In an art world that is ever more beholden to the NEW—to new art, new fashions, new trends, new money, new everything—a very common phenomenon is for artists to fall through the cracks. Artists who, at one point are successfully established in the art world in the end fall through the cracks of changing fashions and fickle tastes. They fall through the cracks of a career that is cut off by new, rising trends. They grow old, making art into old age that was once popular, once part of the rising wave of fashion, yet forgotten because they were inevitably overshadowed by the NEW.
I wrote once about an artist named Sonia Gechtoff, whose rapidly rising career trajectory led her to move to New York City from San Francisco around 1959. In 1960, she was at the top of her game—showing work at the Whitney, obtaining gallery representation, selling enough art to survive. Her future success seemed assured. Then, in 1961, Gechtoff saw a sea-change in the art world—away from expressionism and toward the new “Pop” Art—and her career quickly bottomed out underneath her. Although she survived many years as a painter by teaching classes at this or that school and showing in occasional Abstract-Expressionist retrospective exhibitions, she fell through the cracks of the art world, forgotten in the end.
A current traveling exhibition, called “High Times/High Times: New York Painting 1967-1975,” takes as its subject a generation of painters—many of whom who are relatively unknown—who continued painting in their native styles, mostly abstract, into old age even as those styles were deemed increasingly passé by the art establishment.
A subtext of the dismissal of the old by the NEW in art is much of this, of course, is a power struggle. That is, the art establishment that determines fashions has long been ruled, generally, by rich white men who get ever richer by their machinations and manipulations. Not to be too paranoid and conspiracy-theorist about this, but there’s a reason why women and people of color are legion among those artists who fall through the cracks. Or, as the exhibition description of “High Times/High Times” puts it:
Most art-historical accounts of the late 1960s and early ’70s say little about painting,… [y]et many artists during these same years were exploring radical new directions in abstract painting: pulling painting apart, moving it off the stretcher and onto the floor, creating new shapes and structures, using an entire room or the human body as a canvas. Influenced by social change and the burning political issues of the day, [a number of] artists… created works of great joy, passion, fury, and imagination, expanding conventional concepts of what “painting” could mean. Nearly half the abstract painters whose work is presented in High Times, Hard Times are women, many dismissed at the time by influential art critics, who saw them only as creating an eccentric expression that had some limited value and not as leaders in the renewal of a medium as important as painting. African-American artists such as Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten, and artists from other countries who lived temporarily in New York (Kusama, Blinky Palermo, César Paternosto, Franz Erhard Walther), were similarly denied official recognition. (emphasis mine)
In the great waging war that is the art market, certain artists are the expendable footsoldiers, and curators, critics, gallerians, and museum professionals are the generals who callously condemn them to their fate.