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Bringing art to life

Noted critic to speak in Teaneck

Art critic and historian Dr. Irving Sandler is not certain how much his being Jewish has affected his work over the years.

"I have grappled for half a century with this complicated issue," he told The Jewish Standard.

What he does not doubt, however, is the importance of abstract expressionism, the art form he has followed throughout his career.

"This was the most important movement in American art," he said. "It put American art on the map."


Art historian Dr. Irving Sandler stands in front of a painting by Joan Mitchell, part of his collection. Photo by Jon Gams.

It’s not surprising, he added, that major critics associated with these artists also received a good deal of attention. Two of them, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, widely considered the most influential critics of their time, were Jews.

Sandler, who said he enjoyed "close friendships with most of the artists in the movement," will give a lecture titled "The Triumph of American Painting and the Jewish Presence" at Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck on Monday, May 1′.

His talk will cover the period during and after World War II — a time, he said, when New York "became the art capital of the world." His presentation will cover the work of such artists as Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

"They were an individualistic lot," he said of the artists, "and their work was not much appreciated initially."

Pointing out that his talk was timed to coincide with the opening of a major exhibit at the Jewish Museum, "Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976," he said he would like it to be viewed as an introduction to what he called "an enormously important show. The curator of the Jewish Museum has assembled a remarkable array of art created in our time."

Sandler pointed out that the exhibit, to be shown May 4 through Sept. ‘1, also examines the part played by Greenberg and Rosenberg in the development of the art of the period. Whether the critics’ Jewishness had an impact on their work is an open question, he said, noting that the issue is discussed in an essay included in the book prepared in conjunction with the exhibit. (Published by Yale University Press, the book, to which Sandler contributed, will be available May 19.)

Discussing the genesis of abstract expressionism in the 1950s, Sandler explained that "after World War II, a group of American artists emerged who found the existing avant garde not relevant. But on the positive side, they were able to come up with new art that seemed more pertinent and relevant to the times," post-Holocaust and during the Cold War. "They tried to deal with the feeling of irrationality of our times," he said.

He added that it is interesting that the upcoming exhibit should be held at the Jewish Museum, since traditionally, he said, "[it] was a museum of avant garde art as well as a repository of Jewish ceremonial art."

Describing Greenberg and Rosenberg as "Jews, New York intellectuals, and Marxists," Sandler said "they hated one another." While they both championed abstract expressionism, "they had different aesthetics, creating an interesting discourse."

Greenberg, he explained was a "formalist," while Rosenberg was more concerned with the content of the art, how it spoke to the crisis in culture and politics. Rosenberg championed the work of Pollock, known for "pouring and dripping" paint, Sandler said. "His art was problematic then, but it still very much alive to the art world and the general public."

Only about four of the 15 leading artists of the movement were Jewish, said Sandler, adding that "whether their Jewishness came through in their art is very debatable."

Last month, the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics presented a lifetime achievement award to Sandler for his contribution to the field of art criticism. In addition to teaching at New York University and SUNY-Purchase, he is the author of five books dealing with American art since 1940, including "The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism."

Sandler’s presentation at Cong. Beth Sholom is sponsored by the Rose and Alfred Buchman Fine Arts Lecture Series, created by congregant Stephen Buchman in memory of his parents. According to program organizers Eleanor Mintz and Joan Baron, prior speakers in the series have included London art historian Dr. Mark Godfrey and sculptor/performance artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles.

The talk, scheduled for 8 p.m., is free and open to the public. The synagogue is located at 354 Maitland Avenue.

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