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Bram Dijkstra, American Expressionism

Art you probably won't know

Dijkstra: Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon and Willem de Kooning’s “women series" are "mean. They essentially declare women to be bestial and vicious, aggressive creatures."
Dijkstra: Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon and Willem de Kooning’s “women series" are "mean. They essentially declare women to be bestial and vicious, aggressive creatures."

American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920-1950

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003; 272 pages; $60

FROM THE DUST JACKET: From the 1920s until the end of World War II, a distinctly American form of Expressionism evolved in the United States. This was an art distinct from Regionalism, the now better known style of the period. Unlike the Regionalists, Expressionist artists were often outsiders to what was then the American mainstream. Many were the children of turn-of-the century immigrants from Eastern Europe (William Gropper, Ben Shahn, Harry Sternberg, Jack Levine, Philip Guston), Southern Europe (Louis Guglielmi, Theodore Hios, Rico Lebrun), or Asia (Yasuo Kuniyoshi); many were African-American (Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, Charles White). But whatever their background, all of these men and women brought a new spirit of idealism to American art.

Many of the Expressionists had grown up in the urban ghettoes of the East Coast or Chicago, and as a result they were deeply concerned with the social problems of poverty and the difficult lives of working people. Their social consciousness only grew during the Great Depression. Some held militant Marxist views, and most were active in populist and left-wing causes. Even those who were not, however, tended to be sympathetic to the labor movement and to the problems of working people in hard times, and their art reflected this point of view. Although they did not share a coherent style, most made use of unconventional color systems and deliberate distortions of form as a way to express personal and social concerns. Thus, their art is best understood as a form of Expressionism firmly rooted in American experience rather than one based on European models.

During the Great Depression and up until the beginning of World War II, the American Expressionists received considerable support from the fine arts programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the historic government agency founded by the Roosevelt administration. After the war, however, a new — and apolitical — movement. Abstract Expressionism, quickly displaced the topical expressionism that had preceded it. Author Bram Dijkstra argues that the new movement was deliberately fostered by conservative government and corporate interests as a way of suppressing the socially active idealism that had flourished during the Depression. In this new climate of opinion, the representational work of the Expressionists was ridiculed by powerful critics, savagely denigrated, and wrongly linked to Regionalism, Socialist Realism, and even the art of Hitler’s Third Reich. Ultimately, it was dropped from serious discussions of American art.

American Expressionism brings to light the work of a group of men and women whose art has for too long remained in obscurity. Dijkstra’s analysis will give readers a new perspective on the remarkable achievement of American artists of the 1920s and ’30s, and it will change our understanding of this history and development of 20th-century American art.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A cultural historian and professor emeritus of comparative literature at the University of California at San Diego, Bram Dijkstra has published numerous books, including Cubism, Stieglitz and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (1969); Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Sitcle Culture (1986); Georgia O'Keefe and the Eros of Place (1998); and Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood (1996). He lives in Del Mar.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Bram Dijkstra was born Abraham Jan Dijkstra in 1938 in Indonesia. His father was an engineer. His parents, he said, on the day that we talked, “were on both sides from a colonial family, and they had been in Indonesia for three generations.”

When Bram was two, he was taken to Holland. He explained. “Colonials would have furloughs back to the home country. My mother and my sisters and I had just gone to Holland when the war broke out. At that point my family was separated. My father lived in Indonesia, and he ultimately was put in a Japanese concentration camp, and although he survived it, he didn’t really survive it for very long. He died pretty soon after the war.”

“Those were terrible camps.”

“Yes. People aren’t as aware of them as they are of the German camps, but just in general terms they were almost as awful. There were no official extermination policies, but the Japanese couldn’t care less whether someone lived or died.”

Professor Dijkstra remained in Holland during World War II. “I experienced a number of bombings. It wasn’t a peaceful time. There was a terrible famine winter in 1944-’45. The Germans plundered the country to supply their people and their armies. Holland went through a period of true famine where essentially there was virtually no food to be had.

“After the war my father came back to Holland, but then we all went back to Indonesia just in time for the freedom movement in Indonesia. My family left in 1949. The Dutch were kicked out, appropriately so, 1 suppose. From 1949 on I lived in Holland and got my education there. I was a terrible student.”

“I would have thought you would have been rather wild.”

“That is true. I got kicked out of a number of schools. Ultimately, I guess I felt that Holland was too small, too narrow a country to contain me. I got very interested in the United States. I was reading comic books all the time. American soldiers, who came through Holland after the war, left all these comic books and pop magazines. I got tremendously interested in jazz. So when I was 18 I decided that I should go to the United States. I applied for admission at Ohio State University.”

“Why Ohio State?”

“Because, during my later teens I decided that I wanted to become a journalist, and in Europe and Holland there were no journalism schools as such. So I thought that a way to combine things would be to go to the States and to go to journalism school. I went to the U.S. Information Service in the Hague and asked, ‘Where should 1 go?’ And they said, ‘Ohio State.’ In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ohio State was really a good journalism school.”

“And a great football school.”

“And, of course, a great football school. I didn’t understand anything about football. I barely understand anything about it now.”

At Ohio State, Professor Dijkstra initially found himself “a little bored” doing journalism. Then he found himself involved in a survey. He explained. “This was the time of Sputnik and Why Johnny Can’t Read and all that. I did a survey of reading habits of the American college students, using Ohio State students as my subjects. I wrote a big article about that for the student newspaper, The Lantern. They published it, and it created a sensation because the editor sent it around the country. There were articles about it in the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly and in Saturday Review. So it created quite a bit of scandal because American students weren’t reading that well. I had questions like ‘Who wrote Moby Dick? And the answer would be, ‘Shakespeare.’ ”

The professor received his B.A. and M.A. from Ohio State, the latter in 1962. He was awarded a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley. How he came to UCSD, he said, was through the old boys network. “The same people who had been my teachers at Ohio State, by the time I was getting ready to get my Ph.D., had migrated to UCSD.” “When did you fall in love with painting?”

“I’ve always been in love with painting, really. I trace it back to my mother’s house because she had paintings on the walls, very conventional paintings, but good ones. And I remember as a kid, there’s nothing quite like when you’re ill and you have to stay home — this is before the era of television, obviously. So you have nothing to do when you don’t feel that well. So what you do is you start to look at these paintings. I started imagining myself in those paintings and fantasizing about them that way. I became more and more interested in art, and for a while I wanted to be a painter myself.

“When I was at Ohio State I was debating whether to go into art history or literature. My first book, which was my dissertation, was Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. This dealt with the effect of early modernism on American life and the way in which poets were influenced by the visual arts. That’s essentially what I was interested in myself. I was doing drawings. Williams did drawings and wrote poetry. He ultimately decided that it would be easier, as a physician, to run around with a pencil rather than a canvas and all the other painting equipment.”

We talked then about Professor Dijkstra’s newest book. He opens with the story of how in December 1943, a Long Island junk dealer had bought a ton of bulk canvas for four cents per pound. The canvas bundles were at auction in a federal government warehouse. “On examining his haul more closely,” Professor Dijkstra writes, “he had noticed that the scraps were marked with a variety of stamps: Works Progress Administration, New York Department of Health, and Federal Arts Project. Cutting open a bale or two, he discovered ... thousands of paintings torn from their stretchers.”

The junk dealer decided he’d try to double his money by selling his loot to a secondhand dealer, which, subsequently, he did. Henry Roberts, of the Roberts Book Company on Canal Street in lower Manhattan, reputedly paid the junkman S55 for the canvases. Soon, writes Professor Dijkstra, “piles of unstretched canvases and large sheets of mural cartoons, draped over vases and record cases, or pinned like sheets onto the wall, began to greet the surprised visitors to the Roberts Book Company.” Among these drawings and paintings, which Roberts sold for three and four and five dollars, was work by men and women who had garnered some acclaim as artists.

I asked how Professor Dijkstra learned the Roberts Book Company story.

By going back, he said, to original sources. “I’ve always believed in going back to these sources. They give you a much different sense of the history of American art than what you get from official histories. Because it’s in the magazine, it’s still living art, it’s still living controversies. You get a sense of what the issues were.

“I was going through Art News and Art Digest. I came across these notices about what had happened at the Roberts Reading Book Company. I got an indication also that there had been something in Time and Life. I found the articles.”

As to the government’s auction of the canvases, he said, “Frankly, it’s not that different from the Nazi book burnings. These are, literally, ‘painting burnings.’ They weren’t actually burned, but so many were thrown away. There were tens of thousands of works in the WPA warehouses. Very few have survived compared to what was being done at the time.

“I always felt the book should open with that. It is something that I was aware of for a number of years, and so I’ve been working, trying to figure out why these things happened. A dramatic change takes place in the early 1940s. During the 1930s, there is this focus on art as something by the people, as well as for the people. That’s what’s so interesting about the artists that I deal with. They didn’t see themselves as somehow standing above the crowd. They, themselves, came mostly out of ghettos. They believed in the kind of populist qualities of American life.

“What fascinated me is why after the Second World War, there was such a dramatic change toward abstraction and why it happened so quickly because, between 1945 and 1947 — boom! — from being focused on representational art, American culture jumped onto abstraction in such a dramatic fashion.

“Certainly it was a generational change, but the irony is that these Expressionist painters around 1945 thought that they were riding high, and they were, in economic terms; a number of these painters were making three, four thousand dollars for their paint-

ings. Henry Mattson, the seascape painter, was considered top of the heap. His work was included in all the exhibitions; Frederick Wight put him in his Milestones of American Painting in Our Century. Mattson’s paintings were selling for these huge sums, because $3000, $4000 in 1945 was a lot of money, like three or four hundred thousand now would be. By 1947, though, these Expressionist painters had been pushed out. The striking thing is that this changeover to abstraction crept up on these painters, and by 1947 they couldn’t get their work into the shows anymore.”

Before World War II, I said, painters in America were tending to paint the exterior world. After the war they began to paint the action of the interior world of the psyche. A generalization, I confessed, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Professor Dijkstra explained. There was the social Expressionism of the 1930s, and then toward the end of the 1930s, he said, “There’s this element of surrealism that starts to enter into the work. This can be seen in a painter such as Louis Guglielmi or a number of the painters, even Harry Sternberg, who are focused on psychological issues as well. The social issues and the psychological issues start to mingle. A term that has been used for this is ‘social surrealism.’ And the social surrealism essentially opens up this world of the mind or the psyche.

“Of course, there was this tremendous focus on Freud and Jung at the time. Freud gets overtaken by Jung around 1945-’50. But the same thing that creates the struggle between Freud and Jung also happens between the social surrealists and then the Abstract Expressionists. Because the social surrealists want to deal with the questions of the individual responding to the pressures of the world upon them and how that creates worlds of the mind. But then as the Jungian influence becomes stronger, there’s much more focus on the collective psyche as being captured by the work of the artist. This element is translated very quickly and very easily into the artist having a privileged entry into the psyche. That was heavily encouraged by people like the critic Clement Greenberg.”

As I read Professor Dijkstra’s book and gazed at the reproductions, I began to wonder about frames. For how long had paintings been framed?

“That is a very complicated question. Framing of paintings certainly goes back to the Middle Ages. Let’s say, an altar piece would be framed in a specific appropriate pattern. I’ve seen some frames with things from the 15th and 16th Century, where they still used wooden nails to keep things together. This whole issue of frames is related to the attitude people have toward art. In the 18th and 19th Century, you got these enormous frames, with which the bourgeois culture tries to emphasize, saying, This is important material, therefore, it has to have a big gold frame.’ By the middle of the 19th Century, let’s say by the 1870s, some of these hyperrealistic paintings would be surrounded by frames that were ten inches wide and weighed tons. Those frames then started to fall out of favor as Impressionism fell out of favor. That’s one of the fascinating things. We think that Impressionism was always in favor. But you weren’t a modernist in the 1920s or ’30s if you didn’t have disdain for Impressionism. Nowadays, with Impressionism coming back, that whole clement of design that is in the frame has also come back. So as a result, people build up these enormous frames against very small pictures, and the frame essentially announces itself as the wrapper. It’s kind of like I have a Neiman Marcus wrapper, or a this or that wrapper. It is the indication that this is important. Of course, in the 19th Century, artists had to compete with each other in the most vicious way because these salon exhibitions were exhibitions at the Royal Academy and even the American National Academy. There’d be hundreds, if not thousands of paintings on the wall, and many of them were what they called ‘skied’ at the time, meaning that they were hung above the field of vision, actually, above proper sight. So they were hanging there, way above everybody else, and that’s also where painting these enormous paintings comes from.

“It’s fascinating. The thing is that in our art culture you’re not supposed to deal with all the social elements that surround art. That’s part of the modernist focus on art, and particularly the postwar focus of art, because that is supposed to be something that comes from the mind. Rather than a part of the world, right? And in a sense that is a reaction to the social concerns and the social involvement of the 1930s painters as well.

“I mention in my book that there appeared, as if on cue in 1942, a book by a guy named Frederic Taubes, and it’s called You Don’t Know What You Like: Finding the Good and Bad in Art. The book has as its thesis, ‘You don’t know what you like, let us tell you what you like, because you, the vulgar public out there, are just not equipped to understand art.’

“Of course, the people who are best equipped to tell you what to like are the dealers. That’s the attitude that you find, not just among the American millionaires, but among the painters as well. Before the war it was more, ‘I may not know much about art or about art history, but this is what I like and this is what I’m going to do.’ Well, that starts to fall away after the war. Americans are essentially told, ‘You’re culturally vulgar, you’re culturally incompetent, from now on we will do this. We will tell you what to like.’ It’s the ideal marketing tool.”

This change, I said, must also have influenced the move of the art world center from Paris to New York.

“That’s part of it. The American government was looking for a way to prove that it was culturally as important as it had become politically. Now it was carrying the big stick. It had become the superpower. From this point on, the culture needed to have its own art."

However, as Professor Dijkstra notes in his book, the State Department was not pleased with art that depicted poor people. These paintings were not sent abroad.

About some of these paintings that depict the poor, Professor Dijkstra said, “One of the reactions I get most often is, ‘How can you look at work like that, it’s so grim.’ But I’ve been able to talk with a number of people who painted these works. A number of the artists who painted these works didn’t see this as grim or ugly. They saw it as reality, and they saw the beauty in the faces of the people whom they painted even if they were in desperate straits.”

I said that many of the paintings reproduced in Professor Dijkstra’s book reminded me of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters.

“Exactly. Van Gogh always believed that his work that he did in the Dutch countryside of peasants were some of his strongest works. People don’t want to look at that. So, ironically, we keep looking at Van Gogh’s bright Southern France works.”

The government’s attitude toward these paintings, said Professor Dijkstra, was “‘How dare you show the world that there is poverty in America. That America is not the world’s greatest place.’ And that’s where abstraction comes in. The easiest thing for everybody to grab hold of was abstraction. The effect of it was that you could interpret it. The interpretation of art counted more than the art itself, in a sense. That’s where that ‘You don’t know anything about art’ comes in as well.” The move to abstraction, Professor Dijkstra said, was an expedient move for painters like Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock. Gottlieb, he writes, “needed the advent of Abstract Expressionism to escape mediocrity.” Pollock, in the late 1930s, was painting figural canvases. Pollock became enamored of the murals of Jose Clemente Orozco. Pollock, Professor Dijkstra writes, “came to be heavily influenced by Orozco’s tendency to paint the human figure in simple but intensely expressive and often rhythmically recurrent patterns of heavy, almost calligraphic line.” These paintings, however, reveal Pollock’s difficulties with the “technical demands of figuration.” Professor Dijkstra concludes, writing, about Pollock, “Works such as this are clear evidence that his subsequent escape into ‘pure’ abstraction and ideological silence was not only a career-saving move for an artist in tune with the tendencies of his social environment, but also one dictated by his own emotional and ideological confusion and instability. To emphasize this does not in any way diminish his lasting accomplishments as an Abstract Expressionist; but it does point to the fact that, even as a source of inspiration, he ultimately needed to react against, the work of the social expressionists had a tremendous influence on him.”

As for Pollock’s last years, when he had become a great critical and commercial success, Professor Dijkstra said, “He essentially felt himself painting himself into a corner at the end. A lot of these artists felt that. The scary thing is that it’s still going on, that in an odd way the artist becomes a parasite to the critic. Because the critics determine who the great artists are. Ironically, the critics need to find a justification for their own judgments, and they find the justification for their own judgments in what has to be protected for the investor.” “And in newness for newness’ sake."

“Exactly. There is that whole notion that somehow newness counts more than anything like passion or emotion.

“All of that is so much a part of the postwar mentality, and it really is because, let’s lace it, if we are using our own judgment, what we’re looking for is work that has meaning, work that speaks to us in a very direct fashion, but speaks to us emotionally, that speaks to us with passion. There are many elements involved in the passion that we have for art and the passions that art brings out in us. The scary thing about the postwar mentality — it’s fallen apart now, but it’s still to a large extent there — is that it is really based on this ‘let us tell you what you like.’ " Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) was editor of Partisan Review and art critic for the Nation and an early and important champion of Abstract Expressionism. “How,” I asked Professor Dijkstra, “did Clement Greenberg turn himself into the Edmund Wilson of the art world?”

“It was thrust upon him with the article that I cite, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’ published in 1939 in Partisan Review and one of his first published articles. He made this extraordinary statement that essentially there was this umbilical cord of gold between the artist and the ruling class. He said, ‘Let’s just face up to that and stop acting as if the artist has something to say to the people or for the people, because essentially the artist is a lackey of the ruling class.’ He took that as positive because he figured that the ruling class also had control over the intellect. So we have this focus on a kind of higher spiritual quality in art, a higher spiritual meaning to art that abstraction presumably represented. The average person simply could not understand the subtleties of that work. That is already implied in these early articles of Greenberg. And so in the mid-1940s, when people were looking around for someone who could tell them what to like, Clement Greenberg was already there.”

“Was Greenberg’s ‘Kitsch’ article seminal for the culture in the way that Susan Sontag’s ‘On Camp’ [published in 1964] was?”

“Yes. ‘The Avant Garde and Kitsch’ is probably one of the most important articles about modern art or postwar art ever written. Certainly in the art world people are very much aware. Now, of course, there’s a great deal of hostility to his dicta. But it’s an amazing aspect of that postwar period, this general notion that we don’t know what we like anymore, so please tell us what to like.”

“Did the art critics, in the postwar period, visit artists’ studios?”

“Yes, they would.”

“It must have been like a royal visit.”

“Exactly, because they had this tremendously arrogant attitude — ‘If I don’t like it it’s not art,’ that kind of thing. The role of the critic, then, changed so much. It’s because the role of the critic vis-a-vis the collector changed as well. The collector started to dictate, in a sense, what needed to be important. Whether the critics were aware of it or not, they certainly knew that their livelihood depended on how the collectors responded to their judgment.” We talked about the Putnam sisters, Anne and Amy, San Diegans who donated part of their Old Masters collection to what eventually became the Timken Museum of Art.

“The Putnam sisters,” Professor Dijkstra said, “had a tremendous influence on how things turned out here in San Diego. Because they essentially got rid of Reginald Poland [director of San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery, now the San Diego Museum of Art]. And the thing is that Poland was a true connoisseur. Poland was a man who had independent judgment. He had developed a wonderful collection for the early San Diego Museum of Art. And then he was asked by one of the Putnam sisters, ‘Do you feel that these works are great works of art?’ He had his reservations, and he pointed out that a number of them were fakes. And that was the end of him.

“Ever since, the museum directors have not been able to use their own judgment, independently of the people who supply them with the wherewithal to run museums. So what has happened — not that this didn’t happen to some extent before the war, but after the war — is that the world of art changed into a world of art investors, protecting their investments. I think that the Putnams are a wonderful example of the fact that you don’t have to be conscious of that even in order to do that.” Fifty or 60 years ago, I said, few painters would have socialized with “people of quality.” In those days, to invite a painter to dinner would have been like inviting your hairdresser to dinner.

“That’s right. Before the war, but particularly in the 1930s, of course, artists didn’t have to kowtow to anybody. When I talked with artists from the period, as I have over the past 20 years, the recurring refrain is ‘We had no money, but it was a wonderful time.’ And it was a wonderful time because of the government. Because of the WPA. What your politics were didn’t really matter.”

“Have you seen most of the paintings that are in the book?”

“I have seen a large proportion of them. My wife and I took the car, and we drove through the country. We stopped at all the various museums, in Omaha, Nebraska, Iowa. We asked to be shown the work that usually was in the vaults. We got to see a lot of work that hadn’t been seen by anybody in America. Just some of the most stunning works that had not been recognized as stunning work initially. The generation of art critics who were ideologically hostile to the work of the 1930s and the early 1940s taught their students that this was inferior work, that nobody really needs to take a second look at it.”

I said that many of the reproductions in Professor Dijkstra's’s book seemed technically exceptionally fine.

“Yes. These were artists who were technically very highly trained. And ironically the thing is that the artists who turned against their friends and went into the abstract realm were generally quite inferior in that particular realm. If you look, for example, at the 1930s work of people like Mark Rothko or Gottlieb, that work is inferior to the work of other artists of that group, Joseph Solman, for example. Joseph Solman was an excellent painter who refused to go into abstraction, who actually became more realistic after the war in reaction to the rise of the abstract.

“What happened is that their work was relegated to the areas that no serious art critic would look at. Unfortunately, what happened also, and this has to be said, is that a lot of inferior artists started to imitate their work, and that’s where we get this motel art — the motel modernism.

“What has happened is that the notion of ‘you don’t know anything about art’ leaves so many people out that you have now whole generations of people who are saying, ‘1 don’t know anything about art, so I’ll allow myself to just indulge in whatever happens to be my favorite thing.’ So there’s no critical response there either. They are also being told what to like, and they’re being told to like the worst kitsch possible by the people who produce that kitsch.

“So we have this world out there where everybody is kept from challenging themselves in the realm of art. If you start with the horrible art of these types of painters, if you looked at them for a while, and then you look at a really good Impressionist painting, you begin to say, ‘Oh well, this is not nearly as good as the good Impressionist painting,’ and so you’ve started already the process of comparison and judgment.”

American Expressionism, the book, existed, said Professor Dijkstra, “before the exhibit and the exhibition was in Columbus until the 25th of August. We were there at the opening. It’s terrific to see these paintings brought together for the first time. It’s something where you see the work of painters who had similar kinds of inspiration, sim-ilar kinds of interests, and who also talked with each other to see how, out of that, they created so many individual styles. And yet each of their work has something very significant to say, has something to say that is political and humanist. That’s so important in this art. It focuses on the importance, the significance, and the dignity of all humanity.

“As I point out in the book, it’s so different from German Expressionism, where German Expressionists hated humanity. They were puritans who felt that the world had fallen apart into its evil components, and so they were painting all the evils that they saw around them.

“That’s also what happens in the Second World War with the rise of the new wealth and the new economic power of the war machine. There is this tremendous move to the right. There are some scary connections between that period and our contemporary period in that sense. What happens in the immediate post-World War II period that is so shocking is that all the pent-up anti-Semitism during the war years comes out. Americans knew that the Jews were being persecuted; therefore, it was anti-American to be against the Jews in the same way. But that didn’t mean that there was no anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was rife. Even with all the information that came through about the concentration camps, in the postwar years everybody started to feel free to lash into the Jews again because after all, America had won the war. And so in this postwar era — the period between, I would say, roughly, 1945 and 1955 — anti-Semitism was out there in the open. Nobody was hesitant about it. That’s also why critics such as Clement Greenberg, and so on, start to move away and become hostile to the art of American Jews. Because these artists of the 1930s generation had been proud of their heritage, been proud of being Eastern European. They had seen their mothers work hard, slave to give them the opportunity to develop in the United States. They understood and they appreciated that. The thing with people like Greenberg is that they’re a generation that comes from perhaps an older group of immigrants. It’s like with Alfred Stieglitz. Already in the 1890s, Stieglitz was trying to deny his background, seeing himself as German rather than as a German Jew.

“This is what happens with the generation that you find coming to the fore in the postwar years. They want to deny their background. They want to assimilate as much as possible. And the best way of assimilating is to deny that having a Jewish background has anything to do with the art you produce.

“Paintings have always, since the Second World War, been placed in this privileged position as having no content. It’s gauche if it were to have content.”

“Not having content,” I said, “they float above the culture in an iconic, Platonic way.”

“And therefore,” said Professor Dijkstra, “they were untouchable. They were pure art versus all this art that was politically involved. I think that that’s still how people respond. ‘How dare you deal with this art in terms of the politics. Isn’t art supposed to be above politics?’ That kind of thing.”

“Was it perhaps difficult for people to imagine visual artists as interested in politics? ‘Artists, you know, they mix paint. Stretch canvases.’ ”

“Perhaps. But the politics have been there forever. If you go back to the work of a Renaissance painter, you can see the influence of the Renaissance. But it’s exactly that notion that you don’t have to know anything about history to be a good critic in the art world. Today there are huge numbers of critics out there who treat each repetition of something that has already been done as being new simply because they don’t know that there has already been a painting of that same thing. That’s why there’s this deadly loop of constant repetition of the avant-garde concept that you find in contemporary art. Contemporary art is essentially doomed to repeat history, simply because they’re not aware of history.”

As I looked at the paintings in American Expressionism, I found myself interested in the way that some of the artists placed the nude human figure in a situation where, normally, a person would be clothed. I asked why that was. “I think it has to do with that awareness that you find particularly in the 1930s of the link between eroticism and the outside world that somehow in our response to the erotic is influenced by the social structures we find ourselves in. It’s almost as if the naked body comes to stand against the world. The naked body somehow makes a statement of what is organic versus a world that is an artificial structure. There is nothing that is more human than the naked body. That’s why the people who are the most against humanism are always appalled by the human body.”

Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon and Willem de Kooning’s so-called “women series,” the latter painted during the late 1940s, have always frightened me, I said. I asked Professor Dijkstra why he thought this was so.

“They’re mean. They essentially declare women to be bestial and vicious, aggressive creatures. Ironically, that’s exactly what Clement Greenberg encouraged. Every time de Kooning wanted to move away from these vicious women, Greenberg would say, ‘Hey, get back to them.’ They are aggressions upon women. They’re slasher paintings.”

Readers who visit museums and page through “art books” may well find that they recognize few of the names and almost none of the paintings discussed and displayed in Professor Dijkstra’s newest book. I recognized very few. That for so many people these paintings will not be familiar was why Professor Dijkstra wrote this book. “I was driven,” he said, “to write American Expressionism precisely because so very few people know about this art any more. I wrote the book in the hope readers would have the reaction you’ve described: why don’t I know any of these artists, and why aren’t they better known?”

— Judith Moore

Bram Dijkstra will speak in the Coast room of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla on Wednesday, October 22, at 7:00 p.m. and at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest on Tuesday, December 9, at 7:00 p.m.

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Dijkstra: Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon and Willem de Kooning’s “women series" are "mean. They essentially declare women to be bestial and vicious, aggressive creatures."
Dijkstra: Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon and Willem de Kooning’s “women series" are "mean. They essentially declare women to be bestial and vicious, aggressive creatures."

American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920-1950

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003; 272 pages; $60

FROM THE DUST JACKET: From the 1920s until the end of World War II, a distinctly American form of Expressionism evolved in the United States. This was an art distinct from Regionalism, the now better known style of the period. Unlike the Regionalists, Expressionist artists were often outsiders to what was then the American mainstream. Many were the children of turn-of-the century immigrants from Eastern Europe (William Gropper, Ben Shahn, Harry Sternberg, Jack Levine, Philip Guston), Southern Europe (Louis Guglielmi, Theodore Hios, Rico Lebrun), or Asia (Yasuo Kuniyoshi); many were African-American (Jacob Lawrence, Hale Woodruff, Charles White). But whatever their background, all of these men and women brought a new spirit of idealism to American art.

Many of the Expressionists had grown up in the urban ghettoes of the East Coast or Chicago, and as a result they were deeply concerned with the social problems of poverty and the difficult lives of working people. Their social consciousness only grew during the Great Depression. Some held militant Marxist views, and most were active in populist and left-wing causes. Even those who were not, however, tended to be sympathetic to the labor movement and to the problems of working people in hard times, and their art reflected this point of view. Although they did not share a coherent style, most made use of unconventional color systems and deliberate distortions of form as a way to express personal and social concerns. Thus, their art is best understood as a form of Expressionism firmly rooted in American experience rather than one based on European models.

During the Great Depression and up until the beginning of World War II, the American Expressionists received considerable support from the fine arts programs of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the historic government agency founded by the Roosevelt administration. After the war, however, a new — and apolitical — movement. Abstract Expressionism, quickly displaced the topical expressionism that had preceded it. Author Bram Dijkstra argues that the new movement was deliberately fostered by conservative government and corporate interests as a way of suppressing the socially active idealism that had flourished during the Depression. In this new climate of opinion, the representational work of the Expressionists was ridiculed by powerful critics, savagely denigrated, and wrongly linked to Regionalism, Socialist Realism, and even the art of Hitler’s Third Reich. Ultimately, it was dropped from serious discussions of American art.

American Expressionism brings to light the work of a group of men and women whose art has for too long remained in obscurity. Dijkstra’s analysis will give readers a new perspective on the remarkable achievement of American artists of the 1920s and ’30s, and it will change our understanding of this history and development of 20th-century American art.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A cultural historian and professor emeritus of comparative literature at the University of California at San Diego, Bram Dijkstra has published numerous books, including Cubism, Stieglitz and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (1969); Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Sitcle Culture (1986); Georgia O'Keefe and the Eros of Place (1998); and Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood (1996). He lives in Del Mar.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Bram Dijkstra was born Abraham Jan Dijkstra in 1938 in Indonesia. His father was an engineer. His parents, he said, on the day that we talked, “were on both sides from a colonial family, and they had been in Indonesia for three generations.”

When Bram was two, he was taken to Holland. He explained. “Colonials would have furloughs back to the home country. My mother and my sisters and I had just gone to Holland when the war broke out. At that point my family was separated. My father lived in Indonesia, and he ultimately was put in a Japanese concentration camp, and although he survived it, he didn’t really survive it for very long. He died pretty soon after the war.”

“Those were terrible camps.”

“Yes. People aren’t as aware of them as they are of the German camps, but just in general terms they were almost as awful. There were no official extermination policies, but the Japanese couldn’t care less whether someone lived or died.”

Professor Dijkstra remained in Holland during World War II. “I experienced a number of bombings. It wasn’t a peaceful time. There was a terrible famine winter in 1944-’45. The Germans plundered the country to supply their people and their armies. Holland went through a period of true famine where essentially there was virtually no food to be had.

“After the war my father came back to Holland, but then we all went back to Indonesia just in time for the freedom movement in Indonesia. My family left in 1949. The Dutch were kicked out, appropriately so, 1 suppose. From 1949 on I lived in Holland and got my education there. I was a terrible student.”

“I would have thought you would have been rather wild.”

“That is true. I got kicked out of a number of schools. Ultimately, I guess I felt that Holland was too small, too narrow a country to contain me. I got very interested in the United States. I was reading comic books all the time. American soldiers, who came through Holland after the war, left all these comic books and pop magazines. I got tremendously interested in jazz. So when I was 18 I decided that I should go to the United States. I applied for admission at Ohio State University.”

“Why Ohio State?”

“Because, during my later teens I decided that I wanted to become a journalist, and in Europe and Holland there were no journalism schools as such. So I thought that a way to combine things would be to go to the States and to go to journalism school. I went to the U.S. Information Service in the Hague and asked, ‘Where should 1 go?’ And they said, ‘Ohio State.’ In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ohio State was really a good journalism school.”

“And a great football school.”

“And, of course, a great football school. I didn’t understand anything about football. I barely understand anything about it now.”

At Ohio State, Professor Dijkstra initially found himself “a little bored” doing journalism. Then he found himself involved in a survey. He explained. “This was the time of Sputnik and Why Johnny Can’t Read and all that. I did a survey of reading habits of the American college students, using Ohio State students as my subjects. I wrote a big article about that for the student newspaper, The Lantern. They published it, and it created a sensation because the editor sent it around the country. There were articles about it in the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly and in Saturday Review. So it created quite a bit of scandal because American students weren’t reading that well. I had questions like ‘Who wrote Moby Dick? And the answer would be, ‘Shakespeare.’ ”

The professor received his B.A. and M.A. from Ohio State, the latter in 1962. He was awarded a Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Berkeley. How he came to UCSD, he said, was through the old boys network. “The same people who had been my teachers at Ohio State, by the time I was getting ready to get my Ph.D., had migrated to UCSD.” “When did you fall in love with painting?”

“I’ve always been in love with painting, really. I trace it back to my mother’s house because she had paintings on the walls, very conventional paintings, but good ones. And I remember as a kid, there’s nothing quite like when you’re ill and you have to stay home — this is before the era of television, obviously. So you have nothing to do when you don’t feel that well. So what you do is you start to look at these paintings. I started imagining myself in those paintings and fantasizing about them that way. I became more and more interested in art, and for a while I wanted to be a painter myself.

“When I was at Ohio State I was debating whether to go into art history or literature. My first book, which was my dissertation, was Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams. This dealt with the effect of early modernism on American life and the way in which poets were influenced by the visual arts. That’s essentially what I was interested in myself. I was doing drawings. Williams did drawings and wrote poetry. He ultimately decided that it would be easier, as a physician, to run around with a pencil rather than a canvas and all the other painting equipment.”

We talked then about Professor Dijkstra’s newest book. He opens with the story of how in December 1943, a Long Island junk dealer had bought a ton of bulk canvas for four cents per pound. The canvas bundles were at auction in a federal government warehouse. “On examining his haul more closely,” Professor Dijkstra writes, “he had noticed that the scraps were marked with a variety of stamps: Works Progress Administration, New York Department of Health, and Federal Arts Project. Cutting open a bale or two, he discovered ... thousands of paintings torn from their stretchers.”

The junk dealer decided he’d try to double his money by selling his loot to a secondhand dealer, which, subsequently, he did. Henry Roberts, of the Roberts Book Company on Canal Street in lower Manhattan, reputedly paid the junkman S55 for the canvases. Soon, writes Professor Dijkstra, “piles of unstretched canvases and large sheets of mural cartoons, draped over vases and record cases, or pinned like sheets onto the wall, began to greet the surprised visitors to the Roberts Book Company.” Among these drawings and paintings, which Roberts sold for three and four and five dollars, was work by men and women who had garnered some acclaim as artists.

I asked how Professor Dijkstra learned the Roberts Book Company story.

By going back, he said, to original sources. “I’ve always believed in going back to these sources. They give you a much different sense of the history of American art than what you get from official histories. Because it’s in the magazine, it’s still living art, it’s still living controversies. You get a sense of what the issues were.

“I was going through Art News and Art Digest. I came across these notices about what had happened at the Roberts Reading Book Company. I got an indication also that there had been something in Time and Life. I found the articles.”

As to the government’s auction of the canvases, he said, “Frankly, it’s not that different from the Nazi book burnings. These are, literally, ‘painting burnings.’ They weren’t actually burned, but so many were thrown away. There were tens of thousands of works in the WPA warehouses. Very few have survived compared to what was being done at the time.

“I always felt the book should open with that. It is something that I was aware of for a number of years, and so I’ve been working, trying to figure out why these things happened. A dramatic change takes place in the early 1940s. During the 1930s, there is this focus on art as something by the people, as well as for the people. That’s what’s so interesting about the artists that I deal with. They didn’t see themselves as somehow standing above the crowd. They, themselves, came mostly out of ghettos. They believed in the kind of populist qualities of American life.

“What fascinated me is why after the Second World War, there was such a dramatic change toward abstraction and why it happened so quickly because, between 1945 and 1947 — boom! — from being focused on representational art, American culture jumped onto abstraction in such a dramatic fashion.

“Certainly it was a generational change, but the irony is that these Expressionist painters around 1945 thought that they were riding high, and they were, in economic terms; a number of these painters were making three, four thousand dollars for their paint-

ings. Henry Mattson, the seascape painter, was considered top of the heap. His work was included in all the exhibitions; Frederick Wight put him in his Milestones of American Painting in Our Century. Mattson’s paintings were selling for these huge sums, because $3000, $4000 in 1945 was a lot of money, like three or four hundred thousand now would be. By 1947, though, these Expressionist painters had been pushed out. The striking thing is that this changeover to abstraction crept up on these painters, and by 1947 they couldn’t get their work into the shows anymore.”

Before World War II, I said, painters in America were tending to paint the exterior world. After the war they began to paint the action of the interior world of the psyche. A generalization, I confessed, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Professor Dijkstra explained. There was the social Expressionism of the 1930s, and then toward the end of the 1930s, he said, “There’s this element of surrealism that starts to enter into the work. This can be seen in a painter such as Louis Guglielmi or a number of the painters, even Harry Sternberg, who are focused on psychological issues as well. The social issues and the psychological issues start to mingle. A term that has been used for this is ‘social surrealism.’ And the social surrealism essentially opens up this world of the mind or the psyche.

“Of course, there was this tremendous focus on Freud and Jung at the time. Freud gets overtaken by Jung around 1945-’50. But the same thing that creates the struggle between Freud and Jung also happens between the social surrealists and then the Abstract Expressionists. Because the social surrealists want to deal with the questions of the individual responding to the pressures of the world upon them and how that creates worlds of the mind. But then as the Jungian influence becomes stronger, there’s much more focus on the collective psyche as being captured by the work of the artist. This element is translated very quickly and very easily into the artist having a privileged entry into the psyche. That was heavily encouraged by people like the critic Clement Greenberg.”

As I read Professor Dijkstra’s book and gazed at the reproductions, I began to wonder about frames. For how long had paintings been framed?

“That is a very complicated question. Framing of paintings certainly goes back to the Middle Ages. Let’s say, an altar piece would be framed in a specific appropriate pattern. I’ve seen some frames with things from the 15th and 16th Century, where they still used wooden nails to keep things together. This whole issue of frames is related to the attitude people have toward art. In the 18th and 19th Century, you got these enormous frames, with which the bourgeois culture tries to emphasize, saying, This is important material, therefore, it has to have a big gold frame.’ By the middle of the 19th Century, let’s say by the 1870s, some of these hyperrealistic paintings would be surrounded by frames that were ten inches wide and weighed tons. Those frames then started to fall out of favor as Impressionism fell out of favor. That’s one of the fascinating things. We think that Impressionism was always in favor. But you weren’t a modernist in the 1920s or ’30s if you didn’t have disdain for Impressionism. Nowadays, with Impressionism coming back, that whole clement of design that is in the frame has also come back. So as a result, people build up these enormous frames against very small pictures, and the frame essentially announces itself as the wrapper. It’s kind of like I have a Neiman Marcus wrapper, or a this or that wrapper. It is the indication that this is important. Of course, in the 19th Century, artists had to compete with each other in the most vicious way because these salon exhibitions were exhibitions at the Royal Academy and even the American National Academy. There’d be hundreds, if not thousands of paintings on the wall, and many of them were what they called ‘skied’ at the time, meaning that they were hung above the field of vision, actually, above proper sight. So they were hanging there, way above everybody else, and that’s also where painting these enormous paintings comes from.

“It’s fascinating. The thing is that in our art culture you’re not supposed to deal with all the social elements that surround art. That’s part of the modernist focus on art, and particularly the postwar focus of art, because that is supposed to be something that comes from the mind. Rather than a part of the world, right? And in a sense that is a reaction to the social concerns and the social involvement of the 1930s painters as well.

“I mention in my book that there appeared, as if on cue in 1942, a book by a guy named Frederic Taubes, and it’s called You Don’t Know What You Like: Finding the Good and Bad in Art. The book has as its thesis, ‘You don’t know what you like, let us tell you what you like, because you, the vulgar public out there, are just not equipped to understand art.’

“Of course, the people who are best equipped to tell you what to like are the dealers. That’s the attitude that you find, not just among the American millionaires, but among the painters as well. Before the war it was more, ‘I may not know much about art or about art history, but this is what I like and this is what I’m going to do.’ Well, that starts to fall away after the war. Americans are essentially told, ‘You’re culturally vulgar, you’re culturally incompetent, from now on we will do this. We will tell you what to like.’ It’s the ideal marketing tool.”

This change, I said, must also have influenced the move of the art world center from Paris to New York.

“That’s part of it. The American government was looking for a way to prove that it was culturally as important as it had become politically. Now it was carrying the big stick. It had become the superpower. From this point on, the culture needed to have its own art."

However, as Professor Dijkstra notes in his book, the State Department was not pleased with art that depicted poor people. These paintings were not sent abroad.

About some of these paintings that depict the poor, Professor Dijkstra said, “One of the reactions I get most often is, ‘How can you look at work like that, it’s so grim.’ But I’ve been able to talk with a number of people who painted these works. A number of the artists who painted these works didn’t see this as grim or ugly. They saw it as reality, and they saw the beauty in the faces of the people whom they painted even if they were in desperate straits.”

I said that many of the paintings reproduced in Professor Dijkstra’s book reminded me of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters.

“Exactly. Van Gogh always believed that his work that he did in the Dutch countryside of peasants were some of his strongest works. People don’t want to look at that. So, ironically, we keep looking at Van Gogh’s bright Southern France works.”

The government’s attitude toward these paintings, said Professor Dijkstra, was “‘How dare you show the world that there is poverty in America. That America is not the world’s greatest place.’ And that’s where abstraction comes in. The easiest thing for everybody to grab hold of was abstraction. The effect of it was that you could interpret it. The interpretation of art counted more than the art itself, in a sense. That’s where that ‘You don’t know anything about art’ comes in as well.” The move to abstraction, Professor Dijkstra said, was an expedient move for painters like Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock. Gottlieb, he writes, “needed the advent of Abstract Expressionism to escape mediocrity.” Pollock, in the late 1930s, was painting figural canvases. Pollock became enamored of the murals of Jose Clemente Orozco. Pollock, Professor Dijkstra writes, “came to be heavily influenced by Orozco’s tendency to paint the human figure in simple but intensely expressive and often rhythmically recurrent patterns of heavy, almost calligraphic line.” These paintings, however, reveal Pollock’s difficulties with the “technical demands of figuration.” Professor Dijkstra concludes, writing, about Pollock, “Works such as this are clear evidence that his subsequent escape into ‘pure’ abstraction and ideological silence was not only a career-saving move for an artist in tune with the tendencies of his social environment, but also one dictated by his own emotional and ideological confusion and instability. To emphasize this does not in any way diminish his lasting accomplishments as an Abstract Expressionist; but it does point to the fact that, even as a source of inspiration, he ultimately needed to react against, the work of the social expressionists had a tremendous influence on him.”

As for Pollock’s last years, when he had become a great critical and commercial success, Professor Dijkstra said, “He essentially felt himself painting himself into a corner at the end. A lot of these artists felt that. The scary thing is that it’s still going on, that in an odd way the artist becomes a parasite to the critic. Because the critics determine who the great artists are. Ironically, the critics need to find a justification for their own judgments, and they find the justification for their own judgments in what has to be protected for the investor.” “And in newness for newness’ sake."

“Exactly. There is that whole notion that somehow newness counts more than anything like passion or emotion.

“All of that is so much a part of the postwar mentality, and it really is because, let’s lace it, if we are using our own judgment, what we’re looking for is work that has meaning, work that speaks to us in a very direct fashion, but speaks to us emotionally, that speaks to us with passion. There are many elements involved in the passion that we have for art and the passions that art brings out in us. The scary thing about the postwar mentality — it’s fallen apart now, but it’s still to a large extent there — is that it is really based on this ‘let us tell you what you like.’ " Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) was editor of Partisan Review and art critic for the Nation and an early and important champion of Abstract Expressionism. “How,” I asked Professor Dijkstra, “did Clement Greenberg turn himself into the Edmund Wilson of the art world?”

“It was thrust upon him with the article that I cite, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch,’ published in 1939 in Partisan Review and one of his first published articles. He made this extraordinary statement that essentially there was this umbilical cord of gold between the artist and the ruling class. He said, ‘Let’s just face up to that and stop acting as if the artist has something to say to the people or for the people, because essentially the artist is a lackey of the ruling class.’ He took that as positive because he figured that the ruling class also had control over the intellect. So we have this focus on a kind of higher spiritual quality in art, a higher spiritual meaning to art that abstraction presumably represented. The average person simply could not understand the subtleties of that work. That is already implied in these early articles of Greenberg. And so in the mid-1940s, when people were looking around for someone who could tell them what to like, Clement Greenberg was already there.”

“Was Greenberg’s ‘Kitsch’ article seminal for the culture in the way that Susan Sontag’s ‘On Camp’ [published in 1964] was?”

“Yes. ‘The Avant Garde and Kitsch’ is probably one of the most important articles about modern art or postwar art ever written. Certainly in the art world people are very much aware. Now, of course, there’s a great deal of hostility to his dicta. But it’s an amazing aspect of that postwar period, this general notion that we don’t know what we like anymore, so please tell us what to like.”

“Did the art critics, in the postwar period, visit artists’ studios?”

“Yes, they would.”

“It must have been like a royal visit.”

“Exactly, because they had this tremendously arrogant attitude — ‘If I don’t like it it’s not art,’ that kind of thing. The role of the critic, then, changed so much. It’s because the role of the critic vis-a-vis the collector changed as well. The collector started to dictate, in a sense, what needed to be important. Whether the critics were aware of it or not, they certainly knew that their livelihood depended on how the collectors responded to their judgment.” We talked about the Putnam sisters, Anne and Amy, San Diegans who donated part of their Old Masters collection to what eventually became the Timken Museum of Art.

“The Putnam sisters,” Professor Dijkstra said, “had a tremendous influence on how things turned out here in San Diego. Because they essentially got rid of Reginald Poland [director of San Diego’s Fine Arts Gallery, now the San Diego Museum of Art]. And the thing is that Poland was a true connoisseur. Poland was a man who had independent judgment. He had developed a wonderful collection for the early San Diego Museum of Art. And then he was asked by one of the Putnam sisters, ‘Do you feel that these works are great works of art?’ He had his reservations, and he pointed out that a number of them were fakes. And that was the end of him.

“Ever since, the museum directors have not been able to use their own judgment, independently of the people who supply them with the wherewithal to run museums. So what has happened — not that this didn’t happen to some extent before the war, but after the war — is that the world of art changed into a world of art investors, protecting their investments. I think that the Putnams are a wonderful example of the fact that you don’t have to be conscious of that even in order to do that.” Fifty or 60 years ago, I said, few painters would have socialized with “people of quality.” In those days, to invite a painter to dinner would have been like inviting your hairdresser to dinner.

“That’s right. Before the war, but particularly in the 1930s, of course, artists didn’t have to kowtow to anybody. When I talked with artists from the period, as I have over the past 20 years, the recurring refrain is ‘We had no money, but it was a wonderful time.’ And it was a wonderful time because of the government. Because of the WPA. What your politics were didn’t really matter.”

“Have you seen most of the paintings that are in the book?”

“I have seen a large proportion of them. My wife and I took the car, and we drove through the country. We stopped at all the various museums, in Omaha, Nebraska, Iowa. We asked to be shown the work that usually was in the vaults. We got to see a lot of work that hadn’t been seen by anybody in America. Just some of the most stunning works that had not been recognized as stunning work initially. The generation of art critics who were ideologically hostile to the work of the 1930s and the early 1940s taught their students that this was inferior work, that nobody really needs to take a second look at it.”

I said that many of the reproductions in Professor Dijkstra's’s book seemed technically exceptionally fine.

“Yes. These were artists who were technically very highly trained. And ironically the thing is that the artists who turned against their friends and went into the abstract realm were generally quite inferior in that particular realm. If you look, for example, at the 1930s work of people like Mark Rothko or Gottlieb, that work is inferior to the work of other artists of that group, Joseph Solman, for example. Joseph Solman was an excellent painter who refused to go into abstraction, who actually became more realistic after the war in reaction to the rise of the abstract.

“What happened is that their work was relegated to the areas that no serious art critic would look at. Unfortunately, what happened also, and this has to be said, is that a lot of inferior artists started to imitate their work, and that’s where we get this motel art — the motel modernism.

“What has happened is that the notion of ‘you don’t know anything about art’ leaves so many people out that you have now whole generations of people who are saying, ‘1 don’t know anything about art, so I’ll allow myself to just indulge in whatever happens to be my favorite thing.’ So there’s no critical response there either. They are also being told what to like, and they’re being told to like the worst kitsch possible by the people who produce that kitsch.

“So we have this world out there where everybody is kept from challenging themselves in the realm of art. If you start with the horrible art of these types of painters, if you looked at them for a while, and then you look at a really good Impressionist painting, you begin to say, ‘Oh well, this is not nearly as good as the good Impressionist painting,’ and so you’ve started already the process of comparison and judgment.”

American Expressionism, the book, existed, said Professor Dijkstra, “before the exhibit and the exhibition was in Columbus until the 25th of August. We were there at the opening. It’s terrific to see these paintings brought together for the first time. It’s something where you see the work of painters who had similar kinds of inspiration, sim-ilar kinds of interests, and who also talked with each other to see how, out of that, they created so many individual styles. And yet each of their work has something very significant to say, has something to say that is political and humanist. That’s so important in this art. It focuses on the importance, the significance, and the dignity of all humanity.

“As I point out in the book, it’s so different from German Expressionism, where German Expressionists hated humanity. They were puritans who felt that the world had fallen apart into its evil components, and so they were painting all the evils that they saw around them.

“That’s also what happens in the Second World War with the rise of the new wealth and the new economic power of the war machine. There is this tremendous move to the right. There are some scary connections between that period and our contemporary period in that sense. What happens in the immediate post-World War II period that is so shocking is that all the pent-up anti-Semitism during the war years comes out. Americans knew that the Jews were being persecuted; therefore, it was anti-American to be against the Jews in the same way. But that didn’t mean that there was no anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was rife. Even with all the information that came through about the concentration camps, in the postwar years everybody started to feel free to lash into the Jews again because after all, America had won the war. And so in this postwar era — the period between, I would say, roughly, 1945 and 1955 — anti-Semitism was out there in the open. Nobody was hesitant about it. That’s also why critics such as Clement Greenberg, and so on, start to move away and become hostile to the art of American Jews. Because these artists of the 1930s generation had been proud of their heritage, been proud of being Eastern European. They had seen their mothers work hard, slave to give them the opportunity to develop in the United States. They understood and they appreciated that. The thing with people like Greenberg is that they’re a generation that comes from perhaps an older group of immigrants. It’s like with Alfred Stieglitz. Already in the 1890s, Stieglitz was trying to deny his background, seeing himself as German rather than as a German Jew.

“This is what happens with the generation that you find coming to the fore in the postwar years. They want to deny their background. They want to assimilate as much as possible. And the best way of assimilating is to deny that having a Jewish background has anything to do with the art you produce.

“Paintings have always, since the Second World War, been placed in this privileged position as having no content. It’s gauche if it were to have content.”

“Not having content,” I said, “they float above the culture in an iconic, Platonic way.”

“And therefore,” said Professor Dijkstra, “they were untouchable. They were pure art versus all this art that was politically involved. I think that that’s still how people respond. ‘How dare you deal with this art in terms of the politics. Isn’t art supposed to be above politics?’ That kind of thing.”

“Was it perhaps difficult for people to imagine visual artists as interested in politics? ‘Artists, you know, they mix paint. Stretch canvases.’ ”

“Perhaps. But the politics have been there forever. If you go back to the work of a Renaissance painter, you can see the influence of the Renaissance. But it’s exactly that notion that you don’t have to know anything about history to be a good critic in the art world. Today there are huge numbers of critics out there who treat each repetition of something that has already been done as being new simply because they don’t know that there has already been a painting of that same thing. That’s why there’s this deadly loop of constant repetition of the avant-garde concept that you find in contemporary art. Contemporary art is essentially doomed to repeat history, simply because they’re not aware of history.”

As I looked at the paintings in American Expressionism, I found myself interested in the way that some of the artists placed the nude human figure in a situation where, normally, a person would be clothed. I asked why that was. “I think it has to do with that awareness that you find particularly in the 1930s of the link between eroticism and the outside world that somehow in our response to the erotic is influenced by the social structures we find ourselves in. It’s almost as if the naked body comes to stand against the world. The naked body somehow makes a statement of what is organic versus a world that is an artificial structure. There is nothing that is more human than the naked body. That’s why the people who are the most against humanism are always appalled by the human body.”

Picasso’s Demoiselles d'Avignon and Willem de Kooning’s so-called “women series,” the latter painted during the late 1940s, have always frightened me, I said. I asked Professor Dijkstra why he thought this was so.

“They’re mean. They essentially declare women to be bestial and vicious, aggressive creatures. Ironically, that’s exactly what Clement Greenberg encouraged. Every time de Kooning wanted to move away from these vicious women, Greenberg would say, ‘Hey, get back to them.’ They are aggressions upon women. They’re slasher paintings.”

Readers who visit museums and page through “art books” may well find that they recognize few of the names and almost none of the paintings discussed and displayed in Professor Dijkstra’s newest book. I recognized very few. That for so many people these paintings will not be familiar was why Professor Dijkstra wrote this book. “I was driven,” he said, “to write American Expressionism precisely because so very few people know about this art any more. I wrote the book in the hope readers would have the reaction you’ve described: why don’t I know any of these artists, and why aren’t they better known?”

— Judith Moore

Bram Dijkstra will speak in the Coast room of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla on Wednesday, October 22, at 7:00 p.m. and at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest on Tuesday, December 9, at 7:00 p.m.

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