Sunday, January 30, 2011


In this season of right-wing reaction, the notion of American Exceptionalism has become  yet another issue of conservative grievance.  Most particularly  Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have talked of the pre-eminent grace with which our country has been bestowed.  They have railed at anyone who deems to question this central tenet of the right-wing mind.
When I think of American Exceptionalism I do not only think about some of our founders (who were so utterly NOT like their Tea Party appropriators)  but  I’m also inclined to think of figures that I’m sure wouldn’t quite figure that highly in the minds of a Gingrich or Palin.  To me American Exceptionalism means Whitman, Melville, Faulkner, Ginsburg, Graham, Cunningham,  Pollock, Newman, Judd, Berry, Brown, Dylan, Davis,  Ives, Reich, Riley, Wright,  and Kahn to name just a few.  
In the realm of the visual arts, America’s grand contribution to western culture continues to center on Abstract Expressionism.   At New York’s MoMA, the temple of high modernism, the museum was able to mount a hefty show of large paintings  and drawings  soley from the museum’s holdings.  As a whole, the exhibition contains some wonderful paintings and is worth the visit just for these, but it also reveals the foibles of museum collecting and the establishment of a canon.
One thing that leaps out on first viewing this exhibition is that Jackson Pollock was a great painter even before his breakthrough drip paintings.  The big Pollock retrospective of 1998 was perhaps too big a survey, too overwhelming, whereas this informal survey of about 18 paintings testifies to Pollock’s rightful preeminence in American art.  The same can be said for his fellow radical painter, Barnett Newman who also gets his own gallery at MoMA.  It is exhiliarating to see Vir Heroicus Sublimis next to The Wild (1950).  The former  an 18 foot wide painting while the latter is about 1 5/8 inches wide by 83 inches tall.  That no one had ever dared to make a painting like The Wild  before would mean nothing if the painting itself were not  so stunning in its simplicity,  power and beauty. 

Unfortunately, the Mark Rothko room is not up to the same quality as Pollock and Newman’s.   Los Angeles MoCA has the best Rothkos on earth thanks to the late Count Panza.  The Rothko room has too many eccentric and uneven Rothkos. Rothko seems to have been slightly dislodged by Newman on top of the color field wing of Abstract Expressionism.  After being rejected by his fellow Abstract Expressionists (except for Pollock) Newman's cause was first picked up  by Greenberg, then Judd and Flavin, then more recently Yves Alain-Bois and MoMA curator Anne Temkin who curated Newman’s ravishing 2002 retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That other god of AbEx, Willem deKooning is unfortuantely represented by only a few works at the MoMA. 
Besides the major stars  it is unfortunate that we did not see more of the much maligned second generation Abstract Expressionists.  One of my favorite shows as a new student of art in the 1980s was at the Newport Harbor Art Museum  in Newport Beach.  The show featured the work of the second generation--Alfred Leslie, Al Held, Michael Goldberg, Norman Blum, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell.   These were the artists who rejected the march of history towards post-painterly abstraction as outlined by Clement Greenberg.  But just because they weren’t in the vanguard of new painting doesn’t mean that they weren’t making some very good art.  Goldberg and Leslie are represented by excellent examples of their work, but there is no Al Held and some mediocre Hartigans and Blums.  
One also wishes there were more Ad Reinhardt’s and really more suprises from the storage bins, but there’s not.  Anything really great is already usually up full-time at the MoMA.   
One of the best parts of this show are the accompanying on-line videos outlining how each of the major abstract expressionist artists made their work;   created by Corey D’Augustine (an independent conservator and educator) they are a wonderful addition to the educating of the audience for art.

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