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