Post-War Culture in America

FROM MODERNISM TO POST-MODERNISM

POST-WAR ART IN AMERICA

After the Second World War, the art world was characterized by “triumphalism” in New York and a feeling of having won, not just a military war but also a cultural war. The French and their School of Paris had been routed. Also defeated was American Scene painting and its nativist illustrations of a naïve nation. Now, the triumphant society would be represented by works of art that expressed America metaphorically, through sheer size or potent symbols. American art, like American culture, was a global phenomenon with New York at its core. There were “secondary” and usually ignored centers in the Midwest (Chicago) and on the West Coast (Los Angeles and San Francisco), but New York seized the lead, consolidating major art critics, major artists, major art dealers, and major art nstitutions, from museums to art departments, and, perhaps most important of all—important art collectors. Until the 1970s, this scene was the site of rival movements, co-existing and reacting dialectically—Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Pop Art, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, Op Art, and so on, until the great seventies dissolve into incoherent Pluralism. It can be said that, after Abstract Expressionism, most of these movements defined and positioned themselves against the aging artists of the New York School and their continuation of the European tradition.

This cacophony of movements was presided over by art critics and art historians who wrote for a small number of magazines that fulfilled the function of legitimation and validation of artists, their art reputations and careers. As a financial town, New York provided the support system willing to invest in contemporary art, but only the art went through the system of approval from what Arthur Danto called “the art world.” Danto and the aesthetician, George Dickie, conceived of the “institutional theory of art,” meaning that “art” was designated, not on an aesthetic basis, but upon the basis of institutional acceptance. From Neo-Dada onwards, the traditional definition of art was in a state of crisis, brought on by the acceptance of Marcel Duchamp’s alternative concepts of art.

Instead of an attractive object, characterized by “taste,” a work of art was a concept. Instead of an artist who worked with hands and heart, the creator was a conceptualist who conceived of art as language. Far more challenging than Duchamp’s insistence that art should be put “in the service of the mind,” was the logical consequences of Dada’s new artistic freedom. If art was a thought manifested by an arbitrarily found object, then any item from the world outside of the confines of fine art could be termed “art.” Once “art” announced itself with its significant presence, its beauty, its grandeur, its profound intentions, by the Sixties, Danto pondered the difference between a “real” Brillo box and a Brillo box by Andy Warhol.

What is the difference between a mural sized field of glorious color titled Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950), a painting hanging on the wall, where it belongs, and Monogram (1955) a stuffed goat with a tire girdling its middle, standing proudly on a canvas, laid down like a “field” on the floor? The gap between the two is the distance between generations, the gulf between America before and after World War II. What happened during the fifties and the sixties to produce such a schism between the nobility of “Man, heroic and sublime” and the ignobility of an abandoned goat, straddling a painted arena, where the heroic artist once did battle with the forces of art and tradition?

The Fifties seemed to be Clement Greenberg’s nightmare of popular culture come true, with the invasion of kitsch—Rauschenberg’s goat and stuffed chickens in the museum just one room away from the abstract purity of Newman’s absolute spiritual state. Life had invaded art in a most unexpected way. Newman’s piece is all about the human spirit at its most glorified, idealized, spiritualized form. Rauschenberg’s work is about life, the quotidian, the overlooked, the ignored. But life in all its inglorious aspects, Rauschenberg is asserting, is worthy of our attention. The distance between Newman and Rauschenberg is the long delayed consideration of Duchamp’s challenge to high art and all its serious pretensions. Instead of the involvement of gesture, we have the detachment of gesture. Instead of the triumph of art, we have the success of art’s acceptance of anything and everything as art.

The ground was fertile for the ideas of Duchamp by the 1950s because of the need to debunk Abstract Expressionism and because of the commercial success of American art. The burgeoning demand allowed the artists scope and freedom to defy rather than to extend and re-define tradition. The success of American art was inseparable from the tragedy of Jackson Pollock. Pollock took a deep breath about 1947 and managed to hold it and his life together for about three years. During this dry spell, Pollock produced some of the most sublime images of the century, and then willfully, capriciously, childishly, he exhaled. His life’s breath drifted out and his art drifted away, and one August night in 1956, Pollock drove his car into a tree, killing himself and a passenger. Great story. American art now had its martyr. The New York School now had its Grand Récit, complete with the tragic arc. Greenberg would recall Pollock’s “run” of about ten years, leaving behind a cult of personality and a Studio full of relics and a keeper of the flame, “the art widow,” Lee Krasner.

In order for the art world to move on, this hagiography had to be combatted. Piece by piece the vaunted characteristics of Abstract Expressionism would be attacked and discredited and discarded, and by the Eighties, the movement was consigned to a Modernist history. Ironically, the “triumph” of the New York School was immediately followed by the challenge of Neo-Dada. Neo-Dada eschewed originality for appropriation, bringing the jewel in the crown of modernism—creativity—to an end. It is here that Modernism ends and Postmodern begins. The art world’s continuing challenges to Modernism and its defenders, Clement Greenberg and his followers, would be expanded to that of a critique of Enlightenment and all that it had wrought. That critique was Postmodernism. Postmodernism was a re-examination of Modernism and was based in philosophy and literary theory, rather than in the visual arts or aesthetics. Therefore, postmodernism could not generate a style or a movement.

As a philosophical critique, postmodernism or post-structuralism was a European phenomenon, dating from the decade of the mid to late Fifties to Sixties. Fueled by the collapse of the Left, following “May, 1968” in France, postmodernism was a re-reading of Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that had proved inadequate to the challenges of the Twentieth Century. In Germany, postmodernism was really a form of post-Marxism, again, generated by the inadequacy of traditional Marxism to social and cultural changes, especially mass media. As an exercise of re-examination, postmodernism took the stance of “belatedness,” everything had already been done, all had been said, and the kind of historical progress promised by the Enlightenment was unlikely to occur.

For years, most Americans in the art world paid little attention to postmodern theories, whether out of philosophy or literary theory. The reason for this neglect are various and include American self-satisfaction with the leadership position in visual culture, the slowness of translation, and the entrenchment of traditional art historical methods. When Americans became aware of the significance of postmodern thinking in the 1980s, most of the important works had either been written or were well underway. Suddenly belated, American art could only try to respond and to catch up to European thinking. The visual arts shifted into “theory” and language and philosophy, as artists began to critique Modernist art and to reject or re-examine its precepts.

With the occasional exception excluding women and people of color, the post-war art world was an all male, all white enclave. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s challenged the art world and revealed the racism and the sexism that favored the production of white men. After the Stonewall Uprising in 1968 and especially after AIDS, the gay and lesbian community also demanded more visibility. Coincidentally or not, postmodernism became prominent in America during the Reagan presidency, which was characterized by attempts to roll back the gains of women and people of color and by neglect of the AIDS epidemic. Because postmodernism re-reads traditions of the past, it is an inherently conservative study, re-examining the work of white males, mostly dead. That said, “theory,” especially post-Marxist theory provided women, gays and lesbians, and people of color a theoretical basis to challenge the more reactive elements of postmodern theory.

For the visual arts the consequences were profound: there was freedom and anarchy and lack of a center. Without an avant-garde, postmodern artists seemed doomed to reactiveness to the past. But folded into the postmodern period, were Late Enlightenment adaptations of social theories, co-existing with postmodern assertions that revolution was now impossible. The so-called “minorities” had the tools to resist the hegemony of the status quo. The question that begs to be asked is, if late modernism and postmodernism co-mingle, when did postmodernism begin or when did modernism end? The answer depends upon where you are, which culture you come from—the Sixties in Europe, the Eighties in America—in terms of response to Enlightenment philosophy. But if one uses another criteria, “the postmodern condition,” then the shift is more cultural, rooted in mass media, and therefore global. This “condition” that is Postmodernism is a post-war response to the loss of mastery and the disillusionment in a disenchanted world.

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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.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

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Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part Two

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The Abstract Expressionist artists translated “meaning” from subject matter to the broader and deeper intent of the word. For these artists, “meaning” had to be profound and transcendent so that art could rise above the rather minor role it played during the Thirties as handmaiden to politics. But first, this group of local New York artists had to go through the process of being schooled by the European masters. As mentioned in earlier posts on this website, what was interesting about this apprenticeship was not what was accepted by what was rejected by the New York School. As the critic Harold Rosenberg later explained it in 1972,

“The legacy that New York artists inherited from Paris consisted of the tradition of overthrow of unlimited formal experimentation and parody and fragments of radical ideas. It was on the basis of the consciousness of loss and renunciation of support by the past that a new creative principle was sought by the New York painters.”

The famous expatriate teacher from Germany, Hans Hofmann, presented a synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism and taught the Americans to be distrustful of the figurative aspects of Surrealism. The East European émigré, John Graham, taught the Americans to assimilate Surrealism through “primitive” art and the works of Picasso. The Mexican Masters, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, taught the New York artists about mural painting and about working on a large scale, using experimental techniques. However, Americans ultimately rejected the imagery of the Mexican painters as being too verbal, that is too message based. The abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and the Surrealist techniques of André Masson and Matta were promising but the American artists proceeded cautiously. In addition, they were also wary of abstract or decorative art as being empty.

The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning. The artists were attempting to get beyond, not only the European tradition in painting but also the regionalism and localism of American art. It was important for these artists to free art from any parochialism and to establish art as an act of transcendence. Content had to be not only personal but the individual style of one artist was only a vehicle for the expression of larger and more universal concerns. Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica (1937) was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art. The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion and was shown in the Paris International Exhibition but had been stranded in New York City by the outbreak of the Second World War. Here was a work that was large scale with a universal meaning that transcended any local events. Picasso used the visual language of Cubism and the metaphorical approach of Surrealism and adapted fragmentation and dream to the nightmare of total war.

For each artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement, the journey towards a new, modern and universal meaning had to take them through a journey that cut a path through an American tradition of realism and a European tradition of post-Cubist and post-Expressionsit art. Jackson Pollock denied the folk ways of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton and traveled through a flirtation with Surrealist automatic writing married to vaguely understood Jungian theories. Lee Krasner, the most promising young artist in New York, moved away from her mentors Hoffmann and Mondrian towards a cautious abstraction of her own. Franz Kline shifted his attention from industrial landscapes to the possibilities of making a painting from brushstrokes alone. These, and other odysseys, were slow and sometimes painful and happened over a decade marked by the Second World War.

In order for the experience of a painting to be purely visual, traditional composition had to be jettisoned. One of the breakthroughs of early Modernism was the introduction of the “all-over” composition in Cubism. It was Piet Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was at the same time balanced and infinite. But to the American artists, seeking a way out of European modernism, Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked the kind of American spontaneity and improvisation expressed in jazz. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content when compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko. The resulting mass image, spread all over the surface, implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, as in the way Mondrian brought black lines and primary colors to the end of the canvas.

But the key break from European art was the departure from easel painting for an exploration of the possibilities of mural painting. On a mural scale, the viewer’s peripheral vision could be engaged, rendering a centered composition irrelevant. Part of this severance from old traditions was a paradoxical return to artistic elements that were primal or, as the favorite term of the times expressed it, “primitive.” It was the atavistic that allowed the New York artists to assert their American ways through Native American art. The Pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb came the closest to understanding the essence of Native American culture. During the Forties, the artist placed inscrutable symbolic forms within a grid with the conviction that symbolic language preceded written language. Unnatural culture was an interruption or an interference with a more universal language. In the same period, Pollock investigated the possibilities of Native American art in paintings such as She Wolf (1943). Art should be able to communicate on the Jungian level of the collective unconscious. As Gottlieb stated,

“If we profess a kinship to the art of primitive men, it is because the feelings they expressed have a particular pertinence today. In times of violence, personal predilections for the niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life.”

By the Fifties, as American art took a leading role in international visual culture, Abstract Expressionist art and artists took up new positions in society and new roles in the making of culture. Mythically, the artist became a medium between the mute public and the expression of the need of ordinary people to express their fears and longings. The artist, as a human being, was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge. Making art was a journey of self discovery. The writings of André Breton suggested that any painting, any work of art, could be an “event,” a “revelation,” a risk,” thus rescuing abstract art from the shame of “mere (feminine) decoration.” The personality of the artist became part of the content but that meaning remained ultimately unknowable or beyond understanding.

Understanding an Abstract Expressionist painting was an event for the viewer rather than an intellectual act of perception. The abstract content of pure paint, pure line, pure color became a meaning that could only be felt, not spoken, undefined but discernible, incapable of being verbalized but nevertheless abstractly expressed. Freed from rules and conventions of art making, the artist could assert his (or her) personality through the unique signatory ‘touch.” This ego-oriented art put the artist above the subject matter; indeed, the artist becomes the subject matter. In an example of the “pathetic fallacy,” the work of art became the carrier of the artist’s soul, which was somehow embedded in the very pigment and the surface affects themselves. The facture or “surface” became fetishized as a result of the belief that the pigment embodied the artist.

For the viewer as well as the artist, Abstract Expressionist art was pure experience. The paintings were large and overpowering, often stretching beyond the viewer’s field of vision and activating the peripheral vision. As Robert Hobbs pointed out in Abstract Expressionism. The Formative Years, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience. The painters also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience. Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950) by Barnett Newman measured 96 x 216 inches, stretching out horizontally, creating a journey for the overwhelmed viewer who paused here and there at the “zips.” But for Newman, this transit was not simply an aesthetic one but a moral and ethical one as well.

“The self, ” he said, “terrible and constant, is for me the subject matter of painting and sculpture…The artist emphatically does not create form. The artist expresses in a work of art an aesthetic idea which is innovate and eternal.”

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint, followed by the question of what to paint at the time of the end of painting. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

 

 

Abstract Expressionism: Redefining Art, Part One

How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Content

To work as an artist in New York City during the 1940s was to work in what the Chinese curse called “interesting times. The Abstract Expressionist artists of the New York School struggled to make art during a catastrophic world war while the entire nation was engulfed in the effort to preserve and protect democracy. For the past decade, during the 1930s, art had been socially conscious and politically activist and its illustrative approach was well-suited to conveying informative content to the public in the Depression period. The efforts of the government to bringing art to the people through New Deal public mural projects elevated the overall national awareness of art and these local murals focused on the task of recounting history through visual culture. But the events of the Second World War implied that art might have a new role–to express a collective consciousness that transcended any one nation or any one location.

As the result of unprecedented world events, a war for civilization itself, art now had a serious role and a high purpose. Likewise the artist had a serious role and a high purpose. The social responsibility of the artist was nothing less than the renewal of art itself. The spiritual responsibility of the artist was to translate the felt experience of his or her time into art. The Abstract Expressionist artists lived through the Depression and the Second World War. For them, content and the aesthetic values of art were important, as opposed to the literary component or the illustrative role of representational traditional art so beloved by Americans. Their social consciousness raised by the Depression, these artists asked, not just what should I paint but more importantly why should I paint? What was the existential reason for making art? Moving away from the American Regionalists and from the Social Realists, these new painters turned from representation and looked towards a more ancient and more archaic form of human expression: myth. They scorned the Modernism that had become an academic European art for a collective experience in atavistic symbol making, using the “primitive” and the “primeval” as sources of inspiration for a new art in newly terrible times. The response of a group of artists in New York City to the perceived crisis in subject matter was a new way of making art and new way of seeing a painting.

Abstract Expressionism re-defined subject matter in that time of a crisis in subject matter–how to make an art that expressed an era in crisis? Art had been caught between specific content—representational art and and art that had no content but formal content–totally abstract art. But as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko stated in 1943, “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject matter is crucial…” The Abstract Expressionist artists were concerned with ancient myth and primitive art as way to question an insular European tradition and to show their opposition to Social Realism and American Scene painting. Seeking a profundity that would respond to the shift in mood, Newman and Rothko were particularly interested in the tradition of tragedy from ancient Greek myth. The role that myth played in the painting of Jackson Pollock has been debated and discussed among art historians for decades, and it seems likely that the artist picked up on the zeitgeist and used mythic themes in his art of the last thirties and early forties, such as She Wolf (1943). That said, Pollock dropped the crutch of myth as his subject matter and moved towards exploring new ways of making the act of painting itself the content of painting. Painting was seen as the elimination of past traditions to clear the way to return to primal means of expression. The artists, alienated from society, attempted to devise a new language for mythic thought, a language that was non-discursive, expressing the deep truth of myth.

Indeed, the Abstract Expressionist artists also had to establish their own territory in New York City. Pollock is often given the credit for a “breakthrough,” as Willem de Kooning expressed it, or a breaking away from European art. But, for the New York artists, the process of discarding a tradition had to begin with the reexamination of Modernism. To counter the American Modernism of the aging Alfred Stieglitz and his venerable circle of painters, who tended to be representational and local, the younger artists looked to the waning styles and movements of European art to see what they could salvage. The American artists were less interested in the theories and philosophies of Dada and Surrealism and were more interested in the possibilities of Dada’s use of chance and displacement and in the neutral and innovative practices of automatism they learned from Surrealism. The task was to wrest chance from the idea of “anti-art” and to appropriate automatic writing to the practice of painting, as seen in the work of Joan Miró, in order to apply a hybrid mix of old ideas to make new art.

For Mark Rothko, the goal was to eliminate figuration and to retain his vertical zones of stacked content. During the 1940s, Rothko shunned the dream content of Surrealism in favor of multiple floating areas of color roaming a raw canvas. For some artists, such as Jackson Pollock, the work of art was understood as a “duration,” supported by the “directness” of art. Art was an act, a process that proceeded over a period of contemplative thought and active making. Derived from the “automatic writing” of Surrealism, Pollock’s “drip technique” shifted the content of art from an illustrated scene to an abstract kinetic process captured on his unprimed canvas and sealed beneath skeins of paint. For other artists, such as Robert Motherwell, abstraction could be used to express the lingering sorrow over the failure of the Spanish Republic. The hanging pendulous black figures slung against the raw blank white background of Motherwell’s Elegy series evoke the black and white ethos of an era of great sadness and loss. After not painting for years, Barnett Newman took up art again and began a remarkable and long-lasting series of “zip” paintings, in which, acting like a god, he cleaved the whole of his canvas into two separable worlds of color. Onement I of 1948 is a statement of oneness and division made by a Holocaust survivor. “I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone,” he stated, “as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”

Each Abstract Expressionist artist had his or her own way of creating a unique expression for the post-war era. Abstract Expressionism re-defined the purpose of art from Social Consciousness to Human Consciousness, stressing the universal instead of particular. The artistic and conceptual gulf between illustrative nationalist art practiced by Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and art that communicated through the collective unconscious of Jungian myth is vast and deep and unbridgeable. Abstract Expressionism marks the transition from lack of subject matter—abstract art—to abstract content with “meaning” as concept. Meaning is to be Felt rather than spoken or directly explained. Art as Experience became one of the defining characteristics of Abstract Expressionism.

Art must be a response to modern life and thus, in order to move forward into the next half of the broken century, the New York School rejected the exhausted European tradition of Modernism in favor of a tradition more universal. Willem de Kooning whose birth city of Rotterdam was pulverized by Nazi bombers renounced figuration and began creating layers of shards of crashed paint, enhanced by painful attempts at rudimentary drawing. The Dutch artist alternatively built and destroyed, constructed and excavated a series of mid-sized paintings that he was notoriously reluctant to finish as if no reconstruction would suffice. As can be seen, the shift into totally abstract art brought formal elements and formal innovation to the fore as artistic statements to create a new way for art to communicate on a more profound level. Adolph Gottlieb was deeply concerned with the state of the post-war world. As a fortunate individual who had survived the Holocaust by dint of being an American, he spoke eloquently of the times he lived in:

The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.

The search for the atavistic roots of art led to a return to an almost Ur manner of painting. The painters ended traditional European play between line and color by combining the two, thereby eliminating relationships among elements as content, such as seen in Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. The act of painting was stripped down to its essence—marking the canvas and covering an expanse with colors. Once the idea of composition was pushed aside, Mark Rothko’s great fields of morphing colors obliterated the division between line and shape, implying a spreading atmosphere rather than a bounded easel painting. Franz Kline swept large swarths of black paint crashing into chunks of white paint in an expression of clash and combat so characteristic of the era of the warrior. What was left on the canvas was the artist’s experience—the marks of his making. He explained,

There is imagery. Symbolism is a difficult idea. I’m not a symbolist. In other words, these are painting experiences. I don’t decide in advance that am going to paint a definite experience, but in the act of painting, it becomes a genuine experience for me.

Over time, the mere mark of the artist, his touch, the slash of the loaded paint brush was the total content of the painting. The personality of the artist replaced figurative content and the cult of the artist replaced tragic meaning or universal truths. To critics, such as Harold Rosenberg, the physical action of the artists’ mark-making was sufficient in and of itself for the art to become an “act.” Rosenberg’s American Action Painters of 1952 recreated painting as an existential act, the sole means of existence in a world without God. A 1948 statement by Barnett Newman: “Terror can only exist if the forces of tragedy are unknown” was replaced by the idea that painting was revelation, a revelation of the artist. The critical shift, seen best in the formalist approach of Clement Greenberg, can be seen as a political neutralization of Abstract Expressionism, removing the artist’s personal convictions and replacing individual feeling with pigment in motion. Following the frightening hostility towards left-wing intellectuals during the MacCarthy era, Greenberg preferred and supported the (apparently) apolitical work of Pollock, and the anti-war messages of Gottlieb’s Blast and Burst series of the sixties were out of step with the increasing (Greenbergian) critical need to separate art from the conflicts of the Cold War.

By making the artist himself (women were usually not included in the ranks of the New York School) the content, Abstract Expressionism became more formal in its content and the very real need of many of the artists to come to grips with the tragedies of their century was covered over by a new discourse of “American triumphalism” over European Modernism. To come full circle, in 2009, the art historian Irving Sandler recently published his own reevaluation of his 1970 history of Abstract Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation. The period during which Abstract Expressionist artists were struggling with the problem of how to express an entirely unprecedented historical content was a complex one, fraught with political peril, roiled by critical rivalries, and marked by rival artistic camps. A balance between the intentions of the varied group of disparate artists and the need of historians to define movements can perhaps be reached, but before we can get to that point, we need to have a fuller view of the landscape.

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Abstract Expressionism, The Definition

DEFINING ABSTRACTION EXPRESSIONISM

“Abstract Expressionism” was term coined by Alfred Barr in 1929 in reference to Vasily Kandinsky’s art. “Abstract Expressionism,” as a term, was revived by Robert Coates in The New Yorker in 1946 to characterize work by American artists in the Fifties in New York. Abstract Expressionism refers to the style used by a certain group of artists in New York, a style that is, as its name states, abstract, non-figurative, and expressionist, nonrepresentational. The movement, called the New York School, dated from 1942 to 1952, according to some sources. Stylistically, total abstraction was developed by different artists at different times in their art making. Jackson Pollock became totally abstract by 1947, Willem de Kooning by 1949, but both de Kooning and Pollock returned to figuration by 1950. Therefore, “The New York School,” as a designation can encompass both abstraction and figuration as practiced by the artists. While de Kooning and Pollock went back and forth from abstraction to figuration, the other artists of Abstract Expressionism remained totally abstract for their entire careers.

Over time, stylistic variations among the artists resulted in a division between the Gesture and Color Field branches of The New York School. There was also a division between a downtown group and an uptown group that roughly coincided with the binaries of painterly and linear. In the Gesture group were de Kooning and Pollock and Franz Kline with the possible inclusion of Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston. In the Color Field Group were Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko with the possible inclusion of Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottileb. As a group the artists knew each other well, but their friendships tended to fluctuate with the passage of time. As the School became commercially successful, the support system became a group of rivals, all competing with each other.

Thanks to early and important exhibitions on Cubism, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, Dada and Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the ironies of art history is that it was the rude, crude, ignorant barbarians of America, the lowly “colonials absorbed, adapted and advanced European avant-garde art years ahead of the Europeans. During the years of the Second World War, the Americans reshaped and reformed European intellectual and spiritual and psychological abstractions into a more “American” idiom. The painters, who were mature artists reaching the peak of their collective powers, sought to both use and to get beyond their European precursors and create work that expressed their unique contributions. The New York School implicitly rejected the small (and feminine) size of the easel paintings favored by the market driven European artists. They had been impressed by the mural of the Mexican artists and wanted to adapt the wall-sized works for portable paintings that would be as big as America.

During the War, most of the artists experimented with combining old traditions of European modernism into new forms. Arshile Gorky seemed to take the early lead in rethinking the inherited tradition, but he committed suicide in 1948. After the war, American artists were aware that Europe was in ruins and that they had momentum of European art had been broken by war. Just as America had “won” the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism reveled in the American post-war spirit of “triumphalism” and celebrated yet another victory over the exhausted Europeans and their dead traditions. Riding high in the Forties and the Fifties, the group of New York artist who came to be called the Abstract Expressionists revitalized a tiring European tradition by infusing abstraction with an idealistic desire to fuse and merge with a (Jungian) universal consciousness, replacing a Freudian neurosis with a Jungian dream of deep, trans-cultural connections common to all living culture-creating beings. In other words, the New York School rejected a “local” European theory from Sigmund Freud and preferred his erstwhile follower, Carl Jung, who had a far more universal approach to collective consciousness.

Jung, like Freud, worked with symbols that could be decoded as messages from a deep consciousness and although Pollock worked with Jungian archetypes, he ultimately abandoned figuration. When working on a large painting for Peggy Guggenheim’s hallway, fittingly called Mural of 1943, Pollock faced the difficulties of painting abstract forms that were energetic and spontaneous on an easel format. Physically, such painting strokes were difficult and Pollock would mull over the final solution to the problem of how to paint freely on a large scale for the next four years. Only in 1947, when he was removed (by his wife, Lee Krasner) from the hard-drinking artists in New York, did he solve the problem. In a small shed, called the “barn” on their rental property in The Springs, Pollock had the room to spread a large unprimed canvas on the floor. Once the canvas was flat rather than vertical, it was possible to redefine “painting.” Instead of stretching and straining up and down a painting propped up against a wall, Pollock could now toss, throw, fling thinned down paint, which arched in the air and fell according to the laws of gravity. Line and color and form became one. “Drip Painting” in which chance and accident became the raison d’être for his work, paintings that were now totally abstract.

From the beginning, the members of The New York School coalesced around two leading figures, Willem de Kooning, respected by all, and Jackson Pollock, admired by many. It was Pollock who “broke through” the wall of European traditions when he fused Cubism and Surrealism and created a new form of painting as drawing and of kinetic accident as automatic writing. In contrast to de Kooning’s continuation of the easel tradition, Pollock tossed a large cut of canvas onto the floor of his studio on Long Island and turned the paintbrush into a throwing tool. It was de Kooning who managed to take the European tradition of Cubism and abstracted fragmentation and turned the idea of multiple points of view into multiple layers of paint. De Kooning constructed or built up his paintings while Pollock flung his paintings through the air and dripped them off the end of a stiffened brush.

Suddenly, the art scene in New York was awakened to this new School that had at last overtaken the Europeans, beating them at their own game. In contrast to Surrealism’s tastefully small home decoration-sized easel paintings that reeked of self-absorption, their works showed an ambitious desire to create huge, all-encompassing works of art to enfold, engulf, and envelop the artist in the creative process and to swallow up the viewer’s vision. Perhaps because it ws a post-War movement, Abstract Expressionism was as high-minded as it was ambitious: genuine high culture at its best, seizing the falling torch of Western culture before the onslaught of totalitarianism, before the six years of Total War could extinguish it. Aware that they were, in effect, Holocaust survivors, Newman and Rothko were especially sensitive to the need to make sure that art mattered, had power and majesty, that art inspired and moved the viewer as a bastion of humanity in an inhuman world.

Whatever their concern with abstraction as a transcendental art, the Abstract Expressionist artists were members of a boy’s club, an all male enclave, with a “no girls allowed” attitude. Wives, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, were relegated to secondary status and their art was overshadowed by their husbands’ reputations. The male artists were supported not just by the “wives,” but also by a coterie of male art critics, including Thomas B. Hess, Clement Greenberg, and Harold Rosenberg. Unfortunately for these artists, the New York art world may have inherited the European mantle of modern art, but this world had to recover financially from the war. They would have to wait for some years for the evolution of a gallery system that supported contemporary American art.

Ironically, just as the artists were beginning to find gallery support, museum recognition, and a respectable level of income in a New York recovered from the Second World War, they were challenged by a new generation of artists, the Neo-Dadaists, Rauschenberg and Johns. By 1955, Abstract Expressionism had been rejected by younger artists at the same time the style was finally achieving some acceptance. After Pollock’s death in 1956, de Kooning assumed the mantle of leadership. Unlike Pollock’s idiocyncratic style, de Kooning’s style or his touch or brushwork was easy to assimilate and his followers were characterized as having the “Tenth Street Touch,” after the de Kooning studio on Tenth Street. At the moment Abstract Expressionism garnered the Second Generation, the older artists were eclipsed, much to their dismay, by the young upstarts of the Neo-Dada group.

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Podcast 40 Painting 6: Art In New York

Modernism in New York City

Why and How did the impetus for Modernist painting move from Paris to New York? This podcast traces the historical and artistic reasons that resulted in New York becoming the center of avant-garde painting the Fifties. The presence of the European exiles in the city, the availability of innovative art in the Museum of Modern Art, and the sense that European modernism was exhausted combined to give rise to a new school of art called The New York School or the Abstract Expressionism.

 

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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