After my mother died, my siblings and I took on the job of clearing out her house. Among the items I brought home with me was a pile of old museum catalogues. Many of them were for one-person exhibitions, but there was also a sizable group that sought to memorialize en masse the then-most-notable art of the day. The oldest of these catalogues was for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s first biennial in 1932, but quite a few American museums tried their hand at identifying trends and champions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art took a whack at it in its 1950 “American Painting Today” exhibition, employing twenty-six jurors from five regions in the country, who selected 761 paintings by several hundred artists—some you have heard of, most you haven’t. When we now think about American art in 1950, we are most likely to recall the names Jackson Pollock, Willem de...


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