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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