As the art world shifted to New York from Paris after World War II, Abstract Expressionism developed as the first American art movement of international importance. Artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, and Willem de Kooning shared similar idealistic intentions, but expressed themselves with their distinct aesthetic preferences.
Pollock conceived of himself as a visionary. He actively tried to shape and influence the path of modern art, and sought to “attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely.” (Stiles 24) Pollock’s aesthetic encourages the viewer to think about how the painting was created, through the motion visible in the frenzied drizzles and splatters of paint, which cause the distinction of color and line to collapse. The sense of spontaneity and unpredictability of the lines is mediated by a tightly controlled form within the picture plane. Pollock has liberated his self-conscious through his works.
Pollock saw his “Action Painting” style as a direct reflection of the creativity of his unconscious mind. Jackson would place his canvas onto the floor of his studio, and dip a stick into a bucket of paint. Rather than see his “brushstrokes” as unintentional, Pollock, stated: “I don’t use the accident ––‘cause I deny the accident.” (26) In the decades following Surrealism and Freud’s concept of the Id, Action Painting evolved to show the viewer how the unconscious works, and asked them to find meaning in non-representational images.
Rothko’s enormous canvases allow the viewer to be completely enveloped and overwhelmed by color, creating a purely optical viewing experience. The minimalistic squares and rectangle on his canvases allow the viewer to focus on the emotional impact of the color combinations rather than be distracted by trying to identify representational elements.
As one of the few female Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler faced unique challenges as a member of the New York City art scene. Heavily influenced by Pollock and de Kooning, Frankenthaler felt that “total abstraction was something intellectual” (30) Cubism and Surrealism also played a role in her art, as her paintings often began as a feeling. (31) Subject matter and representation were not of primary concern to her. This complete break from the tradition of art shows us how the shift in artistic centers from Paris to New York inspired artists to form their own, novel style.
For Frankenthaler, the new style of Abstract Expressionism pushed her to take risks with her work. (32) As a female artist in the 1950s and 1960s, Frankenthaler had to fight preconceived notions surrounding female artists. “Looking at my paintings as if they were painted by a woman is superficial” (32) Where as women had traditionally been limited to a limited range of subject matter, they were beginning to have the same freedom of expression as their male counterparts.
De Kooning’s aggressive strokes and very limited color palette contribute to his unique aesthetic. His large scale paintings envelope the viewer, and act as a window into another world. De Kooning was particularly concerned with “The Woman”, or “the female painted through all the ages, all of those idols,” (221) With New York as the center of the first American art movement of international importance, we see Abstract Expressionists trying to set themselves apart from the tropes and aesthetic preferences that had governed Western art for so long.
In his non-representational depictions of women, de Kooning creates monstrous figures that are terrifying and threatening. His paintings communicate a misogynistic view of women, which help us to understand the prejudices that female Abstract Expressionists, like Helen Frankenthaler, had to face.
Pollock, Rothko, Frankenthaler, and de Kooning all display different aspects of what made the New York Abstract Expressionist art scene so revolutionary and remarkable. The emotional depth conveyed by the color palettes and new styles of brushstrokes reveals the emotional depth and unconscious feelings of the artist, creating an entirely novel experience for the viewer.
Stiles, Kristine, and Peter Howard. Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley: University of California, 2012. Print.
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