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Subscriber: null; date: 17 January 2020

Expressionism in the United Stateslocked

  • Barbara Jaffee

The term ‘expressionism’ refers in general to the deliberate distortion and exaggeration of forms for expressive effect in artworks. It may also be used with reference to particular historical or cultural iterations—as in (most commonly) German Expressionism, which refers to specific artists and practices of the early 20th century (see Expressionism). Both approaches are useful in the context of American art history. For example, the expressive qualities of the work of such 19th-century artists as Albert Pinkham Ryder or George Inness have long been noted in histories of American art and artists. Attention has focused as well on groups of artists active at mid-century in America’s urban centres who adopted the term as a conscious description of themselves and their intentions.

From Post-Impressionism to ‘expressive form’.

Prior to 1914 Expressionism was understood more or less to be a synonym of Post-Impressionism, the somewhat ambiguous name coined by British art historian Roger Fry to describe a group of mostly French artists including Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin. In the context of an early appearance in a 1910 editorial (presumably written by Fry in defence of his Post-Impressionism exhibition that year), the term ‘Expressionism’ captured the essence of an entire generation of artists working after or against Impressionism. Certainly this was how the term was used at the same time in the USA, most prominently by Chicago lawyer and art collector Arthur Jerome Eddy in his book Cubists and Post-Impressionism (1914). A lengthy response to its author’s experiences at the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, the so-called Armory Show (which Eddy visited in New York and in Chicago and from which he purchased a total of 25 works), Cubists and Post-Impressionism was an encomium to the ‘imaginative’ and ‘expressive’ art of Post-Impressionism. Eddy focused particularly on the French artist Henri Matisse and his fellow colourists, the so-called ‘Fauves’ (who débuted to sensational reviews at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, 1905), and on the Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky, whom he pronounced the most promising practitioners of the new, expressive style. Among the Americans discussed in the book were those he termed ‘Virile-Impressionists’, including Robert Henri and Leon Kroll (1884–1974) (although he might well have added any number of others whose practices were dominated by the slashing, painterly styles he admired, from William Merritt Chase, to Frank Duveneck, to George Bellows), for whom he argued the next logical step ought likewise to be to move beyond Impressionism by synthesizing the insights of Cézanne.

Interest in the ‘Expressionists’ Matisse and Kandinsky—and, of course, in Cézanne, the artist presumed to be the source of their imaginative distortions—was shared across a vast spectrum of American artists in this period. Widespread interest in Matisse was due in part to the friendship and patronage of American expatriates Gertrude and Leo Stein. Importantly, Matisse’s Paris academy (active 1907–11) was a popular choice for Americans studying abroad. American ‘Fauves’ or Expressionists of the 1910s included such disparate figures as Arthur B(eecher) Carles, Arthur Dove, Prendergast family §(1), Alfred H(enry) Maurer, John Marin, Abraham Walkowitz, and Max Weber—all in Paris at the height of the Fauve sensation. Matisse and Kandinsky had their admirers in the circle surrounding the New York photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz as well. Stieglitz introduced Matisse and Cézanne to New York through exhibitions held in 1908 and 1910, respectively. In 1912 he published selections from Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. This was the same year that an artist from Stieglitz’s circle, Marsden Hartley, set out for Europe, choosing to visit both Paris and Expressionist Berlin.

A full accounting of the artists for whom an admixture of Matisse’s colour and Cézanne-like form signalled their Expressionist ambitions in these early decades would certainly include such mild modernists as San Francisco’s Society of Six (inspired by their encounter with Fauvism at the 1915 Panama–Pacific Exposition), or those groups of artists who gathered to paint in Taos and Santa Fe, NM, Woodstock, NY, Provincetown, MA, or New Hope, PA. Not surprisingly, the artists involved in orchestrating the most public of modern art events, the 1913 Armory Show, pointedly identified Matisse and the Fauves as both their closest counterparts and potentially bitterest rivals (though, as it turned out, the American public reacted more vigorously to Cubism).

Expressionism gained a new resonance in the middle decades of the 20th century as the umbrella term for any more emotional alternative to Cubist-inspired abstraction. So-called ‘lyrical’ Expressionist Charles Burchfield’s highly personal landscapes and sombre American-scene paintings, or the ‘Magical Realism’ of such distinct painters as Ivan Albright, Romare Bearden, Paul Cadmus, Philip Evergood, O. Louis Guglielmi, Robert Gwathmey (1903–88), Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Alice Neel, or Ben Shahn, demonstrate the breadth of this under-recognized tendency. Also known for their moody, painterly realism were David Aronson (1923–2015), Hyman Bloom, and Jack Levine. The three friends studied with German-born Expressionist Karl Zerbe (1903–72) at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and together formed the core of a group of figurative Expressionists in that city.

Expressionism also came to be understood as a specifically German phenomenon in these middle decades, thanks to the efforts of émigré art dealers including Galka Scheyer, who from 1924 introduced American collectors on the East and West coasts to the ‘Blue Four’ (Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Alexei Jawlensky, and Kandinsky); Baroness Hilla Rebay, advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim as he built his collection in the 1930s; J B Neumann, who opened his New York gallery in the 1920s; and, somewhat later, Karl Nierendorf and Curt Valentin. In 1939 James S. Plaut, director of Boston’s Institute of Modern Art (renamed the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1948), organized the exhibition German Contemporary Art, a pointed response to the anti-modernism of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Plaut featured the work of the former Fauve Georges Rouault at the Institute in 1940, forging new links in the popular imagination between this French artist and the tradition of German Expressionism. A similar reception followed the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of the Expressionist Chaïm Soutine in 1951 (although not French, the Lithuanian-born Soutine lived and worked in Paris between 1913 and his death in 1943). Major German Expressionists were also in residence in the USA during this period: George Grosz had been in New York since 1932 (he returned to Berlin in 1959, where he died a short time later); Oskar Kokoschka took the occasion of the 1948 show of his work organized by Plaut for the Boston Institute to tour the USA; and Max Beckmann served on the faculty at Washington University in St Louis for the three years prior to his death in 1950.

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) had mounted one of the first American exhibitions of German painting and sculpture in 1931, but its director, Alfred H(amilton) Barr, was less interested in establishing a basis for a modern, figurative art than he was with assimilating Expressionism into a vision of modernist abstraction. The art critic Sheldon Cheney (1886–1980) was another eloquent advocate for this more formalist position. Cheney’s Primer of Modern Art (1924) and its successor, Expressionism in Art (1934), are clear statements of his thesis that Expressionism—which he described as pictorial arrangement determined by original feeling rather than imitative rule—was the defining characteristic of modern art. Cheney even coined his own term in 1924—‘expressive form’—as a variation on the English art critic Clive Bell’s 1914 ‘significant form’. According to Cheney, the mark of Expressionism in modern art was the artist’s interest in creating dynamic, rhythmic compositions in which an implied rapid movement into deep space was matched by an equally abrupt return to the surface of the picture plane. This could be achieved through superimposition of forms, exaggeration of perspective, ‘tension of volumes’, and effects of colour and texture. According to Cheney, prior to the advent of Expressionism, composition in American painting had been understood as a static system of organized areas in the work of Henry Rankin Poore (1859–1940), Denman Ross (1853–1935), Jay Hambidge (1867–1924), and others who based their theories in the flat patterning of a Renaissance artist such as Raphael. By contrast, the plastic complexity of Expressionist form went beyond surface superficiality and into a ‘spiritually conscious’, deeply recessional space rooted in the new physics and relativity theory.

Cheney argued that there were at least three types of meaning conveyed through plastic organization: the first was mystical and abstract (as in Kandinsky), the second mystical and based in perception (as in Cézanne), and a third in which a representational subject-matter was enlivened through its association with an interior abstraction (his example was the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco, though his description fits the work of American scene painter Thomas Hart Benton equally well). Describing abstraction as modernism’s highest calling—a source of ‘mystic revelation’ in which ‘the artist touches upon final unknowable truth about life’, Cheney provided his readers with an outline of the elaborate theory of composition espoused by a then obscure German artist, Hans Hofmann. Although influential post-war theorist Clement Greenberg later would laud Hofmann as ‘the most important figure in American art of the period since 1935’, the artist and educator’s name was familiar to only a very few Americans in 1934.

Figurative Expressionism versus Abstract Expressionism.

Hofmann had spent the years between 1904 and 1914 in Paris and was a painter of Fauve-inflected, Cubist-informed still-lifes through most of his teaching career in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet he is better known to art history as an abstract rather than a figurative Expressionist, a shift he and a large number of American artists performed in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Events such as the recall from Prague in 1947 of a touring exhibition of largely abstract American art, Advancing American Art, organized by the US State Department (as a kind of ‘cultural arm’ of the economic Marshall Plan) doubtless contributed a chilling effect. Although well received abroad, Advancing American Art was denounced at home as communist propaganda and funding was withdrawn, forcing the tour to end in Prague. Similar protests greeted the Art Institute of Chicago’s American Annual, which focused later that same year on abstraction and Surrealism in American art—and featured many of the same artists. Cultural moderates grew concerned that, despite its apparent victory, the progressive cause of modern art was still at risk. Howard Devree, responding to the controversy in the New York Times, argued that the best contemporary art (i.e. the contemporary art most likely to find a wide audience in America) was stylistically advanced yet retained recognizably humanistic content. But in the pre-McCarthy foment of the late 1940s, figurative Expressionism would appear to partisans of avant-garde art as too closely aligned with reactionary forces. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, crusaders for modernism among the art critics and museum personnel would stand unwaveringly behind only the most formally advanced, experimental and abstract art, insisting that any compromise was a capitulation to isolationists and anti-Communists. Representational art, even of the existentialist and ambivalent variety favoured by Expressionists in urban centres including Boston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, was dismissed as counter-productive.

Events of the year 1948 are instructive in this regard. In February the photojournalism magazine Look published the results of their poll of museum directors and art critics under the headline, ‘Are These Men the Best Painters in America Today?’ What the magazine presented was a top ten list heavily weighted towards figurative Expressionism: John Marin, Max Weber, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn, Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, George Grosz, Franklin Watkins (1894–1972), Lyonel Feininger, and Jack Levine. Yet many of these artists had been included in the recalled show, Advancing American Art (and had been ridiculed by Look at the time, in a pictorial essay titled ‘Your Money Bought these Pictures’); their works, purchased by the State Department in anticipation of the show’s five-year tour, were quietly auctioned as war ‘surplus’ that June. The August issue of Life magazine countered its somewhat less sophisticated rival Look with the provocative (though likely rhetorical) question, ‘Jackson Pollock, Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?’ Life’s photo-essay featured a sullen and paint-spattered Pollock in front of his large-scale, abstract canvases—the embodiment of Art Institute of Chicago director Daniel Rich’s stirring essay on the ‘Freedom of the Brush’ (Atlantic Mthly, Feb 1948), in which this curator of the Institute’s embattled annual exhibition defended the artist’s freedom to paint abstractly as quintessentially democratic.

An equally impassioned defence of figurative Expressionism was mounted in 1953 by the painter Leon Golub, a prominent member of Chicago’s so-called ‘Monster Roster’ of Expressionists (many of whom were veterans of World War II and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill). In an age of individualism, as Golub argued in the College Art Journal, abstraction was a denial of Man’s humanity—a dehumanized and dehumanizing form. Yet it was clear by the 1950s that the abstract variant of Expressionism was victorious on the world stage. As a diverse group of artists were grouped together throughout the decade in museum shows, repeated attempts were made to explain what historical, philosophical, and stylistic links united them. The dominant critical views that emerged, such as Harold Rosenberg’s essay ‘American Action Painters’, in ARTnews in 1952, and Clement Greenberg’s ‘American-type Painting’, in Partisan Review in 1955, offered quite differing views of the significance of the new painting. Rosenberg emphasized the existential drama and commitment of the new abstraction, while Greenberg concentrated on its formal and technical innovation.

For the artists, the situation was not so absolute. Many among the so-called New York School of Abstract Expressionists, such as De Kooning family §(1), used the figure consistently. Jackson Pollock famously returned to the human figure after several years of investigation with his poured technique. Other New York Expressionists engaged with the figure in the 1950s were Elaine de Kooning , Grace Hartigan, Lester Johnson, and Larry Rivers. Chicago’s Expressionists included, in addition to Golub, Cosmo Compoli (1923–97), Theodore Halkin (b 1924), June Leaf (b 1929), Seymour Rosofsky (1924–81), and H(orace) C(lifford) Westermann. The West Coast produced its own school, the Bay Area figurative artists, including former abstractionists Richard Diebenkorn and Nathan Oliveira (see also Bay Area Figurative school).

Advocates of figurative Expressionism mounted a final campaign from MOMA in 1959. The museum organized two very different shows that year. One, famously, took Abstract Expressionism on a triumphant tour of Europe; the other, less well known, attempted a rear-guard action. Curator Peter Selz’s New Images of Man was an exhibition of works that combined, according to Selz, contemporary form with a new kind of iconography. Despite the extraordinary range of artists represented, the show was met by derision in some quarters. Under the banner, ‘New Images of [Ugh] Man’,ARTnews critic Manny Farber suggested that ‘rather than being the “long awaited” answer to Abstract Expressionism, the Museum’s monster show is confusion with wishful thinking buried under its sentimental hide.…’

Over the course of the next ten years, this figurative tradition reinvented itself with self-consciously humorous forms that borrowed unabashedly from popular culture. In Chicago, imagists Roger Brown, Phil Hanson (b 1943), Gladys Nilsson (b 1940), Jim Nutt, Ed(ward) Paschke, Christina Ramberg (1946–95), Barbara Rossi (b 1940), and Karl Wirsum (b 1939) exhibited in various configurations and locations as Hairy Who, The, The Non-Plussed Some, and Marriage Chicago Style. Red Grooms, a multimedia artist known for colourful and chaotic constructions based on vignettes of urban life, studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York. California artist Peter Saul’s fusion of comic strips and Surrealism associated him with both Chicago Imagism and West Coast ‘Funk’ artists Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, and William T. Wiley (see also Funk art).

Further developments.

In New York, the revival of Expressionism would take somewhat longer, thanks in part to the searing critique conducted by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, whose own ambivalent Expressionism produced, in one case, a nearly identical duo of gestural paintings, Factum I and Factum II (1957)—works that confounded the viewer’s expectation of Expressionist spontaneity. In 1964 art critic and historian Max Kozloff described the dilemma of Expressionism as a form of solipsism—an overheated emotionalism detached from actual social relations. Frustration with an apparently degraded Expressionism led to other alignments in subsequent decades, as arguably ‘Expressionist’ works of installation (George Segal, Edward Kienholz, and Nancy Reddin Kienholz (b 1943)), process (Richard Serra, Robert Smithson), and performance art (Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Carolee Schneemann) would be associated primarily with the new movements of Minimalism, conceptualism, and feminism.

In 1969 the Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston made a dramatic return to a socially engaged figurative Expressionism. Guston had begun his career as part of the generation of social and Magic Realists that included Ben Shahn and others, and his return to this imagery and its commitments provided a vivid link to the past for a younger generation of painters such as Susan Rothenberg and Elizabeth Murray. A number of museum exhibitions explored this new wave, including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s New Image Painting and ‘Bad’ Painting at the New Museum, New York, both in 1978. These efforts spurred interest in outsider forms of Expressionism by self-taught or graffiti artists as well. Art historian Barbara Rose speculated in 1979 that a new Expressionism would define American painting in the decade of the 1980s, even as critics discussed the impact of a European Neo-Expressionism on the American art market and on the work of younger, conceptually trained artists including Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel (see also Neo-Expressionism in America). However, the return of Expressionism raised difficult questions about humanism, romanticism, historical progress, and even representation itself. The 1980s would take a decidedly theoretical turn instead.

Reports of the death of Expressionist painting turned out to be greatly exaggerated. In fact a sly and knowing Expressionism, steeped in the ethos of 1990s image-scavenging and the critique of representation, seemed to animate the work of a number of younger American painters in the early 21st century—part of a global phenomenon recognized at the turn of the millennium by the survey exhibition Painting at the Edge of the World at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.


  • A. J. Eddy: Cubists and Post-Impressionism (Chicago, 1914)
  • S. Cheney: Expressionism in Art (New York, 1934)
  • H. Devree: ‘Forces of Reaction: Outside Attacks on Modern Movements Bolstered by the Work of Extremists’, NY Times (18 Jan 1948), section 2 New Images of Man (exh. cat., ed. P. Selz; New York, MOMA, 1959)
  • M. Kozloff: ‘The Dilemma of Expressionism’, Artforum, vol.3(2) (Nov 1964), pp. 32–5
  • E. Sussman, ed.: Dissent: The Issue of Modern Art in Boston (Boston, MA, 1986)
  • Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism (exh. cat. by P. Schimmel and J. Stein, Newport Beach, CA, Harbor A. Mus., 1988)
  • C. Jones: Bay Area Figurative Art: 1950–1965 (Berkeley, CA, 1989)
  • T. Littleton and M. Sykes, eds: Advancing American Art: Painting, Politics, and Cultural Confrontation at Mid-Century (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1989)
  • D. E. Gordon: Expressionism: Art and Idea (New Haven, 1991)
  • B. Jaffee: ‘Pride of Place’, Art in Chicago: 1945–1995 (exh. cat., ed. L. Warren; Chicago, IL, Mus. Contemp. A., 1996), pp. 53–68
  • Painting at the Edge of the World (exh. cat., ed. D. Fogle; Minneapolis, MN, Walker A. Cent., 2001)
  • B. Dijkstra: American Expressionism: Art and Social Change, 1920–1950 (New York, 2003)
  • J. Bookbinder: Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative Modernism (Lebanon, NH, 2005)