Abstract expressionism

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Image:Stamp-ctc-abstract expressionism.jpg
This USPS stamp illustrates Pollock's drip technique.

Abstract expressionism was an American post-World War II art movement. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence and also the one that put New York City at the center of the art world, a role formerly filled by Paris. The term "Abstract expressionism" was first applied to American art in 1946 by the critic Robert Coates.

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[edit] Style

Technically, an important predecessor is surrealism, with its emphasis on spontaneous, automatic or subconscious creation. Jackson Pollock's dripping paint onto a canvas laid on the floor is a technique that has its roots in the work of Max Ernst. Another important early manifestation of what came to be abstract expressionism is the work of American Northwest artist Mark Tobey, especially his "white writing" canvases, which, though generally not large in scale, anticipate the "all over" look of Pollock's drip paintings.

The movement gets its name because it is seen as combining the emotional intensity and self-expression of the German Expressionists with the anti-figurative aesthetic of the European abstract schools such as Futurism, the Bauhaus and Synthetic Cubism. Additionally, it has an image of being rebellious, anarchic, highly idiosyncratic and, some feel, rather nihilistic. In practice, the term is applied to any number of artists working in New York who had quite different styles, and even applied to work which is not especially abstract nor expressionist. Pollock's energetic "action paintings", with their "busy" feel, are different both technically and aesthetically to the violent and grotesque Women series of Willem de Kooning (which are figurative paintings) and to the serenely shimmering blocks of colour in Mark Rothko's work (which is not what would usually be called expressionist and which Rothko denied was abstract), yet all three are classified as abstract expressionists.

Abstract Expressionism has many stylistic similarities to the Russian artists of the early twentieth century such as Wassily Kandinsky. Although it is true that spontaneity or of the impression of spontaneity characterized many of the abstract expressionists works, most of these paintings involved careful planning, especially since their large size demanded it. An exception might be the drip paintings of Pollock.

Why this style gained mainstream acceptance in the 1950s is a matter of debate. American social realism had been the mainstream in the 1930s. It had been influenced not only by the Great Depression but also by the Social Realists of Mexico such as Jose Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. The political climate after World War II did not long tolerate the social protests of these painters. Abstract expressionism arose during World War II and began to be showcased during the early forties at galleries in New York like The Art of This Century Gallery. The McCarthy era after World War II was a time of extreme artistic censorship in the United States. Since the subject matter was often totally abstract it became a safe strategy for artists to pursue this style. Abstract art could be seen as apolitical. Or if the art was political, the message was largely for the insiders.

Although the abstract expressionist school spread quickly throughout the United States, the major centers of this style were New York City and California, especially the San Francisco Bay area.

Nevertheless, abstract expressionist paintings share certain characteristics, including the use of large canvases, and an "all-over" approach, in which the whole canvas is treated with equal importance (as opposed to the center being of more interest than the edges, for example). As the first truly original school of painting in America, abstract expressionism demonstrated the vitality and creativity of the country in the post-war years, as well as its ability (or need) to develop an aesthetic sense that was not constrained by the European standards of beauty.

[edit] Art critics of the post-World War II era

In the 1940s there were not only few galleries (The Art of This Century) but also few critics who were willing to follow the work of the New York Vanguard. There were also a few artists with a literary background, among them Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman who functioned as critics as well.

As surprising as it may be, while New York and the world were unfamiliar with the New York avant-garde, by the late 1940s most of the artists who have become household names today had their well established patron critics: Clement Greenberg advocated Jackson Pollock and the Color field painters like Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb and Hans Hofmann. Harold Rosenberg seemed to prefer the action painters like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Thomas B. Hess, the managing editor of Art News, championed Willem de Kooning.

The new critics elevated their proteges by casting other artists as "followers" <ref>Thomas B. Hess, "Willem de Kooning," George Braziller, Inc. New York, 1959 p.:13</ref> or ignoring those who did not serve their promotional goal.

As an example, in 1958, Mark Tobey "became the first American painter since Whistler (1895) to win top prize at the Biennale of Venice. New York's two leading art magazines were not interested. Arts mentioned the historic event only in a news column and Art News (Managing editor: Thomas B. Hess) ignored it completely. The New York Times and Life magazine printed feature articles." Mark Tobey by William C. Seitz, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1962).

Barnett Newman, a late member of the Uptown Group wrote catalogue forewords and reviews and by the late 1940s became an exhibiting artist at Betty Parsons Gallery. His first solo show was in 1948. Soon after his first exhibition, Barnett Newman remarked in one of the Artists' Session at Studio 35: "We are in the process of making the world, to a certain extent, in our own image." <ref>Barnett Newman Selected Writings and Interviews, (ed.) by John P. O'Neill, pgs.: 240-241, University of California Press, 1990</ref> Utilizing his writing skills, Newman fought every step of the way to reinforce his newly established image as an artist and to promote his work. An example is his letter in April 9, 1955, "Letter to Sidney Janis: ---It is true that Rothko talks the fighter. He fights, however, to submit to the philistine world. My struggle against bourgeois society has involved the total rejection of it." <ref>Barnett Newman Selected Writings Interviews, (ed.) by John P. O'Neill, p.: 201, University of California Press, 1990.</ref>

Strangely the person thought to have had most to do with the promotion of this style was a New York Trotskyist, Clement Greenberg. As long time art critic for the Partisan Review and The Nation, he became an early and literate proponent of abstract expressionism. Artist Robert Motherwell, well heeled, joined Greenberg in promoting a style that fit the political climate and the intellectual rebelliousness of the era.

Clement Greenberg proclaimed Abstract Expressionism and Jackson Pollock in particular as the epitome of aesthetic value. It supported Pollock's work on formalistic grounds as simply the best painting of its day and the culmination of an art tradition going back via Cubism and Cézanne to Monet, in which painting became ever 'purer' and more concentrated in what was 'essential' to it, the making of marks on a flat surface. <ref>Clement Greenberg, "Art and Culture Critical essays," ("The Crisis of the Easel Picture"), Beacon Press, 1961 pp.:154-157</ref>

Jackson Pollock's work has always polarised critics. Harold Rosenberg spoke of the transformation of painting into an existential drama in Pollock's work, in which "what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event". "The big moment came when it was decided to paint 'just to paint'. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value--political, aesthetic, moral."<ref>Harold Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New, Chapter 2, "The American Action Painter," pp.:23-39</ref>

One of the most vocal critics of Abstract expressionism at the time was New York Times art critic John Canaday. Meyer Shapiro, and Leo Steinberg along with Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were important art historians of the post-war era who voiced support for Abstract expressionism. During the early to mid sixties younger art critics Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss and Robert Hughes (critic) added considerable insights into the critical dialectic that continues to grow around Abstract expressionism.

Other people, such as British comedian/satirist Craig Brown, have been astonished that decorative 'wallpaper' could gain such a position in art history alongside Giotto, Titian and Velazquez.

[edit] CIA

The style attracted the attention, in the early 1950s, of the CIA, who saw it as a means of promoting the USA as a haven of free thought and free markets, as well as a challenge to both the socialist realist styles prevalent in communist nations and the dominance of the European art markets. The book by Frances Stonor Saunders [1], The Cultural Cold War - The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, [2] also titled Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War, details how the CIA financed and organized the promotion of American abstract expressionists via the Congress for Cultural Freedom from 1950–67. Other books on the subject include Art in the Cold War by Christine Lindey and Pollock and After edited by Francis Frascina. One artist mentioned by some sources in this cold-war connection is Elaine Hamilton (Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal).

[edit] Consequences

Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) helped introduce abstract impressionism to Paris in the 1950s. By the 1960s, the movement's initial impact had been assimilated, yet its methods and proponents remained highly influential in art, affecting profoundly the work of many artists who followed. Abstract Expressionism preceded Tachisme, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism, Postminimalism, Neo-expressionism, and the other movements of the sixties and seventies and it influenced all those later movements that evolved. Movements which were direct responses to, and rebellions against abstract expressionism began with Hard-edge painting (Frank Stella, Robert Indiana and others) and Pop artists, notably Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg and Roy Lichtenstein who achieved prominence in the US, accompanied by Richard Hamilton in Britain. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the US formed a bridge between abstract expressionism and Pop art. Minimalism was exemplified by artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Mangold and Carl Andre.

However, many painters, such as Fuller Potter, Jane Frank (a pupil of Hans Hofmann), and Elaine Hamilton continued to work in the abstract expressionist style for many years, extending and expanding its visual and philosophical implications, as many abstract artists continue to do today including Hal Fielding and Marti Garaughty.

[edit] List of abstract expressionists

The major artists are:

[edit] References

<references />

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

Western art movements
Renaissance · Mannerism · Baroque · Rococo · Neoclassicism · Romanticism · Realism · Pre-Raphaelite · Academic · Impressionism · Post-Impressionism
20th century
Modernism · Cubism · Expressionism · Abstract expressionism · Abstract · Neue Künstlervereinigung München · Der Blaue Reiter · Die Brücke · Dada · Fauvism · Art Nouveau · Bauhaus · De Stijl · Art Deco · Pop art · Futurism · Suprematism · Surrealism · Minimalism · Post-Modernism · Conceptual art

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Abstract expressionism

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