In New York City in the 1950s, artists grappled with the devastation felt after World War II by examining existentialist ideas, including individual creative expression and the importance of authentic feeling. These explorations are evident in Abstract Expressionist works, in the form of improvisation, intuitive gesture, and, especially, the large, vibrantly hued planes of Color Field paintings. Yet even in a period increasingly dominated by abstraction, some artists, preoccupied with what it means to be human in a harsh world, remained invested in representing the figure in their work.
Abstraction and figuration were not mutually exclusive, especially among the community of avant-garde artists known as the New York School, who saw the transcendent possibilities of both tendencies. In 1948 the artist Barnett Newman heralded the almost religious emotional reactions that the city’s artists would engender over the following decade: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”
Organized by Lucy Gallun, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, with Danielle Johnson, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints.