How Postwar Paris Changed the Expat Artists

Most people looking to make it as artists today are advised to follow a hyper-professionalized path, beginning with enrollment at one of a select group of M.F.A. programs. But as a new exhibition reminds us, it wasn’t always this way. “Americans in Paris: Artists Working in Postwar France, 1946-1962,” at the Grey Art Museum at N.Y.U., celebrates the convivial, informal and often self-directed education of expatriates in the French capital after World War II.

“Americans in Paris” inaugurates the university’s relocated and renamed art space; it has moved from Washington Square, where it was known as the Grey Art Gallery, several blocks east, to Cooper Square.

The show devotes a lot of scholarly attention to a slice of art history — abstract painting in Western Europe in the 1950s and ’60s — that is not exactly understudied. And it arrives at a moment when the 2024 Venice Biennale, “Foreigners Everywhere,” is advancing a very different idea of the expatriate (with a focus on the Global South, and on queer and Indigenous artists). The exhibit’s title inevitably brings to mind the classic 1951 Vincente Minnelli film, “An American in Paris,” starring Gene Kelly as a World War II veteran turned painter, whose dancing and wooing prove to be more accomplished than his brushwork.

But within familiar terrain, the show (organized by the Grey’s director, Lynn Gumpert, with the independent curator Debra Bricker Balken) finds new voices and perspectives. Among its 70 artists are a number who have been receiving overdue attention from the academy and the market (including Ed Clark, Beauford Delaney and Shirley Jaffe), and a couple of others who haven’t been but should be (foremost among them the sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri).

At heart, the exhibition is also about how artists learn and develop. It would not be inaccurate to call “Americans in Paris” an advertisement for the G.I. Bill of Rights, which financed college educations for veterans and covered many living expenses. (However, some of the show’s most significant figures — Joan Mitchell and Claire Falkenstein, as well as writers like James Baldwin who were critical to the development of the scene — had to make their way to France without government support.)

Claire Falkenstein at her studio in Paris circa 1953.Credit…Claire Falkenstein Foundation, via Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York
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