Abstract painting

What debt does mid-century American abstract painting owe to Monet?

Claude Monet cast a shadow over 20th century art after his death in 1926. Indeed, his impact still lives on in the paintings of a contemporary like the octogenarian Larry Poons. They perpetuate more vigorously than ever the lyrical and evanescent spirit of his French predecessor. This is not the first exhibition to address Monet’s legacy. On the contrary, at least three big ones have already broached the subject: in Madrid, Munich and Boston/London. None, however, were so focused on American abstraction. Nor did they have Les Nymphéas (Water Lilies) as a pivot and cornerstone – in this case, literally more or less part of the architecture of the Musée de l’Orangerie. The museum has finally played its trump card. The movement looks both impressive overall and problematic in places.

In 1952, André Masson equated Monet’s eight vast panels with “the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism”. In their vast encompassing expanse, these panoramas still retain something of that thrill. Not quite “apocalyptic wallpaper” but not too far off the sentiment either – provided you replace “apocalypse” with “contemplation” and see them as an apotheosis of decorative impulses rather than in pejorative terms of “wallpaper “. Far from being a backdrop, the Orangerie’s two oval spaces are immersive, the key quality that anticipated the shift of modernist painting from the easel to various larger expanses beyond.

Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris Orangery Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Sophie Crépy Boegly

“Modernist”, that is to say if we accept the narrative theory of the American critic Clement Greenberg of a progressive abandonment to the medium, a pictorial push towards flatness, homogeneity and blandness. Unfortunately, none of the Abstract Expressionists did. The show and the catalog seek to make this discrepancy a virtue. Thus, the curatorial thesis revolves around the acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) of a large water lily in 1955 and the critical debate that accompanies it. At this time, the first generation AbEx (to shorten the long term) peaked, while Greenberg had visited the Orangerie the previous year. The stars were aligned for a successor to AbEx or at least a shift in its emphasis on what Rothko had previously called the “tragic and timeless.” Step into abstract impressionism, a hazy concept that has barely gelled enough to form a “movement.”

But the show opens with a nice retrospective touch. On the ground floor near the entrance and just before the two large rotundas housing the Monets, stands a simple tribute to Ellsworth Kelly. A 1968 suite of Kelly’s ultra-sparse ink drawings of water lilies flanks his small, if seminal, Tableau Vert (1952). He extracts the essence – the chromatic dynamism – from Monet’s “envelope”, the atmosphere which, according to him, enveloped everything. This gallery also serves as a reminder that once the war was over, Americans once again returned to Paris and away from tense McCarthyist America. The luminaries included Kelly, Sam Francis and Helen Frankenthaler alongside now almost forgotten figures such as Beauford Delaney (black and, like Kelly, gay) and Ary Stillman (who had exhibited with other AbEx artists at the Betty Parsons Gallery). Of course, Joan Mitchell – she finally settled in Vétheuil – de facto inherited Monet’s coat. On the ground floor, the main exhibition begins with a spectacular polyptych by Mitchell from 1980, surrounded by floating greenery.

Ellsworth Kelly’s Greenboard (1952) The Art Institute of Chicago; Ellsworth Kelly Foundation

Then the AbEx connections go haywire. Although Barnett Newman criticized the MoMA for having delayed until 1953 to acquire his first Monet, nothing connects his The Beginning (1946) to the latter. Similarly, Pollock’s The Deep (1953) is a tribute to Clyfford Still, not Monet. Admittedly, Still had a cut of Monet with the Water Lilies. However, the Western polymath collected images of everything from African art to Renoir and cartoons. As for Rothko’s two multiforms, it was Bonnard’s 1948 memorial exhibition at MoMA that helped them dissolve the figurative presences of yesteryear into fields of light. In turn, Greenberg’s 1955 essay “American-Type Painting” deliberately misinterpreted these fields and Pollock’s skeins as heirs to Monet’s “integral” empirical sensuality rather than visionary and sublime existential icons.

Greenberg’s obsession seems unhealthy. It both provides a theoretical structure to the exhibition and distorts the history of the art in question. A catalog in French also does not help to clarify the erudition of the argument (at least for non-French speakers). In addition, several artists that Louis Finkelstein named in his 1956 article who most fully identified “Abstract Impressionism”—among them Nell Blaine, Robert Goodnough, and Ray Parker—are missing. And Guston’s powerful pictorial fantasies of the mid-1950s seem to be more laden with angst than hedonism.

Installation view of The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the last Monet exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris Orangerie Museum

Fortunately, the installation turns a corner in all directions with the two shimmering veils of Morris Louis. These faithfully reflect Greenberg’s advocacy of “post-painting abstraction” in the early 1960s. It was an art that focused on air, lightness and grandeur that Monet himself would probably have approved of. A magnificent watery blue by Frankenthaler and that of Francis, aptly titled Le tour du monde (1958-59), preside over these latter spaces encouraged by the rich canvas Untitled (1954) by Jean-Paul Riopelle. A Jules Olitski would have been a nice addition, as would a Larry Poons. Very playful, this exhibition is nonetheless sometimes a bit, let’s say, impressionistic.

• The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the Last MonetMusée de l’Orangerie, Paris, until August 20

• David Anfam is an art historian, senior consultant curator at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, and co-organizer of the Royal Academy of Art’s major survey of abstract expressionism in 2016