Not long ago, I was invited to lead a seminar on Abstract Expressionism at a well-regarded New York art school, part of a course on “contemporary ideas.” The students were bright, articulate, and eager to talk—they even seemed to have done the assigned reading—but it was evident that they thought of Abstract Expressionism as a remote historical phenomenon, more or less the way they thought of Cubism. How much did these hip young aspiring artists know about what Clement Greenberg called “‘American-type’ painting,” the new abstract art of the Forties and Fifties? Hard to say. The debate, still so lively and compelling in the early Sixties, when I was in school, between the followers of Harold Rosenberg, who claimed de Kooning as the paradigm, and the Greenberg camp, who looked to Pollock, came as a kind of revelation to the students of the Nineties. They were content to assume that Rosenberg’s...


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