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John Canaday

John Canaday Chart


John Canaday was a conservative art critic and professor who did not care much for modernism, and was especially critical of Abstract Expressionism. As the chief art critic for The New York Times, from 1959 to 1973, Canaday once accused art professors of brainwashing students into favoring Abstract Expressionist art, an act that earned him much disdain from many artists and critics of the time. Although vilified by most of the modern establishment during his years at the Times, Canaday was an honest writer who was always forthcoming about what he did and did not see in art. Despite not being Modern art's greatest fan, he never shied from trying to understand it.

Key Ideas

By the time Canaday was hired as an art critic for the Times in 1958, he generally distrusted the academy of art, which seemed to favor abstraction above all other techniques in Contemporary art. Canaday saw abstraction not as part of the avant-garde, but more of a trend that was "in vogue at the moment."
Canaday had great respect for the artist as working man. He fondly remembered the Depression-era WPA and what it did for many American artists, who were, at long last, viewed as "human beings engaged in a legitimate occupation." Canaday did not view great art as the work of stoic philosophers and intellectuals, but of hard-working people who earned their living with labor of the mind, brush and canvas.



Born John Edwin Canaday in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1907, his family later moved to Texas where Canaday spent the remainder of his childhood, first in Dallas then settling in San Antonio.

In 1924, he enrolled in the University of Texas, and graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English and French literature in 1929.

Early years

After earning his undergraduate degree, Canaday attended Yale where he studied painting and art history. In 1933, he earned a Master's degree in Art History. Immediately afterward, Canaday went on to teach art history and theory at several universities and colleges; first at Washburn University in Kansas, then Tulane University in New Orleans, Hollins College in Virginia, and from 1938 to 1950, he taught at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

His 12-year-long professorship in Virginia was interrupted by World War II. In 1943, Canaday traveled to the Belgian Congo to work as a French interpreter for the Bureau of Economic Welfare. In 1944, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the South Pacific until the war's end, upon which he returned to teaching art history at Virginia.

Beginning in 1953, Canaday was hired as the chief of the educational division at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a job which lasted until 1959. During these years in Philadelphia, Canaday wrote text for the Metropolitan Seminars in Art, a series of 24 portfolios for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Middle years

In 1959 Canaday was hired by the New York Times as the paper's chief art critic. His very first piece for the Times was published on September 6, 1959, and was entitled "Happy New Year: Thoughts on Critics and Certain Painters as the Season Opens." This article, and subsequent ones written over the next two years, earned Canaday a barrage of criticism from the art world establishment, including 49 different critics, professors, theorists and artists, who reacted to Canaday's writing by sending a letter to the Times in 1961 (signed by all 49), accusing Canaday of being nothing more than an "agitator." Despite the massive backlash from many prominent names, there were others who jumped to Canaday's defense. One such artists was Edward Hopper, who in his own letter to the Times wrote, "..I believe John Canaday is the best and most outspoken art critic The Times ever had." Another noteworthy example came from the Abstract/Color Field painter Cleve Gray who wrote, "The very fact that I do not always agree with Mr. Canaday is one I find stimulating and worthwhile. It helps me to question my own ideas, to verify or reject them; this is a healthy and useful process."

In addition to writing for the Times, Canaday was a prolific writer and novelist, and published many books on art, as well as seven mystery novels (all published between 1943 and 1955) written under the pen name Matthew Head.

His first major literary work was 1959's Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso, which earned Canaday the Athenaeum Award, an annual literary award given to a resident of the greater Philadelphia area.

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Canaday continued to publish new books on art history and contemporary culture. His most well-known book is a 1962 collection of his New York Times articles, entitled Embattled Critic. (In the book's Appendix is a copy of the infamous "Letter to the New York Times," for which Canaday wrote the foreword.)

In 1969 he published a four-volume collection entitled The Lives of the Painters, which included many short biographies on artists from the Middle Ages to the Post-Impressionist period.

Later years and death

In 1973, Canaday voluntarily stepped down from his post as chief art critic for the New York Times. He did stay on with the Times however, working as a restaurant critic until his retirement in 1977.

After retirement, Canaday continued to write for Smithsonian magazine, The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1985.


In the annals of contemporary art history and theory, Canaday is more of an infamous figure than anything else. As the chief art critic for the New York Times, Canaday's writings found a much larger audience than his fellow critics (such as Greenberg and Rosenberg), who were publishing for magazines and journals with much smaller circulations, such as Partisan Review and Artforum. In his writings he referred to Max Ernst as an artist who "offers evidence of only a moderate degree of natural talent," and to most of the Abstract Expressionists as unimaginative imitators who "have either reached the end of a blind alley or painted themselves into a corner." As a result of his writings' wide circulation, combined with his outspoken and often contrarian views, Canaday was susceptible to much harsher criticisms from his contemporaries in the art world.

Canaday's lasting legacy is as the man who stormed onto the scene in September 1959 and proclaimed that Abstract Expressionism as a movement was guilty of "exceptional tolerance for incompetence and deception."

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