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
would make important contributions to the movement, and it would influence the work of
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.