Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or 'express' an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.
Abstract Expressionism was never an ideal label for the movement which grew up in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It was somehow meant to encompass not only the work of painters who filled their canvases with fields of color and abstract forms, but also those who attacked their canvases with a vigorous gestural expressionism. Yet Abstract Expressionism has become the most accepted term for a group of artists who did hold much in common. All were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement that they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. In their success, the New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage for America's post-war dominance of the international art world.
Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s. They were influenced by the era's leftist politics, and came to value an art grounded in personal experience. Few would maintain their earlier radical political views, but many continued to adopt the posture of outspoken avant-gardists protesting from the margins.
Having matured as artists at a time when America suffered economically and felt culturally isolated and provincial, the Abstract Expressionists were later welcomed as the first authentically American avant-garde. Their art was championed for being emphatically American in spirit - monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.
The milieu of Abstract Expressionism united sculptors such as David Smith as well as photographers like Aaron Siskind, but above all the movement was one of painters.
Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading Surrealists to New York, and many of the Abstract Expressionists were profoundly influenced by the style and by its focus on the unconscious. It encouraged their interest in myth and archetypal symbols and it shaped their understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the unconscious.
Artist: Jackson Pollock
One of thirty-two paintings in Pollock's 1950 solo exhibition at Betty Parson's New York gallery, Number 1 (Lavender Mist) was the only painting that sold. Despite critical praise and media attention, the artist did not garner sales of his famous drip paintings until later in his career. Pollock titled several paintings Number 1, and coded them with alternate titles. Thus, Number 1 (1949) and One, Number Thirty One, are closely related but upon close viewing differ slightly. Number 1 (Lavender Mist)exemplifies gestural abstraction, in which paint was poured or applied with extreme physicality to reflect the artist's inner mind. The color is expressive, while space is created through alternative layers and drips of opaque paint, creating a textured canvas surface that is nearly dizzying.
It is one of the many paradoxes of Abstract Expressionism that the roots of the movement lie in the figurative painting of the 1930s. Almost all the artists who would later become abstract painters in New York in the 1940s and 1950s were stamped by the experience of the Great Depression, and they came to maturity whilst painting in styles influenced by social realism and the Regionalist movement. By the late 1940s most had left those styles behind, but they learned much from their early work. It encouraged them in their commitment to an art based on personal experience. Time spent painting murals would later encourage them to create abstract paintings on a similarly monumental scale. The experience of working for the government - sponsored Works Progress Administration also brought many disparate figures together, and this would make it easier for them to band together again in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the new style was being promoted.
Artists living in New York in the 1930s were the beneficiaries of an increasingly sophisticated network of museums and galleries which staged major exhibitions of modern art. The Museum of Modern Art mounted shows such as "Cubism and Abstract Art," "Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism," and a major retrospective of Picasso. And 1939 saw the opening of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, later to be called the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which boasted an important collection of Kandinsky's works.
New York in the 1930s and 1940s
Many European modernists began to come to New York in the 1930s and 1940s to escape political upheaval and war. Some, such as the painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, would prove directly influential: Hofmann had spent the early years of the century in Paris; he had met the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Braque, who had acquired titanic reputations in artists' circles in New York, and he was able to impart many of their ideas to his students. Hofmann arrived with a sophisticated understanding of Cubism, and also a love of Matisse's Fauvism, which was underappreciated by many in New York.
All this activity meant that New York's artists were extraordinarily knowledgeable about trends in modern European art. It left many with feelings of inferiority, yet these were slowly overcome in the 1940s. Personal encounters with many displaced Europeans, such as André Breton, Max Ernst and André Masson, helped to rob some artists of the mythic status they had acquired. As Europe suffered under totalitarian regimes in the 1930s, and later became mired in war, many Americans felt emboldened to transcend European influence, to develop a rhetoric of painting that was appropriate to their own nation, and, not least, to take the helm of advanced culture at a time when some of its oldest citadels were under threat. It was no accident that critic Clement Greenberg, in one of his first important responses to the new movement, described it as "'American-Type' Painting".
The Formation of the Movement
By the late 1940s, many of the factors were in place to give birth to the new movement - however varied and disparate its artists' work. In 1947 Jackson Pollock found his way to the drip technique. The following year, de Kooning had an influential show at the Charles Egan Gallery; Barnett Newman arrived at his breakthrough picture Onement I; and Mark Rothkobegan painting the "multi-form" paintings that would soon lead to the signature works of his mature period. After 18 like-minded artists mounted a boycott of an exhibition of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, and in January 1951 were cajoled into posing for a photo for Life magazine, they were baptized as "The Irascibles". Finally, the movement had a sense of group identity and common purpose.
Themes, Concepts and Styles
The most significant influence on the themes and concepts of the Abstract Expressionists was Surrealism. The American painters were uneasy with the overt Freudian symbolism of the European movement, but they were inspired by its interests in the unconscious, as well as its strain of primitivism and preoccupation with mythology. Many were particularly interested in the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who believed that elements of a collective unconscious had been handed down through the ages by means of archetypal symbols - primordial images which had become recurrent motifs. This gave many artists the impetus to move away from the biomorphic Surrealism of Miró and Picasso, and towards an increasingly reductive style. Rothko and Newman are typical of this progress: Rothko experimented with abstract symbols in the early 1940s before moving towards entirely abstract fields of color; Newman similarly sought an approach which might strip away all extraneous motifs and communicate everything through one powerfully resonant symbol - in his case, the so-called 'zip' paintings.
Many artists attempted to channel into art by means of what André Breton called 'pure psychic automatism', which in practice often meant the involvement of chance in the creation of art. Pollock considered his drip technique to be at least in part a means of harnessing his unconscious; and the approach left effects to chance for all to see on the surface of the canvas. But like many others, Pollock also insisted on an element of control in his method - as he once said, "No chaos, damn it!" - and he believed that the "drips" were powerfully expressive, rather than being merely random accumulations of paint. Indeed, they were self-expressive. The ambivalence in Pollock's attitude was shared by many Abstract Expressionists whose embrace of chaos was balanced by an impulse towards control. This paradox explains much of the energetic tumult one finds in the work of many of the so-called "action painters", including de Kooning, Kline and Motherwell. In part it led to the so-called "all-over" effect which one sees in Pollock's mature work, and in de Kooning's abstract paintings of the late 1940s, in which forms seem to be dispersed evenly across the canvas; when chaos threatened, everything in the image could shatter into pieces.
Existentialism and Rosenberg
Another impetus for the Abstract Expressionists to retool Surrealism was a feeling that certain aspects of the style were no longer suited to the post-war world. The reigning philosophy of the period, Existentialism, would never be an important influence on the Abstract Expressionists, but it contributed to the rhetoric of anxiety and alienation which pervaded discussion. It was also a key influence on one of the movement's key critics, Harold Rosenberg, who delved into it for this influential formulation which appeared in a 1952 article for ART News entitled "The American Action Painters": "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act - rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or 'express' an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." It was this notion that birthed the idea of "action painting": it didn't quite accommodate the work of artists like Rothko and Newman, but it was an insightful realization of what painters like Pollock, Kline and de Kooning all had in common.
Formalism and Greenberg
The other critic who proved crucial in promoting the movement - and the one whose influence has far out-lasted it - was Clement Greenberg. He was uncomfortable with any discussion of content and ideas in art, and argued instead that modern art had evolved along formal lines. Greenberg saw in Pollock the next important step in this process, and championed his work vigorously. Indeed, he championed all of the Abstract Expressionists as a triumphant American answer to the shortcomings of the European avant-garde. He also encouraged the idea of Color Field painting. Some would later argue that Color Field painting represented a new manifestation of a long tradition of sublime landscape. But Greenberg viewed the work ofRothko, Still and Newman as part of a tendency in modern painting to apply color in extended areas, or 'fields'. He would later return to this notion in championing a second generation of painters, which included Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Morris Louis.
Like any group of artists whose work achieves widespread recognition, Abstract Expressionism was eventually imperilled by its success. An extensive network of dealers, museums and galleries reached out to support it; even the government covertly embraced it and promoted it vigorously overseas as a testament to free-expression in America, in contrast to the repressions of the Stalinist Eastern Bloc. Inevitably, by the mid 1950s, the style had attracted a multitude of young followers, and what began as an impulse to expression, threatened to become stale and academic.
By the mid 1950s the style had also run its course in other ways. The movement's greatest achievements were often built on a conflict between chaos and control which could only be played out in so many ways. Some artists, such as Newman and Rothko, had evolved a style so reductive that there was little room for development - and to change course would have shrunk the grandeur of their bold trademark solutions. Younger artists following the development of this generation were less and less persuaded by artists who were said to put forth one sublime expression after another, often in series; and they grew tired of their postures of heroism. Homosexual artists, such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Ellsworth Kelly, also felt little affinity with the macho styles and rhetoric of the New York School. Some, like Johns, would learn much from the Abstract Expressionists, and carry their interest in the autographic gesture in fresh directions, introducing qualities of irony, ambiguity and reticence which the older generation could never have countenanced. Others, like Warhol, were too enthralled by the pop culture of the streets to have much in common with the lofty ambitions of hard-drinking womanizers such as Pollock and de Kooning.
By the late 1950s, Abstract Expressionism had entirely lost its place at the center of critical debate and a new generation was on the cusp of success. Yet the legacy of the movement was to be considerable. Allan Kaprow sensed this as early as 1958 when he wrote an article for ART News entitled "What is the legacy of Jackson Pollock?" His answer pointed beyond painting, and Pollock's influence was certainly felt in areas where performance had a role: he was to be important to the Japanese Gutai movement as well as the Viennese Actionists. But the influence of the movement as a whole would continue to be felt by painters maturing in subsequent decades. It was important for the likes of Dorothea Rockburne, Pat Steir, Susan Rothenberg and Jack Whitten in the 1970s. Its rhetoric - if not its direct example - would be important for many Neo-Expressionists in the 1980s such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And in the 1990s it again provided an example to painters such as Cecily Brown. The themes and concepts which informed Abstract Expressionism may have lost the power to compel young artists, but the movement's achievements continue to supply them with standards against which to be measured.