The Grey Art Gallery, which occupies the former site of the Museum of Living Art in the main building of New York University on Washington Square, is celebrating its legendary predecessor with an exhibition of work by the so-called Park Avenue Cubists, who embody the spirit of Modernism for which the earlier museum stood. The very conception of a “museum for living art” must have sounded discordant in 1927, when the institution was founded by Albert Eugene Gallatin, himself one of the “indivisible four” Park Avenue Cubists, as they were called, somewhat resentfully, by fellow members of the American Abstract Artists. There had of course been galleries given over to modern and contemporary art, but the concept of a museum implied that its holdings belonged to the past. Gallatin’s collection of “living art” was selected to express the same present to which his museum belonged, and those with an appetite for modernity could for the first time in New York experience the advanced art of their time in a museum setting: Picasso’s Three Musicians, Mondrian’s Composition in Blue and Yellow, as well as work by Arp, Léger, Míro, Braque and other Modernists, and ultimately the work of the Park Avenue Cubists themselves. Their paintings were executed to be perceived as living art, and it is that dimension of their self-aware contemporaneity that still conveys a certain excitement. Part of what defines modern art is the fact that it was created for persons who conceived of themselves as modern, the art contributing to that identity through the fact of its difference from the art of the past.

The NYU art historian Robert Rosenblum visited the Gallatin Collection when he was a boy, and I find his recollection particularly affecting. “Here was the future in flat planes and clean colors, with lucid arcs and angles replacing old-fashioned realist imagery, and all laws of gravity repealed in favor of the aerial freedom appropriate to the new century of speed and flight.” What is moving about the art of the Park Avenue Cubists is that it belonged to the dark reality of the Depression by expressing the same bright dream of the future that the 1939 New York World’s Fair conveyed. The design language of the World’s Fair was “modernistic,” to use a term of the time; and though there was no gallery of Modernist art in the visionary city erected in Flushing Meadows, the fair’s famous emblem–the Trylon and Perisphere–monumentalized forms from the vocabulary of Modernistic painting. The World’s Fair complex of buildings and avenues was intended to be the future made present, and its visitors left their bleak world behind when they passed through its gates. It was a future in which everything, even domestic appliances, looked as if it were in a state of infinite velocity. Very little “living art” actually figured in the fair’s iconography, though one of its most popular emblems was a sculpture by Joseph Renier called Speed, representing a kind of aerodynamic horse with the streamlined look of a Futurist radiator ornament on a colossal scale. The paintings of the Park Avenue Cubists by rights belonged on the walls of the Home of Tomorrow, even if they were still lifes. They embody the fair’s optimism, which is why they still manage to lift the spirits, though they belong to what the historian Reinhart Koselleck calls a vergangene Zukunft–a future that belongs to the past.

In their own time they were felt to belong to a past that was past. Their work was criticized as “derivative.” So much of contemporary art since the 1960s has been taken up with the appropriation of past forms that we are far less concerned with repetition than the 1930s or ’40s were, when the Park Avenue Cubists had to defend their originality. One of their number, George L.K. Morris, argued wittily enough that it is “as though a Sixteenth Century critic, after examining a fresco of Raphael, could think of nothing to say but that he detected the influence of Perugino.” But obviously something more was at issue than influence. Cubism was really more like a language than a style, and from the moment that it began to shard forms into arrangements of “lucid arcs and angles,” it became one of the chief dialects of modern art, and it means Modernism whenever one sees it. Even so, it underwent stylistic changes. A 1908 review described Braque as having “reduced everything, sites and figures and houses, to geometrical schemata–to cubes.” But early Cubist colors were drab and neutral–ochres and grays–by contrast with the pure, slangy colors of Park Avenue Cubism. And its forms look like slabs of clay by contrast with the latter’s urbanity, which reflected the svelte architectures of Manhattan. Duchamp got into hot water with his fellow Cubists in 1913 when he tried to depict movement in Nude Descending a Staircase, probably because their rivals, the Futurists, made movement and speed the substance of their contribution. But Futurism was in effect Cubism with whiz-lines and nested angles or curves to show “speed and flight.” Morris’s paintings feel as if he was trying to depict the images left on the retina by the way the eye performs saccades from point to point of the visual field. The wheel segments in his 1935 New England Church imply that one is riding past a church that one has to synthesize in order to recover its identity. The rest of the painting shows syncopated glimpses of a church through fragments of its architectural parts, distributed across the canvas. Instead of reconstructing the visual world, as the classical Cubists did, he is trying to show the process through which we construct the world visually and cinematically. His paintings, like those of his wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen, are like colorful diagrams of vigorous eye movements. What could have been more “living”?

In his catalogue essay for the 1939 exhibition of the American Abstract Artists–an organization that he helped found–Morris wrote that “it is on its quality that an abstract work must stand, yet people persist in looking for everything except quality.” The paintings on view at the Grey Gallery look better than they could have when they were first shown, just because so much of the ideology that defined the atmosphere of their art world has vanished, and we are able to look at the work without the prejudices that impeded its reception in its own era. Before World War II, for example, it was an a priori attitude that simply by virtue of being American, their painting would have to be inferior. It was widely accepted that European painting in its nature was superior to anything American painters were capable of, almost as if just being an American meant that one was culturally disabled. Alfred Barr, the celebrated director of the Museum of Modern Art, which opened two years after the Museum of Living Art, was candid in saying that he had no interest in American art. The Park Avenue Cubists were disappointed that only one American–Alexander Calder–was included in MoMA’s 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.” The official reason was that it was the responsibility of the Whitney to show American art, but when the Whitney did mount a show of abstract work by Americans in 1935, Morris complained that it was simply halfhearted: The art selected might well have confirmed the prejudice that Americans were just not up to the level of European Modernists. Robert Motherwell was still bitter about this years later. In an interview with Paul Cummings in 1971, he said, “The position in the 1930s and 1940s was that if you were a modern artist and any good, you were by definition a European…. It was like wine. If wine is any good, it’s French. Or if cooking is any good, it’s French. It’s inconceivable that an American can make a masterpiece.” Against this wall of Eurocentrism, it meant much to American artists that the Museum of Living Art showed their work alongside the Europeans.

There was, moreover, an overall prejudice against abstract art as such in the thirties. This came from three directions: regionalism, Socialist Realism and the art establishment. The regionalists declared abstraction to be European, and accordingly irrelevant to American life. Artists like Thomas Hart Benton, or Grant Wood, took it as their duty, so to speak, to paint America first. Socialist Realism was the pictorial language of class struggle. Artists should see themselves as “cultural workers,” and make art with which working people could identify. They should be represented in overalls and cloth caps, creating surplus value by manipulating heavy machinery or driving tractors. Abstract art, if not unpatriotic, was counterrevolutionary. So the Park Avenue Cubists found themselves the target of artistic imperatives to paint America–since they were Americans–or to join forces with the working class if their art was to have any relevance. Finally, the art establishment itself was hostile to abstraction, which it saw as decorative at its best. Despite being eulogized in her recent obituaries as a staunch supporter of avant-garde art, the newspaper critic Emily Genauer was an unrelenting opponent of abstraction. Writing for World Telegram, she dismissed the paintings of Mondrian and Moholy-Nagy as “so many simple commonplace patterns for bathroom tiles.”

Against the background of the fierce polemics of 1930s art discourse, one can sense the defiance in the very wording of the title given to the organization the Park Avenue Cubists helped found to promote the art in which they believed–“American Abstract Artists.” And one can see why Morris felt it important to distribute a questionnaire to those who visited its first exhibition in 1936, to see what “the people” actually thought about abstraction. He took great satisfaction in the results, which showed, in the words he quotes from the New York Times, that “in view of the fact that the official spokesmen for art have consistently preached against abstract art as ‘un-American’ the results of this inquiry show that the American public is far more interested, and would like to see more of it, than any one had hitherto suspected.” But Times critic Edward Allen Jewell remained unrelentingly hostile to abstraction throughout his tenure.

Beyond that, calling them “Park Avenue Cubists” must have been an expression of ressentiment, even among their allies in the American Abstract Artists: It was a way of writing them off because of their wealth and social standing. They all had impressive pedigrees. Gallatin’s great-grandfather was the Unites States Treasurer under Jefferson and Madison, as well as an ambassador to France and England–and he founded New York University because, according to the show’s curator, Deborah Bricker Balken, he believed Columbia to be too Calvinist. Morris was descended from one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence and was the first art critic for Partisan Review, which he supported financially when its editors broke with the John Reed Society and began turning it into America’s leading intellectual and literary journal. Frelinghuysen came from a patrician Dutch family in New Jersey–her grandfather had been Secretary of State under Chester Arthur–and she enjoyed successful careers both as an opera singer and a painter. She sang the role of Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos to rave reviews, and was selected by a jury that included Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and André Breton for inclusion in “31 Women” at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1943. Charles Shaw was a socialite and a man about town. Clearly they were a classy bunch. Morris designed a Modernistic house for himself and Frelinghuysen to paint in when they left their penthouse for the summer. They traveled back and forth to Europe, and of course Gallatin collected modern art. Even if it weren’t the Depression, their charmed lives made it easy for their work to be dismissed as elitist–still a powerful epithet in critical politics.

These were the things that stood in the way of appreciating the art of the Park Avenue Cubists in their time. Most of the ideology that bedeviled them has lost its power to intimidate. The School of Paris declined precipitously after World War II, so being American stopped being a cultural stigma. New York really did become the capital of world art. Abstraction has become a genre, like portraiture and landscape, as can be seen in the oeuvre of Gerhard Richter, and the conflict between it and “the figure” has become irrelevant, since painters of all persuasions have drawn closer to one another under the radical charge that painting as such is dead. Artists in Eastern Europe who were tyrannized by the imperatives of Socialist Realism have all become postmodernists in the 1980s, and have found their way into the international art world. There is always a certain ressentiment against privilege, but it is hard to think of a group of artists quite as elite as Gallatin, Morris, Frelinghuysen and Shaw when they were in their prime.

What chiefly stands between us and their work today is something they could not have defended themselves against, since it lay in their actual future, namely the emergence of the New York School, with its daunting artistic achievements. I have the most vivid recollection of seeing an exhibition of abstract painting at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s, and wondering why I should take seriously the brightly painted pictures of circles and bars and squiggles when, moving dutifully along the wall of a gallery, I came suddenly upon Jackson Pollock’s painting The She-Wolf and was knocked off my horse. I saw immediately that abstraction was capable of an undreamt-of greatness that nothing I had ever seen in the exhibitions of American Abstract Artists at the Riverside Museum so much as hinted at. In the light of Rothko, Kline, Newman, de Kooning and Pollock, it would have been easy to concur with the judgment stated by Robert Lubar, one of the authors of the Grey Gallery catalogue, that the Park Avenue Cubists are “little more than a quaint reminder of tentative and failed initiatives in the struggle to transplant the lessons of European modernism to American soil.” If there is a criticism to be made of the Park Avenue Cubists, it is that they seemed content, to use Morris’s phrases, to work at solidly grounding “the traditions of the future” and “the endless problems of form in design.” They lacked the larger visions of their tremendous successors.

Notwithstanding all that, the work today looks marvelous–“delicious” is really the word–when we see it hung together where the masterpieces assembled by Albert Gallatin were once shown, and the show (until March 29) is an absolute treat in these bleak times. This is the first time in more than sixty years that all four artists have been shown just with one another, and I was impressed with the amount of pleasure the work evoked in the dense crowd that showed up at the opening. The jazzy, shaped canvases of Charles Shaw show that Manhattan and Cubism were made for each other. Gallatin, who took up painting at the age of 55, turns out to have been the strongest of the four. But they are all worth thinking about. Now that history has wiped the ideological fingerprints from our glasses, we can enjoy the art as it could never have been before. It restores, to be sure, a piece of American art history. But Gallatin’s intention was that the art in his space should be living art–and what Debra Balken and the Grey Art Gallery have done is to bring the art back to life. That should be the goal of all art museums everywhere.