It can be said that our perception of our history is an integral part of our identity both as a nation and, more importantly, as a culture. History can be pretty malleable as we continue to reexamine our path and alter the record to suit the moment, but Americans tend to cling pretty tightly to their own mythology even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I learned in school that Columbus was a hero, the Indians were bloodthirsty savages, and that immigrants of all nations were welcomed with open arms. Additional information has called these assumptions, and many others, into question.
History is indeed written by the winners, but in the case of the history of American Art , who are these “winners” exactly? Who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out?
There are times when today’s winners can become tomorrow’s afterthought, and I am reminded of this very poignantly by an ancient book on American painting that I have in hand today. The book, Three Hundred Years of American Painting, was written by Alexander Eliot (who, now in his 90s, has his own website) and produced by the editorial staff of Time Magazine. I picked the book up on a recent trip to Hoyt Library, a beautiful relic of the early 1900s in Downtown Saginaw. It was published in the year of my birth (1957), when Eliot, not exactly a canonical figure in art historical circles, was art editor at Time Magazine when not only Time but the popular press in general featured art with great depth and frequency.
My first reaction upon reading Eliot’s book was how far publishing has advanced in my lifetime. The illustrations are dreadfully muddy and dull in color but probably well up to the standards of the day. They were prepared originally for Time, which had only begun using color images six years before. By the time my brain started recording memories of color images in magazines, color photos and ads in Life Magazine in the mid-1960s, technology had already made these pictures look dated. Today, when I can access thousands of high-quality digital images of just about anything I want in a matter of seconds, they look a little dated.
Despite the now-substandard publication quality, the book is a fascinating survey or American art history as understood in the middle of the 20th century. Abstract Expressionism was the well along the way toward making New York the Art Capital of the World. The Great Depression and Second World War were recent memories and the baby boom was in full swing. Pop Art was just beginning to take its first wobbly steps, everyone was paranoid about being nuked by the Commies, and the Space Age was in its infancy. America was a very different place.
The long arc of American Painting is well represented in this book, but what really struck me was the inclusion of painters who have all but vanished from our consciousness. Not just a few of them, a lot of them. The chapter based loosely on the painters in the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (including 20th Century heavyweights Georgia O’keeffe and John Marin, themselves now considered passe’ by a lot of Art Hipsters) includes a group I’ve never heard of, a group who have pretty much vanished from the more contemporary literature of American art. These guys were regarded highly enough for inclusion, yet can’t even seem to merit a seat that the proverbial table today.
Take for example the case of Karl Knaths. You have to dig a little to find out much about him (this brief biography is courtesy of the Phillips Collection, which owns a number of his paintings). Knaths enjoyed some prominence as an artist and educator right up until his death in 1971. Stylistically, he transitioned from representation through cubism to abstraction, yet the historical record on him is so sparse that I can’t even find a reproduction of the painting featured in Eliot’s book, Horse Mackerel, anywhere on line. Ah, the fleeting nature of fame.
The same fate has befallen William Kienbusch (1914 – 1980), who was respected well enough to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1958 but has since been largely purged from Art’s memory banks. At his creative peak, Kienbusch was associated with the same New York School that gave us Abstract Expressionism, a artistic malaise that that I’ve discussed before; now, he’s an historical asterisk. At the Kienbusch that Eliot featured in his book (owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) is available online, sadly only in black and white. Instead, I give you Early Morning Baker Island, a painting that went for the very affordable sum of $1,700 in 2005.
Of the six artists added the tail end of the chapter in question, only Milton Avery seems to have survived the murky, fog-shrouded 1950s to enjoy a measure of notoriety today. although none of the others seem to suffer the obscurity of Knaths and Kienbusch. One of them, Theodoros Stamos, actually enjoys a fairly prominent place in art history not for his art but for his role as the executor of Mark Rothko’s estate and his involvement in in a lawsuit brought by Rothko’s wherein he lost his ass.
The lesson here, I suppose, is that no matter what you think you may have accomplished in your life, history is a harsh and fickle mistress. Your life will be better served if you simply do good work for its own sake and let others worry about your legacy because you can’t control it. Fame is fleeting, art endures.