The Recluse and the Cultural Cold War

The rationale for showing Snee's work lies first and foremost in the quality of this treasure trove of unseen pictures. We believe that Gordon Snee is an unknown master of form, colour and movement, a leading figure among British abstract painters.

But there is also a compelling secondary, social factor. The exhibition illuminates a suppressed chapter in the story of post-war European abstract art, at a time when it is keenly relevant to the contemporary art world.

The Abstract Expressionist Orthodoxy

It is hard for us to look at Snee's pictures and not ask about the man. Why did he stop showing his work? And if he didn't exhibit it, why should we do so now? Why, despite his early successes, did he withdraw from the metropolitan art world and go back north?

Snee wrote in his note-books of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibitions that toured Europe's capitals from the early 1950s, triumphantly promoting America's Abstract Expressionists. They asserted that a raw outsider like Jackson Pollock could plug himself directly into the high-voltage storm of American daily life, and then let blind chance create high art. Contrast this with, say, Picasso, whose many years in the studio had decoupled him (it was said) from real life, and whose immersion in the thousand-fold complexity of Europe's culture and politics had made him into a confused old-timer.

Gordon Snee started exploring the new American styles in the 1960s, such as colour field and action art. But despite long experiment, he reached a dead end.

Abstract Expressionism, however, did not: it went on to displace European modernism, and the art capital of the world shifted from Paris to New York. It became clear that Snee did not share the art world's new values.

The Ultimate Outsider

Snee's work departs from the Abstract Expressionist orthodoxy in fundamental ways. His primary source is the outer physical world of landscapes, human heads and figures. It is not the inner world of his own emotions. Snee's paintings are planned projects: they report his experiences of seeing, recalled in stillness. They are not impulsive storm-like responses to personal crises. Finally (and this is still deeply unfashionable), Snee had no truck with the 'artist as celebrity'. He wrote: "through abstract painting, art can become anonymous, as it was in the Middle Ages". Gordon Snee was the ultimate outsider.

The Cultural Cold War

What was not known at the time is that those major MoMA exhibitions were cold war propaganda projects. Outrageous as it may seem, it turns out that Pollock and the New York School were (albeit unwittingly) being bankrolled as part of a US 'black op' to challenge Europe's cultural leadership, personified by the 'communist' Picasso. For twenty years, the American foundations that championed the Abstract Expressionists and bought their work were in fact laundering secret CIA funds.

This is all well-documented. It turns out that in 1947, the CIA set itself the specific strategic goal of demoralizing and discrediting European artists. The evidence surfaced in the mid-'90s when retired CIA case officers turned whistle-blower, and claimed credit for winning this 'cultural cold war'.

The 'art experts' who had championed this work refused to be embarrassed by the revelations. They could not dispute the facts, but they waved them away, saying that Abstract Expressionism was the only possible response to the post-war zeitgeist, and that its rise was inevitable. Whatever the ex-CIA men might claim, said the experts, this covert expenditure ($136 million in 1951 alone, and many billions of today's dollars over the thirty years) had not shifted the course of art history, and nor was the art world's integrity tainted in any sense.

A Lost Generation of Abstract Artists

The work of Gordon Snee shows that this view is false. It shows that American Expressionism was far from the only game of abstraction in town. The journey Snee was forced to make in private maps out for us a territory was deliberately shut out of the professional art world - because it was being explored by left-leaning Europeans.

Fortunately, Snee refused to be demoralized, and carried on painting. Perhaps there were others like him: a lost generation of European abstract artists. When the CIA's arts dollars dried up in the 1970s, a new generation of neo-liberal collector-speculators replaced them.

Fifty years on, the contemporary art market is worth some $60 billion a year, and the Abstract Expressionist orthodoxy that Snee rejected is still with us: the artist has largely replaced the art-work as the focus of attention, and the touchstone of creative authenticity is sought in the artist's inner process, not in the quality of the work made. Contemporary art is widely seen as a kind of puzzle that the viewer must solve, and this has called into being a host of experts to decode art and decide what has merit.

A Road Not Travelled

Snee's extraordinary legacy prompts us to ask: if the reputation of the New York School had not been artificially bloated by the cold warriors, what might abstract art look like now?

And in these days when neo-liberal economics is being widely discredited, it makes us wonder whether the art market is likely to hold the value that the neo-liberal's 'experts' have created for it.

Perhaps when Gordon Snee dabbled in Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s and ran out of road, he was simply ahead of his time.

#culturalcoldwar #abstractexpressionism #abstraction