ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM – the modern American art movement
definitions, meaning, characteristics & history facts of art, artists and painters in the ‘New York School’
Abstract Expressionism, is described here in selected texts quotes, from the art critics: Barbara Hess, Karen Wilkin and Clement Greenberg. This modern American art movement generated typical American painting art, created with a modern energy, in firm gestures and characteristic pictures. Old Europe was still a strong inspiration, but also the old tired world for the New York painters. In America something new was developing, with an unprecedented expression and temper. The text quotes here describe well the typical modern characteristics of the history of American Abstract Expressionism and give several definitions.
* At the bottom some useful art links for more information on Abstract Expressionism; – the editor.
‘Sunday afternoon’, Elaine Fried de Kooning, 1957
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM: meaning, history, definitions, and artists of the American art movement
- ‘We agree only to disagree.’ According to Irvin Sandler, writer and observer of the art scene, this was the unwritten motto of that loose grouping of artists in New York in the 1940s and 50s who are generally known as ‘Abstract Expressionists’ or ‘the first generation of the New York School’.
* source: ‘A constant searching of oneself’, artbook “Abstract Expressionism” by Barbara Hess, Taschen, p. 6
- ‘It is disastrous to name ourselves’, answered the painter Willem de Kooning (often called Bill, fh) in a panel discussion in 1950 when the former director of the New York museum of modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., demanded: ‘We should have a name for which we can blame the artists – for once in history!’
* taken from: ‘A constant searching of oneself’ in “Abstract Expressionism”, Barbara Hess, Taschen, p. 6
- Surrealism was one of the influential trends with which American artists were coming to terms, in particular, when the coming to-power of the National Socialists (Hitler, fh) in Germany and the outbreak of the second World War forced numerous exponents of the surrealist movement (Masson, Duchamp, Breton, Dali, fh) to emigrate to the United States.
* source: ‘A constant searching of oneself’ in “Abstract Expressionism”, Barbara Hess, ed. Uta Grosenick; Taschen, p. 6 / 7
- The more neutral geographical description ‘New York School’ – in allusion and in contrast to the (French abstract, fh) ‘École de Paris’, which until the 1940s had been regarded as the world-leader – was first applied primarly on account of New York’s being the most important work and exhibition location for a new generation of artists. The name can be traced back to ‘The school of New York exhibition which the artist Robert Motherwell organized in 1951…which included works by, among others, William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Aart, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Hedda Sterne, Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, the sculptor David Smith, and Mark Tobey among the ‘first generation of Abstract Expressionism’; while the ‘second generation’ of younger artists, or of those who only developed their characteristic techniques in the 1950s, is supposed to include Friedel Dzubas, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell.
* source: ‘A constant searching of oneself’ in her art-book “Abstract Expressionism”, Barbara Hess, Taschen, p. 7
- Without a doubt, the female Abstract Expressionists play a special role… … The American art historian Marcia Brennan tellingly noted that women in abstract Expressionism were ‘at the same time selectively present and strategically ‘absent’; not until recently has greater attention been paid to the works and working conditions of artists such as Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell or Janet Sobel.
* source: “Abstract Expressionism”, by Barbara Hess; Taschen, p. 8
- This view of painting as ‘self-examination, self-reassurance and self-expression’ – a quotation from a panel discussion initiated by ‘’Life Magazine’ on the subject of ‘modern art’ in 1948 – was definitive for the Abstract Expressionists and their public alike. Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman saw themselves, especially during the 1940s, as modern ‘myth-makers’ who, by having recourse to ‘primitive’ and archaic cultures – for example native American or pre-Columbian art – hoped to create timeless and immediately accessible metaphors and symbols for the condition of ‘modern man’, which was perceived as tragic.
* source: ‘A constant searching of oneself’ in “Abstract Expressionism”, Barbara Hess, p. 10
- If the label ‘Abstract Expressionism’ means anything, it means painterliness: loose, rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct; large and conspicuous rhythms; broken color, uneven saturations or densities of paint, exhibited brush, knife, of finger marks – in short, a constellation of qualities like those defined by Wölfflin when he extracted his notion of Malerische (painterly, fh) from Baroque art.
* source: ‘After Abstract Expressionism’, Clement Greenberg, in ‘Art International’, 25 October 1962
- In order to counter the economic distress being suffered by artists, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) instituted the Federal Arts Project (FAP) in 1935. This enabled numerous artists, including William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock and David Smith, to earn a living from their art for the first time., while also promoting closer links between those involved. One important undertaking by the Federal arts Project was the commissioning of works of art for public spaces, primarily exterior murals, whose execution was supervised by, among others, … …of the Mexican Muralist movement such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
* from: ‘A constant searching of oneself’ in “Abstract Expressionism”, Barbara Hess, Taschen, p. 9
- In the years 1936/37 the museum of Modern art staged two exhibitions which provided strong impulses for the younger generation of New York artists: ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ and ‘Fantastic art, Dada, Surrealism’ (the Futurist artists refused to exhibit with the Cubism artists then, so their influence on American art was not possible directly, however indirectly by some French Cubists who used Futurism elements in their art as the early Duchamps, fh). The latter, in particular, aroused an interest in the unconscious as a source of artistic expression and in Surrealist artistic techniques such as ‘écriture automatique’, a form of pictorial or written expression free of any censorship by the rational mind (for ‘automatic writing’, see the quotes by Duchamp, Jorn, Miró and Breton, fh) or the conscious will. Following the example of écriture automatique, the self-dynamic of the paint itself came to be increasingly important in the painting techniques of a number of Abstract Expressionists, (like Pollock & Gorky, fh).
* source of the quote: “Abstract Expressionism”, Barbara Hess, ed. Uta Grosenick; p. 10
- Peggy Guggenheim … …had also staged the (starting around 1947, fh) first solo exhibitions of the works of numerous American Abstract Expressionists… …On the occasion of the closing of ‘Art of this Century’, Clement Greenberg wrote: ‘I am convinced that Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the history of American Art will grow lager as the times passes and as the artists she encouraged mature’. He was to prove
* taken from: ‘A constant searching of oneself’ – publication: “Abstract Expressionism” by Barbara Hess, Taschen, p. 12
- ‘As dark as the situation still is for us, American painting in its most advanced aspects – that is, American abstract painting, – has in the last several years shown here and there a capacity for fresh content that does not seem to be matched either in France or Great Britain’ (in ‘The situation of the Moment’, Jan 1948, Greenberg, fh). One logical problem in this debate, however, consisted precisely in the difficulty of discerning the specifically ‘American’ aspect of the new painting… …Greenberg tried to resolve this in his 1955 essay ‘American-type Painting’. His thesis was that modern painting had made it its special goal to investigate its own material conditions and to filter out ‘the expendable conventions’ of the medium, ‘in order to maintain the irreplaceability and renew the vitality of art’… Greenberg saw (this modern painting, fh) successfully implemented above al in Abstract expressionist painting, which at the same time was the first American art movement that was not only respected in Paris, but even imitated.
* source: “Abstract Expressionism””, Barbara Hess, ed. Uta Grosenick; Taschen, p. 19
- In his (Greenberg, fh) essay ‘After Abstract Expressionism’… …he listed the characteristics of 1950s gestural abstraction (in America, fh), not only to describe them but also to underline how this approach differed from the crisp geometric efforts of the American “non-objective” artists of the 1930s and the lean, color-based compositions of the painters who rose to prominence in the 1960s.
* from: ‘Notes on Color Field Painting’, Karen Wilkin, in “Color as Field – American Painting 1950 – 1975, American Federations of Art, in ass. With Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007, p. 11
- the dividing line between the painterly and the linear (painting, fh) is by no means a hard and fast one.
* source: ‘Post painterly abstraction’, Clement Greenberg, exh. Cat. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles 1964
- Painterly painting was not universal even among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. If the Malerische (the painterly, fh) was exemplified by Willem de Kooning’s layered, wet-into-wet, gesture paintings, its opposite was embodied, in various ways, by Jackson Pollock’s flickering snarls and skeins, Mark Rothko’s and Barnett Newman’s sheets of uninflected color, Clyfford Still’s glaciers of viscous paint, and Robert Motherwell’s and Adolph Gottlieb’s bold, graphic, configurations, to name only a few examples.
* from: ‘Notes on Color Field Painting’, Karen Wilkin, in “Color as Field – American Painting 1950 – 1975, American Federations of Art, in ass. With Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007, p. 12
- The painterly and non-painterly Abstract Expressionists were united by their shared belief in the necessity of abstractness and their common certainty that the source of art was the unconscious (new discovered art ideas of Surrealism: automatic writing, drawing and painting, fh). They shared too, the conviction that an ‘authentic’ painting was infused with every aspect of its author’s personality and that the history of a painting’s evolution was an important part of its meaning.
* source: ‘Notes on Color Field Painting’, Karen Wilkin, in “Color as Field – American Painting 1950 – 1975, American Federations of Art, New Haven and London, 2007, p. 12
- .…for the painterly Abstract Expressionists, assertive gestures were both declarations of individuality and carriers of emotion; layering was essential to ‘authenticity’ as a visible indication of the painting’s previous and future states, and by implication, a sign of the artists anxiety and the existential instability of the moment.
* from: ‘Notes on Color Field Painting’, Karen Wilkin, American Federations of Art, in ass. With Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007, pp. 12-13
- For the anti-Malerische (anti-painterly, fh) Abstract Expressionists – Rothko and Pollock, for example – overt gesture was largely expendable. A sense of expansiveness and ‘all-overness’ was more crucial than evidence of past and future change. All-overness announced that the painting was a continuous surface of a particular dimension, inscribed with a record of the artist’s willed and unwilled intentions. At the same time, all-overness implied that this self-sufficient entity was also a fragment of a larger continuum… …, expansiveness and all-overness suggested boundlessness and endless possibility.
* source of the art quote: “Color as Field – American Painting 1950 – 1975, American Federations of Art, in ass. With Yale University Press, 2007, p. 13
- If the layered gestures of painterly abstraction (as in De Koonings art, fh) evoked the agonized indecisions of the present moment, openness, clarity, and all-overness (Pollock, Rothko) were signs of a desire for the infinite, even the eternal.
* taken from: ‘Notes on Color Field Painting’, Karen Wilkin, in “Color as Field – American Painting 1950 – 1975, in ass. With Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007, p. 13
- What the color Field painters shared most importantly with the Abstract Expressionists was the conviction that the role of art was not to report on the visible, but to reveal the unknown. They shared too, the belief that paintings that resembled nothing preexisting could have the presence, authority and associative richness of other real things in the world. Perhaps because of these shared assumptions, close ties existed among some first-generation Abstract Expressionists and the Color field Painters.
* source: ‘Notes on Color Field Painting’, Karen Wilkin
more ART LINKS on American Abstract Expressionism
definitions & information by the quoted art-critics Barbara Hess, Clement Greenberg and Karen Wilkin
* biography of the German woman art critic Barbara Hess is not yet available online