The 1930s art world enjoyed several different creative styles. The Social Realists painted works that normally depicted a social message and, with Edward Hopper, even oppression. The Regionalists also felt a need to show the trials of daily life. However, others began to see things in greater abstraction. Hans Hoffman was interested in expressive abstract art, and the American Abstract Artists favored a more mathematical perspective1. By the 1940s, the younger artists wanted to break away from earlier methods and pursue a method to show reality in a more unpredictable and immediate fashion. Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko exemplified this new style. As Rothko said in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 1943: "We are for flat forms becaue they destroy illusions and reveal truth."
This new artwork technique sprang from a non-realist language, searching for "power of color, internal luminosity and powerful lines of force, as well as the need for interior geometric forms and for an enraptured lyrical transformation of the world" 2. It was called "Abstract Expressionism," and soon became a truly a unique American creative product. It was the last style that could be specifically linked to any country, since a new internationalism in the arts was developing3. Stated Pollack about this period: "An American is an American, and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country'4. The thrust toward modern art was furthered by the large proliferation of media and information that led to global artistic and cultural exchanges through reproductions, cinema, magazines and numerous other publications that addressed the art world 5.
Surely there was something in his family genes that led to Pollack's pursuit of art. His brother, Charles, studied at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton, who later became Jackson Pollack's friend and instructor. Pollack's other brothers, Marvin Jay and Sanford, followed suit and later went into graphics and printing6. During his younger years, Pollack's rebellious nature, which was coupled with alcoholism and mental illness, was already very apparent. After being expelled from art school twice, he began to study on his own and with Charles7.
Peggy Guggenheim held Pollack's first exhibition at the Art of This Century gallery in New York in 1943 8. Born into a wealthy family, Guggenheim supported a number of new artists during her lifetime. If their work did not sell, she just purchased them herself. In addition, when Adolph Hitler was invading France and destroying works of modern art, she bought one painting or sculpture every day for two months time and shipped them to America for safekeeping.
Before long, Abstract Expressionism became known as a kind of frontier heroism that supported the American ideals of universalism, individualism and freedom. Artists who did not share such pioneering traits received second billing, or worse. As the poet Robert Creeley observed, heroes were desperately needed "to offset the awesome weight of social authority in our art, poetry" 9. In fact, there is little doubt that among the Abstract Expressionists there was a strong sense of the failing of the United States that was related to the negative political years after the war leading into McCarthyism. This disillusionment explains why many of the Abstract artists became involved with the civil rights and anti-war movements 10. The artist that emerged as the greatest hero and Abstract Expressionist was Jackson Pollock11. In fact, Pollack once said in an interview that he was always impressed with the plastic qualities of American Indian art.
The Indians have the true painter's approach in their capacity to get hold of appropriate images, and in their understanding of what constitutes painterly subject-matter. Their color is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn't intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasm.12.
It is not surprising then, that it was not actually Pollack's work that made him so successful -- there were few people outside of other artists and critics who even tried to understand his radical departure from earlier styles. Instead it was the myth that grew up around his being. As early as the late 1940s, magazines such as Life were questioning whether he was the greatest living American artist. It was his explosive style, Western roots, hard drinking, rejection of the past, incomprehensibility and instinctive technique that made him so successful 13. Reviews ranged from those who saw in his art America's moving forward into the 21st century to those who could not fathom what it was in his drips and spatters that could be called art. Slowly the mainstream press came to accept what the finer critics saw in his work and began to promote him to the masses.
Soon, even the least artistic individuals knew a Pollack work of art when they saw it. They also were able to quickly visualize what he looked like from the photos that appeared in Life. One of these pictures, for example, showed Pollack in the act of his typical form of art: tossing paint from his brush onto a huge canvas spread over the studio floor. For instance, for the painting Composition, Pollock spread the canvas on the floor of his art studio, "so he could walk around, on or above it." He said in this way, he was "actually putting himself into his work." This was called "action painting," because it represented the action of his hand, arm, and whole body in making the painting. He also used a brush and palette knife in some areas. The lines and splatters were evenly worked over the totality of the canvas, without beginning or end. This reflected the idea that nature was equally everywhere and in everything. They may have looked like random globs of paint, but they were anything but. Physicists at the University of New South Wales in Australia subjected Pollack's artwork to mathematical scrutiny. They found that the paintings bore similar features at each of many size scales, the hallmark of fractalness (being self-similar; those images of infinitely complex order James Gleick talks about in his book Chaos.). The object's characteristic "fractal dimensionality" was roughly related to the indentedness of the object's texture. Apparently the dimensionality of Pollack's work increased through the years.
Violence was another theme that some people say Pollack often represented as well as lived out in his own life. In his early paintings, such as Naked Man with a Knife, he pictured men in hand-to-hand combat with knives. The entire knife-wielding arm of the standing figure on the right has penetrated the head of one of his enemies. It enters below and mouth and exits above the brow. However, it has since been recognized that differently than always believed, Pollack normally had control over his violent bouts. Although he often had his furious moments, they were not necessarily for lack of control 14. Rather, they helped him display an "immediate" and "direct," but not "accidental" look15. He often stopped artwork for days, just to think about his next layer of paint.
Mark Rothko was another American Abstract Expressionist during this time. In the earliest days of their artwork, Pollack and Rothko's works were similar in approach. With the passing years, however, the two branched off from one another. Born in Russia, Rothko's family emigrated to Oregon when he was a young boy. He then went to Yale for two years, before dropping out and working odd jobs. It took him another 30 years to become well-known in his field. His fame did not last long. Suffering from depression, he committed suicide at the age of 67.
Before going into water and oil painting, Rothko tried other forms of artwork.
He began to experiment with automatic drawing and the unconscious mind. His technique became looser and produced lines that dominated the foreground of his paintings. Rothko's first solo exhibition in New York was held at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in 1933. In 1935, he helped found The Ten, a group of artists sympathetic to Abstract Expressionism. He executed easel paintings for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project from 1936 to 1937 under President Roosevelt's administration. In the early 1940s, he developed a painting style with mythological content, simple flat shapes, and imagery inspired by primitive art 16.
In the early 1940's, stylistically his works were influenced by Surrealism. His canvases started to increase in size, and his style was still going through changes. Rothko was very much influenced by psychiatrist Carl Jung, student of Sigmund Freud, and the "spirit of Myth." Peggy Guggenheim also gave Rothko a solo show at Art of This Century in New York in 1945 17.
Rothko once said of his work: "There are painters who want to tell all, but I feel it is more shrewd to tell little. My paintings…
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