American Tradition in Painting
by John W. McCoubrey
Braziller, 128 pp., $4.95
The chief impulse behind the writing of American Tradition in Painting seems to have been Professor McCoubrey’s desire to counteract the tendency implicit in formal criticism to relate Abstract Expressionist painting to artistic developments in Europe during the first four decades of this century, and to place it instead, firmly and unmistakably, in the context of a uniquely American tradition that goes back virtually to the first paintings done on American soil. Professor McCoubrey does not deny the importance of what had been achieved in Europe: but he maintains that Abstract Expressionism “was born…in the American shape,” and that “it is imbued with ‘the material poetry of the country’ and is part of a native visual tradition that it both continues and illuminates.” His book, consisting of an Introduction and five short chapters, is an attempt to characterize this tradition, largely by means of comparisons with roughly concurrent events in European painting, and to demonstrate its relevance to our understanding of paintings by Pollock, Tomlin, Gorky, De Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, and Rothko.
The heart of Professor McCoubrey’s characterization is the thesis that American art is, and has been from the start, profoundly realistic. The comparisons he makes between American and European paintings are meant to bring this out: invariably, the Europeans are found to be preoccupied with conventions of composition and with the enjoyment of paint for its own sake, in contrast to the Americans’ overriding obsession with things as they are. But if American art is seen as fundamentally realistic, it is by no means clear how Professor McCoubrey would characterize what he calls “the great tradition” of European painting. In the end, it comes to represent the vague abstraction “Art,” understood as that which falsifies our sense of how things really are, in the name of decorative unity, fictive order, and sensuous exploitation of the materials of painting. For example, discussing the nature of the realism in one of the nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Cole’s less overtly symbolic landscapes, The Catskill Mountains; the author remarks that, “Constrained by the traditional devices which order and make habitable a Claudian landscape, or treated with the painterly bravura and elisions found in a Constable, his forest would lose its innocence, and its strangeness would be brought near by Art.”
There is, however, something we ought to balk at in a comparison that fits Claude and Constable into the same container and labels it “Art.” Against this, I would argue that Constable’s oeuvre constitutes one of the subtlest and most imposing monuments to realism in the history of western art. Admittedly, it is possible to consider the painterly bravura and elisions in his canvasses for their own sake; but their primary function is notational and realistic. And although one wholly admires the consummate mastery which Constable enjoyed over his medium, what gives his mastery point, and what lies at the core of his achievement, is his passionate objectivity: his almost Leonardesque ambition to become, by patient study …