The Beginning And Development Of Abstract Expressionism

Art before the Second World War was predominantly centered around Paris and other European centers. The turn of the twentieth-century brought along with it an expansive range of movements attempting to move further from the old classicism and naturalism. The idea was that the turn of the century should consolidate a new way of seeing or not seeing. It was the beginning of Modern Art. After World War II a dynamic shift occurred, The United States was the new beginning. The Western art practice moved along as many post-war perspectives were being pushed through new styles and trains of thought.

This new beginning was Abstract Expressionism also alluded to as ‘The New York School’. In the same way that The United States did not have ties to European ways, neither did the American Painters. ‘The artists behind it were out to shatter all that had come before it; technique and skill were completely reimagined and emotion was everything…’The artists characterised as Abstract Expressionists were found to be cultivating new individual styles, relating to the application of paint on canvas, which was made possible to new technologies in the composition of modern paint, also the scale of works increased dramatically, thanks to the particularity of individual methods of practice.

Barnett Newman reveals right before the start of Abstract Expressionism in 1941 “The feeling I had at the time, around 41’, was the world was coming to an end”. This he stated after the turbulent times in the twenties the market in Paris was strong and burgeoned on by dealers, critics and enthusiastic collectors. Auctions provided the perfect space for the evaluation of work. The political developments in Germany that resulted in censorship and strong authority over schools of thought at the time, pushed many individuals in the artistic scene into Paris, this also strengthened the scene. Then the Wall Street market crash in the thirties led America into economic instability which further pushed Paris into maintaining its strength as the center of the Western Art world.

It was in 1945 with the end of World War II where Europe as a whole was economically starved, including Paris. Spending was encouraged on rebuilding and restoring areas that had collapsed in the war. The war encouraged a lot of Europeans to immigrate to America. This brought a lot of wealth to the United States, especially New York, where many people first arrived. These immigrants became high society and fuelled the move of the art world from Paris to New York. Where the wealth went the art followed and in this case the United States had the right environment to accommodate for this.

The relationship between artists, dealers, galleries and museums at this time developed a great deal and is still seen as the structure of the art market today. Dealers began forming long term relationships with artists, lifetime partnerships were encouraged. As well as this galleries started partnerships as well with galleries in different cities representing the same artist. This meant that artists work became more widespread and in such cases more diverse in work that was available at the time.

The main dealer that sought out and formulated this model was Leo Castelli. He started dealing in Paris, right before the war and collected works by Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. He flee to New York and after some time working in the Army he started operating in the art world. He was devoted to the idea of the importance of artists works being in museums, earl on giving two Dali drawing to the Museum of Modern Art. The great deal of connections he had with collectors and dealers meant that he could assign certain works to be put in Museums at times. Increasing the diversity of work in museums and work on the art market.

Even as The New York School sought to break off from European traditions in the quest for something new and deeply intrinsic, there were ties that can not be overlooked. There were two European ideas that formed the basis of Abstract Expressionism. This was to do with working from the unconscious mind and existentialism both in line with surrealism. Artists approached painting as though it had no history or in other words, “start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before”. The physicality of paint on canvas was the result of these ideas. The paint on canvas was more based in reality than the panes realistic depictions and forms previously prized for their likeness to the eyes interpretation of our world. Duchamp notoriously states “If only America would realise that the art of Europe is dead and that America is the country of the future”. A notion formed that by maintaining an utter devotion to the physical basis of painting, emotion would be more direct.

Ironically it was these European influences that pushed the work further away from any political ideas and war theatrics. The mode became removed from the history of the war and in many ways Abstract Expressionism is largely an isolated, short lived period. “Start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before” Leo Castelli was also very influential in the move away from Abstract Expressionism. This happened when Castelli’s Gallery showed Jasper Johns and Robert Raushenberg. This would be the art after Abstract Expressionism, what became known as Pop Art. It was about culture and the universality of the everyday experience or object, and so the work became visually reflective of these sorts of nuances. Pop artists never sought out to exercise skill or techniques that displayed their individual hand but rather displayed ideas in whatever way they saw fit.

What composed Pop Art is important as it describes to us the changes in the past, right after World War II that made path for The United States to be the center of the Art world. New York as the destination for many immigrants, the Art that came out of it could be compared to the exposure of new culture or ideals. Abstract Expressionism started off with the American reinterpretation of European ideas about what art should be. Clement Greenberg contributed a great deal in describing the new language of Abstract Expressionism. He described the tradition of European painting which was always confined and subject to depict the world in a representational way that had various planes. This he said is what gave the American’s an upper hand, as they were not subject to this tradition that ultimately concealed the true form of painting. DeKooning, Kline, Pollock, Newman and Rothko, these were pioneers of an advanced painting, where new language formed the basis of each undertaking of work. This started a snowball effect. The reinterpretation and ultimately the abandonment of many European ideals created the perfect space to cultivate the aspects of American culture that was found in the preceding Pop Art. Ultimately it was the various moments in New York after the war that decided on the future of Art. 

16 December 2021
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