2018 Masters Exhibit
Abstract Expressionism ushered in a new, postwar era of art in the mid-20th century and is considered the first authentically American avant-garde movement. It took shape as World War II ended, and reflected this new age by challenging the very definition of art, causing a tectonic shift which displaced Paris as the capital of the art world. All eyes were on the United States–specifically New York–where a group of artists coalesced and shook the foundations of painting. These artists worked with wild, gestural brush strokes and fields of vibrant color that espoused the medium as an end in itself, not a means to an end. Tied to postwar anxiety and trauma with an accompanying need for catharsis, Abstract Expressionism sought to convey both the individual and the universal psyche by way of paint on canvas, and did so appropriately in monumental scale. The result was a new visual language, with the expressive evidence of the artist’s hand on one side of the communication, and an affecting, even transcendent experience on the other. In this exchange, the artist emotes directly onto the canvas, resisting the desire to depict and control, and entreating the viewer to relax the search for something familiar and describable. The verbal, image-seeking mind looks for symbols and pictures. Pure abstraction simply defies that impulse. We can find, in music, proof of the unfiltered experience of art in its most pared-down essence, however, and use this as guidance for connecting with abstract art. Instrumental music has no words, yet an entire spectrum of emotion, intensity, and even meaning may very well be identified from a chord or melody. Furthermore, appreciation and absorption of a tune is direct, not calling for logical critique or transcription as we listen. Just as wordless music can affect, so too can nonrepresentational art convey complex mood and spirit to its audience.
The advent of Abstract Expressionism is inseparable from its historical context. The Great Depression had led to New Deal jobs for artists, and many of the major names of the later-formed New York School met as they produced large-scale Regionalist murals across the country. By the mid-40s, reflection on, and in some cases direct experience of, World War II made the rosy provincialism of the Thomas Hart Benton heyday hard to swallow for these artists. Pollock said in 1944, “My work with Benton was very important as something against which to react very strongly.” The young, American vanguard converged in New York just as the leaders of European Surrealism and Abstraction established themselves there (having fled the war). The developing, American movement was committed to art as expression of the self, and followed the legacy of Surrealism, which had introduced psychology to the art world and allowed painting to break out of the bounds of representation. As important as the progression of thought that followed the war, proximity to the previous generation’s masters, including the first iterations advocated by those artists of the idea that the unconscious mind is borne out in painting, fed the new, gestural, active, and emotional approach to abstract painting among the New York School.
The art critic Clement Greenberg said that the Action Painter (as the first of the gestural abstractionists would come to be called) “begins with nothingness. That is the only thing he copies. The rest he invents.” In this the most recognizable manifestation of Abstract Expressionism, gesture ruled, because the gestural stroke or drip was physical evidence of the artist’s movement, and a record of an act upon the canvas. As Rosenberg elaborated, “The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.” Expression was intrinsic to this process, which bypassed the verbal mind and laid feeling directly onto the canvas.
Once the way was paved for artists to act upon their canvases with the aim to express rather than depict, exploration bloomed and new techniques were born. With an acceptance of the expressive power of color in the air, the Color Field painters investigated ways to apply paint that would optically remove the flat surface of the painting from the viewer’s perception, creating a sense of enveloping depth. While the Action Painters also resisted the focal point, Color Field painters strayed even farther from the notion of a “readable” canvas, removing all compositional arrangement that would urge a progression of the eye around the plane. The ideal Color Field is absorbed all at once, wrapping, unbounded, like atmosphere around the viewer.
The subcategories of Color Field and Hard Edge abstraction share the presence of large swaths of color, yet where Color Field seeks boundlessness, Hard Edge does much the opposite, acknowledging the painting as distinct from its environment and existing for its own sake. The art critic Jules Langsner explained, “These forms are not intended to evoke in the spectator any recollections of specific shapes he may have encountered in some other connection. They are autonomous shapes, sufficient unto themselves as shapes.” Emphasized boundaries, both of sections of color and of the canvas itself, push these works away from illusion and toward objecthood.
While history tends to categorize movements of all kinds, in reality every broad stroke of art history contains a chorus of distinct voices. One of the ironies of American abstraction is that individual expression is what the members of the chorus have in common. While all of the works in this collection reward the viewer’s openness to nonverbal, non-pictorial immediacy, each presents a single perspective with its own notes of emotion, gesture, balance, and harmony, yielding for the thoughtful viewer an experience that only art can bring, existing as an end in itself.