New York Cool Turns Up the Heat
by Beth S. Gersh-Nesic
New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection is a gem of a show, offering a rare opportunity to view works hidden from the general public in administrative offices, if they are not on tour. In my last review Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940 to 1970 at the Jewish Museum, I described the dueling discourses of two leading art critics, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, which frame that show. In the New York Cool catalogue, curator and NYU art history professor Pepe Karmel offers another perspective: “Greenberg and Rosenberg were more complex critics than their didactic statements suggest. Just as the art they wrote about is richer and more rewarding than their theoretical analyses of it. To understand the New York School of the 1950s and early 60s, we need to establish a broader critical framework, one that reflects the artistic and intellectual diversity of the period."
New York Cool considers this diversity through the shift from the “hot” gestural style of the 1950s to the “cool” hard-edge aesthetic of the 1960s. To this end, we find the first and second generation Abstract Expressionists Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Hale A. Woodruff, Elaine de Kooning, Esteban Vincente and Norman Bluhm surrounded by the cool, controlled abstract geometrics of Kenneth Noland, Al Held, Ilya Bolotowsky, Louise Nevelson, and early Miriam Schapiro; the abstracted figurative work of Alex Katz, Nick Mansicano, Will Barnet, and Philip Pearlstein; the flat landscape of Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb and Milton Avery; the collages of Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Chryssa, and Robert Rauschenberg; and the sculpture of Seymour Lipton, Tony Rosenthal (best know for his enormous revolving cube on Astor Place), Richard Stankiewicz, and Louise Bourgeois.
About half of the artists here are represented by other works in Action/Abstraction. The other half may be lesser-known names for the general public, but very well-known among avid auction-followers who have noticed that prices for late 1950s-early 1960's art are on the rise. Indeed, this is a propitious moment to reconsider the art from 1945 to 1970, and New York Cool specifically offers a much-needed overview of its critical reception, while handily tying together a portion of NYU's eclectic collection amassed since 1958. (The Grey Art Gallery, a gift from Abby Weed Grey in 1974, oversees the NYU Collection, which includes the Ben and Abby Weed Grey Collection of Modern Asian and Middle Eastern art.)
The first NYU collection belonged to university trustee Albert Eugene Gallatin, great-grandson of Albert Gallatin, a founder of NYU and a U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison. Begun as the Gallery of Living Art in 1927 (then renamed the Museum of Living Art in 1936), this venue for contemporary art opened its doors two years before the Museum of Modern Art and four years before the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was an oasis for emerging artists who settled in Greenwich Village, where NYU established its main campus in 1835. The Gallatin Collection hung in the Main Building (renamed Silver Center for the Arts and Sciences in 2002, where the Grey Art Gallery is located today), well within view of comfy chairs and couches for study. Gallatin believed that living with art trumped the occasional visit. In 1942, the Museum of Living Art closed to make room for the expanding library. The A.E. Gallatin Collection was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The second push to establish an NYU collection began with Howard Conant, chairperson of the Department of Art Education. Through Conant's offices, NYU acquired works by art faculty, such as Hale A. Woodruff, and through donations, which may account for much of the collection's "diversity." In the 1960s, NYU also hosted exhibitions of works by the American Abstract Artists in its Loeb Student Center, designed by architect Max Abramovitz and adorned by a Reuben Nakian relief sculpture. Both are no longer on view: the student center was transformed into Kimmel Center for University Life and the Nakian was put into storage.
The collection's "diversity" may also stem from an integration of New York and non-New York artists, who made their way to the Big Apple early on. Willem de Kooning came from Holland in 1926; Philip Guston, born Phillip Goldstein, started out life in Montreal, then moved with his family to Los Angeles, before arriving in New York at twenty-three in 1936; Conrad Marca-Relli came from Boston, via Italy and Paris, to settle in New York in the early 1950s; and Hale Woodruff was born in Cairo, Illinois in 1900, raised in Tennessee, lived in Paris for five years, taught in the South (at Atlanta University, he was the first African-American art professor with formal training hired by a Black university), and then moved to New York in 1946. The next generation hailed from other states too: Kenneth Noland from North Carolina; Robert Rauschenberg from Texas; and Jasper Johns from South Carolina.
However, personal diversity does not a thesis make. The trauma of the Great Depression and World War II gave birth to gutsy Abstract Expressionism, developed by a generation that cut its teeth on avant-garde experiments in Cubism, Surrealism, Matisse and Picasso. Their immediate juniors rebelled against AbEx emotionalism, opting for a stream-lined "cool," congruent with American confidence in corporate capitalism (think: Lucky Strike cigarettes on chrome and glass coffee tables) but still concerned about the Bomb.
The fusion of this optimism and anxiety about the future may be reflected in two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art that Karmel refers to his catalogue essay: The Family of Man in 1955, organized by photographer and head curator Edward Steichen, and New Images of Man in 1959, organized by art historian and head curator Peter Selz. The former emphasized a positive view of daily life around the world through the persuasive power of photography; the latter considered a more conflicted human condition, as evidenced in Leonard Baskin's tormented, hanging bodies. Existential theologian Paul Tillich posited in his New Images catalogue essay that the disappearance of the figure in art corresponded to the "dehumanization of the modern world."
The ascendance of impersonal geometric compositions in the 1960s seems to support this theory. Miriam Schapiro's Camera Obscura #2, 1966, constructed of bold lines framing clear geometric forms, and Frank Stella's black and white stripes in Getty's Tomb and Clinton Place (both from the Black series), 1967, typify Hard-Edge painting. Agnes Martin's delicately inked straight lines in Wood #4, 1964, ushered in Minimalism. All implement the grid as if one could impose some order on modernity's chaos—be it the Cold War, proto-feminist aspirations, or artistic volition.
Perceiving the dominant presence of the grid in Modernist art was one of Rosalind Krauss' many contributions to our understanding of Post-1945 art. In addition to Krauss, Karmel enlists Meyer Schapiro on the hand-made artwork in an industrial world and Linda Nochlin on "the intractable thereness" of Realism, all provocative observations that receive further elucidation in the catalogue entries.
Both New York Cool and Action/Abstraction exhibitions and catalogues summarize and expand on the historiography of the New York School in so many ways that only future art historians will be able to ascertain their impact. For now, we in New York can only step back and feel grateful that these two exceptional exhibitions (along with other New York School exhibitions) overlapped on Manhattan Island this spring and summer. While both exhibitions will tour throughout the United States, they will not appear in the same city at the same time again.
View a selection of works from New York Cool.
Reference and Further Reading:
Karmel, Pepe, ed. New York Cool: Painting and
Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection.
New York : New York University, 2008.
New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection is touring on the following schedule:
- April 22-July 19, 2008: Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, New York, NY 10003 (Telephone:
- September 16-December 14, 2008: The Palmer Museum of Art, Curtin Road, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802-2507 (Telephone:
- April 17-July 19, 2009: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick, Maine 04011-8494 (Telephone:
- August 23-October 25, 2009: Hunter Museum of American Art, 10 Bluff View, Chattanooga, Tennessee 37403 (Telephone: 423-267-0968; Website).
From your Guide: Beth Gersh-Nesic is an art history professor, author, art critic and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service which offers tours, lectures and workshops in various venues, including museums, galleries, artists' studios and arts organizations.