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Irascibles


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Fifteen painters, mostly leading abstract expressionists, who appeared together in a Life photograph taken by Russian-born staff photographer Nina Leen (c. 1909–95). Published in the magazine's issue of January 15, 1951, with the caption, “Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight against Show,” the image accompanied a report on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recently opened “American Painting Today 1950.” The selection process for this exhibition, which included modernist work but ignored abstract expressionism, initiated a confrontation between avant-garde artists and the museum. Drawn from among eighteen painters who had signed an open letter decrying the museum's policies concerning contemporary art, those pictured were William Baziotes, James Brooks, Willem de Kooning, Jimmy Ernst, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Hedda Sterne, Clyfford Still, and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Since its initial appearance, the image has assumed iconic status as the most significant photograph of the cadre that redefined postwar New York painting. However, several key contributors to abstract expressionism, notably Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Jack Tworkov, were associated with neither the letter nor the photograph. The letter, which had appeared on the front page of the New York Times on May 22, 1950, precipitated a small art-world uproar. Taken on November 24 at the magazine's headquarters, the photograph countered the popular image of artists as antisocial bohemians. Neatly dressed, as if for a business occasion, the men wear jackets and ties (Pollock, turned to the side, may have been so posed to conceal his probable lack of a tie), while the lone woman is fashionably attired. The three letter-signers who were out of town and thus did not make the photo shoot were Hans Hofmann, Fritz Bultman, and Weldon Kees (1914–55), a Nebraska native known primarily as a poet but also as an abstract expressionist painter from 1944 until he moved to San Francisco in 1950 to devote his energies primarily to film and photography. In a gesture of support, ten sculptors had also signed the original letter.

Subjects: Art.


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