“The Irascibles: Painters Against the Museum, New York, 1950,” opened on March 6 at the Fundación Juan March in Madrid and closed on June 7, precisely spanning the months in which the virus did its worst both here in New York and in Spain. Belonging now to that awkward cohort of art writers who, since the pandemic, have not actually seen the exhibitions about which they presume to write, I advise the reader to consider the paintings in the show as tangential to the exhibition’s greater curatorial focus: the content of its 290-page catalogue. Documenting the controversy surrounding a letter of protest signed by a leading group of American abstract artists and the iconic group photograph that grew to symbolize the historic significance of the first internationally recognized American art movement, one could say that the catalogue is the show.
The Irascibles, as the photograph came to be known, first appeared in a photo essay for Life magazine in early 1951 that told the story of a letter of protest the eponymous artists had sent to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and several newspapers. The letter accused the museum of shutting them out of a proposed exhibition titled “American Painting Today—1950” by selecting a jury predisposed to more conservative painting. Along with contemporary press accounts, correspondence, exhibition ephemera, and a series of essays covering a number of perspectives on the event and its context, the catalogue’s team of writers offers a look behind the curtain of the New York School’s founding myth.
The catalogue unveils a plethora of visual source material and peels back layers of personal interactions between artists, dealers, collectors, museum trustees, and critics during the events of the early Fifties. The story of the Irascibles was, by turns, one of group solidarity, individual egos, critical hyperbole, and academic advocacy, the sheer density of which had by the late Seventies collapsed the story of Abstract Expressionism’s birth into an oversimplified legend of crusading avant-gardists, a philistine public, and stubborn museum administrators.
In demythologizing the narrative, a thicket of opinion had to be untangled first. As an indication of the challenges the writers of this volume faced, consider an unintentionally misleading passage in Beatriz Cordero’s otherwise meticulously researched overview of the relationship the artists shared at the time with New York’s art museums. Referencing a letter Barnett Newman sent in 1953 to MOMA’s president, William Burden, Cordero suggests “His protests against MOMA’s acquisition of an 1888 Monet in 1953 and against the Guggenheim’s purchase of a Cézanne the following year are particularly worthy of note.”
A surgical parsing of Newman’s letter to Burden will reveal that he was actually affirming the Monet acquisition, though in prose crafted with a tortuous aggregate of sarcasm and praise that renders misreading almost inevitable. What’s interesting about Newman’s letter and Cordero’s interpretation of it is how they both give evidence of one of the catalogue’s primary themes, which is the exposure of artists straining to maintain their avant-garde independence while seeking institutional approval. Newman’s pugilistic ranting in what is in fact a complimentary letter puts the conflicted passions of the time on full display.
The climate was one of shifting loyalties amid an unsteady consensus. As mature artists of middle age, they were keen on boosting their public reputations, and if it was going to take a group effort to kickstart their ambitions, they were willing to play along. The mundane details of how the iconic photograph of the Irascibles came about illuminate the group’s discord. Inés Vallejo and Manuel Fontán Del Junco provide a backstage view of the disarray that characterized the photo session, giving the reader a sense of the tension in the room.
The photographer, Nina Leen, on assignment for Life, arranged with the group to meet at a neutral space. After a recent unsigned and harshly critical writeup in The New York Herald (which originated the moniker “irascible” as an insult), the artists were suspicious of mass market publications. Exacerbating this tension, Leen’s pragmatic strategy of dealing with organized groups by maintaining tight control of a shoot produced an image that exposed the awkwardness of all but a few sitters. Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still, for example, assumed the Hollywood 8 x 10 glossy look, cigarettes in hand, self-assured, while Rothko looked as if he were shrinking from a police lineup. A few among them had suggested they dress like bankers to avoid a bohemian appearance. Most ignored the advice. Sports jackets and casual shirts dominated.
The most revealing of the catalogue’s historical revisions concerns the maligning of the event’s press coverage at the hands of later critics and historians. This subject is addressed by Bradford Collins, whose reconstruction of Life’s engagement with modern art is the centerpiece of this book. As it had come down to us, the Irascible story was a tale of the avant-garde against a unified and unreceptive establishment. This neat fable took no account of Life’s admirably open-minded approach to “advanced” art. Moreover, by 1950 the establishment’s resistance was already fading, at least in terms of individuals in the group making it into museum shows and collections. As early as 1948, the Whitney Annual had included six of the painters from the group, the Museum of Modern Art had acquired work by Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and the Guggenheim had acquired an Adolphe Gottlieb. Even the Met had work by three of the Irascibles in its collection.
But to maintain the mythology needed for Ab-Ex credibility, it was in the art community’s interest to keep this binary interpretation alive. Thus the history of Life magazine’s reporting, which belied the accepted truth of a hostile and ignorant public, was an obstacle. Based on a longer paper published previously in an academic journal, Collins endeavors to correct the few casual comments in the standard histories of the period, notably Irving Sandler’s Triumph of American Painting and Dore Ashton’s The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, which had lumped Life magazine together with a monolithically reactionary opposition to radical art.
As the catalogue’s reproduction of the full photo and text spread from 1951 demonstrates, Life’s approach to the story was objective and broadminded. The original caption places the word “irascible” between quotes because it had appeared in the earlier New York Herald piece that was severely critical of the artists. The Life piece went on to suggest the controversy was an echo of confrontations between artists and art institutions that had defined early modernism, which pleased the artists and relieved them of their fear that the magazine was out to ridicule them.
For the press of the day, the controversy was understandably intriguing. At that time the Metropolitan Museum of Art was undeniably stodgy, a portrayal reinforced not only by the catalogue’s writers but by the volume’s designers. A photo of the Met’s façade stretching across the inner cover shows the entrance stairs in 1950, far narrower than they are today and serviced by a circular driveway built with the presumption that visitors would arrive in cars with salaried drivers. Yet whatever nuance distinguished each newspaper or magazine’s editorial policy toward the controversy had effectively been erased by the Seventies. The question is why?
Collins also introduces us to a mostly forgotten project Life had sponsored in 1948, a roundtable on modern art and the public’s unease with it. Held at the Museum of Modern Art, it was attended by Clement Greenberg from The Nation, Theodore Greene from Yale, Alexander Eliot from Time, and other notable art world figures. The gathering produced a final report that recorded the range of opinion one would expect from such participants, but concluded, as Collins quotes, that “this tremendous individualistic struggle which makes modern art so difficult for the layman is really one of the great assets of our civilization. For it is at bottom the struggle for freedom. . . . And in light of it the layman, who might otherwise be disposed to throw all modern art in the ashcan, may think twice—and may on second thought reconsider.”
This may not be a ringing endorsement of abstract painting, but neither is it a philistine sacking. To suggest a skeptic ought to “reconsider” difficult art is to put faith in the modernist trope that the avant-garde inevitably wins public approval. Perhaps it is in support of this extraordinary presumption that art world opinion makers felt compelled to suppress any record of public openness to difficult art, or evidence of thoughtful skepticism.
When told with sober disinterest, the Irascible story exposes the truth that, once the dust of this “conflict” settled and the museums, collectors, and artists understood the revised rules, things continued as before but with greater efficiency. Within a decade, Color field painting, Pop Art, and Minimalism were absorbed by the New York museums in relatively quick succession. Frank Stella’s 1958 leap from Princeton undergraduate to one of the “Sixteen Americans” in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was an indication that things had changed considerably.
The obvious irony in the book’s subtitle, “Painters Against the Museum,” exposes the reality of a relationship that requires an adversarial subtext but functions cooperatively. Protests by artists are basically cries for a seat at the table. And yet, what’s fascinating about more recent protests—concerns with past colonial complicity, bias against women artists and artists of color, unsavory business ties maintained by trustees—is that just like the anti-war protests of the Sixties and Seventies (from which museums were not immune), these complaints are a blend of public and art world concerns. As such, they are not so easily resolved or dismissed.
If you’re wondering what the dismissed sort looks like, Cordero’s essay ends with another protest letter, published in 1953 and addressed to the Museum of Modern Art a mere two years after the Irascible incident. Signed by forty working artists including Edward Hopper and Milton Avery, it accused MOMA of paying too much attention to Abstract Expressionism. It went nowhere.