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Abstract Expressionism

2. The 1940s: paths to abstraction

Source: Oxford University Press

The exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–7; New York, MOMA) heralded a phase when Surrealism and its affinities changed the course of American painting. Furthermore, the arrival of several leading European Surrealists including André Breton, André Masson and Max Ernst in the USA after the outbreak of World War II allowed stimulating personal contacts, Robert Motherwell being one of the first to benefit in this way. This brought an international note to the art scene and reinforced a sense of historical moment: the hegemony of the Ecole de Paris had shifted to New York. As the war continued it also seemed that new subject-matter and accompanying techniques were necessary to confront what was perceived as the tragic and chaotic zeitgeist. Surrealism had partly satisfied such needs by unleashing the disruptive forces of the unconscious, but its tendency towards pure fantasy now appeared irrelevant. In a statement made in 1943 in the New York Times (13 June, p. 9), Rothko and Gottlieb declared the new gravity of intent: ‘There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.’

The pursuit of universal themes continued Surrealist artists’ fascination with the omnipotent force of sexuality and explained much apparently Freudian imagery in paintings of the earlier 1940s. Erotic motifs occur in Gorky’s The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.). Interpenetrating or phallic elements characterized Smith’s sculptures at times, as well as the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, Still and Theodoros Stamos; the living figure in Motherwell’s Pancho Villa Dead and Alive (1943; New York, MOMA) is distinguished by his genitalia. Such inconography in fact derived less from Freud than from a more universal symbolism invoking regeneration, fertility and primitive impulses. These themes in twin stemmed from the Abstract Expressionist’s overriding concern with subjectivity. To this end the Surrealist use of biomorphism, a formal language of organic curves and similar motifs, was variously exploited. For Gorky it evolved into a metamorphic realm where tendrils, spikes and softer masses referred simultaneously to nature and to human anatomy. Pollock’s version was less specific, and in Pasiphaë (1943; New York, Met.) it implied womb-like enclosure versus whirling activity. Even de Kooning, the least sympathetic towards Surrealism, reiterated organic contours in his claustrophobic canvases of the mid-1940s as reminders of a strong yet cryptic eroticism. Thus biomorphism served to bridge the figurative modes of the 1940s with a manifold path to abstraction.

Another catalyst in the 1940s was a preoccupation with the concept of myth, especially as interpreted by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, whose writings had gradually gained an American readership. According to Jung, myths gave universal form to basic human truths and related to a profound level of experience that he identified as the ‘collective unconscious’. These theories helped several Abstract Expressionists attain more reductive styles because myth, Jung claimed, had a dramatic simplicity expressed through ‘archetypes’, that is, primal figures and symbols. Primitive art often dealt with myth and became a secondary source at this stage, particularly in the aftermath of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ranging from prehistoric rock pictures in Europe and Africa (1937) to American Indian art (1941). The totem was a frequently used primitive motif, aptly fitted to personify the Jungian archetype in the guise of a mysterious, upright entity. In Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret (1943; San Francisco, CA, MOMA) sentinels at either side of the picture seem to guard a central maze of lines and markings that suggests the chaotic recesses of the collective unconscious. Similarly, Still, Smith and others turned the totem into a visual cipher halfway between a figure and a non-representational emblem.

The great potential of the abstract sign soon became clear: it embodied a kind of terse pictorial shorthand, provocative in itself or, rather like individual script, imbued with the physical impetus of its creator. In 1941 Gottlieb began a series known collectively as Pictographs (e.g. Voyager’s Return, 1946; New York, MOMA). Enigmatic details, including body parts and geometric motifs, were set within a rough gridwork that recalled an archaic sign system or petroglyph. By 1947 Rothko, Stamos and others had created sparse schematic images marked by a shallow, post-Cubist space, and defined in the Ideographic Picture exhibition, organized by Barnett Newman for the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in 1947, as ‘a symbol or character painted, written or inscribed representing ideas’.

Newman’s own works of this period reflected the theory that abstraction could convey awesome meanings. Their breakthrough was analogous to that in Aaron Siskind’s contemporary photographs, such as Iron Work I (1947; see C. Chiarenza: Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors, Boston, 1982), which gained impact from a calculated ambiguity. Their syntax of vertical elements, quivering edges and voids retained the dramatic aura associated with figuration but no longer conformed to either a biomorphic style or to the geometry of Mondrian. Rothko’s paintings also progressed in a similar direction already anticipated in 1943 when he wrote, ‘We favor the simple expression of the complex thought’ (letter to the New York Times Art Editor, Edward Alden, 7 June 1943), which was to be achieved through the ‘large shape’ that could impose its monumentality upon the viewer.

This reduction to essentials had widespread consequences during the 1940s. It shifted attention away from relatively graphic symbolism towards the capacities of colour and space to acquire an absolute intensity, not bound to describe events and forms within the picture but free to embody extremes of light and darkness, enclosure, liberation and so on. The dynamics of the act of painting assumed a central role. Gorky’s use of very fluid washes of pigment in 1942, under the influence of the Chilean Surrealist Matta (Echaurren), foreshadowed both tendencies. The resultant veils, billows and liquid runs of colour created an unusually complex space, as in Water of the Flowery Mill (1944; New York, Met.) that changed from one area to another with the same spontaneity that had previously been limited to Gorky’s organic shapes.

Still, Gottlieb, Stamos and Richard Pousette-Dart pursued a different course in the 1940s by stressing tangible paint layers with heavy or unconventional textures. These methods altered their works from the traditional concept of a discrete easel picture to more palpable images whose presence confronted the actual world of the spectator. Dimensions grew in order to accentuate psychological and physical rapport with the viewer. Inevitably, the search for heightened immediacy, for a charged relationship between surface and viewer, meant that a number of artists would regard the painting as an incarnation of the process—the energy, tensions and gestures—that had created it.

The Surrealist technique Automatism again unlocked possibilities for incorporating immediacy with a vivid record of manual activity, and the impulses behind it, into the final work. Automatism had supposedly allowed Surrealists like Miró and Masson to paint without full conscious control and so essentially stimulated the discovery of unorthodox forms. In contrast, Abstract Expressionism elevated Automatist procedures into a means of reorganizing the entire composition. Hofmann was among the first to pour and drip paint in the early 1940s in order to achieve increased liveliness, but Pollock took the technique to revolutionary limits. By the mid-1940s he painted with such urgency that the remnants of figures and other symbolic details were almost dismembered and lost within the great arcs and whorls formed by his sweeping gestures, for example There were Seven in Eight (1945; New York, MOMA). A climax came in 1947 when the restrictions of brushes and the upright format of the easel picture were abandoned as Pollock took to working directly on the floor, dripping paint either straight from the can or with the aid of an implement such as a stick or a trowel. Consequently, in works of this period an astonishing labyrinth of paint traces expand, oscillate and hurtle back upon themselves resembling, as the artist described it, ‘energy and motion made visible’. Pollock had reconciled two long-standing though divergent impulses, an obsession with chaotic force and the desire for order, into the vibrant unity of a field, for example Number 2, 1949 (Utica, NY, Munson–Williams–Proctor Inst.).

This synthesis was unique at the time, but Abstract Expressionist painting in the late 1940s generally approached a threshold where restlessness and flux predominated. The composition dissolved into a seething field of fragments dispersed with almost equal intensity throughout the picture, hence the term ‘all-over’ was sometimes used to describe this tendency. A type of space evolved that was dense and unstable beyond even that of Analytical Cubism, as in de Kooning’s Painting (1948; New York, MOMA). This probably owed something to the doubt-ridden anxieties of the post-war years and perhaps the pressures of fast-moving urban life. It certainly also stemmed from the consequences of Automatism, which took even less overtly Abstract Expressionist painters like Reinhardt and Tobey to the stage where a teeming, calligraphic field of brushstrokes predominated. By the end of the decade the need to reassert meaningful content in unprecedented ways had again become imperative.

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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