The fact that most modern and contemporary art is produced with the idea of it ending up in a museum seems so natural to us that we can hardly think about the relationship between museums and artists as anything other than a kind of productive symbiosis. We tend to think that artists create, and museums as a matter of course preserve what is created. But in fact modern museums are, above all, filled with art produced against the museum.
The Irascibles: Painters Against the Museum (New York, 1950) examines one of the most significant episodes in this historical dialectic between the museum and artists, through the lens of the now-iconic Nina Leen photograph published by Life magazine on 15 January 1951: that of the clash between some of the painters of the New York School and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was, according to the artists, hostile to “advanced art”. The Irascibles were William Baziotes, James Brooks, Fritz Bultman, Willem de Kooning, Jimmy Ernst, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Weldon Kees, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Hedda Sterne, Clyfford Still, and Bradley Walker Tomlin, although Bultman, Hofmann, and Kees were unable to attend the shoot.
A quick glance at the history of modern art – with its succession of salonniers and rejects – could lead us to think of this photo as a mere journalistic anecdote. But it is in fact a single frame in a much larger sequence: that of the institutional workings of modern art since the historical avant-gardes, caught in flagrante in one of the most compelling moments of those confrontations against the status quo. The Irascibles knew precisely what they were defending– the new – and they were aware that their demands would end up affecting the perception of the art of their time, and thus of the art that followed. And if they do indeed continue to affect our perception, it is – in what only appears to be a paradox – precisely because of the incontestable presence of their works in the very museum that once rejected them.