Aspects of Modernism 4: American Abstract Expressionism

Rex Valentine

BRLSI Member

18 October 2005


The ‘American Abstract Expressionists’ as they are popularly known, were named by the critic Robert Coates in 1946. Many would say a better title would be ‘The New York School’ as they all lived in New York but were very different in style, and not all abstract. A lecture only gives a theoretical background to these works, which have to be seen in reality. Although Literary Modernism is said to end about 1939 it is justifiable to extend this date to 1952 for Art in America, allowing for a lag period of one generation for the Americans to fully assimilate European Art before they could truly come of age culturally.

After WW2 the initial mood of ‘Triumphalism’, due to America overcoming the depression, wining the war and becoming wealthy nation, was soon overshadowed by an awareness of the ‘fallibility of man’. The ‘War to End All Wars’ (WW1) had been followed by an even more violent world war, which was only unconditionally concluded by the atomic bomb. In addition to this, it was soon apparent that Russia was also a beneficiary of the war and so the ‘Cold War’ between the expanded Soviet Block and The Western Allies developed. This awareness of man’s fallibility led to the ‘romantic tragic’ and pessimistic view of some of these painters.

The speaker then showed 5 paintings from this group asking the audience to give their psychological reactions with one word or phrase only. He then gave quotes of the reactions at the time they were first shown outside America at the 1950 Venice Biennale:

‘Too new and therefore violent. The experience conveyed is an American experience. I can understand why Europeans were puzzled.’ (Clement Greenberg)

‘The canvass is an arena in which to act rather than a space in which to reproduce redesign analyse or express an object actual or imagined. What was on the canvass was not an illustration but an existentialist record of an event.’ (Harold Rosenberg, 1952)

‘No matter how ugly and puzzling the new may appear – and it will indeed appear so – people who inhabit this climate will not fail to perceive it and hail it.’ (Hans Hoffman)

The speaker then sketched in the political background as the avant-garde movement began to take shape in the late depression, assisted by Roosevelt’s ‘Works Progress Association’ in 1935, but disadvantaged by its association with the Communists. In 1939 ‘The Ten’, including Rothko and Gottleib, exhibited as a separate movement.

In 1941 Samuel Kootz challenged the avant-garde: ‘I have not seen one painter veer from his established course. I have not seen one experiment to realise a new method of painting.’

Although the Americans were supplying arms to the allies they did not actually enter the war until Pearl Harbour in 1941 and the Art movement continued. Of key importance was the occupation of Paris by the Germans, which ablated Paris as the centre of European art at a stroke. By this time both the Bauhaus and most of the Paris school had migrated to New York.

At first Andre Breton (who never learnt English) and Max Ernst who married Peggy Guggenheim, tried to dominate the art scene with ‘The First Papers of Surrealism’ at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1942. The Americans however would not allow themselves to be dominated by French Surrealism. Taking the least literary form of surrealism, the abstract principals of automatism leading to biomorphic forms, the Americans eventually rejected all other surrealistic influences and struck out on their own. Discussing abstraction the speaker emphasised that this was a property of the brain itself and was a method of investigating the truth, whether in Science or Art. Then quoting Paul Klee (1915):

‘The more fearful the world becomes the more Art becomes abstract’.

The speaker pointed out, that while this applied to post WW2 in America, it contrasted sharply with post WW1 Germany as shown by Otto Dix and Georges Gross in the ‘New Objectivity’.A further quote from Samuel Kootz on reopening his gallery in 1949 summed up abstraction:

‘The intra-subjective artist invents from personal experience, creates from an internal world rather than an external one. He makes no attempt to chronicle the American scene, exploit political struggles or stimulate nostalgia through familiar objects. He deals instead with inward emotions and experiences.’

The speaker’s main flow chart showed that the Bauhaus and the Paris school migrated to New York ‘en bloc’, and found employment where they could exert their influence. These included from the Bauhaus, Joseph Albers to Black Mountain College North Carolina, Moholy-Nagy to Chicago; architects, Walter Gropius to Harvard and Mies van der Rohe to New York (where he designed the Seagram Building for which Rothko’s paintings, now in the Tate were originally commissioned). The Paris school included such important figures as Hans Hofmann originally from Germany, but bringing with him unique knowledge of the Paris school, through his association with Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse, Derain and Delaunay. The Surrealist group included, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Andre Masson. Equally important were, Piet Mondrian, the ultimate exponent of Geometric painting, and perhaps the most profound influence of all Marcel Duchamp. Others whose influence was important through exhibition of their work included, Abstract Surrealist, Joan Miro and the Russian Expressionist from Paris, Chiam Soutine, and of course Picasso himself.

As a result of the war, therefore, the ‘mountains had come to Mohammed’, but this rich influence was destined to be used; then cast off when the Americans finally came of age. Thus in 1945 the Surrealists returned to the desolate Paris streets, expended and empty handed, while Picasso, who had been there all the time forged on relentlessly.

The speaker now took on two transitional figures, showing a number of slides of their work. One the Armenian, Arshile Gorky, a paradigm of American assimilation of European art, but preserving the biomorphic forms of Abstract Surrealism, and secondly, Hans Hofmann, a German who brought to New York his own generation of Expressionism and a unique knowledge of the Paris school.

Classifying The New York school into Gesture and Colour field painting the speaker listed the aims of Gesture painting as Tworkov had described Soutine in 1950, thus emphasising Soutine’s influence, and the essential nature of Expressionism whether representational or abstract. These included:

To capture ephemeral and transient experience (as the speaker emphasised in his previous talk on ‘German Expressionism’).
Unpremeditated, negates professional skill or finish.
Instantaneous perception, Impenetrable to logical analysis.
No attempt to efface imprint of energy on the surface.
Lacking all embellishments or concessions to decoration or narrative.
His prime examples of this were the Dutch Willem de Kooning including his famous ‘Excavation’ from the Art Institute Chicago and his ‘Woman Series’. It could be seen that De Kooning was never completely abstract. His other Gesture painter was a second generation German born in America, Franz Kline, who first developed his abstraction by enlarging his own conventional drawings with a Bell Opticon Projector. These were large black and white paintings using an 8" house painters brush. As a final example of a gesture painter, he showed the American Jackson Pollock’s overall action paintings taking automatism to its ultimate with the key quote:

‘Today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside themselves, they work from within... I do not paint nature, I am nature, I work from inside out like nature.’

The speaker referred back to his phrase that 20th century art had become, ‘an encephalogram of the mind in a post Cartesian existentialist world’.

Finally, Valentine took for his ‘colour field painters’, Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman, both Jews, with entirely different personalities but similar motivation. The colour field painters’ aims were:

To maximise the visual impact and immediacy of colour .
Large expanses of colour to saturate the eye and visual field.
To eliminate figuration and symbolism.
To simplify drawing and gesture.
To suppress contrast of light and dark.
To create a sublime unified field towards infinity.
The speaker contrasted the closed unambiguous rectangles of colour of Mondrian with the floating ambiguous areas of Rothko and the vertical lines of Barnet Newman extending to the infinite. Quoting Rothko:

‘I paint very large pictures---precisely because I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to put yourself outside your experience. When you paint a larger picture you are in it. It is something you command.’(1952)

‘To obtain the sublime,’ says Barnett Newman, ‘we must free ourselves from the impediments of memory, nostalgia, legend and myth, striping away all devices of Western painting’ as follows:

no depth or space as in Cubism;
no exact straight lines as in the geometric painting of Mondrian;
no distorted line as in Expressionism;
no trompe l’oeil as in academic Surrealism;
to be non objective – relational – or constructed;
to be non – voluptuous – virtuous – or narcissistic;
for the suppression of physicality although the painting itself is very physical.
the pure idea of the sublime and infinite in reality, as opposed to European beauty.’
These colour field painters were different and more meditative than the other American Expressionists with a definite religious quality. As Rothko himself said, his pictures were about the void, the void of nihilism, which ultimately he could not overcome. His attitude was basically pessimistic. Barnett Newman on the other hand, confronts the viewer with a world stripped of all familiar objects, but invites him to re-create his own transcendental realm out of his awe for the sublime beauty and infinity of the real cosmos itself, thus ridding him of the spectre of nihilism. In this respect he is optimistic.

Some may find this challenge too daunting and scurry back to the familiar images of European beauty.


Although a small audience, they were well informed. When asked if there had been any anger at the initial show of images, there was none compared with that shown 50 years ago.

A member said he associated the large paintings of the Americans with Monet’s large lily paintings. The speaker thought the lilies were thinly painted and tranquil, while de Kooning’s paintings were heavily impasto in places and made one very conscious of the energy on the surface. Surprisingly, some had recently seen Barnett Newman’s large paintings including ‘The Stations of The Cross’, and were very moved by their subtlety, their understatement of different shades of grey, and variation from hard to soft edge.

A member thought Franz Kline’s enlarging of conventional drawings to obtain the abstract was very contrived. The speaker said, this was only the way the idea came to him. Another suggested sensibly he might have projected enlargements onto canvas, which he did.

A member asked the interesting question ‘was there a universal principal that all the very different styles had in common? The speaker suggested the analogy of the mirror, held up to give a faithful reflection of reality. We were now concerned, not with this representation of the outside world reflected in the mirror, but with the idiosyncratic distortions in each mirror, specific to individual artists. The universal principal therefore was to focus on the distortions not the faithful reflection.

One member suggested that these painters were not as automatic as the psychologists like to think. The speaker suggested that their attitude approaching the canvas was that of openness, allowing accidents to happen, as with Pollock, but they may intentionally select a particular accident as being more interesting than another.

A key question the speaker was asked was what he thought was the main characteristic of this movement. He said that a key word would be ‘existentialist’. A movement not concerned with any kind of narrative or representation but demonstrating an event in time expressing the immediate emotion by a physical act between the painter and the canvas. On reflection it was not just that: Gorky, for instance, remained a true Abstract Surrealist, even in his last works; De Kooning, non-abstract, and Pollock, abstract, were true ‘Action Painters.

Rex Valentine


Malcolm Bradbury. The Modern World (Secker & Warburg, London, 1988).

Matthew Collings. This is Modern Art (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999).

Bram Dijkstra. American Expressionism: Art & Social Change 1920-1950 (Columbus Museum of Art);

Cubism Steiglitz & the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Princeton UP, 1969).

Serge Guilbaut. Abstract Expressionism, Freedom & the Cold War (Chicago UP, 1983).

Robert Hughes. The Shock of The New (Thames & Hudson, 1991).

Sam Hunter. Hans Hofmann. (Harry Abrams Inc, NY).

Elaine de Kooning. ‘The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism’, Selected Writings (George Brazillert, NY, 1993).

Edvard Lieber. Willem de Kooning: Reflections in the Studio (Harry Abrams NY, 2000).

Edward Lucie–Smith. Lives of the Great 20th Century Artists’ (Thames & Hudson, 1999).

Mark Rothko. The Artists Reality: Philosophies of Art (Yale UP, New Haven & London).

Irving Sandler. The Triumph of American Painting (Praeger, NY, 1970).

Nicholas Serota. The Tate Modern Handbook (Trustees of the Tate Gallery, 2000).

Matthew Spender. From a High Place: a Life of Arshile Gorky. California UP, 1999).

Diane Waldman. Arshile Gorky a Retrospective. (Harry.Abrams, NY, in collaboration with The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, NY, 1981).