Illustrating America

Peter Campbell

  • Willem de Kooning: Drawings, Paintings, Sculpture by Paul Cummings, Jorn Merkert and Claire Stoullig
    Norton, 308 pp, £35.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 393 01840 7
  • Abstract Expressionist Painting in America by William Seitz
    Harvard, 490 pp, £59.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 674 00215 6
  • About Rothko by Dore Ashton
    Oxford, 225 pp, £15.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 19 503348 5
  • The Art of the City: Views and Versions of New York by Peter Conrad
    Oxford, 329 pp, £15.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 503408 2

The landmarks of New York – the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, the Rockefeller and World Trade Centres – have no ceremonial public function. Victories are consecrated in the streets, with ticker-tape falling. And New York painting is like New York celebrations: it has not been made for palaces and chapels. Reginald Marsh’s Coney Island bathers were its Three Graces, George Bellows’s boxers its Laocoon. But then in the late Forties Abstract Expressionism came, producing something with the scale and power of public art, although these paintings, like the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Centre, were self-referential. They did not glorify the city, or victories, or political alliances, or history, or the land, but the artist himself and his creativity: art galleries apart, was there a natural home for them?

In 1958, when Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building went up, it seemed that there was. The Abstract Expressionists, who, in the Forties, could see themselves as an embattled avant-garde, were out of their cold-water lofts, and taking on the status of giants and heroes. Pollock was already two years dead; Seitz’s record of the movement, although it is only now published, was written. The Seagram was special. Mies van der Rohe was asked to design it after a committee had considered both Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier: Phyllis Lambert, an architect and the daughter of the head of Seagram, persuaded her father that the opportunity to give New York a great building should not be lost. The Four Seasons restaurant on the ground floor – a public space in a building honouring high art and refined taste – would be a sort of secular chapel. Here, perhaps, the huge canvases of the new school would look at home. Philip Johnson asked Mark Rothko to paint a series of pictures for the walls. Rothko took the job on, and then, some years later, decided not to deliver the pictures. (They eventually came to the Tate Gallery as a gift from the painter.) Although Dore Ashton’s ‘critical biography’ is not very informative about the contradiction which Rothko felt existed between the spirit in which he had made the paintings and displaying them in the restaurant, the implications of his decision are interesting. The grand question ‘what is art for?’ may elicit less revealing answers than the simple one: ‘where shall we put it?’

It was not just the scale and seriousness of Rothko’s paintings that made the restaurant an unsuitable place to hang them, for when a real chapel was built in Texas for another set, the effect was, Ashton says, ‘disappointing. Rothko had been right to cherish “the space” he had made in his own studio. The new place with its concrete and steel was far too perfect to be perfect for Rothko’s vision.’ The fault, Ashton goes on to say, was the Texas light. But there was a fragility inherent in Rothko’s programme. The pictures demanded an architectural environment – they were most effective when they enveloped the viewer. But their content was too fugitive to sustain the kind of public life such a permanent setting implies. They probably looked at their best in those exhibitions like the one at the Whitechapel Gallery, where, when one saw them for the first time, it seemed that an abstraction as self-consistent as classical music had been achieved. And yet this sense of being part of a process, part of a forward-moving wave, left Rothko depressed. The revival of figuration in the Pop art of the Sixties made him uncertain about the value of his own work.

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