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Art and visual culture: medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: medieval to modern

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A move to New York

‘No-place’ then shifted continent. Perhaps for the only time in its history, after the Second World War modernism was positioned at the heart of world power – when a host of exiles from European fascism and war relocated in New York. American abstract art was centred on New York and a powerful series of institutions: the Museum of Modern Art, Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of This Century and a host of small independent galleries run by private dealers (including Betty Parsons, Samuel Koontz and Sidney Janis). In the main, these artists, such as Jackson Pollock (1912–56), Mark Rothko (1903–70), Arshile Gorky (1904–48), Robert Motherwell (1915–91) and Barnett Newman (1905–70), and associated critics (Greenberg and Rosenberg) were formed during the 1930s in the circles of the New York Left: they were modernist internationalists opposed to US parochialism in art and politics. After the war, they retained this commitment to an international modern art, while the politics drained away or was purged in the Cold War. The period of US hegemony in modern art coincided with the optimum interest in autonomous form and pure ‘optical’ experience. This was the time when artists working in the modernist idiom were least interested in articulating epochal changes and most focused on art as an act of individual realisation and a singular encounter between the viewer and the artwork. At the same time, these artists continued to keep their distance from mainstream American values and mass culture. Some champions of autonomous art are inclined to think art came to a shuddering halt with the end of the New York School. Alternatively, we can see Conceptual Art as initiating or reinvigorating a new phase of modern art that continues in the global art of today.

It should be apparent from this brief sketch that the predominant ways of thinking about modern art have focused on a handful of international centres and national schools – even when artists and critics proclaim their allegiance to internationalism. The title of Irving Sandler’s book The Triumph of American Painting is one telling symptom (Sandler, 1970). There is a story about geopolitics – about the relationship between the west and the rest – embedded in the history of modern art. These powerful forms of modernism cannot be swept aside, but increasingly critics and art historians are paying attention to other stories; to the artworks made in other places and in other ways, and which were sidelined in the dominant accounts of art’s development. A focus on art in a globalised art world leads to revising the national stories told about modernism. This history is currently being recast as a process of global interconnections rather than an exclusively western-centred chronicle, and commentators are becoming more attentive to encounters and interchanges between westerners and people from what has helpfully been called the ‘majority world’, in art as in other matters. This term – majority world – was used by the Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam, to describe what the term ‘third world’ had once designated. We use it here to characterise those people and places located outside centres of western affluence and power; they constitute the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants and this reminds us that western experience is a minority condition and not the norm.