"American Vanguards" at the Addison Gallery tells how a tiny group of New York friends — Stuart Davis, John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning "and their circle" — inspired by Picasso and Surrealism, exploded the last ties between Modernist painting and realism as they helped invent American Action Painting between the mid 1920s and mid '40s.
The triumph of New York School Abstract Expressionism helped the Big Apple supplant Paris as the capital of Western art. But a wall in the exhibit of 1930s paintings of Gloucester, Massachusetts, by Davis and Adolph Gottlieb, hints at a little-noted fact. After New York, Massachusetts might be the most important crossroads in the development of American Modernism.
In the crucial years between 1940 and 1947, when Jackson Pollock made his first drip paintings, stars of the new New York abstraction — Pollock, Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Aaron Siskind, Hans Hofmann, and Elaine de Kooning (with occasional visits from Willem) — summered in Gloucester or Provincetown. Gorky studied art in 1920s Boston. David Park and John McLaughlin, who would pioneer Modernist painting in California, lived in Boston from the late 1930s to around '41.
Gloucester, Davis wrote in 1945, "was the place I had been looking for." It wasn't simply a picturesque working waterfront. The rigging of fishing schooners helped him divide the sky into Cubist planes, before he set it all to the syncopated rhythms of jazz.
Gloucester obviously influences Davis's motifs, but how to trace Massachusetts's effect on others? Pollock's curving drips echo his teacher Thomas Hart Benton's mobius-strip compositions, which evoke the shores of Martha's Vineyard, where Pollock visited Benton and painted in the summers of 1934 to '37. Gottlieb's Pictographs of the early 1940s seem to have evolved from still-lifes he painted of shells and starfish he arranged in boxes he found on Massachusetts beaches. Siskind pioneered abstract photography with close-ups of gloves, rope and seaweed he found lying on the streets, wharves, and beaches of Provincetown and Gloucester. Newman summered in the Bay State during the years he began painting vertical stripes and daggers that would evolve into his trademark "zips."
Their summers in Massachusetts were a retreat from the pressures of New York, a time to recharge their art among friends. Not long before Rothko took his own life in 1970, he reportedly (perhaps apocryphally) said, "Let's all go to Gloucester and paint."
"AMERICAN VANGUARDS" :: Addison Gallery, 180 Main St, Andover :: Through December 30