How an Exclusive NYC Cult Influenced the Postwar Art Scene

Alexander Stille, author of 'The Sullivanians,' joins Ben Davis on the podcast this week.

[12:01 PM] Caroline Goldstein The Sullivanians in Central Park. Photo: Donna Warshaw, courtesy of Alexander Stille.

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“I was like reborn,” the art critic Clement Greenberg once remembered, “it was the most important event in my life.”

The event in question was his encounter with Sullivanian therapy. His biographer, Florence Rubenfeld, once wrote that it would not overstretch the facts to say that after the late ’50s, Clem’s comportment in the art world can only be understood in this context. Yet despite how large Clement Greenberg looms as the most impactful U.S. critic of the 20th century, few people know this history.

A new book called The Sullivanians, Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune is raising the subject once again, as literally one chapter in a much larger narrative. A lot of other people shared Greenberg’s experience of rebirth. From the 1950s to the 1980s, hundreds of bright, educated people looking for purpose and community passed through the doors of the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis on New York’s Upper West Side.

Formulated into a doctrine by Saul Newton and Jane Pierce, this experimental therapy promised to liberate devotees from both creative and sexual repression. In the course of the 60s, it would evolve into a multi-decade experiment in polyamory, collective living, and group child rearing, before eventually coming apart in scandal when the inner workings of the group were exposed in the 1980s.

Recently, the author of The Sullivanians, Alexander Stille, joined Ben Davis to talk about both about the Sullivan Institute’s contact with U.S. art at mid-century, and more importantly, about the larger story of what this group became and what it represents now.


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