The Russians claim to have invented everything under the sun. We firmly believe that we did. It is no propaganda from Washington, it is just our comfortable illusion. An illusion like the average man's idea that because he lives in a scientific age, he is a scientist. His illusion explodes the first time his new car, automatic transmission and all, breaks down on a deserted highway.
The truth in both cases is a little different. Who invented the steam engine? A Scot. The locomotive? An Englishman. Who first ascended in a balloon? Someone in France. Another Frenchman invented photography. Who invented gunpowder? A Chinese while a fellow citizen was busy with the invention of printing. Egypt had already taken care to provide the paper to print on.
All pretty discouraging until we come to the telegraph, the phonograph, and the electric light. Going on, we find ourselves in a three-cornered argument with the French and the English about both the motion picture and the automobile. As to radio, there is no question: Italy gets the credit. Then there is the trick question of who invented the military tank. Being fair, we have to admit that it was an Italian, too-Leonardo da Vinci.
Although you can get an argument on the airplane, we at least flew the first one. This brings us far enough up to date-without going into the touchy subject of bombs--to show that it is all pretty much a dead heat. Everyone will agree, however, that we are tops when it comes to developing anybody's inventions. Remember that harmless little atom that Einstein found?
With all that, for five hundred years--or maybe twice as many--an overmastering current has been moving west over the Atlantic. It pulled ships and people, the people who, as Thoreau once observed, were planted like seeds in the new hemisphere. It pulled wealth, ideas, strength--a great, inevitable, historic process. Not the Decline of the West, but the Incline Toward the West. A German might well be a little melancholy about that. As for ourselves, we might be a little humble about the lucky accident that we were in the right place at the right time.
We were a long enough time, in all conscience, in spotting the wonderful possibilities in that new invention called modern art. It has taken a lot of doing over four long decades for a very few, very devoted people to pry our eyes open. But little by little we did open them: in 1913 we saw that modern art existed--at least in Europe; during the 1920's we glimpsed that it was apparently here to stay; during the 1930's we found out that artists were real flesh-and-blood people living right here. And during the Great Depression, while we were meek and brought down, the champions of modern art having made us take an un-blindfolded look at all those awful isms, we found them rather fun. During the 1940's we finally discovered that we had some pretty darn good modern artists of our own. We thought about that for a while, and then in the 1950's got up the nerve to compare our own stuff with the imports that carried the glamorous label: MADE IN FRANCE. That was a surprise! At the present moment we still cannot quite believe it.
And so, just past mid-century, we have our own art movement, abstract expressionism. Despite the old arguments as to who invented what, it quite clearly started with our boys. What is more, they have got the Frenchmen doing it. Names seem to be important in cataloguing--as well as talking about --things. So it is worth noting that Sidney Janis seems to have been the first to apply the adjectives "abstract" and "expressionist" to the new work. He did it early, too--in 1944, when the boys themselves were not yet quite sure what they were doing. For good measure, Janis included another adjective, "surrealist." It is just as well to mention this because since then the strong influence of both the surrealists and surrealism has tended to be overlooked.
A few years later the painter Robert Motherwell, during a meeting at an artists' club, advanced a group of suggested names for the new tendency of his colleagues and himself. Among these was "abstract expressionism." The artists bought that one.
To keep the record completely clear: the term actually had been invented around thirty years before this, in 1919 in fact, in Volume X, Number 2, of the German modernists' publication Der Sturm. There, Oswald Herzog applied it (in German, Der Abstrakte Expressionismus) to the abstractions of Kandinsky. The term, however, did not achieve currency, though Alfred Barr revived it in his foreword to the catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art's opening exhibition in 1929.
The young American abstract expressionists show scarcely the slightest direct influence of Kandinsky. They are more directly indebted to Hans Hofmann, whose painting in America became both expressionist and abstract. As teacher, painter, and friend, he deeply influenced many of this generation of American artists, and Sidney Janis came very close to calling him the original American abstract expressionist.
Our abstract expressionists are too diverse a brood to have one common father. Their work is less an ism, systematized and dogma-ridden, than any preceding one, even surrealism, has been. The name is a convenient label, no more. The most salient thing about abstract expressionism is the free rein that it gives to the individual. These younger painters--like Picasso throughout all his mature career-move freely back and forth between different degrees of the abstract and the representational. Avoiding classification and dogma, they also avoid mannerism--the apish painting "in the manner of." They assimilate various points of view discovered in our century into one point of view, which thus is new and their own.
In 1913, American modernists could nearly be numbered on the fingers of two hands. Thirty years later the roll had become impressively long. The older generation lived on, variously aged and honored: from Marin, already venerable at seventy-two, Feininger only a year younger, and Stella and Hartley each sixty-six, on down to Weber, sixty-two.
This younger generation could have jammed a New York subway train in the old accustomed way. And it would have endlessly confused anyone being introduced to its members. First he might have met the Western cowboy abstractionist C. S. Price, nearly seventy years old, and next Theodoros Stamos, a mere twenty-one. The criterion of youth in this instance was one of ideas, not of years. However, generally speaking, artists mature somewhat later than baseballplayers. The average age of the generation that claimed the abstract expressionists was thirty-six in the year 1943.
Artists, on the other hand, remain lively far longer than baseball-players do. So these young-oldsters were stirring up quite a storm at the time when Peggy Guggenheim's new museum was just gathering steam. In 1944 Peggy introduced Motherwell, Pollock, Baziotes, and, one year later, Rothko. Novelty and marked individuality were the first impressions of their work. Not yet evident were the concordances of spirit which within three more years would clearly indicate that a new style was forming.
The art critics, notoriously uncertain as to anything new, positive, and native, fumbled among their adjectives. The artists, as artists should be, were belligerent. Only one of the critics was brave enough to be frank. In 1943 the late Edward Alden Jewell of the New York Times confessed "befuddlement" at the paintings of Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. The two artists dashed off a letter to his paper which was a manifesto in the grand old style:
We feel that our pictures demonstrate our esthetic beliefs, some of which we, therefore, list:
1. To us art is an unknown world which can be explored only by those willing to take risks.
2. This world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.
3. It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way--not his way.
4. We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.
5. It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess kinship with primitive and archaic art.
At that moment, and then only, Rothko and Gottlieb were partners in painting, as Picasso and Braque had been for the few early years of cubism. Both Rothko and Gottlieb were painting a species of pictographs, full of symbols like those in ancient stone-carving and frescoes. In the pictograph Gottlieb found "its own internal logic"; Rothko found "the Spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times." 3 Picasso and Braque had gone for inspiration to African Negro sculpture; Gottlieb and Rothko went to the even earlier art of cliffs and caves. Each pair of artists was looking for a modern truth in ancient magic.
By 1945 new art dealers were appearing, to join Peggy Guggenheim in sponsoring the coming generation. Older dealers joined in, too. Marian Willard, of course, had introduced the Northwest Painters, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, as well as the sculptor David Smith, who had been hammering away in a foundry on the Brooklyn waterfront. J. B. Neumann showed Lee Gatch, Karl Knaths, and others.
Chief among the new dealers were Betty Parsons and Samuel M. Kootz. Betty Parsons, in a sense a protégée of Peggy Guggenheim, concentrated on Americans, propagandizing for Ad Reinhardt, Boris Margo, and Clyfford Still. Then, when Peggy flew away to the Adriatic, she took over Pollock, Rothko, and others of what everyone by then called the Guggenheim stable.