Modern Art and Ideas, Unit 7: 1950–1969

Setting the Scene


In the years following World War II, the United States enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic and political growth. Many middle class Americans moved to the suburbs, spurred by the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced homes. Elvis Presley led the emergence of rock and roll and television replaced radio as the dominant media outlet.

Many artists and intellectuals had emigrated in the years during and after the war from Europe to the United States, bringing with them their own traditions and ideas. It is in this climate that a group of artists that came to be known as the Abstract Expressionists came of age. These artists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, created diverse bodies of work. They explored new ways of painting, reinvigorating and reinventing the medium. They sought to express emotions, individual feelings, and personal experiences in their work. They were considered to signify or embody a distinctly "American" element of space, confidence, and creativity.

Franz Kline, another such artist who worked in New York City in the 1950s, was known for his large paintings with bold lines that exude a sense of movement and energy.

Introductory Discussion

  • Begin by asking your students to define "painting." Ask them what kinds of paintings they have created. Have them spend a few minutes writing down some of the choices artists make when they paint. They may come up with ideas such as style, technique, setting, material, subject, and use of color. Ask them to share their ideas with the class.

Image-Based Discussion


Franz Kline: Chief, oil on canvas, 1.48×1.87 m, 1950 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkFranz Kline: Chief, oil on canvas, 1.48×1.87 m, 1950 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); © 2007 The Franz Kline Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York


  • Ask students to spend some time looking at this image and then to describe what they see. Ask them to pay particular attention to the lines. How might they describe these lines?
  • Ask students to consider what choices Kline is making with regard to painting.

In this painting, Kline used commercial paint and housepainter’s brushes to create thick black lines on a white background. Kline’s painting has been described as looking like tar smeared on slabs of concrete or steel girders twisted around canvas. It is evocative of shapes and structures found in the city, such as bridges, buildings, tunnels, engines, and roads.

  • Ask students if they agree with this description. Why or why not?

It may look like Kline created this painting quickly. Actually, he took a long time to make his work. Before he painted, he often created drawings, which he then projected onto a wall. He got this idea from his friend, the artist Willem de Kooning, whom we will discuss later in this guide. He found that the drawn lines, when magnified, became more forceful and abstract. Thus, many of his painted canvases reproduce a drawing on a much larger scale, combining the improvised and the deliberate, the miniature and the monumental.

  • Give students one minute to create a small pencil drawing. Ask them to think about what parts of their drawing they would turn into a painting. Why? What is it about their lines that would look interesting or compelling?
  • The name of this painting is Chief. Kline loved trains as a child, and "Chief" is the name of a locomotive he remembered. Ask students if this reminds them of a train. Why or why not?
  • Ask students to define positive and negative space. What positive and negative spaces do they see in Chief?
  • Kline said, "I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important." [Franz Kline, quoted in MoMA Highlights: 350 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, rev. ed. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004), p. 205.]

Ask students to reflect upon this statement. What do they think it means? Why is the white as important as the black?

During the 1950s, painters such as Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler also created large-scale abstract paintings. Lesson One of this guide will examine how Pollock and Frankenthaler created their work.


The growing political and economic stability in the United States in the 1950s led to experimentation and the rethinking of the social order in the 1960s. This so-called "cultural revolution" promoted antiauthoritarian education, women’s liberation, new career structures, and an increased climate of intellectual and sexual freedom. The Vietnam War incited mass protests and the Civil Rights Movement sought equality for African-Americans.

In this climate, a new generation of artists rejected some of the ideas of the Abstract Expressionists and began to represent items from consumer culture and everyday life. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists were interested in abstraction and in representing emotional states, Pop artists favored realism and impersonal expression.

Artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein wanted to connect traditions of fine art with the images of popular culture offered through television, advertising, and film. As Warhol stated, "Pop artists did images that anyone walking down the street would recognize in a split second—comics, picnic tables, men’s pants, celebrities, refrigerators, Coke bottles." [Andy Warhol, quoted in Popism (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1980), p. 3.] Artists made collages, prints, paintings, sculptures, and drawings. Their subjects were diverse, including representations of celebrities, political events, and consumer products. In contrast to the work done by artists in the 1950s, much of Pop imagery combines the painterly and photographic as well as the handmade and the readymade.

The American artist James Rosenquist was working in this time of turbulence, experimentation, and consumerism. His work responds to popular imagery, advertising, and politics.

Image-Based Discussion


James Rosenquist: F-111, oil on canvas with aluminum, twenty-three sections, 3.05×26.21 m, 1964–5 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkJames Rosenquist: F-111, oil on canvas with aluminum, twenty-three sections, 3.05×26.21 m, 1964–5 (New York, Museum of Modern Art); courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York


  • Show students this work. Include details of the many different panels. Ask students to work in pairs and to pick one panel to observe closely. Ask them to look carefully and then write down their observations about that panel. Ask them to back up their ideas with evidence from the painting. Have them share their observations with the rest of the class. Ask them how the various parts contribute to an understanding of the entire piece.
  • Tell students the title of this work is F-111, which is the name of an American bomber plane that was being planned when this painting was created. Although this plane was designed for war, Rosenquist felt that the mission of the F-111 should be economic, rather than military, designed to provide jobs to Americans. [Kirk Varnedoe, High and Low: Modern Art Popular Culture (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1990), pp. 365–67.]
  • Ask students to compare and contrast some of the images they see in this large work. Ask them to consider why Rosenquist might have juxtaposed images of war with emblems of entertainment and leisure. Ask students to discuss how Rosenquist addresses the Vietnam War and the politics of the time. Where does he draw his inspiration from? What do the students think his message or messages might be?

Before he created this painting, Rosenquist worked as a billboard painter in New York City. This work influenced the style, scale, and content of his paintings. He designed F-111 to have twenty-three panels, which wrap around all four walls of a gallery, surrounding the viewer. The entire work measures 10 feet high by 86 feet long.

The artist was inspired by Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings, Jackson Pollock’s large paintings, and Barnett Newman’s colorful paintings (see Pollock’s and Newman’s work will be discussed later in this guide.

  • Ask students to imagine standing in the middle of a room surrounded by F-111. How would this experience be different from viewing the work in reproduction?

The years following World War II brought about many changes in American life. The artists included in this guide represent two major trajectories at this time. The first is the idea of freedom, space, and personal expression, as shown by the large, expansive, painterly work of the Abstract Expressionists. The other is a celebration of material culture, commercialism, and the everyday, as represented by Pop artists.


Go to Lesson 1: Revolutions in Painting →

Grove Art Online: Suggested Reading

Below is a list of selected articles which provide more information on the specific topics discussed in this lesson.