Abstract Expressionism Art History Presentation ~ 182 Slides ~ Highly Visual
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This is a very thorough presentation of the abstract expressionist art movement with a very full inclusion of the painters and sculptors within it. There are 4 popups with the listing and then 16 actual slides from the show as the preview. These are all representative of the entire show.
The major figures from this movement are given thorough coverage with individual biographical detail given about each of them. These are white males. However, as usual, I have expanded coverage to include the artists trying to gain a toe hold in the art world, i.e. women, people of color and gays, as I could find them.
Abstract Expressionism was a post–World War II American art movement in painting and sculpture. It occurred in New York in the 1940s and solidified America’s international influence on art. It also solidified New York City’s becoming the center of the art world instead of Paris. This change began before World War II when most of Europe’s artists were forced to flee to America to escape the Nazis.
Art critic Robert Coates started using the term "abstract expressionism" as applied to American art in 1946. The term applied to artists working in New York who had different styles, although all tended to some degree of abstraction. Otherwise their work could be quite different. The movement spread throughout the United States and the San Francisco Bay area of California became a West Coast center for it.
Clement Greenberg, an art critic, did the most to propel abstract expressionism forward. Greenberg considered Pollock's work as the best painting of the time.
Jackson Pollock's new methods and materials in painting set the stage for all Contemporary art that followed him. He made the process of creating the art as important as the art itself.
This movement’s primary years were the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s. However, like most art movements, there was a considerable overlap period where many artists continued to produce this work into the early 1970s and beyond. Some of them found a hybrid art form which worked better for them as the decades rolled on.
There was a political side to abstract expressionism which has only gradually come to light as part of its story. The timing of the movement was critical to this aspect.
It unfolded and grew in the immediate Post World War II environment of New York City. American enemies had changed from the Axis powers of Germany and Japan and their allied countries to America’s former allies, the Russians. But this was a Cold War, the battles being fought clandestinely. In sharp conflict were two systems, Capitalism v. Communism.
At the close of WWII, the capital of the cultural world had just about entirely shifted to New York instead of Paris. To consolidate this move and make sure Paris was not revived, it was important to have a unifying American art movement.
During the same period, the American government became repressive under the HUAC committee with Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was trying to ferret out Communists and this made most artistic content suspicious as to its “message.” The abstract expressionists sailed right through this because they had no content per se! The American public complained it couldn’t see anything in this art work so HUAC was handicapped against making a case that its content was Communist.
The CIA supported this art movement. Almost all of its agents at that time were recruited from Harvard and Yale. They saw this art form as the perfect antidote to the rigidity of all Russia’s rigidly controlled art. American Communists were liberals. Nothing appealed to them more than an avant garde art movement.
Great capitalists like John D. Rockefeller were encouraged to get behind and support this American art movement and they did so.
This was not so much a great plot as it was an astute judgment that this art movement helped the American position in the Post World War II environment. Thus, it was to be supported and encouraged. And it was.
Interestingly, some of the artists in the movement seemed to realize this approval of art without an easily visible message. One could make a case that they were even acknowledging messages and codes in their work. For example, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Franz Kline’s work looked like older forms of writing. Pollock’s and Kline’s looked like a form of calligraphy while Krasner’s looked like cuneiform or cave writing.
There were no shortage of women artists in the abstract expressionist movement. There were probably more who were working openly in this movement than in any other prior to it. There is a good representation of their work in this presentation.
However, this was a macho movement and most remarked that if you got together with the leading figures at one of their favorite bar hangouts, that the testosterone virtually oozed from the room.
But the lead figures, all men at the time, often led wildly excessively lives which ended badly. Gorky and Rothko killed themselves. Rothko did so rather flamboyantly by slitting his wrists and bleeding out on his studio floor. Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock had huge alcohol problems. Pollock’s last alcoholic binge was behind the wheel of a car and he died when he crashed it. This was on top of his womanizing affairs which had driven Lee Krasner to Europe while he carried on. David Smith was speeding in his truck to meet some Ivy League coeds half his age when he crashed his car in Vermont and died. Willem de Kooning declined first into sexual excess and then into Alzheimer’s. He was exploited while he had Alzheimer’s to keep churning out work. He painted in the typical Alzheimer’s loop of stuck thought. Although many leading artists have ended badly in their eras, this group went out worse than most.
By contrast, the women in the movement endured and kept painting and sculpting. Most lived into their old age. Frankenthaler had a six decade long painting career with major exhibitions and sales. Her work also matured and got substantially better plus she solved her archival problems with it by changing her materials.
Many of these women artists were married to male artists in the movement. Krasner was married to Pollock; Elaine de Kooning to Willem; Helen Frankenthaler for awhile to Motherwell. It brought the advantage of being included in the art scene and the disadvantage of having to play an automatic second fiddle.
Some of these careers radically improved from a financial standpoint as the decades wore on. Joan Mitchell’s painting “Untitled” 1960 sold at auction for $11.9 million in 2014, a record for a female artist.
People of color fared much worse with this movement than women did. Norman Lewis’s work is covered here. He was a black artist from Harlem. Isamu Noguchi was Japanese American, who had already been claimed by the Surrealists, and then fit in with the abstract expressionists. But the overall picture was that people of color were not included in the abstract expressionist art movement.
The civil rights movement had barely begun though when abstract expressionism arrived in the art world. The "Brown v. Board of Education" case of 1954 was the big one in that decade, ending school desegregation. But most of the big civil rights cases were ahead in the 1960s. The Feminist art movement began in the late 1960s amidst the anti-war movement and the civil and queer rights movements. There were gay artists, of course, all through time but they remained closeted. This would also be challenged.
This era, although dominated by white males, left the door ajar for women artists and others though.
EXCERPT 4: (ALL LEADING ARTISTS HAVE ONE OF THESE DESCRIPTIONS)
Franz Kline, 1910 - 1962
~major American abstract expressionism painter born in Pennsylvania
~de Kooning suggested to Kline that he project a sketch onto the wall of his studio to end his frustration with his painting
~using a Bell-Opticon projector to do just that, Kline later said, "A four by five inch black drawing of a rocking chair...loomed in gigantic black strokes which eradicated any image, the strokes expanding as entities in themselves, unrelated to any entity but that of their own existence."
~thereafter Kline switched to painting large-scale, abstract works in black and white, with non-representative, fluid, and dynamic brushstrokes
~was originally thought to be an “action painter,” like Pollock, because his style seemed spontaneous and focused on expressive brushstrokes on the canvas
~however, later it became known that he did extensive and complex studies leading up to the actual execution of the painting
~denied his art was inspired by calligraphy, as suggested by the art critics
~in 1958, he put flashes of color into his black and white paintings, which continued until his death in 1962 at age 51