The Park Avenue Cubists: Gallatin, Morris, Frelinghuysen, and Shaw at the Grey Art Gallery, New York. January 14–March 29, 2003.

Clement Greenberg was undoubtedly a great critic. But he also undoubtedly had his crotchets and blind spots. One crotchet he inherited from Marxism. He tended to see artistic developments in terms of a necessary historical evolution (the ineluctable unfolding of the dialectic, comrade). In “The Decline of Cubism,” a famous essay first published in Partisan Review in 1948, Greenberg extolled Cubism (“the only vital style of our time”) as an “experiment” that advanced the “hope, coincident with that of Marxism and the whole matured tradition of Enlightenment, of humanizing the world.” Greenberg’s use of “experiment” was not an accident. Cubism, he wrote, “expressed the positivist or empirical state of mind” with its “faith in the supreme reality of concrete experience” and “an all-pervasive conviction that the world would go on improving.”

The great irony of Hegelian-Marxist thought—the thing that keeps its adherents in such limber intellectual trim—is the never-ending task of explaining why the inevitable has failed to happen. Cubism was necessary, nevertheless it was in “decline.” “Conservative” artists were part of the problem: they lacked “nerve,” had turned their back on the “real insights of the age,” etc.

Now, it’s tough work, fabricating excuses for an unreliable necessity. But Marxists can be clever people. Only a few of them, however, have managed to leaven their cleverness with a highly refined aesthetic sense. Greenberg did it. And the tension between his political commitments and his nose for aesthetic quality was one source of his vitality and richness as a critic—a vitality and a richness, it must be said, that often operated by exclusion.

Greenberg was seldom less than illuminating. It was part of his greatness as a critic that he was also often infuriating. One person who was articulately infuriated by Greenberg’s writings about “the decline of Cubism” and related issues was the rich, socially prominent American painter and critic George L. K. Morris (1907–1975). “One must stretch a point to call it criticism at all,” Morris wrote about “The Decline of Cubism,” “rather it is an appraisal-sheet built around a thesis.” (Morris, incidentally, had preceded Greenberg as chief art critic for Partisan Review and, in 1937, had quietly provided the financial wherewithal that allowed the magazine to break away from its Stalinist roots.)

Morris was unhappy about Greenberg’s diagnosis partly because it depreciated the achievement of Cubist-inspired artists like … well, like himself and his wife and friends: Estelle (“Suzy”) Freylinghuysen (1911–1988), A. E. Gallatin (1881–1952), and Charles G. Shaw (1892–1974). But Morris’s displeasure was not merely personal. He believed, and not without good reasons, that Greenberg’s contention that in times of crisis “radical” artists retreat to safer, more conventional aesthetic practices exaggerated “the connection between nerve and great painting.” “Surely,” Morris wrote, “it is on quality that artists get judged in the end, and not on their innovations.”

I think Morris was right about that, and there is some irony in the fact that his pronouncement—the first half of it, anyway—has a distinctly Greenbergian ring to it. “Quality,” after all, was a prime enabling epithet for Greenberg and his circle. It was part of Greenberg’s Marxism and commitment to the idea of the avant-garde to link quality and innovation; it was part of his common sense to attenuate that link as he matured. Greenberg, like many other observers at the time, regarded Morris and the artists congregated around the American Abstract Artists (the AAA) as derivative lightweights. (“Bravura technical performances and nothing more,” wrote Robert Goldwater in 1947.) By the 1960s, however, Greenberg shelved the issue of originality and revised his overall judgment. The quality of American abstraction in the 1930s and 1940s, he acknowledged in “America Takes the Lead” (1965), “looks higher now than it did then.”

That was a significant admission for a critic as apodictically inclined as Greenberg. But it had little effect on the public reception of the work in question. The damage had been done. One of the great virtues of this exhibition of fifty-odd works by “The Park Avenue Cubists” is to redress the balance a bit. The nickname was bestowed by other members of the AAA on Morris and his socially distinguished friends. Gallatin was the great-grandson of Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison and a founder of New York University; Frelinghuysen was the granddaughter of another Secretary of State; Shaw was the heir to part of the Woolworth fortune; and Morris was a descendant of General Lewis Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The social and financial advantage the friends enjoyed was a source of admiration, envy, and resentment, especially during the bleak years of the Depression and in an art world firmly in the grip of Bohemian nostalgia.

As this exhibition shows, the Park Avenue Cubists were a supremely cultivated and urbane group, well-educated, widely travelled, sophisticated, and patrician in their tastes. Gallatin was an avid collector who owned important works by Picasso, Léger, Gris, and Braque. He established the Gallery of Living Art (later the Museum of Living Art) at NYU in 1927 in the space now occupied by the Grey Gallery. Morris was the first curator. Morris, Shaw, and Gallatin all wrote fetching and occasionally important criticism. (Shaw was also a poet, novelist, and journalist who wrote for Mencken’s Smart Set, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.) Gallatin and Morris co-founded and wrote for Plastique, a short-lived arts journal. Frelinghusyen, although remembered today primarily for her paintings and collages, was first of all an opera singer. She had a brief but apparently distinguished career with the New York City Opera: Virgil Thomson proclaimed her voice one of the “most outstanding for sheer vocal beauty.”

The work on view in this exhibition is of a piece with the lives of artists who created it: cultivated, adroit, tasteful, witty, urbane. It is vintage champagne enjoyed in crystal flutes by a small group of friends during a splendid dinner and conversation. Could it be deeper? Perhaps. Could it be more enjoyable? Not likely. This is technically accomplished American Cubism at its most effervescent. Some of it looks a bit dated—Shaw’s depiction of a package of Wrigley’s gum against an abstract cityscape, for example—but the inherent wit and visual insouciance remain intact. The high points of the exhibition are some of Morris’s compositions—especially New England Church (1935–6)—and Frelinghuysen’s splendidly deft works—Still Life (1944), Composition (1943), and (my favorite) Man in Café (1944).

In 1975, the year of his death, Morris observed that “The hour is overdue for a refinement of sensibility in our vulgar modern world; perhaps against the pressures of contemporary life, the artist can again concentrate on the creation of the beautiful object, which, after all, has been through the centuries an ultimate aim of aesthetic effort.” Another quarter century on, his words are as resonant as ever. This exhibition provides one illustration of what Morris had in mind. After closing in New York, it may be seen at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, and the Samuel P. Harn Museum at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 6, on page 52
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