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Abstract expressionism for dummies

Unlike surrealism and cubism, which came before, the figures at the center of abstract expressionism's birth in the early 1940s were Americans. After a bloody war and in the midst of a rapidly changing industrial society, avant-garde artists in New York were in passionate search of a completely new and uniquely American form of expression.

They found it in abandoning the artistic styles of even the immediate past, often eschewing landscapes, still lifes or anything that remotely resembled an object or figure in favor of loud and expressive abstractions where the strokes of the brush spoke far louder than anything they represented.

"We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or 'life,' we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings," said the art writer and early abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman, in a seminal essay excerpted in the extensive "Action/Abstraction" catalog.

The abstract expressionists -- from Pollock to Grace Hartigan, de Kooning to Norman Lewis -- represented a break, or at least a new direction, from the art movements of the past. Their work was a brash and booming announcement that New York -- not Paris or anywhere else in Europe -- was now the new artistic epicenter of the world.

"It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture," Pollock said in a 1950 interview also excerpted in the show's catalog. "Each age finds its own technique."

-- Colin Dabkowski

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