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26 June, 2013
New York, New York
Anyone who has ever lived in New York City, or even visited the town, knows the place is unlike any other on earth. Chicago may be America's heartland and Washington where all the noise comes from, but it is New York that is the face of America. The Statue of Liberty is plainly the nose on that face, a work of art appropriate to a city in which the "arts" have congregated largely because of the liberty her glowing torch proclaims. These artists of all kinds are the "makeup" on the face of the city where they beauty they create is as vital as its soaring architecture in masking the ugly pockmarks of this massive, sprawling, urban monster. New York has always had artists. In colonial times, it was the root, literally and figuratively, of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. But it wasn't until the 1920s when the precious liberty its statue advertises made it a magnet for artists all over the world; and where the roots of the New York School could grab hold.

Those roots sprouted in the moist dirt of John Sloan's Ashcan School and the arty hotbed of Alfred Stieglitz's token Avant-garde marketplace. They were nourished by the prosperity, also the social, artistic, and intellectual freedom of the Jazz Age. They were hardened and deepened by tough times in the Depression, but fertilised by the Federal Arts Projects of that era. They matured quickly in the face of a world war, ready to flower once that war was over. In 1940 there were 40 art galleries in New York City. By 1946 there were 150. Harper's Bazaar featured the work of Mondrian and Fernand Léger as backdrops for post-war fashion spreads. Salvador Dali was decorating windows for Bonwit Teller Department Stores. Money, the lifeblood of art, could be heard jingling and crinkling all over the city as its corporate pillars replaced its ageing bluebloods as the major collectors of art.

The city welcomed its émigré artists with open arms. Its Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929, exposed and expounded upon their work. It would be almost fifty years before Paris had a similar museum (the Pompidou Centre) dedicated to modern art. As a town built upon the garment industry and other small manufacturing concerns, by the 1930s (when most of them went broke), New York had literally thousands of empty lofts simply begging to become artists' studios. The likes of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Kline could not have melded into a coherent art movement anywhere else in the world at the time. It was here they found the media and the market and the mouthpieces in the form of critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Abstract Expressionism and the New York School were not captives of the city. The movement spread, but always, it retained the gritty essence of that city which shaped it and allowed it the liberty to paint its portrait.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
6 December 1998

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