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Sunday, September 12, 2010

The New York School

When we speak of a certain school of art today, many people, even artists, may think in terms of a university campus with ivy covered buildings, or perhaps dazzlingly modern educational edifices replete with gallery space, sleek studios, and massive lecture halls.  However, those who study art of the past mean something quite different when they refer to a "school" of art.  They mean a group of like-minded artists moving together in a general direction toward a particular style of painting and sculpture.  Perhaps a better image would be more like that of a "school" of fish moving in unison.  The last great American "school" of art was the New York School which first began to develop in the 1940s.

It is hard to overstate the impact the Second World War had upon the arts. Even before the war, the rise of Nazism had spurred a gradual leaking of the art intelligentsia from northern Europe to the U.S. The war itself  BLASTED them out, so to speak, turning a dribbling of artistic migration into a FLOOD. Artists like Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, Josef Albers, Hans Hofmann, and others shifted the artistic center of gravity from Europe to the United States virtually overnight. These European painters joined in New York an already established New York School populated by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Jack Tworkov, Stuart Davis, James Brooks, Philip Guston and Arshile Gorky. Even the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco lived and taught in the city for a time.

Near the end of the war, critic Robert M. Coates commented in The New Yorker: "A new school of painting is developing in this country. It is small as yet...but it is noticeable if you get around to the galleries much. It partakes a little of Surrealism, still more of Expressionism, and although its main current is still muddy and it's direction obscure, one can make out bits of Hans Arp, and Joan Miro floating in it, together with large chunks of Picasso and occasional fragments of Negro sculptors. It is more emotional than logical in expression and you may not like it (I don't either, entirely), but it can't escape attention."

It took a decade or so, but this combined, creative locomotive was to surge into a rush of painted art we know today as Abstract Expressionism, which was ground-breaking in its own right.  But beyond that, it would plant the seeds, in this broken ground, for the many art movements and styles that were to sprout up in New York for the next 25 years. Sadly however, it may have also been the last, great creative gasp of painting as an art form for all time.

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