Jack Kerouac was driving around the United States in the late 1940s while Max Beckmann was traversing the country, moving from one job to another. Kerouac finished the first draft of his epic experience in 1951, the year after Beckmann had died. Swiss photographer, Robert Frank, later documented his own cross-country adventure and the map looks very similar to that of Beckmann’s. On the one hand, it’s a coincidence because these are three different people, but on the other, this circular path that started and ended in New York also reflected a desire that Beckmann grew up with, to travel to America and pursue freedom – a desire shared by Kerouac and Frank who sought freedom in reaction to the growing, claustrophobic restrictions of the Cold War.
When Beckmann arrived in the States, he took part in a large dinner that included Mies van der Rohe. He also went to the Museum of Modern Art, to sit in front of his large-scale painting The Departure (1932-35) for pictures before shuttling off to meetings, more dinners and then on to Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. In 1932 Beckmann began his remarkable triptych painting, as the violent reach of Fascism increased. Picasso was primarily entwined with his muse Marie-Thérèse Walter at this time, but responded to the growing threat of World War II after Guernica, Spain had been bombed in April 1937. The Departure was made two years before Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and yet they hung in the same room, not far from each other, in the Museum of Modern Art’s group exhibition Art in Our Time from 1939.
However despite his clairvoyance and fast response to world events, Max Beckmann’s legacy in America has not endured. Instead it has been short-circuited by art world politics. Raisonné after raisonné has continued the fissure featuring essays by scholars who definitely have had insight into all aspects of the artist’s life.
David Anfam’s essay Beckmann and Abstract Expressionism, for instance, mistakenly describes Beckmann as a self-styled prophet whereas, in reality, the artist was moving from job to job around the U.S. to make ends meet, watching his own fame dissipate in a culture that was still establishing its own relationship toward art. While other essays in Beckmann & Amerika (2011) place the artist in the U.S., there is no flavor of his life combined with repetitive formalist discussion of his paintings.
The artist once described abstract painting as “nail polish,” and he repeatedly attacked the canvases of what looked like hobbyist painting with a brush of thick, black paint. This parallels his view of American art that surfaced in his famous speech Three Letters to a Woman Painter (1948) which was most likely a sharp response to the growing macho culture of American painting that, in his view, no longer wanted to face the world but instead represented the metaphors of the feminine: colorful decoration.
Robert Storr once remarked, “One looks in vain for a ‘Beckmann effect’ until the 1970s,” when Richard Serra first saw his paintings in Saint Louis. But prior to Serra, there was indeed a Beckmann effect. Why did the light go out? Who put down their books? Or, why is there no memory of the other side of the room at the Art in Our Time exhibition of 1939?