Irving Sandler, the pioneering, on-the-scene art critic whose lively early histories of abstract expressionism were written from within the artists’ New York studios, and who later expanded his interests to the anti-modern tendencies of the next generation, died on June 2 in Manhattan from complications related to lung cancer. He was 92.
In the more than 75 books, catalogs, interviews, and contributions to publications he wrote since 1956, when he got his start as a reviewer for ArtNews magazine, Sandler wrote from the perspective of an insider whose close ties to artists such as Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Joan Mitchell, among many others, enriched his criticism with a sense of personal investment.
“At the time,” he wrote in 1996, “the American art-conscious public was still hostile to abstract expressionism. In response I wrote as an embattled partisan, from within the movement, as it were.” Yet unlike the polemicists of the day — Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg chief among them — Sandler took a bird’s-eye view of the scene as a whole, setting aside stern judgments in favor of firsthand description. “Back in the Fifties, I thought that my mission (and I was not alone in this) was to educate the public about avant-garde art,” he told the Brooklyn Rail in 2006. “That was what we really tried to do. I think we succeeded.”
Sandler was born on July 22, 1925, in New York City to Jewish refugees from Ukraine who fled the Russian Revolution. His childhood was spent in Philadelphia. At 17, he joined the U.S. Marines and served three years during the Second World War. By the mid-1950s, an interest in abstract art led to a job as manager of the Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street, an artist-run cooperative through which he forged many early connections. In 1958, he married his second wife, Lucy Freeman, a historian of medieval art to whom he dedicated many books and essays.
Sandler’s first major publication, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (1970), chronicled the rise of New York as the center of modern art in the postwar period through the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others. The book eventually became the first of a four-volume epic of twentieth-century art history, which included The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (1978), American Art of the 1960s (1988), and Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (1996).
Each book was written with an eye toward the unity and diversity of American art — and, increasingly, with an awareness that critics must doubt their crafts. “Art history is not transparent,” Sandler wrote in the preface to Art of the Postmodern Era. “It is written by individuals, who bring to it their own personal baggage of appetites, psychological makeups, ethnic identities, social positions, political and religious persuasions, and so on. Claims to objectivity notwithstanding, the historian’s idiosyncrasies shape art history.”
What made Sandler so remarkable was the flexibility of his taste. As pop art and minimalism began to eclipse abstract expressionism in the 1960s, Sandler opened his mind to these radically combative movements, which replaced the passions of painterly abstraction with cool, detached aesthetics. “I must admit that at first I was antagonistic,” Sandler later said. “In time, my attitude changed.”
What allowed him to absorb these later styles was his deep sense of responsibility to artists. In 1972, he was among the co-founders of Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery devoted to supporting young artists working in a variety of ways. Graffiti was the subject of a show in 1975; two years later, the critic Douglas Crimp organized the radical “Pictures” show, from which the Pictures Generation emerged, and which set a tone radically different from that of de Kooning or Pollock. At the opening, Sandler was photographed smiling with Helene Winer, who later opened the Metro Pictures gallery in 1980.
Yet Sandler, who was so open to changes of direction, later voiced some concerns about the direction of art criticism, which increasingly turned away from art and artists and toward theory and speculation. “I find it objectionable,” Sandler said in 2006 of critics who celebrated their own minds instead of attending to the work at hand. “They are guilty of the deadly sin of envy. It’s artists who create, not art critics or theorists.”
But through it all, a spirit of generosity remained. Last July, Sandler and Lucy invited me over for a glass of scotch — their beverage of choice — and entertained me with stories about old New York. The decor of their home — which was handsomely packed with paintings and gifts of art from friends — spoke to how widely they are admired. On one wall, there was a portrait by Philip Pearlstein of a young Sandler; another had a text painting by Glenn Ligon that borrowed phrasing from The Triumph of American Painting. It was a gift from the artist.
Nearby, there was a large abstract painting by Joan Mitchell from the late 1950s. Sandler had seen it in progress and admired the work, but Mitchell was displeased with it. One day, she called to say she was about to destroy it. He tried to persuade her otherwise. “She told me, ‘Look, if you can get here in a half-hour, it’s yours,’” he explained to me. So he rushed down to her studio and saved the picture — and that’s just one of the many ways Irving Sandler helped preserve history.