How ‘Irascible’ Abstract Expressionists Stared Down the Met—and Changed Art History

How ‘Irascible’ Abstract Expressionists Stared Down the Met—and Changed Art History

The open letter that initiated one of the greatest controversies in modern art history was simple and spare. It contained fewer than 150 words, not counting the names of its signatories, and its writers were 18 painters—some of whom came to be known as the defining artists of the postwar Abstract Expressionist movement—along with 10 sculptors who empathized with their views.

The subject was an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that sought to survey painting in the United States as it existed during the. year 1950. Today, that era of American art history has come to conjure all-over abstraction—paint spatters, color fields, gestural strokes. Then, however, the emphasis of the exhibition was on figurative styles (in particular regionalism and social realism) that privileged the everyday, the mundane, and the political—all of which the Abstract Expressionists staunchly opposed.

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