The ARTnews Guide to Abstract Expressionism
By the time the Second World War ended, in 1945, some 70–85 million people had died, and cities across Europe and Asia were left in ruins. Economies were devastated in countries around the globe, with one huge exception: the United States.
Although Japan had brought the war to America’s Pacific protectorates and German U-boats had prowled off the East Coast, the U.S. mainland had been left virtually untouched by the conflict. America’s infrastructure and industry remained intact, propelling an unprecedented boom in prosperity under the protection of the single greatest military in history. The geopolitical order shifted in favor of the United States, and with it, the soft power of cultural influence.
Out of this transformation came America’s first truly homegrown art movement: Abstract Expressionism. The world’s art capital moved from Paris to New York, and a new roster of names—Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko—took root in the public imagination where Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso had once been.
An art movement for postwar America
Abstract Expressionism (or AbEx) was a perfect match for a newly empowered hegemon: At least on the surface (more on this later), it was male dominated, misogynistic, homophobic, racially restricted, and argued over to the point of physical violence. While it included sculptors, it was mostly the province of painters. Their work caught the attention of both the media and the U.S. government, which saw the movement as a weapon in the Cold War propaganda battle between American free speech and Soviet censorship.
Abstract Expressionism comprised an eclectic spectrum of approaches, from Willem de Kooning’s slashing brushwork to Mark Rothko’s suffuse arrangements of color; in fact, it wasn’t a style so much as an umbrella term for the use of paint to convey an artist’s inner life. Feelings and sensations were manifested concretely through gesture, the essence of the artist distilled through the application of pigment. Dubbed “action painting” by some, this technique often involved a range of motion exceeding the limits of the easel, an expansiveness dubbed “American scale” in Europe. That this descriptor also evoked America’s aggrandized emergence on the world stage was no accident.
Old and new worlds
In essence, the rise of Abstract Expressionism redirected the writing of modern art history from the Old World to the New. At the same time, it remained indebted to ideas cultivated in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent over the previous 80 years.
Paris had been the center of art since the 17th century, when the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture was established to codify its practice and presentation. Through its annual salon exhibition, the Académie enforced a strict hierarchy of genres and mediums, with sculpture taking a back seat to painting, which, in turn, privileged encomiums to the state and classical allegories above all other subjects.
By the 19th century, this system had become too rigid to accommodate the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. Artists began to pursue notions such as “art for art’s sake” and “painting modern life” as ways of rebelling against preordained formulas chained to the past. A wave of radical innovations came next, culminating at the turn of the 20th century with a complete break from the visual language that had persisted since the Renaissance.
Cubism, Futurism, and abstraction arose in rapid succession, but among the early avant-garde, the most influential movement for the Abstract Expressionists was Surrealism, which plumbed the recesses of the psyche to reveal a reality that superseded waking life. Crucial in this respect was the Surrealist notion of automatism, a mechanism for making art that surrendered conscious direction to the dictates of the unconscious mind. It became the model on which the Abstract Expressionists based their performative approach to painting, most explicitly in Jackson Pollock’s famed “drip” paintings.
Both Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism had arisen in reaction to epochal conflagrations, the two World Wars, and both, in differing ways, accessed the subconscious to metaphorically exorcise the insanity of a world gone mad. Indeed, Abstract Expressionism isn’t all that abstract if you entertain the argument that it channeled a sort of collective PTSD afflicting a country beset by anti-Communist paranoia and waves of returning veterans with physical and psychological scars.
AbEx and Surrealism
The link between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism was forged directly by the community of European artists sheltering from the Nazis in wartime New York. They included some of Surrealism’s most important figures: Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, André Masson, and most important, André Breton, Surrealism’s self-anointed leader and ideological enforcer.
Scarcely one to sit on the sidelines, Breton was active on the New York scene, sought out by the likes of the Armenian-born painter Arshile Gorky, whom Breton certified as a true Surrealist after the artist showed him his painting The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb (1944); Breton even declared the piece “one of the most important paintings made in America.” Gorky was, along with Pollock, De Kooning, and Rothko, a key player in AbEx’s development.
But while Gorky (1904–1948) is associated with Abstract Expressionism, Breton was correct in labeling him a Surrealist. Like Joan Miró and Tanguy, Gorky pursued a kind of dream-state biomorphic abstractionism while also porting over aspects of French colorism. Still, Gorky would prove to be a critical precursor to the AbEx artists who followed.
In his mature work, Gorky employed spindly lines to surround and connect his soft blobs of color and vaguely vaginal forms. He filled intermediate spaces with scumbled marks and diluted pigments that dripped down the canvas.
Gorky’s work provided a veritable smorgasbord of effects on which the Abstract Expressionists could feast—especially De Kooning, who once shared a studio with Gorky, and Rothko, a former student of his. Moreover, his personal story lived up to the image of the tortured mid-century artist manifesting inner demons through compositional chaos: An escapee from the 1915 Armenian genocide whose mother died of starvation, Gorky would eventually hang himself.
From Gorky to Pollock
Differing from Gorky in tone if not self-destructiveness was the artist most identified with AbEx, Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). Contemptuous of Gorky’s work, Pollock saw himself as the true, ruggedly individualistic avatar of modern American art.
The son of a farmer and part-time land surveyor of Scots-Irish descent, Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, a background that shaped his self-image as an artistic Marlboro Man—albeit one who was alcoholic, possibly closeted, and crippled by raging insecurities. His teacher was the arch-conversative regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, a painter who disdained modernism yet whose undulating compositional dynamics would eventually be translated by Pollock into pure energetic abstraction.
Pollock was also inspired by the outsize murals of Diego Rivera and by Picasso, whom he was enviously determined to overtake. He viewed Picasso as the single greatest obstacle to achieving a uniquely American brand of artistic greatness. At one point, according to his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, Pollock threw a Picasso catalog across his studio, shouting, “That fucking Picasso . . . he’s done everything!”
Picasso, then, provided the windmill Pollock tilted against until 1947, when, in a small shed in Springs, Long Island, he began to dribble and fling enamel onto unstretched canvases laid on the floor. Working around their edges, Pollock varied his speed and posture to apply paint in all-over skeins that resisted any semblance of form. Life magazine noticed, publishing a story on him in 1949 titled “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Thus a star was born, and with it the legend of Jack the Dripper.
It was a hard act to follow, and Pollock reverted to figurative allusions that, once again, sometimes recalled Picasso. Though he was sober during his drip painting phase at Springs, he soon fell off the wagon and died in a car crash after an evening of drinking.
De Kooning and Rothko
Figuration was not antithetical to AbEx and was pursued with toxic masculine vigor by Willem de Kooning (1904–1997). Born in Holland, De Kooning, like Gorky, was an immigrant, though an illegal one who came to the United States in 1926 as a stowaway, jumping ship at Newport News, Virginia.
His most famous works were his studies of women, which seemed to have exploded from his brush in a torrent of anger. Both menacing and radiant, they were as dangerously seductive as a glowing reactor core. They combined the madonna/whore dichotomy in a single entity, a quality that might be reasonably expected from an artist who was also an inveterate womanizer. He lived well into old age, dying from Alzheimer’s disease at age 92.
Mark Rothko (1903–1970) was a Latvian Jew who immigrated to the United States at age 10 and grew up in Portland, Oregon. Whether or not it was due to his Northwest upbringing, Rothko in his mature work employed schemes suggestive of landscape, with stacked patches of color evoking land and sky divided by a horizon line.
Masterful at layering color with shimmering results, he insisted that his paintings were a record of his religious experience while making them and that his aim was to provoke the same response in the viewer. This is most conspicuous in the Rothko Chapel at the Menil Collection in Houston, in which a suite of deep grayish-purple canvases creates a hushed ambience for meditation. Rothko, however, suffered from chronic depression and, like others in his cohort, took his own life.
Expanding the AbEx canon
While these figures were arguably the most essential to shaping AbEx as most people think of it, recent scholarship has begun to resuscitate the reputations of artists who contributed to the movement while standing outside its testosterone-fueled milieu, reflecting a diversity that was always there. Indeed, Abstract Expressionism counted women, African Americans, and LGBTQ artists among its ranks.
Besides witnessing her husband’s hysterics, for example, Lee Krasner produced her own ambitiously monumental compositions, while Helen Frankenthaler was instrumental in the transition from AbEx to the subsequent school of color-field abstraction. Hedda Sterne was the only woman artist to pose for the iconic group photo of the Abstract Expressionists known as “The Irascibles.”
Born in Harlem of Afro-Caribbean descent, Norman Lewis infused his work with the struggle for civil rights. And AbEx’s gay contingent included Bradley Walker Tomlin and Betty Parsons, who, besides being an artist, ran the first gallery to promote Pollock and De Kooning, among others.
Predicated on maintaining an artistic temperament turned up to 11, however, Abstract Expressionism proved unsustainable in the long run, especially as America settled into a corporatized, postwar groove for which Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism became a better fit. Still, the Abstract Expressionists continue to loom large in historical memory as the first artists to take American exceptionalism and turn it into art.