Reading Abstract Expressionism

Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique

Edited and with an Introduction by Ellen G. Landau
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bk1z
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  • Book Info
    Reading Abstract Expressionism
    Book Description:

    Abstract Expressionism is arguably the most important art movement in postwar America. Many of its creators and critics became celebrities, participating in heated public debates that were published in newspapers, magazines, and exhibition catalogues. This up-to-date anthology is the first comprehensive collection of key critical writings about Abstract Expressionism from its inception in the 1940s to the present day. Ellen G. Landau's masterful introduction presents and analyzes the major arguments and crucial points of view that have surrounded the movement decade by decade. She then offers a selection of readings, also organized by decade, including influential statements by such artists as Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman as well as the commentary of diverse critics. Offering new insights into the development of Abstract Expressionism, this rich anthology also demonstrates the ongoing impact of this revolutionary and controversial movement. Reading Abstract Expressionism is essential for the library of any curator, scholar, or student of twentieth-century art.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18572-0
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. Introduction ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM: Changing Methodologies for Interpreting Meaning
    (pp. 1-122)

    Despite continuing references in the scholarly and the popular press to the lasting artistic and cultural relevance of Abstract Expressionism, no comprehensive collection of essays related to this movement has been published since David and Cecile Shapiro’s Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record and Clifford Ross’s Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics appeared in 1990. Francis Frascina’s Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (second edition) and Pepe Karmel’s Jackson Pollock: New Approaches are the only anthologies with any direct relation to art of the New York School produced after 1995. Each is a specialized endeavor that does not aim to reflect the...

  6. The 1940s:: Mythologizing the Movement
    • ARTISTSʹ STATEMENTS
      • Excerpt from Letter to His Sister Vartoosh, 1942
        (pp. 125-125)
        ARSHILE GORKY

        Beloveds, the stuff of thought is the seed of the artist. Dreams form the bristles of the artist’s brush. And as the eye functions as the brain’s sentry, I communicate my most private perceptions through art, my view of the world. In trying to prove by the ordinary and the known, I create an inner infinity. I prove within the confines of the finite to create an infinity....

      • Excerpt from ʺArt in New Yorkʺ
        (pp. 125-129)
        ADOLPH GOTTLIEB and MARK ROTHKO

        Gottlieb: We would like to begin by reading part of a letter that has just come to us:

        “The portrait has always been linked in my mind with a picture of a person. I was therefore surprised to see your paintings of mythological characters with their abstract rendition, in a portrait show, and would therefore be very much interested in your answers to the following— …”

        Now, the questions that this correspondent asks are so typical and at the same time so crucial that we feel that in answering them we shall not only help a good many people who...

      • Excerpts from ʺThe Modern Painterʹs Worldʺ
        (pp. 129-131)
        ROBERT MOTHERWELL

        […] The function of the artist is to express reality as felt. In saying this, we must remember that ideas modify feelings. The anti-intellectualism of English and American artists has led them to the error of not perceiving the connection between the feeling of modern forms and modern ideas. By feeling is meant the response of the “body-and-mind” as a whole to the events of reality. It is the whole man who feels in artistic experience as when we say with Plato: “The man has a pain in his finger” (The Republic, 462 D), and not, “The finger has a...

      • A Questionnaire
        (pp. 132-133)
        JACKSON POLLOCK

        Where were you born?

        Cody, Wyoming, in January, 1912. My ancestors were Scotch and Irish.

        Have you traveled any?

        I’ve knocked around some in California, some in Arizona. Never been to Europe.

        Would you like to go abroad?

        No. I don’t see why the problems of modern painting can’t be solved as well here as elsewhere.

        Where did you study?

        At the Art Students League, here in New York. I began when I was seventeen. Studied with Benton, at the League, for two years.

        How did your study with Thomas Benton affect your work, which differs so radically from his?...

      • Thesis, 1946
        (pp. 133-134)
        NORMAN LEWIS

        During the past fourteen years, I have devoted the major part of my attention and as much time as finances made possible to becoming a painter. For about the last eight of these years, I have been concerned not only with my own creative and technical development but with the limitations which every American Negro who is desirous of a broad kind of development must face—namely, the limitations which come under the names “African Idiom,” “Negro Idiom” or “Social Painting.” I have been concerned therefore with greater freedom for the individual to be publicly first an artist (assuming merit)...

      • Application for a Guggenheim Fellowship
        (pp. 135-135)
        JACKSON POLLOCK

        I intend to paint large movable pictures which will function between the easel and mural. I have set a precedent in this genre in a large painting for Miss Peggy Guggenheim which was installed in her house and was later shown in the “Large-Scale Paintings” show at the Museum of Modern Art. It is at present on loan at Yale University.

        I believe the easel picture to be a dying form, and the tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural. I believe the time is not yet ripe for a full transition from easel to mural....

      • The Ideographic Picture
        (pp. 135-136)
        BARNETT NEWMAN

        The Kwakiutl artist painting on a hide did not concern himself with the inconsequentials that made up the opulent social rivalries of the Northwest Coast Indian scene; nor did he, in the name of a higher purity, renounce the living world for the meaningless materialism of design. The abstract shape he used, his entire plastic language, was directed by a ritualistic will toward metaphysical understanding. The everyday realities he left to the toymakers; the pleasant play of nonobjective pattern, to the women basket weavers. To him a shape was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier...

      • The Sublime Is Now
        (pp. 137-139)
        BARNETT NEWMAN

        The invention of beauty by the Greeks, that is, their postulate of beauty as an ideal, has been the bugbear of European art and European aesthetic philosophies. Man’s natural desire in the arts to express his relation to the Absolute became identified and confused with the absolutisms of perfect creations—with the fetish of quality—so that the European artist has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity.

        The confusion can be seen sharply in Longinus, who despite his knowledge of non-Grecian art, could not extricate himself from his platonic attitudes...

      • My Painting
        (pp. 139-140)
        JACKSON POLLOCK

        I continue to get further away from the usual painter’s tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass and other foreign matter added.

        When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only...

      • The Romantics Were Prompted
        (pp. 140-142)
        MARK ROTHKO

        The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realise that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental.

        The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation. Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his plastic bankbook, just as he has abandoned other forms of security. Both the sense of community and security depend on the familiar. Free of...

    • CRITICAL REACTION
      • Excerpts from System and Dialectics of Art
        (pp. 142-146)
        JOHN GRAHAM

        Art is the force which led humanity through the ages of darkness—automatically, and through the ages of space—by inference.

        In the history of humanity subjects and problems in numberless fields have been thoroughly investigated and solved. [Such are: geometry and Roman Law which have finally and exhaustively formulated certain phenomena once and for all. The subject of art, however, has never been exhaustively investigated, formulated and systematized, either by writers or artists.] There have been pages written on art—inspired, beautiful and otherwise but all have been either fragmentary, amateurish or sentimental.

        The state of confusion that exists...

      • Excerpt from ʺThe Realm of Art: A New Platform; ʹGlobalismʹ Pops into Viewʺ
        (pp. 146-150)
        EDWARD ALDEN JEWELL

        Last Sunday in this place there appeared some comment on the third annual exhibition of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, which remains current at Wildenstein’s through June 26. In the course of that article it was mentioned that one of the artist-members of the federation had promised a statement calculated to disperse befuddlement (which I had freely confessed) over certain paintings.

        Circumstances have developed most fortunately. I am in receipt not only of the statement referred to but likewise of a statement from another artist-member of the federation. Furthermore, it proved possible to secure photographs of the three...

      • Excerpt from ʺWhither Goes Abstract and Surrealist Art?ʺ
        (pp. 150-152)
        MAUDE RILEY

        Two exhibitions and a book on Abstract and Surrealist Art in America focus attention during December upon these long-surviving forms in 20th century art. The book is by Sidney Janis (Reynal & Hitchock, $6.50); the exhibitions are his, too, for they are composed of the paintings illustrated in the publication, which will be released December 4. The Nierendorf Galleries will show (starting Dec. 5) American and European Pioneers of 20th Century Art. The Mortimer Brandt Galleries opened the “young” American section of the study on Nov. 28 with an exhibition of 50 paintings which bears the same title as the book,...

      • A Problem for Critics
        (pp. 152-153)
        HOWARD PUTZEL

        Classification is extraneous to art. Most labels attached to painting are unenlightening. Talent’s the thing. “Isms” are literature. Nevertheless, a large part of the public that looks at contemporary painting demands classification. Possibly classification leads to clarification. The word Cubism, though inaccurate, is apt. I hope that some art critic, museum official or someone will find as pertinent a first syllable which may be applied to the new “ism.”

        During the past dozen years, and particularly since 1940, the tendency toward a new metamorphism was manifest in painting. However this may seem related with totemic images, earliest Mediterranean art and...

      • Editorial Preface
        (pp. 153-154)
        ROBERT MOTHERWELL and HAROLD ROSENBERG

        This is a magazine of artists and writers who “practice” in their work their own experience without seeking to transcend it in academic, group or political formulas.

        Such practice implies the belief that through conversion of energy something valid may come out, whatever situation one is forced to begin with.

        The question of what will emerge is left open. One functions in an attitude of expectancy. As Juan Gris said: you are lost the instant you know what the result will be.

        Naturally the deadly political situation exerts an enormous pressure.

        The temptation is to conclude that organized social thinking...

      • The Intrasubjectives
        (pp. 154-156)
        SAMUEL M. KOOTZ and HAROLD ROSENBERG

        The past decade in America has been a period of great creative activity in painting. Only now has there been a concerted effort to abandon the tyranny of the object and the sickness of naturalism and to enter within consciousness.

        We have had many fine artists who have been able to arrive at Abstraction through Cubism: Marin, Stuart Davis, Demuth, among others. They have been the pioneers in a revolt from the American tradition of Nationalism and of subservience to the object. Theirs has, in the main, been an objective act as differentiated from the new painters’ inwardness.

        The intrasubjective...

  7. The 1950s:: Establishing Authority
    • ABOUT THE ARTISTS
      • Excerpts from Artistsʹ Sessions at Studio 35
        (pp. 159-164)

        Motherwell: What then exactly constitutes the basis of our community?

        Sterne: We need a common vocabulary. Abstract should really mean abstract, and modern should really mean modern. We don’t mean the same things with the same words.

        Hofmann: Why should we? Everyone should be as different as possible. There is nothing that is common to all of us except our creative urge. It just means one thing to me: to discover myself as well as I can. But every one of us has the urge to be creative in relation to our time—the time to which we belong may...

      • David Smith Makes a Sculpture
        (pp. 165-171)
        ELAINE DE KOONING

        Hot-forging a piece of metal with a trip-hammer, flame-cutting with an acetylene torch or welding his forms together, David Smith says “the change from one machine to another means no more than changing brushes to a painter or chisels to a carver…. Michelangelo spoke about the noise and the marble dust in our profession, but I finish the day looking more like a grease-ball than a miller.”

        The huge cylinders, tanks and boxes of metal scrap; the racks filled with bars of iron and steel-plate; the motor-driven tools with rubber hoses, discs and meters; the large negatively charged steel table...

      • Statement
        (pp. 171-172)
        CLYFFORD STILL

        That pigment on canvas has a way of initiating conventional reactions for most people needs no reminder. Behind these reactions is a body of history matured into dogma, authority, tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject. Its security is an illusion, banal, and without courage. Its substance is but dust and filing cabinets. The homage paid to it is a celebration of death. We all bear the burden of this tradition on our backs but I cannot hold it a privilege to be a pallbearer of my spirit in its name.

        From the most...

      • de Kooning Paints a Picture
        (pp. 172-180)
        THOMAS B. HESS

        In the first days of June, 1950, Willem de Kooning tacked a 7-foot-high canvas to his painting frame and began intensive work on Woman—a picture of a seated figure, and a theme which had preoccupied him for over two decades. He decided to concentrate on this single major effort until it was finished to his satisfaction.

        The picture nearly complied to his requirements several times in the months that followed, but never wholly. Finally, after a year and a half of continuous struggle, it was almost completed; then followed a few hours of violent disaffection; the canvas was pulled...

      • Artistʹs Statement
        (pp. 180-181)
        LOUISE BOURGEOIS

        An artist’s words are always to be taken cautiously. The finished work is often a stranger to, and sometimes very much at odds with what the artist felt, or wished to express when he began. At best the artist does what he can rather than what he wants to do. After the battle is over and the damage faced up to, the result may be surprisingly dull—but sometimes it is surprisingly interesting. The mountain brought forth a mouse, but the bee will create a miracle of beauty and order. Asked to enlighten us on their creative process, both would...

      • The Legacy of Jackson Pollock
        (pp. 181-187)
        ALLAN KAPROW

        The tragic news of Pollock’s death two summers ago was profoundly depressing to many of us. We felt not only a sadness over the death of a great figure, but also a deep loss, as if something of ourselves had died too. We were a piece of him: he was, perhaps, the embodiment of our ambition for absolute liberation and a secretly cherished wish to overturn old tables of crockery and flat champagne. We saw in his example the possibility of an astounding freshness, a sort of ecstatic blindness.

        But there was another, morbid, side to his meaningfulness. To “die...

      • In the Galleries: Franz Kline
        (pp. 188-188)
        MARTICA SAWIN

        When Franz Kline draws his brush across the canvas the gesture is automatically associated with authority, so much so that a showing of his latest paintings is a portentous event: he is forced to measure up to the test of his own reputation instead of coming before us freshly and without reference to previous accomplishments. The exhibition of his work which closed the 1957–58 season at the Janis Gallery has both its rewarding and its disappointing aspects, but of greatest interest was the indication of continued exploration on the artist’s part, a confident reaching out to break new ground...

    • CRITICAL REACTION
      • The American Action Painters
        (pp. 189-198)
        HAROLD ROSENBERG

        What makes any definition of a movement in art dubious is that it never fits the deepest artists in the movement—certainly not as well as, if successful, it does the others. Yet without the definition something essential in those best is bound to be missed. The attempt to define is like a game in which you cannot possibly reach the goal from the starting point but can only close in on it by picking up each time from where the last play landed.

        Since the War every twentieth-century style in painting is being brought to profusion in the United...

      • ʺAmerican-Typeʺ Painting
        (pp. 198-214)
        CLEMENT GREENBERG

        The latest abstract painting offends many people, among whom are more than a few who accept the abstract in art in principle. New painting (sculpture is a different question) still provokes scandal when little that is new in literature or even music appears to do so any longer. This may be explained by the very slowness of painting’s evolution as a modernist art. Though it started on its “modernization” earlier perhaps than the other arts, it has turned out to have a greater number of expendable conventions imbedded in it, or these at least have proven harder to isolate and...

      • Excerpt from ʺThe Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Artʺ
        (pp. 215-220)
        MEYER SCHAPIRO

        In discussing the place of painting and sculpture in the culture of our time, I shall refer only to those kinds which, whether abstract or not, have a fresh inventive character, that art which is called “modern” not simply because it is of our century, but because it is the work of artists who take seriously the challenge of new possibilities and wish to introduce into their work perceptions, ideas and experiences which have come about only within our time.

        In doing so I risk perhaps being unjust to important works or to aspects of art which are generally not...

      • International Reaction to Alfred H. Barr Jr., ʺThe New American Paintingʺ
        (pp. 220-226)
        Mercedes Molleda, L. D. H. and Will Grohmann

        I had resigned myself to not seeing the exhibition. But others did not resign themselves, and thus in rapid, improvised, and exhausting days, it was possible to move eighty-one canvases, packed in more than forty enormous cases, from Milan to Madrid. To judge the size of the transoceanic guests, a detail will suffice: to bring into the Museum two of the canvases, one by Jackson Pollock and one by Grace Hartigan, required sawing the upper part of the metal entrance door of the building the night before the inauguration.

        Upon entering the room, a strange sensation like that of magnetic...

  8. The 1960s:: Consolidating the Canon
    • The Unwanted Title: Abstract Expressionism
      (pp. 229-236)
      P. G. PAVIA

      If we temporarily shelve the over-powering personalities in the avant-garde, we can reach down to underground ideas that are foundations of the American Abstract Art movement. Subtle but strong essences of its beginnings are buried in seven very special panels given at “the club” in a series entitled “Abstract Expressionism.” Some of the ideas and the element of chance that went into making this “handy” title can be traced, ironically and philosophically, through these seven panels. The American movement of abstract art is not the fireworks of one or two artist personalities but is a deeply-rooted idea clawing the only...

    • We Interview Lee Krasner
      (pp. 236-239)
      LOUISE ELLIOTT RAGO and Lee Krasner

      Lee Krasner admitted she was dubious when I called to ask if I might come to talk with her about “Why People Create.” She said that at first she thought we were publicity seekers. Before I arrived for our appointment Miss Krasner had checked various sources and was pleased to learn that this was one vehicle that gave the artist an opportunity to express himself without the usual mixed up esthetic jargon, and without distorting any of the artist’s views.

      Miss Krasner volunteered that this was the first time she had allowed anyone to interview her, and now was pleased...

    • The Abstract Sublime
      (pp. 239-244)
      ROBERT ROSENBLUM

      “It’s like a religious experience!” With such words, a pilgrim I met in Buffalo last winter attempted to describe his unfamiliar sensations before the awesome phenomenon created by seventy-two Clyfford Stills at the Albright Art Gallery. A century and a half ago, the Irish Romantic poet, Thomas Moore, also made a pilgrimage to the Buffalo area, except that his goal was Niagara Falls. His experience, as recorded in a letter to his mother, July 24, 1804, similarly beggared prosaic response:

      I felt as if approaching the very residence of the Deity: the tears started into my eyes; and I remained,...

    • Excerpt from American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists
      (pp. 245-250)
      H. H. ARNASON

      […] As the title indicates, the present exhibition is really a double exhibition which not only surveys the present state of the Abstract Expressionists but follows in some detail the direction to which the name “Abstract Imagists” has been applied. It is a fact that from the late Forties to the present day certain painters, loosely grouped with the Abstract Expressionists, have rather been concerned through extreme simplification of their canvases—frequently to the dominant assertion of a single overpowering element—in presenting an all-encompassing presence. This “presence” could be described as an “image” in the sense of an abstract...

    • The Biomorphic ʹ40s
      (pp. 250-256)
      LAWRENCE ALLOWAY

      The movements of 20th-century art, to the extent that they began with artists’ acts of self-identification, in opposition either to another group of artists or against a public made grandiose and threatening as the Philistines, tend to stay monolithic. Efforts are made to unify these discrete movements, like different shaped beads on a string of “the classical spirit” or “the expressionist temperament,” but obviously this delivers very little, except an illusion of mastery to the users of cliché. More is needed than the revival of the exhausted classical/romantic antithesis, which leaves the movements to be united sequentially undisturbed. Modern art...

    • Jackson Pollock
      (pp. 256-263)
      MICHAEL FRIED

      The almost complete failure of contemporary art criticism to come to grips with Pollock’s accomplishment is striking. This failure has been due to several factors. First and least important, the tendency of art writers such as Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess to regard Pollock as a kind of natural existentialist has served to obscure the simple truth that Pollock was, on the contrary, a painter whose work is always inhabited by a subtle, questing formal intelligence of the highest order, and whose concern in his art was not with any fashionable metaphysics of despair but with making the best paintings...

    • Concerning the Beginnings of the New York School, 1939–1943: An Interview with Peter Busa and Matta, Conducted in Minneapolis in December 1966
      (pp. 263-275)
      SIDNEY SIMON, Peter Busa and Matta

      Simon: Your exile from Europe began when, Matta?

      Matta: In October 1939. I had already joined the Surrealist group. I had signed too many anti-Hitler and anti-Stalin papers not to be persecuted by the SS. The “resistance” was not yet possible. Especially after the Trotsky experience, most Trotskyites felt the need to get out of Europe. It is perhaps of some interest that I came to New York on the same boat as Tanguy.

      Simon: Tell me something about your life in New York.

      Matta: In New York, I lived rather poorly at first. Julian Levy was our natural contact...

    • Concerning the Beginnings of the New York School, 1939–1943: An Interview with Robert Motherwell Conducted in New York in January 1967
      (pp. 276-290)
      SIDNEY SIMON and Robert Motherwell

      Simon: Since these discussion are concerned with the origins of the so-called New York School, I would welcome your detailed reminiscences of the period roughly from 1939 to 1943. What, for example, were the circumstances that led to your close association with Matta in 1940?

      Motherwell: To give some idea of what must have taken place, I will have to emphasize the fact that my background up to 1940 had little to do with painting. Until then, I had known only one obscure American artist. My grown-up life had been spent in prep school and universities, involving various scholarly pursuits....

  9. The 1970s:: Emerging Contexts and Closer Readings
    • Jungian Aspects of Jackson Pollockʹs Imagery
      (pp. 293-312)
      JUDITH WOLFE

      While Jackson Pollock’s interest in high art was paramount, the theories of Carl Gustav Jung were also important as a means of realizing an expression that was both individual and universal in its implications. This aspect of Pollock, while widely known, has not been sufficiently explored, nor has it even received proper credit as a motivating force within his development.

      Pollock’s knowledge of Jung’s work seems to have begun in 1934 when, as a janitor at the City and Country School in New York City, he met Helen Marot, a teacher interested in Jungian psychology. Through her guidance, he would...

    • Residual Sign Systems in Abstract Expressionism
      (pp. 313-323)
      LAWRENCE ALLOWAY

      A problem that reciprocally involved both subject matter and formality engaged the Abstract Expressionist painters of the middle and late forties. It was how to make paintings that would be powerful signifiers, and this led to decisions as to what signifiers could be properly referred to without compromising (too much) the flatness of the picture plane. The desire for a momentous content was constricted by the spatial requirement of flatness and by the historically influenced need to avoid direct citation of objects. Something of this train of thought can be seen in Barnett Newman’s reflections on the role of the...

    • Robert Motherwellʹs Elegies to the Spanish Republic
      (pp. 324-338)
      ROBERT C. HOBBS

      For Robert Motherwell, the act of titling his art is an essential component of the creative process. He is convinced that viewers require specific intellectual and emotional perspectives when looking at his paintings so that their experiences of them will be directed and concrete. While some titles reinforce the type of painterly abstraction for which he is renowned, others, including his justly famous Elegies to the Spanish Republic, bear political and literary tags. He intends these ad hoc conjunctions to be mutually supportive and consequently is careful to consider his options when titling works.

      The practice of grafting literary titles...

    • Excerpt from ʺAbstract Expressionism: The Politics of Apolitical Painting,ʺ Part 3
      (pp. 338-345)
      DAVID SHAPIRO and CECILE SHAPIRO

      The most surprising fact about American art in the late 1950s is the dearth of well-written published material critical of or hostile to Abstract Expressionism. Since a conspiracy is entirely unlikely—even Senator Joe McCarthy never claimed to have uncovered any in the art world—more likely possibilities must be examined. […]

      Abstract Expressionism, of course, can in no way be equated with McCarthyism, although the conformism that pervaded the decade goes a long way toward explaining the power of each. But while McCarthyism was the expression of a vicious political authoritarianism, Abstract Expressionism might better be described as anarchist...

    • Graham, Gorky, de Kooning and the ʺIngres Revivalʺ in America
      (pp. 346-361)
      MELVIN P. LADER

      Recent studies have revealed and clarified the prominent role played by the Russian immigrant John D. Graham in the American avant-garde art scene in the 1930s and 1940s.¹ Having arrived in New York in 1920, this man of diverse talents was simultaneously an artist, writer, theoretician, collector, polemicist for modernism, mystic and self-proclaimed magus. By the latter Twenties, he had become a pivotal personality in a loose-knit group that ultimately would include some important members of the Early New York School, chief among whom were the painters Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. Of the three, Graham indisputably was the...

    • Symbolic Pregnance in Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still
      (pp. 361-380)
      DONALD B. KUSPIT

      Yes, we can continue to ask, for it is the core epistemological question about abstract art, sharply and freshly raised by the works of Rothko and Still, which generate intense sensations and unpredictable meanings and the question of their interrelation. As Michel Conil-Lacoste wrote of the late Rothko, there are “deux lectures de Rothko: non pas seulement celle du technicien de la coleur, mais aussi celle de l’âme éprise de mysticisme.”¹ The technician of color supplies the raw material of sensation, and the mystic communicates ideal meanings. But how much can the two be said to interweave, when the sensory...

  10. The 1980s:: Reading New Significations
    • The New Adventures of the Avant-Garde in America: Greenberg, Pollock, or from Trotskyism to the New Liberalism of the ʺVital Centerʺ
      (pp. 383-399)
      SERGE GUILBAUT

      We now know that the traditional make-up of the avant-garde was revitalized in the United States after the Second World War. In the unprecedented economic boom of the war years, the same strategies that had become familiar to a jaded Parisian bourgeoisie were skillfully deployed, confronted as they were with a new bourgeois public recently instructed in the principles of modern art.

      Between 1939 and 1948 Clement Greenberg developed a formalist theory of modern art which he would juxtapose with the notion of the avant-garde, in order to create a structure which, like that of Baudelaire or Apollinaire, would play...

    • James Joyce and the First Generation New York School
      (pp. 399-414)
      EVAN R. FIRESTONE

      The artists of the first generation New York School, most of whom are known collectively as Abstract Expressionists, were as a group generally well-read or well-informed and in touch with the literary currents of their time. Non-fiction works by Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, and James Frazer combined on their reading lists with the writings of Baudelaire, the French Symbolist poets (especially Rimbaud), Herman Melville, André Breton and Garcia Lorca, among others. Although scholars have examined the connections between this group of artists and literature rather carefully, except in the case of David Smith there has been relatively little mention of James...

    • The Market for Abstract Expressionism: The Time Lag Between Critical and Commercial Acceptance
      (pp. 415-422)
      A. DIERDRE ROBSON

      The immediate post–World War II years are taken to be those that mark the emergence not only of the United States as a major world power but also of new American artistic avant-garde, aggressively different in style and aesthetic from previous European modernism. Recently some attention has focused on how Abstract Expressionism came to critical prominence and on the political and cultural implications of this new avant-garde, due to the apparent congruence between an aesthetic that stressed individuality and vigour and the Cold War liberal ideology of the postwar Truman era, which equated these two characteristics with Western (American)...

    • The Impact of Nietzsche and Northwest Coast Indian Art on Barnett Newmanʹs Idea of Redemption in the Abstract Sublime
      (pp. 422-442)
      W. JACKSON RUSHING

      In the late 1930s and early 1940s the “myth-makers” of the New York avant-garde, including Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Mark Rothko, made paintings that referred to atavistic myth, primordial origins, and primitive rituals and symbols, especially those of Native American cultures.¹ Barnett Newman began to work in a similar fashion about 1944 and was influential as a theorist and indefatigable promoter of this new art. The “myth-makers” shared a tendency to depict ritual violence or inherently violent myths as well as an archaism exemplified by biomorphic forms and, often, coarse surfaces. This self-conscious primitivism of early Abstract...

    • The Rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism
      (pp. 442-486)
      ANN GIBSON

      The idea of Abstract Expressionism having a rhetoric—of artists such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko having recourse to a set of verbal skills—will appear to most as a contradiction in terms. Abstract Expressionism has become synonymous with a reluctance to explain, and that reluctance has become associated with the assumption that it is irrelevant to discuss meaning as the relation between form and subject matter. The idea that explication is antithetical to Abstract Expressionist art was generated in part by critics who took artists at their word. When Clement Greenberg told an interviewer: “I don’t think I...

  11. The 1990s:: Re(de)fining Abstract Expressionism
    • CONTEXTUAL STUDIES
      • Martha Graham and Abstract Expressionism
        (pp. 489-509)
        STEPHEN POLCARI

        In the months of crisis before and during World War II, Martha Graham (b. 1893) reflected, “You do not realize how the headlines that make daily history affect the muscles of the human body.” One scholar recently expanded on Graham’s observation: “Wariness, the first symptom of fear, was in the air, and though no one spoke openly about private dread, Martha could read nervous tension in her dancers’ bodies.”¹ For Graham as well as for many visual artists, the coming of the war called for a more critical investigation of the human experience than ever before. It also brought forth...

      • ʺIntroduction,ʺ ʺAbstract Expressionism and Afro-American Marginalisation,ʺ and ʺDissent During the McCarthy Periodʺ
        (pp. 510-526)
        DAVID CRAVEN

        In many parts of the world, Abstract Expressionism signifies the ascendancy to cultural pre-eminence of United States art. Yet it is also viewed with disfavour or indifference by the majority of the people in the U.S. whose culture this art presumably represents.⁴ Equally paradoxical is the relation of Abstract Expressionism to contemporary Latin American art. At a time when U.S. intervention throughout the Americas has intensified, the receptivity of progressive Latin American artists to certain aspects of post-war U.S. art (even as these same artists vigorously oppose U.S. hegemony) raises new questions about the nature of art produced in the...

      • Modern Man Discourse and the New York School
        (pp. 527-534)
        MICHAEL LEJA

        Barnett Newman’s observation that he and the other New York School painters had “made cathedrals of ourselves” attests to their participation in the divinization of the self. Schematic though it may be, the outline of some of the varied strands within Modern Man discourse provides an illuminating cultural matrix for the interests and works of the New York School painters. Like the Modern Man authors, these artists saw their work as responsive to the war and other contemporary stresses. One might assume that this was true to some extent of all art made during the war, but this was not...

      • In Defense of Abstract Expressionism
        (pp. 535-560)
        T. J. CLARK

        We are forty years away from Abstract Expressionism, and the question of how we should understand our relationship to the movement starts to be interesting again. Awe at its triumphs is long gone; but so is laughter at its cheap philosophy, or distaste for its heavy breathing, or boredom with its sublimity, or even resentment at the part it played in the Cold War. Not that any of those feelings has dissipated, or ever should, but that it begins to be clear that none of them—not even the sum of them—amounts to an attitude to the painting in...

      • Reconsidering the Stain: On Gender, Identity, and New York School Painting
        (pp. 560-580)
        LISA SALTZMAN

        Consider, for just one moment Jackson Pollock’s Cut-Out of 1948–1950. Don’t flip to look at a reproduction. Instead, and perhaps more appropriately, conjure it in your mind. For though Pollock’s Cut-Out is a painting, it is a work from which the center, the figure, has quite literally been excised, extinguished, a work with nothing more at its core than a ghostly trace, figuration as corpse. Emptied of its bodily fullness, its corporeality, its life, Cut-Out leaves us with nothing other than figuration as a hollow shell, a specter which can only haunt abstraction. Framed by the marginal remains of...

    • CLOSER (RE)READINGS
      • ʺOf the Earth, the Damned, and of the Recreatedʺ: Aspects of Clyfford Stillʹs Earlier Work
        (pp. 580-594)
        DAVID ANFAM

        Despite its importance, Clyfford Stillʼs work poses greater problems for scholarship than that of any other artist associated with Abstract Expressionism. Secondary sources remain either scarce or obscure, while the complete corpus of his works has neither been shown nor published.¹ What is known stems largely from Still himself, who thereby sought to pre-empt the mosaic of art-historical interpretation. He replaced it with a canon whose main agents are the gifts totalling sixty-nine paintings, together with their catalogues, made to three North American institutions: the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York’s...

      • Excerpt from ʺWater and Lipstick: De Kooning in Transitionʺ
        (pp. 594-615)
        RICHARD SHIFF

        The personal collection of the painter and critic Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning’s wife, included Woman—Lipstick, a small graphite drawing Willem executed while at work on his Woman series of the early 1950s. It has a unique feature: the female figure has been surrounded by red lipstick imprints, with one imprint lying within it, tinting the torso. The image might be considered a collaborative creation, a joint representation of and by Willem and Elaine. When it was auctioned in 1989 Elaine de Kooning’s explanation accompanied it: “Bill asked me to put on lipstick & ‘kiss’ this drawing, carefully picking...

      • Barnett Newmanʹs Stripe Paintings and Kabbalah: A Jewish Take
        (pp. 615-625)
        MATTHEW BAIGELL

        Barnett Newman’s (1905–1970) famous stripe paintings are based on the esoteric teachings of mystical Judaism known as Kabbalah. We know this from Thomas Hess’s account of Newman’s career published in 1971. Since then, this startling piece of information has barely been mentioned and, equally startling, never been explored further.¹ I want to ask here one question: Just how Jewish was Newman’s use of Jewish sources? My conclusions will suggest that neither the artist nor his biographer used Kabbalah from a normative Jewish point of view, or, to say it differently, neither used Jewish sources in a way acceptable to...

      • Arcadian Nightmares: The Evolution of David Smith and Dorothy Dehnerʹs Work at Bolton Landing
        (pp. 625-645)
        JOAN M. MARTER

        David Smith and Dorothy Dehner and their years together at Bolton Landing rival the dramatic accounts of many artist-couples, given the volatile temperament of Smith, the physicality of his work, Dehner’s determination to survive, and her vital imagery.¹ Marriages far less tumultuous have been fodder for books on the Abstract Expressionists. The De Koonings have been discussed in several publications: their drinking habits and romantic liaisons exposed, while no attempt was made to explore the relevance of their personal lives to their artistic achievements.² In Andrea Gabor’s Einstein’s Wife, Lee Krasner’s physiognomy and Jackson Pollock’s alcoholism and psychological problems are...

      • The Crisis of the Easel Picture
        (pp. 645-664)
        ROSALIND E. KRAUSS

        I remember the expression on Lee Krasner’s face that afternoon in her apartment. It was late spring of 1982. We were meeting over our shared consternation at E. A. Carmean’s efforts to link Jackson Pollock’s black paintings not just circumstantially but thematically—liturgically—to an abortive church project by Tony Smith. Carmean’s essay, published in French in the catalogue of the big Pollock exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, was now to appear in Art in America, and the magazine’s editor, Betsy Baker, aware of Lee’s as well as my own vigorous objections, had asked me to write an accompanying reply.¹...

  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 665-706)
  13. Index
    (pp. 707-716)