Saturday 17 December 2016


(The first in a two-part series)

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.”
- Jackson Pollock

Advancing American Art
American Abstract Expressionism, it's a movement so wrapped up in mythologisation that it makes the Surrealists seem straightforward. It arose at a time when America had come to dominate the Western world, not just politically but through mass culture. A culture widely perceived abroad as crass and vulgar, junk food for the eyes and ears. After all, no previous Modernist movement had been American-based, surely that said it all.

And yet Ab Ex succeeded in turning the thing around until it seemed quintessentially American. The natural centre of new art became the New World. The art became notorious and celebrated, the artists celebrities. Like their near contemporaries the Method actors they seemed to bring a new seriousness, even an intensity to American painting - which had previously seemed a popular art form. As painting's James Dean, Jackson Pollock received an iconic 'Life' magazine photoshoot in 1949. Several artists, Pollock among them, died obligingly young.

It’s somehow remarked on sagely that this all-American art-form had so many European emigres involved; Rothko, Gorky and de Kooning. And of course such talk laces the American myth rather than undermines it - it’s supposed to be arriving on the expansive shores of the bold New World which allowed them to reinvent both their art and themselves. (In fact both Gorky and de Kooning were already painting before emigrating.)

These days, and much like Method acting, it seems clear enough that the opposite is true - the movement was based in European traditions. It’s supposed newness came from simple popular unfamiliarity with what had gone before. (Particularly domestically, where Modernism had not till then managed to lay many roots.) It’s like Sybil’s line in ‘Fawlty Towers’, that Freud might have started practising psychiatry in the 1880s but it’s only recently we’ve seen them on the television.

The show largely disregards such misapprehensions. It defines the movement as “the emotional intensity of German Expressionism and the formal aesthetic of European abstraction”. Certainly the name proved to have sticking power, despite their being European abstract expressionists more than two decades before. They concede a Surrealist influence too, largely through adopting automatism, but that just further underlines the point.

But if we're going to try and look past all that mythologisation, finding the roots isn't enough. You need to examine why it took up those roots, and how it branched from them. The show has this to say:

“The fledgeling Abstract Expressionists shared one common experience.... they lived during an age of extremes and catastrophes that encompassed two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, atomic devastation and the ensuing Cold War.”

Except the spread of those events papers over a break. The name Ab Ex was first coined by the critic Robert Coates in 1946, by which time all but the last two of the items were done and dusted. We had gone from direct, material threats like war or hunger to more remote concerns such as the Bomb – a mighty shadow hanging over you, but different to shells exploding in your face.

Admittedly, and inevitably, Ab Ex pre-existed it's own name. Richard Pousette-Dart's 'Undulation' (above) looks like a fully formed Ab Ex work, a large canvas of at most semi-representational shapes made up from thickly encrusted paint in a dark palette, despite being dated to 1941/2.

But America had not been occupied like France or bombed like Britain. Of course the soldiers who had fought in those conflicts were often profoundly affected by their experiences. But in a sense that confirms the shift, they then had to reconcile those experiences to their re-domesticated lives on their return home. The sheer extremity of what had happened, less the experience but the knowledge that Auschwitz and Hiroshima had occurred, didn't seem to fit in the world yet was unforgettable. And, as none of the prominent Ab Ex artists had seen service, they were in a sense ahead on that curve.

And that break cannot help but have an effect on the artwork, perhaps best encapsulated by Adorno’s famous comment “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Virtually all forms of Modernism hitherto had some sense of “nowness”, precisely because it had lived through interesting times. But with those events either behind you or no longer immediate art came to be made with the high-minded desire to be transcendent of everyday concerns, to reach the universal. "I am not interested in illustrating my time,” commented Clyfford Still. “A man's 'time' limits him, it does not truly liberate him.” In his book 'Abstract Expressionism', (Thames & Hudson, 1990) curator David Anfam comments astutely how they “realised that timelessness is often a timely need”.

Yes, All Individuals

And yet, as paradoxical as it sounds, at the same time that it expanded their focus also fell inwards. William Seitz said the movement valued “the individual over society.” And this individualism, this sense that art exists primarily as a manifestation of the creator’s mind, is also key to Ab Ex. The art is about the artist. “Every good artist paints what he is”, Pollock insisted. In this way it’s almost a complete contrast to the public art of post-war Britain, whose tendency was to pure universalism.

This individualism led to the notion that Abstract Expressionism was all about angst, a simplification but not one entirely without merit. Within a relatively short period of time, art went from the Great Depression to your great depression. As Rothko put it “art sank into melancholy”. In general, the post-war period responded to the new existential threats with a growth of interest in... well, Existentialism, an interest often manifested in art. 

For example the Tate's 1993 show of post-war Parisian art was called 'Art and Existentialism'. While Sartre visited America in January 1946, to great acclaim. Notably there's a popular association of both Existentialism and Ab Ex with suicide, even if in the former case Camus specifically outruled it. Gorky and Rothko took their own lives, while Pollock's early death has been described as “quasi-suicidal” due to self-destructive habits.

If this is the first group show since '58, perhaps this individualism led them to divide themselves early into a set of solo exhibitors. With for example the original Expressionists, Munch didn’t paint much like Kirchner. A novice could distinguish the two. And yet no-one has the slightest trouble in seeing them both as Expressionist artists, as different branches sprouting from the same tree. And the same could be said about the original abstract artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich. While the association between the American Abstract Expressionists is much, much looser. (To the point where even that loose label doesn’t even hold. Something we’ll come onto in the second part.)

Curiously all this leaves out one aspect of the story which was uniquely American - the Federal Art Project of the pre-war era, whose willingness to commission artists to make large-scale public murals allowed them to earn a crust during the Depression while giving them a taste for the large scale. Most first generation Ab Exers had been involved with it, quite possibly it was only excepting Still. (Who doesn't seem to have joined anything much.)

This omission may be because of the widely held belief that the anti-subject matter of Ab Ex allowed artists to stay with the scale while abandoning the FPA's Socialist principles, something post-War America had quickly turned against. Motherwell's frequent titular salutations to the defeated Spanish Revolution linger like none-gone bygones, strangely unattached to the works they label.

It’s undoubtedly true that the CIA came to promote Ab Ex through the Propaganda Assets Inventory. As evidence America wasn’t merely Hollywood and hamburgers but could be highbrow, and as an exemplifier of its individualist values. It's also true that one of the reasons their involvement was kept so secret was to keep it from the artists themselves, who mostly retained their leftist or anarchist sympathies. And yet the link remains, it was that new approach to art which allowed them to be used. (In his book Anfam criticises the notion Ab Ex was “de-Marxified”.)

Unphotographable, That Awful Bigness

The works are famous for their grand scale, and the Academy makes the size of it's main galleries a selling point of the show. This scale is often associated with the artists' ambition, which then gets glibly associated with their American-ness. Which itself gets justified by references to the size of the American landscape. This isn't entirely baseless. Pollock spoke of “the vast horizontality of the land” and Still it's “awful bigness”, managing to sound remarkably like a character from a Western.

But above all it's a further example of how rooted Expressionism always was in Romanticism. Arguing American exceptionalism here would be to claim the Alps are just poky and parochial. Pollock's 'Portrait of H.M.' (1945, above) for example, is clearly rooted in Turner's vortices. There may even be the white triangle of a yacht sail in the centre of it, like one of Turner's many sea storms. But scale isn't the whole of the story. there's something more important afoot, more tied to the era...

In Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase on modern times “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” Benjamin wrote in 1936, a few short years before the first Ab Ex works. Once, not long previously, seeing a painting involved going to see it. Gradually, innovations in photography and other forms of reproduction had chipped away at that. They were not as far along this path as us, where something like Munch's 'The Scream' is reproduced over and again on coffee mugs, tea towels and fridge magnets. But they were on that path. Art could already be disseminated, passed around like loose change.

To Benjamin, this was to be welcomed. To him “Mechanical reproduction... emancipates the work of art” - it could now be extracted from religious associations, which he saw as merely advanced forms of superstition. But the Ab Ex artists took precisely the opposite turn. Their response was to try and get that aura back, to return to the resplendence of the original work of art, by making art almost impossible to reproduce. To misquote Rodgers and Hart, their favourite works of art were unphotographable.

Huge scale, vast enough to engulf you, was one strategy. (Contrary to all the common advice, they’d sometimes suggest viewers stand as close to the paintings as they could.) These works are experiential in a way that, say, Dali's aren't. (And if there seems something quasi-religious here, a sense that art must have a 'Churchiness' to it, Richard Poussette-Dart said “my definition of religion amounts to art and my definition of art amounts to religion.” Watch this space for more on that sort of thing...)

It’s true that that all the well-known works are large-scale, that for example the smaller Pollocks don’t have the same impact as his better-known vast pieces. And yet Mark Tobey’s works are not sizeable, while David Smith’s sculptures might even be called small by the standards of the day. Scale was but one strategy among many. Paint could be so thickly encrusted the work virtually became a relief. Rothko would add powdered pigment to his colour fields, to sparkle and give them an added lustre. The defining quality behind all this is the experiential.

And perhaps inevitably they were pushed in this direction partly by the art they could themselves see in person. In their early years war prevented their visiting Europe. But viewable in New York galleries were both Picasso's 'Guernica' and Monet's 'Water Lillies', and the imposing shadows of both are cast right through this show. (And similar large-scale works were taken up in post-War Europe, if not to the same degree. Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio's 'Cavern of Anti-Matter', for example, was 145 metres long.)

As someone whose political sympathies are with Benjamin, and whose head is most likely to be found stuck in in reproductive art (comics, prints, film etc.) this should of course seem to me to be precisely the wrong direction to take. And perhaps that’s what fascinates me about it. But there's more. It's often said that new art forms can reinvigorate old ones, by throwing them back on themselves, forcing them to do what they're uniquely qualified to do. Perhaps there's a similar story for new means of perception.

This does mean that one of Modernism’s best-known movements was essentially anti-Modernist. But if it was successful on its own terms, those are perhaps the best terms to take. When you do stand in front of these original works, you are very often struck with the requisite awe. I saw Pollock's solo show at the Tate back in 1999 when I was only just starting to attend galleries, and was astonished by how unreproducible it was, how the apparent art snobbery of valuing the original work turned out to be valid. (I'll inevitably add some low-res thumbnails before I post this. They won't really tell you anything, but they'll help break up the text.)

The Limits of Language

Another key feature of Ab Ex was it's interest in symbolism. To generalise more than a little, previous painters had used objects primarily for their symbolic value. (We recognise some of the more standard symbols without thinking about them, a skull signifying death, an hourglass time and so on.) Whereas with Ab Ex they sought to cut out the middle man.

Whether Pollock's 'Male and Female' (1942/3, above) matches our current attitude to gender essentialism... that's too obvious to go into, really. Let's look more at how the painting works. Certainly, it's not Pollock as we think of him, his trademark swirls of paint only creeping into the corners. But even at this early stage we can see him cutting out the representational to go straight for the symbolic. Signs and symbols are prioritised over objects, the fleeting look of things discarded in an attempt to get at their essence.

The black columns represent the torsos of the titular two figures. They do (kind of) sprout heads and feet, but really function as magnetised rods gathering up representative symbols. Mathematic equations adorn the male figure and really the whole thing is a kind of equation, where the symbols add up to a result. Pollock even, and quite definitely, paints the 'and' from the title with those three diamonds. We're asked to see a union, a coming together, between male and female essences.

It also makes for quite a formalised work, the surface divided up quite rigidly into areas. Yet it's painted in a way which makes it look immediate. We're used to seeing symbols as neat geometric icons, the digital equivalent of roadsigns as we navigate websites and click on software. Pollock depicts them roughly and rawly, as rawly as anything from classic Expressionism. Or perhaps even as their contemporary Jean Dubuffet, with his Art Brut. Like Dubuffet, much Ab Ex is about the primacy of mark-making in art. That afore-mentioned ostensible contradiction between the eternal and the intensely personal is, at least aesthetically, surmounted.

But equations, aren't they closer to written language? Look to David Smith's welded steel sculpture 'The Letter' (1950, above). It's arranged in neat rows of shapes, arranged on lines like calligraphy which stray between semi-discernible letterforms (such as Y's and I's) and hieroglyphic symbols. They also stretch back into the third dimension, as if going behind the page. Ab Ex is popularly supposed to be about vast colour fields, yet these concerns with the borders of language keep coming back.

Take Williem De Kooning's 'Zot' (1949, above), which places it's (already meaningless) title in the lower left, then blurs, stretches and distorts letter forms across the rest of the canvas. It looks like language was left out in the rain. The word sounds like something from Russian Futurism's anti-language and, taking up where they left off, he depicts the limits of language - language being take about as far as it can and breaking under the strain.

Mark Tobey's 'Written Over the Plains' (1950, above) might initially seem similar to De Kooning ,with it's equally indecipherable letter forms. But there's no Dada in it. It sees inadequacy not in the language but in us.

It's title refers to hieroglyphic shapes found on ancient tablets, many of which remain unreadable to us. (A later work, from 1963, is called 'Parnassus', after the Ancient Greek home of poetry.) There are languages within the Western alphabet where I'm not sure I'd recognise an word of, for example Finnish. And yet when you take the familiarity of that Western alphabet way, what is left becomes mystifying at a more basic level. (At the British Museum show on the Hajj for example, I was taken by the aesthetics of Arabic script.) It's language turned back into pictures, which reduces us to the stupefied level of small children staring mutely at the pages of a book.

And I say “pictures” partly because we know that ancient languages were often hieroglyphic. Which might suggest they could reverse Semiotics' most basic conception, that language is inherently divisive - involving a separation between the signifier and the signified, the name and the named. Perhaps they were some ur-language, not just ancient but primal, not an abstract code through which we look at the world, but part of the world. 

Of course, linguistically or historically, we know this to be a non-starter. But place those ideas in an artwork and they take on a poetic force. Tobey, a Bahai who'd stayed in a Zen monastery, has a similar spiritualist sense to Malevich, where art can't frame the ineffable yet can use it's own inadequacy in order to point to it.

But perhaps at this point we should cycle back. There are, as seen, significant differences between these three paintings. But there are still more significant similarities. Tobey's “white writing” look, which soon became a term for his style, is also reminiscent of equations on a whiteboard, and it's roughness with graffiti, which leads us back to Pollock. All share an interest in signs and symbols over objects and scenes, a desire to create a graphic language not imitative of reality.

Coming soon! The Abstract Expressionists - just how abstract were they? (Which will also involve looking at the artists on a more individual level.)


  1. Excellent stuff Gavin.
    I will have to give it another read and indeed I may have to squeeze in a second visit to the exhibition, partly to see some works in a new light.
    I'm struck by your first 3 choices of images... 3 of my favourites from the early rooms.
    Looking forward to part 2.

    1. Thanks! Rarely for me, I came out from my visit thinking I'd like to see it all again. Not a thing that's going to happen though, me being a non-London boy, and also I want to see the Ensor show too.

      If you're a Pollock fan, which I'm guessing you are by your choice of images, there will be more on later Pollock in part two. You can probably guess which two images...