mercredi 6 mars 2013

A Sweeper-Up After Artists : a memoir by Irving Sandler (2003)

One could say that the title Irving Sandler chose for his memoir is perfect. After all, it comes from a Frank O'Hara poem which names Sandler personally (a kind of immortality already) and it implicates poet and art critic in the altogether exhilarating moment in American culture where abstract expressionism (Americana, pure and simple) is born. Frank O'Hara registers the moment in his poetry and Irving Sandler sweeps it up, organizes it, makes sense of it, shows us the glorious dirty/clean floors, splotches of paint, discarded early efforts – and every sentence is pure gold.

L to R: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko,
Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Rotert Motherwell,
Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlied, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne.
Photo by Nina Leen in Life Magazine, January 15, 1951.

Sandler shows us the main players as well as the odd, minor pundit and punter. Take the Vogels, for example : Herbert and Dorothy – two tiny people, he a post-office worker, she a librarian, both with a modest salary but an uncanny eye for the new or the up-and-coming – in the span of 50 years, they fill their tiny New York apartment with avant garde art that they eventually bequeath to Washington's National Gallery. Sandler knew them and many other unusual people personally. The Vogel's is a lovely story and one which Sandler squeezes into pages that also recall the likes of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko.

There is also a brilliant chapter devoted to the clash of the titans: the unmovable, curmudgeonly, formalist art critic Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, the existentialist and inventor of the term "action painting" (with the focus on "action"). Sandler regales us with stories of his encounters with these two but he also teaches us a great deal about art history, connoisseurship and the real life battles that produce what we come to regard as the canon.

This book was a pleasure to read. It ended too quickly. More Irving Sandler in my library, please.

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