When critics collide The Albright-Knox looks back at American abstraction’s tempestuous heyday

By Bruce Adams

Jackson Pollock’s Convergence
Willem de Kooning’s Gotham News
Hans Hofmann’s Fantasia
Kenneth Noland’s Whirl
Lee Krasner’s Untitled, 1948

Since the 1950s anyone with even a passing interest in art, knowingly or not, has felt the influence of two towering American art critics. Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were fiercely intelligent Jewish New York City writers who developed opposing critical views on modern art—most notably abstract expressionism. They carried on a vicious public rivalry while befriending many of the artists they championed in their writings. They were art-world kingmakers who shaped the landscape of American modernism as it rose to global prominence. Each had his own stable of favored painters, typified by Greenberg’s backing of Jackson Pollock and Rosenberg’s support of Willem de Kooning.

Galleries consulted them; artists became loyal readers; historians and universities adopted their ideas and jargon. Greenberg’s analytic formalist approach in particular came to dominate critical discourse and art pedagogy for decades, with its focus on the art object through its formal properties—color, unity, and so on—and relation to art history. Rosenberg meanwhile emphasized what he somewhat nebulously termed “action” over the object itself. Existential defiance against convention mattered most to him; the canvas was merely an arena in which artists carried out subjective acts of rebellion.

What ensued was a printed exchange of erudite potshots so heated that at one social gathering the opponents nearly came to fisticuffs. Greenberg essentially triumphed, becoming the dominant force in art criticism, while Rosenberg remained a major opposing influence.

Meanwhile, the popular media often trivialized the art that Greenberg and Rosenberg so passionately promoted. Fred Muggs, the painting chimpanzee, embodied the public’s contempt for gestural painters like de Kooning. Norman Rockwell’s illustrative painting, The Connoisseur, ironically depicted a dapperly dressed man scrutinizing a Pollock drip painting. About Jackson Pollock,Life magazine rhetorically asked a skeptical nation, “Is he the the greatest living American painter in United States?” To most readers the question carried overtones of incredulity.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery will look back on all the exhilaration and antipathy of what was arguably modernism’s pinnacle, and grand finale, inAction/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976. Opening February 13 and running through May 31, the touring exhibition—recently featured in an extensive article in Art in America—is organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, in collaboration with the Albright-Knox, and the Saint Louis Art Museum. Drawing from the Albright-Knox collection and numerous other lenders, the exhibit will include notable paintings and sculptures by Pollock, de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Lee Krasner, David Smith, Anne Truitt, Hans Hofman, Jasper Johns, and a host of other art luminaries and pacesetters, including many under-exhibited artists.

What sets Action/Abstraction apart from the usual American postwar survey exhibition is the extraordinary effort organizers have made to bring this story to life. Albright-Knox senior curator Douglas Dreishpoon—a consulting curator for the exhibition—explains, “There’s a rich display of ephemera related to the period which dovetails with a part of the show we’re calling ‘cultural context realms’: catalogues, postcards, letters, broadsides, photographs, movie and still images, a lot of material that fleshes out the actual cultural context of the period.”

The Rosenberg/Greenberg rivalry is at the show’s core, but the exhibition will also spotlight darker aspects of the times, such as the art community’s bias against women, African Americans, and gays and lesbians. “It’s very important for contemporary eyes and contemporary scholars to constantly revisit historical periods,” says Dreishpoon. “[The curators] put their heads together to rethink the period in ways that haven’t been thought of before.”

A lavishly illustrated and smartly written exhibition catalogue chronicles the art, artists, critics, and culture of the day. Included is a revealing timeline that illustrates just how disjointed an affair art history can be.

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.