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How Abstract Expressionism changed modern art

Published 1 September 2016

What did the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism do so differently? And how is their work still relevant today? As the first survey of Abstract Expressionism for nearly 60 years is staged in Britain, co-curator David Anfam answers key questions.

  • From the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    1. How was Abstract Expressionism different to what came before?

    Crucially Abstract Expressionism, or ‘Ab Ex’ (as I always call it for short), happened at a juncture when nearly all the major movements of the first half of the 20th century had more or less run their course. I’m thinking particularly of Cubism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Fauvism and Neo-Plasticism. Furthermore, New York in the 1930s and 1940s offered extraordinarily rich opportunities for the emergent artists to come into direct contact with the artworks of these earlier movements.

    For example, the city’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) ran one exhibition after another charting the development of Modernism. These ranged from ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ and ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’ (both 1936) to ‘Large-Scale Modern Paintings’ (1947) – not to mention a slew of big monographic shows devoted, for instance, to Henri Matisse (1931), Pablo Picasso (1939) and Paul Klee (1941). Additionally, MoMA held other shows featuring the three great Mexican muralists – Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros – as well as what were perceived as the non-European sources for Modernism, among them Aztec, Mayan, Inca and African art. The Mexicans exerted a great influence on Jackson Pollock from the late 1930s onwards and even the ever-independent Clyfford Still based at least one 1936 painting on a sculpture in the museum’s ‘African Negro Art’ show of the previous year. Likewise, in 1941 at MoMA, Pollock witnessed at first-hand Navajo artists execute a sand painting on the ground – there’s no doubt this was a factor that, six years later, led him to place his canvases on the floor. Private galleries in Manhattan, such as those run by Pierre Matisse, Julien Levy and Curt Valentin, added their own complement by exhibiting, say, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico and Piet Mondrian.

    In effect, therefore, the Abstract Expressionists were living in a veritable museum without walls at precisely the stage when they were discovering themselves. The net result was that an exceptional array of sources, references and touchstones fed into Ab Ex, making the final mix altogether idiosyncratic (and I haven’t even touched upon the ideological layers). Indeed, they render Ab Ex such a complex phenomenon that it eludes the neat definitions that are handy for enclosing whatever constitutes a ‘movement’. Without wishing to deny the depth and breadth of Cubism, Surrealism or, later, Pop Art, some would say that Ab Ex at least matches and arguably even exceeds their intricacy and diversity. This alone makes Ab Ex different from what had come before. It incorporated most of those earlier things – and then some.

    Quite simply, too, the fully mature art looks little or nothing like what came before it. Surrealists, such as André Masson and Max Ernst, may have dripped paint and allowed the motion of their hands free play – what is called ‘automatism’ – yet there is no real equivalent in pre-Second World War art for how a classic 1947 – 50 pouring by Pollock strikes the beholder. Similarly, although we may well see the influence of Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and even Mondrian in Mark Rothko’s hovering chromatic rectangles from around 1950 onwards (pictured), these imageless icons are utterly his own.

    The same applies to Ad Reinhardt’s final abstractions, each composed of nine squares arranged in three rows. To be sure, there’s a pedigree leading back to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915). Yet Reinhardt pushes his pursuit of darkness to such a subtle, extreme threshold – the tenebrous image is barely visible, the ‘blacks’ are subliminally tinted and oil has been extracted from the pigment to give it an inimitable velvety texture – that we’re light years from Malevich’s Suprematism and, if anything, closer to the challenges of optical illusion found in Op Art (although Reinhardt would of course have rightly denied the slightest comparison).

    From another angle, the rawness pervading Franz Kline’s paintings (Vawdavitch, 1955, pictured) – in which daringly imbalanced and colliding masses of black and white battle for mastery – sets them apart from European precedents. Turning to three dimensions, a great deal of sculptor David Smith’s achievement (Volton XVIII, 1963, page 54) certainly grew from Julio González and Picasso’s welded steel pieces. Nonetheless, by the time we get to Smith’s ‘Forging’ and ‘Cubi’ series’, they are sui generis: the former’s slenderest uprights are minimalist and the latter involve dazzling geometries. Nor had there been visual documentation of artists in action that were of quite the same nature as Hans Namuth’s photographs and films of Pollock. You could continue the list, but the point is clear. No matter how familiar Ab Ex may have become, it’s impossible to lose sight of its immense originality, the differences that set it apart.

  • 2. Was it a cohesive movement?

    No. Ever since the American art critic Robert Coates thought to apply the term “Abstract Expressionism” to this art in 1946, observers have been trying to square the circle by making the work’s diversity into something more neatly cohesive. In 1955 a far more influential critic, Clement Greenberg, sought to unify the artists according to the notion that their output was somehow especially “American”. The problems with this approach are, first, that it reflected a Cold War context whereby the nation’s culture had to beat other contenders – in this case, Europe. Secondly, defining art in national terms is tricky because ‘Englishness’ or ‘Americanness’ can tend to lie in the eye of the beholder and thus be stretched to accommodate whatever ideological currents are in play.

    Later, Irving Sandler published The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism, in 1970. Apart from apparently playing the nationalist card in its title – as some detractors have argued – the book divides its subject into two balanced camps. On the one hand, there’s the ‘gesture’ painters and, on the other, the ‘colour field’ exponents. The problem here is that the categories don’t altogether hold water. Rothko insisted that his vision was rooted in violence and not about colour, while Pollock’s linear fields are often packed with hues both delicate and bold – witness, among many possible examples, Blue Poles (1952). Much the same applies to Willem de Kooning (Woman as Landscape, 1965–66), in whose works the gesture is undoubtedly important yet who, again, was a consummate colourist, even when (like Kline) he used black and white. And where, between the two camps, does Still stand Some of his canvases are plainly saturated with chroma, whereas others are wrought with complex draughtsmanship, while nearly all display, with their palette knife technique, the artist’s mordant, gestural mark- making (PH-4, 1952).

    Another issue is that we’re not just talking painting. All of the Abstract Expressionists created significant works on paper, not to mention Conrad Marca-Relli’s very powerful large-scale collages made with canvas and mixed media (Ornations, L-R-4-57, 1957, pictured). The sculptor David Smith stressed that he belonged with the painters, and the same can be said of Louise Nevelson, whose sculptures present monochrome totemic presences redolent with mythic evocations of time and space. Photography has its place as well, starting with Aaron Siskind’s equivalents to Ab Ex paintings (Chicago 8, 1948, pictured) and extending to how photographers such as Barbara Morgan and Harry Callahan took energy, motion and nature’s rhythms as their subjects.

    A different bid to make Ab Ex cohere probably began with the artist and critic Robert Motherwell, who early on helped coin the term ‘The New York School’. While a lot of the players were centred on New York City, the West Coast witnessed important developments, including the achievements of, Still, Mark Tobey and Sam Francis (Untitled, 1956, pictured). So again the label doesn’t quite fit the contents. Although the artists made diverse statements there were no manifestos like those that Surrealists or Futurists issued. Also, these people came from the four points of the compass: Pollock and Still were westerners; Motherwell hailed from Washington State; de Kooning was born in Rotterdam; Arshile Gorky emigrated from Armenia; and Rothko came from what was then Dvinsk in Russia (now Daugavpils in Latvia). Even generation-wise, Hans Hofmann (In Sober Ecstasy, 1965), from Munich, was older than the rest of them. De Kooning once declared that it was disastrous for he and his colleagues to name themselves.

    For these and more reasons I feel uncomfortable calling Ab Ex a ‘movement.’ Far better to see it as what I would term a ‘phenomenon’. For sure, common themes abounded: an interest in myth and the sublime, a search for abstract counterparts for the human presence, the emphasis on large scale, etcetera. Yet in the same breath, the internal differences make designating it a movement seem like a straitjacket.

    However, we must remember the obvious fact that the artists pretty much all knew each other. Philip Guston and Pollock went to the same high school in LA in the 1920s, de Kooning met Kline in 1939, and Rothko and Still first connected on the West Coast in 1943. At a social level alone, then, we find considerable cohesiveness.

  • Aaron Siskind, Chicago 8

    Aaron Siskind, Chicago 8, 1948.

    Gelatin silver print, printed later. 34.93 x 46.67 cm. Aaron Siskind Foundation, The University of Iowa Museum of Art, Mark Ranney Memorial Fund. © Aaron Siskind Foundation, courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery, NY.

  • 3. Was it an expression of American society?

    Yes and no. Yes, insofar as almost all of the artists were deeply marked by the Great Depression, the impact of the Second World War and the ubiquitous climate of angst, even horror, that dominated these years. Think how Adolph Gottlieb described his times (with a nod to Shakespeare) as “out of joint”, adding that abstraction expressed the “neurosis” to which he thought contemporary reality amounted. In turn, the confidence evident in the signature styles that one figure after another began to attain from the second half of the 1940s onwards must on some level reflect the growing optimism felt in American society at the war’s end. This is when Rothko talks about breathing and stretching one’s arms again, when Gottlieb’s pictographs eventually lighten both literally and metaphorically, and when Barnett Newman resurrects the idea of the sublime (Adam, 1951–52).

    Existentialism had also become popular among the American intelligentsia in those years. We find clear echoes of it in Abstract Expressionist thinking, as well as in the works’ titles. This is a reason why Ab Ex often seems to overlap with the Hollywood genre of film noir. They shared the same moods of doom and darkness – call it a zeitgeist, if you like. Pollock named one 1946 painting Something of the Past and it’s hardly coincidental that a 1947 film noir was titled Out of the Past (in Britain titled as Build My Gallows High). The assumption is that there are dark secrets buried deep in the past, the human psyche, or both. For temporal depth read psychological atavism. Parallels also exist with American writers of the period, including William Faulkner – whose violent, troubled 1932 novel Light in August meant a lot to de Kooning – as well as with Norman Mailer’s earlier fiction. Mailer’s vision of the individual embattled in an increasingly totalitarian society compared with Still’s views.

    Precisely because its abstractness allowed various powers-that-be, such as the CIA, to put a spin on what the art aimed to convey, Ab Ex doubtless became a weapon of the Cold War, particularly when exported abroad. So, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was a front for the CIA and helped organise ‘The New American Painting’ show that toured Europe in 1958–59. However, the artists’ own politics were a far cry from these manipulations and chicanery. Hence Rothko and Newman were lifelong anarchists, Still fiercely opposed conformity and totalitarianism, while Smith and Reinhardt stood well to the political left. Even Pollock had worried that his fellow high-school students believed he was “a rotten rebel from Russia”.

    As the Columbia University art historian Meyer Schapiro and others argued, various qualities about Ab Ex – supremely its stress on the human element – ran contrary to the tenor of Cold War/McCarthyite America in which conformity, alienation and anonymity had begun to dominate. As late as 1962, Newman recalled that the critic Harold Rosenberg had challenged him to explain what his paintings could mean to the world. Newman’s answer was that if his works were properly read, they would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism. Newman sounds a lot closer to Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin than he does to John Foster Dulles – Eisenhower’s Secretary of State – and his ilk. Even Still, who is sometimes parodied as a kind of artistic equivalent to John Wayne and his macho braggadocio, had an altogether different message at the heart of his thought, rhetoric and teaching – that the individual must have the courage to find their own way and not be ruled by the dictates of others. In reality, Cold War logic instead taught a herd mentality threatened by enemies within and without – shades of Trump, you might say. Its individualism was a sham to stop the country going to socialism.

  • Conrad Marca-Relli, Ornations L-R-4-57

    Conrad Marca-Relli, Ornations L-R-4-57, 1957.

    Oil and canvas collage on canvas. 133 x 167 cm. Mnuchin Gallery, New Yor © Archivio Marca-Relli, Parma.

  • 4. Was Abstract Expressionist art made only by white, male, New Yorker painters?

    No. It might have looked like that once upon a time and for many a year. In that respect, Greenberg – notwithstanding his brilliant eye and intellect – was a culprit. His influential essay on Ab Ex written in 1955 excluded women and stuck to New York. He also downplayed the effect that Janet Sobel (Illusion of Solidity, c.1945, pictured) had on Pollock’s all-over manner of composition. Truth to tell, the artists themselves were mostly as sexist as you might expect their generation to have been and neither were they any less womanisers.

    From a less jaundiced contemporary perspective we can now understand that Francis, Tobey and the photographer Minor White – each of them linked to the West Coast – belonged, albeit in their distinctive ways, to Ab Ex. It’s also key to note that Rothko made his breakthrough into abstraction with the so-called ‘multiform’ canvases while he was teaching alongside Still in 1946 at San Francisco’s California School of Fine Arts. White taught there at that time too. A substantial nexus – including Ed Dugmore, Ernest Briggs and Hassel Smith – has now been recognised as forming the San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism. In short, it’s timely to regard Ab Ex as not just stuck to the East Coast but, rather, as a nationwide phenomenon.

    As for the contributions by women, Joan Mitchell (Mandres, 1961–62) ranks high up and just got better and better with age, especially as she began to create sumptuous triptychs and polyptychs in the 1970s. Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner reached an apogee in 1960 when she realised monumental canvases in a single main colour that give Pollock a run for his money in terms of their ambition, intensity and vitality. Nevelson was a compelling sculptor and Morgan an excellent photographer. Grace Hartigan, among others, also added her own voice to second-generation Ab Ex. In another quarter, collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim, gallerist Betty Parsons and curator Dorothy C. Miller played major roles in advancing Ab Ex. So presenting Ab Ex as a male preserve is a clanger that should be silenced for good.

    On the racial front, prejudice ran even higher. The black Caribbean-American artist Norman Lewis comes into focus here. Lewis moved well within Ab Ex circles, yet was never fully accepted by his white colleagues. His art slyly critiques notions of ‘blackness’. In recent years Lewis’s achievement has been duly reassessed. This will be, I think, the first time that work by Lewis has been shown in Britain – and it is a classic piece, quiet yet hypnotic, from the mid-1940s.

    While we are talking about outsiders in one way or another, I should perhaps add a coda about sexuality. Bradley Walker Tomlin and Theodoros Stamos were probably homosexuals, Pollock was allegedly bisexual, as was Nevelson, and Parsons was a lesbian.

  • David Smith, Volton XVIII

    David Smith, Volton XVIII, 1963.

    Steel. 278.1 x 170.2 x 38.1 cm. The Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection. © Estate of David Smith/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.

  • 5. What are the common misunderstandings about Abstract Expressionism?

    First, there’s the old joke that it’s a mess or that anyone could do it. Yet the closer you look at Pollock’s pourings, the more you can grasp how carefully he controlled the flow of paint. The same goes for Rothko’s infinitely subtle layerings and edgings, not to mention how he judged the rectangles’ proportions and their interaction. Motherwell’s series ‘Elegies to the Spanish Republic’ and his collages are fine-tuned down to the smallest stroke and tearing of a contour, as is Tobey’s ‘white writing’. De Kooning and Reinhardt were also acutely deliberative artists.

    Secondly, that the artists were know-nothings. In fact, they were mostly sophisticated intellectuals, albeit often autodidacts. As Motherwell said, every good artist carries the whole history of modern painting in his head. He might have added goodly chunks of philosophy, literature and music to that knowledge. Even Pollock studied the Old Masters intently – Tintoretto, El Greco, Turner. Their minds were cosmopolitan.

    Thirdly, that Ab Ex is passé. It’s not. It is still hot!

  • Janet Sobel, Illusion of Solidity

    Janet Sobel, Illusion of Solidity, c.1945.

    Oil on canvas. 109.2 x 68.6 cm. Private Collection Courtesy Gary Snyder Fine Art, NY © The estate of Janet Sobel.

  • 6. Why reappraise it now?

    Whether they like it or loathe it, few would dispute that Ab Ex is, with Pop and maybe Minimalism, among the two or three most seminal artistic events of the second half of the 20th century. Its influence has been phenomenal. Even Andy Warhol looked to interrogate Pollock with his ‘Yarn’ series of silkscreen paintings in 1983 that contain tangled threads parodying his predecessor’s paint skeins. Before him, Jasper Johns Hon RA had viewed Ab Ex through ironic lenses to freeze its painterly tumultuousness into carefully crafted encaustic surfaces. Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein parodied Ab Ex’s gestural side by, respectively, erasing a de Kooning drawing (in a work of 1953), and by producing various explosive onomatopoeic pictures that blast away their hip messages in response to the apparent spontaneity and violence of Pollock & Co. Richard Serra actually conceived his Belts (1966–67) as a specific response to Pollock’s Mural (1943). The big vulcanised rubber belts and neon strips plunge Pollock’s romanticism into a tough industrial-cum-warehouse context.

    And among myriad contemporaries, Ab Ex finds echoes in artists as otherwise dissimilar as Anish Kapoor RA, Anselm Kiefer Hon RA and Julien Schnabel. Any art that has cast such a long shadow always merits reappraisal – never more so than in Britain, where the last survey devoted to Ab Ex happened (gasp) 57 years ago. True, Tate has brought in a sequence of excellent monographic shows since the 1990s – on Pollock, Newman, Gorky. But the moment has come to put these elements together into a single and, I hope, grand whole.

    In a nutshell, Ab Ex strove to give abstract form to some big themes – including fear, hope, desire, transcendence – or, as Rothko put it, “tragedy, ecstasy, doom”. These feelings are nothing less than perennial co-ordinates of the human condition. No matter how ‘post-modern’ (for want of a better word) we become, no matter how cynical or quixotic our concept of the singular authentic ‘self’ turns, we will be drawn to such emotions as long as we remain recognisably human. Indeed, the dehumanisation that attends aspects of contemporary life such as high technology and cyberspace, including the expectation that we’re supposed to respond to whatever bombards us 24/7, may make this art the more attractive to our assailed, ergo jaded, sensibilities. Simply put, Ab Ex is about the language of the emotions and consequently has good claims to being the last full-scale humanist art form. It’s high time to readdress that spectrum and the bracing visual vocabularies that Ab Ex found to articulate it.

    Abstract Expressionism is in the Main Galleries until 2 January 2017. The exhibition tours to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao from 3 February – 4 June 2017.

    On, Around and Beyond Jackson Pollock’s ‘Mural’, a talk by David Anfam exploring one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century, will be held at the RA on Friday 4 November 2016 from 6.30 — 7.30pm. With speech-to-text transcription and BSL interpretation.

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