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From Avant-Garde to Pluralism:
An On-The-Spot History

by Irving Sandler

292 pages
Hard Press Editions, March 2006
ISBN 1889097683
Dimensions 9.2 x 6.4 in.
Hardcover, $30.00

Chronicler of the New York art scene from the 1950s to the present, observer and participant during its most formative period, articulate and energetic voice speaking of artists' intents and the various interpretive stances taken by critics of the time -- critic and art historian Irving Sandler brings impressive credentials to the table, and with decades of critical writings under his belt, the potential for choice material worthy of reprint in book form would seem both enticing and exciting. Alas, then, that From Avant-Garde to Pluralism: An On-The-Spot History, a new release by Hard Press Editions, chooses so many selections already exhaustively mined for the author's engaging but relatively recent memoir, A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir (Thames and Hudson: November 2003).

Twenty-six critical writings are reprinted here, dating from 1957 to 1998 and from venues including Art in America, Art News, The New York Post. They include exhibition reviews, catalogue essays, and general writings reflecting Sandler's particular focus as critic and historian of 20th-century American art, covering the evolving art scene from the 1950s onward -- from the the Abstract Expressionists of the 50s to the "New Cool-Art" of the 60s and the pluralism that eventually overtook American art as a whole. As many of the great names of the Abstract Expressionists were personal friends and acquaintances of the author, individual essays devoted to figures such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns often feature personal anecdotal material as well as accomplished critical review. Four chapter groupings draw the essays together following key moments in art in the progression from the 50s to the present (primarily the 1990s), while brief new introductions to each piece by the author provide a touch of background to the writings themselves. Each essay is as well fully annotated with detailed endnotes.

For those not familiar with Sandler's writing, his position as intimate observer of the art world coupled with an articulate expressiveness in writing on art theory and art criticism make these essays an intelligent pleasure. Sandler was uniquely placed to experience the artist's stated insights (from a personal position) as well as the work itself (from a formal position as critic). His writings provide a detailed view of the art and its intentions as well as giving a sense of the world of review and formal criticism surrounding these landmark artists. In "Mark Rothko: Mark Rothko Paintings 1948-1969" (source not credited, but presumably an exhibition catalogue essay), for example, he discusses not only critic Clement Greenberg's assessments of Abstract Expressionism but artist Rothko's reactions to Greenberg's analysis of his work:

In Greenberg's opinion, the purpose of Abstract Expressionism was to break the hold of Cubism, repudiating in particular its contrasts of dark and light. These generate illusionistic space which destroys pictorial flatness, the very basis of painting. Moreover, Cubism was overworked and outworn. Rothko, Newman and Still had progressed further than their colleagues, because they had achieved "a more consistent and radical suppression of value contrasts than seen so far in abstract art." This had liberated their color, which "breathes from the canvas with an enveloping effect, which is intensified by the largeness itself of the picture." Their vision was "keyed to the primacy of color." Rothko accepted Greenberg's description of his formal innovations. But he objected to the implication that he was primarily a picture-maker whose intention it was to avoid any allusion to Cubism in order to paint flat color-fields. If it had been, he certainly would have suppressed light and dark contrasts more than he had -- as much as Newman perhaps.

Other essays include engaging anecdotal material, such as the author's remembrance of filming de Kooning at work, recounted as a favorite memory in his sympathetic obituary of the artist, "Willem de Kooning: 1904-1997" (Art in America, May 1997):

Our camera followed his movements avidly, the flailing brush, the dancing feet. It couldn't be better as film. A few days later I met de Kooning on the street and asked how the painting was going. He said that he had junked it the moment we left. I asked why. "I lost it," he said. "I don't paint that way." Then why the charade? He answered, "You saw that chair in the back of the studio. Well, I spend most of my time sitting on it, studying the picture, and trying to figure out what to do next. You guys bring up all that equipment, what was I supposed to do, sit in a chair all night?" "But Bill," I said, "in the future, they'll look at our film and think that's how you painted." He laughed.

Unfortunately, of the writings selected for the book, several were used nearly verbatim in the author's 2003 memoir, A Sweeper-Up After Artists (Thames and Hudson: November 2003), itself recommended reading. The essays "Willem de Kooning: 1904-1997", "The Club" (Artforum, September 1965), "Joan Mitchell Paints a Picture" (Art News, October 1957) "Provincetown of the Fifties: A Memoir" (The Sun Gallery, Provincetown, Mass.: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, July 24 - August 30, 1981), and "Artists Space" (10 Artists/Artists Space: Purchase, NY: Neuberger Museum of Art, September 9 - October 15, 1979), for example, all appear nearly word for word as material integrated into the biographical information of A Sweeper-Up After Artists. Their publication here thus simply recapitulates already available material, a regret considering the vast resources the articulate Sandler, with fifty years of review experience, must have had to draw from. There is furthermore a sense that although many of these essays themselves may be newly available in this volume due to their initial publication in a more ephemeral form (magazine, newspaper, exhibition catalogue), the ideas they embody have been well covered in the author's several authoritative publications on 20th century American art, including The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (Westview Press: October 1976), The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (Icon Editions: October 1979), Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (Westview Press: September 1997), and American Art of the 1960's (HarperCollins: August 1989). Several of these are, however, regretfully out of print at this time; and as good art criticism is both valuable and stimulating, From Avant-Garde to Pluralism's newly-minted offering of this essay collection represents a positive value in keeping Sandler's work in the public eye. From Avant-Garde to Pluralism further includes recent notation by the author in the brief introduction to each essay and primarily in the modest postscript in which he discusses the theories and intents he has considered when engaged in art criticism.

Finally, in this digital day and age, small press surely need not look quite so much like small press. An earlier and very expressive cover featuring a mature Sandler posed before an abstract painting was apparently discarded for a minimal layout on a plain beige background. The prior choice had the eye appeal to set the book up well to compete with others on the bookstands; the selected beige layout is reminiscent of the type of homely, uninspired covers seen in self-publication. Inside, a not-so-subtle sloppiness rife with squeezed or stretched text and countless errors in spelling and punctuation is discrediting to both author and content. This inattention is regretful in attempting to create a solid niche for professional art criticism worthy of reprints and attention, especially among new readers. Perceived credibility -- 'Should I read this? Is this important for me to know?' -- rests heavily on presentation, and good presentation is half the battle in getting readers to pick up the book and open themselves up to rewarding material. As a note, Hard Press is apparently aware of these issues and, one hopes, will be more heedful in future offerings.

Irving Sandler's writings provide an eyewitness account of the major figures of contemporary American art in its period of greatest ferment and evolution. The primary value of From Avant-Garde to Pluralism: An On-The-Spot History is to introduce the pleasure of Sandler's work to those not already familiar with his writing. For them this compilation of collected art writings will not only be engaging reading, but will as well inspire the urge to seek out the full-length works reflecting the author's articulate assessments of art of the late 20th century. Blessed with a unique positioning both formal and personal, Sandler was privileged to know many of the individuals who come down to us only as great names; the immediacy of his work is a reminder that these individuals were not simply 'legends', but real men and women, grappling and coming to terms with both life and art.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: From Avant-Garde to Pluralism: An On-The-Spot History, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above. Sandler's books referenced in the review above represent their most recent available edition. A Sweeper-Up After Artists: A Memoir (Thames and Hudson: November 2003) and Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (Westview Press: September 1997) are both in print. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (Westview Press: October 1976), The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (Icon Editions: October 1979), and American Art of the 1960's (HarperCollins: August 1989) are out of print, but often available as used copies.

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