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Dore Ashton

Dore Ashton Chart

Synopsis

Dore Ashton is one of the few remaining critics still alive from the Abstract Expressionist era. Her writing covers a rich history of the mid-century movement, combined with exciting first-hand knowledge of interactions with those who propelled Abstract Expressionism to wide acclaim. Born a generation after the influential critics Greenberg, Rosenberg and Schapiro, Ashton walked a fine line between the outsider historian who watched the style evolve and the insider intellectual who conversed one-on-one with those creating the work. Ashton was a trusted compatriot and champion of those artists who, even at the height of their critical fame, still felt socially and culturally isolated.

Key Ideas

Ashton's writing clearly defined that the New York School of artists was not a school at all in the formal sense of educating people in a certain artistic philosophy or aesthetic. Instead, it was a modern school model, in which participants were independent-minded, each exhibiting their own complicated set of prerogatives.
Ashton believed that prior to 1930 there had been no fusion of artistic or social theory in the United States. It was not until the "arrival" of artists like Gorky, de Kooning and Ernst that American artists were exposed to formal aesthetic theory.
Ashton viewed Pollock as the one who "broke the ice" for everyone else in Abstract Expressionism. She observed that before Pollock rose to prominence in 1949, the New York School of artists was mostly a group "loft rat" European emigres. Ashton cited Pollock as the artist who essentially broke Europe's hegemony of the avant-garde.

Description

Childhood and education

Ashton was born in 1928 to Ralph Neil Ashton, a medical doctor, and Sylvia Smith Shapiro. She attended the University of Wisconsin - Madison and graduated with a B.A. in 1949, then immediately began work towards her Master's in art history from Harvard.

Early years

Immediately after graduating from Harvard, Ashton was hired as an associate editor at Art Digest in 1951. Two years later she became an associate art critic at The New York Times. Ashton wrote several reviews for the Times, covering shows and exhibits by many of the aging Abstract Expressionists and newcomers to the New York School. She made the acquaintance of several artists who would eventually become the subjects of her books, including Joseph Cornell and Mark Rothko.

In the early 1950s, Ashton observed an interaction outside the Tanager Gallery on 10th Street that had a profound effect on her. Willem de Kooning was engaged in a heated discussion with a ragged-looking man who claimed to be an art historian. The significance of this was quite critical to the role Ashton and the new generation of art historians was expected to play in the New York art world. De Kooning, amongst other artists, was well versed in art history. The artists had a deep respect for the rich German traditions of art history, established by the likes of Goethe, Hegel and Marx, and continued by Schapiro and Steinberg. However, many artists of the New York School had come to reject the formal academy, particularly non-artist art historians who supposed they knew more about technique, content and form than the artists themselves. After witnessing this interaction between de Kooning and the historian, Ashton realized she had stumbled upon a cultural crossroad- in an age where more and more artists were self-taught, traditional academic art historians were becoming obsolete.

At the New York Times, Ashton was on the same staff as the anti-modernist John Canaday. Many of his contemporaries criticized Canaday for his dissenting views, but it was Ashton who was fired in 1960 for her continually favorable stance toward Abstract Expressionism. A notable exception was in 1959 when the young Frank Stella showed paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery and later at the MoMA in the Sixteen Americans exhibition, which also included works by Johns, Rauschenberg and Kelly. Ashton commented in a review, "Is it really important for the public to see the work of a 23-year-old boy who has only been painting for three or four years?" In this rare instance, Ashton was in agreement with Canaday, who wrote about Sixteen Americans, "..these are the sixteen artists most slated for oblivion."

In 1960, Ashton greeted a young Swiss artist named Jean Tinguely, whose work Ashton had previously seen in Europe. Tinguely was planning a very ambitious sculpture installation for the MoMA sculpture garden called Homage to New York, and despite much hesitancy from the Museum's acquisitions committee, Ashton played an integral role in launching a campaign to get Tinguely's project accepted.

Teaching career and The New York School

After being let go from the Times, Ashton devoted herself entirely to teaching and writing her own books. Starting in 1962, she began teaching art history at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, followed by a stint teaching the philosophy of art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. In 1963, the College Art Association awarded Ashton the Frank Jewett Mather Award in art criticism, and one year later she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. Between 1965 and 1968, Ashton headed the Humanities department at the School of Visual Arts. Beginning in 1969, she taught art history at Cooper Union in downtown Manhattan.

Ashton published her seminal work, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning in 1973. The book was groundbreaking for its historical and pseudo-philosophical approach to examining the Abstract Expressionism movement, or "School," as a whole. The book includes first-hand accounts of interactions she had with the artists and critics who made Abstract Expressionism what it was. This book was also significant for its methodology and breadth of scope. Instead of examining individual artists and works of art, as had become the norm in contemporary criticism, Ashton treated Abstract Expressionism as the artistic movement of the Modern era.

Late Period

In addition to several other lecturing posts in New York schools, Ashton joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research in 1986. She has continued to write and lecture throughout the last two decades. As one of the last surviving critics with first-hand knowledge of the Abstract Expressionists, her contributions and input in art retrospectives have been invaluable. She has written biographies on Noguchi and Rothko, compiled albums on Cornell and Kline and contributed essays to several exhibition catalogs. Ashton continues her work as a Professor of Art History at Cooper Union in New York City.

Legacy

Ashton was the first art critic to develop a comprehensive and eye-witness account history of Abstract Expressionism. Through her friendships with many of the artists she wrote about, Ashton delved into the psychology of her subjects; a critical technique that was frowned upon by other art historians who believed the art should speak for itself. One of Ashton's greatest contributions as a critic and historian has been to lend a good deal of humanity to artists, allowing her readers to empathize with those whose unifying factor was their sense of isolation and alienation.

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