The social and political upheavals of the Depression and the disruption
caused by the war against Hitler had a profound effect on young artists
in Europe and America. Technological advances no longer seemed a
guarantee of social or political progress. The hopeful rationalism of
modern society was discredited. As far as art was concerned, the
logical, idealistic premises of Cubism and the movements which flowed
from it in the years between the two wars had lost their appeal.
The generation which began to paint in the 1930s and early 1940s was in
a desperate frame of mind. A new approach was urgently needed to resolve
what was seen as a crisis of subject matter. 'The situation was so bad
that I know I felt free to try anything, no matter how absurd it
seemed,' the American painter Adolph Gottlieb observed. He and many of
his contemporaries were tentatively moving towards an aesthetic which
repudiated the hegemony of intellect and allowed the artist to express
himself freely and subjectively. As another American, Robert Motherwell,
put it: 'The need is for felt experience - intense, immediate, direct,
subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.'
Many painters began to concentrate on the act of painting itself,
unimpeded by anything save the decision to paint. Their thinking rested
on an already well-established principle. If they emptied their minds of
preconceptions, and applied pigment with a maximum of spontaneity, the
images they made would be an expression of the deepest levels of their
being. Everybody was agreed that this was a worthy objective: modern
depth psychology appeared to show that the conscious mind could exert a
repressive authority on the unconscious, and that, if it released its
hold, the springs of feelings would flow clear again. Art, then, became
a method of self-realization.
The Surrealists had shown the way. Taking their cue from the procedures
of psychoanalysis - especially free association - they formulated the
technique of automatism, according to which the painter or writer
operated, metaphorically speaking, blindfold. He welcomed accident and
exploited the random, doing anything in fact that would send the ego to
sleep. Andre Breton's original definition of Surrealism, given in the
First Manifesto of 1924, still held good: 'SURREALISM, noun. Pure
psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally
or in writing [he soon enlarged this definition to include visual art],
the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all
control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral
Other influences were at work as well. Many artists were
Paul Klee, who took a post-Freudian interest in dreams and combined a
sophisticated wit with child-like candour. In fact, the simplicities of
the art of children and psychotics were felt by many to be as
instructive as the work of their own professional antecedents. A group
of Northern European artists drew German Expressionism into a vigorous,
painterly style. The so-called matter painters devised a novel variant
of collage: by mixing sand, plaster and other materials with pigment
they gave the flat canvas something of the three-dimensional solidity of
It was not only a re-evaluation of the contemporary Western tradition
that contributed to the new emphasis on gesture or 'the act of
painting'. Artists found much in Oriental art, and more particularly
calligraphy, which threw light on their crisis of subject matter. In
Chinese calligraphy, the brush-stroke is of prime importance. The
painter-scribe abolishes the contradiction between subject and object,
and, by concentrating on the process of sign-making, feels that he is
actively participating in a continuous and potentially endless series of
events (paralleling the cosmic process of generation and regeneration).
In a telling phrase, a Chinese commentator, Pere Tchang-Ming, remarked
that ideograms are 'congealed gestures'.
Perhaps it is worth drawing a connection between graffiti in public
places and calligraphy: graffiti too are congealed gestures, and the
fact that these gestures represent, not a sense of unity with all things
as in Oriental art, but a social estrangement, appealed to disillusioned
men for whom painting was a heroic assertion of their identity. Far from
escaping from self in the Eastern manner, they wished to proclaim it.
Creativity was a sequence of free, unconditioned choices, through which
they could redeem their alienation from society and from the given
aesthetic tradition. It was a form of self-defence.
Existentialism offered a theoretical basis for this attitude, perhaps
more as a climate of opinion than as a coherent philosophy. The writings
of Jean-Paul Sartre provide the classic texts; and abstract artists,
both in America and Europe, sympathized with his argument that man alone
is responsible for his fate, which he has to make and re-make for
himself. Man's consciousness is subjective and can never become aware of
itself objectively and surely except through the 'gaze of the Other'. If
other people function as mirrors in which to see oneself, so too can the
work of art. Sartre did not hold a 'salvation through art' position for
long, but it is a concept which had an interesting resonance for the
many artists who found themselves in an isolated situation. It enabled
them to acquire self-assurance by means of their work; and the
Existentialist thesis that 'being is doing' gave intellectual
justification to an approach which emphasized process at the expense of
Within this whole tradition of 'the act of painting', there is a radical
distinction to be drawn between the School of Paris and the New York
School. Painters in France never really abandoned content as ordinarily
defined - a message or a sign - and even the traditional principles of
composition can be detected in their work. New York painters tried hard
to go beyond both. They explored the full implications of the discovery
that 'what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event'.
New York Background
The American artist has always been a loner, and he was one of the
first to suffer from the economic debacle of the 1920s and 1930s.
Patrons were few and far between, and, when they did buy his work,
treated him as a courtier paid to cater to their tastes. The general
public had little time for him, and his status was to be neatly
illustrated during the Second World War by the lists of those without a
right to deferment of military service: 'clerks, messengers,
office-boys, shipping clerks, watchmen, footmen, bellboys, pages, sales
clerks, filing clerks, hair dressers, dress and millinery makers,
designers, interior decorators and artists'.
Nevertheless, something had to be done to support professional painters
and sculptors during the Depression if they were not to be forced on to
the streets. A few experimented, more or less unsuccessfully, with
self-help schemes; and a group of New Yorkers picked up an idea from
France for avoiding dealers and bartering direct with the public: work
would be exchanged for 'anything reasonable'.
Rescue came from the unlikely direction of the Federal Government. In
December 1933, as Roosevelt's New Deal got under way, the Public Works
of Art Project was set up. In the half-year of its existence it hired
3,749 artists who turned out 15,633 works of art for public
institutions. This was doing pretty well, but not well enough. The more
ambitious Federal Art Project, which came to be known as the 'Project',
took the principles of the PWAP a stage further. Within twelve months
over 5,500 artists, teachers, craftsmen, photographers, designers and
researchers were in the Project's employ. The salary was 395 a month for
96 hours' work. Easel painters were expected to submit periodic evidence
of studio activity.
The politicians were probably hoping that culture would in this way be
harnessed to the country's new-found social idealism. 'Could we, through
actors and artists who had themselves known privation, carry music and
plays to children in city parks, and art galleries to little towns?'
asked Harry Hopkins, to whom Roosevelt had entrusted responsibility for
the various art relief programmes. 'Were not happy people at work the
greatest bulwark of democracy?'
This optimism did not in the event do much to alter the
ingrained American suspicion of the arts. Free concerts in
hospitals or schools, and murals in post offices, were of
greater aid to the producer than to the consumer. For the
Project's historic achievement was to bring artists together and
give them a chance to pursue their interests freely and with a
minimum of economic distraction. Thus,
Willem de Kooning was
able to take up painting full time only when he landed a contract with
The American art scene at the time was fragmented. Representational
painters rallied to the flag, and under the general heading of
Regionalism offered a folksy celebration of the American agrarian past —
perhaps in compensation for the collapse of industry. With the rise of
Fascism many younger talents became pre-occupied with international
socialism. In New York the Communist Party attracted artists of many
aesthetic persuasions, including a devoted band of Social Realists.
Their canvases are radical and polemical, and deal with issues such as
the gaoling of a leading trade unionist and the Sacco and Vanzetti
affair. A dynamic realism indebted to the Mexican revolutionary painters
Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, was the
order of the day.
Both the Regionalists and the Social Realists turned their back on
abstraction and the inventions of the European avant-garde. However,
since the epoch-making Armory Show of 1913, a faltering abstract
tradition had come into being. Josef Albers founded an association of
painters in 1937 called American Abstract Artists. It staged
exhibitions, published books and organized lectures. Its members
decisively rejected Impressionism, Expressionism, and above all
Surrealism, for a structural, geometric, post-Cubist manner. But young
painters soon tired of AAA's derivative formulas. The innovators of
Abstract Expressionism stayed away, preferring to meet in loose
groupings of their own.
Regionalism and Social Realism ran out of steam too; both styles were
too restricted to allow for much experiment or change. Artists
discovered that left-wing politics were time-consuming, and that they
had their knuckles rapped if they stepped out of line. The painter
Stuart Davis, an ardent activist, broke his friendship with Arshile
Gorky for this reason: 'I took the business as seriously as the serious
situation demanded and devoted much time to the organizational work.
Gorky was less intense about it and still wanted to play.'
Naturally, those for whom the business of painting was more than 'play'
fell away. Others were shaken by the Nazi—Soviet non-aggression pact of
1939, and support for the Communists declined.
The Second World War led to the arrival in the United States of many key
figures of twentieth-century art, in exile from their home countries —
among them. Surrealists such as Masson and Matta, who offered
spontaneous, semi-abstract canvases filled with forms drawn from the
depths of the unconscious, were now a direct presence, not a remote
example. By chance of war New York assumed the mantle of Paris;
Americans felt at the centre of affairs for the first time and no longer
in a cultural outback. The effect of this can hardly be exaggerated.
In 1943 the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors pointed to the
parallel between America's new international political role and her
increasing strength in the arts: 'As a nation we are now being forced to
outgrow our narrow political isolationism. Now that America is
recognized as the centre where art and artists of the world meet, it is
time for us to accept cultural values on a truly global plane.'
If there is a single quality which distinguishes the American Abstract
Expressionists from their contemporaries elsewhere, it is an intensity
of purpose which allowed them to ride roughshod over both stylistic
convention and what Clement Greenberg called 'paint quality'. Greenberg
argued that the American vision was characterized by a 'fresher, opener,
more immediate surface', offensive to standard taste. He related this
quality to a 'more intimate and habitual acquaintance with isolation',
which was, in his view, 'the condition under which the true quality of
the age is experienced'.
Water of the Flowery Mill
The Betrothal II
Myths and Symbols
Andre Breton, the chief ideologue of Surrealism, wrote in 1927:
'Freud has shown that there prevails in the "unfathomable" depths a
total absence of contradiction, a new mobility of the emotional blocks
caused by repression, a timelessness and a substitution of psychic
reality for external reality, all subject to the principle of pleasure
alone. Automatism leads straight to this region.'
However, neither psychic reality nor pleasure principle were enough in
themselves; and instead of Sigmund Freud the New York painters looked to
C. G. Jung, for whom the unconscious opened doors not merely to
individual neuroses but to the universal archetypes of human experience.
His view was that the unconscious is 'mythopoetic' - that it naturally
creates myths — and that the arts are an important means by which myths
and symbols are kept alive in an otherwise one-sidedly 'conscious'
Jung showed that primitive art was a virgin quarry of symbols that were
as relevant to the contemporary world as they had been in the
Mark Rothko observed in 1943: 'Those who think that
the world is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory
passions from which these myths sprang are either not aware of reality
or do not wish to see it in art. The myth . . . expresses to us
something real and existing in ourselves, as it was to those who first
stumbled upon the symbols to give them life.'
Pollock was interested in Jung as early as the
mid-1930s, and went to a Jungian analyst when he began psychiatric
treatment for alcoholism in 1937. He equated what he saw as the best
contemporary Western art with American Indian painting, praising the
Indians for their 'capacity to get hold of appropriate images and their
understanding of what constitutes painterly subject matter'.
The imagery that
Pollock and his fellows employed was based on
'biomorphic' forms related to animal and plant structures, to primitive
symbols, to the shapes that flow from a free handling of paint, and to
the semi-conscious patterns of automatism.
Arshile Gorky stands rather to one side of the new mythic manner; his
'hybrids' (to use Breton's expression) are related to it in character,
but they also have the obsessive sexuality of a Freud-based Surrealism.
He did not cut his bridges to Europe, and should perhaps be regarded as
a precursor of the New York School who happened to overlap its first
decade, rather than a founder member. Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian in
Turkish Armenia in 1904, he arrived in the United States from Eastern
Europe in 1920. He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and
later the Grand Central School of Art, where he was both pupil and
teacher. He acquired a reputation as a brilliant pasticheur, and his
early work bears witness to an almost programmatic intention to live
through most of the major styles of modern art.
His starting point was Impressionism, but he soon graduated to Cezanne
and to Synthetic Cubism. Between 1929 and 1934 Picasso, Braque and Gris
were major influences (as in the Composition of 1932-33), and he was
nicknamed 'the Picasso of Washington Square'. 'I was with Cezanne for a
long time,' he remarked, 'and now naturally I am with Picasso.'
then moved on to Tanguy, Masson and Matta (for their unstable shifting
spaces) and Miro (for his curlicued figures). Around 1936 he adopted a
biomorphic abstract style. In the early 1940s he became interested in
Gorky was not unaware of the dangers of his situation. According to a
possibly apocryphal anecdote, he called some fellow-artists to his
studio in the mid-1930s and told them sadly: 'Let's face it, we're
bankrupt.' Whatever the truth of the matter, a proud tactfulness or a
dilettante sensibility delayed Gorky's artistic maturity until the final
years of his short life; he killed himself following a cancer operation
in 1946 and a car crash in which he broke his neck.
Around 1943, in his Garden in Sochi series, he made his breakthrough. In
Water of the Flowery Mill the paint lies in thin, brilliant washes of colour which are allowed to overflow and overlap. Soft, feminine forms
mingle with spiky masculine ones, and although they refer to
aesthetic forebears (the Synthetic Cubists in this instance) they are
distinguished by a dreamy, meandering feeling for line. His encounter
with the Surrealists in New York had given him the confidence to
experiment with spontaneous draughtsmanship which submerged, if it did
not eliminate, his Cubist inheritance.
Gorky's hybrids, curious vegetable and animal composites, suggest a
mental doodling in front of nature. In his eyes landscape had a symbolic
and sexual content, which stems from memories of his childhood in rural
Armenia. Had he lived, it is hard to resist the impression that his
playful epicureanism would have set him apart from the other Abstract
Expressionists; his work lacks the urgency of Pollock or Newman.
Thus, in The Betrothal II, painted in 1947, pale greenish-yellow figures
outlined in black stand against warm ochre; bristly verticals mingle
with visceral fruit-like forms. The canvas retains the freshness of a
sketch while also attaining a kind of academic classicism: not for
Gorky called 'the Ingres of the unconscious', and behind
some of his rounded shapes lies the example of Ingres' Odalisques.
William Baziotes' work came into sharp focus during this 'mythic' phase
of Abstract Expressionism, and did not change radically thereafter. He
agreed with Jung's emphasis on 'a primordial art', which allows 'a
glimpse into the unfathomed abyss of what has not yet become'. This
'abyss' often resembles an undersea world where protozoic marine forms
float in a filtered light. Amoebic dwarfs, spiders and birds are also
included in Baziotes' scheme of things. 'Every one of us finds water
either a symbol of peace or fear,' he wrote in 1948. 'I know I never
feel better than when I gaze for a long time at the bottom of a still
pond.' But the silence and order of his pictures is not usually placid,
and the symbols which people them are discrete, sinister and obsessive.
Born in 1912, Baziotes came to New York from Pittsburgh in 1933, studied
at the National Academy of Design, and joined the Federal Art Project.
He worked in comparative obscurity before showing at Peggy Guggenheim's
Art of This Century Gallery in 1944. He was influenced by the precise,
exotic colours of Persian miniatures and also by Klee, Miro and,
especially, Picasso. In 1940 he met the Surrealist Matta and was excited
by the idea that abstraction could be a vehicle for psychic meanings. In
1942 he was represented in the New York 'International Surrealist
Baziotes learned to equalize the surface tension of his designs by
eliminating sculptural or three-dimensional depth and replacing it with
an integrated paint surface and an all-over tonal harmony. Also, with
time, he reduced the number and increased the size of his figures.
Dwarf, painted in 1947, shows Baziotes at the height of his powers. The
fuzzy green figure and the mauve ground are tonally similar, and the
all-over effect is reinforced by his method of painting - a soft
brushing which gives the picture surface a mistily liquid quality. From
1950 until his death in 1963 Baziotes moved in the direction of greater
sophistication and control. His later works have a tasteful
decorativeness which is matched by a certain caution and avoidance of
Edge of August
Easter and the Totem
The All-over Field
It is not surprising that the American artists, interested as they
were in the processes of painting and drawing, should have
responded with enthusiasm to some aspects of Oriental art, in
particular Chinese calligraphy.
was one of the first to pay serious attention to
East Asian painting, although he was not personally associated with the
New York School. Like his Oriental masters, he pursued a calmly
meditative goal. Born in Wisconsin in 1890, he taught in Seattle on the
West Coast between 1922 and 1925. During this period he became
interested in American Indian art and Japanese woodcuts.
A convert to
the Baha'i World Faith, a universalistic and optimistic religious sect,
he devoted himself to the reconciliation and union of Eastern and
Western cultures. He studied Eastern painting at the University of
Washington, taught at Dartington Hall in England, and in 1934 travelled
to China and Japan where he spent a month in a Zen monastery.
This journey liberated his aesthetic development, and on his return he
started the series of paintings called 'white writings' which continued
through the 1940s and 1950s. In Edge of August, painted in 1953, we see
the culmination of
Tobey's adaptation of calligraphy to painting. A
labyrinth of white thread-like script lies on a reddish ground:
perspective is destroyed, and form, to use his own words, 'smashed'. The
communicative function of the sign gives way to a rhythmic working which
creates an all-over texture and effectively dematerializes the
brush-stroke. The best of
Tobey has a slight fussy tranquillity; because
his central area of concern is religious, he never identified himself
with the Abstract Expressionists' drastic re-evaluation of the bases of
Tobey's 'white writings' resemble
Pollock's 'drip paintings'.
The comparison comes out to Pollock's credit, and once again the issue
resolves itself into one of intensity.
Pollock was prepared to 'go the
full length'. As in the case of Rimbaud, this entailed a profligacy of
effort, a capacity to push his luck to the point of incoherence in his
work, and perhaps of self-destruction in his life. More than any of his
contemporaries he dared to test his ideas till the cracks showed and
they began to give way. This authenticity, or, in Sartre's phrase, 'good
faith', has been as influential as his pictures.
To trace his career is to analyse the key elements in the gestural phase
of the New York School; and, although he did not make all the technical
discoveries (Hans Hofmann, for instance, was the first to use a drip
technique), he can lay claim to their most energetic exploitation. Born
in 1912 on a sheep ranch in Wyoming,
Pollock was the son of relatively
poor parents ('excellent craftsmen', according to his brother Charles,
'they knew how to grow things, they knew how to make things. But neither
of them had a sense for business or commercial profit'). The family
moved house many times during his childhood. There was little in his
background to suggest he would become an artist.
His rise to fame is in the classic mould of the American success story:
from the Wild West he travelled to the big city, took the world by
storm, but found his triumph hard to manage. The prototype for this kind
of folk hero is the early twentieth-century author Jack London; and the
lives of the two men have a number of curious analogies. Like London,
Pollock had a severe drink problem and died at the height of his
celebrity, exhausted and apparently in despair.
Some critics have
suggest that the geography of the West and the ceaseless travels of his
early years left their mark on Pollock's painting. He certainly enjoyed
the immensity of the American landscape and the temptations of the open
road; it may be no accident that it was on the open road he died, in
1956, violently driving his car too fast round a bend and crashing into
D. H. Lawrence, in an essay on Walt Whitman, offers some insights into
American culture which are remarkably apposite to
Pollock and to his
fellow-frontiersmen of the New York School: 'It is the American heroic
message. The soul is not to pile up defences round herself. She is not
to withdraw and seek her heavens inwardly, in mystical ecstasies. She is
not to cry to some God beyond, for salvation. She is to go down the open
road, as the road opens, into the unknown, keeping company with those
whose soul draws them near to her, accomplishing nothing save the
journey, and the works incidental to the journey.'
It took some time before the young
Pollock came into direct contact with
the international avant-garde. By 1930 he and his brother were studying
painting under Thomas Benton at the Art Students' League.
Benton was a
Romantic Regionalist of a reactionary turn of mind:
'I wallowed in every
cockeyed ism that came along and it took me ten years to get all the
modernist dirt out of my system,' he is reported to have said. He had
made his name with vigorously distorted and sometimes satirical accounts
of the American scene.
Pollock reacted through Benton rather than against him, abandoning his
realistic subject matter but picking on and developing the older man's
feeling for painterly rhythms which he in turn had drawn from Rubens,
Michelangelo and El Greco. In The Flame, painted in 1937, there is a
recognizable content, but it is subordinated to Pollock's fascination
with pigment, tonal contrasts and a heightened tempestuousness of
Pollock worked for the Federal Art Project; he admired the
Mexican revolutionary artists and took note of Kandinsky, Miro, Klee,
and the Surrealists, including Masson. But the strongest influence of
all was Picasso. Pollock spent nearly ten years developing a
semi-figurative symbolic vocabulary. His interest in Jung has already
been remarked on, and he paid cautious tribute to the Surrealists. His
pictures illustrate, in a partly automatist style, primitive myths,
especially those which dealt with passionate sexuality.
characteristic titles from 1943 were Pasiphae (which was to have been
called Moby Dick), The She-Wolf and The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle.
The She-Wolf illustrates Pollock's preoccupation with totem motifs.
However, the violent composition and crudely vigorous brushwork also
embody private anxieties. The wolf's red, unwinking eye falls in line
with the disembodied eyes which recur cryptically throughout
In 1947 recognizable imagery disappeared, and his canvases became
surfaces which simply recorded his passage. The conventional techniques
and materials of painting were not flexible or sensitive enough for this
purpose; so Pollock devised his famous 'drip' method of applying paint.
This is how he described it:
'My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my
canvas before painting. I prefer to take the unstretched canvas to the
hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the
floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting,
since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and
literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian
sand painters of the West.
'I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as
easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives, and
dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass and
other foreign matter added.'
Two masterpieces, Cathedral painted in 1947, and Blue Poles, painted in
1953, reveal the extent of Pollock's originality. His previously
glutinous pigmentation yields to an airy grace. A shallow space is
created, but does not subvert the substantiality of the materials used
nor the integrity of the picture plane. The composition is an all-over
field; despite the fact that the network of threads and cords of paint
is usually contained within the edges of the canvas, it could, the
spectator senses, be indefinitely extended.
This is reinforced by the
size of Pollock's paintings: they resemble portable murals and establish
the New York School's preoccupation with scale: 'There was a reviewer a
while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or end.
He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine
The predominance of black and white in Cathedral is a reminder that
Pollock is essentially a draughtsman. The critic Frank O'Hara noted his
'amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it by
flooding, to elaborate that simplest of elements, the line - to change,
to re-invigorate, to extend, to build up an embarrassment of riches in
the mass of drawing alone'.
Above all, in these pictures, there is an overpowering release of
energy, a euphoric dynamism. Pollock used to work very rapidly, after
slow periods of walking around the canvas and brooding.
What looks like
chance is at most the exploitation of chance:
'When I am painting, I
have a general notion as to what I am about. I can control the flow of
paint: there is no accident.' At the same time, decisions were passive
rather than active (as one would expect of an inheritor of Surrealist
automatism): 'I have no fears about making changes, destroying the
image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it
By 1953 Pollock found that he had exhausted the potential of 'drip'
painting. His personal life was also in confusion, and, after two
teetotal years, he withdrew again into alcoholism. He abandoned colour
and returned to figuration. One consequence was the loss of the field
effect, and his designs break down into broad puddled areas of pigment.
He produced many fine things, many of which - Easter and the Totem,
painted in 1953, is a case in point — denote a return to his old subject
matter with more sophisticated means.
Pollock's contemporaries in New York watched his career with mounting
excitement, for it raised in an undiluted form many of the aesthetic
preoccupations of the day. More than anything else, it represented a
commitment to emotional honesty.
Robert Motherwell wrote in 1950:
process of painting then is conceived of as an adventure, without
preconceived ideas, on the part of persons of intelligence, sensibility
and passion. Fidelity to what occurs between oneself and the canvas, no
matter how unexpected, becomes central. . . . The major decisions in the
process of painting are on the grounds of truth, not taste. . . . No
artist ends up with the style he expected to have when he began.'
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning shared the leadership of the New York gestural
avant-garde with Pollock. However, he remained on far closer terms with
his aesthetic antecedents than did many of his peers. The movement which
specially attracted him was Cubism; but his general attachment to
tradition can also be seen in his acceptance of the human figure as a
suitable subject for painting.
Born in Rotterdam in 1904, he spent his first twenty-one years in Europe
and studied in Antwerp, Brussels and Rotterdam. He moved to the United
States in 1926, but only started to paint full-time when he found
employment with the Federal Art Project. In his early work he painfully
came to grips with the problem of treating three-dimensional figures
without upsetting the integrity of the picture surface. In works of the
early to middle 1940s, from the Seated Woman of 1940 to the
of 1947, his solution was to play down modelling and, gradually, to
isolate individual parts of the human body and treat them as planes.
Painterly silhouettes, suggesting household objects and also biomorphic
forms (he was a close friend of
Arshile Gorky), are crowded together on
a plain ground; there is little sense of space, of in front or behind,
and the images and the gaps between them become to some extent
Willem de Kooning
experimented with automatism, which loosened his handling of
paint and encouraged him to exploit the ambiguity of
semi-abstract signs. It also introduced a new vehemence in his
brushwork. All this laid the ground for his sudden adoption in
1947 of a new style in a series of black and white pictures in
household enamel paint (he was too poor at the time to afford
oils). Individual anatomical segments are now released from
their representational context and are assembled, in Dark
Pond, painted in 1948, as a fleshy jigsaw - what one critic
called a 'wall of living musculature'. There is now no
distinction at all between figure and field.
Willem de Kooning painted a
succession of remarkable pictures in a similar vein, at the same time
returning to colour: an example is the Excavation of 1950.
De Kooning was not a gesture-for-gesture's-sake artist who happened to
retain an element of figuration; the significance of his subject matter
was seldom far from his mind. 'Art never seems to make me peaceful or
pure,' he said in 1951. 'I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of
vulgarity.' Seldom making concessions to economic necessity, and living
the Bohemian life of a 'loft rat', he expressed his own restless
response to the modern city.
Around 1951, he resumed his Women, monstrously ugly but seductive
females - part fertility goddesses, part graffiti. It was an obsessive
image: 'It did one thing for me: it eliminated composition, arrangement,
relationships, light - all this silly talk about line, colour and form —
because that [i.e. the Women] was the thing I wanted to get hold of.'
Willem de Kooning returned to semi-abstraction, this time recalling
'landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city - the
feeling of going to the city or coming from it'. He simplified his
draughtsmanship and enlivened his palette.
In Door to the River, painted
in 1960, there is a broad, expansive painterliness - almost as if the
artist had reworked a blown-up detail of an earlier composition. In the
1960s he resumed the Women theme — but now his figures are softer, more
fluid and palpable.
Because De Kooning had little to offer the colour field artists of the
1960s he has been neglected to the advantage of Pollock. His great
achievements lie in combining a personal content with a repudiation of
style (in a sense of stylishness), and in marrying figuration to an
extreme gestural manner.
and, to a lesser extent,
De Kooning turned their canvases into
all-over fields by means of a lattice of brushmarks or drips; but other
artists, among them
Clyfford Still and
more interested in colour than gesture. Flat areas of paint replaced
impasto and line. 'Instead of using outlines, instead of making shapes
or setting off spaces, my drawings declare the space,' Newman wrote;
'instead of working with the remnants of space, I work with the whole
Scale was the major ingredient. As Clement Greenberg put it in 1948,
'There is a persistent urge, as persistent as it is largely unconscious,
to go beyond the cabinet picture, which is designed to occupy only a
spot on the wall, to a kind of picture that, without actually becoming
identified with the wall, like a mural, would spread over it and
acknowledge its physical reality.'
Red, White and Brown
Very large canvases altered the relation of the spectator to the work:
he was no longer able to 'take it in' or frame it with a single glance.
In fact, he was often overtaken by an expanse of colour which stretched
beyond his range of vision.
Rothko argued in 1951 that 'To paint a small
picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an
experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you
paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you
command.' It was now no longer an object in an environment but an
environment in itself.
Objects of great size are awe-inspiring, and the fact that colour field
pictures were not only very large in themselves but, like some of
Pollock's work, contained implications of boundlessness, suited the
transcendental aspirations of
Rothko. They used the all-over colour field as an assertion of the mystery of being.
Newman is fond of
the term 'sublime', and refers to Edmund Burke's
into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful for a
definition. According to Burke's elaboration of the classical author Longinus, the basis of beauty is pleasure, and that of sublimity is pain
or fear. Space, solitude, vastness and infinity (among other things)
lead to the sublime. Newman's 'non¬relational' canvases, empty of
everything but colour and (as he says) drained of 'the impediments of
memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth or what have you', fitted
the bill. The New York painters were not scholars; they picked on Burke
because his ideas lent the authority of tradition to their style of
painting, a style which, in Motherwell's words: 'becomes sublime when
the artist transcends his personal anguish, when he projects in the
midst of a shrieking world an expression of living and its end that is
silent and ordered'.
Newman was born in New York in 1905 and died there in 1970; he
studied at the Art Students' League, City College of New York and
Cornell University. He taught during the 1930s, and did not participate
in the Federal Art Project: 'I paid a severe price for not being on the
project with the other guys; in their eyes I wasn't a painter; I didn't
have a label.' During the 1930s he was attracted by left-wing thinking,
and he has been quoted as saying: 'My politics went towards open forms
and free situations; I was a very vocal anarchist.'
Newman was an important polemicist, and passed through all the phases of
Abstract Expressionism. In 1947, with
Rothko, Motherwell and Baziotes,
he helped to found a school called 'Subjects of the Artist' and to edit
Tiger's Eye, a magazine which argued the case for an aesthetic based on
myth. Although he rebelled against academic Surrealism, Newman explored
automatist procedures. The archetypal forms and plastic energy of the
North-West Coast Indians impressed him, as did pre-Columbian art; 'My
idea was that, with an automatic move, you could create a world.'
Something of what he meant appears in Untitled (1945); the gesture
creates a world in which biomorphs and a prophetic road-like band cross
a remote, creamy cosmic space.
Newman was ready to abandon
subject matter, whether abstract or figurative. Onement I, painted in
that year, marks the turning point in his style. A thickly painted
vertical strip lies just off-centre over masking tape. No doubt Newman
had intended quite another picture; and, as Charles Harrison points out,
the refusal to lift the tape or to 'paint up' the ground were
The picture prefigures the basic features of his later work. A
repudiation of sensuously handled paint goes hand in hand with the
disappearance of 'form' - that is, of pictorial elements and of design.
The canvas becomes an undifferentiated field which is defined rather
than divided by the stripe (or, as in Vir Heroicus Sublimis, painted in
1950—51, stripes). These thin bands neutrally echo the boundaries of the
picture plane, and read like a serial sequence which could be repeated
indefinitely beyond them.
But for all its importance, drawing is subordinate to colour. In Vir
Heroicus Sublimis and in Achilles of 1952, the great expanse of red
subdues the ego and inspires a kind of tranquil awe. The non-painterliness
Newman's technique, however, prevents the spectator from indulging
himself in sensation. By its dryness and banality, it draws attention
away from the experience towards the idea.
Mark Rothko's soft, luminous palette is more sensuous than Newman's.
Veils of thin pigment wash over the canvas and soak into it; warm colour
lies over cool, cool over warm, dark over light, and light over dark.
But sensuousness is not the same as hedonism. Rothko's colour fields
have a contemplative intensity and invite a surrender of self. Among the
ingredients of his art he listed: 'A clear preoccupation with death. All
art deals with intimations or mortality.'
Born in Russia in 1903,
Rothko emigrated with his family to the United
States at the age often, in 1913. Between 1921 and 1923 he studied at
Yale University and attended Max Weber's drawing classes at the Art
Students' League. In 1953 he was co-founder of the Ten, a group of
Expressionistic artists who opposed the post-Cubist abstraction
represented by American Abstract Artists. Before the war he painted
human figures in deserted cityscapes.
In the early 1940s, like many of his contemporaries, he experimented
with automatism and Jungian biomorphism. He painted amalgams of human,
plant, animal and fish forms. His figures are arranged schematically
against soft light-filled grounds (Entombment I, 1946). They express, as
Rothko said of an early painting in this manner, 'a pantheism in which
man, bird, beast and tree - the known as well as the unknowable — merge
into a single tragic idea.'
Around 1947, that annus mirabilis of the New York School,
exchanged his linear emblems for soft-focus blurs of colour, eventually
reducing them to two or three roughly rectangular shapes stacked one on
top of the other. At the same time he increased the size of his canvases
and started to work on a monumental scale.
Rothko's compositions can be broken down into separate
components, he found ways of preserving the integrity of the 'field'.
There is no central point of attention. His rectangles fill the picture,
the shape of which they repeat and confirm. Because of his use of wash
the unifying texture of the canvas shows through. With a touch of irony,
he encourages a contradiction between the illusion of a cloudy depth and
the hard, visible fact of a surface.
The atmosphere of mature works such as Red, White and Brown of 1957 is
passive and meditative. Opaque mists of disembodied colour invite the
spectator into a quiet space, metaphorically equivalent to reverie. They
express a not displeasing melancholy, close in feeling to Vergil's sunt
lacnmae rerum el mentem mortaha tangunt: 'There are tears in the nature
of things, and hearts are touched by transience.'
Rothko did not change this stylistic formula, but his colours gradually
darkened. Late canvases such as Black on Grey are bleakly pessimistic.
His life ended in suicide in 1970.
Sounds No. 1
development followed the same pattern as Rothko's: mythic
figuration yielded to abstract emblems on a blank ground.
However, he did not go so fast or so far. Born in 1903 in New
York, he trained at the Art Students' League, travelled through Europe and spent
some time in Paris. During the 1930s he painted realistic views of the
Under the impact of Surrealism and Freudian psychology,
as well as Klee and Mondrian,
Gottlieb devised a personal manner based
on an irregular grid, containing images drawn from primitive art and
parts of the human anatomy, for paintings which he called Pictographs.
He adopted this name because 'it was necessary for me to utterly
repudiate so-called "good painting" in order to express what was
visually true for me'. Curiously, as his career progressed, he appears
to have become increasingly concerned with technique. His pictures are
tidy and personable and present themselves to their best advantage.
In the early 1950s, after a decade of Pictographs,
his principles of composition: as in Frozen Sounds No. 1, an earth-like
band stretches across the lower part of the canvas, and in a pale 'sky'
above hangs a row of ovoid or rectangular discs. Further reduction
followed in 1957 with his Burst series. A single 'sun' now dominates the
top half of the picture: it has a passivity which is in sharp contrast
to the active linearity of the interlaced bundle of brush-strokes below.
Gottlieb's observations on
Gorky some years previously are a good
description of his own Bursts: 'What he felt, I suppose, was a sense of
polarity, not of dichotomy: that opposites could exist simultaneously
within a body, within a painting or within an entire art.'
In a picture like Brink, painted in 1959,
Gottlieb has nearly arrived at
a colour field position. But his discs and exploding patches remain
anecdotal incidents; he was willing to generalize and abstract the
'pictograph' or sign, but he refused to banish it altogether, whether by
elimination (Newman) or magnification (Rothko). Cautious and consistent,
Gottlieb stayed within what he knew until his death in 1974.
Clyfford Still is an artist of a more uncompromising frame of mind. His
attitude to the avant-garde was as dismissive as that of Pollock's
teacher, Benton; and, having passed through Bauhaus, Dada, Surrealist
and Cubist phases, Still then obdurately turned his back on contemporary
art movements. 'That ultimate in irony - the Armory Show of 1913 - had
dumped on us the combined and sterile conclusions of European
decadence,' was his final conclusion. In its place he cultivated a
pioneering individualism — an attitude which, in its way, is as American
as apple-pie. Art was a way of life, a matter of conscience: 'Hell, it's
not just about painting - any fool can put colour on canvas.'
Still, born in North Dakota in 1904, studied at Spokane and Washington
State universities, obtaining a master's degree in 1935, and spent six
years as a teacher. The representational work he did during these years
anticipates his later abstractions: a vertical figure stands in an open
landscape, and there is a moral duality symbolized in sun and earth,
light and dark.
Still moved to an early 'myth-making' manner which resembled that of
Rothko and Gottlieb, although arrived at independently. In 1941 his
artistic production was curtailed by war work; after a one-man show in
San Francisco in 1943 he resumed full-time painting, and during the next
few years he abandoned figuration for good. He did so with a
characteristic decisiveness, saying later: 'I have no brief for signs or
symbols or literary allusions in painting. They are crutches for
illustrators and politicians desperate for an audience.'
Still devised a distinctive format to which he has since kept.
Painting 1948-D, 1951 Yellow, and
Painting 1951 show a colour field corroded by torn
flame-like verticals. Still's designs are rationally organized and are,
as Lawrence Alloway has observed, 'like the colour code of a map . . .
that is turning back into a substantial reality; not a key to somewhere
else, but itself a land'.
Although this is a useful metaphor, the reference to landscape should
not be taken too literally. 'The fact that I grew up on the prairies has
nothing to do with my paintings, with what people think they find in
Still said in an interview. 'I paint only myself, not nature.'
During the 1940s he reduced his originally brilliant chromaticism: his
fields became black or opaque purple. Forms or pictorial
disturbances which had occurred in the centre of the picture are
pushed to the sides. Then, in the 1950s, an unexpected lyricism
makes an appearance, and in works like Painting 1958 colours seem more content to please than
Newman, has an exalted notion of art. His aim is to purify
the act of painting so that it can transcend itself and become a
self-sufficient assertion of the sublime. He once compared the artist to
a man who journeys through a wasted terrain and reaches a high plateau:
'Imagination, no longer fettered by the laws of fear, became as one with
Vision. And the Act, intrinsic and absolute, was its meaning, and the
bearer of its passion.'
Bradley Walker Tomlin
Allies and Successors
Reinhardt qualifies for no more than temporary membership of the
New York School. He was at heart opposed to Abstract Expressionism;
immediacy and indeterminacy were equally alien to him. The hieratic
clarity of Eastern forms of expression was more to his way of thinking,
and he sought the 'ultimate' painting that would be, like the Buddha
image, 'breathless, timeless, styleless, lifeless, deathless, endless'.
He admired Mondrian, rejected Surrealism, and ignored calligraphy:
'Nowhere in the world has it been clearer than in Asia that anything
irrational, momentary, spontaneous, unconscious, primitive,
expressionistic, accidental or informal cannot be called serious art.'
For most of his life
Reinhardt adhered to a geometric form of
abstraction, but in the 1940s he struck up friendships with
Still, and started to paint all-over canvases. These were
composed at first of blurs and lines, then of small brushed rectangles
(Painting, 1950), and then of overlapping horizontal rectangles with
hard edges (Red Painting, 1952). By 1951 he was well on his way to the
all-black Ultimate Paintings of his final minimal style, which, with
their close values and barely discernible rectilinear divisions, are
deliberately made almost impossible to reproduce.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their ambition to extend the frontiers
of art and to carve a territory that would be all their own, the
Abstract Expressionists wanted to know what it was that they were
leaving. They listened eagerly to teachers and critics who could tell
them of developments in Europe and provide them with working formulas
they could apply to their own activities. Hans Hofmann took a lifelong
interest in art education, and was also a distinguished painter, who
ranks high in the second rank of the New York School.
Born in Germany in
1880, he started out as a scientist (inventing a magnetic comptometer),
also studied art, and settled in Paris between 1904 and 1914, meeting
Matisse, Picasso and Braque, together with Delaunay, who taught him his
colour theory. Hofmann founded his own art school in Munich in 1915. He
emigrated to the United States in 1932, and soon opened another school
in New York.
Hofmann's finest paintings summarize the conflicting achievements of
early twentieth-century art within the context of an individual manner.
He taught that 'creative expression is ... the spiritual translation of
inner concepts into form, resulting from the fusion of these intuitions
with artistic means of expression in a unity of spirit and form'.
Painting was 'forming with colour', and his interest, both pedagogic and
creative, lay in finding a synthesis of Cubist structure and a Fauvist
palette. (Clement Greenberg claimed that 'you could learn more about
Matisse's colour [from Hofmann] than from Matisse himself.)
Hofmann painted in a semi-abstract manner between 1936 and 1941; his
subjects were always identifiable and were organized in brightly coloured, structured areas. From 1942 he swam with the tide, practising
automatism and devising a biomorphic vocabulary of forms. He also
invented an original drip and splash technique (anticipating Pollock).
In 1946 Hofmann began the series of abstractions for which he is best
remembered. Transfiguration, of 1947, for instance, consists of
energetically painted areas with some linear elements. Traces of Cubist
organization remain, but the design is held in balance by the 'push and
pull' interaction between three-dimensional depth and two-dimensional
surface. 'Every movement releases a counter-movement,' he wrote. 'A
represented form that does not owe its existence to a perception of
movement is not a form.' In the 1950s Hofmann experimented with many
different modes of expression. In some canvases, such as Fantasia in
Blue, rectangles overloaded with richly coloured pigment are placed
among free gestural areas, and in others, towards i960 and after, such
as Rising Moon, broad semi-transparent washes glow from a white ground.
Robert Motherwell is another New York artist with a distinctively
European bent. Born in 1915, he entered Stanford University and later
Harvard, where he studied art history. He took a somewhat dilettante
view of culture and the good life, and lamented the disappearance of 'the
wonderful things of the past - the late afternoon encounters, the
leisurely repasts, the discriminations of taste, the graces of manners,
and the gratuitous cultivation of minds'.
In 1940 he met the Surrealists-in-exile, and, as well as introducing him
to automatism and Freudian psychology, they confirmed his instinct for
nineteenth-century French aesthetics. Leaning on Baudelaire's theory of
correspondences, according to which 'scents, colours and sounds respond
to one another', Motherwell held that complete abstraction was
impossible: 'The "pure" red of which certain abstractionists speak does
not exist. Any red is rooted in blood, glass, wine, hunter's caps and a
thousand other concrete phenomena.'
Motherwell experimented with collage, and his early works are influenced
by Picasso, Matisse and Schwitters; but his first major paintings, the
series entitled Elegies to the Spanish Republic, were begun in 1949 (by
1965, he had finished more than a hundred). Vertical rectangles and
ovals spread across these long frieze-like canvases. The colouring is
usually black on white. According to Motherwell, 'the pictures are . . .
general metaphors for life and death, and their interrelation'. This
Freudian conjunction of Eros and Thanatos is one of his characteristic
themes, and is here indicated by the phallic configuration of his forms.
There are other oppositions in Motherwell's work: figure and ground edges
overlap so that both are grafted into a unified surface, and gesture and
field (flat planes and a simple monumentality, recalling colour field
abstraction), are handled in painterly fashion with random drips and
Motherwell often paints on an intimate scale, as in his
Je t'aime series
during the mid-1950s; but his unique contribution lies in the intimacy
and personal feeling with which he can fill a monumental canvas.
Around 1950, emboldened by the success of Pollock and his
fellow-pioneers, four painters abandoned figuration for Abstract
Expressionism. They were none of them young men, and they had spent
their careers working in traditional styles.
Franz Kline, born in 1910, trained in painting at Boston University and
spent a few years in England. Until the late 1940s he produced studies
of city scenes. Then, quite suddenly, he switched to gestural
black-and-white canvases, which look as if they are gigantic
enlargements of ideograms. In fact, the resemblance to Oriental
calligraphy is misleading: 'people sometimes think I take a white canvas
and paint a black sign on it, but this is not true. I paint the white as
well as the black, and the white is just as important.'
Kline's compositions are abstract, but they reflect the patterns of
urban lanscape: 'If someone says, "That looks like a bridge," it doesn't
bother me really. A lot of them do. ... I think that if you use long
lines, they become — what could they be? The only thing they could be is
either highways or bridges.'
Kline's work at its best conveys a sense of barely controlled excitement
with the act of painting. As he puts it, 'Paint never seems to behave
the same. Even the same paint doesn't, you know. It doesn't dry the
same. It doesn't stay and look at you the same way.' Corrections,
erasures and overpainting give the spectator the impression that he is
himself taking part in the creative process: Kline seems to be, as he
said of Bonnard, 'organizing in front of you'.
In the last years of his life, his pictures became blacker and more
atmospheric. Kline also began to experiment with colour: but King
Oliver, for instance, fine as it is, is only the old monochrome Kline
translated, and he did not find his way to an authentic chromaticism
before his comparatively early death in 1962.
Philip Guston was born in Canada in 1913 and studied at the Otis Art
Institute in Los Angeles. He visited Mexico to see the murals of Rivera
and his colleagues, and evolved a figurative style in which memory
played an essential part: painting was 'a tug-of-war between what you
know and what you don't know.'
In 1951 he embraced abstraction, but never supposed that this meant the
complete abolition of subject matter: 'There is something ridiculous and
miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: that painting is
autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyze its
ingredients and define its limits. But painting is "impure". We are
image-makers and image-ridden.'
For a while
Guston deployed hatched brush-strokes vertically and
horizontally on the canvas (a recollection of Mondrian); his colours
were hesitant, pastel and luminous, and he was nicknamed an Abstract
Impressionist on account of their atmospheric lyricism. From 1954,
however, he painted in larger but less geometric areas, using a sombre
palette and bolder brushwork. Later still, there is a partial return to
representation: half-identifiable objects emerge from the paint surface
— traces of old forgotten things which the mind cannot quite recall.
For James Brooks, Pollock was as gigantic a figure as Picasso or
Matisse. The great drip paintings had the same liberating effect on
Brooks in his middle age that Cubism had had on him as a young man. Born
in St Louis, Mo., in 1906, he studied at the Southern Methodist
University and the Dallas Art Institute. In the 1930s he was associated
with the Regionalist movement (although he did not repudiate European
modernism), and the area where he grew up provided him with his main
source of inspiration. From Picasso he learnt how to abstract from
nature while preserving a recognizable image. He became well known as a
After discharge from military service in 1945, Brooks explored Cubism
and then started looking for ways to loosen the closed structure of his
compositions; Pollock's automatism gave him the cue he needed. He
painted the backs of his canvases, and cautiously worked and re-worked
the chance patterns that had soaked through into subtle, integrated
rhythms. The end-product, as in the No. 36 of 1950, is a shifting flux
of transparent zones threaded with thin lines. In 1953 his pigmentation
increased in density, and large gestural forms jostled for attention,
gently pulling and pushing against one another.
Bradley Walker Tomlin was born in 1899, brought up in New York, and
educated at the College of Fine Arts of Syracuse University. He earned a
living as an illustrator and also painted murals. Little of his early
work survives. From about 1939 he adopted a decorative Cubism into which
straightforwardly representational elements are incorporated. A dreamy
symbolism takes first place over design. After 1945 he became friendly
with Gottlieb, whose example persuaded him to introduce more spontaneity
into his pictures.
He painted white calligraphic signs on a black
ground, but feeling uncomfortable without a linear structure went on to
transform them into curved bands fitted together on a loose grid. In No.
20 (1949), during his final period, these bands were reduced to small
rectangular dabs. Tomlin's gentle, melancholy canvases are evidence that
gesture painting was able to accommodate passivity and elegance.
During the 1950s critics, collectors, museums, and the public at large
realized that they now had to reckon with an American art of world
stature. Artists became rich and famous, and painting was no longer a
career for congenital 'loft rats'. In a sense this made life difficult
for new arrivals on the scene. The major discoveries had all been made,
and the desperate pressures against which the Abstract Expressionists
had so heroically and successfully reacted no longer existed. Reforming
zeal was, therefore, out of place, and young artists adopted a cool,
uncommitted stance. Rather than Pollock or De Kooning, they took the
colour field painters, Newman and Still, as their point of departure.
However, they were more interested in the minimality of colour field art
than in its pursuits of the sublime; and they agreed with Reinhardt's
insistence on anonymity and the absence of emotion.
Nevertheless, a few continued to offer gestural abstraction, usually in
terms of colour. Helen Frankenthaler (born 1928), who married Robert
Motherwell, developed a staining technique that derived from Pollock's
drip paintings and from Rothko's dyed washes. The autographic
brush-stroke disappears, and pictures such as Blue Territory express an
impersonal delight in pure colour, light-filled and arranged in free,
accidental patterns. I
n 1952 Morris Louis (1912-62) came across
Pollock's work and met Helen Frankenthaler, who introduced him to
staining. In his series known as Veils, diaphanous colour curtains flow
over one another: later, in the Unfurled series, diagonal rivulets of
brilliant colour pour down the lower corners of otherwise untouched
canvases. This was followed by the Stripe or Pillar paintings which
codify colour into striped fasces or bundles. Louis metamorphosed his
Abstract Expressionist inheritance: pigment has become optical and
insubstantial, and the wandering edges of his forms are determined only
by the drying process. Colour speaks for itself released from the
The painting of Louis and Frankenthaler is a far cry from
frontiersman hacking his way into new territories and surveying the
canvas as if it were an empty land on which to impose his will. Only a
few years after their triumphs, the Abstract Expressionists appeared as
remote as the Founding Fathers of the Republic. Their successors paid
them due respect and admiration, but the adventure was over.
Consolidation does not require the same skills as conquest.
Table, Constant Companion
White and Orange
from Alsace goes to Ramssey Abbey
Play of Sun on Waves
Two Heads in a
The independent growth of gestural abstraction on both sides of the
Atlantic is not as remarkable a phenomenon as it seems at first sight.
Simultaneity of invention is common in the sciences; when conditions are
broadly the same in different parts of the wood, there is nothing
surprising in a coincidence of brush fires.
Immediately after the Second World War, Europe and America shared the
inheritance of Cubism and Surrealism, the post-war malaise, and the
crisis of subject matter. Accordingly, the princples of the new European
Abstract art, variously known as Informal art (or art informel), Lyrical
Abstraction and Tachism, had a good deal in common with those of the New
York School: there was plenty of talk about spontaneity of technique,
liberation from the old formal conventions, cultivation of the
unconscious, and the rejection of illusionistic space.
Nevertheless, the resemblances conceal varying objectives. Europe — its
artistic life still centred on Paris - was less radical than America.
Thus, Pollock and his European contempoary Jean Dubuffet were both
excited by the potential of unfamiliar materials and techniques. Just as
the one poured fluid paint on the canvas, mixing it with 'sand, broken
glass and other foreign matter', the other built up his impasto with
plaster, glue, putty and asphalt. However, Dubuffet's attention was
fixed on the materials themselves (T do my best to rehabilitate objects
regarded as unpleasing'); Pollock, on the other hand, was only concerned
with facilitating the creative act. Again, we do not find in Europe the
repudiation of easel painting by enlargement of scale: there is no
all-over colour field.
This said, the triumph of the United States has led to an undervaluation
of the post-war School of Paris, or at least of its leading figures.
Clement Greenberg summed up the New York orthodoxy in 1953: 'For all the
adventurousness of their "images", the latest generation in Paris still
go in for "paint quality" in the accepted sense. They "enrich" the
surface with films of oil or varnish, or with buttery paint. Also, they
tend to tailor the design so that it hits the eye with a certain patness:
or else the unity of the picture is made to depend on a semblance of the
old kind of illusion of depth obtained through glazing or tempered
This critique, acute is it is, does not do justice to the major talents.
Mathieu, painter and leading publicist of Lyrical Abstraction,
protested at the animosity of the Abstract Expressionists in America: 'I
have been surprised that in New York you had not immediately recognized
Wols as the Rimbaud of painting. I do not want to believe that a
narrow-minded nationalism has had anything to do with the reserves you
showed at the time of his exhibit.'
Wols was the nom de guerre of Wolfgang Schulze. Born in Berlin in 1913,
he was a skilled violinist and photographer as well as a student of
zoology, geology, botany and ethnology. He never saw painting as a
profession, and as far as possible avoided the world of dealers and
exhibitions. In his youth he came into contact with Paul Klee, Otto Dix
and George Grosz, all of whom, especially Klee, influenced his work.
Disgusted by the Nazis, he left Germany in 1932 and settled in Spain
until he was deported to France in 1936. His early watercolours and
drawings are elaborate automatist doodles. However, Wol's playfully
horrific grotesques are marked by an Expressionistic and German anguish
as well as a Surrealistic spontaneity and wit.
The Second World War and the German occupation confirmed him in his
pessimistic view of life. He drew some comfort from observing the forms
of nature ('the stones, the fish /The rocks seen through a glass/ The
sea-salt and the sky /Have made me forget the importance of man'). In his
drawings organic shapes merge with imaginary biomorphs suggested by the
half-awake mind (he used to close his eyes and let involuntary
hypnogogic images form). They convey a perturbing eroticism.
Wols worked on a small scale: 'the movements of the hand and fingers
suffice to express everything. The arm movements necessary in painting a
canvas involve too much ambitious purpose and gymnastics.' Nevertheless,
by the mid-1940s he was ready for a change. At the suggestion of a
gallery owner he launched, almost against his will, on a sequence of
paintings, executed rapidly and in something approaching a hypnotic
state over a period of a few months. In Composition V, painted in 1946,
Wols has achieved his mature style. His brushwork is free, gestural and
unplanned, and his use of colour creates a vague, uncertain space, an
arena in which he can trace his familiar threaded squiggles. Although
the imagery is abstract and intuitive, there are intimations of a
microscopic molecular universe.
Wols was an adventurer who used his art as a vehicle for
self-revelation. His eccentric, Bohemian life-style was itself a
creative achievement, in (as
Mathieu suggests) the Rimbaudian vein.
Alcoholism led to an early death in 1951; but his bleak career was felt
to be a success in the Existentialist sense of the assertion of
existence through action, and was extremely influential during the
Jean Dubuffet was the second major figure to emerge in post-war Prance.
Fascinated by the painting of children, psychotics and amateurs, he
coined the term art brut (i.e. raw, untreated or crude art) to define
its rough-and-ready anti-art quality: 'I hold to be useless those types
of acquired skill and those gifts (such as we are used to finding in the
works of professional painters) whose sole effect seems to me to be that
of extinguishing all spontaneity, switching off and condemning the work
Born in 1901 in Le Havre
Dubuffet moved in his teens to Paris where he
studied art for a time and also occupied himself with literature, music,
philosophy and languages. In 1924 he gave up painting, and apart from a
brief interlude in Buenos Aires as an industrial designer spent most of
the next two decades in the wine business. He did not paint full-time
again until 1942. Two years later he held an exhibition in Paris in
which he showed Klee-like images of houses, still-lifes and other
representational scenes, all as if drawn by a child. They embody a
certain messiness, a maladresse anli-plastique; the term implies a
rejection of the concern with 'paint quality' of which Greenberg accuses
the School of Paris.
Dubuffet held another exhibition in 1946, 'Mirobolus, Macadam & Cie.,
Hautes Pates', a title intended to evoke the magical 'naivete of the
street conjuror'. It was now that he began experimenting with new
materials, making a paste he could play with like a child with
plasticine. He was moved by the unnoticed poetry of everyday objects,
especially those without formal properties, such as dust or walls. In
the early 1950s
Dubuffet launched three new series, the Ladies' Bodies,
large female figures with primitive fertility associations, and Soil and
Ground and Radiant Land in which 'friendly animals and nice little men'
are set against backgrounds suggesting geological structures and
In Table, Constant Companion, painted in 1953, a flat frontal image is
richly textured. If the figure is a table, it also has animal
associations, looking rather like a headless and tailless elephant.
Dubuffet's delight in materials and his whimsical simplicity of
form indicate that he is not primarily concerned with representation. He
occupies a position somewhere between figuration and abstraction, where
the 'thisness' or physical presence of his canvases is as significant as
the child-like bestiary with which he peoples them. In 1956,
evolved a new technique based on collage: he cut small pieces from
painted fabric — stars, discs and lozenges - and stuck them on to the
canvas in a mosaic, sometimes adding bits of tinfoil, dried flowers or
New approaches to the physical 'matter' (or matiere) of painting are
found in the work of many Europeans who wished, like
Dubuffet, not only
to widen their expressive scope but also to attack the conventions of
Antoni Tapies, born in Barcelona in 1923, adopted a
matter-based style in 1953, using a mixture of glue, plaster of Paris
and sand. His motives included a despair with the industrial present and
a yearning for the 'natural'.
Tapies, who insists that art must have a
'moral substratum', aims to remind man of his real nature not by large
statements but gentle specific reminders. His admiring comment on Anton
Chekhov sums up his own intentions: 'It's extraordinary, he tells you
almost nothing. He is almost absent. He gives you bits of reality in its
raw state, which cross his mind.'
In White and Orange, painted in 1967,
Dubuffet, gives the
painting the substantiality of a wall (his name, by a coincidence which
pleases him, means 'walls' in Catalan), and a symmetrical design has
been scored and gouged into the thick plastered surface. In other works,
by dialectical contrast, formal balance is either eliminated or
submerged in spontaneous gestural techniques, including a manner of
painting - and overpainting — that shows an awareness of the New York
Tapies' attempts to make the canvas a concrete object is
weakened by an underlying illusionism (White and Orange sets out to look
like a wall, but isn't), and he went some way to solve this problem in
later years by incorporating real objects in his work, such as baskets,
furniture and pieces of wood, and transforming them into whimsical,
quietly Surrealistic assemblages.
The Italian artist
Alberto Burri, born in 1915, handled - or, to be
precise, damages - ready-made materials. He is best known for his Sacks,
in which he creates a design from pieces of sacking and cloth; he has
also produced collages from metal, wood and packaging. In Sack No. 5,
painted in 1953, the holes in the sacking and the dark ground recall
bandaged wounds and derive from what he saw as a medical officer during
the Second World War.
Burri's pictures are a melancholy, partly
autobiographical critique of the age; unfortunately, they manage to be
neat and pretty - too much so to convey a powerful emotional charge.
Fontana (born in Argentina in 1899; he died in
Italy in 1968), has been grouped with the matter painters. His matter
was the canvas itself, often monochrome, which he slashed or gouged. In
these literal ways he opened up the picture plane: the spectator can see
through it to three-dimensional space beyond, which itself becomes an
element of the composition.
Fontana's destructive methods may also be
taken as an ironic dismissal of easel painting; and they record with
some precision a gesture - namely, cutting with a knife. However, in
1946 he issued his White Manifesto, in which he makes it clear that
perception and the sensation of perception are his primary concerns: 'We
need an art which draws its value from itself, and not from any ideas we
might have about it. Colour and sound arc found in nature, and linked
with matter. Matter, colour and sound - these are the phenomena whose
simultaneous evolution forms an integral part of the new art.'
Elsewhere in the document
Fontana observes that 'sensation' was
everything in primitive art: 'it is our intention to develop this
original condition of man'. From the mid-1940s Fontana's work became
increasingly sculptural, and he experimented with relatively unorthodox
media - such as electric light - in his pursuit of a total 'synthesis'
of colour, sound, movement, time and space.
In France, a number of artists confirmed the matter painting of
and the Informalism of
Jean Fautrier, born in 1897,
attracted attention with his series of Hostages. He used a gluey paste
made from cement, plaster and paint which he applied with a palette
knife. Vague human forms or faces, which are built up from layer after
layer of whitish-coloured pigment, float against a blurred opalescent
ground. These images refer to some executions
Fautrier witnessed during
the war. In his later work, though, the significance of his subject
matter became more cryptic, and he widened it to include objects, nudes
and landscapes — semi-abstract and only just identifiable. He also
produced completely abstract pictures. As a rule, his compositions are
dominated by a flat central image.
Jean-Paul Riopelle is a Canadian painter and sculptor, born in Quebec in
1923. He was influenced by the Surrealists and met
Wols and several
like-minded French Informalists in 1945. His work has its roots in an
affection for landscape; and by the end of the 1940s he had developed a
'non-figurative pantheism'. Technically, he became interested in texture
and broke down his designs into small brightly coloured patches
irradiated by thin lines of force. This gives such works as Painting
(1951— 52) an all-over quality, although modified by atmospheric spatial
effects and a palette that evokes the colours of nature. A growing
preoccupation with mass in space has led
Riopelle in recent years to a
series of sculptural experiments.
If matter is one dimension of the post-war School of Paris, gesture is
another. The brushmark or the calligraphic sign - seen as a record of
psychic activity — was a sufficient content. This entailed an emphasis
on 'the act of painting'; but, in contrast with the United States, it
was seldom whole-hearted. For Ecole de Paris painters it was a means of
making new kinds of design which they could isolate and lovingly
preserve, or exploit for decorative effect.
Hans Hartung was born in Leipzig in 1904, and it was not until 1935,
after numerous vicissitudes, that he settled in Paris. During his
formative years, he had been influenced by Kandinsky and Klee. Following
active service in the war (he was wounded and lost a leg), he became a
French citizen. His work is consistently marked by what Klee called
'psychic improvisation'. His mature style, from 1934 on, depends
on a nervous, automatist manner and owes a good deal to Oriental
art. Painting for him is a kind of abstract sign language in
which human psycho-motor energies are translated into concrete
form. In 1947 he observed, using an interesting analogy, that
'Our contemporaries, or the generations to come, will learn to read, and
one day this direct writing will be found more normal than figurative
painting, just as we find our alphabet - abstract and unlimited in its
possibilities - more rational than the figurative writing of the
After 1954 his paintings became increasingly Informal: they record
without embarrassment the artist's second thoughts. Hartung treats a
smooth blank ground as a field for the expression of energy. Spiralling
networks and meshes of coloured line create a variable rhythmic depth.
In time Hartung's self-confidence grew, and his later canvases are
distinguished by a controlled technical virtuosity. His designs look
more and more like practised ideograms. There is little indecision in
T 1958—4: instead, routine vitality framed within a tidy, contained image.
For all their energy, Hartung's brushmarks seem neutralized, like flies
Hartung has frequently been compared with Pierre Soulages, whose
compositions are made up from a lattice of broad black bands, like the
enlarged strokes of a housepainter's brush. Born in 1919 in France, his
early interests were in prehistoric and Romanesque art. He was impressed
by exhibitions of Cezanne and Picasso which he saw in 1938—39. After
1946 he began to exhibit in Paris. Although, like many of his
contemporaries, Soulages was attracted to gesture, to the wide sweep of
the arm across the canvas, this was more for the architectonic
possibilities which it offered than for the excitement of movement. His
pictures, of which Painting (1959) is a characteristic example, follow a
rational programme: a framework of black bands is painted on a more or
less plain, brightly coloured ground, and this, in turn, is overlaid
with folding vertical or diagonal bands. The result is a gravely
monumental structure: the upper levels set up dynamic formal and spatial
rhythms, but these are firmly contained within the lower ones. Such
formality contrasts with the more spontaneous gestures of, say, Kline's
King Oliver (1958). Soulages was firm in his commitment to abstraction
itself: 'I do not start from an object or from a landscape with a view
to distorting them, nor, conversely, do I seek, as I paint, to provoke
Mathieu, born in 1921, was one of the earliest Frenchmen to
appreciate the significance of the New York School, and has been a
tireless propagandist for what he refers to as Lyrical Abstraction. He
admires the art of the age of Louis XIV, and seems to have seen his role
as that of an arbiter of taste, a contemporary Le Brun. A great
organizer of exhibitions and publisher of manifestos, usually formulated
in high rhetorical terms, he began to paint in 1942, under the
Surrealist influence of Matta and Masson. Deeply moved by paintings of
Wols which he saw in 1947, he soon developed his own personal style.
Both in principle and in practice he was close to the Abstract
Expressionists. He talked of 'the intrinsic autonomy of the work of art',
and of the 'phenomenology of the "very act of painting"'.
Mathieu believes that conscious intention is best expelled from painting
by an extreme rapidity of execution. He has painted in public on a
number of occasions, and in Tokyo he once completed a canvas over twelve metres long in less than twenty minutes. However, except for some early
works, his pictures are more decorative than aggressive: as in
from Alsace goes to Ramssey Abbey, laceries of bright pigment (red, white, black and
blue are his favourite colours) stretch horizontally across the middle
of the pictures or spread out from a central coagulation of pigment like
overpainted Chinese characters. Because they keep a good distance from
the edges of the canvas, they do not function as an all-over field.
Mathieu's work has an appealingj<nV
de vivre, although his real achievement lies in the field of
Painting in India Ink
Henry Michaux, born in
Belgium in 1899, moved freely throughout his life between literature and
visual art. His preferred medium was ink on paper, and painting was for
him a non-verbal extension of writing - a carrying on of poetry by other
means. Like Hartung and
he was influenced by Oriental calligraphy; and he
spoke of being 'possessed by movements, completely
tensed by these forms which came at me full speed,
in rhythmic succession'.
This is a good summary of his drawing technique;
pour on to the paper in quick succession, under the pressure of emotion
and, on occasion, mescalin. As in Painting in India Ink, of 1966, these
blots come together into a so-called field of energy, which the eye can
read, passing from one small expressive sign to another.
A host of subsidiary figures complicate the post-war Parisian art scene.
Many had been working in figurative styles in the 1930s, and their early
concerns informed their later manners. Jean Bazaine, born in 1904, moved
in his forties from a representational post-Cubist position towards a
free abstraction inspired by nature, as in Child and the Night (1949).
An original feature of his work is that his compositions seem to pour
over the edge of the canvas and so subvert its arbitrary rectangularity.
Alfred Manessier, born in 1911, has followed much the same course as
Bazaine, ending up with a symbolic, landscaped-based abstraction which
expresses a mystical Christian viewpoint; a typical title is Night in Gelhsemane. His finest work is in stained glass.
Child and the Night
Night in Gelhsemane
Maurice Esteve, born in
1904, passed through most phases of modern art before devising his own
variant of free abstraction, in which painterly but static compositions
are assembled and unified by a rich palette. Although he has been
defined as a colourist, a work like Friselune (1958) also has a
constructed planar quality deriving from Cezanne.
Nicolas de Stael was born in St Petersburg in 1914 and lived mostly in
Belgium and France until his suicide in 1955. By his economical
illusionism and his decorative palette, De Stael achieved considerable
popularity. But he was never a painter's painter, and made comparatively
little impression on his contemporaries or successors. His career is of
interest because it reflects an unwillingness to make a complete
commitment either to abstraction or to figuration. Not unlike the
Nocturnes of Whistler, his vividly coloured designs read equally well
as harmonious arrangements of pure form or as stylized but atmospheric
evocations of landscape. In one respect the tables are turned: his
titles, unlike Whistler's, suggest representation (Figure by the Sea,
1952). Ambivalence permeated De Stael's whole aesthetic approach: 'For
myself, in order to develop, I need always to function differently, from
one thing to another, without an a priori aesthetic. I lose contact with
the canvas every moment and find it again and lose it. This is
absolutely necessary, because I believe in accident — as soon as I feel
too logical, this upsets me and 1 turn naturally to illogicality.'
Figure by the Sea
The Surrealists and German Expressionists attracted a following in the
smaller countries of Northern Europe. In the late 1930s some Danes
harnessed automatism and a painterly manner to their national folklore,
filling their canvases with the trolls, gods and dragons of Nordic
mythology. This runic Expressionism was offered as a corrective to
'sterile abstraction'. It drew some support from painters in Belgium and
Holland. The movement was institutionalized when in 1948 a group of
Danish, Belgian and Dutch artists in Paris formed 'Cobra' (named from
letters of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). They included Karel
Appel, Constant, Corneille, Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn and Philippe
Noiret; they were joined later by Atlan, Pierre Alechinsky and the
Germans Karl Otto Gotz and Otto Piene.
A keynote of Cobra was a high-spirited violence both in terms of style
and content. In the aftermath of war, its members saw themselves as
resistance fighters for art. They delighted in expressive exaggeration:
'It is snowing colours,' said Dotremont. 'The colours are like a
The dominant figure was
Asger Jorn, born in Jutland in 1911. With a
background of automatist Surrealism, he saw the artist, in familiar
terms, as a heroic individualist, and painting as an existential
gesture: 'Art is the unique act of man or the unique in human actions.'
Kandinsky, Miro and Klee influenced his work; but Le Corbusier and Leger
also impressed him by their rigorous simplifications. A linear technique
slowly gave way to a savage painterliness, and at the height of his
powers in the second half of the 1950s,
Jorn applied pigment in broad
bands and blotches of luminous colour (Unlimited, 1959-60). He never
altogether abandoned his obsession with myth, and the hallucinatory
images of legend lurk within his disturbed, swirling compositions.
Corneille, born Cornells van Beverloo in Belgium in 1922, studied
drawing in Amsterdam. His inspiration is drawn from landscape, and his
Informal Abstractionist paintings are tranquil and cheerful, especially
in comparison with his excitable colleagues. His early work is indebted
to Miro and Picasso. He adopted a novel means of abstracting landscape,
taking a bird's eye view and presenting a flat patchwork of warm colours
rather like an aerial photograph of fields. The Play of Sun on Waves of
1958 can be recognized as a gestural seascape. More recently he has
lightened his palette and produces more fluid designs.
Karel Appel, born in Amsterdam in 1921, is intoxicated by the process of
painting, which he regards as a 'tangible sensuous experience'. He has
been nicknamed the 'wild beast of colour': not altogether an accidental
echo of 'Fauve', for he takes a Matisse-like joy in brilliant primary
colour. However, his immediate antecedents were Jorn and his own
compatriot De Kooning. His technique, as in the fiery Two Heads in a
Landscape of 1958, is extremely vigorous: 'My paint tube is like a
rocket which describes its own space.' His figures, especially his
nudes, have a fetishistic quality which owes something to primitive art
and recalls the spontaneity of children's painting.
British painters, having cultural associations both with the mainland of
Europe and the United States, were in a particularly strong position
during the transitional post-war period when the leadership of
contemporary art was passing from Paris to New York. The St Ives Group
came together in the early 1940s round two senior figures, the
sculptress Barbara Hepworth and the painter Ben Nicholson, and included
Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon. Although they
worked in very different styles, they had in common an interest in
abstracting landscape and visual impressions. They exchanged their
French heritage for a tactful Abstract Expressionism. It is interesting
to observe how William Scott, born in 1913 in Scotland, shifted his
allegiance from Gauguin and Cezanne to Rothko and other members of the
New York School, and after a visit to New York in 1953 began to open up
his canvases into broad 'fields' occupied by flat, symbolic forms.
Patrick Heron, born in Leeds in 1920, was another who was encouraged by
the reductive example of the American painting. In his paintings, flat,
undifferentiated shapes hover against plain grounds (Manganese in Deep
Violet, January 1967); sharp contrasts of brilliant colour, equalized in
intensity, stimulate optical figure/field reversals, and create a
visually ambiguous depth.
Alan Davie, another Scot, born in 1920, has always stood apart from the
mainstream of British art. For one thing, he identifies himself more
firmly than most with the elevated European concept of the role of the
artist. His comment that 'the artist was the first magician and the
first spiritual leader, and indeed today must take the role of
arch-priest of the new spiritualism', has a Rimbaudian ring. Davie's
gestural elan and his liberating sense of colour set him beside the
Cobra group as well as reflecting his discovery of Pollock. However, his
main interest is in colour-space relationships which are articulated in
structural terms, in a highly individual manner (Heavenly Bridge No. 3,
i960). His solid international reputation bears witness to the precision
with which he exemplifies the preoccupations of his age.
In a statement of his artistic aims in i960, Davie identified the
general direction in which he and his contemporaries on both sides of
the Atlantic were, in their various ways, moving: 'I paint because I
have nothing, or I paint because I am full of paint ideas, or I paint
because I want a purple picture on my wall, or I paint because after I
last painted, something appeared miraculously out of it ... something
strange, and maybe something strange may happen again.'
Manganese in Deep
Violet, January 1967
Heavenly Bridge No. 3