In 1936, Albert Gallatin hoped to answer Alfred Barr’s twin theses that abstract art was European and that it was declining. Gallatin assembled the finest practitioners of abstract art in America and organized an exhibition at the Paul Reinhardt Gallery at 57th Street and 5th Avenue in New York, calling it Five Concretionist: Biederman, Calder, Ferren, Morris and Shaw. Susan Larsen, in her most recent monograph on Charles Biederman, descirbed the show as “a landmark exhibition reviewed by many papers and preserved in memory as the birth of a new generation of modernists working in New York” [Larsen, Charles Biederman (2011), p. 77]. “Sophisticated observers knew it to be Gallatin and Morris’s rebuttal to Alfred Bar’s exclusion of Americans in his sweeping survey exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art,” she continued. The very name of Barr’s exhibition demonstrates that Barr felt that abstraction had already had its day: “cubism” had been around two decades when Barr thought to chronicle it. Indeed, Gallatin’s term, “concretionist,” sat poorly with all five of the artists in the Reinhardt Gallery show; it nonetheless served the purpose of looking ahead to emerging artforms rather than looking back and abroad. Looking back past the post-war explosion of abstract expressionism to the enduring marks of minimalism and other abstract sub-groups, the Barr’s for obituary for abstraction appears almost comically premature.
The present work was exhibited in that ground-breaking 1936 exhibition, and it made a splash as the sole work from the exhibition reproduced in The New York Times’ review of the show. “The town goes abstract on a scale that must be called rampant,” wrote the Times’ Edward Alden Jewell. “After deciding what a ‘concretionist’ is, you are free to estimate the extent to which any of these five artists has enriched the theories promulgated some time ago by Joan Miro and his more advanced earlier graduates,” Jewell went on, typifying the contemporary discomfort with the name for the new art. Biederman shared that discomfort, writing in a letter to his friend and patron John Anderson, “Gallatin asked me if I would participate in an exhibit for March…I said yes and just recently found out that it was the beginning of a new clique. It will…be known as (hold your seat) ‘Concretionists.’ Arp has already used that term so it has been what one might call christened properly and so I am that above mentioned name, but reluctantly” [as quoted by Susan Larsen in Charles Biederman (2011), p. 63]. Biederman might not have balked at the association with Miro, but he certainly had other ambitions than the Spanish painter. Writing in 1976, he described his “return to biological shapes…1935-1936″:
This particular area of my search terminated in the realization that such structuring was simply a more subtle form of visual conditioning to the figurative imitation of the past as well as the imitative perception of nature. I concluded this pursuit could not lead to a purely creative form of art” [Charles Biederman: A Retrospective (1976), p. 47].
Possibly, he agreed with the general observation of the Times critic: Biederman had done all he could for abstract painting, and abstract painting had done all it could for Biederman — two years later, he would put down the brush for good. Here he also acknowledged the needs of the art-viewing public, remarking, “Most people are not as severe critics as nature. Nature demands hard work, the public demands to be startled” [Ibid., p. 47]. Even if Jewell was unimpressed by Biederman’s contributions to abstraction, the art-viewing public found the work thrilling if not startling, and “a generation of modernists” were roused from their slumber by “the new clique” on view at the Paul Reinhardt Galleries.