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Sponsored by: Sponsor: Fundación BBVA
With the collaboration of: Collaborator: Terra Foundation for American Art
Sponsored by: Sponsor: Fundación BBVA
With the collaboration of: Collaborator: Terra Foundation for American Art
Diego Rivera New Workers

Mexican artist Diego Rivera demonstrating painting techniques to students in New York City (New Workers’ Art School), August 1933. Photo: Bettmann. Getty Images

The Irascibles Group

Portrait of “The Irascibles” group of American abstract artists: Willem de Kooning; Jackson Pollock; Adolph Gottlieb; Ad Reinhardt; Robert Motherwell; Clyfford Still; James C.Brooks; Hedda Sterne; Jimmy Ernst; Bradley Walker Tomlin; Richard Pousette-Dart; Barnett Newman; Theodoros Stamos; William Baziotes; Mark Rothko, November 1950. Photo: Nina Leen. Getty Images

Prueba bomba hidrógeno Elugelab

The Hydrogen Bomb, 1952. A picture of the thermo-nuclear device tested by the U.S. at the Elugelab test island in the Marshall Islands. Photo: Popperfoto. Getty Images

Caza de Brujas 1951

Detention of some of a group of 19 important Communists in June, 1951. Photo: AFP. Getty Images

Did you know that...?

Didaktika allows visitors to further explore the content of exhibitions through educational spaces and special activities.

On this occasion, the focus is on the crucial role of the United States government during the mid-20th century in supporting its culture and art. A number of federal projects promoted the rise of Abstract Expressionism, partly to satisfy the political interests of a government concerned with the possible expansion of the Soviet Union’s communist ideology.

Furthermore, as a result of the Second World War, the creative spotlight moved from Paris to New York, since many artists migrated there from the Old World and brought with them the new art that they showed in galleries and exhibitions, and shared through teaching.

The exhibition offers additional content in its wall texts, audio guides, and express tours.

After the crash of the New York stock market in 1929, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented a series of projects and programs to deal with the Great Depression and rebuild the United States’ economy. In an effort to provide income to the millions of unemployed citizens, the government established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 to provide jobs in public works all over the country. Additionally, the Federal Art Project (FAP) was founded that same year and sponsored by the WAP, to support artists and finance projects that upheld the American spirit and its values of work, community, and optimism.

One of the initiatives it sponsored was based on a plan by the Mexican government, which a few years earlier had hired artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera to depict the history and ideals of the revolution on the walls of buildings and in public spaces around the country. Their huge murals filled the streets of Mexican towns and cities, inspiring thousands of American artists who worked for the FAP until it ended in 1943, including Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Their murals adorned the walls of post offices, state and federal offices, schools, libraries, and airports all over the US—some of which can still be seen today in cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston.

Prior to the creation of the WPA, Mexican muralists were already quite influential. In 1933, Nelson Rockefeller had commissioned a huge mural from Diego Rivera for the lobby of the recently-built Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. After signing the contract, Rivera altered the original scheme on several occasions, culminating in Man at the Crossroads, a mural full of Communist allusions (red flags, people protesting, a portrait of Lenin, etc). For this reason, and even though he had been paid in full, the work was never shown and was ultimately destroyed in early 1934.

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the world was divided into two opposing blocks: the Western block, led by the United States who defended a democratic political system, a capitalist economy, and liberal ideology; and the Communist block, headed by the Soviet Union who encouraged a political, social, and economic system based on collective property. The profound differences between these two blocks became increasingly irreconcilable after the war, and in 1947, a new world conflict arose: the Cold War (1947–1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The nuclear weapons potential of the United States and the USSR prevented military confrontation, at least directly, and averted a nuclear Holocaust. As a result, the conflict was played out at a political, economic, and cultural level, and through propaganda.

During the Second World War, New York welcomed dealers, and art critics from Europe who had crossed the Atlantic, fleeing totalitarian regimes. Years of war had left a large part of Europe in ruins, and within this context, New York City rose up as a new artistic center, from where new trends spread.

In this period Social Realism was still influential. It drew attention to the everyday conditions of the working class and the poor and in American art, was closely related to American Scene Painting and Regionalism. Meanwhile, several movements that had originated in Europe began to draw interest in the USA, especially German Expressionism and Surrealism, thanks in part to the presence in the U.S. of European artists such as André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, André Masson, Roberto Matta, Piet Mondrian, and Yves Tanguy. Exiles Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann also influenced several generations of American painters with their teachings on Abstract Art and the European avant-gardes at different art centers and universities, such as The Art Students League and Yale. Young American artists such as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko discovered modern European movements first-hand through the exhibitions held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and some galleries specialized in contemporary art, such as the Betty Parsons Gallery and Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, first shown by gallery owner Curt Valentine during the spring of 1939 and then during the winter at MoMA, marked a turning point with its shocking iconography, color palette, and large-scale format.

During the early years of the Cold War, the threat of a world conflict and the possible spread of Communism was cause for great concern in the United States and led to a climate of suspicion that culminated in McCarthyism (headed by Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, in office 1947–1957), a witch hunt where  anyone suspected of sympathizing with Communism or leftist politics was persecuted, including some of the young Abstract Expressionists. An aggressive campaign carried out against them claimed that their abstract art was nothing more than a Soviet instrument to stain the image of the American people.

However, for a broad sector of the country’s intellectual elite, Abstract Expressionism represented the triumph of a free culture over totalitarianism because it was based on the absolute freedom of the artist. This is why the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deftly turned these artists into a propagandist weapon that American culture could wield against the Soviets, even subsidizing their work behind their backs. In New York City, the Museum of Modern Art, presided by Nelson Rockefeller, was another resource at the service of the cause, and  promoted young American art by purchasing a large number of works and organizing exhibitions that traveled all over the world, such as Twelve Modern American Painters and Sculptors (1953) and The New American Painting (1958), which were shown in most large European cities between 1958 and 1959, as a means to spread the American way of life all around the world.

According to some historians, the CIA also secretly funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization promoted by the United States with offices in up to 35 countries. It organized cultural events such as conferences, exhibitions, concerts, and even published over twenty prestigious magazines, including Encounter in UK, Preuve in France, Tempo Presente in Italy, Cuadernos and Mundo Nuevo in Latin America, Quadrant in Australia and Jiyu in Japan.



Shared Reflections

Discover this exhibition, the secrets of its set-up and other curious facts in these unique visits with Museum professionals.

Curatorial Vision Wednesday February 15 Abstract Expressionism, Lucía Agirre, Museum Curator
Key Concepts Wednesday February 22 Abstract Expressionism, Luz Maguregui, Education Coordinator

*Sponsored by the Fundación Vizcaína Aguirre.

Further Information


David Anfam: On, around and beyond Jackson Pollock's

May 4, 6:30 pm

Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943, Jackson Pollock’s Mural played a key role as a catalyst for the movement known as Abstract Expressionism. Since then, Mural has remained an influential work of art, as can be seen in the work of contemporary artists, both painters and sculptors, such as Lee Krasner, David Smith or Richard Serra.

Venue: Auditorium

Further Information


Aproaching Art

May 17 and 18, 7:00-8:30 pm

Art critic, curator, essay writer, and Professor of Art History at Complutense University Madrid Mª Dolores Jiménez-Blanco will reveal the keys to Abstract Expressionism and discuss the movement’s historical background and most representative artists and works. The course is targeted at people interested in acquiring basic concepts and references in contemporary art.

Further Information


Audio guide and adapted guides

Audio guide and adapted guides

The audio guides, available at the Museum entrance, provide further information on the works in each exhibition.

Ask at the Information desk for audio/video guides for people with cognitive, hearing and/or visual impairments.    

Further Information

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