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An Inside Look at the AbEx-ers

The Museum of Modern Art is hosting a reunion, of sorts. The Abstract Expressionists, or the New York School, are being revisited again in the city they once called home. Gottlieb hangs next to Reinhardt, Gorky next to Hartigan. The pictures rest just as their creators once sat in the worn, leatherette booths of the Cedar Tavern - except here Pollock isn't wildly sweeping glasses off the table or kicking in bathroom doors.

Abstract Expressionism MOMA

It can make you nostalgic for the New York of the 1940s and 1950s. The ephemera in the multi-floor exhibition - pe riodicals, flyers, films - bring the scene to life in a way the paintings alone never could. Nevertheless, it does prompt you to wonder why such an ornery bunch ever decided to come together in the first place.

One cause to rally arrived when the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that they would hold a national juried exhibition. The title: "American Painting Today - 1950". It should have been a gift to struggling young painters, but some modern (and struggling) artists in New York had little faith in jurists' traditional tastes. So Barnett Newman gathered the troops, and got organized. Afire with artistic indignation, they rallied at Adolf Gottlieb's Brooklyn apartment to draft an open letter of protest. On May 22, 1950, the letter was printed on the front page of The New York Times, its incendiary headline reading: "18 Painters Boycott Metropolitan: Charge 'Hostility to Advanced Art.'" The letter attracted notice. The Herald Tribune wrote an editorial calling them "The Irascible Eighteen," and the name stuck and was immortalized in that quintessential publicity stunt: the photo-shoot.

The Irascibles
The Irascibles

Such good-natured assemblies aside, the Abstract Expressionists always questioned the make-up of their community. Could they agree on anything? Could they even agree that they were all Abstract Expressionists? It seemed unlikely. But they could at least agree to meet and talk - and certainly to drink. Many had forged friendships in the 1930s when they were thrown together to work for the Federal Art Project. Others met under the umbrella of the American Abstract Artists, a group dedicated to following European abstract art. Some found each other through Hans Hoffman's art school. Or they met among the studios and galleries that once clustered around Tenth Street. Most popular was the Eighth Street Club, or simply 'The Club,' which was established in the fall of 1949. It was social as much as intellectual; Paris cafe life for New Yorkers. It hosted panel discussions and visiting speakers. "The proceedings always had a curious air of unreality," remembered critic Robert Goldwater.

Another focal point was "The Subjects of the Artist," an art school established in Greenwich Village by Baziotes, Motherwell, Rothko and David Hare in 1948. It was such a crushing financial failure that it had to shut by the spring of the following year, but it was taken over by an arm of New York University and became Studio 35, and there the talk continued. And the head-scratching about community: Robert Motherwell, Robert Goodnough, and Richard Lippold once proctored a three-day panel discussion on the state of American abstract painting. "What then exactly constitutes the basis of our community?" asked Motherwell, once again.

When the talk was over, or for the crowd that decided to skip it entirely, all would decant to the Waldorf Cafeteria, a hang-out on 6th Avenue, off 8th Street. And when the Waldorf started charging for coffee by the cup, they found the Cedar Tavern. The Cedar was a dive. Its bare walls and smoke-tinged air spoke little to its artistic clientele. But on the corner of University Place and Eighth Street is where Ad Reinhardt, Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and Mark Rothko chose to congregate. And drink.

In the tavern, Pollock called other artists "worms" and the lot decried Matisse's work as decorative. To the action painters of New York, producing decorative art was tantamount to selling one's creatively inept soul to the devil. The Club would shuffle between group headquarters at 39 East Eighth Street and the bar, philosophizing and commiserating about American avant-garde art. Meetings were marked by heady discussion, drunkenness and friendly derision.

De Kooning and Pollock's relationship was the most contentious. Armed with their own critical champions, Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg respectively, the two were stylistically pitted against each other. When Thomas Hess came to the Club to talk about his book, Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase, Pollock couldn't contain his jealousy. Loosened by much too many, he launched the book at de Kooning, screaming, "It's a rotten book. He treats you better than me." Yet, on the curb outside Cedar Tavern, the two passed a bottle back and forth. Sharing liquor and slaps on the back, they flattered: "Jackson, you're the greatest painter in America." "No Bill, you're the greatest painter in America."

The trouble was, no one in 1940s America quite knew who the Abstract Expressionists were, nor did they understand their artistic mission. To many, their art was a confused collection of drips, dribbles, zips, and stains. To the director of the Metropolitan, Francis Henry Taylor, they were nothing more than "flat-chested" pelicans "strutting on the intellectual wastelands." But there is nothing like a barrage of hostility to bring people together, and that in many respects explains the short-lived community that was the New York School. They came together, as one critic has put it, as a "battering ram." They put aside their differences, agreed to disagree, and just when the world warmed to their cause, the Abstract Expressionists went their separate ways.

Content written by: Bonnie Rosenberg 2010

MAP: The Art World in 1945

Abstract Expressionism Map

An Inside Look at the Abstract Expressionists
Courtesy TheArtStory.org

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