Meyer Schapiro, My Ma, and Thomas Hart Benton

meyers1     The Great Schapiro/Is a Master and a Hero — Delmore Schwartz, 1942

In 1987, when I was an assistant professor at Brandeis University, I read Alan Wald’s The New York Intellectuals: the rise and decline of the anti-Stalnist left from the 1930s to the 1980s, hungry for some history of the Trotskyist movement.  I had been a pretty useless recruit to the IMG — the International Marxist Group — in 1974 when I was a student at Oxford,  I rejected the advice of my parents and friends to join the Poetry Society, and instead, I stepped out on my own to meet the crowd that had good politics (I had lost my Reed College Hegelian Marxizantisme by the end of my first year in Terry Eagleton’s Friday Seminars and got it back  when I came back to the USA)  and a whole lot of  very cool people.

Reading Wald’s history was a revelation to me because it was about New York writers and intellectuals, and it was filled with people who I had met as a child or heard about throughout my adolescence.   I rang my mother up and said, incredulously, “I didn’t know that Meyer was a Trotskyist.”  My Ma snorted and replied, “Of course he was; everybody was a Trotskyite in those days, except me, I was only interested in Ahhrrt”.  That was also when I understood that Trotskyites were bad guys, Trotskyists were my guys.

Angel with the Superscription No.1

My Ma  was certainly interested in Art, and as a 6-year-old, I had accompanied her weekly to a vast lecture hall at Columbia University while she listened  to a series of lectures by Rudolf Wittkower on Bernini.  When we got home, my mother and I would look at black and white photos of Bernini sculptures and memorise their titles. These days, what with the age thing,  I only remember the one called “Angel with the Superscription No. 1” because it caused merriment among the grown ups when I stumbled over ‘superscription’.

MY mother knew Meyer Schapiro, (one of the most loved and respected of the anti-Stalinist  left at Partisan Review and a long-time friend of Delmore Schwartz) from  1937, since that was the year she entered the  Columbia Phd programme in Art History, with the project of producing a catalogue raisonne of Manet’s work. Of Meyer, she said, “Oh, we adored him, he was young and handsome and he spoke with light and brilliance in his eyes. We all had crushes on him”.  Later on my father became his physician, and when Meyer died in 1996, my mother was more distressed than when others of their friends had died along the way. When we get to the war years, I will return to my Ma’s analysis of Schapiro’s way of being a scholar. But that’s not until 1943.  Here is Addy and her friend Miriam Rosenthal in Paris in 1936, walking along a quai in Paris. This was around the time they got to know Schapiro. Miriam married Nicola Chiaromonte, an Italian intellectual who wrote often for Partisan Review and who were close friends of Mary McCarthy.

Addy & Miriam, 1936


Meyer Schapiro grew up in  Brooklyn.  Born in Lithuania in 1904, he came with his mother to New York in 1907, to join his father, who taught Hebrew in the city.  Shapiro was interested in art and in politics from an early age, and his work as an art historian was marked by his concern for  the social and cultural influences on art, and as experienced by the artist. He wrote for the Nation, Partisan Review, and the New Masses.  Although he worked on ancient art and sculpture, he was fascinated by and wrote much about contemporary art as well. My sense is that his academic credentials were so strong that many on the Left left him out of the set of those who were pilloried for not being activists.  But it is also the case that most of the Partisan Review considered him to be the creator of a new kind of art history — that was as engaged with the issues of class struggle as with those of technique.  If you want to read some great articles he wrote, I recommend you go to rosswolfe’s The Charnel House blog on WordPress, where you will find a number of Schapiro’s most interesting papers, including his 1950 critique of Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Its a very satisfying read. It was only in 1943, during theWWII, that  Sidney Hook and Schapiro got into a debate in the pages of PR in which Schapiro’s commitment to revolutionary Leninism was adamant and polemical.  Alan Wald tells us that  Schapiro remained a committed Marxist through the 1940s and 1950s. Later he became a social-democrat.

But here and now, in the second issue of the 1938 Partisan Review, Meyer Schapiro, the handsome young Assistant Professor offered a review of Thomas Hart Benton’s Autobiography.   You would think that Benton, being known as a ‘realistic’ painter,part of the ‘regionalist’ school, would be judged as a type of Stalinist ‘socialist realism’; and  the first sentence of the review sets up that programme: “Benton’s autobiography is a manifesto addressed to abstractionists,radicals, and true Americans.”



but Schapiro is too interested in the  motives and techniques that Benton drew on to entirely dismiss Benton’s work. Benton may have repudiated formalism and abstraction, Schapiro argues, but he carries its elements into a rural terrain of imagery peopled with the simple and the down to earth, the anti-intellectual, the suffering, and the plain spoken, and turns away from urban, arty, abstract, and essentially ‘un-American’ New York intellectual and art producing radicals. So Benton is something of an intellectual scaredy-cat, while also preserving a sort of empathy with everyday life.

constructivist-still-life-1918-by-thomas-hart-benton-small    still-life-with-fruit-and-vegetables-1914-by-thomas-hart-benton-small   rhythmic-construction-1919-by-thomas-hart-benton-smallBenton began with abstraction and constructivism, and then he moved on to what was a central genre of the 1930s and which remains vital today as a mode of activism, murals. These, “of which the originality lies, I think, in the coincidence of homely popular genre, and artificial , energetic, monumental effects”, nonetheless are “well-adapted to the casual eye of the  tourist or the hearty philistine spectator.”mural02 mural04

Schapiro’s review is titled, “Populist Realism,” and when you read it, you will find many correspondences with current Trump Populism.   When you get the issue up, go to page 53. The Review begins at the bottom of page 53.

What is very compelling about the piece is Shapiro’s negative capability — he allows himself to be in doubts and uncertainties, even while making a strong critique.

There is also the fact that Benton was Jackson Pollock’s teacher and mentor for many years — he clearly had something to offer mid-century urban art.


Another Group

Clifford Odets 1906-1936

Part of the interest of hanging out in the pages of Partisan Review  for me is the way in which various of our characters open up other fields and groups– in this instance, networks of artists and playwrights in New York City’s intimate and serious world of performance.

The final pages of  vol. 1, issue 2, Partisan Review  1938, include Mary McCarthy’s second ‘Theater Chroncle,’ a review of the most recent Clifford Odets play, Golden Boy, playing at the Belasco Theater (w.44th Street)

Clifford Odets was part of the theatre world that employed what was known as ‘method acting’; that is, the Stanislavski “system” of acting that requires actors to locate the feelings and motivations of the characters who they play. Stanislavsky was a renowned Russian drama teacher, character actor, and dramaturge. He was a hero of the Soviet, and had been given the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner, and was the first to be named the People’s Artist of the USSR.  In 1923, Stanislavsky took his Moscow Art Theatre to New York and began the US tradition of his drama techniques.

Konstantin Stanislavski 1863-1938


Many of the twentieth century’s greatest actors were trained by the NYC apprentices of Stanislavski — Lee Strasberg started the Group Theatre in 1931, and gathered around him directors and writers and students including  Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, Harold Clurman,  and had great successes with plays by Odets, beginning with Waiting for Lefty (January 1935),  a play about a taxi strike, in which ‘plants’ in the audience stood up and held ‘meetings.’  It was a perfect start for Odets, who was a communist party fellow-traveller,though only a member in 1934-35,  and he became a hero of agitational theater.  A month later, in February 1935, Awake and Sing!  was staged; in this play Odets takes a serious look at the inner conflicts of a Jewish family in the Bronx. The play was a hit.

Enter Miss McCarthy.  “The salient feature of Golden Boy…which is supposed to be about an Italian boy…is that it is not about an Italian boy at all, but about that same talkative, histrionic Jewish family [that Odets had created in Awake and Sing!]. With a hint of her own anxiety about Jews,  McCarthy makes out that Odets has lost his way, and has fallen into the habit (as others have done before him) of repeating a success by writing it again and again. In the process, she argues that Odets is joining what Dwight McDonald will call masscult,  a kind of dumbed-down high-culture-become- low-culture, which offers routinised and banal version of real thought and creativity. So, she compares Odet’s story of a violinist who chooses money over art to the gangster films of the period:

“Mr. Odets has taken a collection of types out of any underworld film, and on them he has grafted the half-ludicrous, half-touching cultural aspirations, the malapropisms, the pride in material possessions,the inarticulate longing for sunny life, that make up the Odets formula of frustration.”McCarthy then goes on to say that Odet’s has ‘stuffed’ the play with ‘familiar Jewish low-comedy jokes and ancient wheezes out of vaudeville.’

It is hard not to bridle against McCarthy when she writes as if she were ‘we,’  and ‘they’ are the crooks and the vulgar  — her invitation to stand with her above the stale luridity of characters and plot,” is perversely appealing.

She does make a crucial point about the  premise of the play. If the violinist had become just that, a fine musician, instead of trading in his vocation for the boxing ring, he would have been able to earn his living by art. If he couldn’t have supported himself by the violin, he probably wasn’t very good, anyway. He would be better off as a prizefighter!

read it here:

pages 48-49.


Next: A book about Thomas Benton, reviewed by Meyer Schapiro.






“Hurry, Hurry”


eleanor-clarkMary McCarthy wasn’t the only Vassar girl from the graduating classes of the early 1930s who got involved with Partisan Review.    You may recall that Philip Rahv married Nathalie Swan —  Some said that Rahv married Swan on the rebound from McCarthy, when she left him for Edmund Wilson. Swan was one of the literary  crowd on the Vassar campus, and became an architect, having spent time studying at the Bauhaus. Later she (or some aspects of her) appeared in the sophisticated lesbian, Lakey, at the end of The Group, returning to New York  from her Europeanisation.  Elizabeth Bishop, another Vassar girl involved in the literary coterie that included McCarthy,  was published by Partisan Review,  and the story “Hurry, Hurry,” that follows  Morris’s “Art  Chronicle” on Arp,  was written by  a witty Vassar Left Intellectual and writer, Eleanor Clark. When McCarthy became part of the posh-girl group that lived in the South Tower on the Vassar Campus, she was also becoming involved with the Clark sisters.

Eleanor and her sister,Eunice, were active in politics at Vassar, before McCarthy had found herself a leftist Trotskyist,  and just about the time that McCarthy first knew of Trotsky, Eleanor had gone with Trotsky’s entourage into exile in Mexico in 1937  when he was expelled from Norway  in 1936. after the first set of the Moscow show trials. She married Jan Frankel,Trotsky’s secretary, to help confirm his immigration status.

Jan Frankel, at right of photo

The girls had worked together on a ‘rebel’ College magazine,  ‘Con Spirito,’ suggesting both their brio  and their clandestine atmospheric.  In The Group, Norine, who may have been modelled on the Clark sisters, says of McCarthy’s South Tower crowd: “You people were the aesthetes. We were the politicals. Your crowd was sterile. But God, I used to envy you. Poise, Social Savy. Looks. We called you the Ivory Tower Group. Aloof from the battle.”  That at least is what McCarthy figured (or hoped) the Clarks might have thought of her.

But years later, Eleanor Clark told the biographer Frances Kieran: “I didn’t like Mary. I never liked her. My sister Eunice knew her a lot better, and for her pains and I must say in some cases extraordinary generosity, she got kicked in the teeth. In The Group she got pilloried along with everyone else.

I don’t know when Eleanor Clark  wrote the story, “Hurry, Hurry.” But it is a marvellous combination of the absurd and the surreal, written with the wit and metropolitan confidence characteristic  of a Dorothy Parker story in The New Yorker.  

Eleanor Laughing

At the same time, it is a fable of the hollowness of bourgeois society — its cultural conformity, pomposity, self importance, and the voice is that of one of the younger generation.  It is a girl’s voice that is both satirical and embarrassed by her complicity in the world of her mother.

The narrative is a sang-froid description of a beautiful June day’ — the day the narrator’s mother’s house falls down. Thrust immediately into the fact of the fallen house, we learn that the household dog, a French poodle named  ‘de Maupassant,’ hadn’t noticed anything in advance. The mother adores the dog — “She loved the aristocracy of him, the way he tossed his luxurious black mane….” But the mother had spoiled the poodle:In the end he was incapable of serious thought and must have played or slept through the entire catastrophe.”  The falling down house is ignored by the narrator herself. “I was not interested. Instead,  “I spent the entire time  — two or three hours it must have been — under a maple tree, and rescued nothing but one silver-backed hand mirror.   As the building falls in this slow motion ruination, neighbours gather on the lawn now strewn with the contents of the house,drink cocktails and offer comments and useless advice.

In one area, “beams could be heard falling, and already a wide crack was beginning to open diagonally across the front of the living-room wall, exposing the dust-covered leaves of books, first the historical works and later the vellum-bound editions of Dante, Baudelaire and Racine. it was this, I think, that first awoke my mother to a real awareness of what was happening. It was not only that the books were threatened with destruction: it was also obvious to everyone that their pages had not been cut.”    

The narrator’s insouciance becomes even more extreme as her mother becomes more brittlely hysterical. What makes the story work is the way Clark turns the humour of the surrealized fall of the house inside out like a mobius strip as it becomes a scorching scene of human horror. The mother sends a maimed servant, Myrtle,  into the house to bring out a family heirloom, in the course of which impossible task, Myrtle is beaten with wood switches, breaks her back while carrying the monstrous ‘highboy’ she was sent to bring out, while all the neighborhood ladies are shouting, “Hurry Up Myrtle, Hurry Up, Hurry Up” until she can only be seen between windows as a wall crashes into her — and “she fell with her torn-off wrists lifted up in prayer.”  

The poodle makes its way up to the mother’s bedroom, and she cries out to him, “Moppy! Moppy!”, my mother cried,  ‘Did you think your mother had forgotten you? Oh Moppy you did!?

The two — mother and poodle —  do jump from the remaining wall, “My mother in a new flowered print and a picture  hat, holding up her arms with an expression of love, almost — I thought at that moment but I am not sure ow — almost  a look of fulfilment in her face, which at times made one think of a madonna though the profile was too sharp. And then the last of the house fell and buried them.”

I wonder what Dwight McDonald thought about the story — was it too slick for him? Or did it conform too much to his ideas of New Yorker ideology?  Anyone reading this know?

Here is the link to read the story itself on the BU onlinePartisan Review site: p.35ff. click here Hurry Hurry

Eleanor Clark later wrote well- received travel books, one of which won the National Book Award — The Oysters of Locmariaquer (1964),a study of a French community of  Oyster farmers —  and she married the poet Robert Penn Warren. She remained a beautiful and witty woman all her life:

Eleanor’s later beauty

“The forms arrive pleasant, or strange, hostile, inexplicable, mute, or drowsy….”

arpphoto   Jean Arp.

The “Art Chronicle” in Vol. IV, no.2 was a review of an exhibition of the work of  Jean Arp  at A.E. Gallatin’s Museum of Living Arts  at NYU in 1936. The author was George L.K. Morris (1905-1975), who was on the original editorial board of Partisan Review and wrote art reviews for Partisan Review until 1943 when he went into the War.

Morris was known as one of the “Park Avenue Cubists,” a group of abstract artists, born into  old American families with money and educational privileges. His wife, Susy Frelinghuysen, was an opera singer as well as another member of the “Old East Coast” elite.   Morris and Suzy created a life for themselves as advocates of abstract art. george_l-_k-_morris_and_suzy_frelinghuysen Another member of the PAC was the painter Charles G. Shaw, who trained for a time to become an architect, and  made the skyline of New York City an emblem of American new-york-oddly-enough Shaw was also a  rich New Yorker, an heir to the Woolworth fortune, and a graduate of Yale.

And backing them all, the patron of European and American Modernist art — collector, painter, philanthropist —  A.E. Gallatin, who created in  1927 The Gallery of Living Art, a few years later renamed The Museum of Living Art’  at NYU,  where he curated the Arp exhibition reviewed by Morris.  a-e-gallatin

Dwight McDonald was a close friend of Morris, part of the same literary crowd at Yale, and Dwight was his introduction to the Partisan Review crowd, most of whom were distinctly not from old American families. But Morris spent time in Paris where his mother had moved when Morris was very young, and he studied with Leger, and came to be one of the most active supporters of European and American abstraction.  A look at the house where Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen displayed their collection gives a good example of how money, taste, and connections came to make abstract art the art of the twentieth century. frelinghausenmorrislr440

When I was growing up in New York City, one wall of our living room was covered with bits and pieces of Modernist art. When they were in their 30s, my parents weren’t wealthy enough to buy paintings, but they had lithographs and drawings by their close friends — Sidney Geist, Ben Benn, Theodore Roszak, Alcoply, Jacques Lipschitz —  and when the boom years smiled on them, they had moved on to becoming book collectors, immersed in discovering the world of Henry James and his circle.   After my father broke his hip in his 80s, he decided to sell most of what they had on the walls. and that helped to pay for his care as he got older and frailer.  And when my sister and I were young, we had each  claimed a piece of art for ourselves.  After my parents died, I brought the Juan Gris lithograph of Jean Le Musician back to London and Jean looks at me with his clarity of vision as I make my coffee in the mornings.

But there was another piece I also liked as a little girl: it was either  a collage or a drawing or maybe a print made by Jean Arp, and to me it looked like a cross between a butterfly and a bat.  It floated on a white background and looked as if it was rising into the wind without having to beat its wings. I particularly liked that the artist’s name was Arp…..

Jean Arp (1886-1966), was born Hans Arp to a couple who were German and French. He is mostly known to us as one of the founders of DADA, and was interested in chance as a component of art…Here is a photo of his house/museum in Clamart, France.13rdv-arp-tmagarticle In the 1930s he became well-known, and he experimented with collage and with labile forms that alluded to nature without being themselves natural.“The forms arrive pleasant, or strange, hostile, inexplicable, mute, or drowsy. They are born from themselves. It seems to me as if all I do is move my hands.” Jean Arp was an artist’s artist, the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s and 1960s returned to him and to the plasticity of his forms, and admired his history with Dada and with Surrealism.

George L.K Morris was quite right to say in his review that Arp’s new work was better and more grounded than it had been earlier and that,

“Some day it may appear that among the purest and most authentic comments on  the post-War Europe we may find these elusive and reticent compositions of  Arp”: read the review here:

Art Chronicle: Hans Arp:


And here are some examples of Arp’s collages:

collage-colourcollage This one on the left reminds me of the butterfly bat piecearplikebatcollage

Next:”Hurry, Hurry”