george_l-_k-_morris_and_suzy_frelinghuysen You might first want to turn to an earlier blog post here, which introduces George L.K. Morris and his wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen: see Archive, January 7, 2017. click here“The forms arrive pleasant, or strange, hostile, inexplicable, mute, or drowsy….”

The “Art Chronicle” by George Morris in Vol.4, no.4, March, 1938 is framed as a set of letters to contemporary painters — Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Peter Blume.  The device might be thought of as part of Morris’s noblesse oblige towards contemporary painters.  Able to bankroll Partisan Review  when necessary, and committed to making abstract painting a serious category of American painting, Morris was one of the Founder-Members of the  American Abstract Painters Group in 1936. The group was active in promoting abstraction, and in 1937, it held its first exhibition, at the Squibb Gallery in New York.


Letter I: To the American Abstract Artists, American Fine Arts Galleries,

Morris begins his “Chronicle” with a letter “To the American Abstract Artists, American Fine Arts Galleries,”  It is somewhat annoying that he writes about ‘this exhibition’ without making it clear which exhibition he is referring to, but it is a letter in prospect of a group show. I assume it was written to the group he had helped to found before its initial exhibition. But if I am wrong about that, please let me know. Morris predicts violent reactions and much negative response to the works on display. Addressing the artists, he writes, as if  frankly, “The strongest public opposition will issue, as always, from the large troupe of perpetual gallery-visitors” who will search the canvases for half-secreted “representational objects”.  But he is more concerned about those who are held back by “bourgeois conformity”, and who will pronounce that these abstractions “are purely emotional; that they are not emotional enough; that they are academic; that they are governed by no laws at all”.  Morris, as one of the PAC (“The Park Avenue Cubists”, as they were called  by the less well-heeled of the PR  contributors) is also pretty sure that Communist Party –socialist realist– artists will criticise abstract paintings for being without a connection to problems of social justice, “adding that illustrative propaganda is a natural function of art, that much past culture was essentially propagandistic.”

So, to his colleagues and friends at the American Abstract Artists group, he finishes his letter by moralising the mission of this art:

“In our present environment, so full of divergent  currents. only discipline and restriction can build up a lasting flexibility.  You saw how the artists of the world had gone completely awry with their elaborate campaigns to conquer the visible world (Impressionism), the unconscious world (Surrealism), the political world (Propagandism), the complex texture of a new locality  (American Scene). I cannot foresee what your group may be producing in a decade. But in the meantime you qualify as the sole organisation in America that is dedicated to the hewing out of an authentic and appropriate cultural expression.”

Letter II:  To Charles Demuth, Whitney Museum.

Charles Demuth, 1883-1935
Morris’s second letter in the piece is addressed to Charles Demuth, one of the ‘regional American painters,’ known as well for his Cubist-Realist works. Borrowing from the technique and experience of the abstract painters of Europe, Demuth made a contemporary industrial America realist genre, with one part of his aesthetic built from geometrical principles of Cubism, and the other from the experience of industrial landscapes in the centre of  America.  He was a member of Alfred Steiglitz’s group, along with Georgia O’Keeffe and other painters whose focus on clarity of line went by the name of “Precisionism.”DEMUTH232px-Demuth_Charles_Aucassiu_and_Nicolette_1921207px-Brooklyn_Museum_-_Roofs_and_Steeple_-_Charles_Demuth_-_overall.jpg

After Demuth died in 1935 from diabetes,  the Whitney Museum put on a show of his work, the Charles Demuth Memorial Exhibition December 15, 1937 to January 16, 1938.Morris’s letter to him is from the living to the dead.  The tone of this letter is kind and quite gentle.  It is from one gentleman to another, dead, gentleman. Demuth never rushes his work, his paintings have ‘poise and monumentality,’  both qualities preserved from Demuth’s early water-colours and paintings,  Morris likes the restraint of Demuth’s work: “There is no strain, your accent was never forced.”  

Morris reminds us that Demuth had been criticised for ‘coldness’ in his work, but as gentleman to gentleman, Morris reinterprets cold as an urge towards the stability of the canvas. “Your pictures are not lively, but they live with an internal vitality that will endure. . . . You were always the architect within the canvas boundary, with  a passion for exhausting every means whereby the parts might be welded together.”

Letter III: To Georgia O’Keeffe

After the respect and admiration of Morris’s letter to Demuth, his address to Georgia O’Keeffe is like a smack upside one’s head. All of Morris’s snobbiness comes to his assessment of her: ” Legend has it that you emerged as a school-teacher from Texas,” as if that was explanatory… “But you have been deluded. You felt that everything you touched was sensational and ‘artistic,’ whereas in reality there was only the sign-painter’s slimy technique.”  My guess is that most of his crass critique  comes from the values of boys’ schooling when he was at Groton Academy: “Your flower-pictures grow tiresome; even the sexual over-meanings became sticky and dull.. . . Your forms grow into gas…only the academic critics can now applaud you, and the columnists who write for housewives; they believe correctly that they have found a celebrated modern painter who has joined their ranks at last.”    NO Noblesse Oblige in this case.


Letter III: To Peter Blume, Julian Levy Gallery.

Here again, Morris picks another weak target and beats him up. I can’t really figure out what these letters are driving at– I certainly can see why Blume’s “The Eternal City” can be grouped with Salvador Dali’s work, and that there is something here that doesn’t work.  Was Blume a CPUSA member? Is that why his anti-fascist work is presented as fascist itself?  Though the painting was well-received by critics when Blume first exhibited it at the Julian Levy Gallery in 1937, it hasn’t garnered much interesting criticism or attention since.   And Morris doesn’t use the painting or Blume’s work in general to make a point about abstraction or even aesthetics.


Peter Blume, The Eternal
Let’s just move on…. to RIPOSTES Minutiae of Left-Wing Literary History. This one is bound to be more amusing.