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Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation Collage

Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation

Started: 1950
Ended: 1965
Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation Timeline
"There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about."
1 of 13
Helen Frankenthaler Signature
"You have to know how to use the accident, how to recognise it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once."
2 of 13
Helen Frankenthaler Signature
"Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it's an ambivalence of forms and space."
3 of 13
Joan Mitchell Signature
"My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields...it's more like a poem...and that's what I want to paint."
4 of 13
Joan Mitchell Signature
"Painting, for me, when it really 'happens,' is as miraculous as any natural phenomenon--as say, a lettuce leaf. By 'happens,' I mean the painting in which the inner aspect of man and his outer aspects interlock."
5 of 13
Lee Krasner Signature
"I think my painting is so autobiographical if anyone can take the trouble to read it."
6 of 13
Lee Krasner Signature
"Color in color is felt at any and every place of the pictorial organization; in its immediacy - its particularity. Color must be felt throughout."
7 of 13
Jules Olitski Signature
"I think of color as being seen in and throughout, not solely on the surface."
8 of 13
Jules Olitski Signature
"Usually I throw away what I don't get right the first time."
9 of 13
Kenneth Noland Signature
"Pollock destroyed assumptions about painting--the generation of artists that followed were forced to contend with his innovations."
10 of 13
Kenneth Brummell, curator
"Where the Old Masters created the illusion of space into which one could imagine walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye."
11 of 13
Clement Greenberg
"Painterly abstraction has collapsed, because in its second generation it has produced some of the most mannered, imitative, uninspiring and repetitious art in our tradition."
12 of 13
Clement Greenberg
"Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art."
13 of 13
Clement Greenberg

Summary of Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation

What then, in the wake of a revolution? After the rise and total dominance of Abstract Expressionism in the New York art scene, the question facing American painters in the early 1950s was whether the possibilities of painting had been exhausted, the medium's progression pushed to its logical end, following the dictum of the influential art critic Clement Greenberg. A group of artists with disparate styles and approaches who can be loosely categorized as second-generation Abstract Expressionists pointed the way forward. Hailing from New York but also Washington, DC and the San Francisco Bay Area, they had well understood the innovation of Abstract Expressionism, such as the all-over composition, the emphasis on the flatness of the canvas, and the bold use of color drips and splashes. Building on these, their works opened up to the outside world, rather than focusing on the expression of inner angst and drama like their predecessors: airy color and atmospheric sensations became a recurring mood, breaking from the density of the typical Abstract Expressionist canvas. Less beholden to a single art critical narrative, second-generation Abstract Expressionists were inventive and kept modern painting alive, a tradition which continues to the present day in the works of many contemporary artists influenced by them.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The artists in this informal grouping experimented and came up with new painting techniques. These included the "staining" of raw, unprimed canvas with diluted paint, the physical manipulation of the canvas as a way to direct paint, even the use of a canvas so large one had to jump with a long-handled brush to reach its corners. These techniques resulted in forms of abstraction that had never been seen before.
  • Although women artists had all along been present, the most prominent Abstract Expressionists had all been white men. Having been overlooked earlier, many women artists found a footing. Some, such as Helen Frankenthaler, even became an influence on their peers and younger male painters.
  • The emergence of new approaches to painting in other geographic locations beyond New York, too, helped broaden the scope of the art world. In Washington, DC, African American painters such as Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam made innovative and lasting contributions, while the congenial artistic environment of San Francisco spawned a new school of figurative painting.

Overview of Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation

Photograph of Joan Mitchell in the 1942 Francis W. Parker School yearbook, c. 1942

Infusing the pictorial language of Abstract Expressionism with her distinctive approach to landscape painting, Joan Mitchell created meanings out of abstract forms that resonated deeply with her perception of the world - yet were not a mirror of it. "I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me - and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed," she explained, "I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with."

Do Not Miss

  • A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
  • A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, Color Field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
  • Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
  • The Bay Area Figurative Movement emerged in the 1950s and 60s around the San Francisco Bay. Heavily influenced by the color fields and painterly brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, they later moved away from abstraction in a more figurative direction.
  • The Washington Color School refers to a group of painters including Noland, Louis, and Truitt. Their work is marked by the presence of color areas, washes, and geometric designs that emphasized the two-dimensional surface of the picture plane and its lack of reference to any subject matter.

Important Art and Artists of Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation

Mountains and Sea (1952)

Artist: Helen Frankenthaler

Light, airy washes of paint breeze effortlessly through this painting, capturing the invigorating, expansive freshness of an oceanic landscape. Sketchy lines hint at the outlines of mountainous forms, but they are wispy and fragile, emphasizing the fleeting effects of nature. Rather than depicting a realistic place, the work conveys an emotional, individualized response to the memory of time and place before it slips away.

Frankenthaler made this painting when she was just 23 years old following a visit to the coastal regions of Nova Scotia, where the wide-open space and sharp, crisp air deeply moved her. But she went beyond representation in this painting, evoking instead an experiential moment through abstraction. The art critic Barbara Rose admired Frankenthaler's ability to create "the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."

This painting was a breakthrough for Frankenthaler, in which she first pioneered the "soak-stain" technique by pouring turpentine-diluted paint directly onto raw, unprimed canvas laid out flat on the floor. This process took influence from Jackson Pollock and his "all-over" floor paintings, but whereas Pollock's work was richly textured and tightly structured with webs of dark paint, Frankenthaler's style was to become all about airy color and atmospheric space. In both their expression and method, her early 1950s works marked a new departure into the second wave of the movement. Washington Color School painter Morris Louis famously described this iconic painting as a "bridge between Pollock and what is possible."

Black Still Life (1953)

Artist: Grace Hartigan

A grid-like formation underlies this painting by Grace Hartigan, which references objective reality through carmine blocks resembling plant pots and shades of green reading as plants. They are arranged on the same plane, like on a table. In this artwork Hartigan brought the legacy of Abstract Expressionism - the use of layered, rough swirls of paint, the showcasing of brushstrokes and texture - in contact with the still life tradition. The affinity between Abstract Expressionism and another painting tradition, landscape, had been explored by painters such as Mitchell and Frankenthaler. Hartigan's work demonstrates another possibility of the Abstract Expressionist style in its second phase.

Born in 1922, Hartigan was first taken by Abstract Expressionism through the work of Jackson Pollock, which she saw in an exhibition in 1948. Departing from Pollock and the Greenbergian critical orthodoxy that had made his career, however, Hartigan was eclectic in her approach to subject matter, embracing modern life and its representation even as she experimented with shifting between abstraction and figuration. "I want an art that is not 'abstract' and not 'realistic,'" she wrote. At a time when male painters dominated the art world, Hartigan exhibited under the name "George" in the early 1950s, an homage, she said, to the writer George Eliot. But the name also allowed her work to be taken seriously by critics. Along with other women painters, Hartigan was at the vanguard of a rising tide in the art world that was slowly opening up to more diverse viewpoints and art styles in the 1960s.

Beginning (1958)

Artist: Kenneth Noland

In this immediately arresting image Kenneth Noland plays with the "Target" motif that would occupy much of his mature art. A series of concentric circles in bold, contrasting colors create a lively optical effect as each circle seems to recede or move forward in space, drawing our eyes in. Painterly brushstrokes are left visible to lend the artwork an improvised, spontaneous spirit, while the outer rim is an energized swirl painted to appear as if moving round in space.

Noland began his career as an Abstract Expressionist painter, but his introduction to the work of Helen Frankenthaler in 1953 moved him towards a greater appreciation of color and space. He started to explore how ambient patterns and vivid hues could invest his canvases with the expansive qualities of light and air. To achieve this weightless quality, Noland worked directly on raw canvas, a process he took from Frankenthaler. Like Frankenthaler, Noland saw this method as an immediate, improvisatory act in which every move counts, famously calling himself a "one-shot painter."

Like other artists associated with late-phase Abstract Expressionism, Noland's circular motifs made reference to the exterior world, suggesting military targets, the Cold War, and the space race. Art historian Paul Hayes Tucker argues that Noland's art was one "for the atomic age, pulsating with explosive power yet emanating uneasiness." With their exploration of modern signs and their meanings rendered in an ultimately abstract language, Noland's "Targets" bridge a gap between Abstract Expressionism and the rising styles of Neo-Dada and Pop Art by artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Indiana.

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Abstract Expressionism: Second Generation Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
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First published on 27 Feb 2022. Updated and modified regularly
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