Greatest Art Critics Series
John Canaday

Biography of Anti-Modernist Art Critic of The New York Times.

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Kenneth Clark (1903-83)

John Edwin Canaday (1907-85)


University Training and Teaching
Art Critic


One of the most famous art critics of the mid-20th century in America, John Canaday ranks alongside Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978), Clement Greenberg (1909-94), Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) as a key opinion-former within the world of modern art in general, and American art in particular. A Professor at the University of Virginia (1938-50), and chief art critic for the influential New York Times newspaper (1958-74), Canaday also wrote several influential books on the history of art, notably Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso (1959), winner of the Athenaeum Literary Award and a standard text in art schools for many years. He is best-known for his uncompromising stance on the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, of which he was highly critical. However, while contributing significantly to the debate on abstract art, his anti-modernist views on Abstract Expressionist painting remain controversial, not least because today's postmodernist art establishment continues to revere the New York school, and because their paintings continue to feature in lists of the Most Expensive Paintings (Top 20). Whether Canaday's views will make a comeback if opinions change, is anybody's guess.



University Training and Teaching

Born John Edwin Canaday in Fort Scott, Kansas, the son of a Kansas attorney, he moved to Texas with his family at the age of 7. He enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin in 1924, receiving a B.A. degree in French and English literature in 1929. After this he studied painting and art history at Yale University, where he received a Masters degree in 1933. He then began teaching: first, at the University of Topeka (1933-34); then at Newcomb College, Tulane University, New Orleans (1934–36), during which time he married Katherine S. Hoover (1935); then Hollins College, Roanoke, Virginia (1936–38); and finally the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville (1938–50). His stint at the University of Virginia was interrupted by wartime service in the Belgian Congo (as an interpreter, 1943), and afterwards in the Pacific (in the United States Marine Corps, 1943-45). In 1950 he left Charlottesville and returned to Newcomb College, Tulane University, as head of the art school. This lasted until 1952 when Canaday joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art as chief of the education division, a position he held until 1959. It was during this period that he wrote the text for a series of arts seminars published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Art Critic

In 1958 Canaday began writing articles on art for the New York Times, and the following year he became the newspaper's leading art critic. A man of strong opinions, he used his column to accuse the New York school of Abstract Expressionism (the dominant idiom of the day), of lowering the standards of painting. And while acknowledging the skills of artists including Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Willem De Kooning (1904-97) and Mark Rothko (1903-70), he denounced many exponents of this style of modern art, as charlatans. He also condemned the attempts of the arts establishment to brainwash the public into accepting low quality avant-garde art, and singled out the Guggenheim Museum New York and its contents, for special criticism. Canaday's articles scandalized the nation's arts establishment, resulting in a famous "Letter to the New York Times" (1961) signed by a group of influential art collectors, historians and painters, which accused Canaday of being an agitator. However, Canaday received considerable support for his views from both the public, and from other critics and artists, notably Edward Hopper (1882-1967).

Note: The term "abstract expressionism" encompases a number of differing styles or mini-movements, including: Action-Painting (1947-56), Colour Field Painting (c.1948-68), Post-Painterly Abstraction (c.1955-65), Hard Edge Painting (Late 1950s, Early 1960s). See also: Jackson Pollock's paintings (c.1940-56).


In addition to his arts column for the New York Times, Canaday wrote a number of influential books on art and culture. These include: Mainstreams of Modern Art: David to Picasso (1959); Embattled Critic: Views on Modern Art (1962); The Lives of the Painters (1969); Culture Gulch: Notes on Art and Its Public in the 1960s (1969); Baroque Painters (1972); Neoclassical to Post-Impressionist Painters (1972); Late Gothic to Renaissance Painters (1972); What is Art? An Introduction to Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (1980); and Ben Shahn, Voices and Visions (1981). He also wrote a wide range of articles for publications including The New Republic and the Smithsonian magazine.

In 1974, with the advent of postmodernism and contemporary art, Canaday resigned his position as art critic with the New York Times, in order to devote more time to writing books. A noted gourmet, Canaday also served as the New York Times' restaurant critic, writing a regular column until he retired in 1977. He died of pancreatic cancer in New York, in 1985.

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