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The Making of Americans


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I have no desire to disparage American art, which is a child, and therefore merits being loved and protected.

—Andre Villebeuf in Gringorie, Paris

Those who have been to the United States bring back nothing from visiting American museums but memories of Italian and French works found there.

—Lucie Mazauric in Vendredi, Paris

Critic Clement Greenberg tells the story of American avant-garde art in the years since World War II—a time when New York school painting and vital sculpture made Western Europe turn at last to the United States for inspiration.

—Subhead of the article “America Takes the Lead: 1945–1965” by Clement Greenberg, Art in America, August–September 1965

When the first comprehensive exhibition of American art abroad, titled “Trois Siecles d’Art aux États-Unis” and organized by the Museum of Modern Art, opened at the Musée de Jeu de Paume in 1939, many Parisians were surprised to find out that there was such a thing as “American art.” Similarly, many well-intentioned art critics at the time expressed sympathy for the youthful attempts of American painters to emulate their French colleagues. Only a quarter of a century later, a leading American art critic felt confident enough to declare that it was now time for Europeans to look to Americans for inspiration.

There are probably different ways to explain the dramatic rise of American art, which became apparent to Europeans a bit earlier than to Americans. While in 1958 the New York Times published the timid headline “New World Prepares to Show Its Cultural Achievements to Old World,” the London Horizon, fully aware of the change that was taking place, had a bolder take: “The New American Painting Captures Europe.”

One possible approach to telling this story would be to trace what could be called the “American interpretation of European modern art” through various exhibitions and collections organized by American curators and art lovers. The earliest and most influential collection was the one assembled by Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris, exhibited on the walls of their salon in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Read the full article here.