Circa 1950

by Jed Perl | July 8, 2002

If you take a close look at just about any period in the history of art, you will find an almost bewildering array of different styles or modes or manners flourishing simultaneously, and the middle of the twentieth century, the time that is in many respects the prologue to the time in which we live, is no exception. Certainly Barnett Newman, Joan Mitchell, and Edwin Dickinson, three painters who were active around 1950 and who have been the subjects of major retrospectives this spring and summer, could not have worked in more different ways or arrived at more radically different images.

Here are three stand-alone visions: Dickinson's delicate and melancholy observations on the landscape and the figure, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; Mitchell's calligraphic flurries and hullabaloos of brushwork, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; and Newman's sometimes vast planes of color punctuated with one or more slim vertical lines, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. To see these three achievements one after the other, as was possible in recent weeks, is to see the very idea of a period style evaporate in the face of contradictions that are apparently too fundamental ever to be bridged. And yet there is something about the very irreconcilability of these visions, about the very insistence with which Newman, Mitchell, and Dickinson inhabit their separate spheres, that can affect a museumgoer in similar ways. Their unto-myself-ness may be their bond. The very dissonance of their imagery does not refute the idea of a period style so much as it challenges simplistic notions about the origins of style, and presses us to wonder whether independent expressions can in fact be generated by some essential communality of feeling.

In 1950, Dickinson was fifty-nine, Newman was forty-five, and Mitchell was twenty-four. Mitchell was at the beginning of a forty-year career, while Dickinson had already been exhibiting for some thirty years, but both painters could be seen as part of a loose-knit fraternity known as the School of New York. Dickinson was an old-timer who took an interest in the goings-on at the Artists' Club, where Mitchell was one of the younger members; and both Dickinson and Mitchell were among the large group of painters included in the Stable Annuals, the gathering-of-the-tribe exhibitions held at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in the early 1950s. De Kooning admired the stormy-weather painterliness of Dickinson's smaller canvases, and this was at the very time that Dickinson was teaching at the academically oriented Art Students League and gathering kudos among traditionalists for the razor-edged exactitude of some of his work.

As for Newman, he had his first and second one-man shows in 1950 and 1951 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, a white-hot center of New York School activity. Those exhibitions received some unfriendly reviews, and Newman concluded that his deepest inclinations as an artist placed him in a contrarian relationship with the overt expressionism that had become virtually a company-town style. A decade later, however, Newman would seem to some (including Clement Greenberg) to have achieved a more fully convincing expression of New York's austere independence than even de Kooning, who in the early 1950s was regarded by many of his fellow artists as the man who had single-handedly defined the new spirit in art.

Each life runs its own meandering course, and yet there is always something in the imagination that craves the simple demarcations of decades and half- centuries and centuries. This craving is not only a retrospective matter. For Mitchell, Newman, and Dickinson, 1950 was a fulcrum year. The war was past, the economy was good. Opportunities were expanding. In Mitchell's case, the 1950s would be the beginning. She was part of a generation that was emboldened by what de Kooning and Pollock and Hofmann were doing in the late 1940s, and she accepted their improvisatory impulses as a living tradition; by the mid-1950s she was animating canvases with her own kind of delicate yet supercharged handwriting. Her finest work from then until her death in 1992 would be a series of variations on what was essentially a single calligraphic idea.

Newman, between 1948 and 1951, found his own kind of assertively pared-down image. First there was Onement I, with its vein of rough-edged orange inscribed top to bottom on a vertical swath of warm earthy brown. Then, in 1950-1951, there was Vir Heroicus Sublimis, perhaps the best painting that Newman ever made, an eighteen-foot-wide expanse of red, punctuated by five slim vertical bands, that exudes a controlled yet big-hearted kind of felicity. As for Dickinson, there is certainly a sense that in the years around 1950 what already amounted to a life's work was beginning to strike his avant-garde friends as an immediately compelling vision. The most successful of his large allegorical compositions, the architectural fantasia Ruin at Daphne, was completed in 1953, after a decade's labor. In his smaller landscapes and self- portraits he was at last able to move easily between competing inclinations toward extreme improvisation and fanatical deliberation. And he was in the important "15 Americans" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952, which also included Pollock, Rothko, and Still.

By 1950, Dickinson was recognized by the new American independents as being their kind of old-style American eccentric, and that relationship could begin to suggest some interesting connections between earlier American vantage points and the street-smart idiosyncrasies of mid-century Manhattan. Writing about Dickinson's work in the 1980s, John Ashbery, who moved to New York in 1949, observed that there is a kind of "weirdness which seems to be a main ingredient in the greatest works of the American imagination." While Ashbery did not put Dickinson in the same league as Melville and Whitman, he did make a connection between Dickinson and some of "the major Abstract Expressionist painters [who] have been canonized to the point where no one considers them the least bit odd. " Ashbery believed that "it would be hard to find a more eccentric bunch of artists in history" than Newman and Pollock and their contemporaries; and if there was something eccentric about Newman's or Pollock's next-to-nothing imagery, who was to say that there was not some underground relationship with earlier American generations of off-the-grid visual artists?

Already in the 1920s, Dickinson had been dreaming up darkly ambiguous figure compositions, such as An Anniversary and The Cello Player, in which the nightmarish clutter and the displaced figures suggest the mysterious lives lived behind closed doors in Hawthorne's and James's stranger tales. Even Dickinson's most informal canvases, of a nude torso or the swirling Cape Cod surf, can be so abruptly painted as to suggest an enigma on the order of the paintings of Ryder, who fascinated many artists in the 1940s, including Pollock. If there is an attitude that can be said to link the work of Ryder and Pollock and Dickinson with the work of Newman and Mitchell, it is the belief that a work of art does not bear the mark of its maker so much as it becomes the mark of its maker. The artist has not vanished into the complexities of the painting so much as the painting has become the artist's way of continuously reminding us that I am here.

There is something almost incantatory about Barnett Newman's strongest paintings; they exert a power that is out of all proportion to the material that is actually before our eyes. Newman knows how to give pigment and canvas a preternatural importance. His rhetoric is pared-down yet grandiose, and this makes for strangely dissonant effects. Each of the paintings from around 1950 has a strikingly eccentric force. In Onement I and Onement III, we are held by the roughness and thickness of the vertical orange or red stripe and by the relative thinness of the brown paint of the surrounding surface. In Vir Heroicus Sublimis, the heat of the red is curiously counteracted or cooled by the smoothness of the paint-handling. Each quality or characteristic that Newman brings to the painting takes on an animistic power: the power of roughness or smoothness or thickness or thinness or brownness or redness or whiteness or orangeness.

Each effect is bold-stroke, up-front, unique. The Wild, with its shot of red, is less than two inches wide and nearly eight feet high. The Promise is a painting that exults in its own blackness, a blackness interrupted by two stripes, one off-white, one grayish-blue, that only serve to darken the dark. Like so many American artists of his generation, Newman had rejected both the Freudian stewpot of Surrealism and the idealism of Mondrian, with his dynamic interactions of forms. What Newman wanted was a painting that referred to no larger historical idea or ideal, that was itself and itself alone; and although there was something quixotic about his desire to deny the undeniable presence of Surrealism and Constructivism in his work, he did create, with Onement I and Onement III and Vir Heroicus Sublimis and The Promise and perhaps a dozen other paintings, a vehement austerity.

These canvases are beyond argument; their presence is as immediate as a human presence. There is a figural gestalt to the vertical format of many of the paintings, and even when the canvas is horizontal the narrow, vertical bands of color, which by the 1960s Newman was referring to as "zips," tend to telegraph a figural sensation. This representational connection is underscored in the literature on Newman, for it seems to be generally agreed that he took an interest in a Giacometti catalogue published by the Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1948, on the cover of which there was a long vertical cutout that revealed, inside, one of Giacometti's attenuated figures. There is a peremptoriness about Newman's strongest canvases, and this can suggest the flesh-and-blood heat and vitality of a human being. We respond to the orange and brown in Onement I, to the reds in Vir Heroicus Sublimis, and to the grayish-blue and off-white stripes on black in The Promise not as color orchestrations but as existential situations, as the inescapable nature of the painting, in much the way that we think of a certain person as being blue-eyed or brown-eyed, a blond or a brunette. These paintings have a meaning that is encased in their most immediate and evident characteristics.

The presentation of Newman's work in Philadelphia could not have been better. (The retrospective will be at Tate Modern in London in the fall.) The paintings had space to breathe and to expand, and Ann Temkin, the curator in Philadelphia who organized the show, kept the wall texts to a minimum, so that Newman could work his magic without unnecessary interference. Many visitors, including many long-time Newman admirers, experienced the show as a revelation; the straightforward installation helped us to reclaim an iconic figure as a working artist. It was probably also good to be seeing the work outside the overheated atmosphere of Manhattan. The paintings did not feel as if they had been prejudged. A museumgoer had a chance to recapture the atmosphere of open- ended discovery that surrounded Newman when he first came before the public. And the unprepossessing installation was nicely underscored at the end of the main part of the show, where a visitor could sit down and watch an interview with Newman that had been filmed for a 1963 CBS program called "Contemporary American Painters." Here the Newman who in photographs, with his moustache and monocle, can seem a rather showoffish and disagreeably vain figure, emerges as a remarkably plainspoken and appealing personality. Listening to Newman conversing easily in his studio, I sensed the quiet honesty behind the impassioned egotism. I liked the man.; "There is an all-or-nothing drama to Newman's work, but then even a painter such as Joan Mitchell, whose autograph is far more closely related to that of other artists of her generation and who seems from the very start to know how to gain strength from what is going on around her, can run out of steam."

In 1963, Newman spoke about American art's "new grand vision," a vision that had nothing to do with "acting out one's neuroses" or "expressing one's sensations," and everything to do with "put[ting] down what you really believe and what you really are concerned with or what really moves you." But his own art was no longer as grand as it had been a decade earlier, and the general loss of strength would continue until his death in 1970. Perhaps it was inevitable that an art so much based on revelatory moments would lose force as time went on. Only in his works on paper was Newman able to sustain a level; the black-and-white brush drawings that he did in 1960 are quite as strong as the ones he did a dozen or so years earlier. What seems to have gone out of the canvases was the excitement of paint surface, the immediacy of the materials. An impersonality invaded the work. One problem in 1960 was Newman's frequent use of acrylic. The canvases feel calculated, machine-tooled; and although that can itself be a meaningful pictorial effect, Newman's brand of bolt-of- lightning authenticity became muffled, corporatized. The saving peculiarity evaporated. In the group of paintings called Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, the color is no longer uncannily eccentric.

Perhaps it is the very absence of color, which may have lost its emotional excitement for Newman, that accounts for the relative success of The Stations of the Cross, the series of fourteen black-and-white paintings that Newman worked on from 1958 to 1966, and which looked far better in Philadelphia than they have at the National Gallery in Washington, where the installation feels crowded and the lighting is poor. I still can't help feeling that the very idea of this abstract recapitulation of the Passion verges on pomposity, and yet when Newman works here with bare canvas and stays closer to the immediacy of the materials, using rough edges and textured areas, he reclaims some of his original force. The paintings, with their unfolding procession of variously articulated black and white stripes, suggest an operatic purism.

I suppose it is no wonder that an artist who gambled everything on brusque originality should have been unable to sustain that originality over time. There is an all-or-nothing drama to Newman's work, but then even a painter such as Joan Mitchell, whose autograph is far more closely related to that of other artists of her generation and who seems from the very start to know how to gain strength from what is going on around her, can run out of steam. Mitchell, who produced a gloriously self-confident group of canvases in the mid-1950s, went through nearly a quarter-century of prosaic and uncertain work, only to miraculously reassert her powers in the mid-1980s, with a final phase that matched and ultimately perhaps exceeded even her strongest compositions of the 1950s. Mitchell's brushstrokes, both early and late, have a turning-back-on- themselves kind of stinging rococo power, and her finest paintings, composed of what can seem to be the infinite variety of such brushstrokes, are all elaborate flourish and steely accent. In the early work, this animated and elegant tracery sometimes has a sooty grayness that suggests a certain New York state of mind, a mentality that is at once excitable, pleasure-seeking, and world-weary. In Mitchell's final works, done after some thirty years spent living in Paris and the country around Paris, the strokes are curvy and beguiling and the colors are the colors of nature, only with the volume turned way up; Mitchell's greens and purples and oranges and blues achieve a startling over-the-top power.

Mitchell's art is an art of accretion. She weaves together many small painterly acts. But to experience her finest paintings is to experience not the parts but the whole, for the discrete compositional decisions are ultimately subsumed in a unity that is, in its own way, as absolute as that of Newman's work. There is a philosophical vision, or at least a psychological one, behind this unitary structure. Mitchell, not unlike Newman, is telling us that there are experiences that we cannot accept piece by piece, that we must accept all at once. This might be said to be an essentially Abstract Expressionist idea, and it is an idea that can help to explain the fascination that Dickinson's modestly scaled landscapes exerted on an artist such as de Kooning, for in Dickinson's work, too, the parts are often subsumed in the whole, in what amounts to a single painterly flourish.

There is a danger, or so I believe, in this unitary idea that the essential experiences are the ones that hit us all at once, for the result can be an impassive homogeneity, and a coarsening of experience. This is a problem in some of Newman's late work--in, say, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue I and II. But heterogeneity is no assurance of excellence either--a point that is brought forcibly to mind by Mitchell's work, which is often weakest when she aims to maximize the variety. In some large triptychs done in the 1970s, in which she mingles her painterly flourishes with an almost mosaic effect of jostling rectangles, the result is a prettified confusion, a decorative chaos. And yet it may be that Mitchell had to go through this period of wayward, pile- on-the-contradictions ambition before she could return to an earlier kind of simplicity and imbue it with an altogether new kind of emotional coloration.

Mitchell's work can have the quickening impressionist force of nature poetry. When the relations between the parts and the whole are most effective in her work--in an early painting such as Evenings on Seventy-third Street (1956-1957) and in a late one such as South (1989)--there is a sense of all the parts as acting in concert to such a degree that they become one. Especially in the late landscape-like abstractions, you feel very strongly that the coherence of the canvas is related to the coherence of nature, and that each brushstroke has a life not unlike the life of a flower or a fruit or a plant or a tree, and that all of this life adds up to the vitality of the landscape, which is also the vitality of the painting. Yet the landscape metaphor, which Mitchell insists on, does not quite describe the coursing physicality of these paintings, which have an almost body-like quality, but a body-like quality very different from that of Newman's work. In Mitchell's paintings, each separate part, each stroke or group of strokes, functions with the vigor of muscle and bone and nerve, and together they give the work of art its pushing-out-from-within sense of well- being. In Mitchell's paintings, the singularity of the brushstroke is constantly reclaimed by the manyness of the painting, which is itself a kind of oneness. The paintings, especially the later diptychs, are symphonic, and this is a symphony at the point when all the various instrumental voices are nearly dissolved into a single voice.

Going through the Mitchell retrospective, which has just opened at the Whitney Museum, is not an entirely satisfying experience, but this is not the fault of Jane Livingston, the show's curator. (The exhibition will be in New York until the end of September, after which it travels to Birmingham, Fort Worth, and Washington.) An exhibition that focused on the early and late work might have been more effective--but when you see the full range of the career, you have to admire Mitchell's toughness, her ability to push things through. The steep decline in the quality of her work in the late 1950s may have been related to her gathering sense that the kind of painterly image that she created was no longer at the center of the art world's concerns. In the 1960s, the time of Pop and Op, she could seem an artist who had lost her way. And it may not be irrelevant that her return to confidence came in the 1980s, when painterliness was once again fashionable. Some will point out that her best work was by and large not done during her long romantic involvement with the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, a relationship that was by all reports stormy and tormented. Whatever the explanation for these artistically troubled times, in the last rooms of the Whitney show Mitchell comes through, in South and Bracket (1989) and Untitled (1992), with lyric visions that will not look out of place among the very best that the New York School produced a generation earlier-- alongside Pollock's Cathedral, de Kooning's Excavation, Rothko's first shimmering rectangles, and the rosy-fingered dawn of Guston's luminous yet subdued canvases.

There is an extremism about the work of both Newman and Mitchell, an extremism that in American art is frequently related to an assertion of the grandeur of the individual, and to a Romantic strain that in the nineteenth century found expression in the paintings of Ryder and Blakelock and in the writings of Hawthorne and Melville and Poe. It is the echoes of this strain of American Romantic feeling that link Mitchell and Newman to Edwin Dickinson, and would have made such a connection comprehensible to artists around 1950. Douglas Dreishpoon, the curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery who organized the Dickinson retrospective, has subtitled the show "Dreams and Realities," but one could also argue that all of the dreams and the realities in Dickinson's work are aspects of Romantic experience, for in each instance what Dickinson seems most alive to is not the narrative of a dream or the particularity of a reality but how he responds to all of this as a feeling individual, as a Romantic spirit wielding a pencil or a brush. Although Dickinson painted a far greater range of images than either Newman or Mitchell, he also seems to be an artist who is closeted with his images. Dickinson does not give us a view of a world so much as he defines a viewpoint. What is out there concerns him much less than what is inside him.

Writing of Dickinson around the time he was in "15 Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art, Elaine de Kooning praised the variegated effects in his art as being "the result of method not theory," and the same could be said of Mitchell's and Newman's work. De Kooning was saying that the artist follows an inner compass, not an idea that is extrinsic to the work; and the excellent presentation of Dickinson's manifold achievement in Buffalo underscores de Kooning's assertion, for Dickinson had a way of shifting from diamond-sharp lucidity to befogged mysteries and from humdrum detail to baroque extravaganza that can only be explained as a matter of following one's nose. We see all the sides of his work: one room contains eleven self-portraits; a large gallery holds the complex fantasy compositions that he did from the 1920s into the 1950s; two smaller rooms are devoted to landscapes and figures; and there are several rooms dedicated to the beautiful drawings, which seem to have preoccupied him increasingly in the decades leading up to his death in 1978. (After closing this month in Buffalo, the retrospective travels to Philadelphia, New York, Little Rock, and Lincoln, Nebraska.); "It is especially American to feel that an artist must break the mold. That was surely Newman's attitude."

Dickinson is not an artist who ever exactly reveals himself. Strangely enough, this is true even in the many self-portraits, where he tends to regard his own handsome, chiseled head, with searching eyes and elegant beard, as a fantastically mysterious image--a sort of nineteenth-century souvenir cast ashore in the mid- twentieth century. What the exhibition does give a museumgoer is a feeling for the man's wide-ranging tastes and avidities and curiosities: his passion for old New England architecture, for women's faces and bodies, and for the landscape and seascape of Cape Cod, where he lived for many years. Dickinson's art is rarely self-indulgent, but it is supremely self- absorbed. I never believe that Dickinson is presenting a locale as having its own inherent fascination, as Hopper sometimes does, just as I never believe that Newman wants to show how precisely one shape relates to another shape, in the sense that Mondrian always does.

Going through the Dickinson show, you find the artist using broad, paint- loaded brushes for a study of foaming surf, and, around the same time, the smallest brushes for a study of an elegantly carpentered seaside inn--and yet the variety seems to suggest that what most interests Dickinson is the unfolding adventure of paint-handling, an adventure that involves wildly contradictory impulses. When Dickinson goes from working very tightly to working very loosely, I am left feeling that it is the very, the hyperbole itself, that really matters to him. In his drawings, which are among the high points of his art, he is carried along by the weight of the lines, whether they are the knife-edge ones or the soft, barely there ones. Dickinson is a remarkable renderer of the truths of this world, but people and places also seem to recede under the elegance of that line. If Newman's and Mitchell's art is about the singularity of a sensibility, Dickinson's art might be said to be about the vagaries of a sensibility; but he, as much as they, keeps bringing us back to the imagination of the maker.

Perhaps the strongest impressions that the Dickinson retrospective leaves are general ones: a sense of the playfulness of softly brushed colors and the hubris of decisively etched contours; an afterimage of white-infused violets and greens and browns and of smoky gray surfaces and gunmetal gray depths. Since the 1950s, many of Dickinson's most ardent admirers have tended to prefer his smaller premier coup landscapes to the larger imagined compositions over which he labored for long periods of time. I agree. In the larger works Dickinson's colors and surfaces tend to go dead on him. There are too many blacks and grays, and too many of them are too similar in value and handling.

Composition With Still Life, a vast canvas that was finished in 1937 and acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s, does live up to its strangely equivocal title. The painting, in which we glimpse through the general gloom several fragmented bodies, some porcelain containers, an elaborately carved and gilt piece of woodwork, and who knows what else, might be described as combining the hard-nosed sensibility of Eakins with the wistful phantasmagorias of Tchelitchew, and although the result is pure Dickinson, its grimly fantastical integrity leaves us no means of approach. Even the best of the imagined compositions, Ruin at Daphne, in which Dickinson finally moves away from his enveloping darks and gives his dream of classical architecture a warm red tonality and a gamely unfinished look, remains weirdly remote: the plan for a dream, not the dream itself. But many of the smaller paintings are triumphs of sensibility, salutes to the vagaries of the imagination as it makes its endless moment-by-moment adjustments. They are freeze-frames of messy experience.

To turn from the work of Edwin Dickinson to the work of Joan Mitchell and Barnett Newman is to see three versions of American grandiosity. In their finest works, the grandiosity is reined-in and humanized by the heartbeat of a visual sensibility. This grandiosity is not necessarily a matter of size. Newman's breakthrough work, Onement I, is only a little over two feet high, and Dickinson can be at his most unruly and hyperbolic in those casual seascapes of his, in which the foaming Atlantic is reduced to a howl or growl of painterly strokes. What the American grandiosity involves is a particularly New World kind of rejection of any large system of ideas or ideals that might pose a threat to the free operation of the imagination.

It is especially American to feel that an artist must break the mold. That was surely Newman's attitude. Dickinson would probably not have said so, and neither would have Mitchell, who in the 1950s was quoted as explaining that she saw herself as a conservative in relation to the work of Pollock and Kline. And yet if Dickinson can be said to work in the tradition of the premier coup landscape painters of the nineteenth century, much as Mitchell can be said to work in the tradition of the large-scale lyric Abstract Expressionist canvases of the late 1940s, they are both inclined to turn those traditions into personal assertions. (Their approach is utterly different from that of Fairfield Porter, who was a great admirer of Dickinson's work, but who chose to assert himself through his point-by-point re-imagining of a tradition, through his way of inhabiting each element of a tradition and making it his own.)

"Speech," Newman wrote in 1947 in an essay about the origins of artistic expression, "was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication." That is as clear as possible a description of some essential impulse in the work of not only Newman but also Mitchell and Dickinson. All their work is related to an upsurge of interest in Romantic ideas in the 1930s and 1940s; to the renewed enthusiasm for Americans such as Melville, Poe, Whitman, and Ryder, but also for the achievements of Blake and Delacroix. Some of Newman's most important early writings were published in a short-lived magazine called The Tiger's Eye (the tiger being Blake's tiger) that was published by Ruth and John Stephan in the late 1940s. The Tiger's Eye was the subject of an interesting exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery this winter. The Stephans published work by Rothko, Newman, Pollock, Still, and others. They explored a variety of archetypal Romantic themes, such as sea travel, night, and primitivism. And in general they endeavored to wrest Romantic themes from what many American artists felt were the frozen cosmologies of the Surrealists and of two groups of artists who were then known as Neo-Romantics, an English group much absorbed in the picturesque and the ideas of Blake, and an American group that included Tchelitchew and some of the ballet crowd in New York. What the younger Americans, including Newman, who worked closely with the Stephans, were after was a rough-hewn Romanticism--a Romanticism as original, as ornery, as immense as Moby-Dick, a book that had a talismanic place among the American avant-garde in the 1940s.

A true Romantic movement must be a movement of individualists, and in that sense Newman, Mitchell, and Dickinson can each be said to take his or her place in what amounted to an anti-Romantic Romantic movement in mid-twentieth-century New York. That each artist's work looks utterly different from that of each other artist can almost be said to amount to a definition of this movement. And that each artist would have denied being a part of any such movement may be the ultimate proof that each belongs. These artists speak the language of capitalized words that had been the language of Romanticism in Blake and Carlyle: they paint Man, Nature, Dream, Reality. When Newman and Mitchell and Dickinson are most truly themselves, they are truly nobody but themselves; they seem to ignore, even to be ignorant of, anybody's world but their own.

Standing before their paintings, we may be inclined to forget that this is not necessarily the way art must be. Indeed, many works of art, and many works of art created around 1950, excite us with their very sense of connectedness. When de Kooning's fractured forms evoke Picasso, or when Porter's interiors evoke Vuillard, we feel that the artist is glad to be implicated in a tradition that is larger than he is. But there is also, circa 1950, a strong desire to create a kind of painting that is very much a "poetic outcry," and Newman and Mitchell and Dickinson, in their different ways, mean to sing in solitude. In the fifty years since, we have had all too many opportunities to discover that what is presented as a "poetic outcry" can turn out to be little more than the cover for an utter inability to communicate, but such coarseness ought not to blind us to the hard-won power that can be achieved by a fiercely solitary work.

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