The emergence of Abstract Expressionism in New York City during the late 1930s both shocked and titillated the cultural elite of the international art scene. Abstraction itself was nothing new—modernist painters had been regulating the viewer's eye to obscured images and distorted objects for quite some time. In fact, the bright, abstracted canvases and conceptual ideals of high modernist painters such as Joan Miro and Wassily Kandinsky tremendously influenced the Abstract Expressionists. What distinguished the movement from its contemporaries, and what effectively altered the acceptable standards of art, was the artists' absolute disregard for some kind of "objective correlative" that a viewer could grasp in attempt to understand the work. The central figures of Abstract Expression-ism—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Clyfford Still, among others—completely rejected any kind of traditional thematic narrative or naturalistic representation of objects as valid artistic methods. Rather, they focused on the stroke and movement of the brush and on the application of color to the canvas; the act of painting itself became a vehicle for the spontaneous and spiritual expression of the artist's unconscious mind. Pollock's method of "drip painting," or "all over painting" as some critics call it, involved spontaneous and uncalculated sweeping motions of his arm. He would set his large canvas on the floor and, using sticks and caked paintbrushes, would rhythmically fling paint at it. The act of painting became an art form in itself, like a dance. Under the rubric of Abstract Expressionism, colorfield painters like Rothko would layer one single color plane above another on a large surface, achieving a subtly glowing field of color that seems to vibrate or dance on the one dimensional canvas. The artists hoped that, independent of the formal language of traditional art, they would convey some kind of sublime, essential truth about humanity.
Interestingly, as a result of the highly subjective nature of the work, Abstract Expressionist painters actually negated "the subject matter of common experience." Rather, the artist turned to "the medium of his own craft," to the singular, aesthetic experience of painting itself. As art critic Clement Greenberg wrote in the seminal essay "Avant-garde and Kitsch," the very "expression" of the artist became more important than what was expressed. The Partisan Review published Greenberg's "Avant-garde and Kitsch" in 1939, and it was quickly adopted as a kind of manifesto for Abstract Expressionism. In the essay, Greenberg unapologetically distinguishes between an elite ruling class that supports and appreciates the avant-garde, and the Philistine masses, an unfortunate majority that has always been "more or less indifferent to culture," and has become conditioned to kitsch. Greenberg defines kitsch as a synthetic art that merely imitates life, while the avant-garde seeks "to imitate God by creating something valid in its own terms, in the way that nature itself is valid … independent of meanings, similars or originals." The Abstract Expressionist work, with a content that cannot be extracted from its form, answers Greenberg's call for an avant-garde "expression" in and of itself. The transcendentalist nature of an Abstract Expressionist painting, with neither object nor subject other than that implicit in its color and texture, reinforces Greenberg's assertion that the avant-garde is and should be difficult. Its inaccessibility serves as a barrier between the masses who will dismiss the work, and the cultured elite who will embrace it.
However valid or invalid Greenberg's claims in "Avant-garde and Kitsch" may be, inherent in the essay is a mechanism ensuring the allure of Abstract Expressionism. In the same way that the emperor's fabled new clothes won the admiration of a kingdom afraid to not see them, Abstract Expressionism quickly found favor with critics, dealers, collectors, and other connoisseurs of cultural capital, who did not wish to exclude themselves from the kind of elite class that would appreciate such a difficult movement. When New York Times art critic John Canaday published an article in 1961 opposed not only to Abstract Expressionism, but also to the critical reverence it had won, the newspaper was bombarded with over 600 responses from the artistic community, the majority of which bitterly attacked Canaday's judgement, even his sanity. Most art magazines and academic publications simply did not print material that questioned the validity or quality of a movement that the art world so fervently defended. By 1948, even Life magazine, ironically the most "popular" publication in the nation at the time, jumped on the bandwagon and ran a lengthy, illustrated piece on Abstract Expressionism.
While the enormous, vibrant canvases of Pollock, Rothko, and others certainly warranted the frenzy of approval and popularity they received, their success may also have been due to post-war U.S. patriotism, as well as to the brewing McCarthy Era of the 1950s. New York City became a kind of nucleic haven for post-war exiles and émigrés from Europe, a melange of celebrities from the European art world among them. Surrealists Andre Breton and Salvador Dali, for example, arrived in New York and dramatically affected the young Abstract Expressionists, influencing their work with psychoanalysis. The immigration of such men, however, not only impacted the artistic circles, but also changed the cultural climate of the entire city. The birth of Abstract Expressionism in New York announced to the world that the United States was no longer a cultural wasteland and empire of kitsch, whose artists and writers would expatriate in order to mature and develop in their work. Thus the art world marketed and exploited Abstract Expressionism as the movement that single-handedly transformed America's reputation for cultural bankruptcy and defined the United States as a cultural as well as a political leader. Furthermore, as critic Robert Hughes writes, by the end of the 1950s Abstract Expressionism was encouraged by the "American government as a symbol of American cultural freedom, in contrast to the state-repressed artistic speech of Soviet Russia." What could be a better representation of democracy and capitalism than a formally and conceptually innovative art form that stretches all boundaries of art, and meets with global acclaim and unprecedented financial rewards?
Politics aside, of paramount importance in the discussion of this art movement is the realization that, more than any other art movement that preceded it, Abstract Expressionism changed the modern perception of and standards for art. As colorfield painter Alfred Gottleib wrote in a letter to a friend after Jackson Pollock's death in 1956: "neither Cubism nor Surrealism could absorb someone like myself; we felt like derelicts…. Therefore one had to dig inside one's self, excavate what one could, and if what came out did not seem to be art by accepted standards, so much the worse for those standards."
Chilvers, Ian, editor. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, Second Edition. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York, Brown and Benchmark Publishers, 1994.
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
——. The Shock of the New. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Shapiro, Cecile, and David Shapiro. Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record. Cambridge and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, often known as "the New York School" or "American action painting,"
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describes the works of a loose community of painters in New York from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. Initially influenced by surrealism and cubism, abstract expressionists rejected the social realism, regionalism, and geometric abstraction so popular with American painters of the 1930s. Instead, they turned first to mythology and then to their own experiences and insights as subject matter for their bold, at times dizzying, abstract compositions.
The term "abstract expressionism" dates from 1946, when Robert Coates of the New Yorker first used it to describe the works of several American abstractionists. Because works of abstract expressionism can diverge wildly in terms of structure and technique, art historian Irving Sandler divides abstract expressionists into two categories: gesture painters and color-field painters. Jackson Pollock remains the preeminent gesture painter; in such paintings as Cathedral (1947) and Autumn Rhythm (1950), Pollock eschewed recognizable symbols entirely, composing delicate webs of interpenetrating shapes. Color-field painters, on the other hand, suppressed all references to the past by painting unified fields of varying color. Un-like their counterparts, who often valued the act of painting as much as the finished product, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and other color-field painters strove to reproduce the metaphysical experience of the sublime.
Because each artist emphasized his or her own absolute individuality, abstract expressionists continually rejected the notion that they had coalesced into a school. Nevertheless, by 1943, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Elaine de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and other future abstract expressionists were becoming increasingly familiar with each other's work. From 1943 to 1945, Peggy Guggenheim exhibited many early works of abstract expressionism in her Art of This Century Gallery. During the late 1940s, many abstract expressionists also congregated in the Subjects of the Artist School, the Cedar Tavern, and the infamous Eighth Street Club to socialize and engage in intellectual debate. Critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg emerged as abstract expressionism's most articulate champions.
Set against a backdrop of Cold War conformity, abstract expressionists often saw their work as the ultimate statement of romantic individuality and artistic freedom. By the early 1950s, however, abstract expressionism was losing much of its initial appeal. Although some abstract expressionists continued to experiment with pure abstraction, others began to reintroduce recognizable subject matter into their canvases. By mid-decade, abstract expressionism was finding a frequent home in major museums and private collections. The United States Information Agency (USIA) even organized exhibitions of abstract expressionism in response to accusations of American "philistinism."
Gibson, Ann Eden. Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.
Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism. New York: Praeger, 1970.
See alsoCubism .
Abstract Expressionism, a visual arts movement that emerged in the late 1930s and 1940s, challenged accepted standards of what was art. Embracing improvisation (simultaneous creation and production), individuality, and energy, it was the first art movement with origins in America. Abstract art moved beyond representing reality as everyone experienced it daily. Rather than depicting people, landscapes, familiar objects, or elements from nature, the Abstract Expressionists used color, shapes, lines, and space to evoke another part of reality.
European artists in the 1920s—the Surrealists, Expressionists, and Cubists—had painted canvases in which objects and people were still recognizable but far from realistic. When World War II broke out in Europe in the late 1930s, many influential artists fled to the United States. Their experiments and explorations had a great influence on American painters. New York City, rather than Paris, became the center of artistic activity. Rejecting the goal of representing the world around them, instead the so-called New York School of painters wanted to convey spontaneous emotions and the subconscious mind (the part of thinking that is not in our awareness).
Many Abstract Expressionist paintings were done on very large canvases. Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) dripped and flung paint onto canvases to allow movement and color to express the subconscious mind. In his paintings, Mark Rothko (1903–1970) achieved great emotional effects by layering and stacking rectangular fields of color, with the colors bleeding into each other at the edges.
Abstract Expressionism was a radical break from traditional art, and at first it was difficult for many to accept. In the political climate of the Cold War in the 1950s, however, Abstract Expressionism became a symbol of American freedom and the quest for the new. Whereas the Soviet Union strictly controlled artistic expression, in the United States Abstract Expressionists were free to experiment as they wished—in keeping with the American ideals of democracy, freedom of expression, and innovation.