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Art Critic: John Canaday
John 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
  • By the time Canaday was hired as an art critic for the Times in 1958, he generally distrusted the academy of art, which seemed to favor abstraction above all other techniques in Contemporary art. Canaday saw abstraction not as part of the avant-garde, but more of a trend that was "in vogue at the moment."
  • Canaday had great respect for the artist as working man. He fondly remembered the Depression-era WPA and what it did for many American artists, who were, at long last, viewed as "human beings engaged in a legitimate occupation." Canaday did not view great art as the work of stoic philosophers and intellectuals, but of hard-working people who earned their living with labor of the mind, brush and canvas.

Born 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 years
After 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 years
In 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 death
In 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.

In 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."

"Happy New Year: Thoughts on Critics and Certain Painters as the Season Opens"
Published in The New York Times, September 6, 1959

This was Canaday's first published article as the chief art critic for the New York Times, and while it was a very short piece, it stirred up a very large hornet's nest. It's obvious from the tone of the writing that Canaday had for some time been harboring some resentment towards the "New York School," or the institution of Abstract Expressionism as a whole.

Although he concedes at one point that there "can be no objection to abstract expressionism as one manifestation of this complicated time of ours," and that the "best Abstract Expressionists are as good as ever they were," Canaday can't help but deride the many "fakes" and "charlatans" who all appear to be following the example set by the movement's two biggest champions, de Kooning and Pollock.

Canaday firmly believes that abstract painters of this time are not acting (or painting) how they as individuals would want to, if not for the Abstract Expressionist movement that has swept through the city's culture and brainwashed everyone in its wake. There are times when Canaday admits to seeing beauty in some of the paintings, but the beauty is only skin deep.

"Wright Versus Painting: The Guggenheim Museum"
Published in The New York Times, October 21, 1959

This is the article in which Canaday, on the very day the Guggenheim opened in New York, came right out and claimed that Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the building did far more to hurt art than glorify it. "If he had deliberately designed an interior to annihilate painting as an expressive art, he could not have done much better."

Canaday takes his readers on a visual tour through the building's interior and exterior, describing each spiral and odd angle to reinforce the idea that Wright just doesn't understand what art needs.

The critic's biggest issue is with Wright's curves and spirals, which are the Guggenheim's chief features. "By its slant, its occasional subtle flattenings, its odd curves and its curious junctures with partitions, the spiral creates to a small but very bothersome degree the giddiness of the fun house in amusement parks where everything is built in a skewed perspective so that one tumbles and falls."

"Letter to the New York Times"
1961, written in response to Canaday's Sept. 6th article "Happy New Year" and several other articles

The letter is brief but scathing of John Canaday's approach to critiquing abstract art. Those who signed their name to the letter may have done so because they felt personally attacked, but the following passage will indicate, their gripe had far more to do with Canaday's methodology (or lack thereof) than anything else:

"If Mr. Canaday has a political or social or esthetic 'position' or philosophy, let him state what it is and openly promote his aims. Every style and movement in art history contains examples of work by imitative or uninterested artists. To keep referencing to these in order in impugn the whole, instead of attempting to deal seriously with the work of the movement, is the activity not of a critic but of an agitator."

The letter is signed by an impressive list of people including Adolph Gottlieb, Thomas B. Hess, Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Fairfield Porter, Harold Rosenberg, Robert Rosenblum, and David Smith, among many others.


Introduction to John Canaday's Theories
Despite 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 Museum
Canaday 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 Miró
In 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 Rothko
The 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 Style
John 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
Ben Shahn
Alexander Calder
Joan Miró
Salvador Dalí
George Orwell
John Ruskin
Leo Steinberg
John Canaday
Years Worked: 1959 - 1973
Edward Hopper
Harry Sternberg
Cleve Gray
Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Fairfield Porter

"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."

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

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