Art

America’s Grand Gestures Reign Supreme Again in Basel

Franz Kline’s “Provincetown II” (1959), oil on canvas, 93 x 79 in, heralds the return of postwar American painting at Art Basel. (image courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York)
Franz Kline’s “Provincetown II” (1959), oil on canvas, 93 x 79 in, heralds the return of postwar American painting at Art Basel. (image courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York)

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.

Sam Francis:

  • “Untitled,” work on paper, Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York, on view in the back room of the exhibition booth

Arshile Gorky:

Arshile Gorky, “Untitled” (1945-47), graphite and crayon on paper, 9 ½ x 12 ½ in, one of two works by Gorky offered at Richard Gray Gallery
Arshile Gorky, “Untitled” (1945–47) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
  • “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

Adolph Gottlieb:

Adolph Gottleib, “Blast II” (1957), oil on canvas, 90 x 45 in, Leonard Hutton Gallery
Adolph Gottleib, “Blast II” (1957)
  • “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

Philip Guston:

  • “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

Franz Kline:

  • “Provincetown II” (1959), oil on canvas, 93 x 79 in, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Willem de Kooning:

Willem de Kooning, “Untitled XIII” (1981), oil on canvas, 60 x 54 in, at Matthew Marks, New York
Willem de Kooning, “Untitled XIII” (1981)
  • “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

Robert Motherwell:

  • “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.

Barnett Newman:

Barnett Newman, “Untitled” (1959), a work on paper offered by Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York
Barnett Newman, “Untitled” (1959)
  • “Untitled” (1959), ink on paper, Dominique Lévy Gallery, New York. The drawing was listed at $7 million and apparently on hold for a collector.

Jackson Pollock:

Jackson Pollock, “Untitled (Equine III)” (c. 1944), oil on canvas, 13  x 18 in, at Washburn Gallery, New York
Jackson Pollock, “Untitled (Equine III)” (c. 1944)
  • “Untitled (Equine III)” (c. 1944), oil on canvas, 13  x 18 in, Washburn Gallery, New York

Mark Rothko:

Mark Rothko, “No. 1” (1957), oil on canvas, at Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York
Mark Rothko, “No. 1” (1957)
  • “No. 1” (1957), oil on canvas, Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York / London

Bradley Walker Tomlin:

Bradley Walker Tomlin, “Number 10” (1949), oil on canvas at Pace, New York / Beijing / London
Bradley Walker Tomlin, “Number 10” (1949)
  • “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

Jack Tworkov:

Jack Tworkov, “June 21” (1964), oil on canvas, 62 x 80 in, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
Jack Tworkov, “June 21” (1964)
  • “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.

Lee Krasner:

  • “Untitled” (1958), oil and collage on board, 31 ½ x 40 ½ in, Leonard Hutton, New York

Morris Louis:

Morris Louis, “Beta Alpha” (1961), Magna on canvas, 100 x 154 in, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York
Morris Louis, “Beta Alpha” (1961)
  • “Beta Alpha” (1961), Magna on canvas, 100 x 154 in, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Joan Mitchell:

Joan Mitchell, “Untitled” (1956), oil on canvas, 80 1/2 x 109 1/2 in (© Estate of Joan Mitchell, courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cheim & Read, New York)
Joan Mitchell, “Untitled” (1956) (© Estate of Joan Mitchell, courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cheim & Read, 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

David Smith:

David Smith, “Construction on Star Points” (1954–56), stainless steel and steel painted with red Iron primer at Galerie Gmurzynska, Zurich
David Smith, “Construction on Star Points” (1954–56)
  • “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

Frank Stella:

Frank Stella, “Hollis Frampton” (1963), oil on canvas, at Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Frank Stella, “Hollis Frampton” (1963)
  • “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.

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