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English Literature - Abstract Expressionism Movement

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3251 words Published: 8th Mar 2016

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Abstract Expressionism Movement

While it was generally conceded that Abstract Expressionism was spent, superseded by the rise of minimalism and Pop art in the early 1960s, Gustan's work after 1968 signaled the end of the Idealism that had driven the movement. Some artists such as Newman, cited in (the book); had continued to question whether the New York School had existed at all, stating as late as 1965 that:

...there was never a movement in the conventional sense of a 'style', but a collection of individual voices. That is why to talk of the movement being dead is ridiculous.

But I have found that this book although it in general, covers the factual information necessary to form a coherent opinion, it nevertheless, rambled, leaving the reader with limited knowledge that conceptualized a clear understanding. In essence, I found it hard to read, and that in some places it also repeated facts. Therefore, I gave serious consideration to the other listed books on the same subject, but further extended my research to more generalist books that covered the history of art.

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In returning to the text, 'Abstract Expressionism' by Anfam (1990), which offers an albeit extended and sometimes incoherent journey through this subject, we can at least in part find some nuggets of information that carefully explain and discuss some of the wider concepts of 'abstract expressionism'. But, to find the most sensible and coherent facts, I had to delve deeply into this volume, which at best, left the reader often lost and in many cul-de-sacs, where opinions were losing the force and direction of their meaning because of very poor 'signposting techniques used by the author.

At best, the useful and expressive textual details were lost and to re-address this and to have some coherent understanding of the importance and standing of 'abstract expressionism, I had to cross reference many of the themes in this book, to other texts, which at best, allowed me to form an holistic and guided academic opinion on the movement.

Therefore, this book review will provide some carefully constructed opinions guided by the chosen text, but, more fully engaged and directed by the supplementary reading undertaken.


Anfam (1990) in his work, 'Abstract Expressionism', suggests that there was a group of artists and like-minded people, who founded the movement. In doing so, he cites aspects of the modern history of the USA, in particular, the depression. In widening his argument, he also reveals some of the many parallels with the unrest within the French expressionism movement and equally rambles on to try to offer some formative cross referencing with the many expressive styles of other movements of the era. This discursive and sometimes lively debate is hampered by a clear lack of coherence, it leaves as stated in my introduction, the reader in many a cul-de-sac, with a real battle of wits to find some real and meaningful information that clearly nails down the subject of abstract expressionism in its diluted forms.

The work of Pollock is often cited in the text to explain how artists use their work to show feelings and emotions, in part this aspect is explain and discussed in fine details that allow the reader to make some careful informed opinions. In particular Anfam (1990) tries his best to offer through he opening arguments contained in the introduction to the text, a socio-historical foundation for his later discussions, for example:

... before the second World War opens perspective that enfold the present. In microcosm we might compare of the western political power and culture after 1945.

This interesting and meaningful conceptualization, offers some cohesion to the ongoing debate, setting the social and historical scene is crucial, in that, the World had just been through the most devastating periods of modern history, leaving a bereavement and albeit soulless notion of loss that impacted upon all aspects of society. From this vacuous void, came the development of what we know as modern sustainable artistic talents that in part, were able to bring a real flavour of expressing emotions through the wonderful and many diverse styles that were emerging out of this vacuum.

The examples could be many, but for Anfram (1990), it is expressed in his notion that modern companies, that is commercial enterprises, became an 'everyday' occurrence, in that, through abstract expressionism, revealed the founding symbols of modernity.

Historically according to Anfram (1990) it is worthy of note, that the western world, in particular, the USA and UK, emerged from the devastation of World War I (WWII). But, more prudently, the USA emerged as the creditor, backer and in the main banker to the countries devastated by the war. A factor to only repeated some decades later.

This often if not often obscured action by the USA, brought about the fundamental and sustainable changes in consumerism, fueled by the consistency and often aggressive expansion of industrialization across the Western World. Bringing about what we cited today as 'modern consumerism'. However, what is also of crucial note, in particular for engaging artists, is the rise in the popular movements of 'mass culture' and 'modern technology'. Which impacted upon a world that had suddenly started to 'grow up out of the vacuum of aggressive conflict.

What is abundantly clear from the history of art at this time, is that, Abstract Expressionism, although crisp and modern in its outlook, coupled with its diversity, it nevertheless, lacked clear shape, which was in the main, fuelled by the ever pessimistic negative vibrations that the depression and war years had invoked. Shaking off this cloud of pessimism would take some serious shock waves to 'kick start' a new an meaningful movement that signaled the beginnings of what we now know as 'abstract expressionism' (Gombrich 1984; Levey 1968).

The early years of Abstract Expressionism, according to most theorist, (Balken 2005; Polcari 1999; Stangos (ed) 1981 & Pickeral 2007); appeared to lacked shape against both this over whelming sense of optimism and yet another more negative vein, which had been intensified by the depression period.

The clarity of the pre-depression period as seen in the artistic work of Charles Burchfield and Edward Harper, was fuelled by the onset fear that depression would bring, in so doing, their art revealed the styles that poignantly marked this period. This notional and albeit national fear is expressed in many of the texts used for this review, but, equally cited and noted in the core text by Anfram (1990).

Interestingly his work reaches a watershed in which we have an interesting and yet revealing discourse about the artists of the period. However, it is not difficult to find his particular favorite. He in particular, cites in his discourse, the life and work of Pollock, citing the many and meaningful paths that his life took and how this impacted upon his revealing and yet sometimes provocative understanding of the thematic aspects of depression, one might even say, it is depressive and yet expressive art!

The critique of Pollock by Anfram (1990), is one of the lighter parts of this text, in that we are provided with a 'snapshot' history of this artist, his struggles and battles to live and develop as an expressive artist. In particular, we find a detailed history of his ancestry, to include the occupational aspects, upbringing and lifestyle of this Jewish family, set against a backdrop of his homeland.

But, the most revealing facts are the way in which his argument convincingly places the links between Pollock and other artists like: Guston and Benton. This what could be seen a meeting of minds, signaled in part the foundational beginnings of 'Abstract Expressionism' as we know style it. Some of the facts in the text are fascinating, in that, how life paths merge in the meeting of key personalities who make such significant marks on the landscape of art. For example: Anfram (1990) reveals how Pollock met Guston prior to his enrolment in 1930 at the 'Art Student League' in New York, under the direction of Benton. This in itself to the writer seems uncanny and yet perfectly placed in that what came out of the merging of these personal journeys is a breath taking step in the history of modern art.

What is fundamentally clear, is that Pollock's own personal history and upbringing reveals a man who had engaged in and fully experienced the construction of 'depression' in all its many sometimes stark and conflicting facets. His journey is clearly a meaningful aspect of the work of Anfram (1990), who lyrically expresses great interest in ensuring his readers are informed of the important fact about Pollock, but, most importantly, showing how this upbringing, made the man and ultimately the artist and his style. It is worth noting some of those facts.

Pollock knew all about the depression as his family had to flea the Baltic states, as a Jewish family like that of his peers, Rothko & Siskind, he would have to settle in another land to ensure that it would not be so difficult for him to explore his artistic talents, and so his 'coming to america' was a significant step in the story of Abstract Expressionism'. For him to have remained in such a stark country that was consistently engaged in political unrest would have changed the focus of this concept of art as we now know it.

It is also fairly obvious that Anfram (1990) has a passion for Guston, in that he equally sets his reader on a research quest from his revealing treatment about this artist. He states that Guston has known all about 'oppression' and in so doing, in equal measure his knowledge of the sectarian movement, known as the 'Klu Klux Klan', whose membership in the 1920' s prior to the 1930's depression topped a staggering five million.

If we place both Pollock and Guston alongside each other patterns emerge, in that, Anfram (1990) clearly wants his readers to make some informed opinion and clarity towards how expressionism was founded. Perhaps the missing signposting of his book is in part due to his 'stop, think and link' approach. If we do just that, we can find that, it does not take long to place the constructions of 'depression' in Pollocks background, and the 'oppression', noted in Guston background bring together the emotional expressive constructions that are revealed by both artists through their conceptualized notion of what they seen and perceive as 'Abstract Expressionism', that allows the artist in a sometimes breathtaking manner, to engage the viewers of such works, to 'think outside the box', in other words, see beyond the form, revealing the pain and emotions that are depression and oppression (Gombrich 1984).

Anfram (1990) continues his revealing and yet peppered approach to this important movement with his critique of the 1930's depression, treating his readers to, in part have some understanding of the stuggle and battles fought and won by many of the artists of the period. It is obvious that no artist had had an easy journey, on the contrary, the movement had, brought the conceptualization of 'what is art' kicking and screaming into a more coherent and modern take, that allowed for at best, the artist to 'think and construct outside the box', in so doing, draw in a more liberalized breath of fresh air in to the stifling world of the artist.

As the development of Abstract Expressionism, took root, according to Anfram (1990) the 1950's saw a merging of like minded artists, who for the first time were able to finally break with the traditional constructions that had shackled art. This is poignantly revealed in the citation of the New York, Studio 35 conference, in which what is now know as 'a contradictory discussion' allowed for artist to finally discuss and exchange ideas about how each participant broke with the sometimes constrictive traditional media, techniques and constructs that embedded art at its core. The outcome being, what can only be described as 'a breach of fresh air'.

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What came out of this merging of minds, were a constituted 'advance' in painting, sculpture and even photography. Questions that once thwarted artists were now 'in vogue' and could be explored without constriction: 'Should it be Abstract or should it be representational'? 'Would foreigner influence vitiates or even strengthens it?' 'Would expression of feeling of the reality of the medium and of everyday?' These were the fundamental poignant questions that came out of it in the 1930's, without which we would never have seen to a certain extent, Cubism, Social Realism to name but two aspect of what can be perceived as 'art outside the box'. Briefly it is worth noting some of the constructs that came forward.

At this period of time 'cubism' was the normal Art like that of Bombardnent, who was fully engaged in Realism and Cubism. During the 1941 to 1943 period, Clement Greenburg edited an arts magazine, and befriended serial Abstract Expressionists and would cite them as a representation of a new American Art

This coupled with the fact that 'Gorky' in his remarks that Social Realism was the form of poor art for the poor people, where as the writers associated with the magazine Parisian Review, which was funded in the 1934 on the Stalinist times, would express diverse and yet carefully constructed remarks that fuelled the debate that has informed and constructed 'Abstract Expressionism'(Anfram 1990; Gombrich 1984).

The text become repetitive in parts in that, it consistently appears to reinforce the facts presented to the reader for example. It over emphasizes the foundations and founder of what is seen to be modern abstract expressionism. Although what is helpful is the authors pick of the best examples of strong abstract expressionists, like: Newman, Pollock, Greenberg, Hofmann, De-Kooning, Gorky, Graham and Krasner.

Pollock's artistic methods are carefully followed and explained, in that is it most obvious to the reader that the author is absolutely enthralled with his work. But, interestingly, he again peppers his work with historical facts like, the fact that:

... the Boston inst of modern Art switched its titular 'modern' to 'contemporary' and the senator George Dondero, denounced non-academic twenty century painting as communist subversion, so Abstraction once again acquired the radical aura that it held for a previous generation (Anfram 1990).

Abstract Expressionism always resisted a single collective identity based on style, theories or even social ties. In comparison to Abstract Expressionism and the modern experience' by Stephen Polcari' 1999, The book under review, is easier to read and one can understand, and can even in formality of the introduction fined relevant and factual information, from which opinions can be formed, for example:

there were few Americans Artists, critics, or even modern art historians of the 1950's and early 1960's who did not cut their teeth on it

From it very beginnings, Abstract Expressionism has been interpreted in the light of the cultural and intellect of the 1950's artists and theorist, who understood Abstract Expressionism as 'Harold Rosenberg's typically defined 'action painting'. According to which the artist theatrically expressed their personal anguish on a blank canvas, with little attention to form, style, or subject matter, for Rosenberg, painting was an autobiographical act of self-creation in the everyday world, and the expression of individual personality.

Therefore, it can be viewed that the way that Abstract Expressionism looks to the writer, as if, in typical fashion, you just simply splash your thinking and feelings by just letting yourself go and just splurge it onto a canvas and with such painting, you could in fact come up with a not dissimilar work of art. But, never forgetting in the typical construction of this style, to let the paint do all the work with the brushes. In a shape and form of it own.

The reviewed book then goes onto explaining where the movement of abstract expressionism came from and what earlier art movements helped it on its way, this gives any reader far better understanding and layout of what the movement conceptualizes. In the words of the author:-

giving the art the best pedigree - by linking it with impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism - this formalist approach focused on the Abstract expressionism stylistic evolution while proposing for them an exclusive concern with the formal questions: purifying the medium, squeezing out illusionism, and remaking space and a optical rather than tactile .


Therefore, it can be attested, that many of the movements discussed as impacting on abstract expressionism are all clearly linked, one could even say that Surrealism been linked to pagan art, in that, they are all from the same family breeding. So therefore conceptual pagan art would notably come under all of these modernist art movements, even socialism can be placed into this context even if it does have its foundations in Russian history. What is interesting is that, all are from a similar systemic background; perhaps, it could be reviewed that they should all be grouped in one mass movement, like that of the early 20th century movement created through, 'mass observation'. But, what is fundamentally of note, in that, art moves and changes constantly, and for any artist, theorist or aspiring artist, it can be very hard to keep up with it evolution. To note this:

...the big bang theory of abstract expressionism, as ROBERT ROSEBBERG was wittily called it, argued that this abstract work erupted and suddenly. Fully-grown from virtually no where.

This perhaps flippant academic remark, makes it sound that abstract expressionism, grew up to quickly upstage, more formal and founding artistic concepts and movements. But, as one can see in the rise of Surrealism, it took between 10-20 years to mature, so inevitably so will this movement, as it has and continues to do so, with ever evolving creations, like the dynamic art being explored in Paganism. Therefore, it can be concluded that art evolves, movements come and go, but the strength and breadth of the artist will always be creatively and 'in vogue'.


ANFAM; D. (1990) 'Abstract Expressionism' Thames & Hudson

BALKEN; D. (2005) 'Movement In Modern Art Abstract Expressionism' TATE Publishing

GOMBRICH; E. H. (1984) 'The History of Art' Fourth Edition; Phaidon. Oxford.

LEVEY; M. (1968) 'A History of Western Art' Thames & Hudson. London.

POLCARI; S. (1999) 'Abstract Expressionism And The Modern Experience' UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

STANGOS; N. (1981) 'Concepts of Modern Art' Thames & Hudson


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