Surrealists in New York: Atelier 17 and the Birth of Abstract Expressionism by Charles Darwent - review by Dominic Green

Dominic Green

Drippers & Printmakers

Surrealists in New York: Atelier 17 and the Birth of Abstract Expressionism


Thames & Hudson 224pp £25

The American political tradition derives from Great Britain, and so, some say, does American English. But the modern American arts took more from France. French novelists showed Henry James how to develop the English triple-decker without falling back into existing American styles, whether the disorderly entertainments of Twain or the syncretic weirdness of Melville. French poets showed Pound and Eliot how the light lyric could carry the heaviest of modern content. In cinema, the Lumière brothers supplied Hollywood with its technology. Even in popular music, America’s strongest suit, it was the tonal moods of Ravel and Debussy that allowed Duke Ellington to slip the cords of blues harmony.

In painting, the French influenced everyone. Again, though, Americans were quick off the mark. In the 1850s, when American painting meant the epically empty landscapes of the Hudson River School – Claude Lorrain on a camping trip – Whistler was studying in Paris with Charles Gleyre. Through Gleyre, Whistler met Courbet’s friends, including Carolus-Duran, who went on to teach John Singer Sargent in Paris in the 1870s, the same decade in which William Merritt Chase and Frank Duveneck studied in Munich.

A kind of isolationism overtook the American art market after the First World War. But European experiments continued to influence American painting in the interwar years. In the 1920s, the Irish-American lawyer John Quinn owned more modern European paintings than any other collector in the world. In the 1930s, Alfred Barr showed works by the Post-Impressionists, Picasso and Matisse at the nascent Museum of Modern Art in New York. The market, let alone public taste, had yet to catch up. ‘If this is art, then I’m a horse’s ass,’ said Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, when Arshile Gorky’s murals were unveiled at Newark Airport in 1937.

The centre of the art business and the avant-garde in 1939 was Paris. By 1949, New York City had taken over. The shift depended not just on the Second World War, which ruined Europe and promoted the United States to a global power, and on the greater levels of disposable income in America than in Europe after 1945. It also hinged on the export of European styles to America, where they were adapted to local tastes and reproduced at scale as Abstract Expressionism.

In 1957, the painter Robert Motherwell wrote that Abstract Expressionism, the ‘native movement that developed in New York’ in the 1940s, should ‘have been more properly called ‘“abstract surrealism”’. Charles Darwent’s Surrealists in New York shows that Surrealism, not Expressionism, was the European mode that was truly abstracted in New York. The mistake is understandable. Expressionism, like Surrealism, foregrounds individuality and subjectivity. And the practitioners of AbEx, as it became known, were concerned to prove its legitimacy, even by concealing the facts of its conception and insisting, as the critic Clement Greenberg did when Jackson Pollock (‘Jack the Dripper’) began composing his drip paintings in 1947, that AbEx was ‘uniquely American’.

The accelerated uptake of Surrealism in America followed the accelerated intake of Surrealist artists. By 1941, the arrival in New York City of émigrés like André Masson, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and the ‘Pope of Surrealism’ himself, André Breton, was precipitating what Darwent calls ‘one of the greatest cultural exchanges in modern history’. The full story is in Martica Sawin’s Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School. Darwent’s book examines an often-overlooked channel of transmission, Atelier 17, and its founder, the English printer, painter and teacher Stanley William Hayter.

Born in 1901, Hayter went to Paris in 1926 and set up the first Atelier 17 there the following year. He worked with Picasso, Miró and Kandinsky on their printmaking. He also developed, Darwent writes, ‘the quixotic idea’ of reviving the burin, an ‘engraving tool with a mushroom-like handle at one end and a sword-sharp edge at the other’ once used by Dürer and Doré. Hayter reasoned that the burin, which was pushed across the plate rather than pulled, was ‘an active rather than a passive instrument’. He also encouraged his studio’s followers to ‘work directly on metal, alla prima, without premeditation or underdrawing’.

Hayter moved to New York City in 1940 and set up Atelier 17 on West 12th Street. Rothko, Pollock, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning and Louise Bourgeois all worked with Hayter. The burin’s mark, Hayter thought, was ‘a trace not merely of the hand but of the unmediated mind’, of Freud’s ‘pre-conscious’. This was the printmaker’s equivalent of automatic writing – if, that is, a verbal process can truly have a visual equivalent. And is automatic production of any kind really possible? When Max Ernst accidentally dropped a zinc plate into a bath of concentrated nitric acid meant for copper plates, the results were ‘clouds of livid orange smoke’ and an umbra around Ernst’s marks on the plate. This became a ‘stock process’ in Atelier 17. There was no self-consciousness, no technical innovation involved.

The same goes for Pollock’s drippings and Rothko’s numinous blocks of colour. Darwent identifies a Mexican muralist named David Alfaro Siqueiros as the first of the downtown drippers. Other proto-drippers include Hayter’s friend the ex-Royal Navy officer Gordon Onslow Ford, and Hans Hofmann, who taught the technique to Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner. Pollock developed this gimmick through long and deliberate experiment, until he could create his patterns with fractal precision. Rothko made a similarly agonised progress from Ernst-style Surrealist birds to pure abstraction, intensifying Kandinsky’s palette and spiritual ambition while shedding Kandinsky’s line.

Surrealism made a ‘double migration: from France to America, from Freud to Jung’. As Europeans, the Surrealists saw America as a reservoir of primitivism. So did some of the locals: Alfred Barr had already exhibited Navajo sand paintings at MoMA. Grand pronouncements about art and consciousness echoed all the louder in the New World. They also became automatic sales pitches in a society already defined by post-verbal imagery, on screen and in the gallery.

As the extensive illustrations in Surrealists in New York show, Atelier 17 offered laboratory conditions for printmaking on a small scale, and in particular for experiments in abstraction’s freeing of the line. In 1944, Pollock said that the idea of an ‘isolated American painting’ was as ‘absurd’ as the idea of ‘a purely American mathematics or physics’. But that was before AbEx, reproduced at scale, became big business, with large canvases and bold, brash colours.

The Europeans left after 1945. Hayter, disillusioned with America and Americans, returned to Paris in 1950. By then, Clement Greenberg was claiming that ‘the main premises of Western art have at last migrated to the United States, along with the center of gravity of industrial production and political power’. Darwent’s book, a kind of microhistory, tells the real story.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter