We’ll admit partial guilt in this blog post to focusing on Abstract Expressionism (sometimes, “The New York School”) too heavily on Jackson Pollock. Indeed, we’d be the first to admit that the term encompasses far more than one artist, or indeed, one city (New York, New York) or even one country (the United States). Hence, we hope to make amends in this blog post by examining the movement at large and providing, we hope, a good context to the movement that spawned out of artists such as Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Franz Kline (1910–1962), William Baziotes (1912–1963), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991),Barnett Newman (1905–1970), Richard Pousette-Dart (1916–1992), Clyfford Still (1904–1980) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974).
Given America’s close cultural links with Europe, it is particularly hard to brand an art movement 100% born of the stars and stripes. However, art historians widely agree that Abstract Expressionism was the first specifically original American art movement to gain worldwide influence after its birth in the 1940s in New York City. The movement’s name represented a distinctive amalgamation of self denial and emotional force; furthermore the movement had an anarchic, highly idiosyncratic, iconoclastic and rebellious feel to it, in many ways propagated by the leaders of the movement such as Pollock. This also stemmed from the approach they took to their art – tapping into their inner, and arguably primal, artistic state, the artists treasured impulsiveness and improvisation mixed with energetic gestures, of which Pollock’s drip painting method was the ultimate example. This was, of course, in opposition to the earlier forms of abstraction which were more intellectual and subdued. Stylistically, it was similar to, but clearly went beyond, earlier German Expressionists and other European anti figurative schools such as Synthetic Cubism, Geometric Abstraction, Futurism and Bauhaus.
Tracing the etymology of the term itself is an interesting exercise. Art critic Robert Coates first used it to brand the now well-known movement in 1946 after a review of an exhibition, but others have pointed out that the same term had been used in Germany in 1919 in the art magazine Der Sturm to described German Expressionism. The term also pops up in the United States earlier, not to describe a movement as such but rather just the artwork of one of the fathers of modern art, Wassily Kandinsky. Alfred Barr used Abstract Expressionism in 1929 to describe a recent exhibition of Kandinsky paintings in a review he wrote.
Jackson Pollock’s move to the forefront of the group did not actually occur until his early death, when his oil paintings became increasingly valued. Some critics argue that it was exactly his untimely death that helped solidify the Pollock myth, raising the value and appreciative treatment of his art. However, that statement is not entirely fair. Pollock was one of the documented artists who first publicly advocated moving away from the painting easel, creating a huge physical canvas and becoming physically emerged and enmeshed with his art. His belief that artists should be able to seriously use all materials – including glass, metal, plastic and wood – in a variety of methods, such as dripping, throwing, brushing and staining, allowed more artists to make their own way beyond the conventionalities of that time.