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Abstract Expressionist Critic: Thomas B. Hess
Synopsis
Thomas B. Hess was the editor of Art News, the oldest and most widely-circulated fine arts journal in the world. From editorial assistant to executive editor and finally to managing editor, from 1965 until his death, Hess was an early proponent of the work of Willem de Kooning, a close confidant of Elaine de Kooning and Harold Rosenberg, and an integral member of the famed Artists' Club on East 8th Street. Throughout his career Hess played an integral role in championing Abstract Expressionist art and art criticism.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Much like his friend and contemporary Harold Rosenberg, Hess generally disliked the formalist approach to art criticism championed by Clement Greenberg (although both men did admire Greenberg's writing). Hess believed that this approach performed a disservice by ignoring the individual actions, and in some cases, struggles, of the artist. In any work of art, the thing that mattered most to Hess was the individual artist; his motivations, emotions, religious beliefs, personal behaviors, etc. For a critic to ignore the individual was to ignore an artwork's uniqueness. Hess had his doubts of the existence of an avant-garde in the arts. If one did exist, it was embodied in the achievements of the individual artist, and not representative of some larger movement.
  • Hess challenged the notion of an avant-garde in the arts, by which he meant a forward-thinking group of artists who continually stretched the boundaries of Modern art If one did exist, Hess believed, it was embodied in the achievements of the individual artist, and not representative of some larger movement.
Childhood and Education
Thomas Baer Hess was born to Gabriel Lorie Hess, a lawyer based in New York, and Helen Baer. Hess spent some of his formal years at a boarding school in Switzerland before enrolling in Yale University to study French art and literature. He graduated from Yale magna cum laude in 1942.

Immediately after graduation, Hess took a summer job at The Museum of Modern Art, working under Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and MoMA's full-time curator, Dorothy Miller. At summer's end Hess enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and became a fighter pilot during World War II.

Hess begins work at Art News
Hess returned to New York in 1944 and married Audrey Stern. The following year he found work as an editorial assistant at the magazine Art News. In 1949 the magazine's editor in chief, Alfred Frankfurter, promoted Hess to executive editor.

Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase and the "Hess Problem"
In 1951 Hess published his first book, Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase, the first substantial book to address the development of abstract art in America. In one of the book's more controversial passages, Hess implied that abstract painting and Expressionism were interconnected, almost interchangeable, entities: "The tendencies toward and of abstract painting and Expressionism may be the most important movements in the art of the first half of our century, and the most relevant ones to more recent developments."

The book sparked a fury among the New York School of artists. Many, like Jackson Pollock, did not like the label "Abstract Expressionism" and believed Hess' book was only encouraging the use of a false and inappropriate label coined by Robert M. Coates in 1946. Several artists convened at The Artists' Club on East 8th Street to conduct panels, led by the Club's Philip Pavia, on the issue of "Abstract Expressionism" and what many perceived as the "Hess Problem." Little was settled by these panels, and few of the artists in attendance were able to agree on much of anything, but the very fact that "abstract" and "expressionism" were now regularly placed together bothered many artists, and Hess was a convenient target for them.

Hess and "The American Action Painters"
In 1952 Harold Rosenberg, upon completing his essay "The American Action Painters," asked his friend (and lover) Elaine de Kooning to read it and provide feedback. She in turn passed it along to Hess, for whom she was a regular contributor to Art News. Much like Rosenberg, Hess had grown weary of formalist art criticism (the champion of which being Clement Greenberg). In "Action Painters" Hess saw a finely-tuned essay that dealt specifically with the artist's alienation and personal struggle to create meaningful art in postwar America. Hess personally edited Rosenberg's essay, and within a few months it appeared in the pages of Art News. Rosenberg praised Hess for his "marvelous editing," and from this collaboration, a friendship was forged.

Hess, de Kooning, and the Artists' Club
Throughout the 1950s, Hess continued to cause a stir among the New York School of artists. He was not a critic content to sit and observe; he very much wanted to pose challenging questions to artists and to force them to question what it meant to be a Modern artist, a purveyor of the avant-garde, or whether there even was an avant-garde anymore (more on this in Theory section).

Both Hess and Willem de Kooning were regular attendees at the Club's panel discussions, and Hess remained a steadfast promoter of de Kooning's work, even after others like Robert Motherwell grew suspicious of the aging de Kooning's dominant influence. When Hess invited the artist Lionel Abel to speak at the Club, Motherwell intervened and urged Abel not to go. "You know what the Club is, don't you?" Motherwell said, ".. I'll tell you what it is .. It's Bill de Kooning's political machine."

Hess and Barnett Newman in Conversation
In 1965 the Managing Editor and President of Art News, Alfred Frankfurter, passed away and was succeeded by Thomas B. Hess . Hess' first order of business as the new managing editor was to recruit the poet John Ashbery to write about art for the magazine.

One year later, on May 1, 1966, Hess and Barnett Newman conducted a public conversation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum during Newman's solo exhibition, Stations of the Cross. In their conversation, Newman explained his works by saying, "When I call them Stations of the Cross, I am saying that these paintings mean something beyond their formal extremes ... What I'm saying is that my painting is physical and what I'm saying also is that my painting is metaphysical ... that my life is physical and my life is also metaphysical."

Hess posed a question about the lack of color in the works, to which Newman responded, "Tragedy demands black, white, and gray. I couldn't paint a green passion, but I did try to make raw canvas come into color. That was my color problem - to get the quality of color without the use of color. A painter should try to paint the impossible." This conversation had a profound affect on Hess' view of the life's work of Barnett Newman. Shortly after the artist's death, the exact nature of Newman's art would become a point of debate between Hess and his friend Rosenberg. (More on this in: Newman, Rosenberg, and the Question of "Jewishness")

Later Period and Death
In the early 1970s, Hess began writing art criticism for the magazine New York, in addition to his regular duties at Art News. In 1972 Hess published what is possibly his most celebrated and widely cited book, Barnett Newman, in conjunction with a retrospective show at the Tate Gallery in London.

In 1974 Hess put together a retrospective of Abstract Expressionism for the New York Cultural Center, entitled Grand Reserves. A sequel to this exhibition was held three years later in 1977 at the New York State Museum in Albany, simply called The New York School. Both of these retrospectives were praised for doing justice to the era of Abstract Expressionism.

That same year, Hess was appointed to consulting chairman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of 20th-century Art. In this new role, Hess set a course to make the Met a major destination of Modern art. Less than a year after this appointment, Hess collapsed suddenly from a heart attack while working at his desk. He was dead at the age of 57, and strangely enough, his death came only days after that of his close friend and colleague, Harold Rosenberg.

Legacy
Thomas B. Hess is in a distinguished company of art critics who were instrumental in championing Abstract Expressionism in the early stages of the movement. In particular, the careers of both Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman benefited greatly from the writings of Hess. As the executive and eventually managing editor of Art News (the most widely-circulated arts magazine in history), Hess not only had free reign to talk and write about whomever he desired, but also enjoyed a huge readership; more than Greenberg and Rosenberg's combined in their early years. With close ties to the Artists' Club, Rosenberg, the de Koonings and others, Hess circulated among Modern art royalty for most of his life, and helped many of them achieve fame and stature in the art world and beyond.

MOST IMPORTANT ESSAY:

Key Points:
  • Appearing in Art News just four months after Harold Rosenberg's publication of "The American Action Painters," (Art News, 1952), and just before de Kooning's solo exhibition at the Janis Gallery, Hess' "De Kooning Paints a Picture" took a far more direct approach to defining de Kooning's painterly process. Hess considered de Kooning's creative process as a meeting of the technical and conceptual, so the two became, essentially, one action.
  • Hess' essay was accompanied in Art News by a series of photos by Rudy Burkhardt, which chronicled in intense detail de Kooning's routine of sketching, drawing, painting and then re-painting until he believed a painting was complete. This complementary photo essay refuted, in a way, the polarizing assessments made by Greenberg and Rosenberg. Greenberg was not a fan of de Kooning's recent work - Woman I (1950-52) and others - while Rosenberg's famed "Action Painters" essay seemed to boil de Kooning and his painterly kin down to mere existentialist action and reaction. In his essay, Hess conveyed the meticulous process de Kooning repeatedly undertook in creating each painting.
  • The title of Hess' essay is designed to be ironic; de Kooning does paint pictures, but the near-scientific steps he takes to achieve this are, Hess would have us believe, quite staggering. Hess wrote, "Some artists like to work from an easy chair which is riveted to a concrete slab which is anchored to the center of the earth. Others, and among them de Kooning, prefer to keep off-balance. They insist that everything is possible within the painting, which means they must devise a system for studying an infinitely variable number of probabilities." According to Hess, each time de Kooning delves into one of his paintings, it is an exercise in the limitless possibilities of the artist's own mind. De Kooning does more than paint a picture; he discovers new and different ways to paint a picture each time.
ART THEORY

Thomas B. Hess on the Avant-Garde
Hess wrote in the pages of Art News in 1956, "Today, almost all painters are content to communicate with their own small but expanding universe." This comment was part of a larger criticism directed toward artists who, according to Hess, had somehow lost their sense of oppositional spirit in art, the ability to achieve a meaningful dialectic. "[Contemporary painters] are unhappy with the phrase [avant-garde]," Hess wrote, "and deprecate its connotations of bohemia, revolution, shock-for-shock's-sake; they infer an action that is beside the point, old-fashioned, absurd." Hess firmly believed that the ever-important ideal of remaining in the avant-garde had fundamentally diminished in contemporary art in the 1950s. "The individual contribution has value in its uniqueness." Hess never stopped looking for that individual spirit in art, and he would have people believe that very few artists - with the exception of de Kooning, Newman, Johns and a few others - actually embodied this spirit.

On Willem de Kooning
In the work and personal character of de Kooning, Hess observed a dialectic at play. He described de Kooning as an artist who counterposes a thesis (artistic standards) and an antithesis (the rejection those standards) in order to reach some sort of anti-synthesis, but according to Hess, "[de Kooning] refuses any conclusion that would close the argument." Hess was not only an ardent admirer of de Kooning's work, but also someone who owned a large number of his paintings. Hess is frequently overlooked in the annals of Abstract Expressionism as a critic who was integral in promoting de Kooning's career; he was responsible for publishing Harold Rosenberg's most celebrated essay, "The American Action Painters" in Art News, and publishing his own seminal essay, "De Kooning Paints a Picture," just a few months later.

On Dada
On March 1, 1950, Hess contributed a review to the Saturday Review of Literature on the newly published book, Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology. In this review, Hess posed several questions that he believed relevant not only to contemporary abstract painters, but also to younger artists who were beginning to pay homage to the Dadaists. "Why has the idea of a collective avant-garde become a matter of such sensitive importance? .. What makes artists turn so readily to public statements of private positions? .. How have the elementary strategies of shock and irresponsibility become such elaborate intellectual games?" As much a fan of Dada as Hess was, the one thing that always bothered him was when he saw artists become overtaken by group mentality, a set of ideas in which they themselves had no personal stake. Hess viewed Dada as a highly personal form of art, and only by treating it as such could any artist produce anything truly original.

For hess, Realism was art's chief concern because, as he wrote in 1960 for The Nation, "Reality is stronger than thought, feeling, the means of its achievement, the artist's ego or his subjectivity." If Abstract art (or what many called Non-Objective painting) isn't attempting to depict anything real, then something is profoundly lost on the artists himself.

On New Media and New Forms
Two years before the 1960 exhibition New Media-New Forms, which showcased several young Neo-Dada, Pop and Fluxus artists at the Martha Jackson Gallery, Hess placed Jasper Johns' Target with Four Faces (1955) on the cover of Art News with the sub-heading, "Neo-Dada." Much like Robert Coates introducing "Abstract Expressionism" to New Yorker readers in 1946, Hess had now conceived a new title for the art world to ponder.

While Marcel Duchamp, arguably the original Dada artist, had enjoyed a revived interest in his work during the 1950s (thanks in part to his association with the Sidney Janis Gallery), Hess viewed the work of Johns as both a continuation of Duchamp's work and a rejection of Dada overall. Hess wrote, "Johns tries to use the cliche, but in the opposite way of the Dadas .. It is to be his key to the absolute. The motive is not to attack or amuse, but to emulate Jackson Pollock and 'paint the subconscious.' The attempt is to achieve this through an art of Absolute Banality." This new media, consisting of "Combines," three-dimensional collage and several others forms, was mostly the work of Johns, Rauschenberg and Oldenburg, artists that Hess went to great lengths to promote.

Newman, Rosenberg, and the Question of "Jewishness"
Early in Hess' career, he was admittedly unimpressed with Barnett Newman's art, believing the artist's greatest contribution was nothing more than what Hess called 'shock-for-shock's-sake," playing off the moniker, 'art-for-art's-sake.' "Newman is out to shock," wrote Hess, "but he is not out to shock the bourgeoisie - that has been done. He likes to shock other artists." By the mid-1960s, Hess reconsidered Newman's significance.

Newman's use and application of color, line and dimension all fascinated Hess. More importantly, the two men shared a contentious relationship, as best illustrated by their 1966 public conversation at the Guggenheim Museum (see above). When Newman passed away in 1970, both Hess and Rosenberg published a catalog to accompany his memorial retrospective. The two critics would also carefully examine the infusion of "Jewishness" in Newman's art.

Throughout his career, Rosenberg repeatedly tackled the issue of "Jewishness" in Abstract Expressionist art, and once asked in a famous 1966 lecture at the Jewish Museum, "Is There a Jewish Art?"; a question that Rosenberg pondered on the same level as Hess' famous query, "Is there an avant-garde?" Hess took this retrospective of Newman's one step further, and by 1972, published a book on the artist. Through careful examination of Newman's entire life's work, Hess confessed to being "convinced that the artist conceived his creations as equivalents of passages in the Book of Genesis and the Kabbalah .. [Newman was] tacking symbolic meanings to colors .. measuring the placement of bands to identify the Kabbalistic proportions, interpreting the works as traditional dramas of spiritual revelation, agony, and salvation."

Ironically enough, it was Hess' posthumous treatment of Barnett Newman (who the critic only appreciated late in the artist's life) that irked Rosenberg and created a philosophical divide between these two friends. After the book was published, Rosenberg's biggest criticism of Hess was that it reduced Newman to a purveyor of Jewish iconography, even though icons are not used in Judaism.

Writing Style
Thomas B. Hess adopted a forthright approach in his writing, which is refreshingly clear and visually vivid in every detail. Even though Harold Rosenberg is the critic credited with coining the term "Action Painting," Hess is the critic who perhaps focused more than anyone on the specific, step-by-step actions of an artist and the creative process. "The artist points out that a drawing of a knuckle," wrote Hess about de Kooning, "for example, could also be that of a thigh; an arm, that of a leg. Exactly such switches were often made during the painting of Woman, attempting always, in the continual shifts, re-creations..to arrive at a point where a sense of the intimate is conveyed by proportion - among other means." Hess' writing is accessible for the reader because he writes not just about what an artist does to create a painting, but also attempts to account for artists' intentions and thought processes as well.

ARTISTIC INFLUENCES

Below are Thomas B. Hess' major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.


Quotes
"In Paris, the bourgeoisie had a set, tormenting role, which cued even as it attacked the artist. In New York, and throughout America, painter and poet find no such advantageous foil."

"New York light is a fluid in which the cosmopolitan styles of postwar art developed; it is exemplified in New York School painting and experienced in the raw in the New York lofts."

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf



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WORKS OF ART:
Artwork Artwork Artwork
Artwork
FEATURED BOOKS:
Written by Thomas B. Hess
Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase

Barnett Newman

Edited by Thomas B. Hess
Grand Eccentrics: Five Centuries of Artists Outside the Main Currents of History

The Avant-Garde

Narrative Art

Woman as Sex Objects: Studies in Erotic Art, 1730-1970

Art and Sexual Politics: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

With Contributions by Thomas B. Hess
The Artist's World in Pictures: The Photo Classic That Documents the New York School Action Painters

Souls in Stone. European graveyard sculpture

American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artist

Arnold Friedman. The last years

Aaron Siskind Photographer

RESOURCES:
Articles by Thomas B. Hess
De Kooning Paints a Picture
ART News
March 1953
Republished in Reading Abstract Expressionism, by Ellen G. Landau (ed.)

Who's Eccentric
The New York Review of Books
May 18, 1967

Kabbalah Anyone?
The New York Review of Books
April 15, 1976

Essays about Thomas B. Hess
A Critical Exchange with Thomas B. Hess about Art and Culture (with reply by Hess)
By Clement Greenberg
The New York Times Book Review
July 9, 1961

Part I: The "Hess Problem" and its Seven Panels at the Club, 1952
By P.G. Pavia
It Is, Spring 1960
Republished in Reading Abstract Expressionism, by Ellen G. Landau (ed.)

Records and Archives
Thomas B. Hess - Willem de Kooning Papers
Listing of The Museum of Modern Art's Archives