Cosmopolitan and erudite, Albert Eugene Gallatin, George L.K. Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, and Charles B. Shaw were committed artists, passionate patrons, and close friends. All four worked to elevate the status of modernist abstraction during the Great Depression of the 1930s and its aftermath—when Social Realist and Regionalist painting held sway. Within the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group, in which the foursome became active soon after its formation in 1936, they were known as the “Park Avenue Cubists,” a nickname that highlighted their patrician backgrounds, affluence, and class separateness. But for all the media coverage of their glamorous lifestyles and trappings—elegant apartments (on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on and off Park Avenue), country houses, art collections, and trips abroad—they remained deeply committed to abstract art.
In addition to stretching the boundaries of Cubism in their art, all four friends pursued multiple occupations, as writers, patrons, and—in the case of Frelinghuysen—opera singer. Morris argued eloquently for the ongoing vitality of formalist art in the pages of Partisan Review, Plastique, Axis, and the annual exhibition catalogues of the AAA. Momentarily dismissing the issue of originality, he contended that American artists were right to re-use the visual experiments of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Leger—as long as they were sufficiently synthesized. In his view, such rephrasing was necessary to insure the continuity of a crucial chapter in modern art, one being threatened abroad by political and economic uncertainty. Gallatin enunciated his interpretation of modernism in the Museum of Living Art, the collection he installed in 1927 at New York University, on the present-day site of the Grey Art Gallery. He also contributed terse, tightly reasoned essays to Plastique and Axis, as well as to his own collection catalogues. Similarly, Shaw became galvanized by Cubist-type painting in the mid-1930s, writing in Plastique on its American renewal and continuation. The four artists’ combined efforts and patronage, along with those of the AAA, resulted in wider appreciation for American abstract art, gaining it representation in public collections and important showcases such as the annual exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art—forerunners of today’s Whitney Biennial.
The Park Avenue Cubists’ restrained, sometimes austere arrangements of geometric forms, devoid of emotion and reference to their interior lives, would eventually be superseded by the emergent New York School. At stake was the issue of originality, which Morris had tried to deflect in his writing. By the mid-1940s, the eternity he had assigned to Cubism was being eclipsed in the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, and others, which revealed that American vanguard expression could break free of pre-existing shapes and forms. Ironically, at the dawn of the 21st century the questioning of originality endows the work of the Park Avenue Cubists with new currency. During the past two decades, contemporary artists have raided art history, appropriating freely from any number of visual sources and calling the notion of authorship into question. Although Gallatin, Morris, Frelinghuysen, and Shaw clearly would not agree with many recent critiques of modernism, they did borrow unashamedly to construct lucid, accomplished, and at times ingenious works of art.
Image: Albert Eugene Gallatin, Kenilworth Castle – Aerial View, 1940, Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 inches, Collection of David and Lynne Anderson