Introduction to Pop Art

DEFINING ART AS POPULAR CULTURE

DEFINING POPULAR CULTURE AS ART

Introduction

“A walk down 14th street is more amazing than any masterpiece of art,” commented Allan Kaprow, a Pop artist in New York. This statement sums up what Pop Art was reacting to and what this movement was against—the “artiness” of “art,” the “masterpiece,” the “artist as genius,” creating art out of the personality and out of the history of “art.” Pop Art emerged out of an American post-War materialism and its ranks were swelled by young and irreverent artists who had not known the deprivation of the Depression and had been too young to be concerned with the moral questions raised Second World War. They had grown up in a world so new that the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, referred to the social space between these children and their parents as “The Generation Gap.” These artists were children of the material age of rock ‘n’ roll, sock hops, drive-in movies, comic books, mass media advertising and the mass-produced omnipresent culture called “popular.”

Reaching their maturity, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, these artists faced an art world increasingly commercialized and internationalized and could clearly see the bankruptcy of an Abstract Expressionism which had become academic and absorbed by the commodity machine called the “avant-garde.” The Pop artists had little patience with their predecessors’ seriousness and repudiated their concepts of High Art. Instead they looked to the streets, to Low Culture, to the vernacular, to Popular Culture, and incorporated this previously disparaged and intellectually degraded material into the sacred precincts of the gallery and museum. The magic metamorphosis was achieved by translating a style purloined from commercial art transferred onto an “art signal,” a canvas, upon which an image was made by an art world approved medium, oil or acrylic paint; and then the object would be placed in a gallery or museum. Any element of popular culture could be elevated into high art by changing the materials and by changing the location of the image. The delighted public was pleased to see, at long last, art they could recognize and understand.

This change from high to low in cultural perspective can be seen in the photographic work of Robert Frank, whose major body of photographs, The Americans, was completed in 1955, the same year as Jasper Johns’s Targets and Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, and Willem de Kooning’s Woman series. The Americans was nothing less than a deadpan, dead-eyed social critique of the overlooked “America,” famously seen through the curious eyes of a Holocaust survivor. In “looking at the overlooked,” as Norman Bryson would say, the Swiss photographer photographed, seemingly at random, but Frank ultimately selected which of the 7,000 works to publish with the ruthless perspective of a non-believer. In borrowing and quoting the already ready, the already seen, and the already known, Jasper Johns assaulted the citadel of Originality, and in pinning his paint spattered bed to the wall, Robert Rauschenberg mocked the vaunted ideal of Creativity. These works of art herald the shift from an art of feeling, such as De Kooning’s slashes of paint on women, to an art of detachment. It was now hip to be cool.

Some art historians have selected certain precursors to Pop Art—Stuart Davis and Gerald Murphy—American artists of the 1920s who utilized advertising in their art. Like the American artists, Italian Futurism, in its concern with technology and modern life, used the stylistics of Cubism to celebrate the dynamic modernité of everyday life. Other historians might also include Purism in Paris between the wars and its interest in objects produced via mass technology or Francis Picabia’s hybrid machine-human forms resembling mass produced products. However, the best precedent would be Dada, particularly the (anti)art of Marcel Duchamp, and his discovery of every day objects: the Readymades, the ordinary mass-produced objects the artist “found” by chance and dubbed with a “new thought.” It took decades for the ideas of Duchamp and everyday life to be assimilated by the art world and, in the twilight of his long life, the underground artist began, at long last, to be understood by the Neo-Dada artists.

After the death of Pollock, the art world of New York had its first martyr and Abstract Expressionism was consecrated. With the rise in the prices of American art, it was clear that, the center of gravity of the art world had shifted from Paris to an American scene, and once-quiet neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village, became thriving areas for ateliers and galleries and a new generation of dealers. Buoyed on a wave of prosperity and rising expectations, the art market boomed and art became a commodity, like stocks and bonds, and artists became stars, receiving instant glory, fame, and fortune.

The struggle for the acceptance of “modern” art was over and the struggle for commercial success had begun. But this new situation was not as favorable to the generation of Jackson Pollock. The new generation of dealers were looking for something “new” and Abstract Expressionism was not new, hence the swift success of Rauschenberg and Johns. No sooner than had Abstract Expressionism become accepted (if not loved) by the art audience than a new group of artists arose in an Oedipal rejection. Pop Art was a leading indicator of changing times and new attitudes. Although Neo-Dada may have been a precursor to Pop Art, it would not be the beginning of Pop Art.

British Pop Art

In the 1950s Europe lay prostrated and in ruins; and, during the next two decades could do little more than respond weakly to American innovations in art. But Pop Art was a notable exception. True Pop Art came from American sources, but Pop Art would be inaugurated and would be christened in a most unlikely place, England, in its “austerity” season, following a war it supposedly won. Although “Pop” art is a phrase coined in response to a certain strain of British art, Pop Art was specifically and uniquely American in content and style, for it was America which had taken the lead in creating kitsch–the lowering of high art–the raw material of the Pop artists. The American culture that reached the British people, who were still on rationing, was a culture of abundance. The English consumers leafed through magazines from America and encountered a visual feast of advertising products for the post-war Paradise that was America. The only message was “buy” and the only moral was to “enjoy.”

The post-war artists in England were, like most artists after the Second World War, casting about for a new way to make new art, were dazzled by American products and American graphic design. A group of artists from the Institute of Contemporary Art in London who were interested in American culture began to come together to discuss the barrage of American popular culture. Their leader, Lawrence Alloway, was an art critic and an organizer who was enamored with all things American and absorbed the snappy patter of advertising. It was he who used the phrase “pop art,” it was he who explained how “the aesthetics of plenty” had created a “continuum” between fine art and mass culture, and it was Alloway who rejected the traditional boundaries between high and low culture.

The ICA artists preceded the Pop artists in New York by almost a decade in their experiments with popular culture. Unencumbered by the weight of Abstract Expressionism, unburdened by a mission to supplant Paris as the capital of the art world, these young artists laid the groundwork for the project of how to make art out of life. Many of the most famous British Pop “icons,” were made, not as works of art, however, but as occasions for discussions. As early as 1947 Edouardo Palozzi pasted together American tabloids and advertising in I was a Rich Man’s Plaything. The small collage made in 1956 by Richard Hamilton raised the question, What is it about Today’s Homes that make them so Different, so Appealing? and featured a new Garden of Eden full of American personalities and American products from television to canned ham. The works of Hamilton and Palozzi were small in scale and hand made. Their collages, careful cutouts from American magazines, were extensions of pre-war Photomontages. Totally lacking in social critique, their exuberant exaltation of the vernacular and their innocent pleasure in visual stimulation would characterize Pop Art.

Formally titled the Independent Group, these artists mounted as series of important exhibitions in the early fifties, before Johns or Rauschenberg had become recognized artists. The exhibitions included Parallels of Life and Art, 1953, Man, Machine, and Motion, 1955, and This is Tomorrow, 1956—all were derived from the world of commerce. In a uniquely British approach, these exhibitions of things that existed in the now for America were cast in the future, something that England would aspire to. As Alloway said, “movies, science fiction, advertising, Pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically.” Indeed soon the city of London would begin to “swing” in the Sixties and the Beatles would conquer the world.

French Pop Art

In Paris Pop Art was called Le Nouveau Réalisme (“New Realism”), a term coined by Pierre Restany in 1960. Sidney Janis used this title for his 1962 exhibition in New York which introduced the then-scattered American Pop artists to the art world. However, besides the title, Pop Art in France was quite different from Pop Art in New York. In Paris, Restany issued manifestos and these statements of purpose were signed by artists–like in Dada or Surrealism—in a nostalgic replay of art before the war. Indeed when art critic Lucy Lippard viewed the works of these Parisian Pop artists in 1962, she saw the traces of Surrealism. Indeed the so-called “Pop” artists had little in common with American or British artists beyond making art in the same time period. The French group was so disparate that they had to justify their affiliation under the concept of “collective singularity.”

It is difficult to think of an American or British counterpart to artists such as Yves Klein, Arman, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Mimmo Rotella or Niki de Saint Phalle. It seems apparent that New Realism in Paris is closer to Neo-Dada in New York, for these artists also merged art and life, a key goal of the Neo-Dada artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg. In fact, Rauschenberg was well acquainted with some of the artists, such as Niki de Saint Phalle. All of these Parisian artists were better grouped within Fluxus where their “recycling of industrial and advertising reality,” as Restany described it, would be channeled into “events” the equivalent to “Happenings” and installations and performances.

New Realism in New York and Paris introduced new issues in art, concerned with an aspect of the real, or realism without transcription or interpretation. “New Realism” and earlier terms, such as “Neo-Dada,” and “New American Sign Painters,” were quickly replaced by the more upbeat and less formal sounding British term—Pop Art. However, the term New Realism had an important story to tell: Pop Art or New Realism was a return to representation, a return to realism, a return to figuration. By the 1950s, in the wake of European modernism, it was impossible to bring back an academic way of making art—traditional realism—but a new form of popular realism could be smuggled into art through the appropriation of “life” and its preexisting detritus.

Pop Art in New York

In New York, Pop Art was a rejection of Abstract Expressionism and all its high art pretensions and a celebration of all that had been banished from Fine Art. It was a rebel movement of art outlaws that celebrated the commercial consumerist aspects of post-war art. Although it was thought of as “American,” Pop Art was also a regional art, born and bred in the advertising agencies of New York City. Only Andy Warhol referred to the pop culture of Hollywood; the rest of the artists were embedded in the world of New York commercialism. They used, abused and denied the crass origins and adopted the look of advertising, the bright attention-getting colors and the sharp legible lines and the simple centered designs.

In contrast to the angst of creation suffered so dramatically by the Abstract Expressionist artists, Pop Art was anti-serious, anti-moralistic and anti-spiritual, challenging the traditional and historical ways of creating and making art. Pop Art was cheekily un-original and un-spontaneous and predicted Postmodernism in its penchant for borrowing, quoting and appropriating low culture. Pop Art insisted on leveling the playing field and made the point that all things from life were suitable materials for artists. But it would be to facile to insist that Pop Art was a juvenile rebellion of an adolescent. Pop Art was cobbled together from the raw materials of that way the artists grew up and lived. Pop culture was their culture and the artists merely reflected their own times.

Pop Art signaled a “Return to the Object” and a rebellion against Abstract Expressionism. In contrast to the un-readability and transcendence of Ab Ex, Pop Art was easily identifiable, using specific and recognizable images, from low art mass media sources. Andy Warhol did copies of diagrams of dance steps. George Segal cast his friends and neighbors in their everyday lives. In 1961 Claes Oldenburg sold his papier maché Pop Art objects in his own establishment, The Store. The curators of these earlier exhibitions pulled together this new generation of artists, many of whom were working with popular culture without knowledge of each other. Only when they saw each other’s work in shows, such as New Realism, did they realize a “new” “ movement” had begun and that they were part of “Pop Art.”

Formalist writers were stymied by the presence of representation and figuration, long thought vanquished from high art. Many art writers were repelled by the vulgar sources. While some younger critics embraced Pop Art and adventurous dealers made Pop Art into a marketable commodity, the old guard art writers stood aside and refused to accept this new form of art as serious art at all. None was more opposed than Clement Greenberg whose worst nightmares were coming true. The art audiences who had never really embraced Abstract Expressionism loved Pop Art; it was art of their own time. Pop Art in America was the first really popular movement in Avant-Garde art.

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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.

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

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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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Abstract Expressionism: The Field of Cultural Production

The Historical Context of Abstract Expressionism

The historical context of Abstract Expressionism can perhaps best be mapped out according to the theories of Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase “the field of cultural production.” What was the “field” which “produced” the culture of Abstract Expressionism? One should also add the thinking of Giesele Freund who wrote of the “preparedness” or the “readiness” of society for photography. Abstract Expressionism marks the shift of Modern Art away from Paris and towards New York, the movement of the avant-garde from Europe to America. New York, as Serge Guilbault remarked, “stole the idea of modern art.” The theft of modern art was the result of the preparedness of the artists in New York City in the 1940s to take advantage of the shift of the field of cultural production from the Old World to the New.

First, European politics stymied and stifled the free circulation of avant-garde art around the continent. Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and their totalitarian control of art was prefaced by the crushing of the vanguard Russian artists in the Soviet Union. Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate freedom in the arts and a political party that seeks absolute power will always move against the artists first. Major sources of art making and art thinking were shut down and many of the artists impacted simply packed up and left. Many artists came to America, bringing with them ideas of art theory and concepts of art practice to provincial shores.

Second, even in Paris, where there was open acceptance of avant-garde art, the art market had a dampening effect upon the development of new and innovative ideas. The time between the wars in Paris was a conservative one, an era of consolidation of the pre-War avant-garde movements. Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, et al. were now “historical” movements and their leaders were now Old Masters. A tendency towards a conservative approach to art evidenced itself very early on, during the Great War, in the work of Picasso. After the war the mood was one of “Return to Order” and restoring all that was classical in French art in The School of Paris. Nostalgic conservatism after a devastating war is a common reaction and would be exemplified by the Ingres-esque classicism of Amedeo Modigliani. After post-War economic recovery, French collectors were eagerly flocking to the revived and expanded art market. The dealers sold their clients “a Picasso,” or “a Matisse,” art done in the characteristic styles of the masters, but tamed down. A case in point is Picasso’s 1921 Three Musicians, which is a painted collage, in other words, not innovative mixed media, but a conservative and salable painting.

Surrealism emerged in 1924 out of the ashes of the last provocative avant-garde movement, Dada. Conservative Surrealism was an inward looking movement that possessed no particular stylistic “look,” but was a placeholder for the avant-garde. In contrast to the pre-war avant-garde movements which were stylistic change, Surrealism produced not so much new styles as new approaches to the process of making art, such as automatic writing. Another historical footnote worth noting was the fact that the history of pre-War avant-garde movements was largely written by the art dealers, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Léonce Rosenberg, thus legitimating their art and elevating the price. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, avant-garde artists either sought safety in America—-Chagall, who was Jewish, moved to New York—-or were forced to keep a low and safe profile in France to survive the Nazi occupation.

Third, European artists immigrated to America over the course of ten years. Some of these artists, such as the Bauhaus architects, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Mies van der Rohe, simply moved their practices to the American cities of New York and Chicago. The coming of the Bauhaus architects to the United States paved the way for the International Style that would characterize architecture after the Second World War. Indeed, Modernist architecture was a case in point of how inhospitable Europe had become to avant-garde architects. While those in Russia were doomed to produce mostly “paper architecture” or models, other architects concentrated on domestic architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and the De Stijl architect Gerrit Reitveld’s Schröder House in the 1920s. Thwarted by wars and oppression, Modernist architecture finally found itself in great works of public and corporate works only after the Second World War. The Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe in New York was the achievement of the prosperous Fifties in America.

But architects weren’t the only Europeans to seek safe haven. Even as Hitler was moving into power in Germany, Hans Hofmann was moving out to become an art teacher in New York in the winter and Providencetown in the summer. Bauhaus faculty members, Josef and Anni Albers, found themselves at the famous Black Mountain College where they taught the next generation who would overtake the Abstract Expressionist artists. Piet Mondrian, who had fled Holland for London, had to leave London for New York, where he died in 1945. The American Dada photographer, Man Ray, came home and spent the next eleven years in Los Angeles. These artists were joined by intellectuals, such as Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, who changed the climate and the quality of American thinking during the Second World War.

Fourth, the presence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was of great significance in educating American artists on European avant-garde art. Since Alfred Stieglitz had closed down his gallery, 291, in 1916, there had been no reliable gathering point were artists could see the cutting edge art of Europe. And then MoMA opened in 1929, headed by Alfred Barr. Barr ended the somewhat specious relationship between the dealers and the museums: dealers would organize and mount shows in museums, giving their art greater legitimacy, and subsequently raising the prices. Like Christ in the Temple with the Moneychangers, Barr barred such practices and art was set apart from commerce. The look of MoMA, the “pure” White Cube, gave the museum of modern art a sanctified air, where art and commercialism did not consort. Most importantly, Barr was able to bring in avant-garde European art in a series of shows that would be hard to mount in many European countries. It could be argued that, thought these important exhibitions, American artists had better access to this new art than did European artists, particularly those who were stranded in totalitarian countries.

Fifth, American artists were being brought together as never before during the Thirties. Government programs employed artists as either easel artists or as mural artists for public buildings, granting them the status of professionals. Many artists were able to take advantage of these employment programs, others, such as Willem de Kooning, who was not in American legally, or Newman, who had political qualms, did not take part. Whether or not one participated or not, the result of the government programs was to bring artists together, to create an artist community that included art critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. This community was ready to hear the new ideas of the European émigré artists and intellectuals. Greenberg learned studio talk at the feet of Hofmann who gave his American audiences a synthesis of Cubist and Expressionist art theories.

Although in the post-war, art history glossed over the art commissioned by the New Deal, the murals and photographs and easel painting stirred up creativity and provided challenges to American artists. In contrast the European artists who were essentially running in place, American artists were keeping active, forced into the innovation demanded by new conditions. Sensing an opportunity, Americans watched closely as nation by nation, territory by territory, Europe shut art down. American artists respected European art, but many felt that the avant-garde movements were played out. The best artists were old and long past their prime. Surrealism was already twenty years old, for instance. No new generation had emerged in Europe.

Sixth, Americans wanted to go beyond European art, but the question was how? Painters in New York wanted to create a new avant-garde art that was uniquely “American,” being robust, reflective of the greatness of the nation. The local artists liked the all-over effects of Cézanne and Mondrian, but found the easel art small and confining. Mondrian, especially, seemed “effeminate” in the precise preciousness of his meditative approach to painting. The New Yorkers were interested in the concept of the powers of the unconscious mind, suggested by Surrealism, but did not like the realistic dream paintings or Freudian theory. They did, however, appreciate the freedom from convention that the practice of écriture automatique or automatic writing could give to artists.

The promise of the all-over effect expanded beyond the portable easel painting could be fulfilled by mural painting, as practiced and taught by the Mexican muralists. The Mexican muralists were highly political and highly specific and many of them had an unfortunate track record of having their murals defaced: Rivera by the Rockefellers in New York and Siqueros by Christine Sterling in Los Angeles. Wary of political content, the American artists preferred the universality of message combined with an impressive scale found in Picasso’s Guernica, temporarily housed at MoMA.

Seventh, as can be seen, it is as important to take note of what the younger generation of American artists rejected. In addition to the Communist statements of the Mexican painters and the dream content of the Surrealists, American artists did not want to continue the nationalistic art of the Regionalist artists, such as Benton and Wood, nor did they want to continue the political art of the Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn and the other Depression artists. During the Depression and the Second World War, much art was dedicated to propaganda which promoted the benefits of the New Deal and then the need to support the War. The new artists appreciated abstract art, and, indeed there was an active group of abstract artists, the American Abstract Artists, but theirs was an old-fashioned abstraction of European formalism. The American artists coming into maturity in New York wanted a new kind of abstraction.

And, last, there was one factor, seldom emphasized but often mentioned in passing—the age of the Abstract Expressionist artists. They were all middle-aged men who had been developing their painting techniques and styles for years, working in obscurity. Unlike their European counterparts, the painters of the New York School had uninterrupted careers, untouched by political oppression or war. When America was drawn into World War II in 1941, these men were too old or too unfit or too ineligible to serve in the Armed Forces. While younger men went to war, sacrificing their careers and sometimes their lives for their county, the Abstract Expressionists were able to remain in the safety of New York City.

These crucial war years were the very years that preceded their individual styles, which would emerge in the fifties. When peace returned, the New York artists had benefited from a period of maturation that placed them at the forefront of the art world. Much of Europe was in ruins, and the European artists had to endure a period of rebuilding and restoration. In contrast, the American artists had to wait only for the emergence of a professional gallery scene that could support their ambitions. In ten years, it had become apparent that New York had inherited the idea of Modern Art.

What did the American artists in New York City want? They wanted to take over the reins of avant-garde Modernist art. They wanted to make modernist art American. The artists, who would form (loosely) the New York School in the Fifties, were ready, they were prepared. The field of cultural production had shifted to the East Coast of America. The result would be Abstract Expressionism.

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

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

[email protected]arthistoryunstuffed.com