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Abstract Expressionism

3. The 1950s: climax, reaction and later work

Source: Oxford University Press

Newman’s essay ‘The Sublime is Now’, published in the Tiger’s Eye (i/6, 1948), called for a new art stripped to its formal essentials that still dealt with ‘absolute emotions’. He concluded, ‘The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete.’ Within two years Newman, Rothko and Still fulfilled these aims, primarily through a total concentration on colour, a pictorial element loaded with dramatic connotations, simultaneously palpable and metaphysical insofar as its total effect transcends analysis. The deep redness of Newman’s Onement I (1948; New York, MOMA) no longer describes forms since it comprises an absolute continuum, punctuated, though not broken, by a central vertical band of a brighter hue. Encompassing fields of colour tended to minimize internal pictorial relations and so invite the onlooker’s participation, especially when enlarged to the mural scale sometimes adopted in the early 1950s. Small incidents acquired an uncanny prominence; the luminous rifts that escaped from Still’s essays in black or the slight haloes around Rothko’s rectangles implied the numinous behind the apparently monolithic façades. By ‘telling little’, as Rothko described it in 1958, these works in fact managed to express more.

Colour field painting was championed, using narrow stylistic criteria, by the critic Clement Greenberg as a breakthrough in modernist painting’s attitude to space because it superseded the shallow figure-ground relationships found in Cubism. Another interpretation has concentrated upon its elemental conflicts of light and scale, and of void and presence, as extending the Romantic tradition of the Sublime with its predilection for epic revelations. Both readings are valid but overlook the fact that the artists had essentially lifted the symbolic extremes and states of consciousness depicted in their earlier works on to an abstract plane. Moreover, the primal field of colour, accentuating the viewer’s isolation and sense of self, may equally have reflected a need for strong emotional experience in the barrenness of the Cold War during the late 1940s and the 1950s in the USA. Indeed its imagery was not confined to Abstract Expressionist painting and recurred in the photographs of Siskind and Harry Callahan as well as in the expanses of space that engulfed the solitary figures painted by Ben Shahn and Andrew Wyeth.

In 1950 de Kooning abruptly abandoned his increasingly hermetic all-over compositions, such as Excavation (1950; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.), to begin a number of female subjects, the first being Woman I (1950–52; New York, MOMA). Paradoxically, this return to the figure vied with de Kooning’s painting style, where the furious tumult of brushstrokes seemed to possess independence and velocity. The poet and critic Harold Rosenberg traced similarities in the work of Pollock, de Kooning and Franz Kline, who had begun black-and-white abstractions c. 1949 that aggrandize the individual brushstroke into enormous vectors appearing to continue beyond the picture’s edges (for illustration see Kline, Franz). Rosenberg had assimilated the existentialism popular among the New York intelligentsia of the late 1940s and claimed that this art represented the physical traces of its creator’s spontaneous working methods. He characterized it as Action painting. Subsequent histories have tended to maintain the consequent division into ‘action’ or ‘gestural’ styles and ‘colour field painting’, although these rather simplistic critical categories were disowned by the artists and overrode many subtle connections.

Newman’s Onement paintings (which date from c. 1948 to 1953) and de Kooning’s Woman paintings, a theme to which he repeatedly returned, stand at opposite poles of technique and mood, ranging from the exalted to the grotesque. Both nonetheless juxtapose a centralized presence against an ambience, whether of colour or urban chaos. Still’s 1957-D-No1 (1957; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.; for illustration see Still, Clyfford) further demonstrates the shortcomings of critical categories by conferring the graphic contours and energy associated with gestural painting upon grandiose and otherwise almost homogeneous walls of pigment. Alongside Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings and the large, linear steel sculptures by Smith of the late 1940s onwards, it established a radical type of Abstract Expressionist work where any static or conventional background ceased to exist and all parts interacted as if galvanized into a network of forces. The viewer’s perceptual process had to integrate the pictorial incidents actively, the far-flung extremes of scale, colour and focus and, in Smith’s sculptures, the great disparities when seen from different viewpoints. This meant that they had a ‘life’ beyond what was contained in any one aspect. The dynamic encounter between the work and its audience became a hallmark of Abstract Expressionism.

National recognition increased during the 1950s. The role of dealers, critics and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in this development encouraged the theory that the movement was promoted at home and abroad as a weapon of Cold War ideology to stress the USA’s superior freedom of expression. While the claim may be just, the artists themselves were not actively responsible. In fact several challenged such control by avoiding contact with the art establishment or taking their work to conclusions that almost defied critical commentary, such as the progression towards hypnotic monochrome painting by Reinhardt and Rothko in the 1960s.

While Abstract Expressionisms intensity depended partly on its very stylistic terseness, as in Newman’s work, or singularity, as in Pollock’s, its latter phases tended to pivot around a search to avoid defined limits or to extract the greatest range of meanings from a strictly limited idiom. The notion of working in series allowed nuances and variations to register most forcefully against a fairly constant visual syntax: Newman’s group of 14 paintings, Stations of the Cross (1958–66), or Smith’s Cubi series (1961–5) show a creative impulse transcending the parameters of a single act. Themes and images from the 1940s also returned on a grandiose scale. Thus Gottlieb’s Bursts (which he painted from 1957) refashioned pictograph symbols into new-found explosive gestures and calmer fields of colour. It was Pollock’s last period, however, that encapsulated the movement’s overall dilemma. At best he summoned earlier mythic imagery, through methods such as black paint soaked into bare canvas in the remarkable, nightmarish compositions of 1951 and 1952. More often the sheer fusion of audacity and control attained in the ‘drip’ paintings pre-empted further innovation, and Pollock’s death in 1956 reinforced suspicions that a vanguard was now in decline.

In this later phase a community of younger artists emerged to adopt the tenets of spontaneity, improvisation and the importance of process. They included the painters Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, poet Frank O’Hara (1926–66) and the sculptors associated with assemblage. However, they replaced the basic urgency and existential vision of their models with a more lyrical and relatively decorative stance, (that could indeed suggest a feminist revision of ‘masculine’ premises), characterized for example by Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea (1952; artist’s col., on loan to Washington, DC, N.G.A.; for illustration see Frankenthaler, helen). By then Abstract Expressionism had nonetheless transformed the fundamentals of painting and sculpture in the mid-20th century, and its influence in terms of style and aesthetics extended over a vast spectrum of subsequent art.

David Anfam
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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