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“Action/Abstraction,” at the Jewish Museum, is more a perambulatory essay than an art exhibition, though it incorporates superb exhibits: classic paintings by the rival godheads of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and fine works by other members (notably Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still), important followers (Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler), and rebellious successors (Jasper Johns, Frank Stella) of American art’s greatest generation. Arshile Gorky’s prophetic “The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb” (1944), from the Albright-Knox, in Buffalo, alone is worth the visit. It is a desperately vivacious, songful tumult, seemingly executed with bundled nerve ends. Ragged zones of hot color, like open wounds, interact with tight, buzzing linear glyphs—fragments of organic life—that bespeak the artist’s lingering debt to Surrealism, all in concert with intuitions of a new, expansive kind of pictorial space. Something epochal is afoot: a dovetailing of raw personal emotion and disinterested aesthetic experiment, Dionysus and Apollo. Those opposed qualities became the magnetic poles of Abstract Expressionism (which was named in 1946 by the New Yorker art critic Robert Coates) and also the virtual battle stations of the movement’s great, mutually hostile critics, Harold Rosenberg (1906-78), who interpreted the new art rather exclusively in terms of existential drama, and Clement Greenberg (1909-94), who exalted formal invention as an end in itself. Rosenberg gravitated toward de Kooning, Greenberg toward Pollock. They squared off over Newman’s smooth expanses of color inflected with vertical bands or lines—spiritual hierophancy to Rosenberg, aesthetic engineering to Greenberg.
The Jewish Museum’s chief curator, Norman L. Kleeblatt, has focussed “Action/Abstraction” on the writers, interspersing paintings and sculpture with abundant texts, photographs, and memorabilia. Film clips display the men’s differently impressive rhetorical panache: Greenberg is incisive and imperious, Rosenberg droll and oracular. (Parallel shots witness Pollock dripping and de Kooning stroking.) Born to Jewish immigrants in New York, both critics were public intellectuals in the heroic mold of Partisan Review and other small but scarcely humble organs of cosmopolitan thought. Buoyed by America’s ascendancy among nations after the Second World War, they projected the confidence of New York as the new world capital of progressive culture. Each seemed to covet a throne of high-cultural authority which proved, in the end, not to exist. Their quarrels have been outlasted by the art that was their pretext. The resilient mergers of feeling and form in Pollock’s galvanic fields, de Kooning’s dismembered figuration, Rothko’s transcendent color, and, in sculpture, David Smith’s stately animation mutely chastise lopsided partialities of any stripe. But the notion of bracketing the artistic and the critical audacities of the watershed postwar era is so good it’s a wonder that no museum has tackled it before. The result suggests, to me, the pleasant conceit of considering Rosenberg and Greenberg themselves as types of Abstract Expressionists, in discursive prose: Rosenberg lyrically impulsive, like de Kooning; and Greenberg as starkly decisive as Newman. Both aspired, à la Pollock, to perfect unconventional modes of argument that would knock any would-be antagonist cold.