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Book Forum: Autobiography and Biography   |    
A Sweeper Up After Artists: A Memoir
Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:2404-a-2405. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.12.2404-a
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New York, N.Y.

By Irving Sandler. New York, Thames & Hudson, 2003, 382 pp., $29.95.

When I met Irving Sandler briefly in 2004 at a Christmas party at the home of psychiatrist and collector Scott Schwartz, M.D., he asked me whom I liked in modern art and Franz Kline came to mind. This turned out to be the right answer. When I bought this memoir, intrigued by the title (Frank O’Hara called Sandler "the balayeur des artistes" in one of his poems) because I think we psychiatrists are sweepers up after patients, I learned that Kline’s Chief was the "eye opening revelation" (p. 111) that led Sandler to switch from history to modern art criticism. Since then he has been a ubiquitous critic and promoter of abstract expressionist action painting, whose "pantheon" of most admired artists include Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, David Smith, and Franz Kline.

We get an inside view of many artists from Sandler, their critic and friend, who joined them in their clubs and pubs and heard what they thought they and their fellow artists were intending. For example, Kline’s powerful black strokes derived from his love of the Lehigh Valley locomotives and railroad bridges where he grew up, a fondness for trains I shared without knowing I was perceiving it in his work. And we learn that the proper way to experience a Rothko painting may be in tears. These artists trudged to John Cage concerts they disliked, to support experimental music. Cage told Sandler, "Well, if they didn’t, there’d be nobody there" (p. 36).

About halfway through the book Sandler moves from fondly mounting his artist-specimens to the equally juicy critical wars. "If Harvard-bred WASPs controlled the Museum of Modern Art, heterosexual Jews (the sons of immigrants) dominated writing about avant-garde art in the late 1940s and 1950s" (p. 179). The latter and the artists were formerly Marxist, in search of their identities, moralist, high-art, and antikitsch; the former, "aspiring aristocrats," "would entertain any idea of art the bourgeoisie found shocking or repulsive" (p. 180), even the campy, chichi surrealistic, pop, outsider, or outré. Critics Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg were in the artist-writer camp, yet they had their differences. Rosenberg admired content and emotional discovery but sneered at "apocalyptic wallpaper" (p. 183), and Greenberg favored purely abstract formal qualities, purged of literary content. Sandler "never liked Clem" (p. 185) and also disliked Lincoln Kirstein (while appreciating his bringing Balanchine to America), who launched a "vendetta" against Alfred Barr and the Museum of Modern Art and "was obsessed with discipline and hated freedom" (p. 126). Sandler was "perversely amused by" Hilton Kramer’s "diatribes" (p. 320).

The abstract artists struggled with the fear that their work might be irrelevant to social concerns. A chapter describes the trauma of Vietnam and its aftermath, but the political protest art, like socialist realism and the drug culture art of the 1960s, did not amount to much.

Schildkraut et al. (1) documented the high rate of mood disorders in 15 of the mid-20th-century abstract expressionists of the New York School:

Over 50% of the 15artists in this group had some form of psychopathology, predominantly mooddisorders and preoccupation with death, often compounded by alcohol abuse.At least 40% sought treatment and 20% were hospitalized for psychiatricproblems. Two committed suicide; two died in single-vehicle accidents whiledriving; and two others had fathers who killed themselves. Many of theseartists died early deaths, and close to 50% of the group (seven of 15) weredead before the age of 60.…By bringing the artist into direct andlonely confrontation with the ultimate existential question, whether tolive or to die, depression may have put these artists in touch with theinexplicable mystery that lies at the heart of the "tragic and timeless"art that the Abstract Expressionists aspired to produce. (p. 482)

The conclusion of Schildkraut et al., after taking account of genetic links between depression and creativity (p. 487), is very much in the spirit of Sandler’s fleshed-out account of the motivations and foibles of his favorite artists who were responsible for the triumph of American art.

Schildkraut JJ, Hirshfeld AJ, Murphy JM: Mind and mood in modern art, II: depressive disorders, spirituality, and early deaths in the abstract expressionist artists of the New York School. Am J Psychiatry  1994; 151:482–488


Schildkraut JJ, Hirshfeld AJ, Murphy JM: Mind and mood in modern art, II: depressive disorders, spirituality, and early deaths in the abstract expressionist artists of the New York School. Am J Psychiatry  1994; 151:482–488

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