Paintings from a brave New World

Rothko, Gorky, Stella, Steinberg... some of the greatest American art of the 20th century was made by immigrants. Why did being an outsider spur their creativity to such heights?
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The Independent Online

"Who is American?" the artist and New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg once wrote. "It's a foreigner who came here and said tiens! What a country. Let's go west. That is the tradition of the American. As a matter of fact, that is the tradition of the artist - to become someone else..."

"Who is American?" the artist and New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg once wrote. "It's a foreigner who came here and said tiens! What a country. Let's go west. That is the tradition of the American. As a matter of fact, that is the tradition of the artist - to become someone else..."

This exhibition is a collection of images by some of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. Each one left the country of his birth and created a new identity for himself in America. Many of them - Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Saul Steinberg himself, George Grosz - were fleeing persecution. Vosdanig Manoog Adoian (Arshile Gorky) left his native Armenia in 1915 at the beginning of the Turkish massacres. Five years later, he arrived at Ellis Island, gaunt and undernourished. In the intervening years of wandering, his mother had died of starvation in his arms.

Marcus Rothkowitz, the son of a family of Jews from tsarist Russia, arrived in 1913. "We thought we were going to Heaven," Sonia Rothkowitz Allen said in an interview in 1975. George Grosz was brought to trial in Germany for the third time in 1927. The charge against him? He had blasphemed against the Godhead by representing the crucified Christ in gas mask and combat boots. Three years later, he fouond himself branded "Cultural Bolshevik Number One" by the authorities. It was time to leave. And America was the place to go. "An American is freeborn," he wrote in The New Yorker in 1943. "A German is not freeborn."

Other artists represented in the show, though not directly threatened by persecution, wanted to breathe a new and more expansive air. But having arrived on fabled freedom's shores, what sort of art would they make? That is the crux of the matter. Tradition was there for the making. European rules need no longer apply. And yet they still did, of course. Hans Hofmann, a celebrated teacher of art in his native Munich, emigrated in 1932 because of a profound unease at the prospect of the rise of Nazism. His influence upon American art, though consistently underrated by the likes of Clement Greenberg, was enormous, as we can see from the four large abstract oils in this show which seem to throw a bridge between European Expressionism and Abstract Expres-sionism.

David Hockney's seem among the most tradition-encumbered artworks in the show. Driven by nothing harsher than hedonism and a spirit of adventure, it was in the early 1960s that he felt a wish to consummate his love affair with the idea of California in general and Los Angeles in particular. The airy and relaxed crayon on paper, 1059 Baboa Blvd (1967), seems to do just that. "Within a week of arriving there in this big strange city," he wrote in 1976, "not knowing a soul, I'd passed the driving test, bought a car, driven to Las Vegas and won some money, got myself a studio, started painting, all in a week. And I thought: it's just how I imagined it would be..."

Two of the most fascinating images are early, pre-colour-field Rothkos. One, a mishmash of Ernst-cum-folk-art images called Composition (1941), is straight out of a handbook of Surrealist iconography. Why Surrealism, though? One relatively simple explanation was that various senior figures from the European Surrealist tradition, Max Ernst, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, had recently arrived in New York, spirited out of the danger zones of Europe by Peggy Guggenheim. These are some of the people that the youngish Rothko would have been looking at and socialising with as he worked towards his maturer style. In the second of the two, a mixed-media piece of three years later entitled Encantation, you can see the beginnings of that severe later style in the colour bands behind the fussily playful surrealist figuration. As Rothko's work matured, and he began to define himself against the growth of Abstract Expressionism, his Russian roots pulled ever more powerfully and broodily at him. "One cannot escape the feeling that there was in Rothko a Zoroastrian sense of light and darkness as symbols of good and evil..." wrote Andrew Carnduff Ritchie soon after Rothko's death by suicide in 1970.

Joseph Stella (born Giuseppe Stella near Naples in 1877) brought a kind of Futurist vision over to New York with him - that raw passion for the representation of dynamic movement; the sheer drama of electricity and steel; a mood of sheer exultation in the face of soaring architecture and the "unmerciful violation of darkness at night" that aligns him with Hart Crane.

Only Grosz, somehow, seems to fail to be the equal of the powerful stimuli of the New World. His documentary watercolours in this show, lovely though they are, lack the raw, nervy edge of his German work of the 1920s. "It was like another world to me," he wrote in a memoir of 1946, "a healthier, freer, happier world."

Happiness, freedom and health never guarantee great art.

 

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave - artist immigrants in America in the 20th century. Crane Kalman Gallery 178 Brompton Rd, London SW3 until 16 Sept

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