It’s akin to a cliché folding in on itself and forming a kind of ironic paper airplane that gets tossed into the future.
It landed on my table in the form of the Stevens and Swan biography of Willem de Kooning and it’s funny to set aside your naiveté or nostalgia – or invite them both in for a drink – and think about our mid-century art heroes. To set the scene, the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to include no judges sympathetic to abstract art on the panel of its juried show “American Art Today, 1950”:
The snub was a godsend to the downtown artists: the museum performed to perfection the part of stuffy, blinkered fool, evoking the famous failure of the bourgeois Salon in Paris to include many of the great modernists. The artists around the Club could now, in turn, play the part of the slighted impressionists. They wrote an “open letter,” intended to be widely disseminated, to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dated May 20, 1950, and reported two days later on the front page of the New York Times under the headline, “18 Painters Boycott Metropolitan: Charge ‘Hostility to Advanced Art.” the letter began, “The undersigned painters reject the monster national exhibition to be held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next December, and will not submit work to its jury.” The artists patronized the Metropolitan – the presumable guardian of eternal values – by offering its leaders a history lesson: “We draw to the attention of those gentlemen the historical fact that, for roughly a hundred years, only advanced art has made any consequential contribution to civilization.” The group also picketed the museum, attracting further attention.
Emphasis mine. Part of that further attention was that Life magazine, “following the actions of the avant-garde with bemused interest since its feature on Pollock,” decided to publish a piece on the opening of the controversial exhibition – including the above picture of the excluded protesters.
Published under the headlines of “The Irascibles,” a name taken from an earlier editorial in the Herald Tribune criticizing the protesters, the photo by Nina Leen portrayed fifteen of the original eighteen painters who signed the letter to the Met. Highly theatrical, the artists were “arranged like a still life, staring into space, their expression serious, skeptical, demanding. Not one smiled.”
Pollock is at the center, very carefully positioned, with de Kooning on the upper left. The only woman is Hedda Sterne. A key to all the people in the photo is here. “Together, the artists seemed to embody their headline, “The Irascibles,” a name that was itself a dramatic piece of public relations that brought to mind every cliché about the struggle between the avant-garde and bourgeois society.”
And yet, can you imagine any subject getting a group of artists on the front pages of national publications today? Wait, don’t answer that.