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BASEL, Switzerland — Fifty-five years ago, the exhibition The New American Painting arrived at the Kunsthalle Basel. It was the first stop on a yearlong tour that touted the work of seventeen Abstract Expressionists before eight European countries — the first comprehensive exhibition to be sent to Europe showing the advanced tendencies in American painting. Organized by the International Program of the Museum of Modern Art under the auspices of the International Council at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the show was curated by Dorothy Miller and featured William Baziotes, James Brooks, Sam Francis, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Jack Tworkov.
Director of MoMA at the time Alfred H. Barr, Jr. explained in a press release for the show that the artists in The New American Painting represented an individual liberty of style and expression. “None speaks for the others any more than he paints for the others,” he said. “Their individualism is uncompromising and as a matter of principle they do nothing deliberate in their work to make communication easy.”
The exhibition opened at the height of the Cold War, and for years it was rumored that it was all part of a secret CIA program aimed at promoting American ideals abroad — ideals that would later include the marketing of fast food and Walt Disney. The connection seemed improbable; after all, this was a period when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art. Even President Truman validated the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.” However, the CIA connection was confirmed in a 1995 article published in the Independent.
Much time and history have passed since the heroic showing of The New American Painting. By the early 1960s, Pop art had surpassed Abstract Expression, and by the late 1960s, Minimalism and then Conceptual art had buried it. Today most of the art market still hedges its bets on contemporary art. So I was astonished to see postwar American painting and sculpture dominating the halls of the 44th edition of Art Basel. Could this be a response to the record sales recently recorded by New American Painting alums Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock?
At Sotheby’s last month, Barnett Newman’s seminal painting “Onement VI,” a deep blue abstract composition from 1953, sold for $43.8 million, the result of a battle among five bidders. The price eclipsed Newman’s previous auction record by a margin of more than $20 million. The monumental 1953 painting was championed as one of the most important works by the artist ever to appear at auction and stands as a masterwork not only of Newman’s artistic enterprise, but of the entire Abstract Expressionist movement.
A day later at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale, Jackson Pollock’s drip painting “Number 19, 1948” went for $58.4 million, nearly twice its presale estimate, achieving a world auction record for the artist. The bid helped shatter the record for highest sales at a single auction. Christie’s declared that the sale marked the start of “a new era” in the art market. Here’s a video of the aggressive bidding for the Pollock.
Postwar American art is hot, and the galleries exhibiting at Art Basel know it. With equal offerings in the category from both American and European dealers, I might even go so far as to suggest that having a work by one of the major figures of the New York School in a booth, regardless of whether or not the period is part of your gallery program, is a good strategy for engaging curators and attracting collectors.
With only a few hours to take in the fair, I noticed only five of the original artists from The New American Painting missing from my checklist: William Baziotes, James Brooks, Grace Hartigan, Theodores Stamos, and Clyfford Still. Here’s a list of those who were there.
- “Untitled,” work on paper, Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York, on view in the back room of the exhibition booth
- “Untitled” (1946), crayon on paper, 9 ½ x 12 in, Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
- “Untitled” (1945–47), graphite and crayon on paper, 9 ½ x 12 ½ in, Richard Gray Gallery
- “Blast II” (1957), oil on canvas, 90 x 45 in, Leonard Hutton, New York
- “Untitled” (1967), acrylic on paper, 24 x 19 in, Galería Elvira González, Madrid
- “Armchair” (1969), acrylic on canvas, 42 x 48 in, McKee Gallery, New York
- “Plotters” (1969), oil on panel, 30 x 40 in, McKee Gallery, New York
- “Untitled (Three Hoods)” (19720, oil on paper, 23 x 28 in, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London
- “Room & Sea” (1978), oil on canvas, Hauser & Wirth, New York / London
- “Track” (1978), oil on canvas, 78 x 109 in, McKee Gallery, New York
- “Provincetown II” (1959), oil on canvas, 93 x 79 in, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
Willem de Kooning:
- “Untitled” (1978), oil on canvas, 76 5/8 x 87 3/8 in, Hauser & Wirth, Zurich / London / New York
- “Untitled XIII” (1981), oil on canvas, 60 x 54 in, Matthew Marks, New York
- “Untitled” (19830, oil on canvas, Mnuchin Gallery, New York
- “Rome (double face)” (1959), work on paper, Mnuchin Gallery, New York
- “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” (1974–75), acrylic on canvas, 96 x 120 in, Bernard Jacobsen Gallery, London / New York. This painting was the highlight of an entire booth dedicated to Motherwell, including works dating from 1967 to 1991.
- “Untitled” (1959), ink on paper, Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York. The drawing was listed at $7 million and apparently on hold for a collector.
- “Untitled (Equine III)” (c. 1944), oil on canvas, 13 x 18 in, Washburn Gallery, New York
- “No. 1” (1957), oil on canvas, Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York / London
Bradley Walker Tomlin:
- “Number 10” (1949), oil on canvas, Pace, New York / Beijing / London
- “Abstraction” (c.1950), oil on Masonite, 19 7/8 x 23 7/8 in, Washburn Gallery, New York
- “Guardian I” (1952), oil on canvas, 50 x 21 in, Leonard Hutton, New York
- “June 21” (1964), oil on canvas, 62 x 80 in, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
At Basel, there were a number of works by American artists of the period who weren’t included in The New American Painting show but have gone on to prove the continuing demand for art of the New York School. Highlights included a 1956 canvas by Joan Mitchell, which was priced at $6 million and among the early sales in the booth of the New York–based dealers Cheim & Read; “Construction on Star Points” (1954–56), a seminal work by sculptor David Smith; and possibly the most exciting offering at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, an enormous “unfurled” painting by color field painter Morris Louis titled “Beta Alpha” (1961).
Here’s more from that related list.
- “Untitled” (1958), oil and collage on board, 31 ½ x 40 ½ in, Leonard Hutton, New York
- “Beta Alpha” (1961), Magna on canvas, 100 x 154 in, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
- “Untitled” (1956), oil on canvas, 80 ½ x 109 ½ in, Cheim & Read, New York
- “Composition” (1961), oil on canvas, 76 34 x 73 ½ x 1 ¾ in, Hauser & Wirth, New York, London
- “Untitled” (1964), oil on canvas, Galerie Max Hetzier, Germany
- “Untitled” (1965), oil on canvas, 57 ½ x 44 ¾ in, Cheim & Read, New York
- “Xavier” (1985), oil on canvas, 102 ¼ x 51 ¼ in, Kukje Gallery, Seoul / Tina Kim Gallery, New York
- “Once” (1987), oil on canvas 78 ½ x 71 in, Galerie Jacques de la Beraudiere
- “Untitled (Head, Blue and White)” (1934), oil on canvas, 14 x 24 in, Washburn Gallery, New York
- “Construction on Star Points” (1954–56), stainless steel and steel painted with red Iron primer, Galerie Gmurzynska, Zurich. Two works on paper by Smith, one from 1958 and another from 1963, were also on view at Gmurzynska.
- “Compass Circle” (1962), steel, 31 ¼ x 18 x 6 in, Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago
- “Untitled” (1962), spray enamel on canvas, 98 x 48 in, Moeller Fine Art, New York / Berlin
- “Six Benjamin Moore Paintings” (1961), Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York
- “Creed II” (1961), oil on canvas, Gagosian Gallery
- “Hollis Frampton” (1963), oil on canvas, Mnuchin Gallery, New York, a work named after the filmmaker, photographer, and critic Hollis Frampton (1936–84)
- “Black-White-Black Sketch” (1966), watercolor, ink, and graphite on printed paper, 17 3/8 x 22 1/9 in, Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York, on view in the back room of the exhibition booth
Art Basel 2013 took place June 13 to 16 at Messeplatz in Basel, Switzerland.