I had to look up abstract expressionism and discovered it was a movement that arose from a group, largely of men, whose aim was to shift the post-WWII balance of contemporary art from Paris to New York. Titled the New York School, which was a misnomer as they were not an academic institution of any sort, the members’ meeting places included cafes, bars, and clubs in the Greenwich Village area when that was a cheap place to live. In a time spanning the 1930s to the 1970s or thereabouts, this group comprised artists, poets, writers, dancers, musicians, and composers, some of whom had migrated from Europe and others who were home grown. It was, by all accounts, an energetic and intellectually stimulating environment although, by virtue of its context, almost devoid of women whose access to bars, cafes, and clubs was likely to be limited in the earlier years.
The Cedar Bar, the Club, and MoMA were its three ‘campus’ sites and its expressed aim was to consider how they could be taken seriously as modern artists. Some of the key players were Ad Reinhardt, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, and many of them, along with being embedded in philosophical thinking, were also greatly influenced by the psychoanalytic zeitgeist in which the unconscious and collective unconscious might be accessible and influential in the making of art. Pollock, an alcoholic, reportedly used much of his action painting as a therapeutic channel to his core troubles. He was killed in a car crash in 1956.
Jackson Pollock used a style where he would allow the paint to drip from the paint can. Instead of using the traditional paint brush, he would add depth to his images using knives, trowels, or sticks. This form of painting, had similar ties to the Surreal movement, in that it had a direct relation to the artist’s emotions, expression, and mood, and showcased their feeling behind the pieces they designed.
At the peak of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned the drip style.
Pollock’s radical paintings and dramatic persona helped draw attention to the broader group of Abstract Expressionists, including Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko.
From Jackson-Pollock.org. Accessed 24 June 2020.
This sounds like one of those once-in-a-lifetime comings together of disparate creative minds and ideas that would generate its own energy and thoroughly annoy ‘the grownups’ against whom it was rebelling. They called themselves the irascibles; ‘pissed off’ and angry like so many young folk surrounded by establishment figures, although of course this is what many of them ultimately became themselves.
The source of much of this material is a Coursera course on Post War Abstract Painting led by Cory Augustine; conservator, art historian, and artist, that I had fortuitously just begun.
Tachism (tachisme) is a form of artistic enterprise I had not heard of but immediately identified it as a kind of action painting because of the ‘tach’ syllable which I associate with speed – tachygraph, tachycardia, tachistoscope, so I was surprised to find it comes from the French tache or stain. Nevertheless, movement seems to be central to the art and, according to wikipedia, it was the European equivalent of the American abstract expressionism.
Pierre Alechinsky (b 1927) was one of its key practitioners. This is In Ink Country from 1959.
One of the reasons I decided to take the Coursera course is that I have trouble seeing much to like in this kind of art. Alechinsky’s above is, what? Unless I have a clue as to its origins, what he thought he was doing, all I have to go on is the colour, line, and whether I like the way the paint is applied. In this case I do but I find it hard to see how it is a ‘good’ painting.
Similarly Hans Hartung (1904-1989) whose heavy black lines feel oppressive, but also have a feel of street art and graffiti. This is T 1948-8 which doesn’t help me much.
I quite like Franz Kline’s (1910-1962) Untitled (1956) for its colours and big brush strokes but at 48 x 59 cm it is not as large a painting as the strokes might suggest.
What am I missing?
One thing I do know but may not be able to reference* is that Pollock’s paint spatters are not random. This was established by comparing the marks on the paintings with the drips left along the edges on the studio floor which were. This was a surprise although it should not be because humans find it very difficult to be consciously random and when this involves muscle memory too, my suspicion is that, whatever capacity we have mentally to generate random numbers, may not transfer to this kind of physicality. This is speculation, I have no evidence; but as Pollock was, in his own mind, accessing his unconscious I would propose a prevalence of practised moves over entirely novel ones.
I will be moving to Week Two of the Coursera course shortly and hope to gain more insight into this kind of work.
D’Augustine, C. 2020. In the studio: Post war abstract painting. Coursera course via MoMA. [online] Available at https://www.coursera.org/learn/painting/home/info Accessed 24 June 2020.
Tachisme. Wikipedia. [Online] Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tachisme Accessed 24 June 2020.
*a documentary the name, date, presenter of which I can no longer recall but I have found an article edifyingly titled That’s Pollocks in the Mailonline 2019. [online] Available at https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/thats-pollocks-scientists-use-physics-to-confirm-which-of-jackson-pollocks-iconic-artworks-are-genuine-and-prove-that-his-abstract-pieces-were-not-just-randomly-splattered/ar-AAJAFVP. Accessed 24 June 2020.
Learning outcome 3. While I am never sure of my influences at the time, it is becoming apparent (with the benefit of hindsight as I’m writing this in August) that they are operating subliminally in terms of both palette and increasing freedom to act.