New York’s art museums are shirking two crucial civic duties. One is to show major artworks, not just buy them. The other is to serve the community in which they live. Museums in other American cities often do the same, but New York is different: It is still (for the time being) the center of the art world, and it was the home of one of the most remarkable developments in 20th-century art, the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and the New York School.
On the whole, Europe has America at a radical disadvantage when it comes to art. Only a handful of great painters (and no great architects) who worked before 1850 are decently represented in the western hemisphere, even if you were to lump together every museum from the top of Canada to Tierra del Fuego. But in modern times, the situation is reversed. New York and the New York School dominated art in the second half of the 20th century. In this light, New York’s unwillingness to exhibit the spectacular New York School paintings it owns is silly and sinister.
When museums own warehouses full of paintings they have no plans to exhibit, they ought to lend or lease or give them away to museums that want them. More important, New York’s museums owe the city and the world an explanation of why Manhattan replaced Paris as the world’s leading art center after World War II—so decisively that it still holds the title today, although it no longer deserves it. They owe the world a chance to see for itself what the excitement was all about during the years, roughly 1945 to 1970, in which the New York School flourished and Manhattan glowed with the sheer joy of new art.
The finish earlier this month of the Museum of Modern Art’s spectacular de Kooning show reminded New York (or should have) of the failings of its self-important museums. Willem de Kooning was the New York School’s most important artist. But good luck seeing his paintings in New York. With the show over, most have gone home to cool their heels in the overstuffed closets of New York’s Big Four: the Met, Whitney, Guggenheim, and MoMA itself. (The Frick is a great museum, but owns no modern pieces.)
The New York School erupted like a supercharged geyser in the 1940s. It petered out gradually during the 1970s, although some of its most important artists (Frank Stella, Jasper Johns) are still at it today. New York School art was mainly, but not only, abstract art. What the whole range of New York Schoolers shared on their best days was the clarity, intensity, and power of a sunny sky.
Abstract painting first emerged in Europe during the 1910s, as the inevitable result of the shrinking image-space: The imaginary rear wall of the space represented by the painting had started rolling closer and closer to the front. In 1907, with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, space got so tight that the painting’s inhabitants shattered like porcelain into cubist shards. Finally the rear wall smacked into the front, and abstract painters crawled cautiously out of their various wombs to revive the art of pure design on flat surfaces. Meanwhile a fairly obscure painter named Chaïm Soutine made portraits and landscapes that trembled, that nearly exploded, with speechless power.
European abstract art was sometimes lovely, sometimes half-baked, often timid. Its one genius was the constitutionally gentle and soft-spoken Paul Klee. But in 1940s Manhattan, European cubism, abstraction, and a healthy dose of Soutinism laid the basis for a mature abstract art.
Willem de Kooning came to the city from Holland, Jackson Pollock from Wyoming, Mark Rothko (as a child) from Russia. They were the school’s presiding geniuses. Stuart Davis (from Philadelphia), Joseph Cornell (from the New York suburbs), and Jasper Johns (Georgia) were nonabstractionists who were also part of the school. Davis the jazz cubist was one of the great colorists of modern history. Johns the lyrical draftsman was the Leonardo of pop art. Cornell built unclassifiable microcosmic shadow boxes that have the murmurous depth, at their best, of Gothic cathedrals.
The beauty and originality of de Kooning’s colors (aquamarines with mustard and watermelon, lemon yellows rushing upward in a flood of golden pinks and luminous peach-whites)—and his brilliant drawing, and the sheer power of his personality—the sonic boom when his ideas hit canvas—place him alongside Matisse, Picasso, and Giacometti as one of the greatest artists of the art-rich 20th century.
New York’s was a school of many geniuses; and New York museums own many of their artworks. The Modern currently has just one Pollock on view, and deigns to exhibit one or two spectacular de Koonings and a few Cornell boxes. The Met has no Cornells on display but does well by Stuart Davis, and usually shows a couple of pieces each by the biggest New York School stars. But you never see enough art to understand the school as a whole, or grasp what the excitement was all about.
The Met could easily open a suite of New York School galleries on the lines of (say) its Impressionist or Post-Impressionist or Attic red-figure or 17th-century French knick-knack departments. The Whitney and Guggenheim are smaller, but own some of the most important modern paintings ever to be locked away in closets. The Modern owns loads of New York School masterpieces but is tired of being an art museum and has decided to be a shopping mall instead.
The problem is partly a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the symphonic power of these pieces when they are allowed to play together. But partly (and ominously), the failure is ideological. Stylish young curators are brought up to believe that art is a branch of academia, that art is argument by other means, that art for art’s sake is sophomoric, that beauty is embarrassing. And the unrestrained sensuousness of the greatest New York School pieces makes the stylish young curator’s skin crawl. This is a wickedly prudish era.
The solution is obvious. Let someone buy a few adjacent townhouses not too far from midtown. Knock out some walls and make a new, small-scale museum. (The one fault in the Modern’s de Kooning show was the overscaled height of the walls in the new galleries, which made enormous paintings look puny.) Let the big museums each lend some of their New York School pieces. They’ll never miss them. (They barely know they’ve got them.) And then stand back and let the art speak for itself.
David Gelernter, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being.