Catalog essay for the exhibition

New York School Redux

Alcopley, Nina Triggvadottir, Herman Cherry, Howard Daum, Edvins Strautmanis

499 Park Avenue Gallery, New York City, 2010


In the historical narrative of 20th century art, among the most auspicious events was the paradigm shift that occurred in the wake of the tragedy of World War II, when the creative center of Western culture that had always resided in Europe, most recently in Paris, was greatly diminished by tyranny and oppression. The fortunate receiver of the reluctant mass exodus of creators and thinkers was New York City, which had until then been a fledgling community of artists in search of an identity – an adolescent backwater in awe of the great history and traditions of European art.

Indeed by the 1930s, the Europeans had created a deep and pervasive wave of revolutionary thought and practice in the plastic arts – an avant-garde culture engaged in no less than a redefinition of the nature of reality. Picasso and Braque, taking their cue from Cezanne, succeeded in freeing painting from the restraints of faithful depiction, asserting a new improvisational approach to pictorial dynamics that resonated with the pace and complexity of urban life in the new century. Matisse created monumental paintings in which the images were presented with childlike simplicity, giving primacy to compositional movement and flat slabs of saturated color. Kandinsky eliminated recognizable imagery altogether, equating pictorial form to musical structures in his radical abstract paintings in which lively brushstrokes clustered and danced through a soupy space. Mondrian and Malevich asserted the spirituality inherent in the organic unity of pictorial form, reducing their vocabulary to primary geometric elements on a flat plane to embody existential purity. Miro infused his huge atmospheric color fields with animated diagrammatic narratives, exploring a direct link between the painting process and the subconscious reality of dreams. Arp employed elements of chance to access the subconscious, creating whimsical arrangements of biomorphic shapes on a plane.

With the cataclysmic events of the war, this revolutionary vitality that permeated European culture was suddenly left in shambles, but its great achievements loomed large. Postwar New York had a lively intellectual community, a great abundance of empty loft space, and artists who had a deep desire to participate in the prevailing aesthetic discourse – as well as a sense of responsibility to its elaboration and redefinition. So beginning in the mid 1940s, what has come to be known as the New York School, a motley amalgam of artists from both continents, converged, competed and collaborated to create a monumental synthesis of all the most vital impulses of the European avant-garde – infused with the energy, scale and ambition of a new place and time.

New York School Redux is an exhibition of important works by a group of painters who were among the participants in that propitious moment. Compared with today’s sprawling market fuelled art world, this artistic community was minuscule, unsupported, and at least in the early years, largely anonymous. There was simply no money, no notoriety. The work was driven by passion and the belief in the inherent worth of the creative process. To discuss their ideas and advance their dialogue, artists congregated informally in places like the Cedar Bar, now famous as the “hot house” of the New York School, or more formally in organized groups like The Club, which held regularly scheduled meetings in a rented loft in Greenwich Village. It goes without saying that every serious painter in New York knew every other serious painter, and the ideas and questions that passed from artist to artist formed a web that grew into the movement.

Alcopley (1910-1992) might be regarded as the central figure in this exhibition. A protean intellect, he also was an important and innovative scientist under the name A.L. Copley. As a painter, he was an active theorist and organizer, and was close friends with many important artists in New York and Europe, including all of the painters in this show. In the characteristic later work titled Beyond (1979), Alcopley activates a vast expanse of yellow surface with two dancing strokes made by a very large brush. The animated spontaneity of the brush strokes is contained by the flat field of yellow which advances around them leaving a small white buffer space. A deep purple strip along the bottom edge in turn contains the yellow expanse, and creates a vague reference to landscape. The apparent dimensionality of the strokes is held in equilibrium by the flatness of the yellow plane, which is made finite and directional by the purple stripe. It is this interdependence and interaction of formal pictorial forces that Alcopley regarded as a metaphor for the flow of life force that was the focus of his scientific investigations.

Nina Tryggvadottir (1913-1968) was a native of Iceland, and was married to Alcopley from 1949 until her death. Moving to New York in 1943 on a grant from the Icelandic government, she studied with Hans Hoffman and Fernand Leger. While firmly grounded in the formal principles of “push-pull” espoused by Hoffman, Tryggvadottir’s paintings like NT 1320 (1960) retain an element of observed landscape in their glowing light and their spatial arrangements. There is nevertheless a strong emphasis on the physicality of the painting as an object, and on the presence and mood created by the interactions of color and surface.

Herman Cherry (1909-1992) was an American artist who began his career in Los Angeles, later moving to Woodstock, New York. In the 1950s his work was shown at the most important galleries of the Abstract Expressionist period including the Stable, Poindexter, and Tanager Galleries. He was a lifelong friend of Alcopley and Nina Tryggvadottir. Jazz (1963), one of Cherry’s classic abstractions, features a dynamic equilibrium between the blue shapes and the yellow shapes. They each flip and flop between figure and ground as the terse charcoal line plays the role of mediator.

Howard Daum (1918-1988) was a native of Poland who came to New York in 1938. He began studying at the Art Students League with Will Barnet in 1940, and was a friend of Alcopley’s from the early 1940s on. He is possibly best known for his interest in the pictorial organization of Native American art, particularly that of the Pacific Northwest. Etruscan Dream (1960) is a case in point, both in its color palette of ochre, black and white, and in its bold balance between geometric and biomorphic shapes arranged and interlocking on a flat plane. Daum deftly adapts the drama and intensity of a primal visual language to the context of Modern abstract painting.

Edvins Strautmanis (1933-1992) was born in Latvia, and moved to Chicago, studying at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1967 he moved to New York, too late to be involved in the initial energy of the New York School, but not too late to become friends with Alcopley and Herman Cherry, and to engage deeply in the perpetuation of the bold gestural approach to painting that characterized the movement. Flamingo (1986) is a powerfully visceral work, with layered red and orange color planes locked together by vigorous black marks apparently made with a giant brush. Strautmanis’ work is both the perfect coda for this exhibition, and a potent testament to the rich legacy of the New York School.

Steven Alexander 2010