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Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976

Action/Abstraction, Spring 2009, pp 87-88

As its title makes explicit, the Jewish Museum’s revisionist revisiting of the primal scene of Abstract Expressionism revolved around the dialectical poles that defined the movement. Yet rather than the titular titans of midcentury painting, the curators took for those poles the artists’ vociferous champions, the rival critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Greenberg’s formalist analysis vied for dominance with Rosenberg’s existentialist interpretation; Greenberg’s historicizing view of painting’s will to flatness with Rosenberg’s notion of the work of art as “an arena in which to act.” Greenberg declared Jackson Pollock the best American painter of his generation, Rosenberg argued for Willem de Kooning as the action painter par excellence. And the exhibition’s first room culminated in a pair of spectacular canvases by the exemplary artists. In Pollock’s Convergence of 1952, his signature skeins of poured colour—here almost psychedelic in effect—overlay and subsume traces of figuration in black on unprimed canvas, while in de Kooning’s Gotham News of three years later, primary-hued, slashing strokes articulate precarious structures that in places seem to morph into vaguely organic forms in fleshy pink. Both displays of painterly bravura remain breathtaking after more than half a century, reminding us why Ab Ex and its polemics continue to hold our interest.

The exhibition made its case with several such masterpieces and moments of compare-and-contrast binarism, as well as hosts of lesser works and copious amounts of ephemera. A curious inclusion was a section headlined “Blind Spots,” which purported to take Greenberg and Rosenberg to task for oversights in their advocacy. Hanging a feeble Norman Lewis and a couple of lacklustre canvases by Lee Krasner, however (Grace Hartigan fared rather better, with two exuberant paintings), hardly cast the critics as racist or misogynist; it just made them seem sensible.

Abstract Expressionism’s aftermath occupied the second half of the exhibition. Helen Frankenthaler’s magisterial Mountains and Sea of 1952—the canvas that launched a thousand stain paintings—anchored a large room of Colour Field paintings or “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” Greenberg’s anointed successor to Ab Ex. In contrast, impressive works by Jasper Johns, Philip Guston, Lee Bontecou and Joan Mitchell represented the artists Rosenberg admired during the 1960s. We all know how it turned out. Greenberg’s reductive prescription for an art of sheer, specific and, perhaps, empty opticality proved arid, a cul-de-sac of art history. Rosenberg’s pluralist vision of an intellectual, socially aware and psychologically inflected art led through to the art of our own moment. Yet the empyrean purity and dispassion of Greenberg’s late favourites still suggest an Olympian grandeur that might have been.

This is a review from the Spring 2009 issue of Canadian Art.

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