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planes and clean colors, with lucid arcs and angles replacing old-fashioned realist imagery, and all laws of gravity repealed in favor of the aerial freedom appropriate to the new century of speed and flight.”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”?