The American Century: Art and Culture, Part II, 1950-2000
The Triumph of the New York School, a deeply ironic painting by the American artist Mark Tansey, looks at first sight like a rotogravure depiction of a military surrender that took place long ago. Representatives of two opposing forces are arrayed on either side of a field desk, on which the defeated commander signs the document in the presence of the victor. The losing army wears French military uniforms circa World War I, while the victors are dressed in the GI khakis of World War II. The picture is obviously not a historical possibility, as the United States and France were not at war on either occasion. But in a sense, there was a battle between the schools of Paris and New York in the late forties and early fifties, and Tansey has painted an allegory of the latter’s triumph. André Breton, chef d’école of the Surrealist movement, ceremonially acknowledges defeat at the hands of Clement Greenberg. Behind Greenberg, we can identify Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and New York School stars of various magnitude. Behind Breton, we see Henri Matisse, dressed in a French officer’s cape and kepi, and Picasso–Hector to Pollock’s Achilles–wearing the fur duster of a World War I flying ace. Smoke rises in the distance, as in Velásquez’s Surrender at Breda.
Tansey was being ironic about the triumphalist language used when New York indeed achieved pre-eminence in modern art–a tone that lingers on in “America Takes Command,” as the Whitney Museum of American Art designates the first set of works that begin this second installment of “The American Century” (until February 13). Tansey’s painting, though held by the Whitney, is not included in the show, though it would have introduced a welcome note of self-satire if it had been. Whatever the case, The Triumph of the New York School belongs on neither side in an aesthetic conflict that was ancient history when Tansey painted it in 1984. Neither side would have considered his painting an allowable form of art. But from the seventies on, American art became more and more deeply pluralistic, to the point that artists were no longer constrained to work in any given style–they could choose, indeed, whatever style served their larger purposes. Tansey used a dated style of illustration to achieve ironic ends–particularly appropriate since both schools used “illustrational” as a pejorative critical predicate.
In the light of Tansey’s wry historicism, it is possible to ironize a logo selected for The American Century–Jasper Johns’s nested trio of American flags, laid one upon the other in graduated size. The largest flag would be the state of American art in the fifties and sixties, when Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism established New York as the capital of the art world. The middle-sized flag might then denote the seventies and eighties, when Conceptual Art and Neo-Expressionism became universal practices in art worlds the world around. David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl were our best Neo-Expressionists, but not necessarily better than Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke in Germany or “the wretched Italians,” as Donald Barthelme liked to speak of Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia. The art world of the eighties acquired a complex geometry, with various art centers as foci, while New York shrank in status to the kind of art market Chelsea now makes vivid. The smallness of the smallest flag emblematizes the nineties, when there is very little distinctive about the art produced in America in contrast to art produced anywhere and everywhere else.