In 1950, a group of artists wrote an open letter to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. A survey exhibition was slated to open at the museum, “American Painting Today—1950,” but when the group took a look at the jury for the artist selection process, they deduced that it would almost certainly include only the more conventional art of the Met’s then-conservative tastes. The letter claimed the museum was dismissing the pioneering work done in “modern,” “advanced” modes of art that they had been practicing since the early 1940s.
Their protest would prompt a rift in American art, between the various forms of abstraction they practiced—which were supported by the Museum of Modern Art and its director Alfred H. Barr, Jr.—and the realist art that the Met curators considered the highest expression of 20th-century American painting.
LIFE magazine picked up the story, publishing an article in January, 1951, titled “Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show.” A photograph accompanying the article showed a sharply dressed group of white men (and one woman), looking poised and assertive, who would henceforth be known as “the Irascibles”: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Bradley Walker Tomlin, James Brooks, Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, and Hedda Sterne.
Along with other artists who signed the open letter—Hans Hofmann, David Smith, and Louise Bourgeois notable among them—these men and women largely constituted the first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists (often called the New York School for their centralized location). Though they worked in myriad styles and brought different themes to the creative table, these artists exhibited together and met in studios, bars, and cafés to exchange ideas about their pioneering new form of art.
The Origins of Abstract Expressionism
In the 1930s, as the events leading up to World War II began to unfold, many of the artists later known as the Irascibles were still working in a more realist style. Pollock studied with and was influenced by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and de Kooning and fellow future Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner (who later married Pollock) painted for the mural division of the United States government’s Federal Art Project during the Great Depression. Even Arshile Gorky, whose lyrical form of abstraction in the 1940s would lay important groundwork for Abstract Expressionism, was painting figurative work in the 1930s.
Though these more representational works were uncharacteristic of the artistic styles they would ultimately arrive at, the idea of creating painting and sculpture on a large scale derived from this earlier moment.
The group was also heavily influenced by the Surrealists in the late 1930s. As the tide of Fascism rose in Europe, most of the major figures in the Surrealist movement were forced to leave Europe, and several chose New York City as their refuge. The impact of their ideas, techniques, and themes—which focused on automatism, mythology, and psychology—cannot be underestimated in the formation of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s.
Action painting—a term coined by critic Harold Rosenberg that referred to painting that emphasized the spontaneous nature and physical action of applying pigment to canvas—arose, for example, from the Surrealist goal of creating a direct conduit from the unconscious mind to the physical gesture of the hand in order to create a truer and freer mode of art. From around 1939 to 1940, Pollock underwent psychoanalysis modeled after the theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, which led him to reject the idea of the “accident,” claiming that there were no chance elements in his work, only those things that had to exist as a result of his unconscious desires.
In 1941, Pollock would visit MoMA’s exhibition “Indian Art of the United States,” where he saw Navajo artists create a sand painting on the museum floor. He and other Abstract Expressionists took a deep interest in so-called “primitive” art—a problematic term used to describe the art of non-Western or indigenous cultures—as a means to connect with the basis of human creativity. “Primitive art has become for artists the romantic dream of our time,” Newman wrote in 1946, suggesting a resonance between the “terror” perceived in this style of art and that of the modern world in the wake of the atomic bomb.(If one means of making an Abstract Expressionist work was to take this perilous trip to confront the “other,” the group barely included any artists of color—though African-American artist Norman Lewis would make important contributions to the movement, and it would influence the work of Hale Woodruff.)
The traumatic experience of World War II and the legacy of the atomic bomb loomed large in philosophy and the arts of the period. Post-World War II existentialism, which grappled with the darker potential of human experience and the need for authenticity in human behavior, led certain Abstract Expressionist painters to think of their canvases as spaces within which they expressed their truest selves, rather than simply surfaces to be covered with paint.
For these artists, the process of making a painting became a heroic battle against the struggles of human existence. Though they were never a defined movement, the Abstract Expressionists shared the belief that abstract art could communicate deeper, more universal truths than naturalistic painting or sculpture, which would typically retain some sort of culturally defined message. Beyond any formal advances their art made, Abstract Expressionism came to represent the capacity for freedom in artistic creation.
The Leaders of Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionist painting as understood today largely falls into two camps: gestural or action painting, and color field painting. Gestural painting denotes work in which the movement of the artist’s hand or process is highly evident in the completed work. Pollock’s drip paintings, for example, were made by literally pouring paint out of a can or dripping it off of a brush or stick onto a canvas laid on the floor of his studio; Joan Mitchell’s large-scale works exhibit the sharp movements of her wrist, elbow, and shoulder as she splashed or dripped paint across the canvas or pushed it around with her brush.
Color field painting, on the other hand, sought to engage or absorb the viewer with large areas of intense color, as in Rothko’s hazy rectangles of richly mixed color or Newman’s more hard-edged geometry.
In the field of sculpture, artists as diverse as Smith and Bourgeois were considered Abstract Expressionists. Smith’s welded-steel statues often mingle intersecting geometric shapes with brushed-metal finishes, resembling the painterly techniques of his colleagues. In this phase of her career, Bourgeois created abstract statuettes of discarded wood that she found and painted in such a way that her her process was visible, challenging prior conventions of “finished” works of naturalistic sculpture.
The Women of Abstract Expressionism
It was no accident that Bourgeois was one of very few female artists to ever be associated with Abstract Expressionism. Hedda Sterne, despite her inclusion in the 1951 “Irascibles” photo, perhaps cut to the heart of this imbalance when she said in a 1981 interview, “[The men] all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”
Though they made significant contributions to the group, there was a tendency for female Abstract Expressionist artists to be taken less seriously than their male counterparts. For years, Krasner’s works were seen as “tid[ied] up” versions of her husband Pollock’s groundbreaking paintings, despite her career starting two decades before their marriage. Similar criticisms were leveled at Elaine de Kooning, and the success of second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler was often attributed partly to her relationships with Motherwell and prominent art critic Clement Greenberg.
Nevertheless, women exhibited countless paintings in major Abstract Expressionist exhibitions, and their work is recognized today as central to the group. Exhibitions such as “Women of Abstract Expressionism” (2016) at the Denver Art Museum have continued to redress historical disparities by exclusively showing works by women in the Abstract Expressionist camp, including Krasner, de Kooning, Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan, among others.
Why Does Abstract Expressionism Matter?
The freedom of expression that the Abstract Expressionists practiced won them international recognition, influencing generations of artists globally and placing New York City at the center of the Western art world. It made such an enormous splash in the art world that subsequent movements virtually had to respond to it.
Manifestations of performance art and its precursors in the 1950s and 1960s, from the Happenings in New York City to the exuberant, playful expressions of the Gutai group in Japan, embraced the way Abstract Expressionism privileged the process of artmaking, eschewing the finished product to focus on the performance itself.
Pop Art arose in the 1960s as a new figurative form of art based on lowbrow popular culture, in part as a critique of Abstract Expressionism’s highbrow, intellectual aims. Roy Lichtenstein’s “Brushstroke” series of paintings (1965–66), for example, took humorous jabs at gestural painting by subjecting it to his scrupulous, anything-but-gestural divisionist technique, achieved through screen-printing.
Abstract Expressionism was also sent abroad in the 1950s in government-sponsored exhibitions, as part of a Cold-War cultural policy to show the world how much more liberated artists were in the United States than in the Soviet Union, where Stalinist dogma dictated the styles in which artists could work.
While intellectuals in Europe and Latin America didn’t necessarily leap to embrace the U.S.’s democratic goals or imperial initiatives, they did often welcome the freedom that American abstract painting represented in the arts, and contemporary practitioners of Abstract Expressionist-style gestural abstraction and color field painting emerged around the world, continuing to the present day.
Header image: Jackson Pollock, Number 1, 1949, 1949. © 2012 Artists Rights Society. MOCA, Los Angeles.