The Accidental Abstract Expressionist

Upon completion of the mural at Mexico’s University of Michoacan in 1935, David Alfaro Siqueiros proclaimed to TIME magazine, “It is my honest belief that Phillip Goldstein and Reuben Kadish are the most promising young painters in either the U.S. or Mexico.”  Soon after, Goldstein moved to New York City to pursue more work for the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.)  He changed his surname to Guston and removed an ‘l’ from his given name.  Reuben Kadish had returned to California and painted another mural titled A Dissertation on Alchemy (1936-37) at the San Francisco State College Science Hall.

In December 1936, Kadish received a 6-page letter from his lifetime friend, Phill, who was living at 46 East 8th Street: “Dear Rube, I feel like a bastard for not writing you all this time and I hope you will forgive me.  The truth is, I’ve been lower than my heel ever since I came here, due mostly to the fact that there are no prospects at all for work.”  In this letter to Kadish, Guston relates the degradation of the W.P.A. in New York City.  Within this new environment, Siqueiros could not be located, causing a sense of confusion: “I must tell you briefly about conditions here in New York, because they concern me and my possibilities for a wall.  A really terrific struggle is going on in the P.W.A. 800 artists are scheduled to be fired this week! Also on other W.P.A. projects, great numbers are to be sacked.”  Guston speculated that if the administration continued to cut artists from the W.P.A. then there would be a work stoppage in New York.

Reuben Kadish, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston attended the Manual Arts High School in the late 1920s, in Los Angeles.  Upon the publication of a satirical paper titled, Journal of Liberty in 1928 all three students were expelled from school. When Kadish relocated to New York in 1944 his family first settled in to a house along the shore of Long Island.  The rent was high for the family so Kadish invited his friend Pollock, and his wife Lee Krasner, to share the house and split the rent.  Pollock agreed, and thus began his lifelong residency along the shores of New York.  Kadish, on the other hand, eventually bought a farm in Vernon, New Jersey and relocated there.

During the late 1940s, Guston was still creating surrealistic paintings and drawings although the figurative world was fast slipping away from his work.  The W.P.A. had waned significantly, no longer subsidizing artists to pursue art as a cause, one that embraced the virtues of freedom.  By 1950 Guston was an Abstract Expressionist painter who captured gesture and color, but no figurative form.  Allan Kaprow’s essay The Legacy of Jackson Pollock from 1958, identified Pollock’s death in a car accident as the end of an era as well as a genre: “He was, perhaps, the embodiment of our ambition for absolute liberation and a secretly cherished wish to overturn the old tables of crockery and flat champagne.”  Although the art community was rattled, Pollock suffered from being trapped, no longer painting what he would like to paint.

Kaprow added the awkward realization of an artist’s death as the defining point of his work, but he also considered this event as a weakening of Modern art: “Was it not perfectly clear that modern art in general was slipping? Either it had become dull and repetitious as the ‘advanced’ style, or large numbers of formerly committed contemporary painters were defecting to earlier forms.” In other words, the repetitive nature of Abstract Expressionism caused the genre to wear out long before Pollock’s fatal car crash: “[Pollock’s] heroic stand had been futile.  Rather than releasing the freedom that it at first promised, it caused not only a loss of power and possible disillusionment for Pollock but also that the jig was up.” Although Kaprow was reflecting the sentiments of 1956, he returned to these thoughts two years later and concluded: “[Pollock] created some magnificent paintings. But he also destroyed painting.” This is quite an odd summation of an artist who had long believed that the role of art was to preserve the notion of independence.

At the time of Pollock’s death, Reuben Kadish was no longer a student at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He also had not yet been hired to teach at the Cooper Union. In the mid-1950s, Kadish was a dairy farmer who occasionally made clay sculpture. His friend Guston continued with Abstract Expressionism.  In 1968 David Reed attended a critique of Guston’s at the New York Studio School, located on West 8th Street.

Reed’s account in Soul-Beating that appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the College Art Association’s Art Journal, captured surprises of the moment which Guston imbued with references to painters of the Renaissance.  Ten years earlier, he had captured nothing but color. Now, however, Guston reacted viscerally to the reductive nature of abstract, Minimal paintings. For him painting was not tragic enough.  However, how does one capture the notion of Aristotelian tragedy without a figure? Was abstract painting suddenly a game of mind reading as opposed to a subjective, visual experience?

While the finer points of Aristotle’s Poetics are one thing, Reed wrote that he had caught an early glimpse of Guston’s figurative work that had not yet been revealed to the art community in New York: “At the time, none of us knew anything of his new drawings and paintings that depicted simple objects.”  This led Reed to connect Guston’s shift to that of Pop Art, quite popular in the day.  But it is also odd – or ironic? – that Reed did not delve into Guston’s past as a W.P.A. artist, where and when he had also painted Ku Klux Klan figures but more elaborately, in a figurative style that was similar to that of the Renaissance and also on a grand, monolithic scale.

In fact Reed’s essay Soul-Beating is a failure in art historical reach, given that it was published through the CAA.  Thus Philip Guston may be considered legendary by those who believe that his step into figuration started on or around 1970, culminating in the watershed moment of his solo show at Marlborough Gallery. Despite the schism that it created throughout the art scene, people who had known Philip Guston from the 1930s also knew that he had once painted on a scale similar to that of Michelangelo, while believing that art was a cause.

Reed wrote, “He was never acting a part, though his resemblance to a character from a Fellini film told me that putting on a show would have been easy for him.”  Abstract Expressionism fell apart after Jackson Pollock’s car accident.  For Reuben Kadish, the genre was hollow which led him to abandon painting altogether.  All of Kadish’s abstract paintings were ultimately lost in a studio fire located on the grounds of his farm in Vernon.  For Guston, the Vietnam War was raging. Abstraction no longer worked.  Was it suddenly a train wreck? Men were being recruited and sent away against their will.  Guston knew that art had to return to its roots – it had to do something.

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About Jill Conner

Jill Conner is New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and is a Contributor to Afterimage, Art in America, ArtUS, Art Papers, Interview and Sculpture. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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One Response to The Accidental Abstract Expressionist

  1. Wonderful read – thank you., love Guston!

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