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Ocean Park No. 67, by Richard Diebenkorn

The most important American art exhibition of the 2008-09 season, Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series, 1967 to 1985, goes up on October 11 at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California. Not New York, not Philadelphia, not Chicago, not even San Francisco. What gives here? The answer, as those who esteem Diebenkorn know all too well, is that his greatness has yet to be fully acknowledged by large tracts of the American art establishment. Why? Because he doesn’t fit into the Cézanne-Picasso-Pollock narrative that many critics and curators use to “explain” the history of twentieth-century art. He switched from abstraction to figurative painting when the New York School was at the peak of its popularity, then switched back just as abstract expressionism was giving way to Pop Art. As if all that weren’t bad enough, he had the poor taste to live in…California. How déclassé is that?

In this week’s “Sightings” column, which appears in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, I use the Orange County retrospective as an occasion to discuss the insidious effect of historical narratives on the immediate experience of art. Too many people believe what they read instead of seeing what they see, and Diebenkorn is one of many artists whose reputation has suffered as a result. If you want to know why that happens, pick up a copy of Saturday’s Journal and read what I have to say…

Alas, I made a not-so-little mistake in this week’s column: Orange County’s Diebenkorn show goes up next October 11, not this October 11. Sorry about that. Plan ahead!

Terry Teachout
About Last Night

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Arnold Friedman spent most of his adult life toiling as a postal clerk in Manhattan, painting in his attic after hours. Not long after his death in 1946, Clement Greenberg, the critic who put Jackson Pollock on the map, called Friedman “one of the best painters this country has ever produced,” praising his Post-Impressionist landscapes as “for color and texture…without equal in our time.” Yet even Greenberg’s lavish praise failed to make a dent in his obscurity, and “Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint,” which opened two weeks ago, is the first large-scale retrospective of his work to be held since 1950.

Where can you see this extraordinary show? The Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art both own paintings by Friedman. The permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art is largely devoted to modern painters of his generation. Which of these august New York institutions saw the light? None of them. “Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint” is on display through June 30 at Hollis Taggart Galleries, right across the street from the Whitney, and several of the finest paintings in the show are for sale.

In recent years a growing number of commercial art galleries in Manhattan have been mounting museum-quality shows devoted to insufficiently appreciated artists of the past….Any museum in town would have been graced by these shows–yet it was left to the galleries to put them on.

Why? One reason is that virtually all of the top American museums have succumbed to a bigger-is-better mentality that leads them to devote huge chunks of their exhibition space to blockbuster shows by popular artists. Just as important, though, are the art-historical “narratives” that curators use to decide how–or whether–they will hang works from their permanent collections.

In the received version of the history of modernism, for instance, it’s taken for granted that American art did not come to maturity until the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the ’40s. Artists who fail to fit neatly into that story line, either because (like Friedman) they came along too soon or preferred to work in a different style, are ignored or pushed off to one side–sometimes literally. Milton Avery, a major American artist who flirted with abstraction but chose not to embrace it, is represented in the Museum of Modern Art by a single canvas, “Sea Grasses and Blue Sea,” hung in a stairwell. It used to hang in the cloakroom….

As for “Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint,” I’ve seen it twice, and I plan to go back a third time. Among other things, I want to take one last look at Friedman’s “Sawtooth Falls,” a 1945 canvas of the utmost splendor. It’s on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, but I’ve never seen it there, nor do I expect MoMA to hang it any time soon–unless, of course, they can find an empty stairwell.

Terry Teachout
About Last Night

Alan Greenspan recently proposed a constitutional amendment: “Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office.” In a similar spirit — with tongue partway in cheek — I’d like to put forward Teachout’s First Law of Artistic Dynamics: “The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one…”

Voltaire said it: The best is the enemy of the good. Ralph Ellison, like Bernstein and Welles, learned that lesson all too well. In 1952 he published “Invisible Man” and was acclaimed as a major novelist. The well-deserved praise that was heaped on him gave Ellison a fatal case of importantitis, and though he spent the rest of his life trying to finish a second novel, he piled up thousands of manuscript pages without ever bringing it to fruition. Why did he dry up? Because, as Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ellison made agonizingly clear, he was trying to write a great book. That was his mistake. Strangled by self-consciousness, he never even managed to finish a good one.

Contrast Ellison’s creative paralysis with the lifelong fecundity of the great choreographer George Balanchine, who went about his business efficiently and unpretentiously, turning out a ballet or two every season. Most were brilliant, a few were duds, but no matter what the one he’d just finished was like, and no matter what the critics thought of it, he moved on to the next one with the utmost dispatch, never looking back. “In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse,” he said. “Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time.” That was the way Balanchine saw himself: as an artistic craftsman whose job was to make ballets. Yet the 20th century never saw a more important artist, or one less prone to importantitis.

Yes, it’s important to shoot high, but there’s a big difference between striving to do your best day after day and deliberately setting out to make a masterpiece. What if Welles had gone back to Broadway after “Citizen Kane” and directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on a bare stage, with no expensive bells and whistles? Or if Bernstein had followed “West Side Story” with a fizzy musical comedy that sought only to please? Or if Ellison had gritted his teeth, published his second novel, taken his critical lumps, ignored the reviews, and gone back to work the very next day? Then all of those gifted, frustrated men might have spared themselves great grief — and perhaps even gone on to make more great art.

Terry Teachout
The Wall Street Journal

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