Abstract Expressionism

“What about the reality of the everyday world and the reality
of painting? They are not the same realities. What is this
creative thing that you have struggled to get and where did it
come from? What reference or value does it have, outside of the
painting itself?” Ad Reinhardt, in a group discussion at Studio
35, in 1950.

My essay starts with the origin and the birth of this great
expression in the twentieth century. This movement not only
touched painting, it had an affect on various aspects of art-
poetry, architecture, theater, film, photography.

Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian are
considered to be the pioneer artists to have achieved a truly
abstract visual language in painting. Although they worked
independently, these artists were united by a belief that
abstract painting was capable of evoking a spiritual experience.

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A central figure of German Expressionism, Kandinsky, in 1911,
began to paint densely layered composition of free-floating lines
and areas of color, with the intention to reveal his desire to
instill visual form with the properties of music. By 1915,
Malevich had invented a new, abstract visual set of paintings
consisting of one or more colored geometric shapes on a white
field. He visualized a state of feeling, and a sense of bliss
and wonder. Mondrian took a different approach with tighter
geometric orientation and stricter compositional order. He was
also inspired by landscape but he interpreted it as a series of
interlocking vertical and horizontal lines.

It would be hard to advance any definition of abstract
expressionism without taking into account the vast and varied
cultural and historical happenings that led to its birth. This
artistic movement evolved over a long time. As we look closely
at any of the members of the generation identified with abstract
expressionism, their biographies reveal the whole experience of
this artistic adventure. It was an odd reaction of the new
America from the old Europe. For more than half a century, the
general European public had been bombarded of a variety of art
exercises. But new wave of artists in Europe and United States
saw in change in its future. Abstract was a natural evolution.

It would finally liberate artists from the claims of tradition
and lift art to the next level of heights. When the economic and
ideological interests began to fade away, a fresh form of
thinking evolved. It was not just people’s mental habits that
changed the way of life, it was also the ways of life that
changed people’s mental habits.

The developments in science and technology over the
twentieth century have been accompanied by an unprecedented new
forms and means of communications. Born at the beginning of the
twentieth century, the artists whom we link together under the
name Abstract Expressionists were also the product of the same
tension that produced the forms, formations and deformations of
their history. It was then, the tension became an art. Willem
de Kooning was born in 1904, Arshile Gorky again in 1904, Adolf
Gottlieb in 1903, Hans Hoffman in 1880, Barnett Newman in 1905,
Mark Rothko in 1903, Clifford Still in 1904, Jackson Pollock in
1912, Ad Reinhardt in 1913 and Robert Motherwell in 1915. These
artists’ initial biographies were programmed around the people
who were still living according to the principles set down in the
nineteenth century. What artists like Pollock, de Kooning,
Kline, Motherwell and others were able to realize in the late
forties and early fifties went far beyond the possibilities that
were opened up by recent influences. The artists ranged from
thirty to forty-two years old then and were coming into the
mature periods of their lives and were expressing the maturity of
the art. The economic and cultural circumstances in the United
States conditioned and defined their art- the crash of 1929, the
election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, the American stance of
neutrality towards World War II until December 1940.

The term “Abstract Expressionism” is misleading. On its
first appearance, it seemed like any genuine innovative style,
breaking away with the past in a radical manner. By a clearer
understanding it revealed that Abstract Expressionism flourished
due to some reliable understanding of the painters’ formal and
technical concerns and their relationship to previous art.

Unlike European tradition, American art had no classical roots.

In the mainstream America art has not been monumental and
decorative, but basically popular and realistic. After giving
primary debt of the Abstract Expressionism to the European art,
the artists managed to preserve some unique and compelling
qualities of American expression. These included boldness of
imagery, directness of technique, stress on the material
physicality of medium and surface, and sincerity of statement.

Abstraction embodied the intellectual achievement and
adventurous outlook of the twentieth century, along with other
technological breakthroughs. Evolving after photography had
proven its ability to capture appearances, abstract expressionism
in every walk of art conveyed that could not be captured through
a set of lens. It gave complete freedom from conventional
concerns and restrains, which led to unobstructed expressiveness
and individual exhalation.Even though the work may seem
spontaneous, abstract artists employed highly calculated methods.

The relationship between abstract art and modern
architecture was particularly strong. Many painters paid homage
to architectural principles in their compositions. Kazimir
Malevich, in architectonics, experimented with three-dimensional
exploration of ideas. A number of artistic groups and movements
evolved which taught the integration of art, architecture and
design. German architect, Walter Gropius, developed a series of
interlocking geometric forms around a central matrix, which
embodied the transformation of abstract planar composition into a
functioning three-dimensional form. Gropius Bauhaus buildings
celebrated the industrial materials and construction techniques
and banished ornament and hand-crafted elements in favor of sleek

A number of abstract artists found photography as the most
progressive means of expression. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian
artist produced photograms-photographs created without a camera
by arranging objects directly on light sensitive paper, which is
then exposed to light in bursts or for sustained periods. He
created the impression of three-dimensional form by changing the
density of lights and darks across the major surface.

As the convention of figurative painting was radically
transformed by abstraction, so was the fundamental forms of
music. In 1920s Arnold Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone
system- a method of composition with twelve tones related only
to one another in a way that all the melodic and harmonic
elements of a composition are derived from a basic arrangement as
ordered by the composer. A composition can be made by inverting,
reversing the rows or doing both at once. All tones must be used
before any is repeated. This method provided composers with a
surprising degree of freedom within its orderly framework.

In early abstraction, the relationship between poets and
visual artists was so close that many of them worked in both
forms of communication. Among better known was Italian Futurist
Filippo Tommaso Marinate, as he created a poetic form called
parole. Marionette poems were of dissonant compositions with
nonsense words in various typefaces and sizes roaming freely on
the page, producing a chaotic pattern of forms. He distorted,
stretched and fragmented words, so that they lost all connection
to their original meaning. He hoped that the pure force of the
words given visual expression would result in a more primitive
and original form of communication.

The theater had offered painters, writers and musicians a
unique forum for concentrating on a single piece of art. But none
is more famous which fully embodied abstraction is the Russian
Opera, Victory over the Sun, first performed in St. Petersburg in
1913. The plot symbolized the human conquest of natural forces
and the conquering of the old by the new, revolved around a group
of dictators, who capture the Sun and enclose it in a square
container. Dissonant music sound effects accompanied the actors’
movements and speech. The sets and costumes consisted of black
and white cloth sheets painted with geometric forms. The
libretto was written in a transitional language which relied on
puns and free association of sounds and images. It was thought
to communicate the inner state of the speaker more directly.

Film, just like photography depends not only on mechanical
devices, but also is able to stimulate motion. An earliest
adventure into abstract film-making was made by Hans Richter who
created animated works which consisted of geometric forms
arranged according to the laws of chance. He derived from a
series of experiments called scroll pictures with variations on
formal themes drawn in pencil on long rolls of paper. His
interest in painting and drawing led to his investigation of film

Abstract expressionism was the combination of idealism and
spirituality- two graeat schools of thought. I would sum up this
essay by quoting from Willem de Kooning describing what abstract
art means to him in 1951. He saw it as a an art of spiritual
harmony in which all the main characters flew away from the
painful realities of life. He said, ” Their own sentiment of form
instead was one of comfort. The beauty of comfort. The great
curve of a bridge was beautiful because people could go across
the river in comfort. To compose in curves like that, and angles,
and make works of art with them could only make people happy,
they maintained, for the only association was one of comfort.

That millions of people have died in war since then, because of
that idea of comfort, is something else.”