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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

TWO OUT OF THREE AT THE EAST END

William Glackens (American, 1870-1938). Far from the Fresh Air Farm: The Crowded City Street, with its Dangers and Temptations, Is a Pitiful Makeshift Playground for Children. 1911. Crayon heightened with watercolor on paper, 24 12/ x 16 1/2 inches. Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Bequest of Ira Glackens, 91.41.152
I didn’t get to the Hamptons until August this year, but that was all to the good, as three stellar exhibitions had only recently opened—and will be up into October. One’s on three dealers who represented Jackson Pollock in the 40s and 50s, one’s on that stalwart impressionist of “The 8,” William Glackens, and one displays early work by Robert Motherwell. In this posting, I’ll deal with the first two: all three are equally worthy, but I just don’t have time to write about all of them at present.

“POLLOCK’S CHAMPIONS”

The show that chronicles Pollock’s three major dealers is, not surprisingly, at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, in The Springs of East Hampton. It’s titled “Pollock’s Champions,” and was organized by Bobbi Coller, PhD, guest curator (through October 31). As Coller observes, in her introductory wall text, “An artist’s relationship with his or her dealer is an unusual and complex partnership,” and certainly “much more than a business agreement.”

Pollock was unusually lucky in having three strong personalities who believed in his promise and promoted and displayed his very controversial art. Yet, even under the best of circumstances, artists and dealers are like oil and water: they don't necessarily mix, and, even though this show is very well done, and casts Pollock's three dealers in the best possible light, I still can’t help wondering how he really felt about all three.

They might be summarized as a dilettante, a priestess and a onetime shirt manufacturer. This exhibition is primarily documentary in nature, with relatively few actual works of art on view, but it is definitely of interest to those of us who continue to plumb the mystery of how Pollock related to the larger society.

The dilettante (albeit in the best sense of the word, “an admirer or lover of the arts”) was Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), an American copper industry heiress who had lived in Europe between the world wars and amassed a sizable collection of avant-garde art (and artists).

Upon returning to her native New York during World War II, she set up a radical gallery called “Art of This Century” at 30 West 57th Street (57th Street being where all the big galleries in those days were still on or near). Here she gave Pollock his first four shows, and first sold his paintings, including “The She-Wolf” (1943), which went to MoMA, and “The Guardians of the Secret” (1943),which went to the San Francisco Museum of Art.

In addition, she commissioned him to paint a huge mural for her town house on East 61st Street, and loaned him and his new wife, Lee Krasner, the money to cover the down payment for the house in Springs-- the loan being part of a deal in which Guggenheim agreed to pay him a monthly stipend, and, if the sales from paintings didn’t cover the stipends, to accept their equivalent value In works of art.

After the war ended, she decided to move back to Europe, and contracted with Betty Parsons to represent Pollock in her stead. Considering that Guggenheim took 23 Pollocks back to Europe with her, it’s clear that she had had serious trouble with selling them. Although Clement Greenberg had already discovered Pollock, and was hymning his praises, other critics were at best only mildly receptive—and it’s also true that Pollock hadn’t yet reached his artistic maturity. If he'd died in 1946, he would at best be remembered only as a very gifted late surrealist.

This part of the Pollock-Krasner House show is enlivened by a few of those exquisite early engravings that Pollock seems to have made with the encouragement of Stanley William Hayter, the surrealistically-oriented British printmaker who had left his atelier in Paris to set up an émigré one at the New School for Social Research. Other items worth a gander are the telegram that Guggenheim sent Pollock, telling him about the sale of “The She-Wolf’ (for $600), and Pollock’s dust jacket for Guggenheim’s memoir, “Out of This Century.”

The priestess was Betty Parsons (1900-1982). Another native New Yorker, she went to the 1913 Armory show as a girl and lived in Paris in the 1920s, where she studied art, moved in avant-garde circles, and became a passable (though far from great) avant-garde painter herself. After the stock market crash in 1929, her income was seriously depleted, so she moved back to New York and ran a series of galleries for other people before opening her own in 1946.

The Betty Parsons Gallery was at 15 East 57th Street, right across the hall from the Samuel Kootz gallery, which had opened the year before, and – like Guggenheim -- exhibited both avant-garde European art and nascent abstract expressionists (artists who showed with him included Hofmann, Gottlieb, Baziotes & Motherwell).

Parsons was almost religious in her devotion to the avant-garde. At her peak, in the early 1950s, she represented not only Pollock, but also Still, Rothko, Newman, Herbert Ferber & Stamos (among many others). She gave Pollock five solo exhibitions between 1948 and 1951, including two in 1949. This was the period when the artist was at his most prolific—and his greatest. He had mastered his method of working on the floor with paints skeined from a stick, and was (more or less) on the wagon, thanks to a local doctor who had persuaded him to substitute an early form of tranquilizers for booze.

The result was a steady succession of masterpieces, including “Lucifer” (1947), “Autumn Rhythm” (1950) and “Lavender Mist” (1950). Yet the only time when he was able to sell a significant portion of them was from his November-December 1949 exhibition—three months after Life had derisively asked whether or not he was America’s greatest. Despite the magazine’s implications to the negative, the artist – and his dealer -- benefited from the publicity, if only temporarily. Neither the superb 1950 show nor the one in 1951 sold at all well.

Parsons was able to place several Pollocks in important collections, including those of Blanchette Rockefeller (Mrs. John D., III), Roy Neuberger, and – most importantly-- Alfonso Ossorio, the well-to-do fellow artist who was to become a good friend to the Pollocks, and eventually purchase “Lavender Mist.” But, since both Parsons and Guggenheim were collecting commissions from all these sales, Pollock was seeing little income from them.

Nor was Parsons really good at business. One of the exhibits in “Pollock’s Champions” is her accounts book, with Pollock’s sales itemized and listed – and at least one of the most important ones omitted. Rarely did she sell a work for more than $1,000, nor was she aggressive enough to twist the arms of collectors and curators. Ultimately Pollock became so disenchanted with her that he and Lee started looking around for another dealer.

Yet again, Parson’s poor track record also reflects the fact that Pollock’s work – and abstract expressionism in general – was still fiercely disturbing to many and maybe most observers. In October 1951, Vogue ran a big article on Parsons by Aline B. Louchheim (later Saarinen), with photographs of all the distinguished artists she represented. While favorable to Parsons and to abstract expressionism in general, Louchheim conceded that “some of the public” was “baffled” by it, and added that “there are many people who think, and many more who hope that the pendulum of taste will swing again away from these artists.”

A more direct statement of this viewpoint is included in “Pollock’s Champions:” an undated page from one of Parson’s guest books with this message scrawled on it: “Parsons must be nuts to insult the great name of art with crap – it isn’t even funny anymore – this is the stupidest crap I’ve ever seen—shit to Pollock.”

In addition, this part of “Pollock’s Champions” is distinguished by some very pretty announcements for shows, and a delicious little pen and ink drawing by Pollock, ca.1946, officially untitled but given by Pollock to Parsons, and informally called by her “The Orchestra of the Insects.”’

Buffalo-born Sidney Janis (1896-1989) was Pollock’s third and last primary dealer. The wall text at “Pollock’s Champions” describes him as “one of the 20th century’s most influential art dealers” and chronicles his earlier career as prosperous clothing manufacturer, collector of European modernism, member of MoMA’s advisory committee, and author of a 1944 book on abstract and surrealist art that reproduced a number of early works by the future abstract expressionists (a year after Kootz had published a very similar book).

Janis opened his art gallery in 1948, in the space across from Betty Parsons that Kootz had formerly occupied (Kootz was becoming a private dealer, but would reopen his public gallery in 1950 on Madison Avenue, with an important group show called "The Intrasubjectives" that for the first time displayed all the leading abstract expressionists together).

Pollock joined the Janis gallery in 1952. By this time, it already represented de Kooning and Arshile Gorky (dead since 1948). Like Kootz and Guggenheim, Janis also exhibited many European moderns. By the 60s, he would also be representing Motherwell, Gottlieb & Rothko.

As a businessman, Janis knew how to move the merchandise, and Pollock made more money than he ever had before. Among the paintings that Janis was able to sell for him were “One: Number 31, 1950” (bought by Ben Heller); “Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952” (bought by Fred Olsen), and Number 12, 1952 (bought by Nelson Rockefeller). Janis continued to represent the estate after Pollock’s death in 1956, and in 1957 was able to sell “Autumn Rhythm” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for a sum that was widely reported as $30,000—an astronomical total for an abstract expressionist in those days.

However, it wasn’t only Janis’s business acumen that was responsible for these successes—it was also the fact that even by 1952, abstract expressionism in general and Pollock in particular were becoming more accepted. Dorothy Miller’s “15 Americans,” staged at MoMA in the spring of 1952, featured Pollock, along with Rothko, Still and Baziotes. December 1952 saw the publication of Harold Rosenberg’s highly influential and much admired article in Art News on “action painting,” an article widely (if not necessarily truthfully) believed to have been inspired by Pollock.

By the later 1950s, as A. Deidre Robson has shown, prices paid to artists and their dealers for abstract expressionist work began to escalate across the board, though that was only in the primary market.

My own research – summarized in my book, “A Memoir of Creativity”—shows that not until the mid-60s did the secondary market for abstract expressionism (at auctions) begin to take off. And much of this upturn may well have been due to the infusion of new blood and new money that had been drawn into the art market by pop.

Ironically, Janis therefore may have done his abstract expressionist stable their biggest favor by promoting a movement they almost all detested: pop. His big show of the “new realism,” staged in the fall of 1962, did more than any other single exhibition to put pop art on the map (aided as it was by a rapturous review in the New York Times, and a long, typically turgid article by Rosenberg in the New Yorker).

Motherwell, Gottlieb, and Rothko were so disgusted by this show that they quit Janis’s gallery, but he took up the slack by sharing with Leo Castelli the new masters of pop, and showing Claes Oldenburg, Marisol, George Segal, Tom Wesselman & Jim Dine. (Kootz,, by contrast, closed his gallery in 1966, rather than go with the flow).

What I liked best about the section on Janis in “Pollock’s Champions” were the handsome installation photographs of some of Pollock’s three solo shows with him. But perhaps the large, multi-image photographic portrait of Janis by Andy Warhol is the most appropriate tribute—even though neither Krasner nor Pollock himself, had he lived to see it, would have wanted it in their home.

“WILLIAM GLACKENS”

Over in Water Mill, the Parrish Art Museum is showing ”William Glackens.” A highly pleasurable and entertaining exhibition, it includes more than 85 paintings and works on paper from museums and private collections in the U.S. and abroad, and is the first comprehensive survey of this talented artist’s work since 1966.

Curated by Avis Berman, another independent writer and art historian, the show is a joint undertaking by the Parrish, the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale (where it was seen last spring), and the Barnes Foundation (through October 13 at the Parrish, thereafter at the Barnes Foundation, November 8 through February 2).

Who, a lot of people may ask, was William Glackens? Before this show, anyway, and before the lavish review accorded to it by Roberta Smith in the metropolitan edition of the New York Times, most of the people best able to answer this question were probably those who learned about him when they took that introductory college course on 20th century American art that was still a staple of the art-historical curriculum in the later 1970s, when I was in grad school at Columbia.

A very nice teacher, Gerald Silk, invited me to be his TA for that course, and, as the job entailed my auditing the course, I learned a lot myself. Glackens, I became aware, was one of “The Eight” who, at the behest of the Philadelphia realist, Robert Henri, came together to present the most “radical” show that New York had yet seen in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery.

Not that this show was in any way as radical as what was going on in Europe at the same time, but New York’s viewing public had been accustomed to the genteel inanities of the annual exhibitions at the National Academy of Design. Henri, who had begun teaching in New York in 1902, had by 1908 been joined in New York by four artists who had been newspaper and magazine illustrators in Philadelphia. They had been accustomed to gather in Henri’s studio in Philadelphia to discuss art and culture, socialize, make life drawings, and read radical authors like Thoreau & Whitman.

“The Philadelphia Four” were Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks & Everett Shinn. Together with Henri, they formed the nucleus of the Macbeth Gallery show. Though it was also expanded to include three more “esthetic” painters – Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, & Ernest Lawson ¬– the emphasis was meant to be on down-and-dirty scenes of daily city life. These were intended to contrast with the academic niceties of the NAD and painted (at least by Sloan and Henri) in a rich dark palette that owed more to early Manet & Velázquez than it did to latter-day impressionism.

Already by that time, however, Glackens was becoming more of an impressionist, with an especial admiration for Renoir. His best-known canvas, “Chez Mouquin” (1905) was included in the Macbeth Gallery show, and shows an elegant couple in a popular Manhattan restaurant, executed in bright, bold colors and with very free, dashing impressionist brushstrokes.

Alas, the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns this painting, wouldn’t lend it to the Parrish show, but the Parrish show is rich in other, equally lively paintings by Glackens from the early years of the 20th century. Most show city parks, with children playing and/or ladies strolling, both in snow or surrounded by greenery. There is also a spirited painting of a pair of vaudevillians, a he-one and a she-one (ca. 1908-1909)

Later on, in the century’s second decade, these earthy cityscapes are joined by charming scenes at seaside resorts, again with ladies and children, as well as foam-capped waves and little boats. As the years pass, Glackens turns more and more to nudes, figure studies and even a few still lifes, with a palette growing progressively richer, more luscious and more Renoirean.

Somehow, it comes as no surprise to learn that Glackens played a major role in forming the collection of his high school classmate, Albert C. Barnes and went shopping for him in Paris. The two men obviously had a lot in common – above all, a passion for Renoir. Nor does it come as a surprise that the Barnes Foundation has lent several paintings to this show – except that in the old days, Barnes never loaned out anything.

Lowbrow that I am, though, I must say that the works I liked best in this show were three large and beautifully worked–up drawings on paper, also from the early years of the 20th century. They show scenes in Manhattan streets, surrounded by unglamorous buildings, and packed with crowds of little people marked by the same kind of dulcet innocence that also makes the crowd scenes of Bruegel so memorable.

Two of the three come from the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, which has mammoth holdings in Glackens, having received a $50 million bequest of them from the artist’s son, Ira Glackens, in 1991—when Kenworth W. Moffett was director there.

These three drawings seem to have been done as magazine or newspaper illustrations, but (unlike Glackens’ journalistic drawings illustrating battle scenes from the Spanish-American War) they are mercifully free of almost all of the illustrator’s visual clichés of the period.

“Curb Exchange No. 1” and “Curb Exchange No. 3” (both 1907-1910) depict the mob of stock brokers who used to congregate in the street near the New York Stock Exchange, in order to buy and sell smaller and/or more speculative securities (in 1921, the curb exchange moved indoors; in 1953, it was renamed the American Stock Exchange, and in 2008 it was absorbed by the New York Stock Exchange—its role of handling smaller and more speculative stocks having been largely taken over by NASDAQ).

The choicest of these three large drawings is entitled “Far from the Fresh Air Farm: The Crowded City Street, with its Dangers and Temptations, Is a Pitiful Makeshift Playground for Children” (1911). It depicts an awesomely busy Lower East Side street, lined with tenements and packed with peddlers’ pushcarts and street traffic – in the midst of which, a courageous little band of children is doing its damnedest to set up a baseball game. It is truly down-and-dirty City Life in all its nightmares and glory.
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