Abstract Expressionism was the first great American art movement
For centuries, Paris had been the traditional center for the world’s artists, dealers and collectors. But, then, in the 1940s and 1950s, a new movement emerged that placed the US center-stage. Characterized by large, abstract, emotionally charged oil paintings, Abstract Expressionism swiftly made New York the focus of the art world. Developing just after the Great Depression and overlapping with the Vietnam War, the movement coincided with the US emergence as the pre-eminent global superpower. “In its confidence and espousal of freedom of expression, there is a particularly American feeling about Abstract Expressionism,” says exhibition curator Edith Devaney.
But It Had its Roots in Europe
Abstract Expressionism owed a great deal to the European Modernist tradition. The interest in spontaneous, automatic, or unconscious forms of creativity was a direct inheritance from Surrealism. At the same time, the works of Pablo Picasso were widely seen as the gold standard to which the Abstract Expressionists aspired. The US, of course, has a long history of immigration from Europe, and Abstract Expressionism was no different: painter Hans Hofmann was born in Germany; Willem de Kooning trained in the Netherlands. Even the term itself—Abstract Expressionism—was first used in Germany in 1919 to describe German Expressionism, and only came to be applied to the new wave of US artists in 1946.
Color Field or Action Painting?
In the past art historians largely divided Abstract Expression into two subsections. The first is known as “action painting”—a term coined by US art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952. Action painting, whose exponents included Pollock as well as de Kooning and Franz Kline, was characterized by a focus on painting as a dynamic act of creation. In opposition was what critic Clement Greenberg described as “color field” painting. This approach was characterized by large expanses of more flatly applied color, and exemplified by the likes of Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman.
In fact, as this exhibition reveals, Abstract Expressionism was about much more than just color-field or action painting. The show demonstrates the versatility of many of the artists involved: from small-scale poured paintings by Pollock to surprisingly celebratory works by Rothko in bright oranges and yellow. While the show focuses on the core New York figures (Pollock and Rothko, de Kooning, Kline, and Robert Motherwell, among others), it also includes artists based in and around San Francisco (like Clyfford Still and Sam Francis), and some of the many women artists at the forefront of the movement: Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell. As the first multi-artist exhibition of US Abstract Expressionism to take place in the Europe since 1959, one of the key points is the movement’s oft-overlooked diversity.
Scale Taken to New Levels
Scale is a trademark of Abstract Expressionism. A number of the artists had been influenced by the experience of painting murals for the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, with many going on to favor monumental canvases that almost engulf the viewer. Abstract Expressionist art invites artist and viewer to meet. While the artist expresses their emotions and conveys a sense of their presence in the work, the viewer’s perception is the final component in the mix. Abstract painting “confronts you,” Pollock said in 1950. As the Rothko Chapel in Houston exemplifies, the intensity of this encounter can be heightened by the way the work is displayed.
Abstract Expressionism Was Not Just about Painting
While it is the paintings of artists like Pollock and Rothko that are best-known today, Abstract Expressionism encompassed a much wider range of media than is often realized. Sculpture, collage, and photography were especially prominent during the period. Artists such as David Smith became known for large-scale outdoor sculptures and public art, while Aaron Siskind sought to capture the same kind of energy and movement in his photography that Pollock was attempting to evoke through action painting. Hans Namuth, meanwhile, became best known for his photographic portraits of Pollock at work in his studio.
They Celebrated Art, and Each Other
Although Pollock shot to fame almost instantly, for many of the movement’s other artists, recognition came slowly, if at all. The role of the critic was important in this process. Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman both worked as critics in addition to their artistic practice. They—along with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg—helped to celebrate the movement and garner wider public attention. But the artists also supported each other: in 1949, they founded the Artists’ Club to provide a venue for eating, drinking, debating art, and organizing exhibitions.
Two daring women
Although the most prominent Abstract Expressionists were mostly men, their significance was partly due to the resolve and support of two women: Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. These two gallerists approached the art market in different ways, which was evident in many aspects, from the design of their exhibition spaces to the relationships and agreements they reached with the artists they represented. The unique Art of This Century, designed entirely by Frederick Kiesler for Peggy Guggenheim, was in stark contrast with the modern open spaces painted white of the Betty Parsons Gallery. Whereas Guggenheim’s patronage and collecting activities were mixed with her personal relationships, Parsons signed detailed contracts with the artists and gave them free rein to select and hang their shows.