The end of World War II ushered in a new era in art. With the horrors of war fresh in the public’s mind and much of the world in shambles, a group of innovative, ambitious artists in New York City set out to forge a new beginning for art.
In seeking a rebirth of painting on American shores, they developed greatly varying stylistic approaches, but were linked by a commitment to create art that appeared entirely apart from what had come before, art that conveyed personal convictions and deep human values. In defying convention and challenging norms, the Abstract Expressionists, as they came to be known, changed the course of art history.
After years in the shadow of European art, particularly French art, these avant-garde abstractionists made New York City the hub of international Modern art. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), founded in 1929, was intimately involved with the Abstract Expressionists as their work evolved, a relationship it could not have with European avant-gardes. MoMA played a key role in transforming the city into the art capital of the world.
It is fitting, therefore, that the museum has mounted a nostalgic look back on this pivotal moment in Modern art: “Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture.” Drawing on the museum’s unrivaled permanent collection, chief curator of painting and sculpture Ann Temkin and her colleagues have assembled some 100 paintings and 60 drawings, prints, photographs and sculpture to trace the development of Abstract Expressionism from its tentative beginnings in the 1940s to its bold maturity in the 1960s.
Masterworks by such titans as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, David Smith and Louise Nevelson are joined by lesser-known but significant artists who created independent voices within the movement. Images and documentary material from MoMA’s archives amplify the ties among Abstract Expressionism, the museum and New York City.
Most of the artists in the exhibition shared a commitment to “allover composition” †rather than the traditional concept of having a central focus that dispersed to the edges of a canvas, they distributed the emphasis equally, encouraging viewers to eyeball the entire pictorial field. They also featured large-scale works. As Temkin observes, “The adoption of large formats for abstract painting literally declared the artists’ belief that what they were doing was big.”
As has happened with other radical changes in art, the Abstract Expressionists at first were greeted with puzzlement and derision. Their art was discombobulating to the eye and hard to grasp in the context of a society obsessed with a fast-moving pace and instant gratification. “In a world that likes its culture fast,” Temkin says, “Abstract Expressionist works are uncompromisingly slow.”
One of the first out of the gate was the incomparable Jackson Pollock (1912‱956), who in the 1940s started crafting abstract compositions from paint splatter and skeins and puddles dripped or poured directly onto canvases spread out on the studio floor. The tone of the show is set by his lively “The She-Wolf,” 1943, which greets visitors to “The Big Picture.” It presages the drip paintings of Pollock’s mature years. Said the artist, “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own techniques.”
The rest of MoMA’s 18 Pollocks are spread out in other spaces. A gallery devoted to Pollock ranges from early drip paintings from the late 1940s to one of his largest masterpieces, “One: Number 31, 1950,” 1950, roughly 9 by 18 feet. Animated by pours, dribbles and flicked enamel paint while laid on the studio floor, the density of the interwoven skeins of paint balanced by puddles of muted hues and widespread spattering make it an example of an allover composition.
Plagued by self-doubt and alcoholism, Pollock produced extraordinary paintings while bearing for five years the burden of being called America’s most famous living artist. His brilliant career was aborted when he died in a car crash in 1956; he was only 44.
Richard Pousette-Dart (1916‱992), whose work deserves greater recognition, equals early Pollocks in ambition and swirling abstractions in “Fugue Number 2,” 1943. Mixing oil and sand on canvas, it measures a generous 411/8 inches by 8 feet 10½ inches.
Equally large and even more enigmatic, Mark Rothko (1903‱970) weighs in with “Swirl at the Edge of the Sea,” 1944, whose two forms floating among arabesques, spirals and stripes suggest the influence of Surrealism on his early work.
Paintings in a Rothko gallery demonstrate the rapid transformation of his abstract art to compositions of horizontal planes painted in thin, modulated colors. They run the gamut from No. 1 (untitled), 1948, composed of floating, abstract forms of varying sizes and colors, to “No. 10,” 1950, divided into the artist’s signature horizontal planes of blue, yellow and white. The latter, the first Rothko to enter MoMA’s collection, was considered so radical that a trustee resigned in protest. Today, such works are revered by many in the art world.
The single gallery of works by Barnett Newman (1905‱970) leads with what he called his “breakthrough” painting, “Onement, I,” 1952, a modest-sized (17¼ by 16¼ inches) canvas consisting of a monochromatic background bisected by a vertical band or “zip,” as he called it. The other works on view vary in scale, brushwork and colors, but follow the same compositional motif, culminating in the enormous (7 feet 113/8 inches by 17 feet 9¼ inches) “Vir Heroicus Sublimis,” 1950‱951, its vast expanse of red divided by four zips.
Dutch-born Willem de Kooning (1904‱997), another giant among the abstractionists, painted accomplished abstract works in the 1940s, reached his stylistic peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s with challenging canvases like the divinely bizarre “Woman I,” 1950‱952, and finished the significant part of his career with intriguing minimalist abstractions. An early proponent of a spontaneous, gestural mode of attack, de Kooning influenced many younger painters.
Arshile Gorky (1904‱948), who was born in Armenia, painted 1940s abstractions that often featured fluid biomorphic forms arrayed in vivid, sometimes jarring, swathes of color. He continued to draw on Surrealism, nature and his own biography until he committed suicide. Says art historian Matthew Baigell of Gorky, “His art’s exuberance and emotional charge formed the groundwork for the development of Abstract Expressionism.”
Adolph Gottlieb, Krasner and Bradley Walker Tomlin were among the less well-known artists searching for new visual vocabularies in the late 1940s. Inspired by ancient and non-Western cultures, they incorporated into their work fields enigmatic emblems and figures reminiscent of hieroglyphics. Often composing their paintings by using grids to provide compartments for individual signs, their paintings were, as Gottlieb said of his, “like a house, in which each occupant has a room of his own.”
In addition to Krasner, there are strong works in the exhibition by such female artists as Grace Hartigan, with an energetic, heavily brushed canvas, and Joan Mitchell, whose vividly colored, sensuous and often grandly scaled works feature tangled brushstrokes in lyrical, elegiac or stormy moods. A highlight of the exhibition is sculptor Nevelson’s “Sky Cathedral,” an enormous pile of stacked boxes filled with found and altered forms made of wood and painted black.
Some important abstractionists, such as Ad Reinhardt (1913‱967), explored the genre throughout most of their careers. Working within severely restricted parameters, he sought to achieve a rigorously impersonal purity of artistic statement, an art concerned only with itself. In his ultimate style, Reinhardt painted barely perceptible rectangles in varying shades of black that float on the surface of canvases that appear solid black at a glance or from a distance. They are works that can be both exhilarating and puzzling.
By contrast, for two decades Philip Guston (1913‱980) created furiously painted, highly abstract canvases featuring small strokes of color gathered in the middle of canvases in a multihued masses. Then, in the late 1960s, motivated by concern about social unrest and the Vietnam War, he switched to figurative works. Inserting hooded Ku Klux Klan figures, Richard Nixon and other often cartoonish forms in his work, Guston was subjected to a decade of condemnation by fellow artists and critics for deserting the cause, but today his later work has gained considerable favor.
Although Abstract Expressionism is largely associated with painting, numerous significant artists explored its basic concerns in three dimensions. In one gallery, forceful, monumental sculptures by Smith in steel and Nevelson in wood share affinities with similarly powerful canvases by Franz Kline and Clyfford Still. The painters’ vigorous brushwork and broad surfaces share with the sculptures links to the vast American landscape and its self-sufficient, independent people. Each artist sought to address the human condition. Said Smith, “I do not accept the monolithic limit in the tradition of sculpture. Sculpture is as free as the mind, as complex as life.”
Archival materials, ranging from installation photographs of MoMA exhibitions, catalogs and news clippings to photos of artists in their studios and correspondence, place the Abstract Expressionists in context.
On another floor, a subexhibition, “Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942‱962,” examines activities of a group of artists and other creative people who formed The Club where they met regularly to explore relationships among art and modern music, Eastern philosophies, poetry and architecture. Club members Guston and Kline designed music album covers, Pollock and Smith incorporated calligraphy into their work, and Gottlieb’s pictographs drew on ideas from the deep past.
The “Rock Paper Scissors” section delves into the impact of Abstract Expressionist ideas and practices on sculpture, printmaking and drawing, suggesting strong associations with pre-Modern art, the subconscious, mythology and vigorous, gestural compositions. Among the sculptors featured are Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi and Smith.
As Temkin appropriately writes in the catalog, Abstract Expressionism flourished and was exhibited and sold within a few miles of MoMA, and the museum’s shows over the years promoted the movement worldwide. The current exhibition, she underscores, does not seek “to define a new canon for the movement,&⁛nor] to adjust the scorecard to promote or demote certain contenders. Instead, as we focus on a legendary era in the history of Modern art, the ambition is twofold: to look anew at familiar masterpieces and to acknowledge that history is always more various and more complicated than the legends would suggest.”
The 124-page accompanying book, Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art , serves as a catalog for the exhibition. It is published by MoMA and sells in hardcover for $29.95.
Abstract Impressionist New York: “The Big Picture” is on view through April 25. “Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club” is up through February 28, as is “Rock Paper Scissors.”
The Museum of Modern Art is at 11 West 53rd Street. For information, www.moma.org or 212-708-9400.
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