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date: 30 November 2022

Abstract Expressionismfree

Abstract Expressionismfree

  • David Anfam

Updated in this version

updated bibliography, 6 February 2012

Term applied to a movement in American painting that flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes referred to as the New York School or, very narrowly, as Action painting, although it was first coined in relation to the work of Vasily Kandinsky in 1929. The works of the generation of artists active in New York from the 1940s and regarded as Abstract Expressionists resist definition as a cohesive style; they range from Barnett Newman’s unbroken fields of colour to De Kooning, Willem’s violent handling of the figure. They were linked by a concern with varying degrees of abstraction used to convey strong emotional or expressive content. Although the term primarily denotes a small nucleus of painters, Abstract Expressionist qualities can also be seen in the sculpture of David Smith, Ibram Lassaw and others, the photography of Aaron Siskind and the painting of Mark Tobey, as well as in the work of less renowned artists such as Bradley Walker Tomlin and Lee Krasner (see fig.). However, the majority of Abstract Expressionists rejected critical labels and shared, if anything, only a common sense of moral purpose and alienation from American society. Abstract Expressionism has nonetheless been interpreted as an especially ‘American’ style because of its attention to the physical immediacy of paint; it has also been seen as a continuation of the Romantic tradition of the Sublime. It undeniably became the first American visual art to attain international status and influence.

Lee Krasner: Gothic Landscape, oil on canvas, 1.77×2.38 m, 1961 (London, Tate); © 2007 Pollock–Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo credit: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

1. Background, origins and early phase.

The roots of Abstract Expressionism lie in the social and artistic climate of the 1920s and early 1930s. Apart from Hans Hofmann, all its major exponents were born between 1903 and 1915 and grew up during a period of American isolationism. Although Europe remained the traditional source of advanced culture, American efforts during the 1920s to develop an aesthetic independence culminated in the direct, homespun realism of Regionalism. Consequently, the development of the art of Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, for example, illustrates a complex interaction between tradition, rebellion and the individual talent. European modernism stimulated them deeply, while their desire to retain the impact of personal experience recalled the aims of American Scene painting. Pollock, Still, Smith and Franz Kline were all affected by their native backgrounds in the rural West and in the steel- and coal-producing regions respectively. In other cases Jewish or European origins contributed to an unusual gamut of ethnic, intellectual and private sources of inspiration.

Between the wars New York offered some notable opportunities to assimilate comparatively recent artistic developments. Its galleries included the Museum of Non-objective Art, which housed the impressive Kandinsky collection, and the Museum of Modern Art, which mounted exhibitions throughout the 1930s and 1940s covering many aspects of 20th-century painting.

Much of the creative intellectual ferment of the time was focused in the theories of the Russian émigré painter and writer John Graham who befriended Gorky, Pollock and others. His book Systems and Dialectics of Art (1937) justified abstraction as distilling the essence of reality and traced its roots to primitivism, the unconscious and the painter’s empathy with the brushstroke. The younger American artists thus seem to have become highly conscious of their historical position and dictates. Most felt that they had to reconcile Cubist spatial organization with the poetic subject matter of Surrealism and realized that original art would then need to go beyond both.

Arshile Gorky: Garden in Sochi, oil on canvas, 787×991 mm, 1943 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The development of Arshile Gorky’s art from the late 1920s exemplified the cross-currents in the matrix of Abstract Expressionism (see fig.). He progressively assimilated the main phases of modern European painting in order to explore his own identity until in The Artist and his Mother (c. 1926–34; New York, Whitney) the private world of Gorky’s Armenian origins merged with his contemporary stance as heir to the space and forms of Synthetic Cubism, Picasso and Miró. This mood of transition is especially apparent in technical paradoxes, such as the strange contrasts of carefully finished areas with unresolved passages of paintwork that make this double portrait appear as if it were suspended in a process of change. By the early 1940s this tendency (which can be traced back to Paul Cézanne and to Futurism) provided new means of incorporating the tensions of the artist’s immediate circumstances into the actual picture. De Kooning, for example, deliberately allowed successive efforts to capture volume and contour to overtake the stability of his figures, as in Queen of Hearts (c. 1943; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn); such figures typify one aspect of early Abstract Expressionism in retreating into a dense, ambiguous visual fabric.

At an early stage Pollock, Still and Mark Rothko established a similar polarity between the figure (or other signs of existence) and external forces. The ‘realism’ of their early landscapes, interiors and urban scenes undoubtedly reflected the emphasis on locale in American Scene painting, but the expressive symbolism was prophetic. A sense of isolation and gloom probably derived in part from the context of the Depression allied with personal factors. They combined highly sensitive, romantic temperaments with left-wing or radical views so that the social circumstances of the period naturally suggested ‘an approach to art that explored the human predicament. This had already been anticipated by some literature of the 1920s and 1930s, notably the novels of William Faulkner (1897–1962), that placed the self against an inimical environment; contemporary American art, however, offered few successful precedents. On the contrary, the weaknesses of depicting human themes literally had already surfaced in Thomas Hart Benton’s anecdotal brand of Regionalism that Pollock, a former pupil of Benton, later described as ‘something against which to react very strongly’. Despite the wagons, cowboy and mules in Pollock’s Going West (c. 1934–5; Washington, DC, N. Mus. Amer. A.), it remains more elemental than anything by Benton. A feeling of almost cosmic tumult is countered by an overall vortex-like unity.

As Pollock’s work became more abstract during the 1930s it nonetheless retained an underlying conflict between impulsive chaos and the need to impose some overall sense of order. Yet the common problem of the 1930s was not just evolving a formal language for what Rothko subsequently termed ‘pictures of the human figure—alone in a moment of utter immobility’ (‘The Romantics were prompted’: Possibilities, 1, winter 1947–8, p. 84) and other contrasting psychological states; the controversy in the USA focused instead upon the definition and priorities of an authentic avant-garde art.

Several future Abstract Expressionists were employed on the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP). Alongside the practical benefits of financial support and official endorsement, the WPA/FAP allowed opportunities to experiment with new techniques and to tackle the problems of working on a large scale. It also acted as a catalyst for a more cohesive New York community. But the advocacy of Social Realism on the project alerted many to its academic nature, which Gorky summarized as ‘poor art for poor people’. From a visual rather than literary standpoint, the humanitarian imagery of a leading Social Realist such as Ben Shahn seemed as barren as the reactionary equivalents in Regionalism. David Smith’s Medals for Dishonor series (15 plaster models, 1939; e.g. No. 9—Bombing Civilian Populations, ex-artist’s priv. col., see G. McCoy, ed.: David Smith, New York, 1973, fig.) and the early paintings of Philip Guston not only engaged anti-Fascist ideas but also revealed a legacy of the radicalism of the 1930s that was never abandoned, despite largely unfounded claims that later the movement was on the whole ‘de-politicized’. Smith and Guston, rather, subsequently sought to show how their respective media could signify and not merely illustrate their beliefs about freedom, aggression and constraint. Similarly, Pollock drew almost nothing from the overt Socialism of the Mexican José Clemente Orozco’s murals but a great deal from their capacity to embody human strife in the objective pictorial terms of rhythm and surface pattern.

Another alternative in the 1930s was the tradition of ‘pure’ abstraction, stemming from Piet Mondrian and upheld by the American Abstract Artists group (AAA) to which Ad(olph Dietrich Friedrich) Reinhardt belonged. Reinhardt’s eventual divergence from mainstream Abstract Expressionism can be traced to this initial assumption that the liberating potential of non-objective and specifically geometric art lay in its very independence from the social sphere. A more moderate approach was adopted by the painters Hans Hofmann and Milton Avery. Hofmann, born in Bavaria in 1880, provided a link with an earlier phase of European modernism and, through his own school, which he founded in New York in 1934, taught the synthesis of Cubist structure (emphasizing the unity of the picture plane) with the brilliant colours of Fauvism. Avery’s more lyrical approach suffused a simple, flat handling of space with light and atmosphere. This inspired Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, with its Matisse-like balance between observation and the artist’s feelings. Moreover, the growing popularity among an emergent New York avant-garde of theories originated by Leon Trotsky tended to discourage strict orthodoxy by stressing the autonomy of art over social and political restrictions. Out of this amalgam of diverse sources and beginnings, Abstract Expressionism during the 1940s sought to integrate the inner world of emotions with the realities of the picture-making process.

2. The 1940s: paths to abstraction.

The exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936–7; New York, MOMA) heralded a phase when Surrealism and its affinities changed the course of American painting. Furthermore, the arrival of several leading European Surrealists including André Breton, André Masson and Max Ernst in the USA after the outbreak of World War II allowed stimulating personal contacts, Robert Motherwell being one of the first to benefit in this way. This brought an international note to the art scene and reinforced a sense of historical moment: the hegemony of the Ecole de Paris had shifted to New York. As the war continued it also seemed that new subject-matter and accompanying techniques were necessary to confront what was perceived as the tragic and chaotic zeitgeist. Surrealism had partly satisfied such needs by unleashing the disruptive forces of the unconscious, but its tendency towards pure fantasy now appeared irrelevant. In a statement made in 1943 in the New York Times (13 June, p. 9), Rothko and Gottlieb declared the new gravity of intent: ‘There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.’

The pursuit of universal themes continued Surrealist artists’ fascination with the omnipotent force of sexuality and explained much apparently Freudian imagery in paintings of the earlier 1940s. Erotic motifs occur in Gorky’s The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.). Interpenetrating or phallic elements characterized Smith’s sculptures at times, as well as the paintings of Pollock, Rothko, Still and Theodoros Stamos; the living figure in Motherwell’s Pancho Villa Dead and Alive (1943; New York, MOMA) is distinguished by his genitalia. Such inconography in fact derived less from Freud than from a more universal symbolism invoking regeneration, fertility and primitive impulses. These themes in twin stemmed from the Abstract Expressionist’s overriding concern with subjectivity. To this end the Surrealist use of Biomorphism, a formal language of organic curves and similar motifs, was variously exploited. For Gorky it evolved into a metamorphic realm where tendrils, spikes and softer masses referred simultaneously to nature and to human anatomy. Pollock’s version was less specific, and in Pasiphaë (1943; New York, Met.) it implied womb-like enclosure versus whirling activity. Even de Kooning, the least sympathetic towards Surrealism, reiterated organic contours in his claustrophobic canvases of the mid-1940s as reminders of a strong yet cryptic eroticism. Thus biomorphism served to bridge the figurative modes of the 1940s with a manifold path to abstraction.

Another catalyst in the 1940s was a preoccupation with the concept of myth, especially as interpreted by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, whose writings had gradually gained an American readership. According to Jung, myths gave universal form to basic human truths and related to a profound level of experience that he identified as the ‘collective unconscious’. These theories helped several Abstract Expressionists attain more reductive styles because myth, Jung claimed, had a dramatic simplicity expressed through ‘archetypes’, that is, primal figures and symbols. Primitive art often dealt with myth and became a secondary source at this stage, particularly in the aftermath of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ranging from prehistoric rock pictures in Europe and Africa (1937) to American Indian art (1941). The totem was a frequently used primitive motif, aptly fitted to personify the Jungian archetype in the guise of a mysterious, upright entity. In Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret (1943; San Francisco, CA, MOMA) sentinels at either side of the picture seem to guard a central maze of lines and markings that suggests the chaotic recesses of the collective unconscious. Similarly, Still, Smith and others turned the totem into a visual cipher halfway between a figure and a non-representational emblem.

The great potential of the abstract sign soon became clear: it embodied a kind of terse pictorial shorthand, provocative in itself or, rather like individual script, imbued with the physical impetus of its creator. In 1941 Gottlieb began a series known collectively as Pictographs (e.g. Voyager’s Return, 1946; New York, MOMA). Enigmatic details, including body parts and geometric motifs, were set within a rough gridwork that recalled an archaic sign system or petroglyph. By 1947 Rothko, Stamos and others had created sparse schematic images marked by a shallow, post-Cubist space and defined in the Ideographic Picture exhibition, organized by Barnett Newman for the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in 1947, as ‘a symbol or character painted, written or inscribed representing ideas’.

Mark Rothko: Untitled, oil on canvas, 695×498 mm, 1945 (Christopher Rothko Collection); © 2007 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo credit: Art Resource, NY

Newman’s own works of this period reflected the theory that abstraction could convey awesome meanings. Their breakthrough was analogous to that in Aaron Siskind’s contemporary photographs, such as Iron Work I (1947; see C. Chiarenza: Aaron Siskind: Pleasures and Terrors, Boston, 1982, fig.), which gained impact from a calculated ambiguity. Their syntax of vertical elements, quivering edges and voids retained the dramatic aura associated with figuration but no longer conformed to either a biomorphic style or to the geometry of Mondrian. Rothko’s paintings also progressed in a similar direction already anticipated in 1943 when he wrote, ‘We favor the simple expression of the complex thought’ (letter to the New York Times Art Editor, Edward Alden Jewell, 7 June 1943), which was to be achieved through the ‘large shape’ that could impose its monumentality upon the viewer (see fig.).

This reduction to essentials had widespread consequences during the 1940s. It shifted attention away from relatively graphic symbolism towards the capacities of colour and space to acquire an absolute intensity, not bound to describe events and forms within the picture but free to embody extremes of light and darkness, enclosure, liberation and so on. The dynamics of the act of painting assumed a central role. Gorky’s use of very fluid washes of pigment in 1942, under the influence of the Chilean Surrealist Matta (Echaurren), foreshadowed both tendencies. The resultant veils, billows and liquid runs of colour created an unusually complex space, as in Water of the Flowery Mill (1944; New York, Met.) that changed from one area to another with the same spontaneity that had previously been limited to Gorky’s organic shapes.

Still, Gottlieb, Stamos and Richard Pousette-Dart pursued a different course in the 1940s by stressing tangible paint layers with heavy or unconventional textures. These methods altered their works from the traditional concept of a discrete easel picture to more palpable images whose presence confronted the actual world of the spectator. Dimensions grew in order to accentuate psychological and physical rapport with the viewer. Inevitably, the search for heightened immediacy, for a charged relationship between surface and viewer, meant that a number of artists would regard the painting as an incarnation of the process—the energy, tensions and gestures—that had created it.

Jackson Pollock: Summertime: Number 9A, oil, enamel and house paint on canvas, 0.85×5.55 m, 1948 (London, Tate); © 2007 Pollock–Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo credit: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

The Surrealist technique Automatism again unlocked possibilities for incorporating immediacy with a vivid record of manual activity, and the impulses behind it, into the final work. Automatism had supposedly allowed Surrealists like Miró and Masson to paint without full conscious control and so essentially stimulated the discovery of unorthodox forms. In contrast, Abstract Expressionism elevated Automatist procedures into a means of reorganizing the entire composition. Hofmann was among the first to pour and drip paint in the early 1940s in order to achieve increased liveliness, but Pollock took the technique to revolutionary limits. By the mid-1940s he painted with such urgency that the remnants of figures and other symbolic details were almost dismembered and lost within the great arcs and whorls formed by his sweeping gestures, for example There were Seven in Eight (1945; New York, MOMA). A climax came in 1947 when the restrictions of brushes and the upright format of the easel picture were abandoned as Pollock took to working directly on the floor, dripping paint either straight from the can or with the aid of an implement such as a stick or a trowel. Consequently, in works of this period an astonishing labyrinth of paint traces expand, oscillate and hurtle back upon themselves resembling, as the artist described it, ‘energy and motion made visible’. Pollock had reconciled two long-standing though divergent impulses, an obsession with chaotic force and the desire for order, into the vibrant unity of a field, for example Number 2, 1949 (Utica, NY, Munson–Williams–Proctor Inst.) and Summertime: Number 9A (1948; London, Tate).

Willem de Kooning: Painting, enamel and oil on canvas, 1.08×1.43 m, 1948 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY/ © The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This synthesis was unique at the time, but Abstract Expressionist painting in the late 1940s generally approached a threshold where restlessness and flux predominated. The composition dissolved into a seething field of fragments dispersed with almost equal intensity throughout the picture, hence the term ‘all-over’ was sometimes used to describe this tendency. A type of space evolved that was dense and unstable beyond even that of Analytical Cubism, as in de Kooning’s Painting (1948; New York, MOMA). This probably owed something to the doubt-ridden anxieties of the post-war years and perhaps the pressures of fast-moving urban life. It certainly also stemmed from the consequences of Automatism, which took even less overtly Abstract Expressionist painters like Reinhardt and Tobey to the stage where a teeming, calligraphic field of brushstrokes predominated. By the end of the decade the need to reassert meaningful content in unprecedented ways had again become imperative.

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

Mark Rothko: Red and Orange, oil on canvas, 1.76×1.42 m, 1955 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

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 (see fig.). 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 Wyeth family.

Franz Kline: White Forms, oil on canvas, 1.89×1.28 m, 1955 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

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 (see fig.). 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.

Willem de Kooning: Woman, oil and charcoal on canvas, h. 46, w. 32 in. (116.8 x 81.3 cm), 1944 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, From the Collection of Thomas B. Hess, Gift of the heirs of Thomas B. Hess, 1984, Accession ID: 1984.613.2); © 2007 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/210004085

Newman’s Onement paintings (which date from c. 1948 to 1953) and de Kooning’s Woman paintings (see fig.), 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.) 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.

Ad Reinhardt: Abstract Painting No. 5, oil on canvas, 1.52×1.52 m, 1962 (London, Tate); © 2007 Estate of Ad Reinhardt/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo credit: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

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 (see fig.) and Rothko in the 1960s.

Adolph Gottlieb: Blast, I, oil on canvas, 2.29×1.15 m, 1957 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, NY, http://www.vagarights.com, photo © Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

While Abstract Expressionism’s 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) shows 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.). 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.

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