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Abstract Expressionism
by Gary Comenas

abstract expressionism

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Edward Alden Jewell vs. The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors

back to June 2 - 26, 1943: Third exhibition by the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors takes place at the Wildenstein Gallery

The third exhibition by the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors took place at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York from June 2 to June 26, 1943. The Federation's goals were stated in the catalogue and in a letter sent out to the press:

"The current 3rd annual exhibition of the Federation... prompts us to state again our position on art, and the new spirit demanded of artists and the public today. At our inception three years ago we stated 'We condemn artistic nationalism which negates the world tradition of art at the base of modern art movements." Historic events which have since taken place have eminently confirmed this... This country has been greatly enriched, both by the recent influx of many great European artists, some of whom we are proud to have as members of the Federation, and by the growing vitality of our native talent... As a nation we are being forced to outgrow our narrow political isolationism. Now that America is recognized as the center where art and artists of all the world must meet, it is time for us to accept cultural values on a truly global plane." (SG73-4)

Edward Alden Jewell reviewed the Federation's show in a short article that appeared in The New York Times on the day the exhibition opened.

Edward Alden Jewell [from The New York Times article]:

"You will have to make of Marcus Rothko's [Mark Rothko's] 'The Syrian Bull' what you can: nor is this department prepared to shed the slightest enlightenment when it comes to Adolph Gottlieb's 'Rape of Persephone.' John Graham continues his bizarre experimentation with paint, giving us this time a device called just 'Painting,' which might perhaps derive in some queer sort of way from Lautrec, though it also might perhaps not. One can hardly say."
(Edward Alden Jewell, "Modern Painters Open Show Today; 55 Members of the Federation Represented in Third Annual Exhibition at Wildenstein's," The New York Times, June 2, 1943, p. 28)

Further negative comments by Jewell about the Federation's show were published in an article reviewing the end-of-season shows in The New York Times on June 6, 1943.

Edward Alden Jewell [The New York Times, June 6, 1943]

"Three years ago the incorporated Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, bespeaking public notice, rose to condemn 'artistic nationalism which negates the world tradition of art at the base of modern art movements.' ...What the reply of the future may be none can at the moment with confidence assert. However, quoting once more from the [Federation's] leaflet... 'As a nation we are now being forced to outgrow our narrow political isolationism. Now that America is recognized as the center where art and artists of all the world meet, it is time for us [so the leaflet concludes] to accept cultural values on a truly global plane.'

Maybe when you visit the exhibition... you will find all this graphically and plastically substantiated. For my part, I wasn't so sure, looking around Mr. Wildstein's nice and graciously provided galleries, that anything globally halcyon had as yet materialized, or even that anything of that sort was on the way... I couldn't seem, in the true sense of the term to 'experience' some of the art, and I left with just the old uneasy feeling that reverence for the Ecole de Paris had failed to produce over here many miracles worth speaking of.

On Wednesday morning, when my previous notice of the show was published, one of the artists phoned in and promised a statement that might help disperse confessed befuddlement over paintings such as Mr. Gottlieb's 'Rape of Persephone' and Mr. Rothko's 'Syrian Bull.' When it arrives the statement, you may be sure, will be eagerly shared with our readers. For it is quite right that we should become global in our thinking - yes, even, I suppose, if thinking globally involves taking in our stride such linguistic posers as this, affixed to Mr. Schewe's canvas called 'E Pluribus Unum':

A scissorfrantic syzygy
Gongoristic Gorgonism
Triple, triple toil and trouble;
Triple-decker Portraiture
Add thereto a Tiger's Chaudron
For the ingredients of our Cauldron:
Trikotomic Tripartition
Trijugated Tragedy.

Well, I must hasten on with my allotment of the weeks panorama, pausing just longer enough now with the federation show to state that it contains lots of art that is less baffling (conceivably even less global), and that a few of the artists, on a a plain everyday count (whether they recognize America's opportunity or not), acquit themselves with distinction."
(Edward Alden Jewell, "End-of-the-Season Melange," The New York Times, June 6, 1943)

The promised statement from the Federation referred to by Jewell in his article was in the form of a letter signed by Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko (but written with the help of Barnett Newman (MH)), dated June 7, 1943 with a return address of 130 Estate Street, Brooklyn, New York.

Adolph Gottlieb/Mark Rothko/Barnett Newman [from the letter]:

"WE do not intend to defend our pictures. The make their own defense... It is easy matter to explain to the befuddled that 'The Rape of Persephone' is a poetic expression of the essence of the myth; the representation of the concept of seed and its earth with all its brutal implications; the impact of elemental truth. Would you have us present this abstract concept with all its complicated feelings by means of a boy and girl lightly tripping?

It is just as easy to explain 'The Syrian Bull' as a new interpretation of an archaic image, involving unprecedented distortions. Since art is timeless, the significant rendition of a symbol, no matter how archaic, has as full validity today as the archaic symbol had then. Or is the one 3000 years old truer?"

The authors of the letter listed five of their "aesthetics beliefs" including:

"4. We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.

5. It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.

Consequently if our work embodies these beliefs, it must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration; pictures for the home; pictures for over the mantel; pictures of the American scene; social pictures; purity in art; prize-winning potboilers; the National Academy; The Whitney Academy, the Corn Belt Academy; buckeyes; trite tripe etc." (WA35-6)

On June 13, 1943 The New York Times published Jewell's response in an article titled "The Realm of Art: A New Platform and 'Globalism' Pops Into View," which quoted the letter in its entirety.

Edward Alden Jewell:

"Last Sunday in this place there appeared some comment on the third annual exhibition at the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors... In the course of that article it was mentioned that one of the artist-members of the federation had promised a statement calculated to disperse befuddlement (which I had freely confessed) over certain paintings.

Circumstances have developed most fortunately. I am in receipt not only of the statement referred to but likewise of a statement from another artist-member of the federation... I again agree that it is quite right that we should try to become global in our thinking. And if the art that has baffled me is to be accepted as in line with that effort, then I don't see why, taking Mr. Rothko's 'Syrian Bull' by the horns, we shouldn't term the new movement that seems to be afoot 'Globalism.' It may be esteemed at least as apt as such tags as 'Fauvism,' 'Cubism' and 'Futurism'...

Now since (in behalf of a conceivable public need along these lines) I had asked the artists merely for an explanation, it came as no shock of surprise to read: 'We do not intend to defend our pictures. They make their own defense..."

I do not recommend it but the fearless might gingerly poke at one phrase and marvel that, to be valid, subject-matter must be 'tragic.' So far Globalism seems to guarantee a rather bleak and cheerless future...."
(Edward Alden Jewell, "'Globalism' Pops Into View/Puzzling Pictures in the Show by the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors Exemplify the Artists' Approach," The New York Times, June 13, 1943)

back to June 2 - 26, 1943: Third exhibition by the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors takes place at the Wildenstein Gallery

abstract expressionism

| 1800-1899 | 1900-1909 | 1910-1919 | 1920-1924 | 1925-1927 | 1928-1929 | 1930 | 1931 | 1932 | 1933 | 1934 | 1935 | 1936 | 1937 | 1938 | 1939 |
| 1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 (a) | 1945 (b) | 1946 | 1947 | 1948 (a) | 1948 (b) | 1949 | 1950 | 1951 | 1952 | 1953 | 1954 | 1955 |
| 1956 | 1957 | 1958 | 1959 | 1960 | 1961 | 1962 | 1963 | 1964 | 1965 | 1966 | 1967 | 1968 | 1969 | 1970-1974 | 1975 - 1979 | 1980s +|