UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism

This exercise asks for thoughts on some questions on abstract expressionism.

To what extent does a concern with elemental humanity represent a reaction to the cataclysmic events of 1939-45 and the displacement of so many Europeans, including a number of artists, in the wake of the Second World War?

The impact of war on twentieth century art was seen well before the Abstract Expressionists. Picasso’s Guernica of 1937 (see may be the best known example. Before that, the searing brutality of works by Otto Dix (for example, George Grosz and Max Beckmann and the grief of Käthe Kollwitz ( responded to WWI. Denvir (1975, p. 55) described Grosz as “using visual violence to excoriate the establishment and propagate his own democratic ideas”.

The words of some artists show the impact of the war. Newman recalled “in 1940 some of us woke up to find ourselves without hope – to find that painting did not really exist” (Newman, [n.d.]) In a radio broadcast in 1943 Rothko and Gottlieb claimed tragic content was the only response as “in times of violence, personal predilections for niceties of colour and form seem irrelevant” (Rothko and Gottlieb, 1943). Another quote from Rothko: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom” (Rothko, [n.d.] a)

American artists in this period were turning against the previously accepted traditions of Old World painting and I think it is possible that this was influenced by a perception of failure of the traditional systems in politics as well as art. They may also have felt able to venture away from recent European-based movements such as Surrealism because of the sense that the cutting edge of culture and artistic development was now in America, and particularly New York. There was a feeling of “immanent self-importance” and “a common goal was perceived to be the mystery, violence and spontaneity associated with the modern experience on all its levels” (Anfam, 1990, p. 79).

Another indirect impact of WWII was felt when Cold War supporters in America promoted Abstract Expressionism, the movement becoming “enshrined as America’s aesthetic ambassador to the world and a symbol of its superior freedoms” (Anfam, 1990, p. 174).

Rothko said that, ‘The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point’. Does it matter if viewers of art works ‘miss the point’ provided that they take something from it?

This question connects back to earlier discussion on myths as a subject in art – see 2-Nov-2013 – and Rothko himself used symbolism from myth, “totem forms and hieroglyphic annotations [to] evoke such grand themes as conflict, sexuality and death” (McAuliffe, 2013, p. 28). In my November post I suggested that meaning could be shared without knowing the specifics of a myth, that some gestures are universal and speak to shared humanity.

To me that argument doesn’t seem to hold when considering abstract expressionism, but this is at odds with a conviction spreading in the late 1930s “that meaning could be conveyed through the physical primacy of the medium” (Anfam, 1990, p. 55).

Rothko also said “It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way”, but I don’t think I can bridge the distance of time and culture. I spent time with two works by Rothko in Canberra – Multiform 1948 ( ) and 1957 # 20 ( maroon_treeI have no notion whether my emotions and thoughts overlapped in even the smallest way with Rothko’s as he painted. Perhaps there was some direct connection – who could ever say? I don’t believe it invalidates my experience one way or another. I spent time looking at the painted surface as a painted surface, and in a less focused reverie. On my walk to the gallery the next morning I saw this tree a bit differently. It seems trivial, but to me it is real and meaningful.

Sometimes it seems arrogant to me, the expectation placed on viewer by the artists combined with minimal support. On the other hand, perhaps it was a combination of a belief in the power of their medium and a meaning that they couldn’t express in words. Speaking about She Wolf (1943) Pollock remarked it “came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it” (Pollock, 1944). Speaking about the same painting, an audio commentary on the MoMA website comments on the “rather frantic notations as if there were some message being transcribed … this urgency of human communications and yet you don’t know exactly what that communication is” (MoMA, [n.d.]).

Thaw (1986, p.43) wrote “While the Abstract Expressionists as a group have overwhelmingly proved that abstract art can serve as a vehicle for the revelation of the unconscious, and therefore be a means to communicate artistic content of urgency to humanity, such meaning cannot be forced and must remain unspecific, untranslatable into words”. Perhaps I am showing my inexperience in Art and Art History by expecting to verbalise the communication of a painting.

Is it possible to make any sort of formal analysis of these artists’ works – or of Pop Art?

The ambiguity inherent in abstract expressionism creates a difficulty in analysis. De Kooning said “That’s what fascinates me – to make something that you will never be sure of, and no one else will either” (de Kooning, 1972).

Basic visual elements remain, or their absence can be noted: lines and their nature, use of colour and tone, texture, depth of space, ground, shapes. There may be patterning, rhythms, differing density, stresses, different marks.

Modern art may try to stress its autonomy, but there is always context – other work by the same artist, works by other artists, social and political conditions. Art may be responding to or commenting on consumerism, or exploring the artist’s own psyche, or experimenting with optical effects or the way materials interact.

Much of this is open to description, comparison and evaluation – analysis. However “meaning” is more difficult.

What do you make of Clement Greenberg’s assertion that ‘Realist, illusionist art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art. Modernism used art to call attention to art.’?

I mentioned Greenberg when writing about Blue Poles (26-Dec-2013). Greenberg championed Pollock when the work met his (Greenberg’s) theories about focus on surface and materials, then withdrew support (“shaky”) when Pollock stepped outside the theoretical boundaries. Honour and Fleming (2009, p. 844) conclude their discussion of Modernism and Formalism “[Greenberg’s] extreme version of Modernism can now be seen as belonging essentially to the Cold War years and in some respects limited by its reflection of that ideological and political climate”. Greenberg’s assertion quoted in the question is arguable true – “art” itself was the subject of some of the Abstract Expressionist art – but it isn’t complete. That was the concern of some artists of that time and quite possibly today, however other artists then and now have other concerns, and of course the same artist may have different concerns at different times. If art is an autonomous field of practice then any theoretical limits have to be provisional. That last bit came mostly from Glenn Adamson’s thinking through craft which I wrote about in a post 6-July-2012, so I won’t repeat here, however I will repeat a quote from John McDonald (2012) – when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference”.


Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson

de Kooning, W. (1972), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 179.

Denvir, B. (1975) Fauvism and Expressionism. London: Thames and Hudson.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

McAuliffe, C. (2013) “America: Fascinating background to the works on show” in Look 12(13)/ 01(14) pp. 26-29. Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

McDonald, J. (2012) “In with the new” The Sydney Morning Herald 23-June-2012 [online] Available from (Accessed 6 July 2012)

MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art) ([n.d.]) Jackson Pollock The She Wolf 1943 multimedia. [online] Available from (Accessed 21-Dec-2013).

Newman, B. ([n.d.]), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p.77.

Pollock, J. (1944), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 87.

Rothko, M. ([n.d.] a), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 184.

Rothko, M. ([n.d.] b), quoted in McAuliffe, C. (2013) “America: Fascinating background to the works on show” in Look 12(13)/ 01(14) pp. 26-29. Sydney: Art Gallery Society of New South Wales.

Rothko, M. and Gottlieb, A. (1943), quoted in Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 78.

Thaw, E. (1986) “The Abstract Expressionists.” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 44 (3) (Winter, 1986–87). [online] Available from (Accessed 25-December-2013)

Other resources Website of the MoMA Abstract Expressionist New York exhibition October 2010 to April 2011.

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Reflecting on abstract expressionism

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Germination II
In Basketry NSW Transformation exhibition Sunday 2 July. More info

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