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Tragedy, ecstasy , doom: “Water of the Flowery Mill”, 1944, by Arshile Gorky (©ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016; photo ©2016 Metropolitan Museum of Art/ARS)


The history of American art prior to the mid 20th century was not a particularly distinguished one. There had been occasional efflorescences such as the epic landscapes of the 19th-century Hudson River School and distinctive individual artists such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. By and large, though, America had always taken its lead from Europe where the welter of early-century movements — Fauvism, Cubism, Vorticism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism and the like — followed one another so rapidly that they seemed to suck the oxygen out of experimentation and originality on the other side of the Atlantic.

With the end of the Second World War, however, everything changed: postwar exhaustion was reflected in European art; America, on the other hand, was energised. The felicities of time, place (largely New York) and personnel (a group of young artists, many of whom knew one another, and all of whom had been exposed to exhibitions of modern European art) led to America’s first truly original native style — Abstract Expressionism.

The name was coined by the critic Robert Coates in 1946, even though the work was neither all abstract nor indeed expressionist. It wasn’t unified either: some artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, were “action painters” whose work was defined by spontaneity and movement; others, such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, were “colour field” painters who relied on the emotive potential of large areas of colour. What linked the artists was that they all embraced the spirit of revolt; they worked on a huge scale; they gave primacy to the paint surface and the “all-over composition” — every part of the canvas was important; they believed in the act of painting itself and that abstraction could contain meaning. Rather than thinking of themselves as Abstract Expressionists, they preferred to be known the “New York School”. However they were known, the group — with Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston among the other key players — quickly became art world darlings and Ab Ex itself, with its energy and excitement, became the fons et origo of much subsequent American painting, heavily promoted by the influential critic Clement Greenberg. Not that its legacy is entirely beneficent: Robert Hughes believed that Ab Ex “encouraged a phony grandiloquence, a confusion of pretentious size with scale, that has plagued American painting ever since”.

Nevertheless, this celebrated, influential and high-worth style is the subject of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy (until January 2 next year) which seeks to unpick both the links and the differences that comprised the movement. With 150 works, it represents the most significant display of Ab Ex in this country since 1959 when an exhibition called “The New American Painting” at the Tate, sponsored by a CIA front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, first introduced the New York School to Cold War Britain as an exemplar of freedom of expression and cultural innovation.

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