The photograph that would become the canonical portrait of the generation of artists known as the New York School was taken by Life magazine in 1950 to illustrate its coverage of a collective protest against the exhibition American Painting Today, organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same year. Using the photograph as a starting point, The Irascibles: Painters Against the Museum (New York, 1950) presents the group of artists who took part in the protest and shows the enormous complexity of the American art world of the time.
In 1948, three painters (Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and Mark Rothko) and a sculptor (David Hare) opened a small cooperative school in Greenwich Village. As part of the curriculum, they held Friday night lectures led by other artists, art critics, and intellectuals. Although the actual school operated for less than a year, the Friday evening program continued under the direction of several teachers from New York University who were sympathetic to the work of these artists. The sessions were held in what came to be known as Studio 35, after its location on 35 East Eighth Street. At a special three-day symposium at there in April 1950, Adolph Gottlieb proposed that the participants protest against the upcoming exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. This competitive show was open to artists throughout the country, with regional juries choosing the semi-finalists and an authority designated by the museum deciding the final award.
Because many of the New York jurors were known to be hostile to modern art, Gottlieb rightfully argued that their work would not be fairly judged. He immediately wrote the first draft of an open letter addressed to the president of the Metropolitan Museum, Roland L. Redmond, which was signed by some of the painters attending the symposium. Other artists joined later, including some sculptors, even though the exhibition at the Metropolitan was exclusively dedicated to painting. The letter was published on the front page of the New York Times on 22 May, under the headline "18 Painters Boycott Metropolitan; Charge 'Hostility to Advanced Art'". The Herald Tribune responded with a harsh editorial in which it referred to the protesters as "the Irascible Eighteen." In order to include this controversy in its coverage of the exhibition at the Metropolitan, Life magazine asked the artists to sit for a group photograph, which became the unofficial portrait of the New York School. The article was published in the 15 January 1951 issue of Life under the headline "Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show".
The fifteen artists who appeared in the photograph included some of the most renowned members of the New York School (Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Robert Motherwell) as well as lesser-known artists (William Baziotes, Theodoros Stamos, and Ad Reinhardt) and painters who have been virtually written out of history (Hedda Sterne, James Brooks, Jimmy Ernst, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Richard Pousette-Dart). The three other painters who had signed the protest letter were not in New York at the time of the shoot and did not appear in the photograph: Hans Hofmann, who was looked up to by his peers, and Fritz Bultman and Weldon Kees, two younger painters whose careers were affected by their absence that day.
This exhibition brings together, for the first time, a selection of works produced around the time this group of painters decided to join forces and take on the policy of the highly-respected Metropolitan Museum, the media, and the general public. By presenting works by all the Irascibles—those with successful careers and their lesser known colleagues who are rarely shown outside of the United States—, this show offers visitors a much richer understanding of one of the most important groups of mid-twentieth century artists.