Analysis Of The Main Themes And Elements In Abstract Expressionism Art

In post World War II abstract expressionism was the art movement that took over American art culture in the 1940s, after being developed in New York by the New York School of art; a club made up of select artists. Abstract expressionism borrowed elements from previous art movements De Stijl and surrealism. Abstraction split between two different artist groups, there were those who were known as ‘action painters’ such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, characterised by highly erratic and gestured brush marks. The other group of artists were fascinated with the idea of myths, human psyche and religion; often using symbolic motifs in their artwork. Those use of motifs to display an artists emotions correlates to the theme of what could be considered bad taste in post war art, as it was either heavily criticised or loved by onlookers and critics. 

Willem de Kooning, a dutch artist born in 1904 and died in 1997 was one of the most prolific abstract expressionist artists, becoming highly renowned in the mid to late 1940s. Kooning was part of ‘the action painters’ along with Pollock, Lee Krasner and his wife Elaine de Kooning. Kooning was one of the main members of the New York school; a group that was made up of American painters, dancers, poets and musicians who adopted a radical style of painting after the WWII in the 1940’s throughout to the 50s, which became known as abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism was a mix of surrealism and German expressionism. The focus on the human psych, emotion and mythological aspects is what made it so engrossing to viewers, as well as the disfigured human forms as the subject matter in their work. Abstraction was about rejecting representational forms of traditional European art to a more open minded way of working. And abjection was presenting the human body in its most real and often comforting ways. Although De Kooning was part of that, his methods were still very formalised; often harshly instructing his wife on how to draw the human form. 

Willem de Kooning’s most well known series of paintings titled ‘Women’ in its different variations was developed in the late 1940s. It represented his fascination with the female body, however, this was controversial to many during this time as it presented the female figure in such a violent way, vastly different to how women were originally portrayed as gentle and soft. This highlighting action painting; the sharp gestural brush strokes as opposed to fluidity. This series is spurred from his love of cinema, specifically murder mystery, a theme that was growing during that time. David Anfam from The Burlington Magazine states that those American films that portrayed ‘murderous drives to devouring erotacism’ was a key factor behind Kooning's work. In his piece ‘Two Women’ 1954, pastel, charcoal and pencils on paper, it was supposed to symbolise ‘on the feeding fury of of sharks, a metaphor for human lusts’ (Anfam, 2003). Furthermore, the main contending theme of his artworks is the juxtaposition of horror and amusement. He was turning something that was supposed to be look deformed and frighting into comical. After the second world war, many artists incorporated mutilated bodies in their work, as the mindset was during that time of late 40s to early 50s was of darkness and sorrow due to the horrors the world had to witness. However, then humour came in as what could be seen as satire, illustrating society trying to forgot this major historical event that was shaping their world and outlook. Kooning’s work went against ‘traditional art’ that was popular in Europe, where they portrayed historical events with accuracy, unlike abjection. Abjection was a part of post structuralism, it went against what would be considered convent art.

Additionally, Kooning’s state of mind heavily impacted his works. James Lawrence from the Burlington magazine highlights this contending Kooning’s ‘self imposed slipping’ (2004) of the mind, where he did not think of the possible errors he could make. Mark Rothko, a Russian artist was highly debated whether he was an in fact an abstract painter due to himself declaring that he did not belong to a specific art movement. However, because of his intense belief of the philosophical and its connection to art and human emotions during the modernist period he has ultimately been regarded as one. He’s use of the human psyche, partially his own compares directly to abstractionRothko throughout his life struggled with severe depression which eventually caused the demise fo his life. The intense mental turmoil that he was experiencing shaped the aesthetic of his paintings as time went on. As stated by Rothko himself, his work symbolised ‘myth and tragedy and timeless subjects’ (Kramer, 2006). As his mental health issues got worse the colour palette got noticeably darker and the canvas size got smaller, however, that was due to other health issues. Rothko’s work when compared to Jackson Pollock’s is visibly different, Rothko incorporates rectangular shapes and clean canvases while Pollock displays erratic paint splashes and drips, however, while their methods and aesthetics were different, the both painted with their emotions and their current state of mind. While Pollocks work could be considered ‘in your face’ because of its overbearing aesthetic, it is not in bad taste or jarring to the audience, unlike Willem de Kooning and his grotesque depictions of the female body that split the opinions of critics and fans. 

Julie Kristeva and Louise Bourgeois both heavyly focused on the idea abjection. While Kristeva was not an artist her self, she understood the importance of abjection in not just art but also litterture. Louis Bourgeois was a French artist during the 1940s, best known for her painting and printmaking. She incorporated themes of the body, death and the subconscious, relating her to both abstract expressionism and surrealism. Abject art is recognised by its apparent motifs to war as abject art continuously appears to have disfigured human body’s; or put simply the encounter between subject and object. Kristiva contends this idea by highlighting that abject is ‘true theatre without makeup or masks.. corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ (Miller, 2015). Abject art does not hide away from the true horrors of life, it depicts bodily fluids, different smells and decaying bodies, as this was a very real part of human life. This vastly contrasts art periods in the past, such as the reinasonce movement where subject matter was illustrated in a more heroic fairytale than a gruesome life event. In Bernard Miller’s Rhetorics of war; Dirty Words and Julia Kristeva’s state of the abject he includes statements made by Phillip Caputo in his memoir on war, with Caputo expressing that ‘we were accustomed to seeing the human body intact’ much like those of a deceased family member, but not one that has ‘torn flesh, the viscera and splattered brains’ (Miller, 2015). 

In Louis Bourgeois’s sculptural work, she reflects upon her troubled childhood as the main subject matter, which can be seen as jarring and ‘bad taste’ depending on how the audience initially views it. For example, in her artwork ‘The destruction of the father’ (1974, plaster, latex, wood, fabric and red light) it explores her feelings on psychoanalysis and her distant and dominating father who was having an affair with their family nanny. What makes this artwork particularly unrelenting is the skin like elements which is supposed to symbolise her feelings on her father as well as the red lighting which contributes to the somewhat uninviting aesthetic. Furthermore, Bourgeois focused on them of feminism and sexuality. After the second world war ended, women were forced into a position of staying at home and taking care of the household, while the husbands worked to earn a living, due to this she contrasted a series of paintings called Femme Maison which showed womens body’s with houses as heads. This could be conveying the idea that women during the late 40’s and 50’s were without an identity, only operating as two things; someone to clean and cook while also providing satisfaction for men. 

Ultimately, the themes of abstract expressionism and abjection are both intertwined when exploring postwar art, as both examine the human psyche, one as mental and the other as psychical. While works from Willem de Kooning did not please all audience members due to his depiction of the female body, he still explored the different aspects of human form the disfigured nature whereas abjection was much more overt in their portrayal. Displaying grotesque human corpse’s in a way to represent the horrificness of war and post war, thus making the viewer more uncomfortable which may make them persive these artworks in a more negateve light. 

16 December 2021
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