How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art:

Abstract Expressionism and Meaning

The American artists had early training from Modernist masters in New York City that prepared the ground with the abstract Cubism of Piet Mondrian and with Surrealist ideas and techniques of André Masson and Matta.  The famous expatriate teacher, Hans Hofmann, taught 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 through the works of Pablo 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.  On the other hand, they were also wary of decorative art as being empty.  The Abstract Expressionist painters searched for a new kind of meaning, a transcendental meaning.

Picasso’s monumental work, Guernica, 1937 was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art.  The great work had been commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion of for 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.  The Abstract Expressionist 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.

With Abstract Expressionism, art and artists took up new positions and roles.  The artist as a human being was an extension of humanity, seeking universal knowledge through self-knowledge.  Making art was a journey of discovery.  The writings of André Breton were of help by suggesting 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 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 puts 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 art historian, Robert Hobbs, pointed out, the artists often wanted to control the lighting by diming gallery atmosphere to a quiet contemplative experience.  The artists also wanted the viewer to come close to the art to become enveloped by the purely visual experience.  The painting becomes the universe and universal.  But in order for the experience 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 Mondrian who took the suggestion of boundlessness beyond the frame to fruition by eliminating a centered composition and creating an asymmetrical composition that was also balanced.  But Mondrian’s paintings were small and precisely painted with a discipline and control that lacked spontaneity. Abstract Expressionism brought an end to relationships-as-content. Compositional relationships were either eliminated, as with Jackson Pollock, or simplified, as with Mark Rothko.  The resulting mass image implied an infinite expansion beyond the optical field, just as the way in which Mondrian brought black lines and colors to the end of the canvas.

With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint.  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.

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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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