Abstract Expressionism

The group of artists called the Abstract Expressionists lived and worked in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s. With their aesthetic philosophy, and an activism fired by their desire to promote their new, American way to paint, they changed the world of art. New York became the artist's magnet city and Abstract Expressionism became the symbol of American freedom in the early years of the cold war.

For these artists, their works incorporated one meaning of the term "abstract"—a simplication of forms found in nature (as opposed to geometric or mathematical in origin)—combined with "expressionist" qualities such as vibrant color, strong brush marks used to express an emotion or a state of mind. The term that combines both—"abstract expressionism"—was first used in Berlin, then reappeared in the United States to describe paintings by Wassily Kandinsky. These were works that combined improvisational brushstrokes in many colors to express exuberance or joy. The term was resurrected in the mid-1940s in a New Yorker review of Hans Hofmann's art. The reviewer used it, he said, "for what some people call the spatter-and-daub school of painting." No one seems to have liked the term very much—Mark Rothko, one of the artists who were labeled with it, said that "to classify is to embalm. Real identity is incompatible with schools and categories except by mutiliation."

Nevertheless, as with "Impressionism" and "Cubism," other names invented by art critics and historians, this one has stuck. The group to which it is applied is also called the New York School, and their work is sometimes labeled "Action Painting" and "American-type Painting." As a rule, it can be said that the painters used large canvases covered with all-over painting, following the lead of Jackson Pollock and his Mural.

When they arrived in New York from disparate geographic locales, they joined an art scene enriched by the presence of many wartime refugee artists. They built a unity of philosophy and aesthetics as they met in each other's homes and studios and in bars, restaurants, and galleries. They established what Motherwell called "an underlying network of awareness," following each other's work closely and keeping tabs on what everyone else was painting, and why.

The artists shared a conviction that art was facing a crisis in subject matter. The prevailing political ideologies of the time, from the middle of World War II to its end and the establishment of the Iron Curtain, were socialism, nationalism, and utopianism. Each had an artistic style identified with it—social realism, regionalism, and geometric abstraction, respectively. All had lost credibility in the eyes of the New York group. Stalin had destroyed their faith in socialism; the end of the Depression and America's emergence as one of the world's great powers made regionalism seem irrelevant. Utopia seemed an unlikely place for the atom bomb.

The works created by the Abstract Expressionists can be seen as records of the process of painting itself. For them, the canvas was an arena in which to act, rather than a space on which to reproduce, redesign, or analyze an object. What went on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The artists turned to their own private visions and insights in an anxious search for psychic self-expression. However, their exploration was thoroughly grounded in a study of older artistic styles and techniques. Initially, they shared an interest in surrealism. Many of the group were attracted to ancient myths and symbols.

Their urgent pursuit of expressing meanings that felt truer to their experience gave rise to new ways of seeing and to formal innovations as well. By the end of the forties it was clear that there were two main trends within the group: gesture painting and color-field painting.

The first, characterized by distinct, often vigorous brushstrokes expressing energy, included the work of Pollock, Hans Hofmann, who evolved a series of abstract works that were composed of vigorously brushed, high-keyed color combined with open areas reflecting their Cubist heritage, and Willem DeKooning, who almost always incorporated some identifiable reference to the natural world in his paintings.

The color-field group—those who painted in monochromatic fields of smoothly applied paint suggesting a calmer, more meditative, or rationalized approach—included Mark Rothko, who created his signature style of soft-edged rectangular color field abstract paintings that he felt were imbued with a sense of spirituality; Barnett Newman, who created works of pure saturated color devoid of brush strokes, interrupted only by one or more narrow bands of contrasting color; and Clyfford Still who utilized bold slashes of jagged color splayed all over the face of his large canvases.

Still others, including Adolph Gottlieb, who after 1957 developed a series of paintings that have come to be called "Bursts"; Robert Motherwell who wrote extensively about art—his own and his contemporaries—and is today best known for his series of paintings entitled "Elegies to the Spanish Republic"; Ad Reinhardt, whose early geometric abstractions gave way in the mid-fifties to tonal paintings exhibiting only vague cruciform shapes imbedded in a black or charcoal field; Franz Kline, who incorporated strong black calligraphic brush marks on stark white with only minor touches of color to achieve his unique style; and David Smith, who used sculptural forms and materials such as steel to create bio-morphic works that become more simplified and angular as time progressed developed idiosyncratic styles not easily categorized.

Abstract Expressionism continued to attract artists and later practitioners including Philip Guston, who from his early figurative style shifted to create works composed of gestural brush strokes of pastel colors gradually evolving into a deep, somber palette; and Joan Mitchell, whose abstract canvases capture a sense of Romanticism.

It also should be said that most Abstract Expressionist art is not easy to understand at one glance: these works require close-up viewing, and thought, and often some knowledge of each artist's intentions.

The early reactions of many art critics to Abstract Expressionism were mixed. By 1948 members of the group were convinced, first, that their art was more vital, radical, and original than any other, and, second, that they needed to organize to counteract the "notorious hostility to advanced art" of the official art world. Their protests brought front-page publicity in The New York Times, and a new label—the "Irascible Eighteen." A photo in Life magazine in 1950 gave faces to a new, genuinely American group of artists who fit all the stereotypes of artistic creation—art that seemed created out of emotion, conviction about their mission, and rejection by the official art world. Eventually, the critical and public reception to the artists and their work changed—prompted by the influential people supporting their cause. The art market capitalized on the furor caused by the artists, espousing the "new art" through galleries such as Peggy Guggenheim's "Art of this Century."

Finally, in 1958 and 1959, an official, U.S.-government-sponsored exhibition of Abstract Expressionist work toured Europe, embodying for the world America's new dominance in art. The New York group, with its self-made unity and convictions, and its difficult, diverse art, had made their city the new center of the art world. Out of the raw materials of art history and aesthetic thought, they had created whole new forms of work.