Sadly, an extraordinarily exceptional man has just passed away. What an honor to have gotten a brief chance to meet him and work with him. I only wish ‘Goodbye to Tenth Street’ could have come out before he passed on.
‘Swept Up by Art’ has been sweeping me up. An exciting book, a look into the vibrant, thought provoking depths Irving Sandler explored within the art world and artists. His legacy will live on. If you love art, read anything by him.
Irving Sandler, an art critic who drew on his extensive relationships with living artists to compile authoritative histories of Abstract Expressionism and the artistic movements that followed, died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 92.
The cause was cancer, his wife, Lucy Freeman Sandler, said. He had been in hospice care, she said.
Mr. Sandler was pursuing a doctorate in American history at Columbia University in 1952 when, wandering through the Museum of Modern Art one day, he came across “Chief,” an abstract painting by Franz Kline. The painting, a dynamic concatenation of thick black curves and slashes, gripped him with savage intensity.
“It was the first work of art that I really saw, and it changed my life, something like Saul jumping into Paul, as Elaine de Kooning wrote of Kline’s own leap from figuration to abstraction,” Mr. Sandler recalled in “A Sweeper-Up After Artists,” his 2003 memoir. “My conversion was less dramatic, of course, but my life would never be the same. Or, put another way, ‘Chief’ began my life-in-art, the life that has really counted for me.”
Mr. Sandler began haunting the galleries along East 10th Street, the hub of avant-garde activity in the 1950s and ′60s, and spending evenings at the Cedar Tavern, once the unofficial headquarters of the Abstract Expressionist movement. He came to know the principal figures in the art world of the time and eventually spent long hours interviewing them in their studios, getting them to think out loud about their work.
“It’s not unusual for an art historian or critic to mingle with artists; it is unusual for an art historian to turn those interactions and the firsthand knowledge that results into the basis for scholarship,” Blair Asbury Brooks wrote on the website Artspace in 2014. “This was Sandler’s gift.”
His relentless explorations led him to write “The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism.” Published in 1970 and lucidly written, it was the first thoroughgoing account of the movement.
Unlike the critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Mr. Sandler was not a polemicist. He had no argument to advance. Rather, he relied on the testimony of the artists themselves to offer a picture of the movement seen from the inside out.
He followed up with three equally searching volumes that traced the history of contemporary American art: “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).
In Artforum in 2004, the critic Robert Storr called Mr. Sandler’s sweeping narratives “readable and deeply informed by their author’s unrivaled access to the artists and art-worldlings about whom he writes.”
He added: “No one has seen more exhibitions in New York galleries or sat on, or in on, as many panels for as many years. Nor has anyone more scrupulously set down what people said in such forums, at openings, or in intimate studio or bar conversations than Sandler. Name a painter, sculptor, curator, critic, or idea man or woman and he will have talked to them and made notes.”
Irving Sandler was born on July 22, 1925, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where his parents, Harry and Diana (Drozdik) Sandler, settled after escaping the revolutionary violence in what is now Ukraine. His father taught at Yiddish cultural societies with a socialist bent, a profession that took the family to Hartford, Winnipeg in Canada and eventually Philadelphia, where Mr. Sandler attended high school. After his mother died in 1933, he was reared by his stepmother, Anna (Robin) Sandler.
At 17 he enlisted in the Marine Corps, which sent him to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., as part of an officer training program. He spent the rest of World War II with a stateside radar unit. After leaving the Marines in 1946 with the rank of second lieutenant, he attended Temple University on the G.I. Bill, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1948. Two years later he was awarded a master’s degree in American studies from the University of Pennsylvania.
His first marriage, to Lisa Aversa in 1949, ended in divorce in 1954. He married Lucy Freeman, a medieval art historian who taught at New York University before retiring, in 1958.
Besides his wife, Mr. Sandler, who lived in Greenwich Village, is survived by a daughter, Catherine Sandler.
After his fateful encounter with the Kline painting, Mr. Sandler left Columbia to follow his newfound passion. In 1956 he became the manager of the Tanager Gallery, an important artists’ cooperative on East 10th Street. Around the same time, he became the programming coordinator for the Artists’ Club, a weekly symposium attended by most of the major artists of the period.
In his three years at Tanager — where, he later recalled, “I sold a sum total of one piece” — he became fast friends with the gallery artists Alex Katzand Philip Pearlstein and with Al Held, who was represented by the Brata Gallery across the street. Mr. Sandler would later organize exhibitions and write about the work of all three.
It was a small world, made up of perhaps 200 artists. “You could get to know them all,” he said in a 2016 interview with The Brooklyn Rail. “I did know them all.”
At the urging of Thomas B. Hess, the editor of ArtNews, Mr. Sandler began writing reviews in 1956. He was the magazine’s senior critic until 1962. He also wrote for Art International and, from 1960 to 1964, was a critic at The New York Post. He taught at New York University and in 1972 accepted a professorship at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York, from which he retired in 1997.
In addition to his four-volume survey of American art, Mr. Sandler wrote monographs on Ms. Pfaff, Mr. Held, Mr. Katz and Mark di Suvero. A selection of his critical essays was published in “From Avant-Garde to Pluralism: An On-the-Spot History” (2006). He was given a lifetime achievement award by the International Association of Art Critics in 2008.
Mr. Sandler revisited the subject of his first major work in “Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation” (2009) and continued the story of his life in a second memoir, “Swept Up by Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era,” published in 2015.
His first novel, “Goodbye to Tenth Street,” set in the art world of the 1950s and ′60s, is to be published in the fall by Pleasure Boat Studio.