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.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.