don't remember any of those guys ever talking about something called Abstract Expressionism.

    Dore Ashton

  • The razor-sharp observations of Ashton’s writing suggested to me that she would be a formidable personality. The slight woman who met me at the door of her house on 10th Street, dressed in black and with dark hair cut into a bob, certainly did not appear stern in any way. Now 88 years old, she informed me that she had lived in the same house for well over half a century. The painters Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning had been neighbours and she had regularly entertained them and other artist friends, including Mark Rothko and David Smith, in the kitchen where we sat and talked. Sandler’s hospitality extended to meeting me at the lift of his modern apartment block so that he could escort me to the door of his flat, a large modern space filled with immediately recognisable art. When he discussed what he confessed were “his first loves in art”, his energy gathered and his 90 years appeared to diminish. As we explored which artists the Academy’s exhibition should focus on, Sandler referred to those he considered the “three pioneers” – Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning.

    “De Kooning was in a sense the European, with Pollock and Still the Americans – they took a very strong American, anti-European stand, and Bill never did”. Sandler suggested that De Kooning considered himself to be moving European art in a new direction, “but never renouncing it”. Ashton agreed with Sandler that De Kooning held a special position within the final analysis of the movement. “Of all of them,” she said, “he was the painters’ painter and in my opinion anything he did was fascinating.”

    Both critics found it difficult to separate the personalities of the artists entirely from their regard for the work. As Sandler put it, “everyone has an artist they can’t stand”. For him it was Motherwell, and although he maintained a good relationship with the artist, recognising and recording Motherwell’s historical importance, nevertheless he did not warm to the work. He detected an insecurity in Motherwell, who confessed himself less of a “natural painter” than Philip Guston or De Kooning, but who, according to Sandler, positioned himself as an intellectual.

  • Everyone has an artist they can't stand.

    Irving Sandler

  • Motherwell, in contrast, was a close friend of Ashton, and shared her interest in and knowledge of literature and philosophy. For Ashton, Barnett Newman was the artist she struggled with: “I didn’t get along well with Barney Newman, who thought he was God’s gift to everybody.” Consequently she did not write about his work, nor for that matter did she write about the work of Still, who she did not consider to be “so important”. It is of note that both Newman and Motherwell regarded themselves as spokesmen for the wider group of artists, which may have put them into opposition with critics.

    Ashton noted that the “group” that we all refer to now were “a whole bunch of raving individuals”. “We didn’t think it was a movement,” she said. “I don’t remember any of those guys ever talking about something called Abstract Expressionism”. Women artists did have a place within the society of the artists, according to Ashton: “If the woman was good… they were respectful.” Kline was a favourite of both Ashton and Sandler – “a beautiful man in every way”, Sandler recalled, and the person Pollock called for when he showed up drunk at the Cedar Tavern on Mondays, the day he came to the city to see his therapist.

    Sandler was keen to stress the intelligence of the artists, and how they were able to articulate their ideas to great effect. “They all possessed a great knowledge of culture, including Pollock, and those who knew him, like [the sculptor] Tony Smith, confirmed this… Motherwell, Rothko, Newman – these were brilliant people.”

    The same can be said of Ashton and Sandler. To meet them, and to receive their encouragement and guidance on a subject that they have lived and breathed so brilliantly for the past 60 years, was, as a curator, a remarkable opportunity to touch history.

    Abstract Expressionism is in the Main Galleries at the RA from 24 September 2016 – 2 January 2017.
    The exhibition tours to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from 3 February – 4 June 2017.

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