Painting From Within: NY Abstract Expression

Originally published in Published in July, 2011.

The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to a subject matter outside of themselves. Most modern painters work from a different source, they work from within.”

– Jackson Pollack, 1950.

From October 3, 2010 to April 25, 2011, the NYC MoMA presented an impressive exhibit entitled “New York Abstract Expressionism”. Drawing entirely upon the museum’s own considerable collection, it was the most appropriate venue to showcase this supremely important 20th century art movement. American Abstract Expression was an art revolution whose emergence not only mirrored the ascension of the United States in the post-World War 2 period, but also probed the dark undercurrents that lurked beneath the nation’s razor-thin utopian veneer.

Like so many of the 20th century’s watershed art movements, the rise of Abstract Expressionism was inextricably linked to a major global war. Perhaps this is to be expected, as few things transfix and transform human passions as the build-up to, and aftermath of, an earth-shattering conflict. The years before World War One gave the world Italian Futurism; that plucky gathering of artists, philosophers, and designers that celebrated the dynamism and energy of industrialism. Its vibrant optimism, its belief that a clean break from the barbarism of the past was possible, was cruelly shattered as new technologies were put to use in the most atavistic ways, slaughtering millions.

In the 1920s, nascent German Expressionism was fed by this disillusionment. Its stark, sometimes nightmarish imagery rose like a specter on the far side of the war; a counterpoint to the optimism that preceded it. The dread of F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” and the horror of Otto Dix’s “Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas” are but two striking examples.

If the Europe of World War One experienced optimism followed by post-war disillusionment, then the United States of World War Two can be said to have experienced an opposite sequencing. The decade of the 1930s that lead up to the cataclysmic struggle was famously rife with the economic, environmental and social despair of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. However, the Allied victory over Germany and Japan in 1945 brought America a peace dividend that ushered in an age of wealth and prosperity- real for some, illusory for others- that would ostensibly define the national character for decades thereafter.

It is, therefore, quite interesting that the first major American art movement to emerge in the post-war era was innovated largely by misfits, depressives, and outsiders. These were tortured souls for whom the glossy sheen of the Eisenhower Era did not hold true. Their creations suggested somber tones as well as a meaninglessness that defied narrative. This new breed of artists did not aim to convey ideology, but feelings of isolation, torment and angst that seemed out of step with the times. One cannot help but wonder if the artists could sense the contradictions at the heart of the national character. Contradictions that would, of course, call the entire social order into question during the next decade.

The MoMA exhibit’s standout pieces spoke directly to this sense of personal and perhaps national unease. The strange, almost subliminally disturbing shapes of Arshile Gorky’s “Agony” (1947), drawn from the artist’s own problematic personal life. Wilem De Kooning’s “Woman, 1” (1950-1952), which deconstructed the female archetypes and warped them into grotesque distortions. The alien mysteriousness of Rothko’s seminal “multiform” series, exemplified by “No. 3/No.13” (1949). The subtly vibrating rectangles of this ongoing series, suggestive of a window or doorway to some incomprehensible realm, grew darker and more ominous as the artist drifted towards his suicide in 1970.

Most prominent of all, the exhibit presents the slashing, formless disorder of Jackson Pollack’s “One: Number 31, 1950” (1950), crafted with the innovative “drip” technique by an artist at the height of his powers. Pollack, that tragic figure of 20th century American art, used Jungian analysis to plumb the depths of his deeply troubled mind for inspiration. His instability and combativeness were matched only by his perceived brilliance, and it was arguably Pollack who most came to embody American Abstract Expressionism in the public eye. Both desirous of, and resentful towards, mainstream success, his career flared brightly before depression and alcoholism extinguished it with his 1956 death. One of Pollack’s greatest masterpieces, “No. 5, 1948” (1948), currently ranks as the most expensive painting ever sold, having traded hands for roughly $140 million at a Sotheby’s private auction in 2006.

And yet, the lasting influence of the NYC Abstract Expressionist movement extends beyond the esoteric world of wealthy collectors. The concept of formlessness, the very notion of looking for subject matter within rather than without would question the very definition of art itself. After American Abstract Expressionism lay the explosiveness of Pop Art, with more identifiable forms, but with an even more subversive core message: Art could be anything, from Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans to Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strip recreations. Art had ostensibly returned to the realism that preceded the 20th century, save that now its subjects were obscenely mundane. Further along lay the Minimalism of the late 60s, which scrubbed away aesthetics so thoroughly as to make an art an entirely intellectual exercise. The pendulum would swing back hard in the early 80s, with the visually explosive “Neo-Expressionism” of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel, among others. Beyond that came the rise of an art world so chaotic- its exotic mediums and unique voices mirroring the accelerating white noise of global media- that its classification might be best made by historians of the future.

Walking the halls of the MoMA’s “Abstract Expressionist New York” exhibit, it was clear that two of the most critical ideas embraced by the movement continue to resonate in American culture. The first is the notion that greatness is best achieved by understanding the past while simultaneously having the courage to defy it. The second is the implication that each individual has a masterpiece’s worth of beauty and yearning and horror raging in their souls.

Indeed, the emergence and popularity of American Abstract Expressionism signaled the country’s emotional re-alignment towards its individualistic, Horatio Alger mythology. From the freedom of movement offered by the rise of automobiles, to the demand for personal dignity in the segregationist south, to the Baby Boomer refusal to go to war in southeast Asia, to the explosion of consumerism and all of its myriad cultural and environmental implications.  And while some might argue that this celebration of the self would eventually lurch towards excess and solipsism, few can argue that that it is the reigning ideology in this late hour of the American Empire.  Like Jackson Pollock, we are now all “working from within”. How we negotiate this struggle will determine if we transcend, or stumble, from here.