Exercise – Reflecting on Abstract Expressionism

In your opinion, to what extent does a concern with elemental humanity represent a reaction to the cataclysmic events of WWII and the displacement of so many Europeans, including a number of artists.

The Metropolitan Museum say that the horror seen in the preceding years of WWII and its aftermath were “key” to the  development of Abstract Expressionism (1). With such a huge influx of European artists into New York to escape the fascist regimes and ruin of the major European cities, it  was inevitable that New York would take over the role of capital of the art world.

This influx of creativity also combined with a certain atmosphere in the US in the 1950s to fuel modern art. The anti-communist administration that followed resulted in “witch-hunts” against alleged Communist sympathisers. The  scholar Guilbaut observed in 1983 “It is ironic but not contradictory that in a society…in which political repression weighed as heavily as it did in the United States, abstract expressionism was for many the expression of freedom: the freedom to creative controversial works of art, the freedom symbolized by action painting, by the unbridled expressionism of artists completely without fetters.” (2, 3). The absolute lack of representation in abstract art meant that the artists could instil loaded content into their work and to the wider public there would be no political meaning. The style was therefore acceptable to the authorities. Artists perhaps felt unable to express their beliefs too literally and this paved the way to a complete removal of any representation.

The shock and disgust that people felt over the atrocities of war must affect society in some way. To fully comprehend that fellow human beings (in such great number) can perform these atrocities results in a counter reaction which showed itself in promotion of society resulting in a housing boom and baby boom in the US. Introspection into the horror could also results in a greater creativity and artists struggle to express their feelings. Perhaps these feeling were far too powerful to convey and they had give up trying to be expressive: action painters became one with the media and the resulting canvases were their feelings externalised. The atrocities of war stirred in these artists the need to express themselves with a new art that represented their inner psyches.

However despite all of this, I’m inclined to think that such genres as Abstract Expressionsim (AE) and Colour-field painting would have evolved without the effect of WWII. America had been exposed to the European Modernism from the 1930s through various exhibitions in New York and the opening of new venues displaying modern art. There’s a certain inevitable evolution in the story of art from representative art to abstraction that started well before the 20th century. Impressionism was one of the biggest steps away from representation which offered a base for artists to develop. The post impressionists progressed  further, beginning to examine the emotional and spiritual elements of painting using colour, line and texture. The ensuing plethora of different styles were are to some extent derived from the developments of this period and their rejection of realism. It seems therefore inevitable that one of the sequential endpoints of this development would be this automatic style of painting seen in AE. From expressing one’s emotional connection with the subject onto canvas the next step is to remove the subject entirely and just engage with the paint and support. The  very act of painting became the expression of the emotion.

It can also be argued that the development in accessible art journalism and the support that the AE artist had in this media may have helped to promote the field itself. This would not only develop a wider popularity and thus a market, but would also subsequently encourage the artists themselves to experiment and mature.

So in my opinion the development of modern art during this period, as with all artistic developments, cannot be attributed to a single event or climate. Clearly the number of artists and resultant influx of creativity on one city (together with their own war experiences and horror at what human nature is capable of) will have a great effect on the vision of the field of art. But the genre is a result of several coinciding factors, namely what has come before and perhaps the development of media hype too.

Rothko said – “people who weep before my pictures are having same religious experience I had when I painted them. If you are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point” – Does it matter if viewers of art works miss the point provided that they take something for it?

I absolutely believe that it does not matter if the viewer “misses the point”. They are appreciating the work from the context of their own experiences and that is what is important. One individual might have an extreme dislike of cats and therefore a picture of a cat would instil fear and disgust but to others it would represent love and happiness. These two reactions are personal to the individual. The artist may feel that it matters that the viewer has missed the intended point but I would suggest that they shouldn’t be allowing people to see their work if they only want one response. Clearly the majority of people will respond the same way to an obvious message such as death, children etc but for an abstract paintings where the meaning is normally pretty ambiguous this is impossible. Are we to ban autistic individuals from viewing certain works because they wouldn’t experience the emotional messages? Rothko’s comment just stinks of artistic snobbery in my opinion. Call me cynical, but there are very few if any, people who would experience the same religious experience he had when painting it, when only viewing it. His religious experience was created by his own involvement with the canvas and paint, no one else could feel that.

Is it possible to make any sort of formal analysis of these artists works – or of the pop art discussed p845-7.

This question confused me. At first I couldn’t see why formal analysis could not be made on any work representational or not. Formal analysis examines the elements of the work: line, colour, texture, etc and these works have plenty of these.

Marjorie Munsterberg describes formal analysis as:

“a specific type of visual description. Unlike ekphrasis, it is not meant to evoke the work in the reader’s mind. Instead it is an explanation of visual structure, of the ways in which certain visual elements have been arranged and function within a composition. Strictly speaking, subject is not considered and neither is historical or cultural context. The purest formal analysis is limited to what the viewer sees. Because it explains how the eye is led through a work, this kind of description provides a solid foundation for other types of analysis. It is always a useful exercise, even when it is not intended as an end in itself. (4)”

Looking at it in this way, it is much easier to make a formal analysis of a completely abstract piece of art. There is no subject to ignore in abstract art and thus the viewer can concentrate on the basic elements. But if the genre is examined in it’s entirety here the problems start. To compare the works it is necessary to group them in some way, to look for similar works and the works are all so distinct and different.

If we try to analyse such a work by considering why the artist has chosen to depict the painting in this way and make comment on it in comparison to other works it become a very difficult task. In Abstract Expressionism for example, there is no subject or obvious emotion portrayed. Nothing similar had come before it and the works are unique. The very essence of the work derives from how the painter interacted with the materials so any kind of analysis would in effect invalidate it’s real meaning. Often if we give a description it can be sentimentalised into an emotional meaning which may not have been intended. We can allude to severity with geometric works but this then can be construed into more negative meanings. Pop art to me seems cynical and a bit mocking but that is a result of my previous interaction with media. All the artist has done however is placed a well-known image on the page and allowed the viewer to make their own opinion. Any kind of analysis of what the artist was meaning could take into consideration the political and social context of when the work was made but also the time that the viewer is examining it from. Pop art is the antithesis of AE, there appears to be no interaction of the artist with the materials. In this way it is cold and impersonal compared to the tears shed during Rothko’s generation of the colour field works.

So in conclusion I think perhaps it is very difficult to make a formal analysis of the AE and Colour-Field works generated during this period other than the descriptive study of the basic elements. We cannot truly understand the artists meaning, indeed, there seems to be little meaning intended so it is not possible. Instead the works are just externalisation of the artists soul, as it were, and no-one can analyse a persons soul. However, pop art is a bit different. It was intended to be completely impersonal, using objects that everyone is familiar with but removing them from their normal context and thus confusing the viewer. But surely the choice of the subject reflects the artists thoughts? Warhol’s Death and Disaster series clearly has a message and could be analysed as a reaction to the way mass media has removed the shock from shocking news items.

Now read section Modernism and Formalism pg 844 – what do you make of Clement Greenburgs assertion that “Realist, illusionist art had dissembled the medium using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art”.

Greenberg was referring to the way that traditional artists have obliterated the spirit of art in their attempt to replicate a subject. The very act of imitation disguises the essence of the act of painting. A beautiful image of a still life will be appreciated for its likeness to the real thing but the closer it gets to this imitation the less the viewer can see of the art: the subject becomes all-consuming.  The AE artists removed this representation completely and thus the viewer is not distracted by the subject and their whole attention is on the basic elements of the work: colour, shapes, texture, etc. Nothing is concealed.


1. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm 23/06/14

2. http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/abstract-expressionism 30/06/14

3. Modern Art: A Critical Introduction,  By Pam Meecham, Julie Sheldon

4. http://writingaboutart.org/pages/formalanalysis.html 04/07/14




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