Cite examples of painters working in different styles (field = Rothko, gestural = Jackson Pollock). Refer to established critics (Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg as supporting evidence for your argument. Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
The term abstract expressionist was first used in 1919 to describe the paintings of the Russian Wassily Kandinsky. I have looked at the words individually, ‘abstract’ and ‘Expressionism’. If it were possible for me to define the word abstract with one single other word (like a thesaurus), that word would be ‘intangible’. To confuse matters further however, it is necessary to define the word as a ‘drawing out of, or away from reality’. Some insight to the meaning of the word may be drawn from this confusion as to its definition. Expressionism was a term first used to describe the German art movement from 1905 to 1930. These artists using pictorial forms sought to express their innermost feelings.
If we look at the work of Kandinsky we can see that it is both of the above definitions that apply. Kandinsky’s work is both abstract in that he has moved away from a pictorial representation of reality and also expressive in that he has used bold colours and the work is spontaneously emotional.
Later (1946), the term Abstract Expressionist Movement was used by critic Robert Coats to describe a USA government assisted group of artists working in New York after the Second World War. The elements that hold these artists together as a movement is their use of large canvases and their spontaneous use of materials. The artists could be split into two strands.- Field- tending to be more expressionist. The main protagonist being Mark Rothko. Like many artists in New York at that time Mark Rothko started with an interest in Surrealism. Rothko’s work was huge and often covered almost the whole canvas in a single deep dark colour, giving a spiritual quality to the work. Rothko said “The progression of a painters work…will be towards clarity; towards the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer…to achieve this clarity is inevitably to be understood.” These words seem to be pointing the way towards minimalism, pop art, and conceptual art, all of which had their roots in New York on or around this time.
The second strand of Abstract Expressionist Art could be described as action painting or gestural. This work is abstract, with the primary exponent being Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s work had also started with an interest in surrealism and this was derived from the Dadaist movement. He gradually discarded the weird surrealist images that had haunted his paintings for exercises in abstract art. Impatient of conventional methods, he put his canvas on the floor and dripped, poured or threw his paint forming surprising configurations. The Dadaist movement had grown as a reaction to the violence and destruction of the First World War and this movement was still influential as the Second World War was still fresh in the psyche of forties and fifties New York. This movement ran alongside Abstract Expressionism and other movements that were springing from New York in the forties fifties and sixties. Pollock’s work would seem to be pointing the way forward for Op art, performance art, and later the Fluxus movement another highly Dadaist influenced group. Harold Rosenberg alluded to the performance aspect of the action painters Pollock et.al. when he wrote, “A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the an painting itself is a ‘moment’ in the adulterated mixture of his life -‘moment’ means the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in sign language. The act is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence. The new art has broken down every distinction between art and life”.Refernce 1
When we look at the many and varied movements that were around in New York at the time of Abstract Expressionism I would describe the movement as a kind of cog in a machine. If we allow ourselves to imagine that the main artists concerned had not existed it is difficult to know who or what would have filled the void. Clement Greenberg argued that Abstract Expressionism represented a loss in the skill in making a traditional pictorial painting and that the paintings could be reproduced by a child. Greenberg had to concede however that the artist would need to be present to instruct the child.
“The onlooker who says his child could paint a Newman may be right, but Newman would have to be there to show the child exactly what to do. The exact choices of colour, medium, size, proportion – including the size and shape of the support – are what alone determine the quality of the result, and these choices depend solely on inspire-: conception. Like Rothko and Still, Newman happens to be a convent- skilled artist – need I say it? But if he uses his skill, it is to suppress fence of it. And the suppression is part of the triumph of his art, next to most other contemporary painting begins to look fussy.” Reference 2
We can be sure the underlying conditions of post war trauma and the need for government USA cultural fulfilment would surly still have existed. I have no doubt that other prominent artists or movements of a similar type perhaps would have filled the theoretical chasm left without the abstract impressionists? It is almost impossible to tell how movements like Minimalism, which like Abstract Expressionism, was a group of slightly disparate artists from New York, but of the sixties rather than the forties, and would have developed without Abstract Expressionism.
I believe Minimalism was influenced by Abstract Expressionism. Morris wrote. “Certain art is now using as its beginning and as its means, stuff, substances in many states – from chunks, to particles, to slime, to whatever – and light images are neither necessary nor possible. Alongside this approach ice, contingency, indeterminacy – in short, the entire area of process. Ends and means are brought together in a way that never existed before in art. In a very qualified way; Abstract Expressionism brought the two together. But with the exception of a few artists, notably Pollock and Louis, the formal re of Cubism functioned as an end toward which the activity invariably red and in this sense was a separate end, image, or form prior to any activity, with perhaps the exception of unfocused play, projects” Ref 3
I believe that without Abstract Expressionism the tradition and history of art would have survived as it always has, but the cannon of art history would have been vastly changed.