Abstract Expressionism and Art After World War II


Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-52 (photo https://www.moma.org/wp/moma_learning/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/478_1953_CCCR-303×395.jpgv)

After World War II, the focus of much of the art world shifted to New York City. This was in no small part because of the move, either permanent or temporary, of so many European artists to New York during the war. These avant-garde artists shifted discussion of what constituted art in America, and touched off Abstract Expressionism, among other movements.

Abstract Expressionism, which is mainly a movement of painters, is characterized by a focus on abstraction as a means to express personal feelings and emotions. It is important to view these works as a means to express inner thoughts and emotions, as opposed to merely a rejection of the naturalistic style of many previous American art movements, such as the Ashcan School. This movement has often been misinterpreted, especially by critics such as Clement Greenberg and the Formalists, who discussed this movement as the embodiment of the idea of “pure” art in abstraction because of the focus on formal elements. Greenberg, Clive Bell, and the other Formalists often ignored the statements of the Abstract Expressionist artists, who discussed their work in terms of emotions and spirituality, as much as abstraction and the formal elements. This movement is very much the successor to the European Expressionist movements, which also emphasized motion and color as a means to express larger ideas, emotions, and concepts within the works themselves. This movement, though, is not without its issues, as the role of the men that identified with it, both in the 194os and 1950s and now, tends to be emphasized over that of the women. But, many influential female Abstract Expressionist artists were working at this time as well, including Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler is often credited with creating the technique of color field painting.

Action painting: Jackson Pollock, No 1 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950 and Franz Kline, Untitled, c. 1950 (photo https://uploads1.wikiart.org/number-1-lavender-mist(1).jpg and By Nyuifa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are 2 main divisions of painting in the Abstract Expressionist style: Action painting and Color Field painting. Action painting is characterized by the use of gestural abstraction when applying the paint to the canvas, and often uses more simplified colors. The most famous of the action painters is Jackson Pollock, known for his drip paintings, where he would lay the canvas on the ground, and apply paint in thick layers using choreographed gestures.

Color Field Paintings: Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952 and Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51 (photo https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/88/Frankenthaler_Helen_Mountains_and_Sea_1952.jpg and https://www.moma.org/wp/moma_learning/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Barnett-Newman.-Vir-Heroicus-Sublimis1-469×208.jpg)

Color Field Painting can be seen as the “Simple expression of complex thought.” Here, the paint is thinned out with linseed oil, water, or another solvent, and applied thinly to the canvas, often with the painter moving the canvas around to achieve the forms created by the colors of the paints, such as with Frankenthaler’s work or the paintings of Morris Louis. Another type of color field painting involves putting large flat areas of color on the canvas, as with Mark Rothko‘s and Barnett Newman‘s paintings, breaking them only with large or small areas of other colors. Here, as with other color field paintings, it is the colors used that are significant to the understanding of the works.


David Smith, Cubi XIII, 1963 (photo By Undead q – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19577530)

American sculpture in the post-war period is characterized by experimentation with form and material, and the artists often incorporated industrial production methods and techniques. David Smith‘s Cubi series is one example of this, as these sculptures are made from brushed stainless steel in a foundry, and reflect some of the same ideas and concepts of the Abstract Expressionist painters. 

Alexander Calder, The Clouds, 1954, Central University of Venezuela and Le Halebardier, 1971, Hannover (photo By Caracas1830 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4422257 and By Jim Champion from Southampton, UK – Modern art, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3703375)

Alexander Calder, in Paris in the early 20th century began to experiment with art and movement, making mobiles, hanging sculptures set in motion by air currents. These eventually gave way to his Stabiles, which were larger, more stable structures, assembled from steel and iron. These are Dadaist and Surrealist in their playful quality and influence of chance, but more nonfigurative. His stabiles are often also site-specific, made for one particular location.

Louise Bourgeois, Quarantania I, 1947-53 and Joseph Cornell, Suzy’s Sun (for Judy Tyler), 1957 (photo https://www.moma.org/images/dynamic_content/exhibition_page/42776.jpg and http://artnc.org/sites/default/files/Cornell%2C%20Suzy%27s%20Sun%20(for%20Judy%20Tyler)%2C%2078_1_1.jpg)

Other post-war sculptors in America began to experiment with biomorphic sculpture, using forms and materials that resembled the organic to create their abstract works. These often engaged in a dialogue with the viewer about the nature of bodies. Still others began to use assemblage as a means of creating their art work, incorporating found objects and other materials into works that played with some of the same ideas as the Dadaists and Surrealists: word play, chance, improvisation, and the often rigid definitions of the word “art.”

Robert Capa, Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944 and Harry Callahan, Weed Against the Sky, Detroit, 1948 (photo http://media.vanityfair.com/photos/54cad29751062027082043cd/master/w_768,c_limit/image.jpg and http://www.christies.com/lotfinderimages/D56001/harry_callahan_weed_against_sky_detroit_1948_d5600196g.jpg)

American photographers of the period influenced by war and the Great Depression. Many had photographed the War for a number of the news agencies and the Great Depression for the Works Progress Administration, although not all had photographed both events. Many photographers were influenced by abstraction, and used their works as a means to abstract natural forms, moving away from a focus on the photograph as a document.

Alberto Giacometti, The Chariot, 1950 and Jean DuBuffet, Corps de Dame (Château d’Étoupe), 1950 (photo http://www.moma.org/collection_images/resized/788/app_zoom/CRI_246788.jpg and http://imgc.artprintimages.com/img/print/print/jean-dubuffet-body-of-a-woman_a-g-10566904-8880731.jpg?w=671&h=894)

Post-war European art was more directly in dialogue with the experience and aftermath of war. Much of Europe was left in ruins after the war, and everyone there was reeling from the shock of 2 World Wars in quick succession. Alberto Giacometti, who was friends with Sartre and the Existentialists, explored the paradoxical power of emaciated human forms, and the idea of extinction in his works, often creating pieces that showed the human form as fragile and alone. Jean Dubuffet‘s work used the brutal power of expression to highlight the ferocity of the modern world. His work seems rooted in many of the same ideas as the frottage pieces of Max Ernst, which also came out of a sense of chaos and the Surrealist ideas of automatism.

Francis Bacon, Painting, 1946 and Lucien Freud, Girl with a White Dog, 1951-52 (photo https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/44/Painting_1946.jpg and https://www.wsws.org/en/media/photos/legacy/2011aug/a02-freu-girl-480.jpg)


Henry Moore, Three Piece Reclining Figure No. 1, 1961, Yorkshire (photo CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=248756)

Painting and Sculpture in Britain highlighted the importance of the figure. But here too this took many different forms. Francis Bacon‘s works are often disturbing, equating human forms with sides of beef, and deconstructing the figure. These can be read as examinations of the violence and trauma of modern life, and were influenced by biomorphic surrealism. Lucian Freud, on the other hand, has created portraits that reflect his devotion to the physical presence. Henry Moore was drawn to massive, biomorphic forms. Many of this large scale sculptures use the traditional motif of reclining figure and a “mother earth” theme, but it is easy to read into them Moore’s experience drawing the huddled masses in the tube stations of London as they were sheltering from German bombs during World War II.


Werner Bischof, Cologne, 1946 and Robert Doisneau, From the series The Sideways Glance, 1949 (photo http://mediastore2.magnumphotos.com/CoreXDoc/MAG/Media/Home5/2/3/5/d/PAR133165.jpg and http://www.staleywise.com/collection/doisneau/doisneau_1_b.jpg)

Photographers in Europe were interested in both the sense of fragility of the era and the absurdity of modern life. Many of them documented the rebuilding of Europe after the war, as well as the division of the continent into East and West as the Cold War began.

This period can be seen as the stepping stone between the experiments of the modernists before and between the wars, and the slow move into Postmodernism by the 1970s.

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