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American visual arts

An Interview with Debra Bricker Balken and Lynn Gumpert, curators of Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France, 1946-1962 (Grey Art Gallery, 2024)—Part Two

Interview with exhibition curators
Lara Cox

Abstracts

The exhibition Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France, 1946-1962, running between March and July 2024, examines the art of US expats in Paris following World War II. The following is the second of a two-part interview with the show’s curators, Debra Bricker Balken and Lynn Gumpert. In this second part, the curators discuss the title of their show, which constitutes a reference to Vincente Minnelli’s famous film An American in Paris (1951, starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron). Their choice to pluralize “American” reveals much about their conceptual approach. They also discuss the inter-influence but also tensions between French and US artists of the post-war period. They evoke the idea of dialogue between New York and Paris, a notion that has been eclipsed by assumptions about the ascendancy of the New York art scene over the Parisian counterpart in the postwar period (for example, Guilbaut 1983). The curators turn us towards the idea of other forms of globalism, and other forms of modernism, that do not center the New York school. The interview concludes with a brief connection of this exhibit to the “post-global” moment in curatorial world (O’Neill 2019) and the wider society.

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LC: Let’s turn to the title, which obviously conjures up thoughts of An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1952). We saw a clip from that film when entering [the previous show] United States of Abstraction. I’m wondering what you think the relationship might be between what that film depicts and the reality that you discovered in your research.

LG: I think it was just something we landed on early. Because you know the quintessential story of an American painter who came to Paris. Of course he’s a terrible painter. He’s really bad.

LC: But a wonderful dancer!

LG: Yes. But it was the romanticism with Paris that we wanted to examine as well. We were very pleased that one of our writers, a graduate student [J. English Cook], ended up writing about the Blum-Byrnes agreement which was to us very important (English Cook 2022). It was very important to examine the Hollywood, the American Hollywood, impression […] of Paris. And the fact [was] that, with the Marshall agreement after WWII, a number of American films had to be shown [in France] to support the American film industry as well. You know it was part of that web of complex circumstances. It’s such a cliché, “Americans in Paris” and we wanted to complicate it.

DBB: [I would add] that part of the reason we open in 1946 instead of 1944 which was the date that the GI bill was enacted is [that] Paris wasn’t ready for artists or writers in 1944 because of the rationing situation.

LG: And the fact that they’d been occupied. […]

  • 1 This refers to Pollock’s first solo show at the Paul Facchetti studio in 1952, organized by Michel (...)

DBB: They were discouraged from coming by the American embassy until 1946 when they had a support system, something of a support system in place for them. So, when they arrived in Paris, they arrived with $75 a month plus a $25 a month stipend for books so they weren’t living in the same kind of garret that’s depicted in the movie. They did have means. They were able to eat out. $1 a day would provide three meals for them. And the interesting thing is that when their GI benefits ran out, that is when a lot of them had to return to New York. I’m thinking primarily of someone like Ellsworth Kelly who adored Paris. And continued to adore Paris throughout his career. [Kelly] [w]anted to stay, worked as a janitor at the American embassy after his benefits ran out, and then returned home. Some others wanted to go home immediately like Al Held. [Jackson] Pollock’s first exhibition takes place in 1952.1 [Al Held] sees it and says something is happening in New York that’s not happening in Paris that he wants to be a part of. So, he goes home.

LG: And then there’s […] all these cooperative galleries. They all join these cooperative galleries. Not all of them but a number of them ]…]. People like Al Held. And Ed Clark, part of the Brata gallery.

LC: One of your points in fact is that the New York gallery scene was very much nourished by artists returning from Paris. […]

LG: Yes. What’s interesting is that there were a number of European artists who had fled Paris during the war and the Occupation, so I think that was an introduction [for the US artists], and people wanted to go see the real thing, as it were. A number of them said they had encountered Paris when they were in the war, when they served. They saw the potential for a different kind of life. And I think [there was] also a different conception, Debra, wouldn’t you say this, of how art was regarded?

DBB: Yes I think in part they were drawn to these legacies that extended from Cubism. [Ellsworth] Kelly and [Jack] Youngerman and Ralph Coburn sought out people like Jean Arp. [Coburn and Kelly] went to his studio in Meudon. So that was a kind of access that they wouldn’t have had in New York. But we should also mention that [when] most of these artists went to Paris, they went to study in part at some of the various ateliers and they were able to do that very easily unlike in New York where they would have to apply to a university, wait for nine months to see if they were even admitted. In Paris you could just show up.

LC: Picking up on that last point, in the book, you underscore the ambivalent relationship [of US expat artists] to the art coming out of Paris, so this attraction to and rejection or non-participation in these ateliers that they signed up for, the life drawing ateliers etc., the traditional, beaux-arts techniques that Paris [and France] [are] known for.

DBB: Yes I should mention that most of these artists had very little interest in the contemporary Parisian art scene. The older figures yes, but not the contemporaries.

LC: So they weren’t mixing, the two groups, in Paris?

LG: This was a problem. I mean a lot of them didn’t speak French. The ones that mixed were the ones that married in. Like Jack Youngerman who married Delphine Seyrig. [There were] [a] couple of others.

DBB: Norman Bluhm being another one [he was married to Claude Souvrain until 1956]. […] But they also wanted to come back [to the US].

LG: There were some like Paul Jenkins who went back and forth. Sam Francis and others. In the beginning Joan Mitchell as well.

  • 2 This was a standard curatorial technique at the beginning of the twentieth century. Pictures are pl (...)

LC: Going back the comments on the Salon section [of the catalogue], I was struck by what you said in the introduction […] […] about [technniques for] hanging, [in particular] skying pictures.2 So, these American artists […] had this rejection of a technique that had been quite dominant in the curatorial or exhibition world. I was interested to know if you reflected that [in the show] […] in a practical way in [either] the Grey Arts gallery or the Addison gallery.

LG: The idea is yes.

DBB: For the Salon section, not for the Focus section [of the show].

  • 3 According to the website of “Jeune Création”, in 1999 “Jeune Peinture” switched names to “Jeune Cré (...)

LG: I think that what many art historians don’t necessary realize is [just] how, on the US side at least, prevalent and relevant the salon system still is in France. It was so deeply embedded [in the culture]. They still have the Salon de Mai. They still have the Salon de La Jeune Peinture [now called Jeune Création].3 It was integral to their art education system and it didn’t exist [in the US] in the same way, so it was an opportunity for a number of artists to get their work shown. So, someone like Carmen Herrera did actively participate, so did [William] Klein.

LG: Yeah, […] it was a way to point out that this is something that the Americans would have encountered. These juried opportunities to get their work seen. And this goes back so far.

LC: One of the real highlights of this book comes at its end. The interviews published for the first time conducted by Billy Kluver and Julie Martin with a number of artists both on the French and US side. I was really drawn to one quotation from Daniel Cordier who was a French Résistance fighter and an art dealer. For me this quote encapsulated something of the spirit of your show: “Art is something you cannot explain with words. Art is an emotional, symbolic, cultural search. A certain way of social life and feelings, aesthetically translated.” I was drawn to that quote because of the imbrication of aesthetics and culture, and imbricated networks. Any thoughts on that?

DBB: No, I think you seized on a nice metaphor for our project.

LG: Yes, I do too. For me what it resonates again is […] how living in France you experienced just how much culture and history mean there. There’s a certain awareness. […] I was born in San Francisco and am a first generation American. You know, everything is new [in the US], nobody’s been there for more than a hundred years. And my first trip to the East coast of the United States was a shock just because it was so culturally different. It was much more English, much more European, there were older families. There were private schools. There was just a very different culture. And then you go to France and the history goes back centuries. The Americans have ignored the indigenous peoples before landing and so forth. [I] spent a year in Paris, my “junior year abroad” more or less, [and became] sensitive to [the importance of history] […], just being able to go to the École du Louvre and study art history there. Growing up in San Francisco, you know, the museums were not very rich. Going to school [in France] […] [I saw] these centuries that were still such a part of everyday culture. And the respect within France for culture and heritage. The US doesn’t have a Ministry of Culture. So that was part of it. The interviews [in the catalogue] are really important. Actually, they were a part of Inventing Downtown as well. Billy Kluver and Julie Martin set out to get a better understanding of the artists born around 1925 and there were all these tapes and nobody had transcribed them. So, when Melissa Radcliffe found out that there were all these tapes, when talking with Julie (they’re close friends), she did a series of interviews with artists about the cooperative galleries. And then she said, “you know, these interviews also took place in France”. So, we said, “Great, yes, let’s publish more”. Julie and Melissa went through the tapes to pull out the experiences of living in Paris. We wanted to dialogue as much as possible. So, we included some French artists who were showing at the time in the Salon section to give a sense of what was being seen, what the Americans encountered when they would go to the galleries.

DBB: One thing I think I should point out too, which is mentioned in the essay of chronology, is many of these mid-century figures, I’m thinking of [Jean] Dubuffet, I’m thinking of [Georges] Mathieu, and others, did have a huge presence in New York until 1945. And then with the ascendancy of the New York school, they’re dropped by the New York dealers, they’re no longer exhibited here. [This was] [m]uch to the profound disappointment of someone like Mathieu who is a huge champion for American art. Like many other French artists. And it’s through Mathieu that Michel Tapié becomes deeply interested in the work of Mark Tobey, they encouraged Tobey to move to Paris, hoping that he will become a central figure in the expat community. And, also because they were hoping that they [could] link French contemporary art to his work, which is not as gestural as the work of someone like Pollock.

LC: So a part of the story is the French in New York, as well?

LG: Yes, we didn’t delve into that. We had our hands full!

DBB: That is really another exhibition. Why those figures were essentially written out of the history after 1950. Mathieu spent a great deal of time in New York. He wrote for publications like the Magazine of Art. He interviewed a lot of American figures. He was deeply interested in establishing these transatlantic aesthetic correspondences that again fall by the wayside with the rise of the New York school.

LC: Something we gain from the interviews is [a sense of] the tensions that existed between the Americans and the French, because the Americans are the “rich ones”!

DBB: Right, interestingly few of the Americans sell their work in Paris, with the exception of someone like Sam Francis. And Francis was primarily purchased by the Swiss, which accounts for the huge holdings of his work in Basel.

LC: [Drawing this interview to a close, I have a phrase. Please feel free to respond or not]: Paris is to American art what X is to Y. What are X and Y for you both?

LG: It’s not reducible to one word in this case because it’s so complex and there’s so many different reactions. But Paris was this incredible, you know, […] City of Light, which had attracted artists for so many years and where so many things happened and it was this kind of Mecca. Once they got here, there were these incredibly diverse reactions. I was astonished to find that Peter Saul had lived in Paris for four years. He’s such a quintessential American artist. But there he discovered Mad magazine. But I think what’s interesting is that it points out these other notions of globalism. For so long, reproductions had been in black and white. You had to travel to the place to really get a sense of the art. And then it just gets more complicated. The light in Paris was incredible. The sense of the artists and the legacy of the nineteenth century had such a strong impact on so many artists, wouldn’t you say Debra?

DBB: Yeah, thinking about your question, which I can’t fill in the second equation but in 1962 Harold Rosenberg was about to become the American art critic for The New Yorker. He uses the word “globalism” for the first time to describe the situation. It’s a term that’s not picked up for decades, because New York had become rather provincial in its ethnocentrism and in its privileging in a handful of white men. But […], he throws this word to describe what he feels is emerging internationally. It’s a term that I think was extraordinarily prescient but again was not seized on. It’s a nice end point for our exhibition.

LG: I would agree. In my career here in New York, I’ve ended up showing a lot of California artists because New York can be so incredibly provincial. There was this sense that the New York school was the end all and be all. It was the American contribution to world culture. New York takes over. But New Yorkers only showed a limited number of artists. I think being a bit of an outsider to New York, I was just aware that there was […] a lot more going on throughout the US. Complicating the story is just so much more interesting.

LC: Picking up on your points about globalism and the number of exhibitions on this topic, is the interest in this topic just a coincidence or is there something about this [post-pandemic, post-Trump] moment?

DBB: I’m not sure, to be honest with you. Of course, there have been a number of American artists in the last couple of decades who have gravitated to cities like Berlin where living is cheap, where there is a dynamic art scene, although that scene is beginning to peter out, if not petered out entirely, so I’m not sure. New York like Los Angeles, they’re still the two major artistic centers in this country. I’ve taught until recently at the Rhode Island School of Design. All of my MFA students want to gravitate towards those two cities. They’re not thinking about moving abroad. Perhaps because they know that they can’t afford to at this point in their career but they know that there are exhibition opportunities in these two cities. I think with the proliferation of New York-based galleries in Paris in the past five years, perhaps that changes something, but I don’t know.

LG: I would say that over the past twenty-five years there has been a growing interest in multiple notions of modernisms. I’ve been working on this because the Grey Art gallery has the largest collection of Iranian modern art outside of Iran. When I first arrived here nobody was interested. It has to do with feminism, it has to do with opening up to talking about other ways, that there’s not one dominant way. You’re not just derivative of the West. There are other very distinct and interesting modernisms around the world. That grew out of a certain worldview or a certain opening up. As Debra says this very prescient citation of globalism, the world is becoming more accessible to everybody in different ways.

1LC: It reminds me of this [book] I look at with my students Curating After the Global (2019). It talks about us being in a post-globalism world insofar as globalism is now so ingrained in our culture that we can talk about being “post” as in “after” but also “post-globalism” as in a kickback against notions of a globally connected world: so with the rise of the Far Right throughout the world, Brexit, Trump, etc. I think we’re in a very specific moment for thinking about this subject of globalism.

DBB: I agree.

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Bibliography

LG: Yes.

English Cook, J. “Postwar Motion Pictures and American Projections in Paris.” In Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France, 1946-1962. Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2022. 181-192.

Guilbaut, Serge, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. University of Chicago Press, 2020 [1983].

Lebossé, Claire et al. « Biographies ». In United States of Abstraction : Artistes américains en France, 1946-1964. Gand : Snoeck, 2021. 220-243.

O’Neill, Paul, et al. Curating After the Global: Roadmaps for the Present. MIT, 2019.

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Notes

1 This refers to Pollock’s first solo show at the Paul Facchetti studio in 1952, organized by Michel Tapié. Pollock’s work had already been shown in the Véhémences confrontées show in March 1951, mentioned in part one of the interview (Lebossé et al. 238).

2 This was a standard curatorial technique at the beginning of the twentieth century. Pictures are placed above other ones, in a symmetrical or assymetrical configuration, like constellations in a nightsky. Contrary to the standard method today, which relies on visitors’ tendency to look down and thus position of the work just below eye-level, sky-ed picture displays demand the viewer’s glance upward.

3 According to the website of “Jeune Création”, in 1999 “Jeune Peinture” switched names to “Jeune Création”. Before that, the association had abandoned use of the word “salon”, as a “problematic” term. The event today has, as the website states, an ambivalent relationship to the concept. In essence, the event remains a “salon” but in its choices, it is closer to the concept of an exhibition. https://www.jeunecreation.org/lassociation/ (accessed 27 February 2024)

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References

Electronic reference

Lara Cox, An Interview with Debra Bricker Balken and Lynn Gumpert, curators of Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France, 1946-1962 (Grey Art Gallery, 2024)—Part TwoMiranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 24 April 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/60150; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.60150

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