American abstract artists burst onto the world scene in the
1940s, for the first time shifting the center of contemporary art from Europe
to the United States, after three hundred years of American art borrowing and
developing ideas coming to light in Europe first.
Surrealism had emphasized the role of the unconscious in producing automatic, or spontaneous creative work. Through the extension of Surrealism in the 1930s came a new technique, called “action painting”, which came to be called “American Expressionism”. Naturalistic representation of the subject was not the goal; American abstract artists in this realm sought rather to express their emotion about it, or about the act of painting itself.
This expressiveness, painting in an explosion of energy with “happy accidents” welcomed, was with free-swinging gestures on large canvases with enough room: hence “action painting.”
Nobody knew quite how to respond to this new art, until a MOMA exhibition of American abstract artists in 1951 came along and critics and the public had to come to terms with it.
The following is an extract of a 1956 Time magazine article on American abstract artists:
“Advance-guard painting in America is hell-bent for outer space. It has rocketed right out of the realms of common sense and common experience. That does not necessarily make it bad. But it does leave the vast bulk of onlookers earthbound, with mouths agape and eyes reflecting a mixture of puzzlement, vexation, contempt...
The young pioneers reproduced on the following pages took their lead from such European moderns as Kandinsky, Picasso and Paul Klee, and from a slightly less exalted group - Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipschitz, Piet Mondrian, André Masson - who sat out World War II in New York...”
The circle of “young pioneers” included American abstract artists Franz Kline, Hans Hoffman, and especially the two friends and rivals, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) developed one of the most innovative forms of expression in the history of American art: that of dribbling or throwing paint on a canvas lying flat on the floor. His unique and unmistakable style earned him the nickname “Jack the Dripper” in the aforementioned Times article. His dynamic manner of action painting aimed to take advantage of the “happy accident”, and sought to achieve an unknowable result. Pollock paintings work by overall effect: despite the energy of the works, there is no single point of focus and no sense of depth. The many complexities unite in a whole so that the viewer gets even a sense of order.
Pollock was important because he first made the breakthrough move away from the easel, and away from artistic convention. He redefined what creating art was about, marking a new freedom for the artist to focus on the creative process alone.
Dutch Willem de Kooning (1904-97) was originally a figure painter, having trained in Rotterdam in a traditional art school. He then came under the influence of Cubism in the 1930s and started to fragment his figures. Like Pollock, he sought spontaneity, but worked by scrubbing the paint into the canvas, or painting with slashing movements, the brush loaded with paint. The anguish inherent in his subject and technique is palpable for the viewer, who also cannot help but relive the act of the painting’s creation, the gestures are so violent and forceful.
Franz Kline (1910-62) studied in the States and London before returning to New York. In about the 1940s he began to play with giving and abstract quality to his figurative drawings. Working in black and white, continually reducing the shapes, developing the black-on-white that is so characteristic of his work. Like de Kooning, he had something of a slashing style, but the result is a kind of black calligraphy on a white background, worked with housepainter’s brushes and ordinary house paint. Bold, powerful, energetic, his black-on-white paintings gradually had color introduced into them, handled in the same manner.
Colorfield painting, although sharing a same intention to express emotion about a subject rather than a figurative subject per se, is visually the complete opposite of action painting. Austere, serene, here the energy and surface marks of action painting are gone, and the artist has reduced forms down to their ultimate form of abstraction – areas of color. In action painting, the canvas is where the creative act occurs; in colorfield painting, the picture plane is preserved, with every part of the canvas being considered of equal importance. Art was freed from the requirement to represent the physical world, and also reduced down to one dimension – the canvas surface.
The most important American abstract artists working in colorfield painting include Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell and my own personal favorite, Mark Rothko.
Adolph Gottlieb (1903-1974) was a New Yorker who studied at the Art Students League, where he had Robert Henri for teacher (the same Henri who was such a major influence on Hopper). He spent time in Europe in the 1920s and discovered the avant garde, and his early paintings show this influence. He then became interested in pictographs (pictorial symbols for words or phrases) and began to incorporate them into his work as he explored Surrealist automatism. While pictographs continued to appear from time to time in his work, Gottlieb’s paintings tend to reduce forms down to a single circle or oval of color suspended over a single expanse of tightly woven gestures of color, often black, on a neutral background.
Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) studied art in Munich before heading for Paris, where he was a student together with Matisse and came under Fauve influence. He returned to Germany when WWI broke out, then ended in New York by 1934 where he started experimenting with action painting, creating linear rhythms. He was an important and influential teacher. He was persuaded of art’s importance for its spiritual value, and his work sought to “eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary can speak”.
Clyfford Still (1904-1980) falls in the category of “non-objectivity”, his works making no reference to any object or event beyond their frames. Still was a painter from the West Coast, training in California and Oregon, and sought to be under no influences whatsoever. By the 1940s he had developed a thick use of paint to portray nonobjective abstraction, and the famous one-man exhibition of his work in New York in 1946 established his name as one of the pioneers in his field.
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) originally came from Washington and went to school in California. He did graduate work at Columbia in New York in art history. In the 1940s he came to make the acquaintance of European modernists who were escaping the war raging abroad, which focused him on painting. Like Gottlieb, he was interested in automatism, which was a major influence on his early work. In 1948 he begane a series of over 100 painting, completed between 1948 and 1967 as an Elegy to the Spanish Republic following he Spanish Civil War. His paintings comprise rough black ovals and upright rectangles, distorted and compressed.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Russian Rothko came to the States in 1913, and after studies at Yale he was at the Art Students League and studied under Max Weber. After paintings about city life treated in an expressionistic way, he discovered Freud and Surrealism and his canvases became larger and his imagery ever more simplified, until there was just a single colorfield layered over another.
No image on the internet or in a book can convey the beauty and mystery of a Rothko painting - I find he is in a category of his own among American abstract artists. I have been in a museum where I showed similar colorfield paintings to a friend, who was scoffing at the abstract art, and yet he was held by the Rothko. With the real painting, there seems to be a mystic vibration coming from it. I believe he painted them as prayers.
I also once talked with the security guard in the Rothko Chapel in Texas, who told me: “All these people come and go and they think these are just black paintings. But I have sat here day in and out for ten years, and I’m telling you, they change – depending on the light, the time of day, the weather. But you have to really look to see it.”