Globalism Pops BACK Into View: The Rise of Abstract Expressionism
November 21, 2019 – January 25, 2020
By MARK BLOCH, December 2019
Go see “Globalism Pops BACK Into View: The Rise of Abstract Expressionism” at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery until January 25th, conceived by art historian Barbara Cavaliere. Rosenfeld states: “Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s was my entry point into American art and remains a personal passion of mine. I am grateful to Barbara Cavaliere for sharing her expertise and insight into this integral period.”
As a re-designed MoMA shuffles its deck and re-deals its cards into new groupings and configurations, I am a little concerned about the old, very modern Modernism being left behind with too much focus on now. After all, MoMA needn't become the New Museum. “Modern” was what MoMA was always for. We even used to call it The Modern, a name I still prefer. MoMA could always be relied upon, if for nothing else, to remind us of how we got here. And how we got here was through Modernism. In these days of contemporary art, well into the Post-Modern era, while it is increasingly challenging to appreciate the Post-Modern, I continue to be excited by Modernism, that constant propelling forward of new art movements, one after the other, perhaps starting with Cubism, perhaps peaking with Constructivism and Malevich and all that happened after that—right up to when Modernism started to get more complicated in the 1960s and ‘70s and took its leave as even I, a youngster then, entered the fray, with my natural grasp of the mysterious but ubiquitous Post-Modern. Like every young artist, perhaps, I felt well-prepared to confront the zeitgeist, fluid as it was. The immediate past, Modernism, in my case, was there to be taken for granted, to push against.
As Modernism had progressed, perhaps those artists who were young then also knew where they stood as it passed. At least the “ism”s had names to latch on to, usually coined by artists, not critics. Perhaps the artists could all agree, if on nothing else, that Malevich’s white square on a white background was inspiring and broke new ground. Or that Cubism, started by Picasso and Braque, was also exciting, ushering in a century of collage—mash-ups if you will. They may not have known that then but the smart ones caught on and joined in and began cutting and pasting as the Modernism train was whizzing by. Impressionism certainly started something before all of those newer isms, in the mid 19th century, not yet about combining but first fragmenting.
While we like those periods, revere them, really and while we pursued them voraciously as we made our way though the various decades of 20th century art history, we absorbed each and every individual development much like those who lived through it seem to have: like a rich dessert that one voraciously devours after the main course of Greeks and Romans and the Gothic and the Renaissance and Romanticism and the rest was done. But that is no way to enjoy a rich desert. We want to enjoy every bite, not unconsciously gobble it up. If we cannot pause to enjoy it we may miss something fundamental—to fail to enjoy the entire nuanced meal, a big art meal, there for the tasting.
But with Modernism there is always a natural tendency to rush through these ism’s, one to the next, never pausing to enjoy the intermediary states. Like the Italian Futurists who fetishized speed, we are always passing something, always on our way to the next ism. In animation, which was also developing at this time, most notably along an assembly line at Disney, the lead artists created the main motion then the underlings created the “in-betweens”—lesser, seemingly unimportant stops along the way that filled out the smooth movement of the main action points. But sometimes the in-betweens are just as beautiful and important as the rest, especially if one stops to study them.
Just as it is unfulfilling to devour a dessert without noticing it, it would be even more preposterous to eat each dessert only once and never return, never enjoy it again, as the artists seem to do who were chasing the Modernist dessert cart. What if we had to devour a pie or a cake on day one, a strawberry shortcake day two, a cheesecake day three and a chocolate mousse the next day and never able to try them again? With Modernism, each dessert had to be better than the next with just the forward motion driving everyone onward. While that scenario created some incredible art in a short period of time, perhaps it is now OK to acknowledge that it was also unnecessary to rush. But we can adjust. As admirers and not participants, we can now return to Modern art movements that weren’t fully appreciated. Even ones that didn’t even have a name; the ones that were between, the many delicious desserts that were there to be enjoyed but that were not properly savored or sufficiently appreciated along the way.
Of course we were always free to do this but in my case I always found it kind of sad that certain “in between” periods passed without more attention. I wanted to scream from the roof tops, “But look at this!” Robert and Sonia Delaunay come to mind.
But I have always loved most the phase between Surrealism and the height of Abstract Expressionism. I could never get enough of the period around a painting called The She-Wolf, for instance, by Jackson Pollock (not in this show) that was part of his first solo exhibit in 1943 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. That work, snatched up by MoMA, was pre-drip Pollock grappling with mythology and the leftovers of Surrealism as he himself was undergoing Jungian psychotherapy. Pollock, on his way somewhere else, offered a rich, overflowing, sumptuous but mysterious world.
Mark Rothko also worked in this mythological way. He didn’t like art as decoration or interior design, even though he came out of New York’s garment district. When he came to New York in 1923, he got a job there, back when his influences were German Expressionism and Paul Klee and George Roualt, who were not yet Surrealists.
Rothko first met Adolph Gottleib, Barnett Newman, Elaine DeKooning and others working under the tutelage of Milton Avery. Influenced by the older artist’s colors and subject matter, he and Gottleib gravitated toward archaic forms and symbols as Surrealism took hold during WWII.
Rothko also was seeking out art with social impact as part of the WPA. Like Pollock and his she-wolf, he found not moralistic slogans but demons, monsters and gods as the right subject matter to battle Fascism as all the New York artists inherited the mantle being passed by the European avant garde. Rothko immersed himself in Friedrich Nietzsche’s “dramatic themes of myth” with a goal of purging spiritual emptiness.
In the air at that time was an embrace of Carl Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious that penetrated deeper than any era’s specific narrative and customs.
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has decided to label this period with a name it once had—Globalism. Rosenfeld, himself, who studied this period as a scholar in college, told me at the opening that the Globalism period was one where each painter was looking for his own mature identity. Well, as we know, they each found them. Rothko found his rectangles and Pollock found his drips. But this is our opportunity to go back and look at this Globalism some more. I personally prefer this deeply searching, experimental work to the identities that the seasoned artists eventually landed on, the splatters and boxes, respectively, that Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko followed up with, creating a legacy that is now our bedrock. But with Modernism long over, works from this experimental phase deserve a long second look.
Globalism Pops BACK Into View was inspired by a series of critical articles published in The New York Times in June 1943 that used the term “globalism” for the first time to contextualize a world-altering time when the focus of the international art world shifted to New York.
According to the press release, conservative critic Edward Alden Jewell’s June 13, 1943 article “‘Globalism’ Pops into View” used the concept of globalism to denigrate the language of abstraction being used by American artists creating their own personal and distinctive visual vocabularies to communicate universal meaning.
Jewell was responding particularly to Gottlieb and Rothko, who participated in the Third Annual Exhibition of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. That progressive collective wrote: “As a nation we are being forced to outgrow our narrow political isolationism. Now that America is recognized as the center where art and artists of all the world must meet, it is time for us to accept cultural values on a truly global plane.”
Artist Barnett Newman, one of the most prolific critics of regionalists, who he called “enemies of world progress” in his 1942 essay “What About Isolationist Art?” predicted the rise of such anti-globalists again in the future, pertinent today in the isolationist and nationalist views of this century.
The New York modernists were inspired by European artists who came to New York City to escape the war, shows at MoMA, Art of This Century Gallery and Betty Parsons Gallery as well as the 1943 publication of the best-selling book One World by Wendell Willkie. Finally, this was a time characterized by the heady merging of philosophy and psychology; myth, particularly via Jung and Nietzsche; tribal art and culture; poetry, including the French symbolists; Chinese and Japanese ideas; and the natural sciences.
Jewell opined that “So far Globalism seems to guarantee a rather bleak and cheerless future.” Rothko and Gottlieb responded, asserting that, while “no possible set of notes” could explain their work, “ the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.” Recognizing the complexity of the topics being raised, Jewell conceded, “I intend to stick to Globalism, for the time being at least, let the chips fall where they may.”
Despite Jewell’s opinion or what he meant by Globalism, I prefer what is evoked in a passage from a 1998 book Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction, by Murray Stein. “Jung drew up a map of the human soul. It is a map that describes the psyche in all its dimensions and it also tries to explain its internal dynamics. But Jung was always careful to respect the psyche’s ultimate mystery. His theory can be read as a map of the soul but it is the map of a mystery that cannot be ultimately captured.”
In the more than 75 years since Jewell’s description of this vital period as Globalism, the word has come to mean something quite different in recent years. I thought it would be interesting to look at how this word has been used in the art press and academia.
Joseph Nye, in “Globalism Versus Globalization,” The Globalist, April 15, 2002, wrote that the term is used to describe “attempts to understand all the interconnections of the modern world—and to highlight patterns that underlie (and explain) them.”
A description of a 2009 SUNY class called “Globalization 101” about the art business stated, “The globalization of art is certainly not a new phenomenon. From Asian silk paintings to European impressionist works to tribal sculptures and masks, museums worldwide have always displayed artwork from different cultures… This analysis will examine the impact of the global economic crisis on the art world, the role of emerging markets in the art industry, and some cultural challenges facing the art world… In a globalized world, art is becoming like any other commodity or product exported and imported worldwide.” It concluded “One thing is certain, artwork of high quality is still a good investment.”
It is difficult to imagine Rothko putting that in his top ten list of concerns.
In the 2010 Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, in an article called, Globalisation and the arts: the rise of new democracy, or just another pretty suit for the old emperor?, Anita Seppa of the University of Helsinki/Academy of Finland “addresses the topic of the globalisation of the arts and concerns brought about by the advent of post-colonial art and theory” and “investigates the ways in which contemporary visual arts serves to challenge existing Western aesthetic theory.”
She goes on to cite a 2007 article included in a book titled Global Theories of the Arts and Aesthetics, in which “Arthur Danto suggested that the modern aesthetic theory, most notably in its Kantian forms, represents a kind of aesthetic colonialism that came to its end in the late 1950s and early 1960s, along the death of modernism.” She explains that this led to theories of Post-Modernism but it is “how the globalisation of the arts still retains much of the old colonial power structures, although this power makes itself visible in partly new forms.”
A 2013 article titled Globalization: The End of Modern Art? by The ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany states “the question today is not how New York stole the idea of modern art but why. The answer is that by stealing modern art New York got the power and the monopoly to canonize modern art… The political ideology of Western capitalism and the rhetoric of the Cold War, not aesthetics, served as a foundation and legitimation for the success of modern art… But now, with the effects of globalization and the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall marking the end of the Cold War… a critique of modern art from a perspective beyond Euro-America seems possible.”
At the AHTR, the Art History Teaching Resources, a peer-populated platform for educators founded at CUNY, a 2014 lecture on “Globalism and Transnationalism” says, “Globalization and transnationalism are often perceived as phenomena that have had their most apparent impact on art in the contemporary era… however… cultures/nations/ethnicities/groups have always inevitably interacted, collided, and blended throughout time… You might consider today’s digital advancements and increasingly post-neoliberal world from the historical perspective of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent World Fairs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”
In a 2016 article called “In the Art World, Globalism’s New Spin” in the NY Times, Holland Cotter said, “When the American economy bottomed out in the early 1990s, the contemporary-art market fell apart, and some gate-crashing occurred. Artists who were once denied entry, many of them nonwhite, came in. So did new kinds of art, much of it with roots outside Western traditions. An expansive new age of globalist art had begun, and it felt excitingly utopian.”
Finally, in Farewell Our Globalism in Art in America in 2017, Richard Vine discussed the Guggenheim Museum exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” in which “the earth’s diverse cultures are steadily converging, enabling disparate groups to learn from and enrich one another as they gradually become more mutually dependent, more uniform, and more intimately enmeshed in interlocking systems of governance, business, and culture. Eventually their discourse, if not their polities, will be unified, with only local inflections—or, at most, local dialects—distantly recalling the world’s former Tower of Babel confusion. It is a vision closely related to the post-Cold War world order (sometimes described as the 'end of history' in an apotheosis of liberal democracy), based ultimately on the notion of a common human nature and a shared set of human values.”
But then he goes on to say, “Yet there is a caveat …If we are to be genuinely global and multicultural, to what extent do we accept culturally specific practices that we find deeply troublesome, even repugnant?... Multiculturalism, so benign in theory, quickly proves to be a minefield in practice. Yet much of its value lies precisely there: the identification of genuine differences, fostering prejudice-breaking dialogue and collective social progress.”
Indeed, just as it is important to go back and enjoy the rich desserts that we almost missed as Modernism whizzed by, it is essential that Post-Modernism’s legacy has been to “go back” and embrace art from cultures that were underrepresented or completely ignored. Like the period between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, they have been here all along.
While none of the recent uses of the word “globalization” in the context of art have much to do with what the conservative critic Jewell was warning about or what the Abstract Expressionists were attempting in their paintings, it is interesting to consider the complete transformation of the word “global” in the last 75 years. Today “universal” would probably be a better term when it comes to describing elemental mythological and symbolic forces that underlie all human experience. An ism once called Globalism, for lack of a better word, becomes a label to describe some powerful works that are beyond words.
This outstanding exhibition includes breathtaking works by Charles Alston, William Baziotes, Romare Bearden, Harold Cousins, Dorothy Dehner, Jimmy Ernst, Claire Falkenstein, Herbert Ferber, Michael Goldberg, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, David Hare, Hans Hofmann, Richard Hunt, Gerome Kamrowski, Lee Krasner, Ibram Lassaw, Norman Lewis, Seymour Lipton, Boris Margo, Roberto Matta, Gordon Onslow Ford, Alfonso Ossorio, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Theodore Roszak, Mark Rothko, Charles Seliger, Janet Sobel, Theodoros Stamos, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Laurence Vail and Hale Woodruff. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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