Friday, May 02, 2008

Action/Abstraction and All that Jazz

In the trenchantly written The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe argued that art criticism’s theories had eclipsed actual works of art in terms of importance for the art world. Given the disparagement heaped on Wolfe’s book by art’s intelligentsia, probably nobody will be more amused than he to see it under glass in a new art exhibit. Yet there it is on the second floor of the Jewish Museum, as part of Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976, an exhibit putting Abstract Expressionism in a full cultural context and directly addressing the theories of critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, both of whom figure prominently in Word.

Both Greenberg and Rosenberg were advocates of Abstract Expressionism, but employed very different theories and semantics in their writings. Greenberg represents the “abstract,” a formal art for art’s sake ethos, articulated with terms like “flatness” and “purity.” Rosenberg corresponds to the “action,” valuing art as a creative process, expressed through the language of “liberation” and “gesture.” Yet both were able to trumpet artists like Pollock and de Kooning as exemplars of their aesthetic concepts.

Pollock and de Kooning are indeed the exhibit’s marquee artists, but twenty-nine other figures in some way associated with the movement are also represented. In an explicit criticism of Greenberg and Rosenberg, a section labeled “Blind Spots” highlights women and African-American artists unfairly ignored by the critical establishment, despite producing work comparable to their more famous peers. Norman Lewis is a particularly interesting inclusion since he had come to distance his work from racially specific conceptions. As the accompanying text explains:

“Lewis turned away from African and African American imagery, as well as his earlier convictions about the social relevance of art, to focus on pure abstraction. By doing so, Lewis and other African American artists felt they might escape associations with the ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic.’”

Lewis still produced work inspired by the sounds of jazz, like Twilight Sounds (1947), included in Action/Abstraction. While essentially consisting of lines, its composition more than suggests the form of a jazz combo.

Jazz also figures in the “context rooms” which explore the cultural, political, and historical factors influencing and reacting to the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism (which is also where you will find Wolfe’s Painted Word). Pollock was well known as a jazz enthusiast, asserting the music’s claim as the one “really creative thing” America had to offer. While recent revelations suggest his record collection was not as hip as we might like to think, he did have some classic swing and New Orleans jazz, including Coleman Hawkins’ “My Ideal,” heard on a loop with Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” and John Cage. (Hawkins’ gorgeous tone is immediately recognizable. Though unexpected in such a shrine to modernism, it is not completely out of place, considering Hawk’s openness to modern bebop developments.)

Opening to the general public May 4th, Action/Abstraction is a well conceived and assembled examination of Abstract Expressionism and the intellectual milieu which shaped it—an intriguing blend of art and cultural history. It runs through September 21st before moving on to St. Louis.