Monday, 1 August 2011

My BA dissertation...

To what extent did the emigration of artists and designers from Europe to the US, before and during the Second World War, have an impact on art, architecture and education in America?

James Hollerbach

BA (Hons) Surface Design

London College of Communication

Faculty of Design

Tutors: Jess Baines & Robin Reward

January 2011


List of illustrations                                                                                               


Westward bound from the Old World

The Bauhaus and American cities                                                                               

From the Bauhaus to Yale                                                                                        

Psychic Automatism to Modernism in the Free World

Peggy Guggenheim, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism                                  

New York’s displacement of Paris                                                                            




Illustration credits                                                                                                       

Further reading                                                                                                          

Exhibition visits (New York)                                                                                       

List of illustrations

Figure 1: Whitney Museum of American Art (1963 to 1966), New York. Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith                                                                                    

Figure 2: Seagram Building (1954 to 1958), New York. Mies van der Rohe            

Figure 3: The ‘Rothko room’ (2007), Material Gestures Room 3, Tate Modern, London                                                                                                                       

Figure 4: Paysage Surrealiste (1937) Yves Tanguy                                                  

 Figure 5: Year after Year (1947) Arshile Gorky                                                         

 Figure 6: The Visit (1966-67) Willem de Kooning                                                      

Figure 7: Art of this Century gallery (1942), New York. Frederick Keisler                

Figure 8: Stenographic Figure (1942) Jackson Pollock                                             


In the first half of the Twentieth Century there were many social, political and technological changes and events that artists, designers and historians made interesting and influential responses to. Examples of this were two world wars, which some of these artists and designers served in. The founder and first director of the Bauhaus was serving in the German army during the First World War when Walter Gropius witnessed the mechanised slaughter that made him dream that machines could instead be used to benefit mankind, and the seeds of the famous school were sown (The face of the Twentieth Century: Bauhaus, 1994).

The life of the Bauhaus in Germany mirrored that of the Weimar Republic, both in terms of it beginning in 1919 in Weimar and ending in 1933, by which point the Nazi party had completely taken control of political power in the country. In April 1933 their storm troopers raided the third home of the Bauhaus in Berlin, when they arrested students and smashed workshops, causing the closure of the school and then the emigration of these artists and designers from Europe gathered pace. In this thesis I aim to critique the link between these emigrating individuals and the art, architecture and educational establishments on both sides of the Atlantic, by studying the commissions and teaching they undertook in Europe preceding the Second World War and subsequently in the US during and after the war.

By using extensive research across several mediums and obtained during my visit to New York’s modern art museums I wish to study the artists and movements, predominately the Psychic Automatism of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, that changed what was considered to be the cultural capital of the world and caused this transition from Paris to the first ever American avant-garde. This can be linked back specifically to the spread of fascism in Europe and forward to the Cold War politics of post-war America and the direct influence that the Bauhaus had on American cities and educational institutions (such as Chicago’s landscape and Black Mountain College in North Carolina respectively).

The artist and teacher Josef Albers is an example of one of these connections because he taught at the German school and then the American one soon after. As Brenda Danilowitz is the chief curator of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Frederick Horowitz is a former student of Josef Albers at Yale in the 1950’s, I shall be using there Josef Albers: To open eyes (2006) publication to discuss Albers’ influence. Some of Albers’ Black Mountain graduates, such as the artists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, later became prominent members of Abstract Expressionism. This was a movement that had the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) along with hugely important American collectors, museum directors and art critics, such as Peggy Guggenheim, Alfred H. Barr and Clement Greenberg respectively, backing it. Therefore I intend to examine the influence that the wealthy art patron and collector Guggenheim and her Art of this Century gallery had on the New York art scene, which helped to introduce Modernism to the US.

There have of course been many published critiques on individual areas of my field of study in the past, such as the art historian Serge Guilbaut’s book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983) which I will explore in detail. Though they have not broadly studied the impact of the mass emigrations, by linking those working in both Chicago and New York for example, coupled with both the influence of Guggenheim and the CIA. Only in recent years has the agency’s covert patronage of Abstract Expressionism in the Cold War been explored in publications and programmes, such as those by the journalist and historian Frances Stonor Saunders with her Modern art was CIA weapon (2010) article for the Independent newspaper and the Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA (1995) Channel 4 documentary. The latter programme argued that the agency saw Abstract Expressionist art as an expression of America’s freedom with their artists creating what they wished to, and the contrasting Social Realist art in the USSR as propaganda where those artists merely painted what they were told to by a dictatorship (Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA, 1995). I do not believe that this documentary wished to suggest that Abstract Expressionism would not have had the impact it did without any such influences, just as I also do not wish to surmise this, because to do so would arguably lessen the artistic merit of the artworks considered typical of the movement. Nevertheless, I feel it is important to study this patronage in order to further develop a greater understanding of the social and political context in which Abstract Expressionism grew to become the first US art movement that achieved worldwide influence and which placed the New York avant-garde at the centre of the western art world.

Westward bound from the Old World

The Bauhaus and American cities

One of the many factors that had made America such a creatively fertile environment for the European artists and designers emigrating there was the country’s early Twentieth Century rejuvenation, which was caused by its growing political and economic power. This therefore placed it in a position to be able to offer new commissions, such as the architectural projects in Chicago offered to the designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. An example of this power is that having been relatively unscathed in World War One, America was able to increase its gross national product so that by 1929 it was greater than that of Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan and Canada combined (Kentgens-Craig, 1999). The skyscraper was seen by America as not only an architectural expression of this economic power and status, but also as a possible solution to their need for housing. This was a need that was already being addressed in Europe by Modernist architects, such as Le Corbusier. The Bauhaus historian Margret Kentgens-Craig (1999) explained that these factors then paved the way for the spread of Bauhaus and Modernist ideas in the US. The school’s image in America was helped by visits there by Gropius and Mies and their inclusion in American publications, but not by the controversies surrounding Bauhaus architecture and by the general mistrust of Germans both after the First World War and just before the second. This then grew to such an extent that the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) even had files on both Gropius and Mies by the end of 1940 (Kentgens-Craig, 1999).

A Modernist architect who had already been creating groundbreaking work in the US, before the emigration there of the former Bauhaus directors, was the American Frank Lloyd Wright. Sixteen years Gropius’ senior the American was an early influence on the German’s work. After Gropius visited a 1910 exhibition of Wright’s drawings at the Academy of Art in Germany and saw his work around the same time in the first German publication to feature them, ‘he later acknowledged that both the exhibition and the publication of Wright’s works had a significant effect on his own designs’ (Isaacs, 1991, p25). Wright designed the New York Guggenheim Museum, but unfortunately died just months before his masterpiece opened in 1959. This magnificent building has a spiral-shaped, sloping main walkway that has artworks on its walls and all the other galleries connected to it. This makes the museum a unique space to display art, which currently includes an interesting exhibition of the work of the Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky: Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, 1922–1933. Though many of Wright’s other buildings can be found in Chicago, as is also the case with the former Bauhaus directors.

Gropius designed the Bauhaus buildings in its second home in the industrial city of Dessau, as well as the homes for the Masters and himself in the same city. Having resigned as director in 1928, he visited the US for the first time and re-opened his Berlin office in the following three months. In 1929 Gropius began designing for Adler Automobiles. This is the company whose bicycle handlebars had purportedly inspired the Bauhaus designer and architect Marcel Breuer’s influential tubular steel furniture designs (Cobbers, 2007). The huge influence of this furniture can be seen in its continued use today. Gropius’ four year employment there included his redesign of their factory in Frankfurt. Having arrived in the US in 1937 Gropius designed the Pennsylvania Pavilion at the New York World Fair with Breuer two years later.

The latter was a student and then subsequently a teacher at the Bauhaus. In 1925 he became one of the young Masters and, as he experimented with the new tubular steel material, he went on to design his famous furniture for the remainder of that decade. Having left the Bauhaus in 1928 Breuer opened his own architectural practice in Berlin before leaving Germany in 1933. After working in Zurich, Budapest and London he went to the US on the invitation of Gropius and the two men had an architectural practice together for five years from 1937. His most prestigious commissions came much later though. From 1952 to 1958 he, in partnership with Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss designed the UNESCO Headquarters building in Paris. Later Breuer designed the current building that houses the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art (figure 1, p9) in New York, with Hamilton P. Smith, from 1963 to 1966. Whilst walking around the exterior of the museum it becomes clear that the several small windows and raw concrete feel to the external surface are similar to buildings typical of 1960’s Brutalist architecture (such as the Hayward Gallery building in London), so Breuer was arguably influenced by Brutalism at the time. The ceiling of the entrance foyer consists of row upon row of satellite dish shaped lights that convey a ‘space age’ feel in the room and, coupled with the large windows on the ground floor and the right-angular inverting front façade, are more typical of Modernist buildings of the past.

Figure 1                 

The Breuer exhibition in 1972 at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York was the museums first ever exhibition on the life and work of an individual living architect. Along with MoMA (for which Breuer also designed one of the temporary research homes from 1948 to 1949), the Whitney was used by the CIA to promote American art and culture as Saunders (2010) argued. It was originally founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose nephew John had his own museum whilst having ties with the CIA (Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA, 1995). He served in the organisations wartime precursor, the Overseas Security Service, and sat on the board at MoMA with William Paley (a founding father of the CIA) and Tom Braden (the first chief of the agency's International Organisations Division). MoMA had previously enhanced the early reputation in the US of Breuer and his European contemporaries through the museum’s 1938 Bauhaus exhibition, designed by Herbert Bayer (another of the schools former teachers).

In the intervening years at the Bauhaus between the departure of Breuer’s director (Gropius) and the appointment of Mies in 1930, the director had been the Swiss architect Hannes Mayer. On his arrival Mies wanted to distance himself and the school from the communist leanings of his predecessor, coupled with a return to the original foundation of art as opposed to function in the teachings at the Bauhaus. As the last director he found himself in the unfortunate position of having to dissolve the school. Mies later emigrated to the US in 1938 and in the following year he was appointed the Director of Architecture at the Armoury Institute of Technology in Chicago. Within six months he was first approached to design the new campus for the IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology), which was created when the Armour and Lewis Institute’s merged. It was only his second commission in the US after the Resor House in Jackson Hole in the state of Wyoming, which was completed in 1943. The first Director of the MoMA, Alfred H. Barr, had contacted Mies on behalf of Helen Resor (a collector and trustee of the museum) with regard to the commission.

Whilst studying America’s ‘Bauhaus architecture’, it is also worth noting that the Hungarian born artist, designer and teacher Lazlo Moholy-Nagy opened the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the year of his arrival in America. As a Master he had also taught at the (German) Bauhaus before emigrating to the US in 1937 and becoming an American citizen in 1944. Moholy-Nagy was the Chicago school’s founding director and continued in that role after it became the Institute of Design, until his death in 1946. It later merged with Mies’ IIT to become the latter’s School of Design, which is still in existence as a department at the institute today.

Although many of Mies’ commissions in America were also in Chicago, perhaps one of his most famous contracts was the Seagram Building (figure 2, p12) in New York from 1954 to 1958. It was designed as the headquarters for the Canadian distillers Joseph E. Seagram & Sons. They had also commissioned the Latvian born Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko to create a series of murals to adorn their famous Four Seasons restaurant inside the building. Having completed the works Rothko changed his mind after recognising that the restaurant setting would not be the ideal location for such works, so he then withdrew from the commission. In the late 1960’s he donated 9 of the paintings to the Tate Gallery in London, which can often be found on display as part of the Tate Modern’s permanent collection. The ‘Rothko room’ (figure 3, p13) that normally houses these works is hugely popular with the gallery visitors. The curators use subdued lighting in the space which compliments Rothko’s deep and rich in colour, moody and thought provoking works. Therefore it is perhaps of no surprise (as the noise level drops when entering the space) that visitors can be seen sitting in the room relaxing, reading or seemingly reflecting on their thoughts. Although Rothko’s wishes have given the works a suitable home, it may still have been interesting to see the Seagram murals inside of Mies’ skyscraper perhaps as an example of the blending together of the influence of the European immigrants on US cities.

Figure 2                               

Figure 3                       

From the Bauhaus to Yale

Mies’ countryman Gropius was appointed Professor of Architecture at Harvard University in 1937 in just over two weeks after his emigration to the US. Having sought the opinion of Barr throughout the recruitment process, Joseph Hudnut (the founder of the Harvard Graduate School of Design) offered Gropius the position after he had met the three architects on his shortlist. The other two were J. J. P. Oud and Mies, with the latter instead going on to teach at Armour as previously discussed. The following year Gropius was made Chairman of the Department of Architecture in the Graduate School of Design and he taught there for fourteen more years until submitting his resignation in 1952. Breuer also taught at Harvard, beginning in the year of his arrival in the US and then in the capacity as an Associate Professor from 1939. Having taken a sabbatical from the university to open an office on East 88th Street in New York, he then decided not to return there.

Whereas Gropius, Mies and Breuer had successful commercial practices in the US, Albers had more of an illustrious teaching career once he too moved to America. Having been a student at the Bauhaus from 1921, when he was exempted from the Basic Drawing Course for already being qualified, he began teaching at the school only two years later. Although Albers was never a Master at the Bauhaus, he taught on the Preliminary Course (Vorkurs) that (the painter and designer) Johannes Itten had created. From 1924 until the schools final closure he was teaching on what is now seen as the original predecessor to the Foundation courses of today. Students normally had to successfully complete this one year course in order to continue studying at the Bauhaus, just as is often necessary to study on British and American degrees in art or design now (whether the higher education is at the same institution or not).

This Foundation course is one of many legacies that the school left behind: the Bauhaus was the first school to focus on the students as individuals, which broke away from the common practice of students rigidly creating the same work, whether that was copying the techniques of the Old Masters or drawing from life; it was the first time that design was taught in relation to art in a coherent way; the students were allowed the freedom to make their designs without the need to draw them on paper first, and in place of the usual practice of teaching art history (as the foundation for the students own work) they were taught colour theory and the contrasting textures of different materials (The face of the Twentieth Century: Bauhaus, 1994). The individual freedom that the students enjoyed in these workshops was later renewed in the classrooms at Black Mountain College by the teaching of Albers.

This creative freedom then began to manifest itself in both the way students thought and behaved, such as in terms of their radical political beliefs and the outlandish way they dressed. It was not the work of the Bauhaus that the people of Weimar, Dessau and (to a greater extent) the Nazi’s disliked, it was the accusation that the students and teachers were all Communists (The face of the Twentieth Century: Bauhaus, 1994). Whilst evidently exaggerated by the authorities, some of the Bauhaus students’ political beliefs were on the left as were those of some of the Abstract Expressionist painters to graduate from Black Mountain. As in Germany before, the extent of these beliefs were exaggerated greatly in America. Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA (1995) discussed how the American paranoia of Communism in the Cold War grew to such an extent that even individual Abstract Expressionist artworks were a perceived threat, as some artists were accused of providing information (such as a map of US missile sites) to the Soviets through their work.

Perhaps significantly, Black Mountain had opened the same year that the Bauhaus closed in 1933. Soon after the German schools closure Albers was asked to head the art department at the newly forming American institution. So having arrived in the US in 1933, he began to teach Bauhaus ideas there. Horowitz & Danilowitz (2006) explored how, as a result of Mies’ renewed emphasis on architecture during his directorship of the Bauhaus, Albers had to increasingly adapt his teaching toward the training of potential professional architects and away from the creatively free and playful classrooms under Gropius’ tenure. They explained that there were no such restrictions at Black Mountain where Albers welcomed the return to his freedom in the classroom (Danilowitz & Horowitz, 2006). He taught basic courses in design and drawing at both colleges, whereas the American students also took courses in colour and painting.

Albers had been first requested to teach at Harvard in 1936 where he sporadically taught in its Graduate School of Design, again solely teaching his basic courses. He tendered his resignation from Black Mountain in 1949 and took the position as head of the art school at Yale University the following year. As previously with his teaching in the US, Albers scrapped the existing curriculum and replaced it with basic studies in design, drawing and colour. Before Black Mountain had closed in 1957, it had produced an illustrious list of graduates from a number of different fields within the arts. Former students of Albers at the college who went on to become established artists included Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly.

As the Abstract Expressionist movement gathered pace in New York, many of his students at Yale understandably wanted to work in this style. Though Albers would only approve of this if the students were first paying attention to the formal values that his basic courses were teaching them (Danilowitz & Horowitz, 2006). On the invitation of Albers himself de Kooning had spent the summer of 1948 teaching at Black Mountain’s Summer Institute and then as a visiting critic at Yale for two semesters from 1950 to 1951. By this time de Kooning was one of the central figures in the rapidly growing New York art scene (Danilowitz & Horowitz, 2006) and therefore was one of those artists Albers’ Yale students continued to copy:

During the fifties and early sixties, de Kooning was by far the most imitated of the Abstract Expressionists. In studios and classrooms all across the country, painters were attacking canvases with slashing strokes of thick juicy paint (Johnson, 1982, p19).

Having studied aesthetics at Harvard whilst Albers taught there, Robert Motherwell was another of the prominent Abstract Expressionist artists that had been invited to teach at Black Mountain (Danilowitz & Horowitz, 2006). Albers had also recruited some of his former colleagues from the Bauhaus to teach at the college, such as the respected painter Lyonel Feininger. He taught an advanced course at Black Mountain in the summer of 1945, arguably further increasing the spread of Bauhaus ideas in American teaching that his former colleagues in Germany had been responsible for and which then influenced the Abstract Expressionists.

Psychic Automatism to Modernism in the Free World

Peggy Guggenheim, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism

Aside from his time as a student and teacher at Black Mountain, another of the important influences on the Rotterdam born de Kooning had been the painter Arshile Gorky. Having been born in Armenia Gorky emigrated to the US in 1920, settled in New York five years later and became an American citizen. Of the European immigrant artists living in America in the early 1940’s it was arguably the Surrealists, such as Yves Tanguy, who had the greatest influence on him. French born Tanguy had emigrated to the US in 1939 and married the New York born Surrealist painter Kay Sage.

Tanguy’s paintings often contained organic biomorphic shapes set in almost empty landscapes, such as in Paysage Surrealist (Surrealist Landscape) (1937) (figure 4, p18). Such forms began appearing in Gorky’s work, albeit in more ‘rough’ and abstract compositions. This is evident in Year after Year (1947) (figure 5, p19), in which black curvaceous lines form shapes possibly within another landscape (albeit of a different kind). Whereas Tanguy painted detailed forms that stand out on almost flat wash backgrounds (in this case in cool blue and grey hues that are reminiscent of a seascape), Gorky’s foreground and background sit on the same plane due to his more expressive style blending them together.

Gorky had befriended de Kooning and drawn him into his circle of New York artists after the latter had emigrated to America in 1926. If Year after Year is compared with de Kooning’s The Visit (1966-67) (figure 6, p20), this influence is clearly evident: the use of relatively pronounced curved lines that sit amongst patches of colour; both artists apply the paint expressively (with de Kooning liberally adding extra layers of thicker oils); the use of natural organic colours with their palettes changing less dramatically in this comparison; although along with Paysage Surrealist these two canvases are also bordering on abstraction, it is perhaps more possible for the viewer to identify forms in both these compositions (such as animal and bird-like creatures in Gorky’s work and two human figures in The Visit).

Figure 4                                                                    

Figure 5   


Figure 6                                                                        

The art historian Dickran Tashjian (1995) discussed the extent to which the major 1936 Surrealist exhibition at the MoMA had previously catapulted the movement into the cultural limelight in the US, and that brought Surrealism to the attention of these artists in New York. The author also explained how many of Gorky’s and de Kooning’s contemporaries, including Jackson Pollock, were also interested in the ‘Psychic Automatism’ of the Surrealists as a form of expression in their own work (Tashjian, 1995). Psychic Automatism was a technique pioneered by the Surrealists, such as the painter Andre Masson, in which the artist suppressed conscious control over the movements of the hand when painting or drawing to allow the subconscious mind to take over. They therefore created what they felt was at least a temporary visual depiction of their subconscious, reflecting their fascination with the mind that was extended in their literature and study of the work of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Tashjian (1995) argued that for the Abstract Expressionists this automatic process was more simply an expressive method for creating a composition with more emphasis on the action, as opposed to viewing the resulting artwork as a reflection of the artists own psyche. Hence, Action Painting has been used as an alternative to Abstract Expressionism to name the movement.

Downtown at the Cedar Tavern (2010) is one of the WYNC radio documentaries posted on MoMA’s website to mark the arrival of the museum’s current Abstract Expressionist New York blockbuster exhibition. The documentary explains the circumstances that led to the Surrealists influencing the Abstract Expressionist artists in the early 1940’s New York art scene: there were already many European artists with studios in the same areas (such as between 8th and 10th streets) as their American counterparts; they drank at the same bars (including the Cedar Tavern), and exhibited together at galleries (Downtown at the Cedar Tavern, 2010). One such exhibition space was run by Peggy Guggenheim, the niece of the American businessman, art collector and philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim (who later founded New York’s Guggenheim Museum). In Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery (figure 7, p22) she exhibited the work from her own existing collection (that she had smuggled out of Paris in 1941 to keep it from the Nazi’s), new work from her many European artist friends and the up-and-coming American artists work. In her autobiography Guggenheim stated:

Art of this Century soon became a centre for all avant-garde activities. The young American artists, much inspired by the European abstract and Surrealist artists who had taken refuge in New York, started an entirely new school of painting, which Robert Coates, art critic for The New Yorker, named Abstract Expressionism (Guggenheim, 1980, p314).

Figure 7                                                                           

For the design of the museum’s interior Guggenheim commissioned the little known German designer Frederick Keisler, who created innovative ways to display the artworks in the four exhibition spaces that Art of this Century consisted of. These included Surrealist works jutting out from the gallery walls on adjustable arms toward the viewer (that can be seen in figure 7), and a biomorphic spiral-shaped ship's wheel that rotated the contents of Marcel Duchamp's Box in a Valise (1942). Viewers interacted with the artworks, which would have rarely been the case in galleries before then. An example of this was the display that resembled a mechanical Ferris wheel that, when activated by an invisible electric light beam, rotated small works by the artist (and former Bauhaus teacher) Paul Klee in front of the viewer. At certain times the gallery was even plunged into complete darkness accompanied by the ominous sound of an oncoming train. The Surrealist room of the gallery was recreated on a much smaller scale in the Victoria and Albert museum’s Summer 2007 curatorial masterpiece, the Surreal Things, Surrealism and Design exhibition.

Through Art of this Century the influence of the established European artists also arguably extended to which of the American artists works were actually bought and displayed. Pollock’s Stenographic Figure (1942) (figure 8, p24) is one of the artworks from the MoMA’s collection that is included in the Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition, and was seen during my visit there in December 2010. Another of the WYNC documentaries, Uptown with Peggy Guggenheim at Art of This Century (2010), describes how Guggenheim was not initially entirely convinced by this new generation of American artists (including Pollock). Though when the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (from the De Stijl abstract art movement) saw Stenographic Figure on display at Art of this Century, he told Guggenheim it is the most interesting work he had seen in America and encouraged her to buy more of Pollock’s work (Uptown with Peggy Guggenheim at Art of This Century, 2010). Pollock eventually went on to become arguably the most famous Abstract Expressionist artist. Guggenheim (1980) stated that through Art of This Century she gave the first one-man shows to an impressive list of Abstract Expressionist artists, including Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and Clyfford Still. As a result of her support for these artists and the Europeans who influenced them, the extent to which Guggenheim helped Abstract Expressionism and the American avant-garde should not be understated.

Figure 8                                                                  

New York’s displacement of Paris

In How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art Guilbaut (1983) explained how Abstract Expressionism was helped to flourish in the relative freedom in the US after the Second World War, coupled with the political and economic turmoil that had gripped Europe and caused the westward emigrations already discussed. The author’s interpretation of these events is bold and controversial, which is immediately obvious from both the book title and the Chapter Four subtitle Success: How New York Stole the Notion of Modernism from the Parisians, 1948. The strong use of the word stole clearly expresses Guilbaut’s view that the city wrongly took both Modern Art and Modernism from Paris, whereas I feel that none of the authors convincing research warrants such overt language. He argued that the creation of the first American avant-garde was bolstered by American Cold War politics and the post-war economic might of the US (Guilbaut, 1983). Yet whilst it is true that these factors in America, Europe and indeed the world helped America as a whole, I do not feel that New York itself benefitted significantly as neither US politics, economic prosperity nor the Marshall Plan were New York-centric. It can be argued that New York only benefited culturally simply because the covert funding (of American art) by the CIA was made possible through links using the existing channels in the cities museums, foundations and with some of the philanthropists that were naturally already in place there. Therefore perhaps the majority of the art patrons and intelligentsia in New York innocently took advantage, as perhaps anyone would, of the situation that was unfolding directly before them (irrespective of several other events taking place on both sides of the Atlantic at the time). Can the Abstract Expressionist movement and New York be criticised for this any more than Michelangelo and Florence for taking full advantage of the Medici patronage, for example?

By using the word stole both in the title and the Chapter 4 heading it can also be argued that Guilbaut misleads the reader to a certain extent. Until the events at Pearl Harbour forced the US to change its neutrality in World War Two, the country had largely been isolationist with no clear foreign policy to speak of. Having already been in a strong economic position beforehand, the conflict did little to change this. Therefore America was already in a position to offer financial aid to its allies in Europe, as it then began to see itself as responsible for the world’s democracy and peace. The most important of these aid packages was the aforementioned Marshall Plan, which was the post-Second World War European financial recovery program. Whilst appreciating Guilbaut’s argument that the Americans used this aid politically to promote American culture abroad in countries (such as France) that it felt were susceptible to the perceived threat of Communism, it can be argued that this again would not have benefited the city of New York even culturally if the city did not have the MoMA and Whitney Museum eventually promoting Abstract Expressionism both privately and publicly. Of course Guilbaut’s publication did not have the benefit of evidence regarding the CIA patronage of American art, for example the Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA (1995) documentary in which he himself appeared came twelve years later. Although Guilbaut has now lived and worked (as a Professor of Art History at the University of British Columbia) in America for many years now, because he is French there is a suspicion that his own interpretation has a slight nationalistic bias towards Paris (without necessarily suggesting that there are anti-American sentiments also present).

Therefore, despite MoMA’s former links to the CIA perhaps the museums extremely impressive permanent collection is merely a reflection of the museums pioneering leadership by influential figures such as Barr, without any evidence to suggest that the museum acquired many seminal modern artworks in place of aid repayments from Europe for example. Perhaps some historians would argue that the Whitney is tainted by the fact that its early history was linked to the CIA, although it was certainly not the first famous museum in the West to also have a controversial early history (that such institutions themselves unsurprisingly rarely mention). Another example of this could be the original Tate gallery (that is now Tate Britain) which was founded (as the National Gallery of British Art) in 1897 by Sir Henry Tate, who also co-founded the Tate & Lyle sugar company from which he created his wealth. Fortune that arguably helped him acquire the collection of nineteenth-century British painting and sculpture given to the nation, for which the existing building on Millbank was built to house, yet which could have been increased by his company’s alleged use of slave labour. As the BBC Business reporter Gavin Stamp (2007) stated in Counting the cost of the slave trade:

Countering claims that it made profits from slavery, sugar giant Tate & Lyle says founder Sir Henry Tate only entered sugar refining in 1859. "When Henry Tate and Abram Lyle established their businesses in 1859 and 1865 respectively, the slave trade had been illegal in Britain for more than 50 years," the firm says (Stamp, 2007).

Without wishing to suggest that the Tate galleries would have been any different today, whether or not its original founder’s company had links to slavery, it is important to highlight that many cultural institutions and avant-garde movements in the West can be seen to have had unsavoury or immoral beginnings to different extents. Other examples of this could also be the suggestion that artists from the Italian Futurist movement were Fascist sympathisers or, as Guilbaut argues, that New York stole (from Paris) Modern art and Modernism for Abstract Expressionism and the American avant-garde.



In the spring of 2006 the Tate (Modern) held their Albers & Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the new world exhibition. With reference to their emigration to America, the gallery described how ‘as highly influential teachers Albers and Moholy [-Nagy] became important catalysts for the transition of Modernist ideas from Europe to the ‘new world’’ (Tate, 2006). Of course it can be argued that Albers left the greater teaching legacy in America, as Moholy-Nagy’s career was cut short by his death at the age of only fifty-one (and Albers lived to eighty-eight).

Although his influence today is in decline, Albers’ impact on art education in the United States has been immense. That impact can be seen in the widespread establishment of foundation programs within art schools and departments, and in the understanding that such programs would comprise courses in basic design and colour. From the 1950’s to the 1990’s one could walk into any class in basic design and trace many of the exercises directly to Albers. Albers’ colour course remains intact in schools everywhere as the indispensable course for the empirical study of colour (Danilowitz & Horowitz, 2006, p252).

Reginald Isaacs (1983) explained how Gropius had hoped to have Albers in charge of his basic design course at Harvard, which was similar to both the Vorkurs foundation course at the Bauhaus and Albers’ at Black Mountain, although Russian Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo (another immigrant to the US) introduced the course to the summer curriculum in 1948 before Albers finally taught it two years later. From 1947 to 1948 a project Gropius set for his third year students actually involved them planning student housing within the limits of the Harvard building budgets, and ‘ever since his arrival at Harvard, Gropius had been invited to have his students work on solutions to the university’s problems with space and design’ (Isaacs, 1991, p264). As the students work was reflected in the design by Gropius and the TAC (The Architects Collaborative) for the Harkness Commons building within the university’s campus, it can be argued that this is an example of an early external brief through innovatively combining both teaching and actual physically realised building projects. This would have been unlikely to occur before the Bauhaus in Germany, because students from more traditional schools would have been expected to complete their training before being offered any form of commissions. The Modernist building was also a break from the university’s more traditional Georgian style red brick and mortar buildings of the past. These are further examples of the legacy the Bauhaus teachers left America, as the historian Wolf von Eckardt stated: ‘I believe that what the Bauhaus taught is still, or is perhaps again, eminently viable’ (Eckardt, 1963, p230).

Even before Gropius’ countryman Mies left Germany, his growing reputation in the US was already occurring. He was positioned among the upper echelon of modern architects in the 1932 Modern Architecture exhibition in New York:

Mies’ work was installed in the same room with projects by previously acknowledged modern masters Le Corbusier, J. J. P. Oud and Frank Lloyd Wright, thereby winning for him a status he had previously not been granted (Lambert, 2001, p135).

The Mies van der Rohe Society website, which is run by the IIT, explains Mies’ lasting legacy in America. With regard to his design for their institution:not since Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia (1819) had an American campus been the work of a single architect’, and that he designed ‘some of the nation's most recognizable skyscrapers, including the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago and the Seagram Building in New York’ (IIT, 2010).

As previously discussed with reference to the Modern Architecture (1932) exhibition, Mies’ rise to prominence in America came later than Wright’s. With the latter already acknowledged in the US as a modern master by 1932, it can be argued that Americans themselves accepted Modernism in the form of architecture much earlier than in art, especially considering that even Abstract Expressionist art created by their countrymen was widely criticised as late as the 1950’s. The initial impact that Abstract Expressionism had in America is explained in part by the fact that the type of art the vast majority of Americans were used to seeing before Abstract Expressionism were pretty genteel landscape paintings, such as those created by the (New York based) Hudson River School painters (Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA, 1995). Unlike in Europe where modern art had developed from at least the late Nineteenth Century through several (of the ‘-ism’s’) modern art movements, America arguably did not have this steady progression from purely representational to abstract art.

Therefore it is of no surprise that Abstract Expressionism came as a shock to Americans, perhaps more so than in Europe by the 1950’s, when also considering that even a US President criticised work typical of the movement. Harry S. Truman compared the Old Masters with Jesus Christ and modern abstract art with Vladimir Lenin (the first head of the USSR) and said “if that’s art, then I’m a hot an’ tot!” (Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA, 1995, 20 min). Within this context it is understandable that for Abstract Expressionism to finally flourish it required the sustained influence of established European artists emigrating from the ‘home’ of Western art to help build another in America. With reference to the European artists already living in America, Pollock wrote in 1944:

“I accept the fact that the important painting of the last hundred years was done in France. American painters have generally missed the point of modern painting from beginning to end. Thus the fact that good European moderns are here now is very important, for they bring with them an understanding of the problems of modern painting. I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious” (Johnson, 1982, pp2 & 4).

Then in 1956 Pollock’s work along with paintings by many of the other Abstract Expressionist painters, such as Still, Gorky, Kline and Phillip Guston, were included in a very important exhibition of American art at the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris that caused a sensation in the Parisian art world (Koenig, 1990). Whilst it was probably a necessity to promote art in what still remained such a culturally important city as the French capital at that time, it can also be seen as a hugely symbolic statement of intent for New York to ‘flex its cultural muscles’ at the French public in a still weakened post-war Paris. Therefore it can be argued that influential shows such as this began to confirm New York’s displacement of Paris as the capital of the western art world. This is a status that the American city arguably held until the early 1970’s. After Abstract Expressionism, New York then possessed other icons of the art world with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Pop Art. As Paris had been the worlds ‘cultural hub’ for as long as 100 years until the 1950’s, of course New York cannot claim to possess such a cultured history. Though during my recent visit to New York enough evidence was gathered to suggest that the city ‘picked up where the French capital left off’ in the creation of modern art history.



Cobbers, A. (2007) Marcel Breuer, 1902-1981: Form giver of the Twentieth Century. Koln: Taschen

Danilowitz, B. & Horowitz, F. A. (2006) Josef Albers, to open eyes: The Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and Yale. London: Phaidon

Eckardt, W. v. (1963) The Bauhaus in Weimar. In: Miller, R. Four great makers of modern architecture: Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Wright. New York: Da Capo Press

Guggenheim, P. (1980) Out of this Century: Confessions of an art addict. London: Andre Deutsch

Guilbaut, S. (1983) How New York stole the idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, freedom and the Cold War. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Illinois Institute of Technology & Mies van der Rohe Society (2010) Mies: The man, the legacy. [internet] Chicago: IIT. Available from <> [accessed 1st January 2011]

Hidden Hands, a different history of Modernism: Art and the CIA. (1995) Directed by Frances Stonor Saunders. London: Channel 4 (first aired 29/10/1995) 51 min [VHS]

Isaacs, R. (1991) Gropius: An illustrated biography of the creator of the Bauhaus. London: Bullfinch Press

Johnson, E. (1982) American artists on art from 1940 – 1980. New York: Icon Editions

Kentgens-Craig, M. (1999) The Bauhaus and America: First contacts 1919-1936. Cambridge (Massachusetts): The MIT Press

Koenig, J. K. (1990) Abstraction chaude in Paris in the 1950s. In: Guilbaut, S. ed. Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris and Montreal 1945-1964. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press

Lambert, P. ed. (2001) Mies in America. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art

Perfect City, New York and the art that changed the world: Downtown at the Cedar Tavern. (2010) Produced by Ave Carillo and Carolina Miranda, New York: WNYC (audio recording posted online on 1/10/2010) 12 min. Available at <>

Perfect City, New York and the art that changed the world: Uptown with Peggy Guggenheim at Art of this Century. (2010) Produced by Ave Carillo and Carolina Miranda, C. A., New York: WNYC (audio recording posted online on 1/10/2010) 13 min. Available at <>

Saunders, F. S. (1995) Modern Art was CIA weapon. [internet] London: The Independent. Available from <> [accessed 27th August 2010]

Stamp, G. (2007), Counting the cost of the slave trade. [internet] London: BBC. Available from <> [accessed January 1st 2011]

Tashjian, D. (1995) A boatload of madmen: Surrealism and the American avant-garde, 1920-1950. London: Thames and Hudson

Tate (2006) ABOUT: Albers & Moholy-Nagy, From the Bauhaus to the new world. [internet] London: Tate. Available from <> [Accessed 16/1/2011]

The face of the Twentieth Century: Bauhaus. (1994) London: BBC/RM Arts. 50 min [Video & DVD].

Illustration credits:

Figure 1: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. [Digital photograph taken from the opposite corner of Madison Avenue & East 75th Street, by James Hollerbach, on the 16th December 2010]

Figure 2: Seagram Building (front façade), New York. [Digital photograph taken from the opposite side of Park Avenue, by James Hollerbach, on the 15th December 2010]

Figure 3: Gethen, M (2007) Kym in the Rothko room at Tate Modern. [online image] Available at: <> [accessed 14/1/2011]

Figure 4: An A-Z guide to the world’s greatest artists and their paintings. (2002) [scan] Swindon: WHSmith Ltd. p454

Figure 5: An A-Z guide to the world’s greatest artists and their paintings. (2002) [scan] Swindon: WHSmith Ltd. p259

Figure 6: The 20th Century Art book. (1996) [scan] London: Phaidon. p248

Figure 7: Frederick Keisler Art of this Century 1942. (posted 2009) [online image] Available at: <> [accessed 14/1/2011]

Figure 8: Pollock, J. Stenographic Figure. (1942), oil on canvas, New York: Museum of Modern Art. [Digital photograph taken by James Hollerbach, on the 15th December 2010].

Further reading:

BMC Online (2010) Black Mountain College: An Introduction, [internet] Black Mountain College. Available from <> [accessed 5th May 2010]

Carillo, A. & Miranda, C. A. (2010) Perfect city: New York and the art that changed the world [internet] New York: WNYC. Available from <>  [accessed 18/10/2010]

Grunenberg, Christoph (2006) Current Collection Displays: Rothko (Room 3). [internet] London: Tate. Available from <> [accessed 28th August 2010]

Polcari, S. (1991) Abstract Expressionism and the modern experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wiseman, C. (2000) Twentieth Century American architecture: The buildings and their makers. New York: Norton.

Exhibition visits (New York):

Abstract Expressionist New York (October 3, 2010 – April 25, 2011). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ann Temkin (Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture). More information available from [Visited 15/12/2010]

Kandinsky at the Bauhaus, 1922–1933 (Ongoing exhibition). Guggenheim Museum, New York. Tracy Bashkoff (Curator of Collections and Exhibitions). More information available from [Visited 14/12/2010].

Copyright 2011 James Hollerbach

1 comment:

  1. Google did not let me adjust the font size, in some paragraphs where it is smaller, despite the fact that it was all the same before I previewed and posted it, when it then magically reduced in size!