Archive for October, 2020

A long overdue corrective, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945 shifts the historical gaze of “American” art. Rather than situating Europe as the sole center of Modernism, the exhibition positions Mexican Modern artists as the school many US artists were following, not least for their influence in the country’s socio-political realm. Themes which centered Indigeneity, celebrations of the rural landscape, and visions of Mexican identity that deemphasized European heritage, all the while denouncing the violence of nationalism, were among those that most influenced US artists. 

The curatorial thesis accounts for the transit and direct exchanges of artists working in both countries. José Clemente Orozco for instance, was the first of the muralists to visit the US in 1927, and produced murals in California and New York. His work had a significant impact on that of artists including Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and Jackson Pollock. Through strategic juxtapositions, we see the trace of Orozco’s broad and long brushstrokes in Lawrence’s pointed ones, and in Charles White’s geometrical compositions. A particularly extraordinary pairing is of Orozco’s paintings with Lawrence’s Migration Series, revealing the social awareness of both artists in their subject matter.

In the autumn of 1945, two artists – not young, but not quite middle-aged, either – moved from New York to a village called Springs, near East Hampton on Long Island. These newlyweds had no money. It would be a while before they could make the small clapboard farmhouse that was to be their new home any less freezing in winter, let alone install an indoor bathroom. But this isolated spot, with its ramshackle outbuildings and its view of the Accabonac Creek, was for them a bit of heaven – in the beginning, at least. Together, they cooked and gardened. Together, they went digging for clams, travelling to the beach on their bicycles (they did not own a car). Above all, they worked: he in their barn, she in an upstairs bedroom. Life was, for them both, mostly about painting. Their allegiance to it was fierce: as intense as their loyalty to each other, from which it could never fully be separated.

One of these artists, Jackson Pollock, would one day become very famous – the hard-living central figure of American abstract expressionism, known the world over for his drip paintings, made by allowing the paint to drop from his brush or a can on to a canvas laid on the floor – and, thanks to this, the house is now a US historic landmark, open to the public. … But it’s not Pollock I’m interested in today. I’m looking for traces of his extraordinary and prodigiously talented wife, Lee Krasner, a major retrospective of whose work will open at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, later this month.

Back in 1959, Texan alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman went to New York’s Five Spot venue armed with just a plastic saxophone and proceeded to wreak havoc with a radical new sound that rejected orthodox notions of melody, harmony, and structure – the supposed bedrocks of conventional western music. He called it free jazz, and even the normally insouciant Miles Davis was perturbed by it. As he wrote, in his customary pithy way, in his book, Miles: The Autobiography: “He just came and f__ke up everybody.” Some saw Coleman as a visionary – classica lconductor Leonard Bernstein proclaimed him a genius – while others, among them trumpeter Roy Eldridge, were less enthusiastic and thought the saxophonist was a charlatan. “I think he’s jiving, baby,” Eldridge said.

Back then, admitting that you were partial to free jazz came with a high price – depending on who was “outing” you, you could face ridicule, hostility and even the prospect of being ostracised. 

The Abstract Expressionists emerged from obscurity in the late 1940s to establish New York as the centre of the art world – but some say they became pawns of US spies in the Cold War.

“Societies, like Soviet Russia, without any outrageous modern art of their own, seem to us to be only half alive.”

— Leo Steinberg

Willem de Kooning
Woman, 1949
Oil on canvas with enamel and charcoal
152 x 121 cm
private collection

Modern Art as CIA ‘Weapon’

Revealed: How The Spy Agency Used Unwitting Artists
Such as Pollock and de Kooning in A Cultural Cold War
The Indepentent
By Frances Stonor Saunders
Sunday, 22 October 1995

For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” As for the artists themselves, many were ex- com- munists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.

Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.
(learn more)

Guston Moma
Philip Guston
Painting, 1954
Oil on canvas
63 1/4 x 60 1/8 inches
Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 11.36.51 PM
Franz Kline
Orange and Black Wall, 1959
Oil on Canvas
66 3/4 x 144 1/2 inches
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

“One of the most extraordinary, beautiful,
and original works of art that I know of.”
– Susan Sontag

Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie

The seeds of Butoh were planted in the experimental atmosphere of the late 1950s, when Tatsumi Hijikata and co-founder Kazuo Ohno began to question the nature of dance itself. Butoh was born out the turmoil and chaos resulting in a loss of identity following WWII that propelled them to reexamine their own culture and to create an indigenous modern genre of dance. Referring to various styles of Western ballroom dance, “Butoh” was adopted by Hijikata and soon his dance was titled Ankoku Butoh or “dance of darkness.” Dance as a creative interaction between form and content conveying the spirit of the times was markedly different from the interpretation of existing forms as practiced in traditional dance/theater and classical ballet. For Hijikata the best body for a Butoh dancer is a corpse, a body that asks for and expresses nothing.

Readings For October 19th

Posted: October 19, 2020 in Readings


Susan Sontag
(1933 – 2004)
“Against Interpretation” (1964)
“Notes on Camp” (1964)


Susan Sontag with Jasper Johns


Helen Frankenthaler (obituary)
Abstract expressionist artist associated with the colour field movement

Michael McNay
The Guardian, Wednesday 28 December 2011

At the age of 23 Helen Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea (1952), an abstraction that freed up the logjam in postwar American art following the first sensational burst of creative activity by the abstract expressionists. It looks, in reproduction, like a gently evocative watercolour with a series of blue, green and red stains fading into pink, and a small, glowing yellow ochre passage coalescing into the hint of landscape that the title suggests. In fact Frankenthaler, who has died aged 83, had just returned from a holiday in Nova Scotia to her studio in New York, and nailed a canvas about 7ft high and 10ft wide to the floor and poured oil colour on to the surface.

The method and the scale of it was, of course, borrowed from Jackson Pollock’s procedure, but it was totally devoid of Pollock’s angst-ridden search for the sublime. Frankenthaler said later that, fresh from the north Atlantic, she painted from the memories absorbed into not only her mind but her wrists as well. Painting became once again, as in many of its best periods, an instinctive coalition of hand and eye and controlling intelligence.

(read more)


Helen Frankenthaler with sculptor David Smith


Helen Frankenthaler
Life Magazine

By its very nature, action painting is painting in the medium of difficulties.
–Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters” (1952)

There exists my action, regardless of whether or not it is secured.
–Kazuo Shiraga, “Action Only” (1955)


Kazuo Shiraga
Challenging Mud (1955)


Kazuo Shiraga
painting with his feet for Life magazine
at the Nishinomiya factory of Jiro Yoshihara (1956)

Shozo Gutai

Shōzō Shimamoto
making a painting by shattering bottles (1956)


Murakami Saburō
Passing Through (1956)


Kazuo Shiraga
Work II (1958)


Shomei Tomatsu
Atomic Bomb Damage (1961)


Kazuo Shiraga
Black Sky (1990)

Ali Foreman Kline

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

–Harold Rosenberg

First-Wave (European) Abstraction


Wassily Kandinsky
Composition VII (1913)


Kasimir Malevich
Suprematism (1917)


Piet Mondrian
Composition of Red, Blue, Yellow, and White: Nom II


Second-Wave (American) Abstraction


Arshile Gorky
The Leaf of The Artichoke Is An Owl (1941)

Pollock; Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Jackson Pollock
Autumn Rhythm (1950)


Willem de Kooning
Two Women in The Country (1954)

Kline, Untitled 1957.jpg

Franz Kline
Untitled (1957)

In recent posts I have presented the music of familiar “classical” composers: Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. I also presented less familiar modern composers, of the New Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Here I will present a very different group of composers, the New York School. The New York School arose in the early ’50s when John Cage and Morton Feldman met at a performance of Anton Webern’s work. Their music is typified by accident, improvisation, novel textures, and open and extended forms – in particular Feldman, some of whose pieces are five hours long. Another important characteristic of the New York School is their experimentation with novel forms of notation (click the images below) which would allow them to diverge from the traditional scoring that enslaved musicians to the autocratic will of the composer. As you listen to this music, you should hear a world of difference between it and the expressive but insular abstraction of, say, Schoenberg and the manic, or mantic, repetitiveness of, say, Terry Riley, a Minimalist composer on whom I will post more later. Please listen and enjoy. Comments are always welcome and encouraged.

You might want to consider the relationship between the composers who called themselves the New York School, and a group of extremely important painters – all descendants of Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg – who also called them selves the New York School: Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline.

greenberg pollock krasner frankenthaler

Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg
at the beach, with the artists
Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner (and an unidentified child)


John Cage
(1912 – 1992)
“The Seasons – Prelude III, Summer”
“The Perilous Night”
“Totem Ancestor”
“A Cage of Saxophones – Five”


Morton Feldman
(1926 – 1987)
“Rothko Chapel (4)”
“For John Cage (10:00-20:00)”
“For Christian Wolff”
(sample of 3-hr piece)

Browne Available Forms FAC-10775

Earle Brown
(1926 – 2002)
“Solo for Trumpet”

Wolff Edges Score

Christian Wolff
(b. 1934)
“Dark as A Dungeon”


left to right:
C.W., E.B., J.C., M.F.

Bird and Dizzy.

Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie

Lot Less, But MORE Industry

Posted: October 6, 2020 in Uncategorized

As I suggested in my video, it might strike some students as very odd – in these era of unregulated pollution and massive extinction – the Greenberg would argue for increasing industry, rather than shutting it down. The point I tried to make – and I believe it is what Greenberg had in mind – is that industry is not intrinsically dirty and destructive. Rather, industry as we have thus far practiced it is dirty and destructive. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Those Greenberg does not use this exact language, I would suggest he would agree that we – because of or laziness, greed, and lack of imagination – have largely remains in a paleotechnic mode of production, heavily dependent on clumsy, inefficient, non-renewable resources whose extraction causes massive harm to both humans and the environment. However, it remains within our reach, and is indeed essential for our survival, to move forward to a neotechnic mode of production.

This lengthy and imposing book was first published in 1934. While aspects of it now seem somewhat quaint, its overall outlook and argument strike as remarkably advanced for its time. If it did not retain relevant for our day, the Anthropocene, I doubt the University of Chicago Press would continue to publish it and endorse it as a statement of more than mere historical interest.

Technics and Civilization first presented its compelling history of the machine and critical study of its effects on civilization in 1934—before television, the personal computer, and the Internet even appeared on our periphery.

Drawing upon art, science, philosophy, and the history of culture, Lewis Mumford explained the origin of the machine age and traced its social results, asserting that the development of modern technology had its roots in the Middle Ages rather than the Industrial Revolution. Mumford sagely argued that it was the moral, economic, and political choices we made, not the machines that we used, that determined our then industrially driven economy. Equal parts powerful history and polemic criticism, Technics and Civilization was the first comprehensive attempt in English to portray the development of the machine age over the last thousand years—and to predict the pull the technological still holds over us today.

Lewis Mumford
(1895 -1990)
American architectural critic, urban planner, and historian who analyzed the effects of technology and urbanization on human societies throughout history.

Readings For February 4th

Posted: October 3, 2020 in Readings

Jackson Pollock Makes A Painting



Harold Rosenberg
(1906 – 1978)
“The American Actions Painters” (1952)


Leo Steinberg
(1920 – 2011)
“Contemporary Art and The Plight of Its Public” (1962)

The Foreseeable Future

Posted: October 1, 2020 in Uncategorized