How did New York City become the centre of the western art world?

Paintings by Jackson Pollock (R) and Willem de Kooning (L) on display at the Museum of Modern Art Queens, New York City, 2002. Image: Getty.

A new exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, opens at London’s Royal Academy this weekend. It's the first major survey of the movement since 1959.

Abstract expressionism is often considered the first artistic movement to shift the centre of Western art from Europe to the US, and more precisely New York. But what is it, and how did this happen?

Associated with a group of artists working in New York in the 1940s, abstract expressionism came to be known as the quintessential American and modern art movement. Heirs to the progressive abandonment of figurative and naturalist painting styles that had been taking place in Europe since the early 20th century, the painters associated with the movement came to be known for their innovative use of new synthetic industrial paints, large scale canvases, and the development of very individual abstract styles.

Some of the most easily identifiable include Franz Kline’s quick and simple brushstrokes, at times likened to Japanese calligraphy; the drips and rapid splatters of Jackson Pollock; Robert Motherwell’s large repeated ovals and rectangles; and Mark Rothko’s large blocks of colour.

Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955. Image © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

Despite often being seen as “childish” painting that “anyone could do”, abstract expressionism has a history that is more interesting than we might suspect at first. Because the emergence of the movement in the 1940s and its internationalisation in the 1950s wasn’t only due to the work of its artists. It was also due to both the art criticism and political environments of its time. So much so that we cannot think abstract expressionism without considering the work of critics such as Clement Greenberg and the role of art as a cultural weapon during the Cold War.

A European story

Writing at the same time as the abstract expressionists were developing their signature styles, Greenberg became the critic that most famously endorsed the movement. He claimed it represented the most “advanced” form of Western art. To justify this, Greenberg looked at the work of older European artists such as Manet, Monet, Cézanne and Picasso, arguing that European painting had been progressively moving away from representations of the three-dimensional world outside. According to him, this was also accompanied by a progressive flattening of the pictorial space.

Greenberg argued that this showed an increasing concern with investigating the potential and limitations of the elements that belonged exclusively to the medium of painting: a flat canvas with specific dimensions (length and width) upon which paint is applied. All historic examples of paintings that give the impression of three-dimensional space on canvas, all painting that tries to mimic the world outside of it, were, for Greenberg, paintings that tried to conceal their true nature.

Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957. Image © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

What is crucial here is that, by producing this narrative of European art, Greenberg was able to claim that, for the first time ever, the most “advanced” form of Western art was no longer being produced in Europe but instead in New York. For him, it was painters like Pollock, Motherwell, De Kooning, Rothko, Kline, and Newman that were now, thanks to the new abstract languages they were developing, carrying on the work that had begun with the European avant-gardes. European artists, he argued, had not been able to carry this to completion, due, in part, to the weight of tradition, something that America did not have to carry.

So it was in large part due to critics like Greenberg, but also collectors like Peggy Guggenheim, and curators like MoMA’s Alfred H Barr, that abstract expressionism eventually gained momentum among the art glitterati of New York in the 1950s, despite never being popular among the wider American public.

Lee Krasner. The Eye is the First Circle, 1960. Image © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016.

Cold War art

But there is also politics to consider. Abstraction had been allowed to thrive in part due to the earlier sponsorship of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which saw an incredible amount of government funds being used to directly employ artists and commission new public artworks in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Most of the works funded by that programme were American regionalist paintings and large social realist murals. But some of the funds were also used to support the early work of some of the artists whose career would eventually progress towards what came to be known as abstract expressionism.

Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952. Image © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016.

But perhaps one of the most iconic contributors to the dissemination of the movement as the culmination of Western art history was the Cold War. In the 1950s, at the peak of the ferocious anti-Communist sentiment of the McCarthy era in the US, the agendas of institutions like MoMA in New York and critics like Greenberg converged with the political interests of the CIA. Such convergence led to a series of exhibitions that would tour Europe during the Cold War years. The most famous of those was MoMA’s The New American Painting, which came to Europe in 1958-59. This show was responsible for bringing abstract expressionism to all major European capitals, including West Berlin.


Whether or not these exhibitions were funded or facilitated by the CIA, as some have convincingly argued, they were certainly responsible for cementing the perception of America as the legitimate heir of European aesthetic and political values. Against a USSR perceived as totalitarian and oppressive, with state-sanctioned socialist realism coming across as kitsch and formulaic propaganda, abstract expressionism – with its variety of individual voices and painterly styles – would eventually become a symbol of the autonomy, liberty and creative freedom allegedly enjoyed by all in the West. These were values that, from then on, became manifest in the generalised perception of the US as the ultimate beacon of Western culture.The Conversation

João Florêncio is a lecturer in the history of modern and contemporary art at the University of Exeter.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.