Abstract expressionism was an American post-World War II art movement. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence and also the one that put New York City at the center of the art world, a role formerly filled by Paris.
Although the term "abstract expressionism" was first applied to American art in 1946 by the art critic Robert Coates, it had been first used in Germany in 1919 in the magazine Der Sturm, regarding German Expressionism. In the USA, Alfred Barr was the first to use this term in 1929 in relation to works by Wassily Kandinsky.
Like all Modern art, a general term used for most of the artistic production from the late Nineteenth century until approximately the 1970s, works of art created during this period reflect a new approach to art which placed emphasis on representing emotions, themes, and various abstractions. Artists experimented with new ways of seeing, with fresh ideas about the nature, materials and functions of art, often moving further toward abstraction.
Technically, an important predecessor is Surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic or subconscious creation. Jackson Pollock's dripping paint onto a canvas laid on the floor is a technique that has its roots in the work of Max Ernst. Another important early manifestation of what came to be abstract expressionism is the work of American Northwest artist Mark Tobey, especially his "white writing" canvases, which, though generally not large in scale, anticipate the "all over" look of Pollock's drip paintings.
The movement's name is derived from the combination of the emotional intensity and self-denial of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism. The movement's image is that of rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, rather nihilistic creation. In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists working (mostly) in New York who had quite different styles, and even applied to work which is neither especially abstract nor expressionist. Pollock's energetic "action paintings," with their "busy" feel, are different both technically and aesthetically, to the violent and grotesque Women series of Willem de Kooning (which are figurative paintings) and to the serenely shimmering blocks of color in Mark Rothko's work (which is not what would usually be called expressionist and which Rothko denied was abstract), yet all three are classified as abstract expressionists.
Abstract Expressionism has many stylistic similarities to the Russian artists of the early twentieth century such as Wassily Kandinsky. Spontaneity or at least the impression of spontaneity characterized many of the abstract expressionists works, although most of these paintings involved careful planning, necessary since their large size required it. One exception might be the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Why this style gained mainstream acceptance in the 1950s is a matter of debate. American social realism had been the mainstream in the 1930s. It had been influenced not only by the Great Depression but also by the Social Realists of Mexico such as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. Abstract expressionism arose during World War II and began to be showcased during the early forties at galleries in New York like The Art of This Century Gallery. The political climate after World War II did not long tolerate the social protests of these painters. The McCarthy era after World War II was a time of extreme artistic censorship in the United States. Since the subject matter was often totally abstract it became a safe strategy for artists to pursue this style. Abstract art could be seen as apolitical. Or if the art was political, the message was largely for the insiders.
Although the abstract expressionist school spread quickly throughout the United States, the major centers of this style were New York City and California, especially the San Francisco Bay area.
By the 1940s there were few galleries like The Art of This Century and also few critics who were willing to follow the work of the New York Vanguard. There were also only a few artists with a literary background, among them Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman, who functioned as critics as well.
While New York and the world were unfamiliar with the New York avant-garde, by the late 1940s most of the artists who have become household names today had their well-established patron critics: Clement Greenberg advocated Jackson Pollock and the color field painters like Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Hans Hofmann. Harold Rosenberg seemed to prefer the action painters like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Louis Schanker. Thomas B. Hess, the managing editor of Art News, championed Willem de Kooning.
These new art critics elevated their proteges by casting other artists as "followers" or ignoring those who did not serve their promotional goal.
As an example, in 1958, Mark Tobey "became the first American painter since Whistler (1895) to win top prize at the Biennale of Venice. New York's two leading art magazines were not interested: Arts mentioned the historic event only in a news column and ARTnews (Managing editor: Thomas B. Hess) ignored it completely. The New York Times and Life printed feature articles."
Barnett Newman, a late member of the Uptown Group wrote catalog forewords and reviews; and by the late 1940s he became an exhibiting artist at Betty Parsons Gallery. His first solo show was in 1948. Soon after his first exhibition, Barnett Newman remarked in one of the Artists' Sessions at Studio 35: "We are in the process of making the world, to a certain extent, in our own image." Utilizing his writing skills, Newman fought every step of the way to reinforce his newly established image as an artist and to promote his work. An example is his letter in April 9, 1955, "Letter to Sidney Janis:—it is true that Rothko talks the fighter. He fights, however, to submit to the philistine world. My struggle against bourgeois society has involved the total rejection of it."
The person thought to have had most to do with the promotion of this style was a New York Trotskyist, Clement Greenberg. As long time art critic for the Partisan Review and The Nation, he became an early and literate proponent of abstract expressionism. Artist Robert Motherwell, educated as an art historian, joined Greenberg in promoting a style that fit the political climate and the intellectual rebelliousness of the era.
Clement Greenberg proclaimed abstract expressionism and Jackson Pollock in particular as the epitome of aesthetic value. It supported Pollock's work on formalistic grounds as simply the best painting of its day and the culmination of an art tradition going back via Cubism and Paul Cézanne to Claude Monet, in which painting became ever 'purer' and more concentrated in what was 'essential' to it, the making of marks on a flat surface.
Jackson Pollock's work has always polarized critics. Harold Rosenberg spoke of the transformation of painting into an existential drama in Pollock's work, in which "what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." "The big moment came when it was decided to paint 'just to paint'. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value—political, aesthetic, moral." One of the most vocal critics of abstract expressionism at the time was New York Times art critic John Canaday. Meyer Shapiro, and Leo Steinberg along with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were important art historians of the post-war era who voiced support for abstract expressionism. During the early to mid 1960s younger art critics Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss and Robert Hughes added considerable insights into the critical dialectic that continues to grow around abstract expressionism.
Since mid-1970s it has been argued by revisionist historians that the style attracted the attention, in the early 1950s, of the CIA, who saw it as a representative of the USA as a haven of free thought and free markets, as well as a challenge to both the socialist realist styles prevalent in communist nations and the dominance of the European art markets. The book by Frances Stonor Saunders entitled The Cultural Cold War - The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters  and other publications such as Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War, detail how the CIA financed and organized the promotion of American abstract expressionists via the Congress for Cultural Freedom from 1950 through 1967. Against this revisionist tradition, an important essay by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times, called Revisiting the Revisionists: The Modern, Its Critics and the Cold War, argues that much of this information (as well as the revisionists' interpretation of it) concerning what was happening on the American art scene during the 1940s and 1950s is flatly false, or at best "contrary to the revisionists' avowed historiographic principles" decontextualized. Other books on the subject include Art in the Cold War by Christine Lindey, which also describes the art of the Soviet Union at the same time; and Pollock and After, edited by Francis Frascina, which reprinted the Kimmelman article.
Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) helped introduce abstract impressionism to Paris in the 1950s. Michel Tapié's groundbreaking book, Un Art Autre (1952), was also enormously influential in this regard. Tapié was also a curator and exhibition organizer who promoted the works of Pollock and Hans Hoffman in Europe. By the 1960s, the movement's initial affect had been assimilated, yet its methods and proponents remained highly influential in art, affecting profoundly the work of many artists who followed. Abstract Expressionism preceded Tachisme, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism, Postminimalism, Neo-expressionism, and the other movements of the sixties and seventies and it influenced all those later movements that evolved. Movements which were direct responses to, and rebellions against abstract expressionism began with Hard-edge painting (Frank Stella, Robert Indiana and others) and Pop artists, notably Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg and Roy Lichtenstein who achieved prominence in the US, accompanied by Richard Hamilton in Britain. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the US formed a bridge between abstract expressionism and Pop art. Minimalism was exemplified by artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Mangold and Carl Andre.
However, many painters including Fuller Potter, Jane Frank (a pupil of Hans Hofmann), and Elaine Hamilton continued to work in the abstract expressionist style for many years, extending and expanding its visual and philosophical implications, as many abstract artists continue to do today.
Jackson Pollock, 1950
Cy Twombly, Leda and The Swan, 1962
All links retrieved August 14, 2012.
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