Sunday, 9 June 2013

Abstract Expressionism

The post–war period in the US marked a distinct change as far as the art world was concerned.  The artists who helped to bring about this change were: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gotlieb, Clyfford Still.  Their work was and remains as controversial as Cubism in its early days.

The label Abstract Expressionism though applying loosely to these artists does not refer to a specific style of painting due to the variety of work from Pollock’s vigorous drip paintings to Rothko’s almost minimal approach.  To use the word “original” to describe their work is fraught with controversy.  For me the label Abstract Expressionism is more appealing particularly when considered in conjunction with Henry James’  quote.  “Experience is never limited; and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider’s web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.” Polemical statements relating art to philosophical movements such as Existentialism is far too broad a perspective in which to enshrine an art movement.  Art for me is a productive creative process which uses cerebral processes and hinges on the experimental and innovative. Yes, there is a “leap of faith” but questions of 'authenticity' in the Existentialist sense, are too constraining to encompass the boundless enthusiasms which drove these artists’ creative impulses in an exploration of man’s inner being, his subconscious.
Abstract Expressionism seeks to provide a new language which draws upon previous methods, styles and artists and distils a new  dynamic which tries to explore the essence of a thing or sub conscious state using diverse applications of pigment and materials to achieve this.  It is this freedom to explore materials and methods of application that opens up endless possibilities. Drawing upon Marcel Duchamp's Readymades, for example, Rauschenberg develops his style using Collectables.
The environment and landscape in the US also influenced Clyfford Still, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock.  The vastness and remoteness of the land itself almost required arm movement rather than wrist movement, so canvases were big to accommodate this.

Clyfford Still’s ‘Houses at Nespelem’   reminds me of Cezanne’s House of the Hanged Man its desolation and rendition, presenting the buildings almost like a stage set, as well as the obvious comparison with Charles Burchfield’s Black Houses of the same year, 1936.
The new immigrant population including, Guston, Rothko, de Kooning, and Siskind brought an accumulation of knowledge regarding menace, political unrest, torture and oppression.  Philip Guston’s Martial Memory  draws on Surrealism and the Draper after the Neo-Classical style, and there is again an element of stage, a sort of cold unreality similar to that felt in Still’s Houses of Nespelem, and indeed Kline’s Palmerton Pa, and Pollock’s Going across the Track  

They convey a bleakness and timeless quality reminiscent of the stage set.  Interestingly, Guston had sometimes been a bit part actor in Hollywood, and had been a scene painter. De Kooning painted mannequin faces and again one can see the influence of the wide-eyed stare in his work.  This bleakness and sense of inertia and hopelessness was doubtless a manifestation of the times, remembering that this was the period of the Great Depression and later of course, World War II, and Hiroshima.

Abstract Expressionists, faced with the momentous events leading to Hiroshima and Auschwitz sought some kind of imagery that might explore the psychology which unleached such terrible consequences, rather than trying to define the events themselves.  Artists taking refuge in America, Andre Breton, Andre Masson and Max Ernst looked again at automatism as a means of divining unconscious thought.
Photography also features at this time through the work of Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind and Walker Evans.
Hans Hofmann, another immigrant who fled Nazi Germany, had known Picasso, Matisse and Braque and started an art school in New York in 1933 recommending the synthesis of Fauvism, Cubism and German Expressionism.  With the use of colour he explored the ‘push and pull’ (recession and advance) of objects, which he felt was more tangible than drawing alone.

To understand the work of Pollock one can do no better than quote Henry James: “Experience is never limited; and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider’s web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue.” He is influenced early on by Mexican Amerindian legends and was influenced by muralists Rivera and Siqueiros as well as Orozco.  One senses the ancient work of the Inca and Aztec nations percolating through his work. He said he wanted to be "in the painting" and by working on the floor he felt he almost achieved this.

For me Jackson Pollock's early work and Willem de Kooning are effectively visceral paintings.  They are strong and gutsy in the application of paint and in their compositions which remain figurative yet almost primitive.  Later, Pollock's drip paintings or action paintings, which herald the idea of an overall "field", become less intense in that raw gestural sense.  Indeed "Lavender Mist "  and "Cathedral" are soft by comparison, something picked up on by the photographer who used these, and other paintings of the period,  as a background proclaiming the "new soft look" in "Vogue" (March 1951 edition).  Interestingly, Pollock had been alcohol free during the period 1946 to 1950, when these were painted, whether or not that influenced  his output, who knows? Later he becomes doubtful of his own abilities and feels his style has run its course.  An exhibition of new  black and white paintings is unsuccessful so he returns to colour with "Blue Poles" the doubts remain. He has an affair with Ruth Kligman and is unsure of the relationship with his wife Lee Krasner, and he effectively stops painting. He is not prepared to produce a 'Pollock 'for the sake of it.  His work is not "accidental" but controlled and he has something in mind as he works.  When someone said his work needed to call on nature for its inspiration or he would run out of ideas,  he said: "I am nature".  He felt that art came from the subconscious, and he used Jungian ideas in his work. Presumably his mind was in such turmoil that he could not longer tap into the subconscious energies, hence his lack of work. Other artists of the period suffered with depression, Guston, Rothko as well as Gorky who committed suicide in 1948.
Peggy Guggenheim, who also fled from Nazi Occupation, suppported immigres such as Kandinsky, Miro, Klee, Arp and Masson.  This influx of talent led to America becoming the centre of art, as opposed to France. Peggy Guggenheim had been Pollock's patron too and supported him financially, and along with Clement Greenberg,  did a lot to promote his work.   Pollock, along with others in the artistic community which grew up around him, goes to psychiatrists in New York and eventually, having returned to drinking he has a tragic car accident in 1956 in which he is killed, the result of which meant that his paintings were sought after, and the financial magazine "Fortune" which had recommended buying his paintings just a year before his death as an investment, became a self fulfilling prophecy. It was the period of James Dean, the actor,  who also died young in tragic circumstances, which caused him to become immortalized, Pollock was to be revered in much the same way.

De Kooning almost proceeds along the opposite route with rather softer more figurative paintings initially, with "Seated Woman"    "Pink Angel"  the latter  uses biomorphic  forms, or pictograms whereas Woman series paintings are much more aggressive in the application of paint, and overall effect. The sexual element is epitomized in a video still of Paul McCarthy's of de Kooning supposedly at work. De Kooning himself regards himself as an eclectic artist and his painting, "Excavation" (1950) certainly appears to be influenced by Picasso's "Guernica". I particularly liked his minimal use of colour in this painting, making the faces and eyes appear ghostly. de Kooning takes part in a husband and wife exhibition as his own wife Elaine de Kooning is an artist.  Like most wives in those days, their work was side-lined and their paintings were seen as secondary to their husband's work.  In 1955 he returns to semi-abstraction using, landscappe and highways as his motivation and painted "Door to the river". This is much more broadly painted than 'Women' paintings and almost looks like a cropped element from a larger painting.  He is a "field" painter to a lesser extent than Pollock, and his style without a foreground or background and a highly charged gestural motif puts him in that category.

The term Abstract Expressionism is difficult to define as the artists are very individual.  Mark Rothko can be regarded as an exponent of field painting, but his style is quite different in that it is not gestural. In 1939/40 Rothko painted motifs which he reproduced as a sort of freeze which explored abstract biomorphic shapes, in a Surrealist style similar to those of Matta, Gorky and Tanguy.  It is interesting to look through these numerous paintings and watch the development process where the shapes decline and the rectangle takes precedent together with the reduction of colours. A book entitled Mark Rothko Entombment displays the process. Robert Motherwell also explores these pictograms but ends up producing them almost as symbols in Chinese writing. Just as artists were trying to suggest globally relevant ideas through abstraction, so Rothko was trying to do the same thing by using colour.  Some colours excited the senses, others dulled them. The idea of art being universally accepted and understood through symbolism and colour were ripe for exploration.

Frank Stella's work explores colour with geometric shapes, and moves towards more biomorphic shapes in his later paintings, but like Rothko, it is colour that captivates him. What I find interesting is the mention of various mediums, included in the title: Hockenheim, 1982 (oil stick, urethane enamel, fluorescent alkyd & magna on etched magnesium), which shows the increasing use of new and different tools to be exploited in the interests of art. His exploration  of geometry takes him towards three dimensional space and architectural motifs. He saw his work not as a window into a different space but as an object in itself. His work seems to pre-empt that of Bridget Riley.  Stella got to the stage where painting alone was not enough to fuurther his interests in exploring three dimensional space and he embarks on developing architectural ideas including one for what would have been an iconic Bridge over the  river Seine.  Whilst Ove Arup, Consultants helped to  develop drawings, the bridge was never realized.

Anfam, David: Abstract Expressionism, Thames and Hudson, 1990, 1994 1999
Britt, David: Modern Art, Thames and Hudson1974, 1975, 1989, reprinted 2007
Elger, Dietmar: Abstract Art, Taschen GmbH, 2008
Everitt, Anthony: Abstract Exressionism, Modern Art, edited by David Britt, Thames and Hudson1974, 1975, 1989, reprinted 2007
Gooding, Mel: Abstract Art, University Press, 2001
Hess, Barbara: Abstract Expressionism, Taschen GmbH, 2005
Hughes, Robert: The Shcok of The New, Thames and Hudson 1980 and 1991, repprinted 1993

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