July 2015

Patrick James Dunagan


Art in America 1945-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism edited by Jed Perl; Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter by Cathy Curtis; and Go Figure! New Perspectives on Guston edited by Peter Benson Miller

Jed Perl's Art in America 1945-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism provides excellent, far ranging samplings of first-hand account, documentation, engagement, and unvarnished testimonial. Perl includes material both by and about artists from across various fields of artistic practice alongside observations by poets, novelists, and art critics. His selection generously expands the quantity and diversity of art writings readily available from the period. Rather than preserve any nascent perspective of a cohesive progression, with Abstract Expressionism, say, as its core beginning, Perl brings together writings that are often found to be "agreeing about little": 

What is clear is that the story of art in the decades after World War II becomes ever more complex as one delves into the back issues of magazines that have not yet been digitized and are not always easy to access even in our great research libraries. Then there are the writings contained in extraordinarily ephemeral exhibition catalogues, as well as what is turning out to be a not inconsiderable body of letters and journals -- some beginning to find their way into print, some no doubt still waiting to be discovered [...] a fraction of which is brought together in this book. 

This mere "fraction" of material nonetheless deliriously offers myriad fresh reminders of the rich conversations happening both across and between the arts and literary communities. In this tidily compact yet nonetheless thick volume, Perl gathers together an assortment of texts arguably representing the majority of strands anybody interested in American art during the years covered need be aware of. Writers from every discipline are presented, and differing schools of practice represented. Artists and writers from the West Coast and elsewhere, such as Jess, Joan Brown, Kenneth Rexroth, and H.C. Westermann, are not forgotten. There is no better grab bag of ever-diverse original writings by artists from the era.

As with so many of the collected texts, Robert Smithson's "The Crystal Land" is a remarkable document of visual richness, demonstrating how an artist pays attention to surrounding details of the environment and carries them over into the creation of the work of art, whether it be a piece of writing or one of Smithson's "earth art" projects such as Spiral Jetty. The relatively short text written in 1966 contains a wildly vivid description of a jaunt to check out some New Jersey rock quarries, "that geological locale" just over the Hudson River from New York. While Smithson couches his narrative in part as a consideration of sculptor Donald Judd's work, what remains most remarkable about the writing is the thorough immediacy of perception on hand throughout.

Smithson took the trip with his wife, Nancy, accompanied by Judd and his wife, Julie. From the opening description of the car's interior -- "My eyes glanced over the dashboard, it became a complex of chrome fixed into an embankment of steel. The speedometer was broken. Cigarette butts were packed into the ashtray."-- to the quarry scenes alive in startling detail, Smithson thrusts readers into the immediate apprehension of being inside his head as he sorts through his observations:

The walls of the quarry did look dangerous. Cracked, broken, shattered; the walls threatened to come crashing down. Fragmentation, corrosion, decomposition, disintegration, rock creep, debris slides, mud flow, avalanche were everywhere in evidence. The gray sky seemed to swallow up the heaps around us. Fractures and faults spilled forth sediment, crushed conglomerates, eroded debris and sandstone. It was an arid region, bleached and dry. An infinity of surfaces spread in every direction.

The result is a visually lucid bit of remarkable prose. The alacrity of Smithson's writing is astonishing and finds itself in good company, as the rest of this anthology is just as remarkably enlivening. Whether visual artist, poet, critic, or novelist, every writer here represented shines.

Perl's editing reflects the importance played by various social scenes, particularly small galleries and the little magazines he mentions which featured up-and-coming artists and writers. These micro-communities were a part of broader shifts occurring in American art during the latter half of the twentieth century which introduced new opportunities into the typical "career path" of many an artist. Perl, for instance, includes selections from painter Grace Hartigan's published journals, which trace her frenetically social life in the art world of New York City during the early 1950s. Hartigan's journals offer an emblematic example of the daily social preoccupations of the scene. Close friend of the poet Frank O'Hara, Hartigan's been forever enshrined in numerous poems of his, including infamous lines of his poetry etched onto his tombstone: "Grace to be born / and live as variously as possible." The poet in turn on frequent occasion served as a model for Hartigan, as he did for many a painter of the social circles in which he moved.

Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter by Cathy Curtis is the first attempt at a full-scale biography covering the many ups and occasional downs of Hartigan's long life, incessantly committed to artistic success. It offers an encapsulated example of one artist's path of endurance across and beyond the span of the times covered by Perl's selection. Hartigan's life is well worth documenting and makes for compelling reading, encompassing as it does crossroads into wider cultural debates over the conflicted role women such as Hartigan faced as daughter, wife, mother, and lover while seeking to be an artist above all. Curtis gives readers as intimate a look as possible, drawing from numerous published sources, archives, and personal interviews.  

Hartigan came into the Abstract Expressionist scene in New York City nearly out of the blue, ambitiously determined to achieve some level of notoriety. She married young and impulsively, having a son whom she quickly, and permanently, handed off to her parents and his father to raise, while she removed herself to New York to take up a life as an artist, working a drafting job of indeterminate nature at Match Diamond Company for a period.

She also began a lifelong series of marriages, romantic partnerships, and ongoing affairs with other artists. This began with her first mature love, the artist Isaac Lane Muse, continuing on to include her second husband, Henry Jackson, followed by filmmaker Alfred Leslie, the photographer Walter Silver (whose photographs from the period give an intimate look into the 1950s art world in New York; Curtis includes several), and various others, including on-again off-again interludes with painter Franz Kline. She quickly advanced herself as an artist by friendship and wile as much as skill. After successfully battling a path to near the top of the New York world of art museums and galleries, she then absconded to Baltimore with her fourth husband, Winston Price, a successful scientist of the time, and embarked on what proved a second life of sorts as a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

Hartigan was always painting, never allowing the at times chaotic nature of her personal life to interfere with her work. She relentlessly endured whatever personal strife came her way always focused on keeping herself moving forward as an artist. Her magnanimous personality was firmly rooted by a tenacious strength to hold course against whatever life threw at her. Throughout the 1950s she admirably withstood, even managed flourish under, the heavily prevalent sexism in American society at the time. After suffering through years of living the now-stereotypical life of the starving artist living in half-rundown cold water lofts, her financial situation began to improve as her work garnered high esteem in both gallery and museum markets. With her move to Baltimore in 1960, however, she experienced another dip in her status within the art world, yet she struggled on to find new galleries and new audiences, despite crises within her marriage as Winston's mental and emotional health wavered. Her position as an instructor at MICA brought her a steadily increasing sense of financial stability over the years, as well as a wealth of younger artists to mentor.

Late in life Hartigan claimed that "history would place her with Franz Kline and Philip Guston, not as an innovator but as a major artist." Hartigan's naming of Guston is particularly striking. Hartigan's works, such as The Persian Jacket, undertaken at the height of Abstract Expressionism had always clung to some form of recognizable imagery, which she came to more fully embraced in her later work from the late 1960s into the 1970s onward. Curtis reports not only that "Guston was the artist from Grace's New York past whom she felt closest to during this period" but that he "loved" what she was doing, remaining "consistently supportive of Hartigan's work."

Guston himself had, after all, likewise taken what many observers saw as a severe turn with his later paintings. Curtis describes this late work as a "deliberatively crude style" of paintings "populated with seemingly odd juxtapositions of objects, including the pointed white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, shoe soles, brick walls, and dangling light bulbs." In addition, she notes the self-representation in many of these paintings, two of which, Night and Smoking II, Winston in fact purchased in 1974: "Guston depicted himself as a large disembodied head who used cigarettes, alcohol, and food to self-medicate." Hartigan increasingly relied upon similar forms of self-medication as she frequently fell back upon bad habits (yet another title of a late Guston painting) developed in earlier years.  

Guston (1913-1980) and Hartigan (1922-2008) are but two of the many artists covered within Perl's selection of writings whose work came to transcend earlier ties with Abstract Expressionism, which has been widely celebrated as the defining heyday moment of American art. There's even been the Hollywood version executed in the film Pollock about painter Jackson Pollock. After decades in which Guston's work has often been considered less worthy when compared to his 1950s era peers, there has lately been a considerable amount of renewed critical attention, especially for the dramatic shift undertaken in his late work. The last several years have seen publication of nearly half a dozen critical considerations of work from the final decade of his life.

Go Figure! New Perspectives on Guston is the latest of these publications and in many ways provides the best sampling of the main arguments shared by all. It assuredly offers the fullest consideration from the widest range of commentators to date upon Guston's late work. An informative context-orienting preface by Robert Storr, author of Philip Guston in the Modern Masters Series, is followed by new essays from contributors ranging from Dore Ashton, who penned the first seminal book-length study of Guston, to the painter's younger, close friend, the New York School poet and noted art critic Bill Berkson, on up to academics such as David Kaufman and Robert Slifkin, each a recent author of separate full-length studies concerning late Guston.

The American Academy in Rome is co-publisher with the New York Review of Books of this lavishly designed, generously illustrated oversized book, which constitutes a companion text to the catalog Philip Guston: Roma (2010), which is focused upon works Guston completed in the critical year 1970-71 while in residency at the Academy. Guston left for Rome directly after the opening of his controversial show that introduced the late work, held at the Marlborough Gallery in 1970. Worth noting is that this was Guston's second residency at the Academy in Rome. His prior residency during the 1940s led to the completion of his painting The Tormentors, signalizing his turn towards Abstract Expressionism and away from his earlier figurative and mural painting.

During the Marlborough opening, Guston was infamously received one of two ways by peers and critics alike. On one hand, he was met by painter Willem de Kooning's warm understanding of his new direction as being all about "freedom," while on the other, his close friend, the avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, sternly rebuked him for what he saw as a betrayal of their earlier bond over the artist's implicit denial of definitively identifiable forms of self-expression into a lurid embrace of figuration. For Feldman, Guston was giving in to expectations of popular culture and the demands of an ever-changing art world.    

The transcript of a panel discussion involving editor and curator Peter Benson Miller, Robert Storr, and visual artist Chuck Close is the final text in Go Figure! Close offers a reminiscence of one occasion when, as a young graduate student in art, he went out for drinks after a class discussion with instructors Jack Tworkov and Guston. He describes how the older artists immediately headed towards a drunken state of mutual solace over sparse sales of recent work:

Jack and Philip really started slamming back drinks. They were really in their cups. Here are two guys, both of who had had museum retrospectives, and here are my heroes that I had read about in books; one of the reasons I had come to Yale was to be with people like this [...] they're both slobbering, tears running down their cheeks. Philip said: "I haven't sold a painting in two years!" And Jack said, "That's nothing, I haven't sold a painting in three years!" For a young artist to see his heroes, people he had read about in books, whose museum retrospectives he had seen, and who meant so much personally to me as a young artist, it was a great learning experience. It is something I have never forgotten.

Close witnessed his "heroes" succumbing to similar worries as plagued himself or any of his peers who were striving for financial success in the high-pressure environment of the art world. Whether perceived positively or negatively, such experience offers an intimacy that is a byproduct of the ready access working artists would grant to students by the professorship and visiting artist stint. The offering of these academic appointments of acclaimed artists began to really flourish during and just after the final productive years of the artists and writers represented within Perl's anthology, which does include notable texts by both Guston and Tworkov.

Few of today's readers ever had the opportunity, as Close did, to meet and study with the artists Perl's book gathers together, yet every reader has the chance to connect with and glean insight from their lives and times. Where Restless Ambition bares the complicated life of an artist dedicated to her art above all else, and Go Figure! assembles fresh considerations of one American Master's late work, Art in America 1945-1970 unveils the overarching varied richness of easy social exchange connecting so many communities of American artists and writers in webs of crisscrossing entanglement brought about by artistic engagement. Each of these books indicates in its own manner just how unfinished critical consideration of American artists in the latter twentieth century remains.

Art in America 1945-1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism edited by Jed Perl
Library of America
ISBN: 978-1598533101
864 pages

Restless Ambition: Grace Hartigan, Painter by Cathy Curtis
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199394500
432 pages

Go Figure! New Perspectives on Guston edited by Peter Benson Miller
New York Review of Books/The American Academy in Rome
ISBN: 978-1590178782
160 pages