Term Paper: Art in America

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Art in America

ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM

According to a modern definition, abstract expressionism is a rather generic title, due to being made up of a variety of different artistic styles and formats. Basically speaking, abstraction emphasizes taking very recognizable things in the natural world and re-shaping them until they do not visually represent anything one might find in nature. Thus, the artist expresses his/her own viewpoint or perspective through re-shaping the natural world until it reflects a specific ideal or principle.

After World War II in 1945, expressionist artists in the United States began to assert their own individual personalities through their artwork, such as personal identities and even their own psychological makeup. Although expressionism can be traced back to artists like Gauguin and Van Gogh in the late 19th century, American expressionists in the 1950's and 1960's "set themselves apart from the earlier artists by deciding to do away with the human figure" (de la Croix & Tansey, 769) as the one true representative of natural beauty. Some of these artists fall into a category known as figural expressionism, while others have been designated as purely abstract artists.

The distortion of the human figure in painting and sculpture in order to show strong emotion is a very old practice in Western art. However, after World War II, American abstract expressionist painters began to focus almost exclusively on expressing in their art "the age of psychology" which started with Sigmund Freud in the 1890's with his theories on the subconscious mind and the power of lucid dreaming. As one observer from the 1950's puts it,

American abstract expressionists "seem to have been obsessed with fear and the facts on mental illness" which they attempted to express in their artwork (de la Croix & Tansey, 769).

The overall creation of this new genre of artistic expression appears to have required the complete destruction of old and often ancient ideals related to how beauty and truth is reflected on the artist's canvas or through sculpture. As art critic Gertrude Stein once remarked, destruction "played a large role in this new art's vitality. Everything destroys itself in the 20th century and nothing continues" (de la Croix & Tansey, 771). This destruction involved a great movement away from formal perspective in painting, such as one or two-dimensions on the canvas; it also involved the destruction of traditional ideas related to human beauty which Gauguin saw as nothing but a lie. In the minds of some American abstract expressionist artists, the human form had to be presented as symbolic rather than as an ideal expression of beauty, style and shape. As early as 1919, the term abstract expressionism was linked to several important American artists and to a style known as Surrealism whose artists experimented with chance effects by manipulating and using paint on the surface of a canvas with tools usually not associated with painting, meaning that they tended to move away from using traditional brushes to apply their paint.

One of the best representative artists of the early 1950's, often seen as the originator of the American school of expressionistic art is Hans Hofmann (1880 to 1966) and although born in Germany, he is now considered as the founding father of the American school of abstract expressionism. As a young man, Hofmann came under the influence of such abstract artists like Matisse and Picasso, but in the United States, Hofmann became a very influential teacher and expressed his own artistic ideas "in an almost violent method by attacking the canvas" (de la

Croix & Tansey, 772). Usually, Hofmann would apply primary colors like red, blue and yellow of extreme richness to his canvases in jolting contrasts and conflicts and would leave certain tool or brush strokes unfinished in a spurt of spontaneous creation.

Overall, Hofmann's painting method produced an image which recorded action; in other words, a picture of that particular action. This led to what was called "action painting" which quickly became part of the style of many American abstract expressionist painters. In this way, painting "was mostly uncontrolled with no planning ahead of time which made the process of painting more real than the finished product" (de la Croix & Tansey, 772).

One special artist who certainly represents the ultimate figure of abstract expressionism in America is Jackson Pollack (1912 to 1956), the central individual of the New York school of the 1950's. After World War II, Pollack quickly picked up on what was happening in the realms of abstract expressionism, creating "a collective achievement that has been called the most original and distinctive in the history of modern American art" (de la Croix & Tansey, 772). Unlike the main method for applying paint to a canvas through brushes or some type of tools as done by Hofmann, Pollack came up with a brilliant new way of expressing his inner emotions and ideals through the application of paint.

Pollack would take and roll out a large canvas on the floor of his studio (sometimes in a barn on his property) and then drip or splatter paint on the canvas while moving about with much energy along the edges of the canvas or sometimes right on top of it. For Pollack, artistic expression "was guided by some type of mysterious psychic forces" which often resulted in his paintings looking as if they were done accidentally. Pollack's rather unusual way of applying paint to a canvas inspired many of his critics and fellow abstract expressionists artists to call him "Jack the Dripper," due to the "random fall and splatter of the paint which may have symbolized the restless and rootless lifestyle of post-World War II America. Pollack's style also stressed "absolute freedom of choice in life and art as a human commitment" (de la Croix & Tansey, 773).

Besides using traditional paints, Pollack also used a number of materials not normally found in works of art at the time, such as oil, aluminum paint and lacquer enamel which Pollack dripped, dragged or splattered from several feet above the canvas on the floor. This technique often resulted in works of art which appeared to be utterly spontaneous, due to no discernible pattern or form, i.e., completely abstract in appearance. According to Pollack himself, "It doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement" (de la Croix & Tansey, 773). Thus, if Pollack's paintings are images of anything that exist in the natural world, then they symbolize only time and motion.

Also, Pollack's viewpoint as a painter is not that of looking straight on like looking through a window, but is more down as if viewing a landscape from a great height, such as flying in an airplane at 10,000 feet. This type of "action" painting may at first glance appear to be formless and without shape at least on close inspection, but when viewed from a distance, one can easily see, or at least imagine, that there are forms within the painting (de la Croix & Tansey, 773).

Of course, like so many other artistic methods, abstract expressionism was approached in many different ways. For example, in the work of Franz Kline (1910 to 1962), one finds images and representations which might have been just as strange and mysterious to Kline himself as they are to an outside observer. Kline once remarked that "there is no way to find a verbal equivalent for the meaning" in his paintings and sometimes not even a title. For the most part, Kline usually painted in black and white on large canvases, much like Pollack, with ragged-edged bars and stripes of black overlapping rectangular-shaped white areas with edges like broken panes of glass. One of Kline's best-known works is called simply Painting 1952 which resembles some kind of Chinese character (i.e, the Chinese language) viewed from a great height, much like Pollack's work, especially his Blue Poles. For the observer, Kline's abstract paintings are "pure, non-objective forms in a wide variety of arrangements and appeal to the viewer's own conceptions of what makes up something pleasant to behold with the eyes" (de la Croix & Tansey, 773).

Of the New York "action" painters that were contemporaries of Pollack and Kline, Willem de Kooning (1904 to 1997), a native of Holland but now considered as one of the great American masters of abstract expressionism, began his career as a figure and portrait painter and often switched between pure abstract and figural painting. The differences between these two approaches clearly shows de Kooning's own attitude, for he has been called an "American artist of color which overlap one another with no definable order, similar in nature to Hofmann and Pollack (de la Croix & Tansey, 774).

De Kooning's best-known paintings are part of a series of abstract female nudes on very large canvases, full of "sinister and menacing images" which often create feelings of apprehension and fear in the observer. One painting in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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