Events in Abstract Expressionism

EVENTS FOR ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM, 1945-1955

In 1946, former British prime minister, Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in March at Fulton, Missouri. According to Churchill, who had always been suspicious of Stalin, traditional fascism verses democracy had been replaced by a new confrontation between communism verses democracy. The Cold War was on. With the advent of Atomic Power, the world became used to the “normalization” of the Bomb and accepted the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction. After the Second World War, in 1947-48 a new identity for the avant-garde developed with the beginning of a New Liberalism and the beginning of a New Conservativism. The rise of Nationalism in America impacted Abstract Expressionism. On one hand, the style was touted by the American government as an expression of “Freedom” abroad, while being assailed as un-American at home.

That same year, 1946, marked the end of Surrealist activity in New York and the Truman Doctrine introduced American aid to combat communism in Europe. To combat Communism at home, the Employee Loyalty Program introduced the infamous “Loyalty Oaths.” While the Marshall Plan began the “struggle for souls” in Europe, to make the continent safe from Communism, Americans at home were subjected to increasing surveillance. “Modern art equals communism,” thundered George Donders, the Pat Robertson of his day. “..lazy, nutty Moderns,” grumbled President Harry Truman. For American conservatives, “modern art” was equated with the avant-garde which was equated with Europeans which was equated with Communism. In the first decade following the Cold War, modern art, particularly Abstract Expressionism, became a pawn in the political struggle with Communism. As both Max Kozloff (1973) and Eva Cockcroft (1974) pointed out, the Museum of Modern Art frequently played the role of go-between, negotiating between the United States government (the CIA) and European venues for American art.

Forty years later, their consternation seems a bit naïve, given the extent to which governments have always deployed art for political purposes. As for the artists and their collectors, international showings and celebrations of their art could well have been welcome, regardless of the underlying motivations or sponsoring agencies. After all, the entire modus operandi of the Abstract Expressionist artists had been to “breakthrough” the stranglehold of European art. Indeed, the earliest exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist art had the word “American” in the titles: “Fourteen Americans,” 1946, “Fifteen Americans,” 1952, “Twelve Americans,” 1956, “The New American Painting,” 1958, “The New American Painting and Sculpture. The First Generation,” 1969 and so on. American government became involved with using art as propaganda: “We will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City,” said one U.S. Senator.

Under these circumstances in which American art was used to connote “freedom,” Peggy Guggenheim returned to Europe and gave away all but two works of her collection to “provincial” museums. Jackson Pollock’s important Mural (1943) went to the University of Iowa where it languished for years in obscurity. For cautious artists, there was a new ideology, a third way, and a non-commital abstraction provided a way out of the vise of nationalism against the international avant-garde. In the MacCarthy era it was prudent to avoid political extremes and unwanted exposure with a political apoliticalism, while continuing the Modernist tradition of abstract art.

The New York intellectuals had already turned to psychoanalysis and to myth to avoid Marxist aesthetics, using the emergence of biomorphic art, linked to automatic writing and Surrealism, and the increased interest in primitivism to do work connected to contemporary events. For the Abstract Expressionist artists, the violent and frightening content of primitive art, archaic art could express the contemporary fate of individual facing chaos and the horror of modern condition could not be represented figuratively. To these artists, to represent is to accept the conditions. Recalling the censorship of Rivera’s murals, the head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt eliminated from mural in San Francisco as too “political.” Even the Partisan Review moved to the right and stresses psychology, focused on the individual. Greenberg, likewise, jettisoned his early Marxism for apolotical formalism as a means for analyzing art.

Meanwhile, Abstract Expressionism was taking hold, with “The Ideographic Picture” being presented at Betty Parsons’ gallery in 1947. Parsons, the last of the amateur dealers, took over most of Guggenheim’s stable of artists, keeping Jackson Pollock but removing his wife, the painter, Lee Krasner, from her stable. In 1948 the Subject is Artists School was set up by Motherwell and Newman with lectures on Friday evening. In contrast to pre-War informality and close friendships, the School formalized Abstract Expressionism and the debate scene mirrored the rifts among the artists. Friday night lectures at Studio 35 absorbed groups from the Waldorf Cafeteria and became known as the “Eighth Street Club.” By 1949, the Eighth Street Club or “The Club” became the focal point of Abstract Expressionism. And the Cedar Street Tavern became the hangout for all the artists who wanted to drink and argue about art.

“The Sublime is Now,” by Barnett Newman, 1948, was published in Tiger’s Eye and Clement Greenberg announced the end of the School of Paris and the ascension of American art in his article “The Decline of Cubism.” In 1948 Arshile Gorky died by his own hand, and Mark Rothko abandoned Surrealism under the influence of Clyfford Still in San Francisco. Struggling to make ends meet, Jackson Pollock gave away Lucifer to settle a doctor’s bill, but a collector, Alfonso Ossario, purchased Pollock’s No. 5 for $1500. Life Magazine ridiculed Pollock as “America’s Greatest Artist” in 1949, after it organized panel of experts to “Clarify the Strange Art of the Day” in October, 1948. Pollock was photographed by Arnold Newman in February for his feature story in Life: “Jackson Pollock–Is he the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” Pollock was pictured in a denim jacket and jeans and work books, aligning himself with the working class. He exemplified “cool” with a cigarette dangling from his lips and his cocky attitude. The artist, however, was broke and he offered to sell Newman one of his paintings. The photographer declined the offer.

According to Elaine de Kooning, Pollock became “the first American artist to be devoured as a packaged by critics and collectors,” when he developed his “Drip Technique” from 1947 to 1950, finally abandoned in 1953. He sold No. 4 to MOMA for $250 and had his second show with Parsons, from January to February, 1949. A year later, in 1950, Hans Namuth photographed and filmed Jackson Pollock at work. These famous images would prove to be as interesting as Pollock’s paintings to the new artists in the Fluxus group. The sight of Pollock moving within and around canvases placed on the floor of his Studio, the Barn, evoked comparisons to “dance” from Jack Tworkov.

Performance art of the Fifties responded to Pollock as a performance artist and to the idea of art as an “act.” In 1952, Harold Rosenberg wrote “American Action Painters,” an article often seen as a “companion piece” to the Newman photographs. However, Rosenberg was more than likely writing about Willem de Kooning, widely respected as a lone artist who had given up a very lucrative and successful career as a commercial artist to suffer years of privation as a “fine artist.” Krasner was furious at the betrayal of her old friend, Rosenberg, who was now supporting the other side—de Kooning.

New York began to divide between the supporters of Pollock, led by Clement Greenberg and the supporters of de Kooning, led by Rosenberg. In 1951 “The School of New York” exhibition was organized by Motherwell as the American counterpart to The School of Paris. Italian dealer and businessman, Leo Castelli, was in New York with the intent to support contemporary American artists. Everyone was waiting to see who he would select for his stable. By 1952 the Ab Ex artists begin to disband and the term the “New York School” gained ground as not really school of painting but as more diverse individuals in loose community of artists.

But over the decade following the Second World War, each of those artists had found his or her own style: Pollock the drip, Kline the slash, Newman the zip, Rothko the stacked rectangles, Gottlieb the Blast and Burst, Krasner the Little Image, and with these signatures the artists withdrew into the competitive corners of the Uptown group and the Downtown group. Sculptor David Smith moved to Bolton Landing and created his own world of metal sculptures dispersed across his own fields. Willem de Kooning summed up the dialectic of the New York art world with his signifiant black and white paintings of the late forties which contrasted with his colorful and figurative Woman series of the early fifties.

By the mid fifties, Abstract Expressionism as an impactful art movement was over; its time was passed and at the very moment when the artists began to find some form of museum and gallery recognition. Figuration returned in the work of Jackson Pollock as well in his last great series of the early fifties. To some, representation was a retreat from the hard won victories of abstraction, but, Pollock’s shift to the figure was a portent of things to come. It was de Kooning who would be most closely related to the up-coming challenge of Neo-Dada. It was a drawing of his that would be “erased” by Robert Rauschenberg, whose random collages inspired by what the art writer and artist Brian O’Doherty called the “vernacular glance,” another version of de Kooning’s famous “slipping glimpse.” “Content,” he said, “is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It is very tiny—very tiny, content.” Art and Life would now intersect.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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