Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 26, 1999
David Craven Abstract Expressionism as Cultural Critique: Dissent During the McCarthy Period Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 232 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0521434157)

Why “yet another study” of Abstract Expressionism? David Craven answers his own question by positing that his book discloses “new material,” provides a “novel approach,” and embodies “a shift in critical perspective” (p. 2) regarding the art historical analysis of what may well be American art’s best known and most widely discussed style of painting.

The new sources that Craven examines consist of two sets of previously unpublished materials: 200 pages of FBI files on various Abstract Expressionist artists (Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, and Lee Krasner); and a series of interviews with Meyer Schapiro and Lillian Milgram Schapiro conducted between 1992-1995 by Craven, Andrew Hemingway, and James Thompson. Along with these interviews, Craven has also combed through many of Meyer Schapiro’s lecture notes, letters, memorial addresses, reviews, and essays dating from the 1930s through the 1970s. The result is the recuperation of Schapiro’s significance as a mid-century modernist art critic with a particularly leftist political bent and his addition to a postwar critical canon that has tended to focus on the politically centrist figure of Clement Greenberg. Craven’s overall aim, however, is to claim Abstract Expressionism itself as an aesthetic form of leftist criticism—as a form of “Romantic anticapitalism” that was “fundamentally at odds with the capitalist mode of production” (p.136).

Importantly, Craven argues for the pluralistic and polyvalent nature of Abstract Expressionist art. Recognizing its various practitioners as the deeply paradoxical and contradictory characters that they were, he advises that their diverse works “be approached as an uneasy locus—more or less stable but not conclusively resolved—of competing values, some of which are hegemonic and others subaltern, out of which broader signification is constructed” (p. 17). If his writing is obtuse, indebted to the dense theoretical insights of T. W. Adorno, Karl Korsch, and Louis Althusser, and to graduate studies with Donald Kuspit, Craven’s intentions are more clearly stated: “to mount a rigorous critique of the deficiencies marring the otherwise important interpretation” of postwar American abstraction by “major proponents of the social history of art (Eva Cockcroft, Serge Guilbaut, T. J. Clark, and Michael Leja)” (p. 26). Heatedly denouncing these historians (Guilbaut is singled out in particularly nasty terms) for generating “lamentable,” “grave,” and “bogus” analyses which “simply,” “single-mindedly,” and “inadequately” link Abstract Expressionism to the “dominant ideology” of Cold War liberalism and consensus politics, Craven insists that the ideas and occasional actions of various postwar leftist groups and critics also be considered, if not take precedence, in the general historical assessment of 1950s American abstract art.

Over the past few decades, a more fully nuanced and contextualized analysis of post-World War II American culture, history, society, and politics has clearly emerged. As multiple scholars explain, including George Lipsitz (A Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s, University of Illinois Press: 1994), Lary May (editor, Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War, University of Chicago Press: 1989), and Joanne Meyerowitz (editor, Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960, Temple University Press: 1994), mid-century America was hardly monolithic. Moreover, despite the domestic repression of McCarthyism and the specter of anticommunism, the left never completely disappeared nor was completely unempowered in postwar America, as books by Michael Denning (The Cultural Front, Verso: 1996) and Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (editors, Secret Agents: The Rosenberg Case, McCarthyism, and Fifties America, Routledge: 1995) amply demonstrate.

As Craven details, some Abstract Expressionist artists and critics allied themselves with Dissent: A Quarterly of Socialist Opinion, a left-wing journal founded in 1954 by Irving Howe. In the early 1960s, Dissent sponsored several art exhibitions and benefits featuring the work of Gottlieb, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Motherwell, and Barnett Newman, among other postwar American painters. Around the same time, Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg were associated with the short-lived publication New Politics: A Journal of Socialist Thought (founded in 1961). Culling statements and comments made by these and other New York School participants, Craven challenges the historical understanding that Abstract Expressionism signified or even reflected “the dominant ideological claims of a cold-war ‘business liberalism’” (p. 17). On the one hand, he argues that the pluralistic nature of the art prevented its easy ideological use as a simple “signifier” of postwar American cultural and global supremacy. On the other, he cites examples of how Abstract Expressionism was “seen” (or received) on anarchic and oppositional terms in Latin and South America in the 1950s and 1960s, inspiring politically leftist artists from Raul Martinez of Cuba to Armando Morales of Nicaragua. As Fidel Castro put it in 1960, “Our enemies are capitalists and imperialists, not abstract art” (p. 16).

Abstract Expressionism certainly varied tremendously in scale, subject, and tone. And as an improvisational and self-centered aesthetic primarily oriented toward both formalist experimentation and personal expression, it was certainly oppositional, or at least paradoxical, in terms of the dominant mainstream postwar values of consensus, conformity, and conservatism. As Craven defines it, Abstract Expressionism was a “visual language fundamentally at odds with the homogenized Anglo-American culture of the McCarthyists.” Despite the fact that it was diverse, unstable, and inexplicit, he further insists that Abstract Expressionism’s “ideological critique of labor practices within monopoly capitalism” is “seen to emerge from the internal pictorial logic of the artworks themselves” (pp. 27-28). Yet given this art’s overarching pluralism and ambiguity, and Craven’s own recognition of the impossibility of any direct link between art style and political ideology, it is odd that Abstract Expressionist art is then said to “signify” a leftist critique of mainstream postwar political culture, any more than it “signifies” any other political ideology.

Craven’s primary proof for this, and his primary look at the paintings, centers on the analysis that their handmade and automatist aesthetic challenged the dehumanizing sphere of post-World War II industrial and commercial labor, an analysis which, however plausible, could just as easily be applied to any variety of handmade objects and images (like folk art). He also relies heavily on materials external to the art, such as the FBI files on several Abstract Expressionist painters (huge portions of which, Craven points out, were blacked out for “national security”), the participation of the artists in the Dissent art shows, and the comments the artists and critics like Schapiro made indicating their profound dissatisfaction with postwar U.S. society. Yet, FBI files were ubiquitous and arbitrary (the agency even kept files on Elvis Presley), and being placed under surveillance by these government paranoids is hardly a direct or even genuine indicator of oppositional or subversive politics. Further, does simply contributing a picture to a leftwing magazine’s art show necessarily constitute a commitment to leftist political ideology? Given the still small-scale of the early 1960s New York art scene and art market, it is entirely probable that the painters (several of them women) who donated their works to Dissent‘s benefit shows did so for reasons of publicity and careerism. And do verbal and written declarations, such as Newman’s 1970 comment that his artwork embodied “the possibility of an open society, of an open world, not of a closed institutional world” (p. 74), necessarily connote leftist political leanings? One could argue that Newman’s sentiments fall in line with an abiding national culture of complaint, and a longstanding American tradition of libertarianism focused on anti-government and pro-individual sentiments.

There are enormous differences between art and its reception and appropriation. Because the art of Abstract Expressionism was basically open-ended it was easily appropriated for multiple postwar political and cultural purposes, from the pro-American freedom propaganda of Cold Warriors to the anticapitalism of postwar leftist critics. (It remains malleable, as Craven points out in his discussion of a 1984 Budweiser ad featuring basketball superstar Bill Russell making an “action painting” by dribbling a paint-covered ball on a canvas, p. 20.) Craven hedges on Abstract Expressionist art’s lack of closure, granting its “uneasy” and paradoxical sensibility but also wanting its primary meaning to be seen as an indicator of postwar leftist political ideology. His book would have made much more of a contribution to our understanding of postwar American culture and politics had he more closely scrutinized the diverse ideological impulses that were manifest in the late 1940s and 1950s, and further recognized the fundamentally muddy thinking on both sides of the political spectrum. Unfortunately, Craven’s own political bias prevents the larger and more generous synthesis of the extraordinary complications, alliances, and intersections that marked postwar American culture and politics.

Erika Doss
Professor, Department of American Studies, University of Notre Dame