Everybody knows the painters of the New York School. Pollock and de Kooning, Gorky, Rothko, Newman, Gottlieb and the rest -- their names, like incantations, call up an art world Camelot, Manhattan in the '40s, the smoky Cedar bar . . . In memory we see them talking about oracles, automatic writing, Paris and Picasso, Charlie Parker, Jung. They are drinking just a bit too much and forging a new art.
But they are not the stars of the New York School exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
This show is about five remarkable photographers. They weren't exactly Abstract Expressionists, but they belonged to that same vanguard. They fought in the same spirit, in that city, in that time.
The painters have grown famous. Now their pictures go for millions. But in those days they were chance-takers, artists on the fringe. Imagine, if you can, how our histories would read if they hadn't been discovered, if their paintings had been overlooked 40 years or longer, if luck had passed them by.
Washington's John Gossage, the photographer and scholar, and the Corcoran's Jane Livingston who put this show together (and have two more in mind), believe that this is what has happened to the New York School's photographers. This 150-object show is so thoroughly convincing, so coherent and impressive, it is difficult to understand why none devoted to its subject has been seen before.
It matters for two reasons. First of all, it's beautiful. Its unaffected images fall upon the mind like so many hammer blows. Secondly, it teaches. It reaches back and changes the way we read the past.
"There is still a feeling on the street," says Gossage, "that nothing really important happened in American photography between Walker Evans in the mid-'30s and Robert Frank in the mid-'50s." This exhibit, and the two to follow, and the book that will result, have been specifically designed to demolish that contention.
It is easy to see the link between Precisionist painting, say that of Charles Sheeler, and Precisionist photography. The bonds among Surrealist object-making, painting and photography also are well known. But the Abstract Expressionist era presents a more complicated problem. In a sense one has to bend one's mind to comprehend what links these images of street life to the abstract action paintings of the New York School. The word "school" is elastic -- any term that wraps around de Kooning's Dutch figure paintings and Pollock's dripped abstractions has got to stetch a bit -- but no one who explores this show will doubt that New York School photography exists.
That is true despite the fact that Alexey Brodovitch, Louis Faurer, Sid Grossman, Helen Levitt and Lisette Model -- the five photographers represented -- did not make abstract pictures. They took their Leicas to the street and made records of the world. Their photographs are often blurred, or peculiarly composed. All are shot from life. And yet they feel like poems, not reportage.
Their show feels like Manhattan. As one looks at their photographs, one can almost feel the subway rumbling and the intense, compressed edginess of that city's streets. There are dancers on the walls, and children masked and warlike playing grim games on the streets, and the corpse of Billie Holiday, and chickens dead and freshly plucked hanging in shop windows, and reflections in plate glass, and lost souls on the streets.
These photographers, like the painters, yearned to give their art rough, compelling power, and energy, and newness. They sought to depict subjects peculiarly American. They trusted spontaneity. And disdained the well-made picture. And felt the need to fight.
Artists pick their foes. The painters of the New York School fought, among other things, American Scene regionalism, European decadence, Cubism, of course, and especially Picasso, whose example overwhelmed them.
The New York School's photographers were similarly overwhelmed, less by a single master than by the pressing weight of the whole American documentary tradition, the one that ran from Mathew Brady's pictures of the Civil War, through the factory images of Lewis Hine, to the honest, heart-felt documents made for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression. But the Depression was over. The FSA photographers had sought to shame America into social action, but now America was battling the Nazis and Japan, and America was good, and the old motives of the '30s were no longer useful. These photographers were seeking a new ground on which to fight.
They saw no sense in competing with the step-by-step storytelling essays they saw each week in Life, or with the easy chic of New York's fashion shots and ads. All of them had seen the superbly elegant street photographs of Cartier-Bresson (from whom they all learned much), and Ansel Adams's landscapes and the poised austerities of Walker Evan's monuments -- and those paths, too, were already taken.
The New York School's photographers pushed straight, documentary photography as hard, as ferociously and fearlessly, as their painter colleagues pushed School of Paris easel painting. In this exhibition one feels that from the start.
Brodovitch, the art director of Harper's Bazaar, was famous for urging photographers to "bring me back something I've never seen before." He practiced what he preached. The photographs he made in the early 1940s of the Ballet Russe show dancers as they'd never been photographed before. He didn't shoot them from the orchestra or from the wings, he was right there in their faces, moving as they moved, dancing as they danced. In Grossman's shots of Coney Island, in Faurer's of Times Square, and in Model's staggering images of fat ladies and midgets (which predict those of Diane Arbus), one feels a comparable closeness.
There is in that closeness something totally unplanned. The painters -- taught by Jung and jazz and "psychic automatism" -- had learned to produce pictures that weren't decided in advance, but were, instead, "discovered" in the act of painting. These exceptional photographers were "action" artists, too. They did not take the time to line up this with that. They did not fudge with composition. They weren't afraid of blurs, or deep peculiar shadows, or the confusions of reflections. Model aimed her camera at people's feet as often as she aimed at their faces. Faurer stalked the tourists who walked gawking through Times Square. Grossman got so close to the playful, necking adolescents on the beach at Coney Island that we almost hear them breathe. Levitt's playing children assume odd and graceful poses that no painter could invent.
These artists, as they worked, did not plan their next steps. Instead, they cleansed their minds as if prepared for visitations. They wanted to be astonished, and that is why their photographs astonish us today.
Perhaps that explains why their pictures haven't dated. In 1943, the painters Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko sent a manifesto to The New York Times in which they insisted that "art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks . . . There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless." The New York School's photographers accepted that assertion.
They were not a school exactly; they were individual artists who did their work alone. But they shared a high impatience with plain reportage, a deep distrust of sentiment, and an instinct for detecting the mysteries, the strangenesses, embedded in the commonplace. And they hated artifice. They didn't want to relate stories, or fine-tune compositional geometries, or make political points. They sought unmediated art.
How do artists train themselves to abandon trade-tricks, rules, compositional devices? How do they learn to poise their pictures so precisely on the always-moving edge between the soon-to-vanish instant and the timelessness of myth? The best pictures in this show feel like revelations.
The debts these artists owe to Atget and Paul Strand, to Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson, have yet to be made clear. And how much Frank and Arbus and other later artists learned from the first masters of the New York School must also be explored. But the Gossage-Livingston exhibit is an admirable beginning. "The New York School: Photographs 1935-1963" will run through April 14.