The shift of the center of art from Paris to New York in the 1950s was fomenting as early as the Armory Show of 1913, perhaps the first door that opened up something new to American art culture. The show included European artists Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp. Gone was the perfect classical beauty and in swept the avant-garde artists that shocked and awed Americans. The US became a world power in the 1900s with its buildup of military stoking economic growth, better working conditions and the creation of a vibrant middle class, and a bourgeoning culture, with an emphasis on Individualism that promoted innovation and invention and free Capitalism that funded many opportunities.
American became a true melting pot where most inventions and technology and even art movements were born. Gone were the styles of figuration which were seen by many progressive avant-garde artists as insufficiently expressing the emotional and physical bodily damage and destruction of Europe and its peoples following the wars. Fascism in Europe brought European Modernism artists such as Hans Hoffman and Josef Alpers to the US and artists from European movements in Cubism and Surrealism—Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst—all emigrated to America. With the US drawn into WWII we see the devastation of fire bombings and nuclear warfare, the cold war with Russia and Communism—all this left the US and the entire world reeling, shell shocked and struggling to digest this confusing, hostile world and questioning faith and old systems and forms of expression.
With Europe physically in shambles and America booming with post-war economic wealth and art and academia transplants to New York City, the US came to assume cultural prominence. New York City was now the epicenter where great minds, thinkers and artists converged, a fermenting of art and academia at the modern New York School. Piet Mondrian, transplanted from Paris to NYC, felt the modern city vibe and it influenced him to create works like Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) certainly influenced by the skyscrapers of the city, seeing “the metropolis as abstract life given form.” (Arnason’s page 404)
Earlier movements of Post Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Dada, etc., paved the way for Abstract Expressionism in that these artists were now living and working in New York City, rubbing shoulders with one another and influencing American artists grappling with expressing themselves in a world of chaos. There were American artists that influenced Abstract Expressionism like Arthur Dove. Dove created nonobjective paintings depicting nature’s external forms of curved shapes, his rhythmic paintings expressing nature’s spirit through abstract shapes and color (Arnason Page 370).
Man Ray incorporated Surrealism and Dada trends in his work, influenced by Marcel Duchamp, interested in readymades, found objects, experimental photographic techniques like Rayographs, etc., and influenced by the psychological realm of man’s perception of its world. Politically and culturally there was support of American artists. This range of support ran the gamut of private and governmental. There were galleries run by the likes of Peggy Guggenheim who supported up and coming artists by exhibiting and purchasing their work. Art critics Harold Rosenberg and later Clement Greenberg, played major roles and influenced the success of Abstract Expressionism by their critical support.
In 1952 Rosenberg states “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.” (Arnason Chapter 17, page 412) Governmental support of artists through such organizations as the American Artists’ Congress and later the Federal Art Project which was part of the Works Progress Administration, promoted American artists without interfering with content or style and was used as a cultural weapon during the Cold War. There were even associations of artists which promoted and influenced each other just as we saw through historical art movements in Europe, where groups of artists fed off each other with amazing results of creative movements.
In this way, we see the birth of Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism is the first art movement outside of Europe, it followed WWII, the Great Depression and the deeply rifted morals of the world. Artists felt immobile and could not represent or express art with nudes and landscapes with a world in shambles so they rejected figuration and chose to focus on expressing themselves with emotionally charged personal meaning through non-objective imagery, gesture and color. They took physic automatism as a jump off point, as a liberation to explore new forms of art, some influenced by Jungian philosophies and some even said their work was not abstract, but primal images rooted in the unconscious, not emotional.
Abstract Expressionism comprises Action Painters and Color Field Painters and range from the likes of Franz Kline (simplified quick calligraphy looking brushworks), Jackson Pollack (the drip), Barnett Newman (the zip), Mark Rothko (color field); Robert Motherwell (Dada, automatism and Surrealism influenced), to name a few. These artists rubbed shoulders at the New York School that also included Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Clyfford Still along with Europeans Hans Hoffman, Arshile Gorky, among others.
These artists are considered the first generation Abstract Expressionists with the elimination of figurative representation focusing on gestural expression, how they applied paint, rather then representing a narrative. The action painters chose to express themselves with techniques like dripping, splatter and pouring paint, some rarely making a physical connection with the canvas. They were mostly painters, users of synthetic industrial paints as in the case of Jackson Pollock. They created large-scale canvases and all developed their own individual styles under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionism.
Jackson Pollock was an action painter that physically did not touch his canvas with a brush. He laid his canvas on the ground and held his painting implements above it, running around the canvas flinging paint in great gestural motions, projecting the paint atop in an uncontrolled, uninhibited fashion. Mark Rothko was a young émigré to the US and is considered an American painter of the color field realm. His paintings were largely figurative until 1949, when he moved to abstraction. He created simplified shapes of brightly colored rectangles that floated in a color ground (Arnason’s page 420).
Later his color palette maturing to deeper, more somber colors emoting atmospheric effects that engulfed the spectator into a meditative trance. Barnett Newman’s “Zip” stands him out from other Abstract Expressionists. His formula was a unified color field interrupted by a vertical line. (Arnason’s page 423). The vertical line looks to be a rift in the painting, sometimes painted with precision using masking tape, others are hand-drawn and evidence the mark of the artist.
This first truly American movement of the First Generation of Abstract Expressionists were influenced by avant-garde artists, they were their teachers and their inspiration, they were their springboard to create new art and new methods and new techniques that previous movements merely scratched the surface of. As we see time and again, Abstract Expressionism was a furtherance of the past, but most important, it was the first truly American art movement thereby catapulting America—New York City—as the art epicenter from that point forward. This environment of innovative, experimental artists created the perfect storm for something new and amazing, swirling with hope and possibility.
Abstract Expressionism is a richly artistic movement that was born it was in a new American nation with all its possibilities and freedoms of self-expression that paved the way for this momentous movement.