Paintings, Prints and Shrimp-Cleaners: MoMA and the Americanization of France

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In the spring of 1955 MoMA launched in Paris 50 Years of American Art a mammoth exhibition surveying the full gamut of 20th century art from the high to the more popular. As such this was the largest and most aggressive statement to date about the vigor and originality of American visual culture ever to have been seen in Europe. While the exhibition made a triumphal tour throughout other parts of Europe, Paris was the only location to exhibit the contents in its entirety. Subsequent art writers have identified 50 Years of American Art as significant for two chief reasons, both of which relate to the generous quota of abstract expressionist works in the exhibition. First, as a crucial prelude to its much vaunted successor The New American Painting reputed to have secured abstract expressionism’s international preeminence just three years later. And second, as a tool of cultural diplomacy deployed by MoMA during the Cold War to promote a positive image of the U.S. in Europe. Here I am referring to the well-known view that MoMA promoted the expressive freedom of abstract expressionism to distinguish American art from its socialist counterpart and to convince Europeans that the militarily and economically dominant U.S. defended the same values as they did. These earlier studies have been crucial in encouraging a reconsideration of abstract expressionism’s canonical status within and beyond the U.S. With this aspect of MoMA’s exhibition history now well rehearsed in the literature, we are well placed to scrutinize more closely the significance of the other wares, among them the architectural models, furniture, flatware and tools shipped into Paris in the same container.
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McDonald, Gay
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