My story in the September issue of The Brooklyn Rail is about the Washington Outdoor Art Exhibit, which takes place this weekend. In 1931, during the early days of the Depression, before the Works Progress Administration was put in place, the exhibition was created to help struggling artists make a living. Not yet thinking in terms of their careers, but simply trying to pay the rent, artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Alice Neel are said to have been among the more than 200 artists who participated. In the exhibit’s halcyon days, all the major museums embraced the show, and over 100,000 people visited each day. Today, art world insiders are more attuned to blue-chip galleries and international art fairs; MFA-trained artists rarely give the exhibit a second thought. Rather than investing in the booth fees, framing, and display racks required to show in Washington Square, ambitious emerging artists are inclined to hold open studio events where gallerists, collectors, and curators are most likely to see their work. However improbable it may be, the typical 21st-century MFA is intent on being discovered, making an international reputation, and somehow influencing the course of art history. Selling artwork to the untutored masses is not a priority.
“For the first few years of its existence, critics held the Washington Square event in high regard, and it succeeded in keeping artists working. By 1948, however, its reputation diminished by a surplus of predictably conservative artwork and the show began to struggle… In the meantime, Abstract Expressionism had gripped the intelligentsia, who eschewed traditional representational art and scorned easel painting as staidly bourgeois. A schism thus developed and deepened. Uptown galleries began to show more intellectually challenging, non-mimetic large-scale work for an informed audience, while the outdoor exhibit continued to present traditional ‘scapes and portraits with a more transparent aesthetic, made mainly to please the eye rather than test the mind, to the uninitiated public. The unabashed goal of many WSOAE artists was to make appealing work that would sell, and pointedly would not challenge the status quo. As the event evolved, then, the selection committee came to value craftsmanship and traditional drawing skills rather than innovative approaches. In 1973, the committee famously rejected Gordon Matta-Clark when he submitted hand-colored photographic scrolls depicting graffiti-covered surfaces. In response, he staged his own ‘Alternatives to the Washington Square Art Fair’ on Mercer Street. After inviting graffiti artists to paint his truck, he parked it outside the exhibition and proceeded to cut the vehicle into pieces, which he offered as salable objects….” Read the entire article here.
The Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit, organized by John Morehouse. University Place, from E. 12th to Bobkin Lane. New York, NY. September 5, 6, 7, 12, 13. Noon—6pm, rain or shine.
NOTE: Fueled by a potent mix of curiosity and nostalgia, I participated in the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibition over Labor Day weekend. This year 100 artists were involved, some of whom have been exhibiting their work at the WSOAE for more than thirty years. Check out my blog chronicle of the event here. Posting started on September 5.