Whether you’ve visited your local museological establishment to escape the mounting heat or to get some much-needed culture, you may find yourself wondering exactly how the paintings on the wall got there, or, more specifically, why they’re good in the first place. What makes work, well, work? And... what’s with all the drippy bits? Here at Artspace, we strive to make you look clever in front of your first date, work acquaintance, or father-in-law, and as such, it’s paramount that we ascertain exactly why it’s acceptable for Cy Twombly to have scribbled his way into the Western canon.
Because... you could paint like that, right?
Cy Twombly, "Leda and the Swan", 1962 via MoMA
Spoiler alert... you absolutely can’t. Not you, not your kid, not your mother... none of y’all. Because you didn't do it, in 1962, before anyone else had thought to.
Before we get started, let’s get our bearings with the movement in general, shall we?
Robert Motherwell, "Cape Cod" 1971 via Hyperallergic
Abstract Expressionism came to prominence in 1940s and ‘50s painting enclaves, combining Cubist geometric composition (think Picasso), Surrealist spontaneity (think Dali), and German Expressionist style and color (think Otto Dix) with a uniquely American rugged individualism. As artists fled from Europe to the States to escape the Fascist uprisings of the ‘30s, their influence began to shift the philosophical conversation on art-making away from the end result to the process of creation itself.
A collective desire to break away from the conventional techniques and subject matter of earlier movements defined the Abstract Expressionist ethos, forging an abstract methodology that encouraged artists to manifest their inner dialogues through dynamic gesture and improvisational action. The beginnings of postmodernist and structuralist philosophy were percolating in the academic ether during this period, providing us with further frameworks to understand Ab-Ex’s cultural import; artists weren’t dripping and splashing and sloshing and pouring because they couldn’t draft properly, but because drafting was no longer the point. The atrocities of WWII had robbed major narratives of their humanity, and the time had come to un-do the institutional parameters that had failed society when help was needed most. Enter names like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell, pillars of the "New York School", East-Coast artists whose visual communication styles centered the life of the psyche.
Franz Kline "Chief" 1950 via MoMA
After MoMA exhibited Picasso’s mural-sized epoch Guernica in 1937, the same year the first show of works from the Guggenheim’s abstract collection went on public view, it was artist, teacher, and German ex patriot Hans Hofmann whose tandem theories of “push-pull” and “dissolution of the subject” shaped a generation of painterly taste. Movement godfather and critic Clement Greenberg also helped cement Ab-Ex’s status in the intellectual atmosphere of the '60s, which brings us to today, where big messy paintings by white guys are considered pretty par for the course in museums and galleries.
Joan Mitchell "Strata" 1960 via Minnesota Museum of American Art
So! History lesson over. And yes, it is history, meaning it's already happened, it's already been done. So while this drippy, messy stuff may have been groundbreaking in the 1960s, that doesn't mean that any guy with a paintbrush and the shakes is doing anything particularly clever in 2019. Context is everything.
Here’s a general guide to talking (and hopefully thinking) about some of the most iconic pieces of Abstract Expressionist art on record:
WILLEM DE KOONING
Woman I, 1950-52
What It Looks Like: A scary lady with weird teeth? And maybe chicken feet? Is that even... what is that? Is she okay? Are you okay?
Why It’s Actually Good: De Kooning’s paintings of buxom women, knotted in gestural swathes of abstraction, departed from the traditional ladylike depictions of centuries past, infusing his subject matter with a furious, vital agency. While the paintings might appear slap-dash upon first glance, they’re labors of love. Historian Judith Zilczer described the process behind his Woman series, “Working, as was his habit, with numerous drawings and collage fragments, de Kooning filled his canvas with image upon image, only to scrape away the figure and repeatedly begin painting anew.” While most critics of the hour were less than sold on de Kooning’s pieces, (the word “degrading” was thrown around with some frequency) Clement Greenberg famously became a champion of de Kooning’s dip into figuration, locating Woman within "a great tradition of sculptural draftsmanship that encompassed the likes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Ingres and Picasso."
What It Looks Like: The floor of your apartment after either a good or uncomfortably bad party.
Why It’s Actually Good: Pollock sailed into the world’s artistic consciousness with his 1949 LIFE magazine cover, depicting him as an unmatched creative renegade replete with new methods for self-expression. His direct, physical engagement with his materials introduced external elements like gravity, speed, and improvisation into his process, effectively separating line and color from the confines of form. His work by-passes the coherent image in favor of recording the fluid properties of paint itself. As America entered the Cold War, Pollock’s paintings were toured abroad in exhibitions that pitched the pieces as emblematic of the freedoms fostered under liberal democracy. After his untimely death in 1958, sculptor Donald Judd wrote of the artist, “It’s clear that Pollock created the large scale, wholeness and simplicity that have become common to almost all good work.”
No. 6, 1951
What It Looks Like: The memory of a flattened cheeseburger.
Why It’s Actually Good: While the Latvian-born Rothko didn’t align himself with any movement in particular, his investment in making work designed to elicit an emotional response placed him squarely in the cross-hairs of Abstract Expressionism. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions —tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he once wrote, “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… If you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” His paintings were designed to reverberate in space, connecting psychically to the outer reaches and furthest depths of the human condition. His unique compositions and penchant for booming, resonant color helped his rectangles, the first of which was created in 1947, dematerialize into simultaneous light sources and affectual vacuums, the kind of deft dichotomy that imbues his paintings with simultaneous tension and edgelessness. In the painful void of morality left by WWII, Rothko’s paintings provided a cathartic release to art lovers everywhere, and his legacy lives on to this day.
The Italians, 1961
What It Looks Like: A child was given a surplus of sugar and crayons.
Why It’s Actually Good: Former U.S. army cryptologist Twombly credited an obsession with ancient cave paintings and studio proximity to Robert Rauschenberg as the shared foundation for the work that would make him famous. To quote former MoMA Chief Curator Kirk Varnedoe, “The art lies not so much in the finesse of the individual mark, but in the orchestration of a previously uncodified set of personal 'rules' about where to act where not, how far to go and when to stop, in such a way as the cumulative courtship of seeming chaos defines an original, hybrid kind of experience not voiced or left marginal in previous art.” While he eventually distanced himself from Abstract Expressionism as a movement, Twombly’s expansive, gestural vocabulary allowed for an intermingling of personal and mythological narrative to intermingle, creating a ballet of of spatial poetics on every surface he chose. For Twombly, visual information, both rational and emotive, had the potential to live in lush, entropic harmony, and both the scale and ambition of his pieces transform his seemingly casual approach to mark-making.
Onement III, 1949
What It Looks Like: A racetrack? A really weird chalkboard?
Why It’s Actually Good: Barnett Newman as a painter and theorist whose career started comparatively late in life, at around age 30. His signature motif was a vertical band connecting the margins of his paintings that he termed a “zip.” His work, while distinctly formal, carried deep personal and political motivations; he believed that art was an act of world-building, the kind of self-creative force that fused aesthetics and formulation. He conceived of compositions as modes of thought, expressing the universal vibrations of both shared and individual experiences. While most of his works were meditations on a theme, he maintained that his painting ethos was “to start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before,” further pointing to the affectual reverberations of his oeuvre.
Hopefully the above intelligence will help you navigate your next gallery jaunt with ease. If you still find yourself perplexed while beholding some Abstract Expressionist chestnut, however, feel free to use these handy canned questions and comments provided below:
- "His mark-making is so soulful!"
- "What do you think about his compositional choices?"
- "The way those colors vibrate against each other feels unbelievably immersive."
- "...Wow", followed by a deep, contented sigh.
- "It's really about the uncertainty of a God, you know."
- "Hey, should we give the girl who wrote that Abstract Expressionism Appreciation 101 article we read, like, fifty thousand dollars? Great idea!"
Go forth and museum with confidence, kids. May the drip be with you.