Jews And The Abstract Truth
Wed, 09/15/2010
Staff Writer
Lee Krasner’s “Gaea” is part of MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” show.
Lee Krasner’s “Gaea” is part of MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” show.

If you missed the Jewish Museum’s earned essay of an exhibit, “Action/Abstraction,” in 2008, the Museum of Modern Art gives you a chance to repent this fall.

In what will be one of the season’s largest shows at any Manhattan museum, “Abstract Expressionist New York,” dusts off scores of the museum’s own collection of iconic Ab-Ex works.

Paintings, and drawings and films too, by Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, David Smith and Barnett Newman, among many others, get their chance in the sun; it is like New York City, circa 1955, all over again. And it is worth remembering, as The Jewish Museum showed, that European and Jewish history was a fundamental catalyst for the movement. Jewish artists and intellectuals, notably the critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, had responded to fascism in Europe by re-energizing the creative impulse that had been all but been destroyed in Europe.

In 1939, Greenberg sparked the debate, writing that American art had become kitsch. By cowering to popular commercial tastes, artists had succumbed to a tyranny not unlike the ones imposed by Hitler or Stalin. When the less caustic critic Rosenberg filled in that challenge with an theory — the artist must use his canvas as the ultimate expression of himself, an autochthonous “arena in which to act”— New York City painters began responding in kind. Rothko found a white-hot transcendence in his radiant color fields; Krasner betrayed steely psychological swings in disjointed cutouts and more organic forms; de Kooning evinced his abrasive intensity in his scraped, scratched, painted and carved colored canvas.

It is certainly true that many of the great Abstract Expressionists were not Jewish; they also responded to themes — war, dislocation, the onslaught of modernity — that were universal to all. But it is equally certain that the movement would have been something else entirely, if not nothing at all, without its Jewish touch.

Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. (212) 708-9400. Exhibit runs from Oct. 5 to April 25, 2011.