The Prevailing Narrative: Abstract Expressionism | Royal Academy of Arts

Abstract Expressionism was a movement of art developed in America in the 1940s, specifically in New York. The group was diverse and consisted of artists ranging from European émigrés, native New Yorkers, and others born in the American heartland.

History is replete with stories about this time of great development in American art. Artists working during this period developed an “all–over” effect, denouncing illusion, flattening space, expressing inner feelings, turmoil, angst, and expressive agitation. Abstract Expressionism was born and the term coined by art critic Robert Coates. However, the term can be traced back as far as 1919 in the German publication Der Sturm. In 1929, Alfred Barr used the term to describe works by Wassily Kandinsky, who was also credited with being the first abstractionist. Clement Greenberg further championed the Abstract Expressionist movement, and Jackson Pollock in particular. Perhaps because of Greenberg the story behind Abstract Expressionism has become the prominent narrative it is today.

This development in American art served to place New York at the center of the art world, which, until then had firmly belonged in Paris. History is but a series of carefully constructed narratives via articles, catalogs, and journal essays, further reinforcing and solidifying its validity and historical fecundity. Other narratives and realities were taking place that for the sake of economy did not get the same level of scrutiny or attention; work too distant or remote from the developing story couldn’t, perhaps, be incorporated, strung together, or held up as its own coherent movement.

Clement Greenberg was incredibly influential and became Abstract Expressionism’s primary proponent cementing the movement and charting its course through history. The bridge between German Expressionism, circa 1905, with its various iterations (Die Brücke—Ernst Ludvig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, w/Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse, and James Ensor; Der Blaue Reiter—Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Auguste Macke—leaning toward abstraction), and Neo–Expressionism (Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel) are bookends of Abstract Expressionism. While The Irascibles, as they became known, protested the Museum of Modern Art’s 1950, “American Painting Today,” in an open letter (giving them much notoriety), each of the 18 artists defended their individuality and resisted then Director of Museum Collections, Alfred H. Barr’s unifying terms, “movement,” and “school.”

Work not meeting Greenberg’s exacting prescriptions didn’t see the light of day. Later, Greenberg vehemently attacked the rise of Pop and Dada for their cool, aloof, unemotional presentation, which stood in direct opposition to the explosive, emotional canvases he championed. While Pop and Dada were Avant–garde, an avant–garde that Greenberg saw as the essential antidote to consumerist values, the development of these new approaches to art making ultimately foreshadowed the end of Abstract Expressionism.

While it’s impossible to understand the tenor of the time without having lived through it personally, history gives us clues of a period of great upheaval, devastation, and extremes and the impact those conditions had on the development of art. The Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, caused by the stock market crash, wiped out millions of investors and subsequently jobs. Consumer spending dropped as did investments, which in turn curtailed industrial output. Millions of jobs were lost as a result of diminished output with 15 million unemployed by the mid-1930s. The individual sense of hopelessness, loss of dignity and autonomy surely eroded the familial sense of security. For Americans, World War II started December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For Europeans, World War II started in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. In May, 1945, World War II ended in Europe. In August of the same year, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. These events give insight to the devastating global turmoil and act as linchpins leading to a dramatic rupture in artistic conventions.

The zenith of the Abstract Expressionist movement was commemorated with a comprehensive show organized under the “auspices of the International Council at the Museum of Modern Art” in 1958, curated by Dorothy C. Miller, then Curator of Museum Collections. Entitled, The New American Painting, four to five examples of each of the seventeen artists would travel to Milan, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and London. The artists represented in the 1958 show were: William Baziotes, James Brooks, Sam Francis, Arshille Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Clyfford Still, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and Jack Tworkov. The exhibition opened at the Kunsthalle in Basel on April 19, 1958. The Tate Gallery in London showed the exhibition in 1959, which was to be the last year Abstract Expressionism was given a concentrated focus in the United Kingdom, until the Royal Academy of Arts, 2016 exhibition.

The Royal Academy of Arts loosely reproduced the 1958 landmark exhibition. Included are notable movement outsiders such as Mark Tobey, whose intricately structured, Asian inspired, calligraphic paintings resemble Abstract Expressionist tenets, without necessarily adhering to them. It is interesting to note his uniform all–over approach, which might be interpreted as having been influenced by Jackson Pollock, mostly because of Pollock’s historical gravitas. However, given Tobey’s age, his extensive and frequent travels to Turkey, Japan, China, and Lebanon, it is likely the influence was actually reversed.

One of the most iconoclastic figures to be included both in the original iteration of the 1958 exhibition, and its current resurrection is the truly irascible Clyfford Still. Irascible not in the literal sense, but in terms of repudiating ideas put forth by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on his visit in 1924 when he was just 20 years old. He was disappointed by what he saw and decided to study formally. He enrolled at the Art Student’s League where his disappointment deepened and left after just 45 minutes. His stay in New York was similarly short lived clouded by disappointment and disillusionment. He returned west.

Clyfford Still, a non–objective Color Field painter, juxtaposed dark with light, deep reds with cobalt blues, agitating large areas of uniformity with oppositional color interruptions. Horizontal jaggedness is described by the Royal Academy as Still “Start[ing] with sparse landscapes, verticality became Still’s most enduring leitmotif, which he associated with upright living being and spiritual transcendence.” I personally think that’s hokum. Still wasn’t thinking about open space or spirituality (when he was painting), his cynical discontent is etched in every expressive mark, not only on the canvas, but also in the gaze he returns when facing the camera. It is written again and again that he’s reflecting the North Dakota landscape where he grew up. Yes, our formative years greatly influence our perceptive outlook, but I believe he was a deep, committed abstract painter outside the conventions associated with Abstract Expressionism as a unifying philosophical movement and sought, as his primary concern, color relationships, juxtapositions of line and shape, with no thought whatsoever of phenomenon occurring in the natural world. “Sublimity” is used to describe the work of Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. There is nothing sublime about Newman’s raggedly painted canvases, and Rothko’s swaths of paint are interesting color explorations, but have no relation to the sublime. Perhaps Rothko and Newman are exalting infinite size and infinite space in the overwhelming experience of nature, but neither capture this existential experience in the limitations of paint on canvas, no matter how large the paintings became. Still wrote in 1963, “The sublime? A paramount consideration in my studies and work from my earliest student days. In essence it is most elusive of capture or definition—only surely found least in the lives and works of those who babble of it the most.”

The only sculptor included in the RA’s show is David Smith. During the 1930s, Smith participated in The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in New York. Friends with Adolph Gottlieb and Milton Avery, Smith’s prodigious output between 1945 and 1946 were a result of renewed energy after the Second World War’s stifling effect. Works by Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and other less prominent figures are also included. Clement Greenberg had an affair with Frankenthaler beginning early 1950. Also, during the 50s, Greenberg mentored Louis, which most assuredly had great influence on the artist’s output. After both Morris Louis and David Smith’s death, Greenberg altered much of Louis’s work, personally changing lines and widths of color bands and even the size of some of the canvases. David Smith painted some of his sculptures. Greenberg removed the paint with justification that Smith wasn’t a true colorist and having his sculptures refinished in uniform brown “weren’t hurting Smith’s work.”

This loosely flung group of artists with different ideals and ideas radically transformed the history of art. Whatever the narrative behind the work, however its told, the experience of standing in front of some of the world’s best works of this period is transformative and exhilarating. Words will always falter in the face of ineffable execution.

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