In 1949 LIFE magazine published an article on the artist Jackson Pollock that asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” The American art world answered with a resounding “yes,” championing Pollock as an exemplar of a brand new, American-born style of modern art, known today as Abstract Expressionism. Having emerged during the Cold War—a period characterized by distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union—Abstract Expressionism functioned politically as a symbol of democratic freedom and independence. Exhibitions of Pollock’s work around the globe helped spread this message.
But abstraction was not strictly an American pursuit: artists everywhere embraced different nonrepresentational modes as a way to decisively break with a Western history of academic, figurative painting. For them, their work was personal, and as individual as their cultural heritage and their experiences in a postwar world.
Organized by Esther Adler, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, with Danielle Johnson, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints.