Abstract Expression emerged in the late 1940s, growing out of the influx of European artists fleeing fascism, and the theories they brought with them. It was the second wave of European modernism, the first not having caught on here 30 years earlier.
The idea of painting “automatically”, without thinking, without plan, drawing from that part of the brain where we dream – that Surrealist notion was used by the Abstract Expressionists but they left out the dream images, they just “automatically” put paint on canvas and moved it around until it seemed like time to stop.
Many of the painters had studied various eastern philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism. Another influence, the existential philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, where the individual is seen as alone in the universe, creating meaning. Contemporary writers were similarly motivated, especially those known as the Beats, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They overlapped with the musicians of that time and city such as the Jazz of Thelonius Monk.
So these painters stood before their blank canvases, looking for that “right” arrangement of paint. Failure to find it spelled deep anxiety for some. More than a few were to commit suicide.
The largest collection of work from this period can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York city. Most Art museums in major cities have followed MOMA’s lead, gathering a collection also. The prices now are astronomical, blue chip, often in the millions. When the paint was still wet they could be had for a few hundred dollars.
The chief artists of the movement, sometimes called Action Painters, were a varied crew. Jackson Pollock is famous for his drips and splatters. “My child could do that.” was and is still uttered before this work sometimes by the unbelievers (like the writer Tom Wolfe who wrote a disparaging, philistinian tome called, The Painted Word). Others opine, “It looks like a dropcloth.” In a way they do. Jackson would lay the canvas flat on the floor and drop paint while walking around it or from step ladders, creating meandering swirls. What he did was what all painters do, choose colors and put them somewhere. The finished canvas is judged by the same standard as other art, the total effect. No one before Pollock thought to apply paint the way he did. Anyone since who tries it will likely be considered an imitator. He sort of has the patent. Pollock had a serious alcohol problem and was killed in a car accident in 1956, possibly a suicide.
Mark Rothko represents another strain in the movement, more mystical and other-worldly than Pollock. His most mature work consists of horizontal bars of color seemingly floating in space. Amazingly he agonizingly doubted the value of his work and became another suicide statistic.
In the east there is the idea of a Mantra, an image to stare at or word to chant which helps one enter a trance-like state to experience the unnameable, the godhead, field of being or whatever word you might use to point at the ineffable. That idea is present in various way in this movement. With Pollack’s paintings you are aware of the action of the painter, the trail of the physical act of painting. With Rothko you are more transported to a place of contemplation.
Another painter in the movement was Willem De Kooning, a virtuoso akin to a great violinist. His most well-known series used the frenzied expressionist application of paint to depict semi-abstract, grotesque women. Later in the 50s he did huge and wonderful abstractions, breathtaking blowups of his skilled brushwork.
Other artists were Arshille Gorky, a painter of exquisite and calm abstraction (unlike his life which also ended in suicide); Franz Kline, known for his large, powerful works in black and white; Helen Frankenthaler with her streaming and layered bands of thinned down paint; Grace Hartigan’s confident and deft sensibility; and Barnett Newman for a geometric look that eventually evolved into a sparse, single vertical line. Many other painters worthy of study produced works as part of this movement. One wonders what kept them going (those who did keep going) given their almost complete lack of monetary reward. But their impact on the western world was tremendous. They changed the way painting is defined, what we expect a painting to. They transferred the world art capital to New York City, and they enriched us by what they left behind.