Abstract Expressionism


"What about the reality of the everyday world and the reality
of painting? They are not the same realities. What is this
creative thing that you have struggled to get and where did it
come from? What reference or value does it have, outside of the
painting itself?" Ad Reinhardt, in a group discussion at Studio
35, in 1950.
My essay starts with the origin and the birth of this great
expression in the twentieth century. This movement not only
touched painting, it had an affect on various aspects of art-
poetry, architecture, theater, film, photography.
Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian are
considered to be the pioneer artists to have achieved a truly
abstract visual language in painting. Although they worked
independently, these artists were united by a belief that
abstract painting was capable of evoking a spiritual experience.
A central figure of German Expressionism, Kandinsky, in 1911,
began to paint densely layered composition of free-floating lines
and areas of color, with the intention to reveal his desire to
instill visual form with the properties of music. By 1915,
Malevich had invented a new, abstract visual set of paintings
consisting of one or more colored geometric shapes on a white
field. He visualized a state of feeling, and a sense of bliss
and wonder. Mondrian took a different approach with tighter
geometric orientation and stricter compositional order. He was
also inspired by landscape but he interpreted it as a series of
interlocking vertical and horizontal lines.
It would be hard to advance any definition of abstract
expressionism without taking into account the vast and varied
cultural and historical happenings that led to its birth. This
artistic movement evolved over a long time. As we look closely
at any of the members of the generation identified with abstract
expressionism, their biographies reveal the whole experience of
this artistic adventure. It was an odd reaction of the new
America from the old Europe. For more than half a century, the
general European public had been bombarded of a variety of art
exercises. But new wave of artists in Europe and United States
saw in change in its future. Abstract was a natural evolution.
It would finally liberate artists from the claims of tradition
and lift art to the next level of heights. When the economic and
ideological interests began to fade away, a fresh form of
thinking evolved. It was not just people's mental habits that
changed the way of life, it was also the ways of life that
changed people's mental habits.
The developments in science and technology over the
twentieth century have been accompanied by an unprecedented new
forms and means of communications. Born at the beginning of the
twentieth century, the artists whom we link together under the
name Abstract Expressionists were also the product of the same
tension that produced the forms, formations and deformations of
their history. It was then, the tension became an art. Willem
de Kooning was born in 1904, Arshile Gorky again in 1904, Adolf
Gottlieb in 1903, Hans Hoffman in 1880, Barnett Newman in 1905,
Mark Rothko in 1903, Clifford Still in 1904, Jackson Pollock in
1912, Ad Reinhardt in 1913 and Robert Motherwell in 1915. These
artists' initial biographies were programmed around the people
who were still living according to the principles set down in the
nineteenth century. What artists like Pollock, de Kooning,
Kline, Motherwell and others were able to realize in the late
forties and early fifties went far beyond the possibilities that
were opened up by recent influences. The artists ranged from
thirty to forty-two years old then and were coming into the
mature periods of their lives and were expressing the maturity of
the art. The economic and cultural circumstances in the United
States conditioned and defined their art- the crash of 1929, the
election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, the American stance of
neutrality towards World War II until December 1940.
The term "Abstract Expressionism" is misleading. On its
first appearance, it seemed like any genuine innovative style,
breaking away with the past in a radical manner. By a clearer
understanding it revealed that Abstract Expressionism flourished
due to some reliable understanding of the painters' formal and
technical concerns and their relationship to previous art.
Unlike European tradition, American art had no classical roots.
In the mainstream America art has not been monumental and
decorative, but basically popular and realistic. After giving
primary debt of the Abstract Expressionism to the European art,
the artists managed to preserve some unique and compelling
qualities of American expression. These included boldness of
imagery, directness of technique, stress on the material
physicality of medium and surface, and sincerity of statement.
Abstraction embodied the intellectual