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Art Critic: Dore Ashton
Synopsis
Dore Ashton is one of the few remaining critics still alive from the Abstract Expressionist era. Her writing covers a rich history of the mid-century movement, combined with exciting first-hand knowledge of interactions with those who propelled Abstract Expressionism to wide acclaim. Born a generation after the influential critics Greenberg, Rosenberg and Schapiro, Ashton walked a fine line between the outsider historian who watched the style evolve and the insider intellectual who conversed one-on-one with those creating the work. Ashton was a trusted compatriot and champion of those artists who, even at the height of their critical fame, still felt socially and culturally isolated.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Ashton's writing clearly defined that the New York School of artists was not a school at all in the formal sense of educating people in a certain artistic philosophy or aesthetic. Instead, it was a modern school model, in which participants were independent-minded, each exhibiting their own complicated set of prerogatives.
  • Ashton believed that prior to 1930 there had been no fusion of artistic or social theory in the United States. It was not until the "arrival" of artists like Gorky, de Kooning and Ernst that American artists were exposed to formal aesthetic theory.
  • Ashton viewed Pollock as the one who "broke the ice" for everyone else in Abstract Expressionism. She observed that before Pollock rose to prominence in 1949, the New York School of artists was mostly a group "loft rat" European emigres. Ashton cited Pollock as the artist who essentially broke Europe's hegemony of the avant-garde.
Childhood and education
Ashton was born in 1928 to Ralph Neil Ashton, a medical doctor, and Sylvia Smith Shapiro. She attended the University of Wisconsin - Madison and graduated with a B.A. in 1949, then immediately began work towards her Master's in art history from Harvard.

Early years
Immediately after graduating from Harvard, Ashton was hired as an associate editor at Art Digest in 1951. Two years later she became an associate art critic at The New York Times. Ashton wrote several reviews for the Times, covering shows and exhibits by many of the aging Abstract Expressionists and newcomers to the New York School. She made the acquaintance of several artists who would eventually become the subjects of her books, including Joseph Cornell and Mark Rothko.

In the early 1950s, Ashton observed an interaction outside the Tanager Gallery on 10th Street that had a profound effect on her. Willem de Kooning was engaged in a heated discussion with a ragged-looking man who claimed to be an art historian. The significance of this was quite critical to the role Ashton and the new generation of art historians was expected to play in the New York art world. De Kooning, amongst other artists, was well versed in art history. The artists had a deep respect for the rich German traditions of art history, established by the likes of Goethe, Hegel and Marx, and continued by Schapiro and Steinberg. However, many artists of the New York School had come to reject the formal academy, particularly non-artist art historians who supposed they knew more about technique, content and form than the artists themselves. After witnessing this interaction between de Kooning and the historian, Ashton realized she had stumbled upon a cultural crossroad- in an age where more and more artists were self-taught, traditional academic art historians were becoming obsolete.

At the New York Times, Ashton was on the same staff as the anti-modernist John Canaday. Many of his contemporaries criticized Canaday for his dissenting views, but it was Ashton who was fired in 1960 for her continually favorable stance toward Abstract Expressionism. A notable exception was in 1959 when the young Frank Stella showed paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery and later at the MoMA in the Sixteen Americans exhibition, which also included works by Johns, Rauschenberg and Kelly. Ashton commented in a review, "Is it really important for the public to see the work of a 23-year-old boy who has only been painting for three or four years?" In this rare instance, Ashton was in agreement with Canaday, who wrote about Sixteen Americans, "..these are the sixteen artists most slated for oblivion."

In 1960, Ashton greeted a young Swiss artist named Jean Tinguely, whose work Ashton had previously seen in Europe. Tinguely was planning a very ambitious sculpture installation for the MoMA sculpture garden called Homage to New York, and despite much hesitancy from the Museum's acquisitions committee, Ashton played an integral role in launching a campaign to get Tinguely's project accepted.

Teaching career and The New York School
After being let go from the Times, Ashton devoted herself entirely to teaching and writing her own books. Starting in 1962, she began teaching art history at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, followed by a stint teaching the philosophy of art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. In 1963, the College Art Association awarded Ashton the Frank Jewett Mather Award in art criticism, and one year later she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Between 1965 and 1968, Ashton headed the Humanities department at the School of Visual Arts. Beginning in 1969, she taught art history at Cooper Union in downtown Manhattan.

Ashton published her seminal work, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning in 1973. The book was groundbreaking for its historical and pseudo-philosophical approach to examining the Abstract Expressionism movement, or "School," as a whole. The book includes first-hand accounts of interactions she had with the artists and critics who made Abstract Expressionism what it was. This book was also significant for its methodology and breadth of scope. Instead of examining individual artists and works of art, as had become the norm in contemporary criticism, Ashton treated Abstract Expressionism as the artistic movement of the Modern era.

Later years
In addition to several other lecturing posts in New York schools, Ashton joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research in 1986. She has continued to write and lecture throughout the last two decades. As one of the last surviving critics with first-hand knowledge of the Abstract Expressionists, her contributions and input in art retrospectives have been invaluable. She has written biographies on Noguchi and Rothko, compiled albums on Cornell and Kline and contributed essays to several exhibition catalogs. Ashton continues her work as a Professor of Art History at Cooper Union in New York City.

Legacy
Ashton was the first art critic to develop a comprehensive and eye-witness account history of Abstract Expressionism. Through her friendships with many of the artists she wrote about, Ashton delved into the psychology of her subjects; a critical technique that was frowned upon by other art historians who believed the art should speak for itself. One of Ashton's greatest contributions as a critic and historian has been to lend a good deal of humanity to artists, allowing her readers to empathize with those whose unifying factor was their sense of isolation and alienation.

MOST IMPORTANT WRITINGS:

Hell, it's not just about painting!

>From The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning

This chapter of the book discusses in great detail the aesthetic, political and philosophical evolution, from Europe to New York City, that led to what we know as Abstract Expressionism in the early 20th century.

Ashton pays particularly close attention to the then considered "primitive" art forms (Eastern, African, etc.) that many of the older artists studied and passed their knowledge down to others. In her discussion of the Russian eccentric John Graham and his ties with David Smith, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and others, Ashton wrote, "Graham introduced them to his collection of African sculpture which he 'handled lovingly,' at a time when such things in New York were regarded only as ethnic curiosities."

Ashton also conveys the art movement's history through a series of interactions and first impressions, described first-hand by many of the AbEx artists. Here is one such example: "When Edwin Denby met de Kooning in the mid-thirties, he described him as a young painter cheerfully in earnest who readily talked and listened, sitting forward on his chair. De Kooning's great enthusiasm was Picasso."

THEORY:

Introduction to Dore Ashton's Art Theory
Ashton's approach was always mindful of the dialectical feelings that the Abstract Expressionists had adopted in their art and rhetoric. Her writing strove to understand the philosophies and theories of the New York School. She once wrote, "Rhetoric, verbal or visual, was suspect; for where there is none, there is no school, and if there is no school, there are no limits." Ashton's writings gave a calming and relatable tone to a movement that had no singular perspective on art and its artists, seemingly united under one banner, were actually all lost and without place. She understood all too well the uniqueness of Abstract Expressionism, as a movement comprised of artists who possessed no definitive ideology or approach to creating art, but this didn't stop her from trying. "The nearest thing to a definition turned out to be a summary of the philosophic preoccupations of the artists involved," wrote Ashton. "Eventually, Abstract Expressionism and the New York School appeared to be a set of attitudes that generated works which reflected a set of attitudes."

On Existentialism
A valuable skill for any art historian is being able to pinpoint just where certain artists found their inspiration. Perhaps more than any other movement in history, Ashton recognized how complex a puzzle this was for the diverse crowd of Abstract Expressionists. She viewed Existentialism as one of the many, but most profound, literary and philosophical parents of Abstract Expressionist thought.

Ashton paid close to attention to the artists de Kooning, Guston and Kline, the writings of Rosenberg, Newman and Motherwell, and the philosophies of Sartre and Heidegger. All of these men were giants of the period who were well learned in art-historical theory. It was the artists in particular, though, who at the same time worked to distance themselves from any theoretical approach or school of thinking. The Abstract Expressionists were free, as it were, to feel directionless and at odds with formalist art theory. In her book The New York School, Ashton wrote of de Kooning, "By casting the artist in a role of openness, of restlessness, of spiritual independence, de Kooning announced an attitude that was to sustain the artists in New York for some years to come. It freed them from the insoluble conflicts posed during the thirties, and aligned them with the prevailing current of thought in the intellectual community."

On the Liberation of Artists
During the 1930s and early '40s, Ashton observed that it was a tumultuous time for New York artists, who more than ever were filled with self-doubt, loathing, and worse yet, were mostly financially bankrupt. The prevailing theory of the time was based on Freudian pathology, that this "unfathomable abyss" of imagery being produced was supposed to be an assortment of interpretable symbols. This, Ashton asserted, was the wrong approach to Abstract art.

Ashton observed that it was the psychiatrist Carl Jung who expanded on Freud's theories and introduced a perspective more grounded in the visual aesthetics of the New York avant-garde. She wrote, "..it was Jung's interpretation of what he called the visionary mode (as opposed to the psychological mode) that seemed to speak through the new developments in art. In the visionary mode, Jung maintained, the experience that furnishes the material for artistic expression is not familiar, as are love or crime situations in the psychological mode." Since there was no longer such an emphasis paid on what a particular work of art was supposed to mean, artists were liberated from having their work be critiqued as some extension of their pathology. The visual elements of art could now be judged accordingly, as the expressive shapes, lines and dimensions contained within, and not as the etchings of perverse individuals.

On the Influence of Gorky
Ashton took her notes from Franz Kafka who believed that an "artist was a man of many lives, many potential personalities, and many different relationships." This outlook on artists is a uniquely modern one. Many artists in the Pre-modern era fit this description, but it was of very little consequence, before the Impressionists, how artists adjusted themselves to fit into society. According to Ashton, it was Arshile Gorky who, upon landing in New York in 1925, made it not only fashionable but acceptable for other New York artists to feel a real sense of liberty and experimentation, to wear different masks when it suited them.

"He was," wrote Ashton, "at once, a painter who refused to put a face on his forms and a painter who, at times - moved by sentimental memories - assigned associations to certain paintings." These meandering tendencies were not those of an artist without direction or focus, but of a man who fully recognized the wealth of form available to the imaginative eye. Ashton believes that Gorky set the bar for those younger New York artists who during the pre-WWII years did lack direction and focus.

Writing style
Ashton is a careful and meticulous art historian. As one of the last living critics to have socialized with the Abstract Expressionists, she has the ability to apply anecdotal touches that few still rightfully can. The unifying factor in all of Ashton's writing is her desire to make clear that American artists producing work in the 1940s and '50s were creating art that existed beyond and independent of any conditioning contexts. Much in the tradition of Rosenberg, Schapiro and Hess, she values the individual achievements of the artist far more than any artistic movement or trend.

ARTISTIC INFLUENCES

Below are Dore Ashton's major influences, and the people and ideas that she influenced in turn.

ARTISTS
Arshile Gorky
Joan Miró
Mark Rothko
Willem De Kooning
Isamu Noguchi
CRITICS/FRIENDS
Franz Kafka
Jean-Paul Sartre
Harold Rosenberg
Clement Greenberg
William Seitz
MOVEMENTS
Surrealism
Neo-Plasticism
Abstract Expressionism
Dore Ashton
Years Worked: 1951 - present
ARTISTS
Isamu Noguchi
Robert Smithson
CRITICS/FRIENDS
Robert Rosenblum
Hilton Kramer
MOVEMENTS
Social Realism
Land Art

Quotes
"It has always been difficult for historians to fully grasp the intelligence of painters."

"The young artist today need not liberate himself since that has long since been done for him."

"When I walk into a gallery now, I don't see anything. It's as if the artists spent all their time trying to find ways how not to do anything. Just because you don't do anything, doesn't mean you've said something. And, as Harold Rosenberg once pointed out, just because you don't say something doesn't mean it's true."


Content written by:
  Justin Wolf



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IMPORTANT ARTWORKS:
Artwork Artwork Artwork
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FEATURED BOOKS:
Written by Ashton
The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning

About Rothko

Picasso On Art

A Fable of Modern Art

Noguchi East and West

The Writings of Robert Motherwell

A Joseph Cornell Album

RESOURCES:
Articles by Ashton



Articles about Ashton

Books of the Times
By Michiko Kakutani
The New York Times
November 7, 1983

Interviews
Rothko's Legacy
Interview with Dore Ashton, Conducted by Paul Solman
The NewsHour (PBS)
August 5, 1998

Interview for British TV documentary Rothko's Rooms
Released in 2000 (UK)
Dore Ashton was a contributing commentator