Art Movements in Art History - Abstract Expressionism and The Modernist Tradition
Art Movements > Abstract Expressionism > Abstract Expressionism and The Modernist Tradition
Abstract Expressionism and The Modernist Tradition*
During the 1930s, New York started developing its own avant-garde community and became
steeped in Modernist ideas. European art was ardently promoted by the American art
world, as various New York museums' choice of exhibitions during this period will testify:
MOMA exhibited Cubist Art, Post-Impressionism, Abstract Art, Dada, Surrealism,
Bauhaus, et cetera and housed the finest collection of modern art in the world.
Gallatin's Museum of Living Art exhibited a distinguished selection of avant-garde
The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim) concentrated primarily,
as its name suggests, on Abstract European art.
Additionally, Marcel Duchamp started his Societe Anonyme which (among other
cultural activities) provided lectures on modern ideas and housed a fine collection of French
At the outset of World War II, particularly after the invasion of Paris by the Nazis, the
circulation of Modernist thought was given fresh impetus by the emigration of' a host of
prominent European artists to New York. Amongst these were Max Ernst, Andre Breton,
Marc Chagall, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian and Roberto Matta. This influx of important
European artists quite literally moved the acknowledged centre of painting in the West from
Paris to New York, and exerted a powerful influence on the formation of Abstract
Obviously not all the Abstract Expressionists were influenced by exactly the same
artists. Yet it is possible to determine, in general, which aspects of European Modernism
most emphatically determined the development of' Abstract Expressionism. The one man
who probably did most to disseminate Modernist ideas was the painter and teacher Hans
Hofmann. Hofmann, who based his teachings on Picasso's composition and Matisse's colour,
influenced artists and critics (particularly Clement Greenberg) with his notion of a pure art
which concerned itself with the interrelationship of planes. Hofmann saw art as being
roughly comprised of the following factors:
(1) Nature and its laws
(2) The artist's personality/intuition/imagination
(3) The medium and its laws
According to Sandler,
"... the painter was to begin by visualizing volumes and voids in nature, then to translate
them into planes of colour -- in accord with the nature of the picture surface, that is, by
flattening solids and filling voids."
As is clear from the above statement, the Cubist notion of emphasising the uniform, flat
nature of the canvas by treating solids and voids in a similar manner greatly influenced
Hofmann's brand of Modernism.
It was not only Hofmann's formal approach which provided the American avant-garde
with a new artistic vocabulary, his conception of the spirituality of art also contributed
towards the creation of an indigenous abstract art. In accordance with the theories of
Kandinsky and Mondrian, Hofmann suggested that the formal mechanics of painting were a
:neans of creating spiritual synthesis:
"The relation of two given realities always produces a higher, a purely spiritual third.
The spiritual third manifests itself as pure effect."
Part of Hofmann's appeal to the politically disillusioned avant-garde lay on his
nsistence on the autonomy and self-sufficiency of art iie art as a pure, spiritual pursuit free
of political ideology).
The notion that art was gradually freeing itself from temporal restraints and
consequently becoming more true to itself lay at the root of most Modernist thinking. This
belief that art was gradually being liberated is clearly summed up in the following statement
by Leger which appeared in the American Artists' Union magazine, Art Front, in 1935:
"During the past fifty years the entire effort of artists has consisted of a struggle to free
themselves from ... old bonds.
In painting, the strongest restraint has been that of subject matter upon
composition ... . This effort toward freedom began with the Impressionists and has
continued to express itself until our own day ... ."
The early 20th century insistence on the autonomy of art led, in the first instance, to the
creation of abstracted art (Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Neoplasticism) which
concerned itself primarily with the pure, plastic properties of painting or sculpture.
Experimentation with the formal elements of art became increasingly important, and the
emotive possibilities of line, colour, form and so on could be explored free of the dictates of
referential subject matter. In the second instance, the belief in the autonomy of art was
fueled by the idea that the purely formal aspects of art constituted a universal language that
transcended cultural barriers.
But although the American avant-garde became very well versed in these Modernist
ideas in the 1930s, the New York museums, for all their preoccupation with European
abstraction, showed very little interest in indigenous American abstraction. In protest
against this lack of interest, a group of artists organised themselves as the American
Abstract Artists (AAA), which organised and held a series of autonomous exhibitions to
promote indigenous abstract art. Although most of the artists of the AAA tended to paint
somewhat derivative, uninspiring paintings based on the clearly edged, flat forms of
Mondrian and the Neoplasticists, they contributed significantly to the dissemination of
Modernist ideas and, in encouraging interest in the American avant-garde, paved the way for
the future Abstract Expressionists.
Hofmann and the AAA's primary involvement with formalism left a lasting impression
on the young Abstract Expressionists (particularly the colour-field abstractionists); but it
was the Surrealists who most influenced the development of gestural Abstract Expression-
Surrealism (and its precursor, Dada) had developed out of a loss of faith in human
reason after the horrors of World War 1. The Dadaists, and particularly the Surrealists,
drew on the powers of the subconscious to create a new social order which, they hoped,
would destroy the inherent fascism of reason. In order to arrive at the subconscious, the
Surrealists (greatly influenced by Freud and Jung) developed the technique of auto-
matism ---- a technique whereby dream states and the inner conditions of being could be
explored and expressed.
The psychoanalytic approach of the Surrealists was first introduced to Gorky, Gottlieb
and Rothko by John Graham, who proposed that automatic writing and free gesture could
unlock the subconscious and facilitate the liberation of the psyche. The theories of Freud
and, especially, Jung proved particularly influential in the young Abstract Expressionists'
search for content.
Like the Surrealists, the new generation of American artists was also confronted with
the senseless destruction of a world war, and consequently rejected what they saw as the
empty and wishful utopianism of the Bauhaus, Neoplasticism and Constructivism in favour
of more subjective experiences and visions. The conviction arose in them that it was only
through extreme subjectivity (intersubjectivity) that collective and universal truths could be
This belief in a collective unconscious motivated the Abstract Expressionists' interest in
mythology. The dream hybrids of the European Surrealists (particularly Miro, Masson and
Ernst), Picasso's exploration of the myth of the Minotaur, and Klee's pursuit of mythical
symbols encouraged the American artists in their search for personal cosmologies. The
Mythical, Totemic or Biomorphic phase of Abstract Expressionism, which peaked around
1945, played a major role in the development of its mature style. The titles alone that
Rothko, Gottlieb, Pollock, Newman and Baziotes assigned to their paintings of the early and
mid-1940s characterise the common inspiration they derived from myth:
Rothko: Vessels of Magic (1946)
Gottlieb: Persephone (1942)
Pollock: Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle (1943)
Newman: The Song of Orpheus (1944-1945)
The Surrealist who exercised the most direct influence on the young Abstract
Expressionists was Matta, who painted mainly biomorphic, abstract forms. Matta formed
a group with Motherwell, Baziotes and Pollock to explore the abstract possibilities of
gestural automatism, but eventually alienated the Americans with his arrogant and
domineering attitude. The young Americans were moreoever too concerned with formal
and aesthetic issues to tolerate the Surrealists' lack of interest in "picture making" as a
worthwhile pursuit in its own right.'
The Abstract Expressionist preoccupation with the powers of the unconscious is clear in
practically all their writing. Consider, for instance, the following statement by Robert
"The dynamics of reaching the preconscious, though the same for everyone, differ for
everyone, to the exact degree that each person differs from another ... the theoretical
procedure of the Surrealists ... is psychic automatism. So is the core of Abstract
and that by Jackson Pollock:
"The unconscious is a very important side of modern art and I think the unconscious
drives do mean a lot in looking at paintings."
For the Abstract Expressionists the adoption of psychic automatism (or free association)
meant that the derivative, mannerist style of the AAA could be avoided. Given the creative
principle of psychic automatism, which is not a style but a process whereby the self is
allegedly revealed, the Abstract Expressionists believed that their art had inevitably to be
original. It is true that, whereas the visual appearance of the work of, for example, Rothko
and Pollock appears mutually exclusive, there is a deep-seated, shared content.
The Abstract Expressionists, although never denying their debt to European
modernism, set a high premium on originality. The belief that a "new" art was being
created was shared by critics and painters alike.
According to Barnett Newman
"... the American painters ... created an entirely different reality to arrive at new,
unsuspected images. They start with the chaos of pure fantasy and feeling, with nothing
that has any known physical, visual or mathematical counterpart, and they bring out of
this chaos of emotion images which give these intangibles reality."
The notion that Abstract Expressionism was the last and most resolved link in the
Modernist chain has been frequently implied by critics such as Clement Greenberg and even
by the Abstract Expressionists themselves. The Marxist art historian Guilbaut,
however, warns against perceiving Abstract Expressionism only in terms of its formal
contribution to the Modernist chain: seeing American abstraction as the product of a "super
Avant-garde" which concluded, and ultimately triumphed over, the art of Europe, he
maintains, is to deny the role of the more important social, economic and political factors
that enter into aesthetic production.
* Drawn from notes compiled by L van Robbroeck for the University of South Africa