Visu­al Arts

Action/​Abstraction: Pol­lack, De Koon­ing, and Amer­i­can Art, 1950 – 1976

Nor­man L. Klee­blatt, ed.
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011

Miss­ing from the title and sub­ti­tle is the main thrust of the essays of this mag­nif­i­cent­ly illus­trat­ed book about the key fig­ures in the blaz­ing art world of post World War II New York: the essays deal with how the two art crit­ics, Clement Green­berg and Harold Rosen­berg, dom­i­nat­ed the scene with their per­spec­tives on the impor­tance and mean­ing of the paint­ings of Jack­son Pol­lack and Willem de Koon­ing. The two crit­ics were known as lead­ing intel­lec­tu­als of the 1930’s when they turned their atten­tion to the art scene, each cham­pi­oning his choice abstract expres­sion­ist: Green­berg idol­iz­ing Pol­lack and Rosen­berg rever­ing de Koon­ing. Through their writ­ings they influ­enced the public’s accep­tance of the avant-garde as well as the idea that New York had replaced Paris as the world cen­ter of art. 

Each pro­mot­ed the stan­dards by which the art would be judged, even invent­ing the ter­mi­nol­o­gy with which expres­sion­ist paint­ings would be described. Green­berg stood by for­mal cri­te­ria of form and con­tent, favor­ing abstrac­tion while Rosen­berg con­sid­ered the act of paint­ing an event” where­by the ges­ture — action — dom­i­nates the effect. 

The exhi­bi­tion which occa­sioned this book is a kind of ret­ro­spec­tive — the essay­ists don’t inter­pret or eval­u­ate the art — rather they have mined the vast his­tor­i­cal record— and it is vast — to present the art move­ment, Abstract Expres­sion­ism, in terms of spe­cif­ic social, polit­i­cal and lit­er­ary forces at work dur­ing that peri­od. Nor­man Klee­blatt, edi­tor of the vol­ume and senior cura­tor of the exhi­bi­tions, con­tributes the major essay dis­cussing each of the artists and the paint­ings repro­duced in the book, includ­ing Ken­neth Noland, Bar­nett New­man, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Mor­ris Louis, Helen Franken­thaler, Lee Kras­ner, Philip Gus­ton, and Jules Olit­s­ki, as well as Pol­lack, de Koon­ing, and oth­ers. 

The fact that both Green­berg and Rosen­berg were Jews (along with a num­ber of the artists) wasn’t con­sid­ered rel­e­vant to their art crit­i­cism. Only in the essays by Mark God­frey and Mor­ris Dick­stein is the mat­ter dis­cussed and they are note­wor­thy for the insight into the peri­od of the great influ­ence of Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als, with Green­berg edit­ing the Par­ti­san Review, a pres­ti­gious jour­nal of ideas, and Rosen­berg becom­ing the art crit­ic for the New York­er. Even ear­li­er, they had each con­tributed arti­cles to Com­men­tary and its pre­cur­sor Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Record. Each had expound­ed on the sub­ject of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in their writ­ings but only rarely addressed it in rela­tion to their art crit­i­cism, Rosenberg’s lec­ture on Is there a Jew­ish Art” giv­en at the Jew­ish Muse­um, and lat­er pub­lished in Com­men­tary, notwith­stand­ing. 

The essays address dif­fer­ent aspects of the his­to­ry of Abstract Art and the Berg Boys,” each lucid­ly infor­ma­tive and accom­pa­nied by illus­tra­tions. It is a weighty book, solid­ly worth­while. Bib­li­og­ra­phy and notes.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions