Paris, Redux
“Americans in Paris: Abstract Painting in the Fifties” at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

PARIS’S IMAGE AS THE CULTURAL CAPIITAL OF THE WESTERN WORLD lingered after the substance had fled. Looking back on the 1950s, Clement Greenberg told Al Held, “Paris was not the place to be at that time, but you young fellows created the Paris you thought was there.”

Beauford Delaney, Untitled (Yellow Abstraction), 1963

Americans cannot get enough of that fabricated Paris. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron danced their way through it to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” suite in 1951. Underwritten by the relative affluence and confidence of post-war America, it was cultural theater staged in Left Bank settings. Expatriates examined their artistic identities in the Café Flore, Aux Deux Magots, Mabillon and points along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. English-language presses, periodicals and bookstores flourished. Allan Ginsburg’s no-star “Beat Hotel” provided backdrop to romances of negation and rebellion that lent an American accent to bovarysme.

Drancy, a transit camp to Auschwitz on the outskirts of Paris, had closed. The word collaboration was in disuse and the myth of the French Resistance as fashionable as Dior’s New Look.

This is the backlighting for “Americans in Paris: Abstract Painting in the Fifties,” a surprisingly satisfying exhibition. It showcases the work of eleven post-war pilgrims to sites abandoned by the Lost Generation well before the fall of France in 1940. Men came on the GI Bill; the women, for love. What they produced had less to do with the Parisian art scene — such as it was — than with freedom from the pressures of the burgeoning New York art world.

Seymour Boardman, Norman Bluhm, Ellsworth Kelly, Sam Francis, Al Held and Shirley Jaffe (accompanying her husband who was on the GI Bill) arrived between 1946 and 1950. Kimber Smith followed his wife, a correspondent for “Life” magazine, in 1954. Joan Mitchell decided in 1959 to stay in France with Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Janice Biala, sister of painter Jack Tworkov, settled in France with her French-born husband in 1958. Beauford Delaney, an African American born in 1901, expatriated permanently in 1953.

Delaney’s luminous all-over oil, “Untitled” (1958), sets the tone of the exhibition. Here is abstraction without rhetoric. Pure material color speaks for itself. A free, sensual lyricism prevails. Delaney’s surface is built of clotted cream overlaid with a restless golden wash. Light moves across the gentle peaks and interstices of the undercoat in a rhythmical feast of the artist’s own choosing. This single lovely work prompts interest in a gifted painter whose achievement has been obscured by having decamped to Paris while the art world’s center of gravity was shifting to New York.

Luminosity is the keynote of everything on view. Even Al Held’s darkling canvases, their centered gestural motifs woven into the brushwork of a viscous black background, are lit by the lustre of the medium.

Most appealing in this exhibition is the vigor of experimentation on display. Drip and pour techniques had not yet hardened into clichés. The cascade of thinned color down Norman Bluhm’s “Green #1” looks as fresh as it did in 1954. Ellsworth Kelly, more interested in Romanesque art than modern painting, ignored Abstract Expressionist moves altogether. Almost very artist in this show is represented at a fertile, probing moment. Only Kimber Smith’s comparatively drab entries fall short of their company.

That sense of feeling one’s way is evident in the contrast between Ms. Jaffe’s two abstractions. The earliest is helter-skelter compared to one painted a few months later. In the second, wisely hung across the room instead of coupled, the rhythmical interplay of colors is more pronounced. They take on measure — cadence — crucial to composition. Brushwork, too, is more complex. A divided brush and optical blacks mixed from the palette create more confident transparencies and finer blendings.

Two horizontal works, an oil by Bluhm and a watercolor by Sam Francis, are a radiant pairing. In Bluhm’s “Northern Light” (1959), unfettered bursts of yellow ignite veils of blue and violet. Skimmed laterally across the colors is an incandescent flare of white. Opaque at its center and receding outward, it is beautifully evocative of a polar sky.

Francis dances a border of orange, yellow and pale violet, accented by blackened purple, along the top and right side of blank paper. Fine threads of color flutter downward, linking white space to the border without actually filling it. The words drip and spatter are too crude for use here. It is as if pigment had been flecked from a butterfly’s wing.

Both paintings by Joan Mitchell are vigorous examples of her loaded, curvilinear brushwork, broken color and serendipitous splashes of dense complements. In 1959-1960 the vitality of her signature approach was intact. She had not yet begun to imitate herself.

Mythopoetic ambitions dominated abstract painting in the 1950s. Yet all that is visible today is an ardent effort to sound the expressive depths of painting without external references or traditional devices of order and form. Looking at this work now, half a century past the exalted claims made for abstraction in its infancy, you recognize painting as an eminently earthen thing.


“Americans in Paris: Abstract Painting in the Fifties” at Tibor de Nagy Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, 212-262-5050).

This review appeared first in The New York Sun, August 9, 2007.

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