Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Subject Of Art #7: Drips And Squares - The Extremes Of Abstract Expressionism

It took a long time for art made in the United States to gain recognition in the rest of the world. There were a few painters who made their mark early, Benjamin West and Thomas Eakins being good examples, but for the most part America was seen as provincial and it's artists lagged behind the pioneering work that was coming out of Europe.

The famed Armory Show in New York, 1913, which brought paintings and sculpture by some of Europe's most progressive modern artists, such as Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse and many others marked a turning point as American artists discovered non-objective art and unfettered expression for the first time. Although the art culture in the U.S. had been very conservative up until that time, many artists embraced the new ideas they were exposed to and began to explore the as-yet-uncharted realms of Modern Art.

It took a couple of decades for the Americans to really catch up and they may not have if it hadn't been for the cataclysmic destruction of Europe that resulted from two World Wars. As Europe lay in ruins after World War II, the U.S. remained strong and stood ready to take the forefront, economically and culturally. In addition, there were a number of influential artists who had fled Germany, France and other countries to escape the clutches of Nazi oppression. These expatriates, most notably Hans Hoffman, settled in America and, besides creating and selling art, began to teach a new generation of American artists.

In the 1950's, those artists came of age and banded together to become known as Abstract Expressionists. Backed by rich, powerful patrons like the Rockerfellers and the Guggenheims, these young artists became the new avant-garde, and their art and ideas would have a lasting impact on visual expression in both America and Europe. Though European concepts and teachers directly influenced Abstract Expressionism, it was the first truly American art movement that achieved prominence and respect throughout the Western world.

Among the most well-known and daring of the Abstract Expressionists are names like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. Pollock and Newman were born in America, while Rothko and de Kooning immigrated from Europe as children. These artists worked consistently on a monumental scale, creating huge canvases that would completely fill the visual field of a person standing before them, immersing that person in the environment of the painting. They all were also interested in bold, intense colors, often squeezed directly from the tube without mixing to maintain the saturation of the hue. However, there were major differences as well and, in many ways, the art of these painters might not seem to fit together into the same category.

On the one hand, painters like Pollock and de Kooning created works that used flowing, improvised brushstrokes to create a complex, organic composition that served to record the movements of the artist. While most of us are familiar with Jackson Pollock's method of working with long drips of fluid paint, it was actually a series of photographs by Hans Namuth of Pollock at work doing what seemed like a shamanic dance over a canvas laid flat on the floor, with drips of paint flying everywhere, that served to cement the reputation of the Abstract Expressionists in the mind of the art establishment. This was something new — a way of working that had never been accepted as art before.

On the other hand, painters like Newman and Rothko worked with geometric forms and flat planes of color to create more serene, meditative paintings. Barnett Newman systematically dissected the concept of visual composition until he arrived at the basic foundation: a ground, which was the entire canvas painted in one or two flat colors, and a figure, which was a vertical line (he called them "zips") painted in a different color that ran from the top to the bottom of the canvas. This primal figure-ground relationship served as a platform for Newman to experiment with color relationships and proportional compositions on the most basic level.

What united these two very different ideas about painting was the understanding that they were simply two different expressions, or perspectives, on the same thing: the relationship between the artist and the work of art. Abstract Expressionists helped to dissolve the traditional conceptions of what art is and how it should be made. Taking the paths of abstraction and expressionism to their fullest extremes, they brought Modern Art to it's end, as it seemed there was nowhere else to go from there.

Inevitably they were eclipsed by the artists that were to come after them in the movement known as Postmodernism, which attempted (and is perhaps still attempting) to make sense of what happened during the first half of the 20th century and understand what the role of art is in society.

What is your understanding of the role of at in our society? Please share! And don't forget to visit BINDERS website and get stocked on the supplies you need for your next masterpiece!

No comments:

Post a Comment