Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience
In this extract taken from the introduction to his newly published book, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Revaluation (Hard Press Editions and the School of Visual Arts in association with Hudson Hills Press, 2009), Professor Sandler locates the aesthetics and values of the New York School within the context of the postwar milieu. Sandler is the author, among many other books, of what is still taken by many to be the definitive account of the New York School, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism.
We now know the terror to expect. Hiroshima showed it to us. . . . The terror has indeed become as real as life. What we have now is a tragic rather than a terrifying situation. [No] matter how heroic, or innocent, or moral our individual lives may be, this new fate hangs over us.
[The] new painting does have qualities of passion and lyrical desperation, unmasked and uninhibited, not found in other recorded eras; it is not surprising that faced with universal destruction, as we are told, our art should at last speak with unimpeded force and unveiled honesty to a future which may well be non-existent . . .
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World War II had a shattering effect on Americans. News of the war was unremitting, disseminated by newspapers, magazines, newsreels, radio, photographs, films and posters, and above all, by letters from millions of servicemen, who were represented by blue stars in the windows of their homes, growing numbers of which were changed to gold, indicating a dead husband or son. Only a few of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists served in the armed forces–most were overage–but all were intensely aware of the approximately 16 million Americans who were serving, and the hundreds of thousands who were being killed.
The war, which followed earlier plagues–World War I, Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism and the Spanish Civil War–defined the 20th century. Morton Feldman, a composer and friend of avant-garde painters, once wrote, “[William] Byrd without Catholicism, Bach without Protestantism, and Beethoven without the Napoleonic ideal, would be minor figures.” 3 So would Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and, with the exception of Hans Hofmann, the other leading Abstract Expressionists without the omnipresent World War II and the subsequent Cold War. Feldman concluded, “It is precisely this element of ‘propaganda’–precisely this reflection of a zeitgeist–that gives the work of these men its myth-like stature.”4
The Abstract Expressionists did not illustrate the hot or cold wars. Instead, they internalized the political and social situation and asserted that their painting was essentially a subjective or inward-looking process. What they ended up expressing was the tragic mood as they felt it of the decade–an embodied mood. 5
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By 1947, de Kooning found his earlier biomorphic inventions limited, and Pollock and Still, soon to be followed by Rothko and Newman, came to believe that primitivistic and mythic subjects they had been painting could not fully convey the anxious and tragic mood that artists felt the need to express, a mood intensified by the Cold War with its threat of nuclear devastation.
The looming mushroom cloud became the defining image of the period. The bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were only the beginning; bigger and better bombs fusing hydrogen nuclei were being tested. Horrifying images were etched on the public imagination, burnt and mangled bodies or “a flower disintegrating, shriveling into oblivion. . . . Searing light, blinding heat, total annihilation. Nothingness was possible.” So was the end of the world–in a new Holocaust. People built bomb shelters and armed themselves to keep their neighbors out; children were made to crouch under desks at school during bomb drills. 6 This gave rise to what Gottlieb termed “the neurosis which is our reality.” 7
In this climate, Pollock, Still, and de Kooning felt compelled to embody their experiences directly in images that were more immediate than their earlier improvisations. They were very conscious of the Cold War and the Bomb’s menace and internalized and personalized the disheartening situation and expressed its mood. 8 They assumed that the world was experiencing what they were, and that if they dealt authentically with their feelings and concerns, their work would be rooted in reality. 9
In 1947, in a dramatic and unprecedented development, Pollock and Still “broke through,” as they put it, to Field Painting and de Kooning, to Gesture Painting. In their quest for directness and immediacy the Field and Gesture painters rejected Synthetic Cubism, geometric abstraction and existing Surrealist and Expressionist styles. Their divorce from previous modern tendencies presented them with formidable difficulties. As Motherwell wrote:
With known criteria, the work of the artist is difficult enough; with no known criteria, with criteria instead in the process of becoming, the creative situation generates an anxiety close to madness; but also a strangely exhilarating and sane sense too, one of being free–free from dogma, from history, from the terrible load of the past; and above all, a sense of nowness, of each moment focused and real, outside the reach of the past and the future. 10
In a similar vein, Rosenberg wrote that for artists committed to any predetermined system, the truth was already in existence outside the artists’ own experience, but that painting as “a way of experiencing . . . means getting along without the guidance of generalities, which is the most difficult thing in the world.” 10 Jack Tworkov concluded that “Abstract Expressionism . . . has no rules, no specific character, attitude, or face. . . . As such it is non-academic if you realize that . . . you cannot predict in advance what its look ought to be.” 11
In moving from familiar picture-making into an artistic terra incognita, the Field and Gesture painters encountered daunting formal challenges. If the orderly composition of cleanly edged forms in the clear, flat color of Cubist abstraction were suppressed or jettisoned, then what? Freewheeling brushwork? Open color? The problem was to compose coherent abstract pictures–-for the Field painters, using expanses of color, and for the Gesture painters, using improvisational drawing with the brush. Creating an immediate image, one that would make a sudden impact on the viewer, presented the artists with another difficult formal problem. One solution was to create an allover, single or mass image, as in Pollock’s linear webs, or Still’s, Rothko’s and Newman’s expansive color fields. Another solution was to paint aggressively, as de Kooning and Kline did. Immediacy could also be achieved by greatly increasing the size of the canvas. The “big picture” also facilitated directness since painters could bring more of themselves physically into the painting–more of the body, the arm rather than just the hand. Immediacy, directness and large scale became earmarks of the new American painting.
The innovations of the Mythmakers, Biomorphists and especially the Field and Gesture painters, violated the art-world’s expectations of what Modernist art was supposed to look like, and their work was generally spurned. It is difficult today, when Abstract Expressionism has long been recognized both at home and abroad, to fathom the hostility it encountered from the art world well into the 1950s. The artists believed passionately in what they were painting but often found it difficult to rebut attacks on their art, since it appeared so unprecedented that at first it did not resemble art at all, sometimes even to the artists.
In their quest for authenticity and in response to the ominous mood of the 1940S, the Abstract Expressionists refused to prettify or “finish” a painting: they accepted crudeness; a number deliberately cultivated a raw look. To the Mythmakers clumsiness was associated with archaic myth and “primitive” art. For the Gesture painters lack of finish was the result of improvisational or direct painting and was prized. In the name of honesty, let all the scars and blemishes show. The Field painters valued an anti-decorative look because they identified it with the Sublime. Such adjectives as beautiful, tasteful, or elegant were put-downs. Tell an avant-garde painter that his work was decorative and you would be shown the studio door. As Thomas Hess wrote, thinking of de Kooning’s “scarred and clotted pigment,” “The picture was no longer supposed to be Beautiful, but True–an accurate representation or equivalence of the artist’s interior sensation and experience. If this meant that a painting had to look vulgar, battered, and clumsy–so much the better.”12 Finishing a painting was looked down upon because it meant that the evidence of the process of search and discovery had been touched up or prettified. At a meeting of some two-dozen avant-garde artists at Studio 35 in 1950, Reinhardt asked, “Is there anyone here who considers himself a producer of beautiful objects?”13 No one did.
The Field and Gesture painters considered roughness a peculiarly American quality. They associated refined and beautiful painting with School of Paris picture-making. It was common at the time to compare Kline’s American, direct, immediate, and bold brushwork with the Pierre Soulages’ French, restrained and nuanced facture, which was considered Kline’s School of Paris counterpart. 14 At the meeting at Studio 35, Motherwell said that “young French painters who are supposed to be close to [our] group . . . in ‘finishing’ a picture . . . assume traditional criteria to a much greater degree than we do. They have a real ‘finish’ in that the picture is . . . a beautifully made object. We are involved in ‘process’ and what is a ‘finished’ object is not so certain.” De Kooning agreed, “The point that was brought up was that French artists have some ‘touch’ in making an object. They have a particular something that makes them look like a ‘finished’ painting. They have a touch which I am glad not to have.” 15
It is noteworthy that jazz was the preferred music of the new American painters. Lee Krasner recalled that Pollock “would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records–not just for days, day and night, [but] day and night for three days running, until you thought you would climb the roof! . . . Jazz? He thought it was the only other really creative thing happening in this country.” 16 At the time jazz was often denigrated as rough and vulgar–-or what Thelonious Monk’s termed “Ugly Beauty,” the title of one of his pieces. 17
Unfinished-looking painting had a social class aspect. Pollock, de Kooning, Still, Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman and Baziotes were working class or lower middle class. As avant-garde artists, they were poor, living as bohemians. Coarse facture was a metaphor for their plebeian roots, and a response, perhaps, to living where animals would die, as Kline quipped. The New Yorkers put themselves forward as tough, macho workers, a posture that was in sharp contrast to the stance as artist-aristocrats of the French émigrés in New York. The photograph of Pollock in Life magazine with his cigarette dangling from his mouth may have been a pose, but it had a message. It typified the rugged American Westerner–the prototypical small farmer or rancher.
As proletarians and bohemians the new American painters prized the unpolished look in their canvases because it was the polar opposite of the middle class spic-and-span kitchens and bathrooms featured in glossy advertisements in popular magazines, which fueled America’s burgeoning consumer culture in the past-war era. Just as the affluent society rejected avant-garde artists, so the artists spurned the glitzy signs of commodity worship. The coarse look of their painting was a defiant denial of Madison Avenue slickness: the paint-smeared dungarees versus the gray flannel suit; the look of the grimy studio against Better Homes and Gardens; and most importantly, the “unfinished” brush work as a signifier of authenticity against the impersonal immaculate surfaces of appliances and packaged goods.
As the American economy and culture became more corporative, the cultivation of the unfinished appearance had another aspect, namely the rejection of the growing regimentation of life and the alienated work that capitalism required. 18 In opposition to work that entails “a division of labor, a separation between the individual and the final result,” art historian Meyer Schapiro maintained that the Abstract Expressionists had prevailed over standardization by creating works that were “more passionately than ever before the occasion of spontaneity or intense feeling, works that affirmed the individuality or the ‘self’ of the artist,” and hopefully would inspire their fellow citizens to seek freedom.19
As if evoking the imagination of disaster, the abstractions of Pollock, Still, Rothko, Newman and de Kooning from 1947 to roughly 1950 are bleak, oppressive, foreboding, angst-ridden and alienated. They lack fixity or repose and exhibit signs of discord, harshness and, at times, violence. Color is disquieting more often than not; formal design is ambiguous and threatens to decompose and disintegrate. 20 Pollock’s dripped and poured skeins of paint in canvases such as Full Fathom Five (1947) are congested and suffocating; Still’s heavily coated areas of pigment are oppressive and turbid, and de Kooning’s facture, as in Excavation (1950), is raw and aggressive. The colors preferred by the three painters are dark and unappetizing–-in a word, anti-decorative. Although their works are abstract, they retain references to the human image. De Kooning reduced his figures to anatomical fragments; Still invented threatening humanoids and after 1947 spread their organic parts over the canvas, and Pollock buried or trapped stick-like figures in his poured webs. In one horizontal canvas, Number 1, 1948, Pollock evoked the figure by impressing his own hand onto the surface–the tangible trace of his body. Moreover, Still’s and Pollock’s canvases from 1947 to 1949 were generally vertical, their verticality suggesting the upright human figure.
Above all, the abstractions of Still, Pollock, and de Kooning are distinguished by the tension between disorder and order. De Kooning’s paintings, e.g., Excavation, seem to be in perpetual flux. The frayed edges of Still’s shapes, as inNumber 6 (1945-46), serve to destabilize composition. The pulls of order and chaos, disintegration and integration, and control and loss of control are most straightforwardly revealed in Pollock’s poured paintings. Greenberg maintained that it was precisely the opposition between disorder and order in his canvases that gave them their particular timeliness. He further claimed that “Pollock’s superiority to his contemporaries in this country lies in his ability to create a genuinely violent and extravagant art without losing stylistic control. 21 Oscar Wilde once said that Turner invented sunsets because he made viewers see them in a new way. Similarly, Pollock can be said to have invented chaos.
The chaos in Pollock’s painting seems to well up from deep within his psyche, as a kind of upsurge of primal energies, which provides the work with its authenticity. Chaos, however, was not only the result of Pollock’s individual psychology, but was informed by the turbulent state of the world, which, like his adventitious process, seemed unmanageable and beyond rational control. In Pollock’s work, the personal and the social converge. He did seek to organize the seemingly accidental effects yielded by his technique, ordering and making sense of them, as he himself would claim. In response to the accusation that his work was chaotic, Pollock responded, “NO CHAOS DAMN IT!” He also insisted, “I CAN control the flow of paint. There is no accident.”22 Frank O’Hara called attention to Pollock’s success in wresting pictorial order from his poured pigment; he wrote of his “amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it by flooding, to elaborate the simplest of elements, the line–to change, to reinvigorate, to extend, to build up an embarrassment of riches in the mass of drawing alone.”23 Nonetheless, the poured images are on the verge of breaking down and disintegrating into chaos far more than they coalesce into a structured image.
Like Pollock’s Field abstractions of the late 1940s, de Kooning’s Gestural paintings reflect the mood of the time not only in their dark colors but in their rough facture and mutilated anatomies. Indeed, de Kooning’s images evoke the torn flesh remains of aerial bombardments. Yet they preserve traces of humanist man, or as much of him as de Kooning could salvage. Pathetic though this tenuous hold on the human is, it is the source of whatever optimism and sensuous pleasure is to be found in his black-and-white paintings.
Disorder, chaos, disintegration, violence, and darkness–the manifestations of a tragic sense–are embodied in the most expressive of Field and Gesture Painting of the late 1940s. This work speaks graphically of the human predicament during World War II and the early years of the Cold War–”the crisis,” as Rosenberg termed it–and perhaps too of the universal human condition. 24 The world at the time seemed to be descending into a chronic state of uncertainty, confusion, and madness–”the night of the world,” to borrow a phase from Hegel. 25 The revelation of the Holocaust intensified the awareness of the human capacity for both barbarism and suffering. The bad dream of recent history pervaded the artists’ studios. 26 Thomas Hess recalled that Abstract Expressionism was “founded on despair and glimpses . . . of hopelessness.” 27 In a 1943 letter to the New York Times, Rothko wrote that “only that subject matter which is tragic and timeless is valid.” 28 Newman agreed, “The basic truth of life . . . is its sense of tragedy.”29 Elsewhere he said that he wanted his paintings to make “contact [with] the hard, black chaos that is death, or the grayer, softer chaos that is tragedy.” 30
Typical of his verbal style, de Kooning’s statements were cryptic. He did not say explicitly that his art was tragic but a talk he gave in 1951, “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” reveals much about the cheerless mood of the time. De Kooning took aim at utopian-minded geometric abstraction. Its advocates or “theoreticians,” as he dubbed them, believed that nonobjective art would release humankind from its wretchedness. They had a longing for “glass and an hysteria for new materials which you can look through.” De Kooning said that he faced life’s misery, which was exemplified by “an unheated studio with broken windows in the winter.” 31 As Motherwell summed it up, “I think that my generation is the most tragic that has ever existed. American painting is really after a sense of the tragic. If [it] is really tragic, then it may be great. If not then it is of no consequence.” 32
The compelling evocation of the tragic mood in the work of Pollock, Still, de Kooning, Rothko and Newman was responsible for their growing recognition. It did take several years for the art world, and much longer for the general public, to appreciate their subjective abstract art, but with a single exception (Hans Hofmann) only tragedians among the Field and Gesture painters have grown in stature. Why these artists and not myriad others working in a similar vein or in entirely different styles? The reason is that during the 1940s their art, scarred as it was by anxiety and darkness, put its finger on the pulse of the decade. In their struggle to register their subjective experience, the most acclaimed Field and Gesture painters created works that provided compelling insights which illuminated the mood of their time. The artist’s personal sense of being as manifest in his painting was of a piece with his historic moment. That is, the mood of the artist’s inner world corresponded with that of the outer world and consequently revealed truths not only about the artist and his culture and society, but also about the human condition. As Motherwell said, “each period and place has its own art and esthetic–which are specific applications of a more general set of human values, with emphases and rejections corresponding to the basic needs and desires of a particular place and time.” 33Thus, the strongest Field and Gesture painters created work that was at once personal and social, subjective and intrasubjective, historical and trans-historical. Their painting was both of its moment and transcended it.
8. See Terry Eagleton, “The World As Artefact,” in The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1990), p. 125.