“Swept Up By Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era”

by Irving Sandler, (Rail Editions)

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Irving Sandler was born in 1925 and wrote “Swept Up By Art” 89 years later. Sandler is well-known as a critic, art historian and author of “The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism” (1970). He wrote the first highly amusing volume of his memoirs, “A Sweeper-Up After Artists,” in 2003; the book covered his very participatory experiences in the New York art scene in the 1950s and ‘60s. “A Sweeper-Up After Artists” would seem to obviate the need for future volumes, but Sandler remained a part of the art world in the ‘70s, and beyond. He co-founded Artists Space in 1973 with Trudie Grace and got his PhD in art history in 1976, as well as writing four histories of American art from Abstract Expressionism to Postmodernism. This newest addition allows him to write about those experiences and cast his surprisingly unjaundiced eye on the art world. The book starts off as a roughly chronological memoir, but the final few chapters mostly deal with how things are in the present.

Sandler reveres the Abstract Expressionists, and initially found the artists who followed, like Frank Stella, incomprehensible. “I thought that if his canvases could be considered art, then what I believed to be art had to be something else,” he recalls. But unlike his peers Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Sandler was able to keep his mind open to the new. Throughout “Swept Up by Art,” we get Sandler’s initial rejection followed by an acceptance and occasionally a complete reversal of the original position. He recognizes that a sea change of how art history works occurred on his watch. He calls the present period a post-avant-garde era. When he started writing about art in the 1950s, it was at the tail end of what he called the avant-garde era. “Avant-garde historians like myself focused on stylistic innovators who deflected the ‘mainstream’ of art in new directions. We overlooked artists who did not fit into this grand art-historical narrative.” This admission suggests he wasn’t immune to French theoreticians like Roland Barthes.

The post-avant-garde era is an era of pluralism. No one style or school could be given the authority that Abstract Expressionism had once been granted. There could be no more Olympian tastemakers like Greenberg or Rosenberg. While many previously overlooked artists (especially women and artists of color, but also many regional artists) were given overdue recognition, critics have become less important. Sandler seems pretty resigned to this—he isn’t the kind of critic who believes his judgments are the last word, as Greenberg was.

What a memoir is really good for is settling scores. Sandler’s greatest ire is for the theorists associated with October, especially any who suggested that painting was dead. He particularly excoriates Rosalind Krauss and Douglas Crimp on that score. He “refused to be awed by the hauteur of art theoreticians, and their all-knowing poses.” He views these critics as the intellectual cheerleaders of the Pictures Generation of artists. Ironically, Artists Space was where the “Pictures” show from 1977, curated by Douglas Crimp, was exhibited. Sandler credits that show to helping to open his eyes to photography, which he had hitherto considered a second-rate art form.

Sandler’s biggest complaints are reserved for the current big-money art world. For example, he lays into the New Museum’s exhibit of Dakis Joannou’s collection as obviously conflicted. It angers him in part because it seems like such a betrayal of the memory of his friend and New Museum founder, the late Marcia Tucker. Given the dispiriting state of things today, what are young artists and art historians to do? Sandler writes, “If you are not satisfied with today’s art institutions, then you may have to organize your own. Alanna Heiss did it at PS1, Marcia Tucker did it at the New Museum. Trudie Grace and I did it at Artists Space.” Sandler’s life should act as an inspiration for any young art writer. We should all be as witty and wise as he is at 90.
—ROBERT BOYD