Abstract ExpressionismA new vanguard emerged in the early 1940s, primarily in New York, where a small group of loosely affiliated artists created a stylistically diverse body of work that introduced radical new directions in art - and shifted the art world's focus. Never a formal association, the artists known as "Abstract Expressionists" or "The New York School" did, however, share some common assumptions. Among others, artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Franz Kline (1910-1962), Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), William Baziotes (1912-1963), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Adolph Gottlieb (1903ñ1974), Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992), and Clyfford Still (1904-1980) advanced audacious formal inventions in a search for significant content.
Breaking away from accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter, the artists made monumentally scaled works that stood as reflections of their individual psychesóand in doing so, attempted to tap into universal inner sources. These artists valued spontaneity and improvisation, and they accorded the highest importance to process. Their work resists stylistic categorization, but it can be clustered around two basic inclinations: an emphasis on dynamic, energetic gesture, in contrast to a reflective, cerebral focus on more open fields of color. In either case, the imagery was primarily abstract. Even when depicting images based on visual realities, the Abstract Expressionists favored a highly abstracted mode.
HistoryAbstract Expressionism developed in the context of diverse, overlapping sources and inspirations. Many of the young artists had made their start in the 1930s. The Great Depression yielded two popular art movements, Regionalism and Social Realism, neither of which satisfied this group of artists' desire to find a content rich with meaning and redolent of social responsibility, yet free of provincialism and explicit politics. The Great Depression also spurred the development of government relief programs, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a jobs program for unemployed Americans in which many of the group participated, and which allowed so many artists to establish a career path.
But it was the exposure to and assimilation of European modernism that set the stage for the most advanced American art. There were several venues in New York for seeing avant-garde art from Europe. The Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929, and there artists saw a rapidly growing collection acquired by director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. They were also exposed to groundbreaking temporary exhibitions of new work, including Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936-1937), and retrospectives of Henri Matisse, LÈger, and Pablo Picasso, among others. Another forum for viewing the most advanced art was Albert Gallatin's Museum of Living Art, which was housed at New York University from 1927 to 1943. There the Abstract Expressionists saw the work of Piet Mondrian, Gabo, El Lissitzky, and others. The forerunner of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum - the Museum of Non-Objective Painting - opened in 1939. Even prior to that date, its collection of Wassily Kandinsky had been publicly exhibited several times. The lessons of European modernism were also disseminated through teaching. The German expatriate Hans Hofmann (1880ñ1966) became the most influential teacher of modern art in the United States, and his impact reached both artists and critics.
The crisis of war and its aftermath are key to understanding the concerns of the Abstract Expressionists. These young artists, troubled by man's dark side and anxiously aware of human irrationality and vulnerability, wanted to express their concerns in a new art of meaning and substance. Direct contact with European artists increased as a result of World War II, which caused so many - including Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Masson, Breton, Mondrian, and LÈger - to seek refuge in the U.S. The Surrealists opened up new possibilities with their emphasis on tapping the unconscious. One Surrealist device for breaking free of the conscious mind was psychic automatism - in which automatic gesture and improvisation gain free rein.
Combined lessons learned from Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso's Cubism, Surrealism (Joan Miro, Man Ray, Salvador Dali), the 1940s in New York City heralded the triumph of American Abstract expressionism.
Why this style gained mainstream acceptance in the 1950s is a matter of debate. American social realism had been the mainstream in the 1930s. It had been influenced not only by the Great Depression but also by the muralists of Mexico such as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera (Wife: Frida Kahlo). The political climate after World War II did not long tolerate the social protests of these painters. Abstract expressionism arose during World War II and began to be showcased during the early forties at galleries in New York like The Art of This Century Gallery. The McCarthy era after World War II was a time of artistic censorship in the United States, but if the subject matter were totally abstract then it would be seen as apolitical, and therefore safe. Or if the art was political, the message was largely for the insiders.
The AftermathBy the 1960s, the movement's initial affect had been assimilated, yet its methods and proponents remained highly influential in art, affecting profoundly the work of many artists who followed. Abstract Expressionism preceded Tachisme, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism, Postminimalism, Neo-expressionism, and the other movements of the sixties and seventies and it influenced all those later movements that evolved. Movements which were direct responses to, and rebellions against abstract expressionism began with Hard-edge painting (Frank Stella, Robert Indiana and others) and Pop artists, notably Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein who achieved prominence in the US, accompanied by Richard Hamilton in Britain. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the US formed a bridge between abstract expressionism and Pop art. Minimalism was exemplified by artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Mangold and Agnes Martin.
However, many painters, such as Jules Olitski, Joan Mitchell (a one-time pupil of Hans Hofmann), and Antoni T‡pies continued to work in the abstract expressionist style for many years, extending and expanding its visual and philosophical implications, as many abstract artists continue to do today, in styles described as Lyrical Abstraction, Neo-expressionist and others.
Abstract Expressionism led to the American art boom that brought about styles such as Pop Art. This also helped to make New York into a cultural and artistic hub.