Notebook, 1991-95

Themes, Topics, Issues


Petruck, Peninah R. Y. American Art Criticism 1910-1939. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1981. [A dissertation in the Dept. of Fine Arts submittted to the faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Science in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at New York University. June, 1979.]

American Art Criticism 1910-1939

Background Ideas
Robert Henri
Alfred Stieglitz

The Armory Show Years
Christian Brinton
James Huneker
Frank Mather

The Twenties
Henry McBride
Forbes Watson

The Thirties
Thomas Craven
George L. K. Morris


The history of American art criticism from the Armory Show through the end years of the Depression charts a diversity and continuity of attitudes toward art. Published in newspapers, general periodicals, and art magazines, art criticism has been written by professional critics, art historians, artists, collectors, and writers specializing in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Essentially these critics wrote in response to single and group exhibitions in varying degrees of depth. Specific paintings are barely discussed. Similarly, developed theoretical essays are rare. Issues are stated, left undeveloped, and continue to be controversial.

The major issues that American art critics debate during this period relate to both the particulars of America and universal ideas about art and culture. These include: 1. academicism vs. modernism 2. representation vs. abstraction 3. a socially useful art vs. art for art's sake 4. a national American art vs. internationalism in art.

Moreover, critics are uneven in their treatment of artists and exhibitions. For example, conservatives are enthusiasts of traditional art and write infrequently and cursorily about modern art. On the other hand, modernists expound on the significance of modern art and hardly comment on traditional academic art. As reporters and makers of taste, critics tend to spend the best of their energies on what satisfies their own taste.

As such, it makes sense to examine the history of American art criticism in terms of its major contributors. This approach respects the integrity of each critics ideas, using the criticÍs entire and varied contribution as the basis for interpretation. In this dissertation the writing of representative critics for each decade are analyzed in depth. Each has been chosen for his relatively moderate viewpoint and writing on the widest range of topic within his representative category. Their writing is synthesized and related to sources and parallels in art and cultural history. It is interpreted as an individual's contribution as well as a reflection of the on going variety of general ideas that characterize the decade. [Surprisingly few references are made to European criticism. This reflects the very character of American art criticism. A comparison of the two different traditions deserves a separate study.]

What qualifies a category of critics are similar ideas, values, and use of language. Remarks comparing critics of the same category are few in order to avoid repetition. Critics of one category prove to be remarkably similar in the issues discussed and their vocabulary. However, critics are reviewed in the context of the representative critic in order to highlight and distinguish variations on the representative viewpoint.

The ideas identified with Robert Henri and Alfred Stieglitz set the stage for the history of criticism during this period. In the first decade of the century these men presented parallel ideas about art that are echoed by agreeing and divergent [p. 3] factions. Their influence is among many strains that characterize American art criticism. Henri and his circle are early voices in twentieth century thinking about art as a living communication, an emotional response to everyday experiences. In varying ways Christian Brinton, Forbes Watson and Thomas Craven continue this tradition.

Stieglitz and his circle stood for, above all, individual artistic creativity. Stieglitz encouraged art as a spiritual, emotive interpretation of the human condition. James Huneker, Henry McBride, and George L . K. Morris evolve their writing in the context of this tradition.

For the period 1910-1920, Christian Brinton, James Huneker, and Frank Mather are treated as representatives of the modernist, middle of the road, and conservative taste, respectively. In this study Huneker emerges as the first fully developed critic. This has to do with the fact that of the critics representative of this decade, Huneker was the liveliest, the most involved with the widest range of interests. Also, more is known and written about Huneker than the others. Perhaps Brinton's and Mather's careers as critics are less subject to scrutiny because there is less to scrutinize.

In Brinton's criticism, contradictory strains of progressivism and Bergosonian influences are distinguished; in Huneker's, cosmopolitanism and Symbolist influences; in Mathers, belief in tradition and New Humanist influences. These differences admitted, they shared basic assumptions about art. Like their precedents and successors, these critics believe that art is an individual and meaningful contribution to society. They value art as a reflection of the creator and the context of creation.

The key event of the decade is the Armory Show. The Armory Show provoked art critics to clarify their ideas and feelings about contemporary art and its precedents. This process had begun in reference to the activities of Henri and the Eight, and the Stieglitz circle. The content of those less spirited responses to earlier activities set the stage for the intense and dramatic debates that grew up around the Armory Show. The strongest disagreements were expressed on the question of subject matter. Supporters of modernism valued abstract form and color; the anti-modernists valued representational, literal subject matter. Still they shared similar convictions about artistic freedom. The modernists posited aesthetic freedom as essential to artistic integrity. The anti-modernists also firmly supported artistic freedom though they argued more forcefully for an art that satisfied public taste.

For the period 1920-30, Henry McBride and Forbes Watson are treated as critics representative of the dominant trend of modernism. Henry McBride is intensely enthusiastic about European and American modernist developments in the twenties. His writing continues the ardent support of modernism manifested by modernists for the Armory Show and the activities of the Stieglitz circle. A cosmopolitan, he reflects America's desire for sophistication and increased sensitivity to American art. The influence of Santayana can also be discerned. On the other hand, what distinguishes Forbes Watson is his more moderate and [p. 5] restricted support of European and American modernism. More aggressively nationalistic than McBride, Watson favored modernist work that integrated radical European developments with elements of realism exemplified by Henri. Underlying his aesthetic are Whitmanesque and Emersonian notions of self reliance and profound respect for the individual and aspects of a characteristically American ambivalent anti-intellectualism.

Criticism in the twenties marks the acceptance of modernism and growing self confidence in American art. The range of modernist critics believed that art, especially contemporary art, deserves more and better attention. The idea of modern art no longer as questionable, the critics of the twenties began to examine issues implied in the valuation of art made by current living artists. They called for museums and collectors to act responsibly by making art available to the public at large. These ideas were voiced by modernists in the established general and art magazines as well as in the little magazines that proliferated during the twenties.

Essentially the conservatives had diminishing resonance as the decade progressed. The other viewpoint of the Armory Show years, the middle of the road view, is recognizable in the more moderate version of modernism.

For the period from 1930-40 Thomas Craven and George L. K. Morris are viewed as representative critics, advocates of representational and abstract art, respectively. More than critics of the previous generation, Craven advocates the development of an indigenous American art. His aesthetic criteria are local, representational subject matter, and audience comprehension. Vociferously he devalues European and American modernist achievements. His writing can be understood as a resurgence of conservative taste intertwined with a growing pride in American achievement. The ideas of Tolstoi, John Dewey, Robert Henri, and Frederick Jackson Turner are the unacknowledged intellectual background of Craven's writing. On the other hand Morris defended European and American modernism, in the form of abstraction. He continues the Stieglitz tradition of encouraging innovative art forms; he relates new art to a new and better American society;. Morris recognized that the best impetus for American art was familiarity with radical European developments. Morris values the artist's exploration of formal aspects of an art work over audience comprehensibility. He argues for the expansion of the audience's sensibility rather than the limitation of the artist's interests to what is easily comprehensible. Insisting on art's humanistic potential he believes that abstraction--a fresh artistic vision--is a means toward its achievement. These varied ideas about art are an informal synthesis of American, English, and European sources.

What distinguishes the criticism of the thirties is not new ideas but the intensity of the critic's preoccupation with ideas already prevalent at the beginning of the century. For the first half of the decade representation was widely recognized as America's most vital art form. By the second half of the decade taste was beginning to shift. Abstraction dependent on European innovations was valued more popularly as an imaginative [p. 7] creative expression. The Depression and subsequent government patronage of the arts are crucial factors in the study of the art criticism of the thirties. A heightened social consciousness pervades all aspects of culture including the art writing of the period. Even more than previously critics focused on the necessity of artistic responsibility to society. Again the strongest disagreement here is about subject matter. In the thirties the debate is associated with the issue of an international vs. an indigenous American art. Before critics had identified abstractions with both European and American modernists. During the thirties abstraction to its opponents implied internationalism and at its extreme anti-Americanism. These apologists for representation insisted that the use of literal, local subject matter was the best, if not the only, indication of the American artist's patriotism.

In the forties both Craven and Morris had little credibility with the next generation. The new art that each supported did not satisfy the latest demands for an art truly expressive of contemporary American experience. [pp. 2-8]

Background Ideas
American art criticism before the Armory Show in the first decade of the Twentieth century sets the stage for the major trends followed through the depression years. Robert Henri and Alfred Stieglitz represent two focal points for the discussion of these ideas about art. In different ways for similar purposes these men and their respective supporters established viewpoints that are the background for the subject of this dissertation.

Their relationship to criticism before WWII is not linear. For certain issues critics of divergent viewpoints can be understood in terms of the tradition of Henri or Stieglitz. Essentially their outlooks were more alike than not. Both Henri and Stieglitz challenged worn out traditions. Both articulated the need for artistic individuality and integrity. They demanded freedom for the artist to use forms, techniques, and subjects of his own choosing. And they called for the development of an American art indigenous and meaningful to Americans. For both art is a referential expression, not exclusively about art's formal elements.

On other issues Henri and Stieglitz are interpreted as sources for opposing attitudes. This is because their similar liberal outlooks led to their appreciation of different kinds of art. Henri was a spokesman for American realists forging their identity in the first part of the century. Henri's circle established that subject matter should reflect the many sides of American life. More concerned with social problems Henri, compared to Stieglitz, was less devoted to aesthetic issues than to realizing art's humanistic potential. Stieglitz valued aesthetic and humanistic issues as interrelated. As such more than Henri, Stieglitz acted as an ambassador for European modernism. He promoted cosmopolitan and international art and attitudes to inspire American creativity. Stieglitz's goal was to enhance the spiritual life of Americans by making Art an essential in American life.

What follows is a more in depth consideration of the ideas of each as roots of American art criticism form the Armory Show years through the depression years. [pp. 10-11]

This study makes clear that American art criticism from the Armory Show years through the end phases of the Depression is not easily classifiable. Characteristic is its diversity, continuity and eclecticism and often unacknowledged intellectual sources. The writing is not substantive nor does it intend to be. American art critics were not original thinkers. The synthetic character of this critical tradition can be evaluated in terms of the influence of European modernist movements from Symbolism to abstraction and to various literary critics and philosophers.

The critics of this period attempted to educate their readers, to explain in order to enhance appreciation. Art criticism was rarely the occasion for an in-depth examination of the meanings of art, culture, or a specific artist. The literature is therefore superficial. Writing on nineteenth century American masters and emerging twentieth century masters is inventive in its praise. However there is little interest in the varied kinds of analysis--formal, political, psychological, social--current in art writing today.

Obviously the character of American art criticism is part of the attitude toward art more generally. There simply was no call from the art community or the general public for more thoughtful writing. Critics were concerned with establishing the integrity of art as an activity deserving attention. This process set in motion and somewhat successful by the end of the thirties, critics began to develop a more significant body of literature. Not as tied to the defense of art, critics were freed to investigate its meanings according to manifold approaches.

The issues that were discussed during this period are the seeds of current criticism. These vary according to no one principle. Critics' views on one issue do not preclude those on another. Consistent throughout this period is the belief in artÍs value to society as an individual and humanistic expression and the need for an indigenous American art. Disagreement focuses around how to achieve these aims.

In the teens academics support representational paintng and a minimum of foreign influences; modernists cultivate abstraction and are eager to learn about its international beginnings. In the twenties the academic voices are muted, supporters of modernism appreciate versions of representational and abstract painting. These are no longer polarities. The call for American art grows stronger and the taste for European modernism grows more critical. In the thirties supporters of representation and abstraction are in opposition. In the academic tradition, representationalists insist that the truly American art describe literal and local subjects remaining distinct from European ideas about abstraction; in the modernist tradition, abstractionists value the exploration of forms and colors in relation to emotional content as [p. 277] America's best expression precisely because of European influences.

The art criticism of the forties continues the discussion of these issues. However the literature becomes more elaborate. Critics begin to focus on interpretation not just appreciation. On the eve of World War II art was more integrated into American society than ever before. Henri's and Stieglitz's aspirations were being fulfilled. The Depression had identified the artist with American society at large. Moreover artists working together for the government developed a sense of community. Their individuality was respected, their alienation minimized.

The call for a national American art divorced from European influence and the preoccupation with representation is less important to critics of the forties than the development of an emotive, personal expression. The former issues persist but as compliments of the evaluation of abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism is defined [by Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Robert Coates] [See Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting, N.Y.: 1940] as a distinctly American style rooted in European notions of emotive abstraction and surrealism. Its opponents question if indeed past styles were no longer viable and whether new styles had social meaning. Again traditionalists challenged the value of experimentation and innovation.

The writing on Arshile Gorky [1904-48] points out the changing interests of critics of the forties. Analogously, art historians agree that the evolution of Arshile Gorky's painting typifies the change in the American vanguard artist from the 1930's to the 1940's, the shift from Abstract Cubism to Abstract Surrealism. [Sandler, p. 44] In the first magazine article on Gorky, "Murals without Walls" by Fredrick Kiesler for Art Front [Dec., 1936, p. 101], Gorky's WPA mural for the Newark Airport is discussed. Kiesler is concerned with Gorky's right as an artist to choose subject matter and compositional techniques in accordance to his own, not the public's ideas. Kiesler, in the tradition of the modernist, respects the artist's integrity. Kiesler appreciates abstraction in opposition to demands for mimetic representationalism in publicly supported art. Kiesler explains that "Even if one could explain that Gorky's murals design is very realistic since he transplanted directly photographic details of airplanes . . . . it won't help . . . . If the object of your vision does not meet the imagination of the spectator you and your work are definitely objectionable." Similarly, Gorky sensitive to the demand for popular comprehension defends his artistic license. "In the popular idea of art an aeroplane is painted as it might look in a photograph. But such a hackneyed concept has no architectural unity in the space that it is to occupy nor does it truthfully represent an aeroplane with all its ramifications." ["The WPA murals at the Newark Airport," reprinted in Harold Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky, NY, 1962, pp. 130-132] [p. 279]

In the forties advocates of abstraction are not as defensive. Critics discuss Gorky's stylistic development and his evocative effects. Robert Coates briefly reviews Gorky's work at Julian Levy Gallery in 1945. Coates states the new work is "far from the strictness and logicality" of Gorky's earlier abstraction. "It is . . . . almost pure emotion . . . . great blobs and swirls of Surrealist-Expressionist color." Coates finds Gorky disappointing, uneven, "but when his work does come off . . . . it has a thunderously looming portentous quality that is oddly exciting." ["The Art Galleries," New Yorker, 3/17/45, p. 77.] Clement Greenberg is also reserved in supporting Gorky's new work in 1945. "He changed suddenly to the prismatic, iridescent color and open forms of abstract biomorphic surrealist painting . . . . His paintings register success within their own terms more consistently than before, but now these terms are lower." ["Art," Nation, 3/24/45, p. 342.] Still Greenberg asserts that "Gorky is a first rate painter." [Reviews of Gorky's later work, and his memorial exhibition at the Whitney by Coates and Greenberg continue in similar mixed tone. Questioned was Gorky's originality, his ability to synthesize modernist sources to create his own style. See R. Coates, "The Art Galleries," New Yorker, 1/20/51, pp. 60ff.; C. Greenberg, "Art," Nation, 1/10/48, p. 52; 12/11/18, p. 676.]

Art criticism in America from the Armory Show through the end years of the Depression differs from later American writing as it does from contemporary European writing. Comparing American and European writing highlights their very different nature, that difference having everything to do with the difference between America and Europe. This complicated subject deserves a separate study. That Europeans value art and culture more profoundly than Americans, that art is a traditionally established activity for Europeans are perhaps the starting points for this study. Further the greater similarity between later American and European art writing seems to validate the notion that American art writing improved substantively in direct relation to art's integration in American society. [pp. 276-281]

Robert Henri - Noted as an inspiring teacher and committed realist painter . . . . Less frequently acknowledged are his progressive activities directed against an American bastion of 19th-c. tradition, the National Academy of Design. HerniÍs successful rebellion culminated in the Exhibition of the Eight, 1908, and the Independent Exhibition, 1910 . . . . His ideas are recorded in The Art Spirit, a compilation by Margery Ryerson of notes and correspondence . . . . His thinking about art is also transmitted through the writings and paintings of his students at the NY School of Art and later the Art Students League and of his friends and supporters in the NY art world. Such diverse sensibilities as Helen Appleton Read, Guy Pène du Bois, Stuart Davies, the artists-participants of the Eight Exhibition, Charles Fitzgerald, Frederick James Gregg, James Huneker, Mary Fanton Roberts, and Forbes Watson, respected and popularized his ideas . . . . Henri defines art in terms of the artist's unique response to life and society . . . . His definition challenges academic notions of art by considering the content the impetus for the creation of a work of art more important than its technical and decorative qualities . . . . He believes that the artist contributes to society in the formulation of an individual expression . . . . He advises his students, "Imagine yourself somebody whom you are more in sympathy with as a painter . . . . Originality is found in the greatest composite you can bring together." [Quoted in Petruck, p. 5] . . . . He values a kind of philosophical anarchy. His guidelines are individuality and personal freedom. Whitman and Emerson are the intellectual backbone of his aesthetic . . . . Henri explains the cultivation of independent artistic sensibilities means that "artists of mind, philosophy, sympathy, courage, invention, [take] their work as a matter of vital importance to the world, [consider] their technique as the medium of utterance of their most personal philosophy of life, their view of the subject one that must be important and worthy of their powers." ["Progress in our National Art", p. 392] Henri asserts that the artist is a forerunner of society . . . . "Art expresses the expressive spirit of our time." ["The N.Y. Exhibition of Independent Artists", 161] . . . . He argues that technique must be a function of artistic expression . . . . "It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive. Instead of establishing a vast stock of technical tricks, it would be far wiser to develop creative power . . . . which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or emotion which has moved you to discussion." [The Art Spirit, p. 220] . . . . the Eight contributed to The Masses, an unofficial organ of the Socialist party as an expression of humanism not as a political commitment . . . . Henri stresses the overall emotional significance of the subject . . . . "Everything depends on the attitude of the artist toward his subject . . . . It is on this attitude of the artist toward his subject that the real quality of the picture, its significance . . . . " [The Art Spirit p. 235] He values the artist's ability to interpret, to define his own sensibility in terms of life realities. As such he discouraged mimetic representation. His ideas reflect a familiarity with Symbolist thoughts . . . . Henri repeats through out his career, "It is not the subject but what you feel about it that counts." [Quoted in Helen Appleton Read, Robert Henri, NY: 1931, p. 10] . . . . Henri posits an essential relation between a native art and the artist's interpretation of "onditions personal to a country." [pp. 11-18]

James Huneker - . . . . was a cosmopolitan and versatile journalist and critic of what he called the "seven Arts" [painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, drama, literature]. His aim was to entertain and illuminate. Literary historians qualify him as an Impressionist critic. That is, the key to Huneker's writing was his sensibility--his own experience of a work of art. His immediate impression of a work of art fashioned his writing and was the stuff of his famed witty conversations. H. L. Mencken noted, "His conversation . . . . truly magnificent indeed made his books seem almost funereal." ["Introduction,' xv, to J. Huneker, Essays [NY: 1929].] Huneker was "as typical a fin-de-siècle figure as America had to offer." [E. Rose, J.G. Huneker: Critic of the Seven Arts, Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton Univ., 1955, p. 205] He enjoyed the arts. Communicating that enjoyment was his means of support for the arts. He was successful because his only dogmatism was catholicity. Even colleagues of different viewpoints acknowledged his genuine openness and flexibility. For example, H. McBride said . . . . " . . . . His strength lay in his knowledge, his ability to write . . . . his sensitivity . . . . .and tolerance." [Quoted in A. Schwab, James Gibbons Huneker, Stanford: 1963, p. 184 and footnote 74, chapter 14]. [pp. 48-68]

[Petruck, Peninah R. Y. American Art Criticism 1910-1939. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1981. [A dissertation in the Dept. of Fine Arts submittted to the faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Science in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at New York University. June, 1979.]



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