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The End of the Underground

Post #1508 • February 1, 2012, 12:54 PM • 4 Comments

Adolph Gottlieb, 1966:

I think the situation today is similar to the period when Surrealism became important in France and Europe and the only painters who were able to continue working in the tradition of Cubism were those who were the originators and initiators of the movement. It wasn’t possible to have a really significant second generation of Cubist painters. What happened was that the younger painters who were able to contribute something went into another direction, which happened to be Surrealism. And I think a similar thing has happened today: That the so-called New York School, or Abstract-Expressionists, consisted of a group of painters who were about my generation and they are the legitimate practitioners of their concepts. But when so many young painters became involved in trying to carry out some of the ideas of Abstract Expressionism, it became rather academic.

Sharon Butler discovers and old, fascinating interview. Read the whole thing.



Warren Craghead

February 2, 2012, 11:17 AM

That interview really is great. I had to keep checking the date!

I also kept thinking of comics and how "underground" they have been until recently, and how now they are starting to be afflicted with the same crust and crap that fine art has had to battle.


John Link

February 4, 2012, 2:09 PM

Interesting that Gottlieb went on and on about "revolution," saying not just his generation, but all modernism was about the "tradition of revolution." What did the New York School rebel against? They took abstraction from early century European artists, so that could not be it. All I see is they rebelled against institutions—the famous "irascibles" were against MOMA (I think—some museum, anyway—it does not really matter). Being against a museum or other institution does not insulate your art from being absorbed and developed by others. In fact, that is one of the cornerstones of art history. Having others take up your style is not a bad way to make it into the history books.

Despite Clement Greenberg's touting of the term "avant-garde," his observation of the facts was more thoughtful and carefully considered than Gottlieb's. The advanced-oh-so-romantically-exciting-avant-garde actually went backwards, according to Greenberg, to find what they needed. They developed their art from what was therefore a conservative, reactionary position, not that of scouts out in front of everyone else, and he dissected that rather nicely. But the term caught a lot more wind than his analysis, and so we have what we have today, a misleading term that has become a darling of the institutions, who have stripped it of facts surrounding its birth, pushing instead what it actually means. I suppose I can't blame them for that.


Walter Darby Bannard

February 4, 2012, 5:47 PM

John, that they may have had little to rebel against is beside the point. It was the spirit of the times, the thing to do, and it gave them courage. (in fact they occasionally had real things to bitch about, as when the Met Museum had a country-wide juried show that never even considered their art).

You also need to try to imagine their situation; they really were just a little bunch of "weirdos" clustered down in the Village doing weird art that everyone derided and made fun of. The fact that they derived from other weird artists overseas mitigated this only slightly and made them look even more foreign to American eyes. And the fact that all revolutions are attempts to cure the present with lessons from the past makes the "reactionary" label ironic, if not pointless.

Nevertheless, it certainly was overstated and self-hyped—Clem even called it "half-baked—but this is what people do in the grip of enthusiasm. They may have gotten a lot of things wrong on the way to making the best art of the time, but we need to cut them some slack.


John Link

February 5, 2012, 1:18 AM

As I read the Gottlieb interview I thought, "another whiny artist." Pretty common, really. But the great Gottlieb doesn't need any "slack," Darby; he is dead and his work stands on its own. However, I find your asking for it rather strange.

As far as revolutions go, they are not all the same. The Russian Revolution tired to cure the present with something the world had never tried before, for instance. Abolishing private property was as new as it was stupid. But it was a revolution, not an evolution. Abstract art in America just doesn't rise (or sink, depending on one's values) to that level. Most American culture is an evolutionary extension of western Europe and the New York School was one of its main vehicles. A good next evolutionary step for abstraction, as far as I am concerned, is to incorporate something like the felt subject matter found abundantly in realism. Music has long managed to have semi-subject matter without lyrics to spell it out, to great profit at times. Abstraction needs to learn to do that better than it usually does.



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