Abstract Expressionism

“What about the reality of the everyday world and the reality of
painting? They are not the same realities. What is this creative thing that
you have struggled to get and where did it come from? What reference or
value does it have, outside of the painting itself?” Ad Reinhardt, in a
group discussion at Studio 35, in 1950.

My essay starts with the origin and the birth of this great expression
in the twentieth century. This movement not only touched painting, it had
an affect on various aspects of art-poetry, architecture, theater, film,

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Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian are considered to
be the pioneer artists to have achieved a truly abstract visual language in
painting. Although they worked independently, these artists were united by
a belief that abstract painting was capable of evoking a spiritual
experience. A central figure of German Expressionism, Kandinsky, in 1911,
began to paint densely layered composition of free-floating lines and areas
of color, with the intention to reveal his desire to instill visual form
with the properties of music. By 1915, Malevich had invented a new,
abstract visual set of paintings consisting of one or more colored
geometric shapes on a white field. He visualized a state of feeling, and a
sense of bliss and wonder. Mondrian took a different approach with tighter
geometric orientation and stricter compositional order. He was also
inspired by landscape but he interpreted it as a series of interlocking
vertical and horizontal lines.

It would be hard to advance any definition of abstract expressionism
without taking into account the vast and varied cultural and historical
happenings that led to its birth. This artistic movement evolved over a
long time. As we look closely at any of the members of the generation
identified with abstract expressionism, their biographies reveal the whole
experience of this artistic adventure. It was an odd reaction of the new
America from the old Europe. For more than half a century, the general
European public had been bombarded of a variety of art exercises. But new
wave of artists in Europe and United States saw in change in its future.

Abstract was a natural evolution. It would finally liberate artists from
the claims of tradition and lift art to the next level of heights. When
the economic and ideological interests began to fade away, a fresh form of
thinking evolved. It was not just people’s mental habits that changed the
way of life, it was also the ways of life that changed people’s mental

The developments in science and technology over the twentieth century
have been accompanied by an unprecedented new forms and means of
communications. Born at the beginning of the twentieth century, the
artists whom we link together under the name Abstract Expressionists were
also the product of the same tension that produced the forms, formations
and deformations of their history. It was then, the tension became an art.

Willem de Kooning was born in 1904, Arshile Gorky again in 1904, Adolf
Gottlieb in 1903, Hans Hoffman in 1880, Barnett Newman in 1905, Mark Rothko
in 1903, Clifford Still in 1904, Jackson Pollock in 1912, Ad Reinhardt in
1913 and Robert Motherwell in 1915. These artists’ initial biographies
were programmed around the people who were still living according to the
principles set down in the nineteenth century. What artists like Pollock,
de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell and others were able to realize in the late
forties and early fifties went far beyond the possibilities that were
opened up by recent influences. The artists ranged from thirty to forty-two
years old then and were coming into the mature periods of their lives and
were expressing the maturity of the art. The economic and cultural
circumstances in the United States conditioned and defined their art- the
crash of 1929, the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, the American
stance of neutrality towards World War II until December 1940.

The term “Abstract Expressionism” is misleading. On its first
appearance, it seemed like any genuine innovative style, breaking away with
the past in a radical manner. By a clearer understanding it revealed that
Abstract Expressionism flourished due to some reliable understanding of the
painters’ formal and technical concerns and their relationship to previous
art. Unlike European tradition, American art had no classical roots. In the
mainstream America art has not been monumental and decorative, but
basically popular and realistic. After giving primary debt of the Abstract
Expressionism to the European art, the artists managed to preserve some
unique and compelling qualities of American expression. These included
boldness of imagery, directness of technique, stress on the material
physicality of medium and surface, and sincerity of statement.

Abstraction embodied the intellectual achievement and adventurous
outlook of the twentieth century, along with other technological
breakthroughs. Evolving after photography had proven its ability to capture
appearances, abstract expressionism in every walk of art conveyed that
could not be captured through a set of lens. It gave complete freedom from
conventional concerns and restrains, which led to unobstructed
expressiveness and individual exhalation.Even though the work may seem
spontaneous, abstract artists employed highly calculated methods.

The relationship between abstract art and modern architecture was
particularly strong. Many painters paid homage to architectural principles
in their compositions. Kazimir Malevich, in architectonics, experimented
with three-dimensional exploration of ideas. A number of artistic groups
and movements evolved which taught the integration of art, architecture and
design. German architect, Walter Gropius, developed a series of
interlocking geometric forms around a central matrix, which embodied the
transformation of abstract planar composition into a functioning three-
dimensional form. Gropius Bauhaus buildings celebrated the industrial
materials and construction techniques and banished ornament and hand-
crafted elements in favor of sleek form.

A number of abstract artists found photography as the most progressive
means of expression. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist produced
photograms-photographs created without a camera by arranging objects
directly on light sensitive paper, which is then exposed to light in bursts
or for sustained periods. He created the impression of three-dimensional
form by changing the density of lights and darks across the major surface.

As the convention of figurative painting was radically transformed by
abstraction, so was the fundamental forms of music. In 1920s Arnold
Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone system- a method of composition with
twelve tones related only to one another in a way that all the melodic and
harmonic elements of a composition are derived from a basic arrangement as
ordered by the composer. A composition can be made by inverting, reversing
the rows or doing both at once. All tones must be used before any is
repeated. This method provided composers with a surprising degree of
freedom within its orderly framework.

In early abstraction, the relationship between poets and visual
artists was so close that many of them worked in both forms of
communication. Among better known was Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso
Marinate, as he created a poetic form called parole. Marionette poems were
of dissonant compositions with nonsense words in various typefaces and
sizes roaming freely on the page, producing a chaotic pattern of forms. He
distorted, stretched and fragmented words, so that they lost all connection
to their original meaning. He hoped that the pure force of the words given
visual expression would result in a more primitive and original form of

The theater had offered painters, writers and musicians a unique forum
for concentrating on a single piece of art. But none is more famous which
fully embodied abstraction is the Russian Opera, Victory over the Sun,
first performed in St. Petersburg in 1913. The plot symbolized the human
conquest of natural forces and the conquering of the old by the new,
revolved around a group of dictators, who capture the Sun and enclose it in
a square container. Dissonant music sound effects accompanied the actors’
movements and speech. The sets and costumes consisted of black and white
cloth sheets painted with geometric forms. The libretto was written in a
transitional language which relied on puns and free association of sounds
and images. It was thought to communicate the inner state of the speaker
more directly.

Film, just like photography depends not only on mechanical devices,
but also is able to stimulate motion. An earliest adventure into abstract
film-making was made by Hans Richter who created animated works which
consisted of geometric forms arranged according to the laws of chance. He
derived from a series of experiments called scroll pictures with
variations on formal themes drawn in pencil on long rolls of paper. His
interest in painting and drawing led to his investigation of film making.

Abstract expressionism was the combination of idealism and
spirituality- two graeat schools of thought. I would sum up this essay by
quoting from Willem de Kooning describing what abstract art means to him in
1951. He saw it as a an art of spiritual harmony in which all the main
characters flew away from the painful realities of life. He said, ” Their
own sentiment of form instead was one of comfort. The beauty of comfort.

The great curve of a bridge was beautiful because people could go across
the river in comfort. To compose in curves like that, and angles, and make
works of art with them could only make people happy, they maintained, for
the only association was one of comfort. That millions of people have died
in war since then, because of that idea of comfort, is something else.”


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