The exhibition that Debra Bricker Balken has16 organized at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in Washington Square is calle d The Park Avenue Cubists: Gallatin, Morris, Frelinghuysen, and Shaw . Never mind if the names of the four American painters represented in this delightful exhibition-A.E. Gallatin, George L.K. Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen and Charles G. Shaw-are no longer as familiar to the art public as they once were. Both for the quality of their own pictorial achievements, and for the intelligence and devotion they brought to the task of establishing the importance of modernism for an American public still highly suspicious of Cubism, abstraction and similar innovations, they made a significant contribution to the history of the New York avant-garde. A seriously considered recognition of that contribution has long been overdue.
It needs to be recalled, perhaps, that in the 1930′s and early 40′s, when these painters were in their prime, modernists of almost every persuasion were at a considerable disadvantage on the New York art scene. In an era of severe economic depression and widespread political upheaval, the arts tended to favor more popular styles. This was, after all, the heyday of Social Realism, Regionalism, the W.P.A. mural project and other philistine developments designed to promote a radical political agenda. Hard as it may now be to understand, the Soviet Union-where modernism was officially denounced by Stalin himself as “bourgeoisformalism”-was nonetheless widely regarded by artists and intellectuals as a model to be emulated, in art as well as social thought.
It was in tacit opposition to this cataract of philistine art in the service of social consciousness that the painters in The Park Avenue Cubists emerged as articulate and well-informed champions of modernist painting. All four came from wealthy, patrician family backgrounds, hence the “Park Avenue” label, but they were anything but social or cultural conservatives.
A.E. Gallatin (1881-1952) was the great-grandson of the Gallatin who had been Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison and the founder of New York University. In 1927, two years before the founding of the Museum of Modern Art and four years before the opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art, A.E. Gallatin created New York’s first modern art museum-the Gallery of Living Art, later called the Museum of Living Art, in the space now occupied by the Grey Art Gallery. Gallatin turned to painting in the early 1920′s. and he went on to produce some of the most austere abstractions of his day.
George L.K. Morris (1905-1975), a painter, critic and collector, provided the funds that made it possible for the Partisan Review , which had been founded as an organ of the American Communist Party, to break with the Party line and become an independent literary journal. While remaining Marxist in its political outlook, Partisan Review embarked on a program that combined modernism in the arts with a vehement rejection of Stalinism-a program in which Morris was closely involved as an editor as well as the magazine’s first art critic, a role that was reluctantly ceded to Clement Greenberg in the early 1940′s. He also served as the curator of the Gallery of Living Art.
Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-1988), Morris’ wife, is the least-known of this quartet. She enjoyed a double career as a highly accomplished painter and a professional opera singer. She was certainly one of the best American painters of her generation, and her work is likely to be the principal “discovery” for the younger viewers of The Park Avenue Cubists exhibition.
Charles G. Shaw (1892-1974) began his career as a writer and caricaturist, contributing to the Smart Set, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair before turning to painting. His Self-Portrait drawing, circa 1935, in the current show is at once a caricature of both the artist and the Cubist style, and is quite the wittiest thing in the exhibition. The geometrical “Skyscraper” abstractions he produced in the 1930′s are some of the most original abstract paintings of the period-and in one of them, Wrigleys (1937), which depicts an oversized package of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum suspended in space against a geometricized version of the Manhattan skyline, gives us a preview of what many years later came to be called Pop Art.
It was the principal liability of the Park Avenue Cubists that they remained so closely identified-both personally, in the friendships they established, and in their own paintings-with the Cubist masters of the School of Paris, whose works they admired, collected and sometimes wrote about. To emulate the Cubist masterpieces of Picasso, Braque, Gris, Léger et al. was indeed their avowed ambition. In the 1930′s, this allegiance to the School of Paris made them look like artistic revolutionaries, but by the 1940′s, when the Abstract Expressionist movement emerged with a more radical variety of abstract painting, the Park Avenue Cubists could no longer be regarded as avant-garde. With the arrival of Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell et al., Cubism was looked upon as démodé . In the influential critical writing of Clement Greenberg, for example, “late Cubism” was a term of contempt.
That’s not the way we see these things today, for the passage of time has emptied the old orthodoxies of their authority. At least in the work of Suzy Frelinghuysen and Charles Shaw, I believe we’re seeing an aesthetic quality that places their accomplishments well beyond that of mere imitators, and in Shaw’s case I think his work would merit a full retrospective.
It remains to be said that the exhibition Ms. Balken has organized in The Park Avenue Cubists is exemplary in every respect, and so is the fine catalog that accompanies it. The show remains on view at the Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, through March 29.