Exhibition of American Abstract Painting Opens in New York Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the first comprehensive exhibition of American abstract painting, opening the way for many changes in the American art world.

Summary of Event

In February, 1935, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted an exhibition titled Abstract Painting in America that traced the development of an abstract style of painting in the United States during the early part of the twentieth century. The show also examined the extent of American artists’ commitment to abstraction. Although the exhibit fell short of some expectations, it was a serious attempt to address artistic modernism in the United States. [kw]Exhibition of American Abstract Painting Opens in New York (Feb. 12, 1935) [kw]American Abstract Painting Opens in New York, Exhibition of (Feb. 12, 1935) [kw]Abstract Painting Opens in New York, Exhibition of American (Feb. 12, 1935) [kw]Painting Opens in New York, Exhibition of American Abstract (Feb. 12, 1935) [kw]New York, Exhibition of American Abstract Painting Opens in (Feb. 12, 1935) Abstract Painting in America (art exhibition) Whitney Museum of American Art;Abstract Painting in America Art;abstract Abstract art [g]United States;Feb. 12, 1935: Exhibition of American Abstract Painting Opens in New York[08850] [c]Arts;Feb. 12, 1935: Exhibition of American Abstract Painting Opens in New York[08850] [c]Organizations and institutions;Feb. 12, 1935: Exhibition of American Abstract Painting Opens in New York[08850] Davis, Stuart More, Hermon Force, Juliana Rieser Goodrich, Lloyd Smith, David Browne, Byron Gorky, Arshile Stieglitz, Alfred

American abstract art during this period was closely tied to European models and employed a broad range of artistic expression. Whether avant-garde American artists employed a cubist breakup of space, the geometry of nonobjective form, or merely stylized form, “abstraction” was the rubric under which all of their work was grouped. Some of these artists were committed to an agenda of abstraction, whereas others only dabbled in an abstract stylization of form. Many of those represented in the Whitney’s exhibit had already abandoned abstraction by the time of the show, and it was generally thought that the American abstract movement had ended. Nevertheless, the exhibition was the first attempt by a major museum to deal with the issue of abstraction in American art, and it was an important historical event that was crucially tied to the art production of the time and to the political and social matrix in which such art was made.

The issue of abstraction in American art had been blurred during the 1930’s. An ideological schism erupted between figurative and abstract painters, between social realist and “American scene” artists on one side and their abstract counterparts on the other. American scene painters such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood received support from galleries and museums, while the abstract artists were considered outsiders and often felt disfranchised. Yet American abstractionists continued their engagement with the abstract, and some formed a coalition with European abstract and nonobjective artists called the Abstraction-Création group.

This debate over figurative and abstract art was a major concern for artists, and the Whitney responded by holding a symposium on April 10, 1933, to discuss the issue. Led by Cooke Glassgold, the panel included Whitney curator Lloyd Goodrich, art critic and artist Walter Pach (who had been one of the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show), and artists Leo Katz and Morris Davidson. The panel discussed the topic “The Problem of Subject Matter and Abstract Esthetics in Painting.” The Whitney curators were more comfortable with figuration, and Goodrich spoke on behalf of that style of imagery. The young Arshile Gorky spoke up and challenged their view, calling for recognition of abstract art as a valid means of expression, one that could be judged and evaluated by the same criteria employed for more traditional work. Gorky’s work was represented by four paintings in the 1935 show; in 1937, Goodrich would reconsider his position, and the Whitney would purchase a painting by Gorky for its permanent collection. The sale was the artist’s first to a major public collection.

By 1935, with all the interest and discussion surrounding abstraction in the United States, the Whitney decided to mount an exhibition. The museum’s curator, Hermon More, his assistant Karl Free, and museum director Juliana Rieser Force proceeded to make plans for a comprehensive show. More was well regarded for his installation techniques, and his judgment of American art was sound. He asked Stuart Davis, a leading American abstract painter and the editor of Art Front magazine, to write the introductory essay for the exhibit’s catalog, and a drawing of Davis’s was used for the catalog’s cover illustration. Ironically, the drawing chosen for the cover was an ordinary line drawing, a representational still life, rather than an abstraction. Davis’s abstract work was well represented in the show, however, by five oil paintings and one gouache (a kind of watercolor painting), including two paintings from his seminal Eggbeater series. Yet the cover illustration and the accompanying essay had further resonance for the exhibition. In his essay, Davis stated that the greatest period of abstract art had occurred from 1915 through 1927. The outlook of the museum’s curators and its spokesman artist, therefore, was that abstraction for the most part was over, and that the Whitney’s exhibition was an overview of a movement that was now part of the past.

While Davis seemed to think that the abstract movement had waned, he did present an eloquent summary of the abstract artist’s objectives. He wrote that “the generative idea of abstract art is alive. It changes, moves and grows like any other living organism.” Davis continued by explaining that “art is not and never was a mirror reflection of nature. All efforts at imitation of nature are foredoomed to failure. Art is an understanding and interpretation of nature in various media.” While key figures of abstraction were represented in the Whitney’s show, many of the artists included were mere stylists; some, too, had by then abandoned abstraction altogether.

The Whitney may have mounted a less-than-inspired show, but the fact that the exhibition took place at all was important. The Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art (New York) New York’s other leading venue for the exhibition of modern works, was entrenched in European modernism and was virtually closed to American artists. Countering the Museum of Modern Art’s disregard for American modernism, the Whitney championed neglected American talent.

When American abstract artists heard of the upcoming exhibition, they were heartened that the museum was going to address the issue of abstraction; many hoped that the show would somehow validate their position and promote their ideas and their careers. This was an invitational exhibition, but many lesser-known artists openly solicited the museum for inclusion. One such artist was the young sculptor David Smith, who, together with a group of artist friends—including Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Edgar Levy, and Mischa Resnikoff—drafted a letter to the museum stating that they had formed an alliance and would exhibit in the show only if they all were accepted. Only three were invited to participate, however, and the group disbanded.

A number of galleries were asked to contribute work to the show, including that of Alfred Stieglitz, who secured the work of Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, members of his illustrious gallery. Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery supplied the works of several of the precisionist painters, including George Ault, Preston Dickinson, and, most notably, Stuart Davis. Work by Gorky was secured through the J. B. Neumann Gallery, which handled the work of many leading European painters. All the artists, collectors, and dealers concerned cooperated with the museum in the venture, and Abstract Painting in America opened on February 12, 1935.


Abstract Painting in America baffled most New York critics; even abstract stylization was too much for many of them to comprehend and appreciate. The only critics who offered favorable reviews of the show were Forbes Watson and Henry McBride. The Whitney’s next exhibition was American Genre: The Social Scene in Paintings and Prints, which was certainly a retrenchment to safer ground.

The following year, however, the Museum of Modern Art mounted an abstract exhibit assembled by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Barr’s impressive Cubism and Abstract Art Cubism and Abstract Art (art exhibition) show traced the genesis of abstraction from its post-Impressionist roots through neoplasticism and beyond. The only American artist included was Alexander Calder, and the show’s Eurocentric emphasis gave a stamp of approval to artists across the Atlantic. Barr had said that he felt that abstraction was a European feature, not an American one, and that Americans were not, by nature, abstract. A decade later, he would change his mind, but in the mid-1930’s the Modern’s edicts were law. In December, 1935, Barr mounted another important show, Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism (art exhibition) which dealt another blow to the Americans by exhibiting yet more examples of important art from abroad.

Although the Whitney’s show had not done much to further the cause of American abstraction, at least it had addressed the issue. Artists in the United States knew that galleries, museums, and critics remained hostile to abstraction, but a new idea emerged: American abstractionists would form an exhibition group to popularize abstract art, and they would hold group exhibitions promoting abstraction. At Ibram Lassaw’s studio, a band of artists, including Burgoyne Diller, Gertrude Greene, Harry Holtzman, and Byron Browne, met to discuss exhibitions and the creation of a school for modern art. While the school idea was abandoned, the idea of an exhibition group took root. Browne took a major role in the group, which in 1936 formed the American Abstract Artists. American Abstract Artists

Browne was one of the younger artists included in the Whitney exhibition, and as a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, he helped to mount the group’s first annual exhibition on April 3, 1937, at the Squibb Building Gallery on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The exhibit was the largest abstract show held outside a museum venue. Large numbers of visitors filled the gallery, and New York’s art critics did review the show, although their opinions were mixed. The artists involved wanted to make a strong statement about abstract art, and Václav Vytlacil compiled a portfolio of affordable lithographs of the exhibitors’ work to help acquaint the public with the new work. At the lively opening, Gorky carried around a large reproduction of a painting by the nineteenth century French classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and pointed out the painting’s abstract qualities. This group established the viability of abstraction in the United States, providing a forum for young abstract artists to discuss their ideas and to display their work. Many of the group’s members would later go on to establish the New York school of abstract expressionism. Abstract Painting in America (art exhibition) Whitney Museum of American Art;Abstract Painting in America Art;abstract Abstract art

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, Avis. Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York: Atheneum, 1990. An excellent history of the founding of the Whitney and of the leading artists and other figures involved in its development. An engrossing look at a pivotal period in American art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. An anthology of writings by various critics, historians, and artists. Includes “The Artist Today,” written by Stuart Davis in 1935, and “Is There an American Art,” dated 1930, which first appeared in Creative Art magazine as a reply to critic Henry McBride.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Excellent reference guide. Although not illustrated, includes a variety of materials, including academic essays, excerpts from artists’ diaries and letters, and thorough philosophical, political, and artistic analyses of specific movements, including American abstract painting.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lane, John R., and Susan C. Larsen, eds. Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, 1927-1944. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983. A thorough examination of abstract painting in America during an important period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Barbara. American Art Since 1900. Rev. ed. New York: Praeger, 1975. A good survey of the development of modern art in twentieth century America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schapiro, Meyer. “Nature of Abstract Art.” In Modern Art, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: George Braziller, 1982. A seminal essay that shows the political matrix involved in abstract painting during this period of early modernism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuchman, Maurice, ed. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985. New York, Abbeville Press, 1999. An interesting analysis of the relationship between modern art and the occult. Produced in conjunction with a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, this catalog comprises a series of essays by noted academics.

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Categories: History