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How Jackson Pollock and the Americans Came to Europe:
Eduard Beaucamp Recalls the New York School's Advance

When Jackson Pollock’s paintings were first shown in Germany, the critic Eduard Beaucamp was still a young student interested in art. Now, in an exclusive interview with db-artmag, the godfather of German cultural journalism talks about what he remembers most from the time, both at the documenta in Kassel and other important European exhibitions.

In 1957, people just starting out studying art history had a harder time getting an overview of the contemporary art scene than today. We weren’t nearly as mobile as students are nowadays. The first thing we worked at was acquiring a clear picture of how Modernism and its classics evolved. The German museums were still in the process of being rebuilt and were primarily full of national works: The Bridge and Blue Rider predominated, while Surrealism and Constructivism were still awaiting their rediscovery. The exhibition business, however, was booming even back then. But to see Picasso, Braque, or Léger in any significant way on a museum wall, you had to travel to Amsterdam and above all to Basel. At the universities, modernism was pretty much taboo as an object of research and teaching. In the galleries and private collections, we were surrounded by the paintings of Willi Baumeister and Ernst Wilhelm Nay, the painters of the École de Paris, and the German Art Informel movement.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay: Rhytmische Wiederkehr, 1955, Sammlung Deutsche Bank Willi Baumeister: Weißer Diskus, 1954, Sammlung Deutsche Bank

The art of America seemed very far away indeed. Europe was still nurturing a prejudice that while the US might be all-powerful and unparalleled in the entertainment industry, it nonetheless remained inferior in the fine arts. At the first documenta of 1955, the continental Europeans kept to themselves. Even the English were relegated to the fringe with a mere eight participants (among 58 Germans, 43 French, and 28 Italians). The US was represented by the emigrants Naum Gabo and Josef Albers as well as the Calder mobiles, which had already begun conquering German living rooms, and a painter named Roesch, who has since become forgotten. This reserve is difficult to understand today, because the exhibition’s directors and working committees really should have known the American scene much better.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay: Uhrturm II, 1946,
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

As early as 1951, an exhibition tour titled New York in Europe with works by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Tobey, and Mark Rothko made a stopover at the Berlin and Munich "Festwochen". One year previously, the Museo Correr in Venice had shown a one-man exhibition of Pollock’s works in the context of the Biennale. In 1953/54, another guest appearance called Twelve American Painters and Sculptors, again including Pollock, crossed the continent, stopping over in Helsinki, Oslo, Paris, and Düsseldorf. And two years later, in 1955/56, the MoMA sent an anthology of American art from their own collection on tour through London, Barcelona, Vienna, and Belgrade, stopping over in Frankfurt am Main. The show featured Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Clifford Still, and Rothko.

Back then, the London Times asked: "Aren’t they the vanguard of an American invasion in painting?" This type of resentment was widespread, and Paris fought a bitter battle of defense. In light of all this, one could interpret the reserve towards the Americans manifested at the first documenta as a form of self-protection.

Bernhard Schultze: Rhythmus Weiß Gelb Schwarz, 1952,
Sammlung Deutsche Bank

Yet the suspicion felt by the Times was anything but imaginary. The regularity and methodical planning of the tours demonstrated that "free" Europe – as well as a neutral country like Finland and, interestingly enough, even Yugoslavia, which had cut itself off from the Soviet Bloc – was being systematically besieged. Today, the archives have largely been made available, and so we know, partly through the painstaking study by Frances Stonor Saunders (The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, published by New Press in 2000), much about the CIA’s cultural strategies and how American policy, by means of its secret service, exerted a massive influence on the European cultural establishment through its promotion of supposedly anti-Communist art – and especially the freedom fighters of abstraction. The funding flowed through American foundations and cover organizations, guaranteeing the purely cultural nature of the exhibitions and publications.

Founder of the Documenta, Arnold Bode, 1959 in front of a painting by Jackson Pollock,
Foto: Documenta-Archiv

Even in the fine arts, America pursued its hegemony and gradually fortified it. The culture of the Eastern Bloc was to be made ridiculous, the previously unchallenged authority of the European cultural capital of Paris jarred. It was a race that wasn’t primarily about the level and quality of the art, but about politics: the Americans considered Parisian culture to be infiltrated by communists. And indeed, exceptional artists and influential intellectuals, above all Picasso and Léger, were party members. Yet it goes without saying that the political exploitation didn’t mar the aesthetic integrity or achievement of the New York artists.

Presentation of a painting by Ernst Wilhelm Nay in front of the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel,
Foto: Documenta-Archiv

When did a student of the nineteen-fifties encounter his first Pollock paintings? He could have seen the works at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, for instance: Peggy Guggenheim had already donated two paintings from her collection to the museum in 1950. But to be honest, I didn’t notice them back then, and I didn’t remember them. In 1958, I visited the World’s Fair in Brussels. This was the first experience with global modernism. 50 Years of Modern Art was the name of the accompanying art exhibition where the contemporary Americans made their splash appearance with Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Tobey, Sam Francis, and de Kooning.

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