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Abstract Expressionists, Happenings and Pop Artists

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock, 1950

The Abstract Expressionist movement is often cited as the beginning of contemporary American art because their innovative practices directed the art world’s attention from Paris to New York. Despite this remarkable achievement, viewing Abstract Expressionist art is a disconcerting experience: what once looked interesting from a distance becomes disappointing once I come closer. Part of what I dislike is how clearly and deliberately its artists rejected the use of realistic painting techniques. Without the demonstration of conventional artistic skills (perspective, shading, color mixing) it can be hard for many viewers to see the work as having accomplished or communicated anything of significance.

Jackson Pollock in his studio

Clement Greenberg’s essay, Towards a New Laocoon, explains that Abstract Expressionists' use of simplistic materials and painting techniques, emphasis of form over a narrative subject, and expression of self-involved attitude instead of a socially conscious one, were deliberate choices by the artists (Greenberg 15-16). However, despite my skepticism this movement’s grand proclamations, I can empathize with the Abstract Expressionists’ desires to break free of the artistic conventions that surrounded them.

Harold Rosenberg 's essay, American Action Painters, explains the evolution of these artists’ attitudes. If they were not social realists working in programs like the WPA, they were following previous artistic movements like Cubism. Rosenberg explains that a turning point in their development occurred when they, “decided to paint…Just To Paint” (Rosenberg 27). It sounds like they needed to move away from their personal and the collective artistic and ideological pasts to assert their identity as individual creators. This explains Mark Rothko’s statement that “The familiar identity of things must be pulverized in order to destroy the finite association with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment” (Rothko 4).

The Abstract Expressionist’s perspective must have been alternately threatening and refreshing at the time when many people were seeking meaning after the devastating events of World War Two. Their work may have seemed nihilistic and meaningless but to many Abstract Expressionists their efforts demonstrated a search for transcendence. Rothko explains that, “The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed…Pictures must be miraculous…the picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need” (Rothko 4).

Out of this group, Franz Kline is one of the few Abstract Expressionists that I find engaging. Kline is not as spontaneous (or messy) like his more famous colleagues Jackson Pollack or Willem De Kooning. But he is one of the most compelling monochromatic artists I have seen. I am impressed with his abilities to make a limited palate of black and white so energetic and lively. Even when his work tends to be more silent and meditative, like Le Gros, it is still bold and impactful. Perhaps I am so moved by his work because I can see how he can communicate the essence of the industrial landscapes that surrounded his youth in Pennsylvania coal towns. Or I can sense that his ability to communicate tension through controlled yet expressive lines and vibrant black and white tones were a result of reproducing on canvas some segments of his drawings (MOMA). After learning of that, I understood that Kline’s work fits in with my preference for paintings that involved some pre-planning ahead of its creation.

Works Cited

Greenberg, Clement. “Towards a Greater Laocoon.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2001.

MoMA | The Museum of Modern Art. "Franz Kline. (American, 1910-1962)." MoMA | The Museum of Modern Art. 29 Sep. 2009 <>.

Rosenberg, Harold. “The American Action Painters.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Rothko, Mark. “The Romantics Were Prompted.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Ed. Paul F. Fabozzi. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2001.

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