Updated: May 19
Article in St Louis-Dispatch (St Louis, Missouri) 29 July 1956 By Daniel Catton Rich - Director of the Art Institute of Chicago (edited) Just what is American Art? Have our painters produced works which can be called distinctly native? Have we developed over the past 200 years a national style? What are some of the characteristics which mark a canvas as having been "Made in America?"
These are hard questions to answer for American art has run the complete gamut from photographic realism to non-objectivity. Some of our greatest painters, Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and in our own day George Bellows, Edward Hopper and Ben Shahn, have concentrated on the facts of American life. Others like Thomas Cole, Albert Ryder and George Inness have surcharged their pictures with romantic feelings and poetic moods.
Today (1956), a new, vital kind of American abstraction is in the air. Its leaders, Jackson Pollock, William De Kooning and Franz Kline, are painting pictures which contain no recognisable objects but which in sweep, size and dynamic display typical American qualities. These men are beginning to be recognised in Europe and even imitated by younger Europeans. The first time such a compliment has ever been paid to American art. Before World War 2 no one in England, France or Italy took our painting seriously. They might envy us our ice-boxes and our chain stores, but when it came to art, they knew they had the corner of culture. From their point of view, that was only fair. If the United States could claim material success, older countries must keep the lead in artistic matters. They felt safe as long as we could be dismissed as a nation of Babbitts. Once before in Europe, two American painters became enormously successful. One was John Singer Sargent, born in Italy of American parents, and trained in France. He grew popular in England where he painted stylish lords and ladies in a dazzling technique. The other was the waspish and brilliant Whistler who left the United States because he couldn't stand it and settled in England where he bewildered the British by painting the famous portrait of his mother and titling it "An Arrangement in Grey and Black."
Both Sargent and Whistler, however, are claimed by England, and in the Tate Gallery, London, their works are labelled "British School." It is more remarkable that some of our artists are winning favour abroad because our government has done painfully little to let the rest of the world know what we have any art at all. In the two great international exhibitions, held every two years, one in Venice and one in São Paulo, Brazil, there is absolutely no official American exhibition. Other countries have splendid pavilions, and extensive representation paid for and sent by their governments. Not the United States. In Venice, we have a small gallery, erected by private American funds and now the property of the Museum of Modern Art in New York which this year invited the Institute of Chicago to arrange the exhibition for the biennial. Only because a generous Chicago patron stepped forward and underwrote the expenses were we able to arrange an American show to Italy. Meanwhile, countries like France and England, and even smaller ones like Guatemala, Luxenberg and Belgium, have a long realised the propaganda advantages of sending their best contemporary art abroad. A few years ago, the State Department, making a timid beginning, shipped a small group of American paintings to Prague. Congress got wind of it, and several members of Congress urged by disgruntled artists including new affair, major tremendous row, changing that the exhibit was an undercover Communist plot to discredit us in Europe. We had the ridiculous picture finally, of the record of the whole exhibition from Czechoslovakia, just when it was making a tremendous hit behind the iron curtain. Meanwhile, the USSR has sent a large and imposing exhibition to Venice for 1956. Now in the field of American literature, the battle is already won. Our novelists, poets and playwrights have achieved a secure place in international letters. As early as 1830, James Fenimore Cooper was all the rage in Paris, his tales of Indians helping to create the "Noble Savage" who became one of the stock figures of the romantic age. In World War I many a French soldier marched to war with a copy of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in his knapsack. A little later, Eugene O'Neill's tragic dramas were played all over the world from Stockholm to Tokyo. Today Hemingway, Dos Passos and Faulkner are household words in many European homes. Dozens of scholarly books and hundreds of popular articles are written abroad every year on American literature, pointing out that we have created a new tough, realistic school of fiction in a language no longer English but vitally American. It is no secret, even in Amsterdam or Rome, that the original impetus in modern architecture came from America. From about 1840 to 1890 American architecture was at its lowest point imitating European castles or Moorish palaces. But by the 90s Henry Richardson had given it a new honest look and Louis Sullivan, the first great modern architecture anywhere, was developing his idea that "form followed function." The invention of the steel-framed building created the skyscraper. At the same time, the pioneer Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan's pupil began to design houses, churches and factories in which a new use of space and materials made the world sit up and take notice. Now what is the new American painting which is causing a stir in Paris and Rome and how did it come about? Until the twentieth century, American painting, with a few exceptions, was mostly imitative of what was going on in Europe. Up until the time of the American Revolution, our artists were provincials. Their one hope was to get to London; study with an English teacher and exhibit in the Royal Academy. Most of their work can hardly be distinguished from what minor painters were doing in England and Scotland during the same period. Individual unscrupulous art dealers have sometimes brought up provincial European portraits and sold them as Americans. Down the nineteenth century, our talented young artists hurried off to Munich, Paris, Dusseldorf or Rome and enrolled in foreign art schools to learn the latest fashions. The American artists became known as "the permanent pupil" of Europe. Here and there independent souls like Winslow Homer, the influential painter of Maine marines and Thomas Eakins, who did haunting portraits in Victorian Philadelphia, refused to be carried away with the fads and stood on their own two feet.
Back and forth during the nineteenth century, our painting swung from the meticulous and detailed realism to moods of Romanticism. Albert Ryder who lives like a hermit in the very midst of New York, painted visionary subjects like "Jonah and the Whale" and "Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens" while there sprung up a whole tradition of romantic American landscape painting. This started in the Catskills where it was known as the Hudson River School though later it spread with the thrust of western expansion, into the Rockies and the Pacific. In our century, American painting has more and more tried to be itself. In 1908 a group of young painters and newspaper illustrators in New York held an exhibition which painted people in bars and at the Bowery. They were violently attacked and called "The Aschan School." George Bellows, who later became famous for his "Stag at Sharkey's" and the other prize-fight pictures, was at first considered too brutal to be enjoyed.
During the depression, our artists turned back to our past, concentrating on picturesque America. This was the period of "the American Scene," with its realistic depictions of its streets and our people. Perhaps the most original picture of the period was Grant Wood's American Gothic. After World War II this interest in regional subjects waned. All over the world, there was a new impulse and Americans, for once, were at the forefront of the movement. At first, it wasn't recognised. New movements often start that way. Its chief characteristic was that it was "abstract." In other words, it had no recognisable subject. It couldn't be identified as a picture of a tree or a bouquet or a portrait of Aunt Emma. Since 1910 there have been many varieties of abstract art, starting with Cubism, invented by the Spaniard, Picasso, and the Frenchman Barque. Cubism got its name from the fact that these artists broke up the forms of geometric shapes. Mountains and houses were redesigned into "cubes." Americans like Pollock and De Kooning carried abstraction farther than even Cubism. They left out geometry and painted spontaneously just as other young artists were doing around the world. The thing that put these Americans high in the new movement is their daring and strength. Besides them, many Europeans contemporaries seem weak and uninventive. Pollock, for example, does not stop with the brush; he drops and drips his paint on the surface of an enormous canvas laid on the floor. From this tangle of lines and spots emerges a vibrant colour and bristling jungle-like pattern. You can read in it what you will, but there is no doubt of its emotional punch. The Dutch-born De Kooning loves to carve and plough the surfaces of his canvases, suggesting massive, moving forms of nature. Two years ago he disconcerted the public by suddenly returning to a kind of overgrown realism, painting a series of terrifying women in heavy cruel strokes. Another "instinctive" painter is Mark Rothko, who covers big canvases with glowing bands of colour. So powerful in Rothko's ability to convey colour as a light that the visitor is dazzled in front of these paintings. It is as they were immersed in a bath of neon or caught in a desert sunrise.
Franz Kline, using chiefly black and white, seems to hurl vast brush strokes - like ragged steel girders - against one another. His work suggests the dynamic of the city. There has been a considerable attack on this whole school of post-war abstraction, its detractors insisting that these paintings are entirely devoid of meaning and significance. Others like Lewis Mumford, one of America's most thoughtful critics, finds these artists reflecting the disintegration of the present world. For him, they present an apocalyptic vision of a civilisation in the grip of fear and terror. Defenders of the movement point out that since the splitting of the atom, a new world has been presented to the artist's imagination. The old stable world no longer exists. Our advanced painters are striving to create a new organic way of painting more in line with today's physics. If there is one dominant American trait, it might be called a sense of adventure. The American artist is willing to go all out on an idea. He has broken loose from the past (perhaps too violently) and he is willing to experiment and propose any means or way that will satisfy him. He is not unlike our scientists in the laboratories, pushing out the frontiers of research. If the public takes a second look at what he is doing, they may be stopped being shocked. After all, whether by realism or abstraction, the best of our painters are expressing us and our own times.