Art of Another Kind: Younger European/American Painters Exhibitions

3:55 | Published on June 8, 2012 | 206 Views

Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Tracey Bashkoff discusses the Guggenheim exhibitions Younger European Painters (1953) and Younger American Painters (1954), organized by then-director James Johnson Sweeney in order to introduce a New York audience to his selections of contemporary artworks from across Europe and the United States. Sweeney acquired the works through extensive research and travel to galleries on both continents. The exhibitions were an opportunity to broaden the Guggenheim collection, as well as forge relationships with emerging contemporary artists such as Alberto Burri and solidify Sweeney’s early promotion of artists like Jackson Pollock.

For more information, visit Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1940–1960.

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Tracey Bashkoff, Curator, Collections and Exhibitions: [Guggenheim director James Johnson] Sweeney presented two exhibitions, one in 1953 called the Younger European Painters exhibition, and then in 1954 Younger American Painters. He really actually conceived of them as one exhibition that was split in two parts, and he called both A Selection. He used these exhibitions to introduce what was going on in the contemporary scene in Europe and in the U.S. to the audience in New York. And he also used it as a way to build the collection so he researched these exhibitions by traveling throughout the U.S. and throughout Europe. We know that he went to galleries and took notes of what he saw and picked up brochures and then contacted these artists and added their work to these exhibitions and built our contemporary holdings based on his selections for these exhibitions.

For the Younger American Painters exhibition, Sweeney traveled around the U.S. He didn’t want it to be New York–centric though ultimately the exhibition did include more New York artists than artists from around the country. Sweeney included examples of some of the New York artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He also included artists that weren’t American-born but were now living in the U.S., for example the artist Kenzo Okada. Okada’s painting was then acquired by the museum as were examples of work by Pollock and by de Kooning, Baziotes, and other artists working in New York at the time.

Sweeney’s relationship with Pollock went back to really his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim. Peggy opened the Art of The Century, which was sort of a gallery-museum in New York in 1942, and she showed Jackson Pollock at her gallery in 1943. James Johnson Sweeney wrote the preface for that catalogue and was really important, along with Peggy, in ushering Jackson Pollock to the fore of the New York art scene.

In Sweeney’s travels around the U.S. and in Europe, he also began to form ideas about the differences between American painting and European painting at the time. In the Americans’ works, he saw a sort of urgency and sense of anxiety that he didn’t see in the European painters’ work. In Europe he was much more attuned to whether the artists like Alfred Manessier, whose work still has geometric forms in his abstract canvases, were breaking or carrying on the traditions of painting that came before them.

Sweeney felt that these younger-painter exhibitions really represented a selection of work. He knew he wasn’t being comprehensive and that he was presenting a certain point of view and a certain predilection for perhaps abstraction and a certain type of painting that he was observing at the time.

Sweeney referred to the painters in these exhibitions as “younger painters,” but he meant it in terms of their experience. He saw this group of artists as emerging artists, as artists who were just really coming into their own as painters.