AAC1939 As you may recall from earlier posts, the artists’  group that reflected the aesthetic/political taste of the Popular Front was the American Artists’ Congress, sponsored by the Communist Party, USA, and aimed to contribute to the campaign against fascism. We have looked at many critiques of the Popular Front from the positions of writers for Partisan Review, which began with the Moscow Trials of 1936-38, and the development of the Trotskyist movement within and then exiled from, the Stalinist betrayal of the Russian Revolution. One of the features of Partisan Review’s stance was it’s advocacy of new forms of art, and in particular the modernist movements in painting and sculpture.  Morris’s short reviews of two sponsored events, the 3rd annual AAC of 1939, held in a sixth-floor gallery at 444 Madison Avenue, and the show held by American Abstract Painters Association that same year in March, at the Riverside Museum. Morris’s approach to each of these events is, for the most part, consistent with the splits between Stalinists and Trotskyists on the style of abstraction.

“The Artists’ Congress offers perhaps the broadest opportunity for appraising various influences that are now shaping the more popular courses of American art. And there are indications of greater promise in this 1939 Exhibition than one is accustomed to discover from large-scale displays at the present time. The native selections at the Metropolitan and Whitney Museums have long created a suspicion that American bourgeois art was fated to become permanently stuck in a lifeless morass of expanding vulgarity, and most local exhibitions have merely added to this unpalatable picture. At the Artists Congress, however, there is an absence of impressionist trickery, and a refreshing directness which might conceivably vitalize a genuine tradition. There is often a surprising technical freedom as well, and a pleasure in the manipulation of direct impasto. No quality is more readily communicated than that of drudgery, and it is perhaps significant that in this show the leading exponents of drudgery are usually those artists whom we encounter most often in the public galleries.

“The favourable impression would have been more successfully sustained if the galleries had been less generously provided with chairs. One must pause at length before a picture, and unfortunately there was little here that could stand a very intimate acquaintance. Many works disclosed the striking transcription of a momentary image, but that real distinction between which our century seems so rarely capable of of realising,was singularly absent. There was little to suggest the stirring of an esthetic impulse; the political earnestness had obviously thrown its weight in the opposite direction. {AJ: I find it strange that though Picasso’s Guernica arrived as an addition to the show, Morris doesn’t give it a mention}

3154201312860029“Works of every genre were in evidence, but the Congress exhibitions derive their special character from a preponderance of paintings that might be loosely classified as  “social satires.” Here, at any rate, they tended to eclipse all other types of work; at the same time they were to demonstrate the unavoidable effect of violent subject matter upon artists who have never been grounded on an authentic tradition of their own.The very language of painting, by which  literary ideas can be made plastically credible, has been laid aside; therefore, the more intense the illustrative emotion, the more it has appeared to stick through the structural fabric, until often the connection between title and expressive means would become quite arbitrary. A painting here entitled Refugees {AJ: William Gropper} could have passed many years ago for a peculiarly romantic Madonna and Child. And one particular work, Flight from Fascism, went so far as to take its pose and composition quite blatantly from Delacroix’s Flight of Medea. –{AJ: this comparison doesn’t make any sense — can anyone help?! and I can’t find the image of the “Flight from Fascism, either. }. 

But Morris isn’t actually interested in Popular Front political art; what he is interested in is the work of the American Abstract Artists group, of which he had been a founding member.

““An Exhibition of almost equal proportions, although in complete opposition to that of the Congress, was held in March by the American Abstract Artists, and the resultant impressions are interesting to compare. The slogan of the Congress is For Peace, For Democracy, For Cultural Progress, and obvious comments upon these phrases echo resoundingly from every wall. The Abstract Artists share these convictions, but they also believe that the esthetic impulse cannot become a tool for concrete political or philosophical dissemination,– at this stage of our cultural metamorphosis at least. In their galleries the emphasis  contracts upon rudimentary encounters with pattern and design; there is a consistent searching after such shapes and linear combinations as can hold those conceptions of individuality which they feel to be evolving anew. The present decade may have publicized at last the cracks in the old social order. The Congress illustrates the crevices. The abstract artists, on the other hand, attempt to re-order their plastic instincts; they attack the established conceptions of art itself.

“The emergence of a sudden and intense restriction has often in the past accompanied the painful process of cultural reorientation. It can hardly have been by accident that another age of chaos, which saw the disintegration of the Roman Empire, should have left the Ravenna mosaics as its purest heritage. Possibly it requires an impasse comparable to that in which the world finds itself today to give courage to that complete restriction which has made possible the work of many abstract artists. The pitfalls are many which await the processes of consciously attempted simplification. Particularly in an age of science and mechanism the artist can be lured into reproducing no more than the purely static technique of the manufactured object. . Such painters as Shaw, Gallatin, and Greene have concentrated upon every direction that their flattened forms can follow, every linear juncture, every weight of tone and colour, without relinquishing personal stylistic over meaning. Their works are reticent, for their expressive ends have purposely been carried no farther than their simplified fabric will allow. Yet through such limited means they have destroyed the old conception of the ‘picture’; each has substituted a thing, — an object that is at rest completely, — and thus can a way some day be cleared for a new reality.


Charles G. Shaw

Gallatin  A.E. Gallatin.  images-11

Balcombe Green Balcombe Green Unknown-15

I will be in New York for the next two Saturdays, but will be back after that.