SynopsisJohn Canaday was a conservative art critic and professor who did not care much for modernism, and was especially critical of Abstract Expressionism. As the chief art critic for The New York Times, from 1959 to 1973, Canaday once accused art professors of brainwashing students into favoring Abstract Expressionist art, an act that earned him much disdain from many artists and critics of the time. Although vilified by most of the modern establishment during his years at the Times, Canaday was an honest writer who was always forthcoming about what he did and did not see in art. Despite not being Modern art's greatest fan, he never shied from trying to understand it.
Key Ideas / Information
ChildhoodBorn John Edwin Canaday in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1907, his family later moved to Texas where Canaday spent the remainder of his childhood, first in Dallas then settling in San Antonio.
In 1924, he enrolled in the University of Texas, and graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English and French literature in 1929.
Early yearsAfter earning his undergraduate degree, Canaday attended Yale where he studied painting and art history. In 1933, he earned a Master's degree in Art History. Immediately afterward, Canaday went on to teach art history and theory at several universities and colleges; first at Washburn University in Kansas, then Tulane University in New Orleans, Hollins College in Virginia, and from 1938 to 1950, he taught at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.
His 12-year-long professorship in Virginia was interrupted by World War II. In 1943, Canaday traveled to the Belgian Congo to work as a French interpreter for the Bureau of Economic Welfare. In 1944, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the South Pacific until the war's end, upon which he returned to teaching art history at Virginia.
Beginning in 1953, Canaday was hired as the chief of the educational division at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a job which lasted until 1959. During these years in Philadelphia, Canaday wrote text for the Metropolitan Seminars in Art, a series of 24 portfolios for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Middle yearsIn 1959 Canaday was hired by the New York Times as the paper's chief art critic. His very first piece for the Times was published on September 6, 1959, and was entitled "Happy New Year: Thoughts on Critics and Certain Painters as the Season Opens." This article, and subsequent ones written over the next two years, earned Canaday a barrage of criticism from the art world establishment, including 49 different critics, professors, theorists and artists, who reacted to Canaday's writing by sending a letter to the Times in 1961 (signed by all 49), accusing Canaday of being nothing more than an "agitator." Despite the massive backlash from many prominent names, there were others who jumped to Canaday's defense. One such artists was Edward Hopper, who in his own letter to the Times wrote, "..I believe John Canaday is the best and most outspoken art critic The Times ever had." Another noteworthy example came from the Abstract/Color Field painter Cleve Gray who wrote, "The very fact that I do not always agree with Mr. Canaday is one I find stimulating and worthwhile. It helps me to question my own ideas, to verify or reject them; this is a healthy and useful process."
In addition to writing for the Times, Canaday was a prolific writer and novelist, and published many books on art, as well as seven mystery novels (all published between 1943 and 1955) written under the pen name Matthew Head.
His first major literary work was 1959's Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso, which earned Canaday the Athenaeum Award, an annual literary award given to a resident of the greater Philadelphia area.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Canaday continued to publish new books on art history and contemporary culture. His most well-known book is a 1962 collection of his New York Times articles, entitled Embattled Critic. (In the book's Appendix is a copy of the infamous "Letter to the New York Times," for which Canaday wrote the foreword.)
In 1969 he published a four-volume collection entitled The Lives of the Painters, which included many short biographies on artists from the Middle Ages to the Post-Impressionist period.
Later years and deathIn 1973, Canaday voluntarily stepped down from his post as chief art critic for the New York Times. He did stay on with the Times however, working as a restaurant critic until his retirement in 1977.
After retirement, Canaday continued to write for Smithsonian magazine, The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1985.
LegacyIn the annals of contemporary art history and theory, Canaday is more of an infamous figure than anything else. As the chief art critic for the New York Times, Canaday's writings found a much larger audience than his fellow critics (such as Greenberg and Rosenberg), who were publishing for magazines and journals with much smaller circulations, such as Partisan Review and Artforum. In his writings he referred to Max Ernst as an artist who "offers evidence of only a moderate degree of natural talent," and to most of the Abstract Expressionists as unimaginative imitators who "have either reached the end of a blind alley or painted themselves into a corner." As a result of his writings' wide circulation, combined with his outspoken and often contrarian views, Canaday was susceptible to much harsher criticisms from his contemporaries in the art world.
Canaday's lasting legacy is as the man who stormed onto the scene in September 1959 and proclaimed that Abstract Expressionism as a movement was guilty of "exceptional tolerance for incompetence and deception."
Introduction to John Canaday's TheoriesDespite what history may say about him, Canaday was not opposed to Modern or Abstract art as a methodology. He had great respect for the work of Kandinsky, Miró, Calder and Gottlieb, among others, and considered such artists to be "quiet philosophers" who made the art they wished to make, and only answered to themselves. However, when it came to the many New York-based artists of mid-century, who filled galleries with their large abstract canvases, Canaday remained wary of imitators (the "freaks" and "charlatans") who had apparently, according to him, assumed abstract methods simply to fit in with the times.
In the foreword to his compilation Embattled Critic, Canaday wrote, "A critic should be allowed to change his mind, and in fact should not be permitted to continue as a critic once he has lost the capacity to do so." However, despite his concession to keeping an open mind, Canaday continued, "I have been particularly careful not to modify any statements that have brought me under fire." In the end, Canaday stood by his many provocative claims about the failures of Abstract Expressionism, and in particular his assertion that "brainwashing went on in universities and museums," in reference to professors and critics who insisted, somewhat non-discriminately, that all Abstract art was of the highest quality.
As a critic and theorist, Canaday adopted a unique position in writing that the artist and the critic should not socialize. He believed that such a relationship compromised the quality of work of both parties. In a 1960 piece he wrote: "One American critic who is an enthusiastic proselytizer for the more extreme forms of contemporary art in this country states that the 'uniquely necessary qualification' for a critic of Modern art is 'interested sympathy'.. But, accepting the necessity for interested sympathy, it seems to me that the real problem in criticism is to recognize the point at which interested sympathy becomes dangerous." (Some believe that the critic to whom Canaday is referring is Harold Rosenberg.)
Canaday on Abstract Expressionism and "The New York School"Canaday was not so much opposed to Abstract Expressionism as a method or even a theory, but ultimately he could not bring himself to look beyond the imitators and "charlatans" of the movement who, to him, were overcrowding a ship virtually lost at sea. He was so adamant about the style's deceptive popularity that he once concluded that the eminent Piet Mondrian had fallen under the Abstract Expressionist's spell: ".. even Mondrian, in his last few years here [in New York], began to paint jumpy compositions."
Canaday fully recognized the reflections of New York City's jumpy movements and erratic existence found in much of the abstract paintings that captured the public's imagination, but to Canaday, there was a philosophical hole left unfilled. In a 1960 Times piece entitled "New York, U.S.A.: The City and 'The New York School'", he wrote: "Perhaps Abstract Expressionism cannot mean anything because the vast welter of New York is in itself meaningless, an unhappy possibility. If so, then the quarrel is not with the artist's limitation but with our time and our city, of which abstract expressionism offers a complete and authentic expression .. New York is always called an exciting city, and so it is. But the things that make it exciting also make it monotonous if they are not tied to something deeper than surface movement and color. That is what I look for in Abstract Expressionist painting and do not find, and that is why I find it monotonous."
Canaday on the Guggenheim MuseumCanaday was highly critical of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural plan for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which opened to the public in October 1959. With its spiral ramp running along the building's interior, resulting in uneven floors and wall space, Canaday could not see the logic in Wright's building as a place to house great art. As for Wright's preference for abundant natural light, Canaday writes: "Regarding pictures as part of an architectural whole, fine. Regarding pictures as something one comes to a museum to see, terrible, if the sun is not out."
Canaday on MiróIn the vast world of mid-century modern art, with Dadaism and Surrealism in its wake, and Abstract Expressionism still exploding everywhere, Canaday praised Joan Miró as a diamond in the rough, as an artist who dictated his own pace of progress and didn't toe the line with all the other artists so consumed with abstraction.
In a May 1959 article for the Times (written shortly before he became the paper's chief art critic), Canaday wrote the following on Miró: "In a world more and more given over to practical and scientific values, he has affirmed the legitimacy of the magical, the poetic, the lyrical. He has kept open for us the door to a world we have almost forgotten, the world of myth and the supernatural, a world sometimes joyous, sometimes monstrous .. but always fascinating because it is rooted in the earliest consciousness of man."
Canaday on RothkoThe work of Mark Rothko is a good example of what Canaday considered nothing more than decorative art; visually stunning and impressive perhaps, but ultimately without substance. In the closing lines of a 1961 review of Rothko and the artist's use of blurred, vibrant, levitating rectangles, Canaday wrote, "It is a considerable tribute to any painter to say, as one can say of Rothko, that his art stimulates a kind of self-receptiveness in the observer. In saying so much more, his cultists vitiate his considerable powers by calling attention to his limitations."
Canaday never did care much for what he called the "less-is-more approach" to abstract art, but in the critic's comments on Rothko, he reveals himself as the anti-critic's critic; Canaday examines what other critics have to say about an artist's work, or in this case, the praise that is showered on Rothko, and then dissects their comments bit by bit. He does this strictly out of caution. For Canaday, the real issue isn't whether Rothko is a great artist or not (although he clearly believes the latter); it's the danger of people (whether they be artists, critics or the average museumgoer) following a school of thought, and praising something as great painting simply because everyone else says so.
Canaday on Alfred H. Barr, Jr.In a September 1960 piece for the Times, Canaday panned the inner circle of Abstract Expressionists in New York, likening them to a group of Greek Olympians who all bowed to their gods (Pollock was their Cronus and Willem de Kooning their Zeus). In this article he also infamously referred to Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who at that time was MoMA's director of collections, as the "most powerful tastemaker in American art today, and probably the world." This thinly-veiled compliment was actually a slight on Barr, who Canaday believed was a tyrant, dictating to others what was and was not great art.
Barr rejected the title of "tastemaker" and wrote a letter to the Times in response to Canaday's accusations. In his letter he wrote: "At the Museum of Modern Art we propose a partial answer to the dilemma: we must show the many disparate, even contradictory, yet significant kinds of art our complex civilization had produced."
Writing StyleJohn Canaday adopted a very humanistic and reactionary position towards Modern art and the New York School of mid century. He once posed the question: "Has the New York School given any order or meaning, as art should do, to the energy it expresses, or has it created only explosive fragments?" Canaday always stressed the need for meaning - social, cultural or otherwise - in the art he critiqued, but perhaps the critic's greatest shortcoming was his tendency to critique artistic movements as a whole (he was wary of almost anything considered an artistic "movement"), rather than focus on the achievements or failures of individual artists. And when Canaday did choose to focus on the finer points of an individual artist and their work, that artist was often used as the exception to the rule. In all, Canaday put his faith in the individual artist's ability to paint and philosophize, and progress in these endeavors on his or her own; when it came to mass movements and schools of thought, Canaday never shied from voicing his skepticism.
Below are Canaday's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Peter Paul Rubens
Years Worked: 1959 - 1973
Quotes"The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is a war between architecture and painting in which both come out badly maimed."
"..there is nothing inherently mystical or even expressive about a [Barnett] Newman painting .. the response is entirely in the mind of the observer .. and is stimulated not by what the painting is, but by what Newman said it was."
"With any luck, 1959-60 might even go down in history as the year Abstract art in general accepted the responsibilities of middle age."
|German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
ArtStory: Hans Hofmann Page
|Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
ArtStory: Harold Rosenberg Page
|Peter Paul Rubens was a seventeenth-century Baroque artist who painted richly-toned allegories, history cycles, and religious scenes. His works are often populated by fleshy female nudes and figures in dramatic, twisting postures.
|Ben Shahn was a Lithuanian-born American artist and painter. Inspired by the European Expressionists and Fauves, as well as muralists like Diego Rivera, Shahn's Social Realist paintings and murals reflected his leftist political views, focusing on themes like urban life, immigration and organized labor.
|Alexander Calder was an American artist who made important contributions to abstract sculpture, hanging mobiles, and kinetic art. His work reflects both modern and Surrealist influences.
ArtStory: Alexander Calder Page
|Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Joan Miró Page
|Salvador Dalí was a Spanish Surrealist painter who combined a hyperrealist style with dream-like, sexualized subject matter. His collaborations with Hollywood and commercial ventures, alongside his notoriously dramatic personality, earned him scorn from some Surrealist colleagues.
ArtStory: Salvador Dalí Page
|George Orwell (born Eric Blair) was perhaps the 20th century's most celebrated essayist, critic and fiction writer. From Animal Farm and 1984 to Homage to Catalonia and his essay collection All Art is Propaganda, Orwell's writings touched on several key issues relevant to the modern era, and are distinctly chartacterized by his belief in democratic socialism and a staunch opposition against global totalitarianism.
|John Ruskin was a 19th-century English poet, essayist and art critic. Widely considered the father of modern art criticism, Ruskin first made a name for himself by praising the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, and in effect defending the naturalism of Turner's canvases. Ruskin believed that fine art communicated the artist's understanding of nature, thus emphasizing art's subjectivity.
|Leo Steinberg is one the 20th century's foremost historians and scholars on the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo and other Italian Renaissance artists. In addition to his scholarly work of Renaissance art, Steinberg is also a significant authority on 20th-century modern art, including the paintings and sculptures of Picasso, Jasper Johns's Flag series, and Willem de Kooning's Woman series.
ArtStory: Leo Steinberg Page
|A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
ArtStory: Impressionism Page
|Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
ArtStory: Post-Impressionism Page
|Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
ArtStory: Surrealism Page
|Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 20s and 30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
ArtStory: Expressionism Page
|Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled "les fauves" or "wild beasts" by critic Louis Vauxcelles, the artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism Page
|Edward Hopper was an American painter and printmaker during the early-mid 20th century, and was best known for his realist depictions of urban cityscapes, rendered with a signature solemnity. Although a realist, Hopper believed his art lacked the sentimentality or glamorization often found in realist art.
|Harry Sternberg was an early-20th-century American painter, printmaker, art teacher, and director of the Art Students League. Having worked alongside prominent muralists and Social Realist painters, Sternberg's art focused heavily on the unfavorable working conditions of laborers like steel workers, coal miners and those in the Chicago stockyards. Sterberg is among the most celebrated muralists from the New Deal era of the 1940s.
|Cleve Gray was an American painter who is associated with several 20th-century artistic movements, including AbEx, Color-field Painting and Lyrical Abstraction. Gray began his career painting desert landscapes and still lifes, but soon "matured" into his own style, employing oversized canvases with full color palettes, abstract signs and symbols. These later works are reminiscent of Frankenthaler and early Guston.
|Alfred H. Barr, Jr. was an American art historian, collector, and the first director of The Museum of Modern Art. Barr was very influential in MoMA's early years, arranging seminal exhibitions of works by Van Gogh, Léger, the Post-Impressionists and the Cubists.
ArtStory: Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Page
|Fairfield Porter was a 20th-century American realist painter and noted art critic. Although friends with and staunch admirer of many abstractionists from The New York School, Porter was something of a black sheep, opting to paint figurative forms and landscapes, which are only now gaining significant recognition.
ArtStory: Fairfield Porter Page
|Neo-Expressionism began as a movement in German art in the early 1960s with the emergence of Georg Baselitz. It gained momentum in the 1970s, with the addition of painters such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz and Eugen Schönebeck. Drawing inspiration from German Expressionism, many of its practitioners focussed on the country's troubled modern history. In the 1980s, it inspired many successful painters across the world, including Julian Schnabel.
ArtStory: Neo-Expressionism Page
|Photorealism is a post-AbEx style of painting that was developed by such artists as Chuck Close, Audrey Flack and Richard Estes. Photorealists apply painting techniques to literally mimic the effects of photography and thus blur the line that have typically divided the two mediums.