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June 13: “Between Picture and Onlooker”

Lawrence Bush
June 12, 2016
gottlieb_ftOn this date in 1943, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb responded to New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell’s “befuddlement” about their artworks in the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors exhibition at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York. Invited to respond in Jewell’s column, the three declared that “explanation” of their works “must come out of a consummated experience between picture and onlooker” and listed several of their beliefs about art, including that it “is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks” and that “the world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.” (“We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”) To see their entire statement, click here. At right, Adolph Gottlieb’s “Persephone.” “Why was Abstract Expressionist art singled out by the CIA/State Department as an essential weapon of the cultural Cold War? Why did Nelson Rockefeller purchase over 2,500 pieces of Abstract Expressionist art and use these paintings to decorate the lobbies of Chase Manhattan banks? . . . Overwhelmingly men, previously Marxists and then disillusioned Marxists, [the Abstract Expressionists created] art [that] exemplified a worldview that could be construed as the ultimate antithesis to Communism. They were individualistic, autonomous, exuding despair, anxiety, and fear of atomic annihilation.” --Annabell Shark, “MoMA, the Bomb and the Abstract Expressionists

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.