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Modern Art: the War
When we think of art and war, what comes to mind might hearken back to the history painters I wrote about a couple days ago. In fact, the military hasn't been the only group to go to war for what they believed. In that frame of mind, it could be theorised that the entire history of Modern Art was a war. I think we're all pretty familiar with the opening battles. The first shots were fired on May 15, 1863, with the opening of the famous Salon des Refuse in Paris. Among the combatants were Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Jean-François Millet, Camille Corot, James McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet armed with his "Impression: Sunrise." It was an ignominious rout, but the stalwart realists and nascent impressionists all lived to fight again many times in the years to come.

The turning-point, or perhaps the high-water mark in the war, occurred almost exactly fifty years later on February 17, 1913, not in Paris, but thousands of miles away in New York City, appropriately enough at the 69th Regiment Armory, with the opening of the so called "Armory Show." Those armed for battle this time were a whole new generation of Modern Art painters - Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Vlaminck, van Gogh, Marcel Duchamp, and others. Modern art had invaded America, and if not exactly welcomed with open arms, it had managed to gain a solid beach head. Works sold (Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase #2 for instance) and American art would never be the same again. From this point on and for roughly the next fifty years, Modern Art ruled.

The shots which began the closing battle of war are not so well known. Fought some 99 years after the opening skirmish in Paris, and but a few blocks from the triumphant Armory Show, they signalled the end of Modern Art. On October 31, 1962, the Sidney Janis Gallery on East 57th Street in New York opened its "New Realism" show. Perhaps as much as anything else, the scene of the battle is significant. At the time, Sidney Janis was the most important New York dealer for abstract art. Some ten years earlier, Janis had been among the ones primarily responsible for legitimising the New York school. In 1962, he still represented names such as Rothko, de Kooning, Gottlieb, Motherwell, and Guston. But none of them were represented in the "New Realism" show. Instead, 54 international artists, twelve of them Americans, attacked this bastion of the avant-garde from within, tolling a startling death knell for Modern art. The revolutionaries included Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Rosenquist, Warhol, Wesslemann, Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, George Segal, and Wayne Thiebaud. There were also a few French, Italian, English, and Swedish artists but it was the Americans whose work dominated the field.

One might even term this show an ambush, though only one of the old school dared showed up that night. Willem de Kooning came, marched up and down the fortifications like a major general inspecting the armament for close to two hours, then left without saying a word. At a party later that night celebrating the event, he also showed up but was refused admission at the door. A few days later, Janis' stable of abstract expressionists held a meeting. Ironically, despite this social affront, de Kooning was the only one among them who did not vote to leave Janis. It would be another six months before the word "Pop" was first coined to label this disruptive gang of "vulgarians," as one writer describe the "New Realism" artists. Others referred to them as mindless lightweights and "zombies-from-hell." This last phrase pretty well describes the horror with which the Abstract Expressionists viewed their upstart rivals.

The Pop artists had managed to shock the shockers. And though the Modern art world was to have one last gasp in the form of the Minimalism movement a decade later, Pop was the beginning of the end of Modern Art era. With Modern Art now resting in the peace of nostalgia, we can see now how these founding fathers of Postmodernism lit the fire that night in 1962. In a night filled with as much history as art, perhaps one of the most ironic elements was the presence at the opening of one of the original combatants at the Armory show 49 years before. He was a quiet old man of 76 by now. Like de Kooning, he too looked closely at the new art. It's reported that before the night ended, he was in tears - not from distress, but joy. That night, Marcel Duchamp had the satisfaction of realising that the seeds he'd planted decades earlier when he'd argued that anything could become art, had now blossomed. His words were the philosophical underpinning that has since become the foundation of Postmodernism.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 February 2001

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