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Overview of Abstract Expressionist Ideas

Looking back on the development of Abstract Expressionism from the vantage point of the late 1950s, critic Clement Greenberg concluded that a strange reversal had taken place in the art of his generation. Artists who had once been inspired by politics, were later devoted to the cause of art alone, and the results had been great and heroic.

It is a strange paradox that many of the artists who would later become Abstract Expressionists, started out their careers as Social Realists. Most matured in America in the 1930s as left-wing radicals, and were committed to art that might depict the lives of ordinary people, in styles which were vivid and meaningful to those same people. They disdained abstraction as irrelevant, decadent and bourgeois, and they followed philosopher John Dewey in his belief that art should be grounded in personal experience; Social Realism, they believed, offered the most adequate means of communicating that.

The experience of the Depression of the 1930s cemented the beliefs of many of these artists, and during that period many gravitated to the Communist party. But later in the decade, as the effects of the Depression began to be alleviated, many became disillusioned with radicalism. The Moscow Trials, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty of 1939, and then the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland: all these events began to turn the radicals away from Russia. And since the Communist Party had decreed that the acceptable style of art was Social Realist, their disillusionment also encouraged them to look to other styles. Other critics, artists and writers encouraged a break with Social Realism as well. In 1937, Meyer Shapiro wrote his essay, "The Nature of Abstract Art," in which he argued that abstraction was just as imbued with contemporary life as figurative art - both were as much a product of their time. And, even more significantly, in the following year the exiled Communist, Leon Trotsky, collaborated with the Surrealist, André Breton, on a statement entitled "Manifesto: Toward a Free Revolutionary Art." Published in the American periodical Partisan Review, it argued that total artistic freedom was vital for social and political progress.

Greenberg and Rosenberg

The stage was being set for politically committed realist painters to turn to abstraction, and in 1939 a young critic named Clement Greenberg gave them further impetus with his essay, "Avant-garde and Kitsch." Published in Partisan Review, this argued that with the old bastions of avant-garde culture falling to totalitarian regimes across Europe, advanced artists had an obligation to take up its cause and save culture from being dominated by the 'kitsch' of the masses (which he described as encompassing everything from academic painting to popular music). By the late 1940s, Greenberg was emerging as one of the most prominent promoters of advanced art in America. He argued that analysis of form - discussion of factors such as color, line and space - provided the only adequate means of explaining the historical development of modern art. Therefore, only attention to form could reveal what was important and significant in the new art.

Essays such as "Avant-garde and Kitsch" established Greenberg's reputation by the early 1940s, but in the early 1950s a new voice in American art criticism emerged. Harold Rosenberg's writing was shaped not by idealist thinkers such as Kant and Hegel, but by the Existentialism then current in Continental Europe. Rosenberg spoke of Abstract Expressionist paintings as records of an encounter between the artist and the canvas. As he put it, "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act.. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." The canvas was no longer "the space in which to reproduce, re-design, analize, or 'express' an object, actual or imagined."

Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were by no means the only critics to write about Abstract Expressionism, but they represented its most prominent explicators. Their ideas might have diverged - and personally and professionally they were aggressive competitors - yet that divergence is characteristic of a movement which itself was an awkward union of very different talents.

"The Triumph of American Painting"

Greenberg and Rosenberg may have seen the task of the avant-garde artist to be one of lonely struggle against the idiocy of the masses, yet it is remarkable how much attention popular media gave to Abstract Expressionism. As early as 1948, a key year in the development of many painters' work, Life magazine - then the magazine with the largest circulation in the U.S. - gave it lavish coverage. And in 1951 Vogue magazine used Jackson Pollock's paintings as the backdrop for a fashion shoot. Many art critics were happy to promote the Abstract Expressionists as America's first home-grown avant-garde, and they none-too-subtly suggested that its advent might represent a sign that the U.S. had stolen the role of cultural leadership from Europe. Soon, even members of the State Department saw the potential for good publicity in a movement which seemed to represent freedom of expression at a time when the nation's foremost rival, the Soviet Union, was still demanding that its artists paint in academic realist styles. And by the late 1950s the government was sponsoring touring exhibitions of American painting around cities in Europe. When the historian Irving Sandler titled his history of the movement, "The Triumph of American Painting," he certainly captured its mood, and in the decades since, many have pondered the connection between artists who were once radicals, and the supposedly conservative Eisenhower government of the 1950s.
Dissent and Decline

Success in art attracts imitation, which in its turn speeds on decline, and decline only encourages opposition. By the mid 1950s, there were sure signs that Abstract Expressionism was becoming academic - and this surely spelt the end for a movement whose artists so often projected desperate heroism, lofty emotion, and tragedy. In 1956, the critic Leo Steinberg wrote that the style was entering "the impasse of expressionism settling into style and turning into habit." In 1961, The New York Times critic John Canaday published a lengthy attack on the style. By the following year, even Greenberg and Rosenberg seemed to believe that innovation was needed.

A New Generation: Postmodernism and Beyond

Even if it was in terminal decline by the late 1950s - even if its reign lasted no more than a decade - Abstract Expressionism bequeathed a great deal in terms of ideas. As early as 1958, the artist Allan Kaprow was asking, in an article for Art News, "What is the Legacy of Jackson Pollock?" and his conclusions pointed not to painting but beyond it, into performance art. Kaprow's ideas borrowed something from Rosenberg's notion that art was an event, an action, an encounter: he wondered if that encounter might be theatrical. For other critics, however, the maintenance of painting was still important. Clement Greenberg, realising that the time necessitated some alteration of his previous theories, published his essay "Modernist Painting," in 1960, and pointed to a new set of problems for a new generation. Instead of focussing on flatness as a key constituent of modern painting, as he had done in previous essays, he began to speak of opticality, an experience of pictorial space that "can be travelled through, literally or figuratively, only with the eye."

Greenberg's significance as a critic faded in the 1960s with the advent of new styles such as Pop art. But unlike Rosenberg, whose importance waned with Existentialism, his ideas have continued to influence further generations of critics and historians. Perhaps his most able follower has been Michael Fried, who began by supporting many 'post-painterly' abstract artists such as Jules Olitski and Larry Poons, and went on to attack Minimalism on terms very similar to those laid down by Greenberg. Even critics such as Rosalind Krauss, whose writing has so often attacked him, have been shaped by Greenberg's advocacy of medium-specificity, giving Abstract Expressionism a very lengthy afterlife.