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Abstract Expressionist Painting
Artistic and Aesthetic Value in American Modernist Art during the Cold War Era
Defining American Expressionism
American modernism is perhaps one of the most difficult artistic periods to define. Modernism refers to a trend that affirms the power of human beings to create, shape, and make improvements to their environment. Modernism is aided by technological advances and is considered both progressive and optimistic in its approach to defining society. American modernism is considered both an artistic and a cultural movement. It has its beginnings at the turn of the 20th century, reached its height during the World War I and World War II and continues even today[footnoteRef:1]. [1: Lavin, Irving. "Abstraction in Modern Painting: A Comparison." Metropolitan Museum ]
Defining American modernism is only the first of many difficult tasks involved in the study of American expressionist painting and its influence on society. During the 1950s American modernism took on new forms and a new role in society. Modern art was used as a form of propaganda to introduce American values and ideas into European Society. It played an important part in the fight against communism. This role brings into question whether art is a reflection or a shaper of society. In this case, is role is apparent, as it was intentionally utilized in an attempt to shape society. However, when one looks beyond its intended purpose, the true aesthetic and artistic value that it reflects helps one to gain a better understanding of the of Art
Bulletin, New ser., 19, no. 6 (1961).
underpinnings of society during the Cold War era.
To look beyond the purpose of American modernist art during the 1950s is to gain a bird's eye view of cultural values that permeated American society. This research will explore the artistic and aesthetic values of American modernist art during the Cold War. It will focus on one particular movement within modernist art. American expressionist painting will be the focus of this research study. It will examine the hypothesis that American expressionist art during the 1950s was more than a form of propaganda and that it had its own aesthetic and artistic value. It will utilize case studies as the basis for exploring this hypothesis.
The Role of Abstract Expressionism
Abstract expressionism as perhaps most significant artistic movement of the post-World War II era. It was one of the first truly American art forms to spread beyond the American continent. This art movement transformed New York City into an art center, perhaps even unseating the former position previously held by Paris[footnoteRef:2]. Expressionism emphasizes subconscious as opposed to conscious creation. Expressionism is diametrically opposed to realist paintings of earlier eras. Dripping paint from a brush onto a canvas placed on the floor was a popular technique that helped to define the essence of American expressionist painting[footnoteRef:3]. [2: Stella. Paul. "Abstract Expressionism." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000). Accessed 26 March 2012. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm (October 2004)] [3: Ibid. ]
Abstract expressionism is meant to convey emotional intensity. The degree of stylistic variation available to artists who contributed to this movement varied significantly. One unifying feature of American expressionism is a feeling of rebelliousness and a rejection of societal norms, standards, and the confining elements of society. In a day when mass media attended to instill norms and standards into a society that sought order as a means to achieve stability, American expressionism stood in opposition to mainstream society.
Many people confuse expressionism with the art of abstract painting. However, the two are quite different when examined closely. Abstract painting refers to an abstraction of reality. Perhaps the best example of this is cubism, where the central object of the painting is something real that has been transformed into something that is almost unrecognizable when one examines the individual parts, but yet is completely recognizable in its final form. Expressionism lacks this element of real objects that are a hallmark of abstract painting[footnoteRef:4]. Often there is no recognizable form in the art and the piece exists in and of itself with if no connection to reality. Expressionism is the language of pure emotion. Whereas abstract painting is a method for morphing reality. [4: Ibid. ]
When one looks at an expressionist painting, it often evokes a feeling, rather than an image in the viewer's mind. Often expressionist paintings will be said to feel sad, light, airy, or happy. Sometimes people will see images in the painting that were not intended. The colors, shapes, and forms, evoke archetypes that may be different for every individual that views the painting. Not only is the artist an individual, the viewer is an individual as well and the interpretation of the painting is independent of the recognition of familiar objects, but instead is dependent upon the experiences of the viewer. This contrasts with a realist painting where the artist and the viewer come to an agreement as to what the painting represents. In early expressionist works, this agreement does not exist and the viewer may have an entirely different interpretation and feeling than the artist intended. Expressionism is the essence of individualism free from the constructs of formal society.
Expressionist paintings capture the feel and essence of an object rather than a realistic interpretation of it. Expressionist paintings are considered avante-garde and on the fringes of society. Abstract expressionism went through stages of development. Expressionism evolved, as did society at the end of World War II. Expressionism evolved slowly and represented a slow transition from earlier art forms.
The early works of expressionists utilize strong imagery, relying on primitive art forms as their inspiration. Notable early expressionists included Rothko, Pollock, and Motherwell, if whose works will be examined in this research. Pictographs and morphed elements of the human anatomy utilized Jungian psychology and its images of the collective conscious[footnoteRef:5]. The works care about on their own and were organic rather than carefully planned. In the New York Times Gottlieb, Rothko and Newman wrote [5: Ibid. ]
"To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is critical." (Stella, 2004, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm).
This quote best summarizes the expressionist art forms better than any other definition.
The early works appeared in the early 20th century through the mid-1940s[footnoteRef:6]. No official cut off marks transition from the early to latter phases of the expressionist movement. However, the new technique developed in 1947 by Pollock marks the transition into this new phase of expressionist art. Pollock's technique involved dripping and pouring thinned paint onto raw canvas set on the floor. This became known as "gesture" painting. Although it can be argued that this may not be considered painting at all as no brush was used. There was no object to this new painting technique. They resulted in a completely obscured painting that had no discernible preplanned subject matter[footnoteRef:7]. Rather than representing a certain object these paintings were done purely to express the emotion of the painter. [6: Ibid. ] [7: Ibid. ]
Pollock's gesture paintings were of large scale. They were considered shocking to many viewers painting. They always evoked a response from the viewer. Kooning developed his own version of gesture style, alternating between abstract work and iconic figurative images. Several other artists developed their own particular brand of gesture painting. Expressionism rather than form was the key distinguishing characteristic of the mature abstract expressionist movement. The work itself and the style of the painting was the artist's distinctive signature.
Color plays an important role in the works of many expressionist artists. For instance, Rothko created large format fields that were dominated by color rather than white space. Rothko's work captured the sublime rather than the beautiful. His paintings were not meant to be calm and serene, but were meant to invoke tension and thought. Newman was another important expressionist painter of the time. He described his own reductionist style of painting as,
"… freeing ourselves of the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend & #8230; freeing ourselves from the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, and myth that have been the devices of Western European painting." (Stella, 2004, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm).
Pollock worked with both scale and color to provide his viewers a somewhat religious experience. Human statement highlights the importance of breaking away from traditional attitudes and viewpoints about artwork and its intended affect on the human psyche. Rothko's work was said to revoke tears in viewers as they contemplated the work. One could compare Rothko's use of scale to the religious experience that one has any cathedral or other religious structure. Rothko's work was not meant to be viewed from a distance so that one could envelop the entirety of the piece, bur rather, his works were meant to be viewed up close so that one could experience the enormity and grandiose scale of the painting. They…[continue]
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