Archive for May, 2011


What is Memorial Day?


Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May (May 30 in 2011). Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates men and women who died while in military of the United States. First enacted to honor Union and Confederate soldiers following the American Civil War, it was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars.

Memorial Day often marks the start of the summer vacation season, and Labor Day its end.

How do you Celebrate Memorial Day? 

Everybody celebrates this federal holiday differently. For some it is really a serious time of personal and social reflection. Some do visit the gravesites of family members who died during wartime, while others visit the gravesites of family members whether they served our country or not. Others take a more relaxed casual approach to Memorial Day by taking a family vacation, visiting their local shopping mall, or doing a home barbeque in order to stay off the freeways during the holiday. Others stay close at home and watch media events like the Indianapolis 500 (since 1911) and the Coca-Cola 600 (since 1960) auto races.

I have never lost any family member in wartime, but I did serve my country in the U.S. Navy. I naturally have a deep respect for all military personnel and their families. They really do know the meaning of sacrifice.  As a U.S. Navy veteran over the age of 68, how do I celebrate this holiday? Do I go shopping like so many others? No! Do I don an old uniform and march in some parade? No, I don’t do that either.

Instead, my approach, for better or worse, is to watch countless hours of war movies as a kind of marathon of appreciation for those
who died, but also in honor of those who served their country regardless of personal circumstances. Mentally, it is a kind of combined Memorial Day and Veterans Day all wrapped up into one. In fact, on Veterans day I do the same thing—watch war movies. This year I will extend my television-watching marathon of old war movies and TV documentaries beyond Memorial Day. Why? I just happen to enjoy old war movies. I don’t know if this approach to celebrating Memorial Day will appeal to you. But, if in some small measure it does, then here are some of my recommendations for choosing among Television Movie Series/documentaries, and among many truly outstanding classic war movies:


WWII: Combat Chronicles

2004 NR 6 discs

This in-depth series documents the events of WWII, from the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that launched America into the war, to the battle of Midway, the bloody devastation at Iwo Jima, Hiroshima and more.  The series also features revealing documentaries produced by Academy Award-winning director John Ford that detail the “day that will live in infamy,” the operations aboard the USS Yorktown, and more, all punctuated by actual newsreels.

On Common Ground: A World War II Reunion

2001 NR 88 minutes

Combat in the Huertgen Forest ranked among the most devastating of World War II, with American and German forces suffering casualties upwards of 60,000 troops. More than a half-century later, soldiers from both sides assemble at the site for an emotional reunion. The intense  feelings they experienced as young men are never far from the surface. Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite and John Kenneth Galbraith provide commentary.

Battle 360: The Complete Series

2008 NR 4 discs / 10 episodes

This series re-creates some of the hardest-fought sea battles of World War II through stunning computer-generated animation. This History Channel program centers on the brave men of the legendary aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Enterprise. The Enterprise played a key role in a long string of Allied victories, due in large part to the crew’s ability to successfully coordinate with aircraft flying above, submarines patrolling below and destroyers lurking at large. 

The Battle of the Bulge: World War II’s Deadliest Battle

1994 NR 90 minutes

A must-see for World War II history buffs, this documentary melds first-person narratives, historical footage and modern interpretation to tell the story of the Nazi army’s push through a thin line of American soldiers in the winter of 1944 and 1945. Army veterans and historians recount the Germans’ surprise attack through thick fog into Belgium, which created a bulge in Allied lines and left more than 70,000 casualties in its path.

 The Vietnam War

2007 NR 2 discs

Using rare footage from the CBS News archives along with interviews with historians and combatants, this extensive History Channel
presentation provides a thorough examination of one of the most controversial conflicts in U.S. history. From the arrival of U.S.
advisers to Vietnam in 1959 to the emergency airlift from the American embassy in 1975, the program shines a light on the people and events that shaped the war.

Inside the Vietnam War

2008 NR 150 minutes

See the Vietnam War through the eyes of those who lived through it in this compelling documentary from National Geographic. Archival film, audio recordings and personal photographs accompany veterans’ recollections of their own experiences.  The unflinching footage follows soldiers to the Battle of Ia Drang, the Battle of Dak To, the crucial stronghold of the Iron Triangle and other important conflicts in the 20th century’s most controversial war.

Dangerous Missions:  Assault On Iwo Jima

2007 NR 50 minutes

Find out why the battle for Iwo Jima lasted much longer than the expected three to four days, and why it was so crucial to winning the war in the Pacific. Surviving veterans and military historians recount the gruesome 36 days of carnage. Incorporating combat footage of the campaign, this program explores how three Marine divisions eventually took the island and planted the flag — an image permanently fixed in the collective mind of history.

Ken Burns: The War

2007 TV-PG 6 discs / 7 episodes

Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick bring the harrowing history of World War II to life through the personal accounts of a handful of participants from four “typical” American towns — proving nothing was typical during this terrible time. Historical footage and photographs combine with realistic sound effects to create visceral scenes of the battles at Omaha Beach, Guadalcanal, Okinawa and more in this seven-part PBS presentation.

National Geographic:  The Battle for Midway

1999 TV-PG 83 minutes

It was here in 1942 where the U.S. and Japan fought one of the greatest naval battles of World War II that changed the course of history. Hear the stories of four remarkable men and how each survived the war despite incredible odds. 


 Pearl Harbor

Patton (1970)

Gone With the Wind

The Sands of Iwo
Jima (1949)

Tora!  Tora!
Tora! (1970)

Midway (1975)

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

The Halls of
Montezuma (1950)

Full Metal Jacket

Green Zone (2010)

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Sergeant York (1941)

They Were Expendable

12 O’Clock High (1949)

The Enemy Below (1957)

Battleground (1949)

U-571 (2000)

The Bridge Over the
River Kwai (1957)

The Longest Day

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Belle (1990)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Stalag 17 (1953)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Hamburger Hill (1987)

Pork Chop Hill (1959)

The Platoon (1986)

The Great Escape (1963)

Diary (1943)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Objective Burma

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Three Kings (1999)

Courage Under Fire (1996)

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From my early college years I began to embrace the philosophy of Existentialism. And, I began to see its connection to art, especially abstract art. In the 1960s religion, and the concept of a sky God who judges you, seemed ridiculous and irrelevant in the modern world when juxtaposed against the murder of six million Jews in Germany, its inability to rationalize the horrors of a world in chaos, poverty, including the horrors of cancer wards with young children dying of that terrible disease, and the backdrop of immense widespread economic and social suffering of people all around the world.

I saw cultural parallels to Existentialism everywhere. The radicalism of Existential writers like Kafka in popular literature influenced me greatly as a young man in helping me to see the connection between Existentialism and modern art.

This deviation in thinking, away from expectations fostered by Aesthetics, additionally led me to evaluate the purpose of the artist, or purpose of art movements that have culturally enriched our diverse fabric of society.

 I like the entire movement and artists of Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Neuman, Clyfford Still, and many many others).  This is my art bias and straight away I want to be up front about that.

However, why would I write at all about a topic that some people might consider boring? Well, it’s because art in general is so important to our culture. It is a reflection of who we are and how we think. There are many kinds of art in many different forms of medium. This actually makes the process of writing a blog about abstract art a lot easier than would normally be the case.

I feel a real connection to the art world (especially including Abstract Expressionism) because of its intrinsic power of creativity and expressiveness. And because I’ve had lots of experience painting in the medium of oil since 1958. I sometimes see in other artists some of the same things I see in myself. Every time I work on an oil painting a bit of me is revealed to the world, perhaps the subconscious or unconscious in me or perhaps the deliberate me as I go about the business of creating my art. The bottom Line: Abstract Art is pure unadulterated FREEDOM of expression.

I’m a little like Will Rogers, i.e., I never met a woman I didn’t like. Every woman has unique qualities beyond exterior appearance, sometimes very subtle, that make them all very interesting in their own way. It’s all part of the things that make life worth living, be it a quiet conversation, a glance, or a beautiful love filled with romance.  Art, including abstract art, should be conceived of in the same way. It is a kind of appreciative love affair with all the artistic subtleties of life, the nuances of what it means to be truly human and alive.


All art is about humanity and culture. It is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects our senses, emotions, and/or intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings. The meaning of art is explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics and even diverse disciplines such as history and psychoanalysis connect to art (e.g., art history, psychoanalysis of art images as revealed in the unconscious).

Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery. This conception changed during the Romantic period, when art came to be seen as “a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science.” Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions.

The Meaning of Abstract Art

There are generally two types of art- representational and abstract.  They are however not opposites, and they do not compete with one another, but rather complement one another. This is true whether one is discussing sculpture, oil painting, experimental photography, or even modern computer art. From this point on I will confine my comments and analysis to just oil painting.

What all painting has in common are the visual elements of line, form, shape, color, texture, and composition. There are many gradations between representational paintings and abstract paintings. That is, representational images can be distorted slightly. Or, sometimes in pure abstract painting there can still be figuration with a hint of recognizable images.

This is why characterization of oil paintings can be difficult at times when blended diverse visual elements are present in a work of art. At the far extremes of these two types there are photograph-like paintings where images on canvas are made to look like they are absolutely real. At the other extreme there can be a total absence of anything recognizable, except visual elements such as line, form, shape, color, texture, or composition. And, there can be extreme variation and use of such visual elements. In general, while representational paintings tend to portray recognizable objects, abstract paintings more often tend to reflect art based on thinking and intellect, ideas rather than objects, and give emotions a prominent role in the painting process.

The end-object of abstract art can be a kind of psychoanalytic expression of the artist’s subconscious life as well as his conscious effort to create art. Sometimes abstract art can transcend the artist or his end product. That is, sometimes abstract art isn’t about the viewer, the artist, or even the end product. Rather the art is in the process itself of creating the art, for example as in performance art, or action painting. And yet, even here the experience of abstract art isn’t divorced from the other elements involved. The meaning of abstract art is, in its most simplified form, art that relies on the internal insights of the artist and the visual elements of design rather than efforts to simply copy exact representations of objects.

This broad definition allows artists almost unlimited freedom of expression. But it also does something else, that is, it invites the viewer to be part of the process of evaluating the intent of the artist. This experience for the viewer may be unique as the invitation is open-ended.

Some abstract artists create compositions that have no precedent in nature. Other abstract artists work from nature and then interpret their subjects in a nonrepresentational manner. In other words, as found on Wikipedia by Answers.com, when abstract art represents the natural world, it “does so by capturing something of its immutable intrinsic qualities rather than by imitating its external appearance.”

Historically, the first art ever created was abstract. Abstract art has existed for centuries, as Jewish and Islamic traditions forbid the use of representational art.   (http://www.artelino.com/articles/abstract_art.asp) However, the roots of what we generally term “abstract art” can be traced to the Impressionism movement of the 1880s-1890s. Impressionism disregarded the notion that art was supposed to portray images.   Post Impressionism continued this trend and placed more emphasis on the artist’s emotions and expression.

Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich were the first to really create works that were pure abstraction.   Kandinsky was the founder of the Abstraction movement and even published a book detailing his theories on art and spirituality, On the Spiritual in Art (http://www.artelino.com/articles/abstract_art.asp).  Kandinsky created a series of pieces with numbered titles beginning with, “Improvisation” and “Composition.”  (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/kandinsky/). 

 Public Expectations of Art

 What follows is this Blogger’s opinion regarding the subject of public expectations of art. Public expectations of what art is, or what art ought to be, have been changing for a very long time. The reality of art and its expressive nature has been changing ever since early man first painted on cave walls animal figures and tribal activities thousands of years ago.

Despite changing expectations of how art ought to be evaluated over the millennia, art objects themselves (paintings, sculpture, etc.) has tended to be cast (as said before) into two general areas: Representational art and Non-representational art. One theory that has dominated the art world in terms of setting expectations is the theory of Aesthetics.

In general, Aesthetics is a theory based on outward appearance or the way something looks, especially when considered in terms of how pleasing it is. Correspondingly, it is about the idea of beauty or specifically an idea of what is beautiful or artistic.

In art it is the study of the rules and principals of art and in philosophy it is the study of beautiful or aesthetic values, e.g., the beautiful and the sublime (beautiful, morally worthy, complete, and excellent).

While much representational art can be quite beautiful, and display an artisit’s ability to identically re-create images or figures in nature, the theory of aesthetics is however quite limited as a standard for how people ought to appreciate art. All of this brings one to the topic of how abstract art fits into how the general public evaluates it.

Aesthetics and Abstract Art

Aesthetics, in this bloggers opinion, has led the viewing public over time to always expect that art must be beautiful or in some way visually pleasing to the senses in order to have value. Whether something has value, of course, is based on a judgment call thus a “value judgment.” And any art that does not have value, based on the theory of aesthetics, is regarded with suspicion, and in some cases, scorn and ridicule. Such historically has often been the case with Abstract Art.

Unfortunately, expecting representations of images in art to always be beautiful or pleasing causes one to self-impose or limit oneself by missing the intrinsic pleasures of seeing art in other totally different ways (For example, seeing art, including abstract art, as total, unlimited freedom of expression, imagination, symbolism, energy and expression of visual elements, seeing purpose of the artist, as a puzzle to be unravaled, or as an idea rather than a recognizable object. It is also about appreciating compositions of fascinating design, how the art object itself fits into the mentally stimulating concept of a particular art genre or art movement, or the diversity of color and its visual dynamics, but also line, textures and shape). In many ways, abstract art is unlimited in potential.

Viewing abstract art and making sense of it is as much about your internal psychological state as it is that of the artist who composed it. Such is the case when one begins to tie the abstractness of the visual elements looked at to the larger context of culture, or to the psychodynamics of conscious and unconscious thought processes within all of us. Abstract art can be a breath of fresh air, innovative and totally creative. It takes a raw, pure, simple look at the world, but never a simplistic one. 


What I am trying to communicate is that art, including abstract art, does not occur in a social vacuum; it never has. Often, vast changes in societies worldwide have influenced both the content and direction of contemporaneous art movements that developed.

Pure abstract art, and those works employing some figuration along with abstract elements, is a “Thinking Person’s approach” to understanding and appreciating art; It is not a mentally lazy person’s approach to understanding and appreciating art. All artistic expression done in public (museums, concerts, showings, art fairs) is basically an open invitation to explore the world of the artist, the meaning of the art work or expression, and to enjoy the experience.

Learning to Appreciate Abstract Art

Like anything worthwhile in this life it takes effort to appreciate it, much less to thoroughly understand something. However, in the case of Abstract Art, the best way to appreciate it is to first make an effort to understand it. What exactly does understanding imply or mean? It turns out the word “understanding” for all you Etymology buffs, has five related definitions:

1.  Ability to grasp meaning: the ability to perceive and explain the meaning or the nature of somebody or something

2.  Knowledge of something: knowledge of a particular subject, area, or situation

gaining a better understanding of industrial processes

3.  Interpretation of something: somebody’s interpretation of something, or a belief or opinion based on an interpretation of or inference from something. It was my understanding that the costs would be shared equally.

4.  Mutual comprehension: an agreement, often an unofficial or unspoken one.

I’m sure we can come to an understanding about this.

5.  Knowledge of another’s nature: a sympathetic, empathetic, or tolerant recognition of somebody else’s nature or situation. I thought you of all people would show a little understanding.

There is a very high positive correlation between understanding and appreciation. That is, the more one understands something the more one tends to appreciate it. And the foundation for all understanding is what educators have been telling people for thousands of years: Learning is the foundation.

The absolute best way to learn about abstract art is to either obtain a quality four-year college education in art/and or art history, or to travel around the world for two years  visiting all the major museums and galleries of note, and reading many, many books on the subject. To help stimulate your interest in this subject matter I’d like first to give the Blog reader a very short overview of one of the most prominent art movements of the 20th Century: Abstract Expressionism.

At the end of this Blog I will provide references for further reading on the topic of Abstract Expressionism. For those of you who are thinking about developing a new hobby I highly recommend oil painting. Take classes on the subject and set aside that space in your garage where you can set up a studio just for you. Don’t bring turpentine or oil paints into the house or your marriage may soon be coming to an end. After reading this Blog if you’d like to become more knowledgeable beyond the basics it will be up to you. The path you take to learning and appreciating abstract art will be highly individualistic. This was very true in my own case.

So, I will proceed now with a short overview of Abstract Expressionism to impart some understanding of the concept and reality of abstract art. Just understand this at the top: Abstract art and its concepts or varieties did not occur by itself in a cultural vacuum. Like any other growing concept it is always a product of culture itself, or learned behavior patterns. The development of Abstract Art parallels Abstract Thinking. It also parallels historical developments in all the world cultures, ancient and modern. What is important about art, all art, is that it is inextricably tied to culture and the changes that are constantly occurring in that culture.

Abstract Expressionism

A Little History: The Migration out of Europe

During the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s many artists fled Europe to the United States. By the early 1940s the main movements in modern art, expressionism, cubism, abstraction, surrealism, and dada were represented in New York: Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, were just a few of the exiled Europeans who arrived in New York.

The rich cultural influences brought by the European artists were distilled and built upon by local New York painters. The climate of freedom in New York allowed all of these influences to flourish. The art galleries that primarily had focused on European art began to notice the local art community and the work of younger American artists who had begun to mature. Certain of these artists became distinctly abstract in their mature work. Some artists of the period defied categorization, such as Georgia O’Keeffe who, while a modernist abstractionist, was a pure maverick in that she painted highly abstract forms while not joining any specific group of the period. Eventually American artists who were working in a great diversity of styles began to coalesce into cohesive stylistic groups.

The best known group of American artists became known as the Abstract Expressionists. Nearly all resided in New York City. In New York City there was an atmosphere which encouraged discussion and there was new opportunity for learning and growing. Artists and teachers John D. Graham and Hans Hoffmann became important bridge figures between the newly arrived European Modernists and the younger American artists coming of age. Mark Rothko, born in Russia, began with strongly surrealist imagery which later dissolved into his powerful color compositions of the early 1950s. The expressionistic gesture and the act of painting itself, became of primary importance to Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. While during the 1940s Arshile Gorky’s ‘s and Willem de kooning’s figurative work evolved into abstraction by the end of the decade. New York City became the center, and artists worldwide gravitated towards it; from other places in America as well.

Abstract Expressionism Comes Alive in New York

Abstract Expressionism was never an ideal label for the movement which grew up in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. It was somehow meant to encompass not only the work of painters who filled their canvases with fields of color and abstract forms, but also those who attacked their canvases with a vigorous gestural expressionism.

But it has become the most accepted term for a group of artists who did hold much in common. All were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes, and most were shaped by the legacy of Surrealism, a movement which they translated into a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.

In their success, the New York painters robbed Paris of its mantle as leader of modern art, and set the stage forAmerica’s post-war dominance of the international art world.

Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s. They were influenced by the era’s leftist politics, and came to value an art grounded in personal experience. Few would maintain their earlier radical political views, but many continued to adopt the posture of outspoken avant-gardists protesting from the margins.

Having matured as artists at a time when America suffered economically and felt culturally isolated and provincial, the Abstract Expressionists were later welcomed as the first authentically American avant-garde. Their art was championed for being emphatically American in spirit – monumental in scale, romantic in mood, and expressive of a rugged individual freedom.

The milieu of Abstract Expressionism united sculptors such as David Smith as well as photographers like Aaron Siskind, but above all the movement was one of painters.

Political instability in Europe in the 1930s brought several leading Surrealists to New York, and many of the Abstract Expressionists were profoundly influenced by the style and by its interest in the unconscious. It encouraged their interest in myth and archetypal symbols and it shaped their understanding of painting itself as a struggle between self-expression and the chaos of the unconscious.


It is one of the many paradoxes of Abstract Expressionism that the roots of the movement lay in the figurative painting of the 1930s. Almost all the artists who would later become abstract painters in New York in the 1940s and 1950s were stamped by the experience of the Depression, and they came to maturity whilst painting in styles influenced by social realism and the Regionalist movement. By the late 1940s most had left those styles behind, but they learned much from their early work. It encouraged them in their commitment to an art based on personal experience. Time spent painting murals would later encourage them to create abstract paintings on a similarly monumental scale. And the experience of working for the government sponsored Works Progress Administration also brought many disparate figures together, and this would make it easier for them to band together again in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the new style was being promoted.

Artists living in New York in the 1930s were the beneficiaries of an increasingly sophisticated network of museums and galleries which staged major exhibitions of modern art. TheMuseum of Modern Art mounted shows such as “Cubism and Abstract Art,” “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,” and a major retrospective of Picasso. And 1939 saw the opening of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, (later to be called the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), which boasted an important collection of Kandinsky’s works.

 New York in the 1930s and 1940s

Many European modernists began to come to New York in the 1930s and 1940s to escape political upheaval and war. Some, such as the painter and teacher Hans Hoffman, would prove directly influential: Hofmann had spent the early years of the century in Paris; he had met the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Braque, who had acquired titanic reputations in artists’ circles in New York, and he was able to impart many of their ideas to his students. Hofmann arrived with a sophisticated understanding of Cubism, and also a love of Matisse’s Fauvism, which was underappreciated by many in New York.

All this activity meant that New York’s artists were extraordinarily knowledgeable about trends in modern European art. It left many with feelings of inferiority, yet these were slowly overcome in the 1940s. Personal encounters with many displaced Europeans, such as Andre Breton, Max Ernst, and Andre Masson, helped to rob some artists of the mythic status they had acquired. And, as Europe suffered under totalitarian regimes in the 1930s, and later became mired in war, many Americans felt emboldened to transcend European influence, to develop a rhetoric of painting that was appropriate to their own nation, and, not least, to take the helm of advanced culture at a time when some of its oldest citadels were under threat. It was no accident that critic Clement Greenberg, in one of his first important responses to the new movement, described it as “‘American-Type’ Painting”.

  The Formation of the Movement

By the late 1940s, many of the factors were in place to give birth to the new movement – however varied and disparate its artists’ work. In 1947 Jackson Pollock found his way to the drip technique. The following year, de kooning had an influential show at the Charles Egan Gallery; Barnett Newman arrived at his breakthrough picture Onement I; and Mark Rothko began painting the “multi-form” paintings that would soon lead to the signature works of his mature period. And after eighteen like-minded artists mounted a boycott of an exhibition of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum, and in January 1951 were cajoled into posing for a photo for Life magazine, they were baptized as “The Irascibles”. Finally, the movement had a sense of common, group identity and purpose.

Impact of Surrealism on Abstract Expressionism

The most significant influence on the themes and concepts of the Abstract Expressionists was Surrealism. The American painters were uneasy with the overt Freudian symbolism of the European movement, but they were inspired by its interests in the unconscious, as well as its strain of primitivism and preoccupation with mythology. Many were particularly interested in the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who believed that elements of a collective unconscious had been handed down through the ages by means of archetypal symbols – primordial images which had become recurrent motifs.

This gave many artists the impetus to move away from the biomorphic Surrealism of Miró and Picasso, and towards an increasingly reductive style. Rothko and Newman are typical of this progress: Rothko experimented with abstract symbols in the early 1940s before moving towards entirely abstract fields of color; Newman similarly sought an approach which might strip away all extraneous motifs and communicate everything through one powerfully resonant symbol – in his case, the so-called ‘zip’ paintings.

Many artists attempted to channel into art by means of what André Breton called ‘pure psychic automatism’, which in practice often meant the involvement of chance in the creation of art. Pollock considered his drip technique to be at least in part a means of harnessing his unconscious; and the approach left effects to chance for all to see on the surface of the canvas. But like many others, Pollock also insisted on an element of control in his method – as he once said, “No chaos, damn it!” – and he believed that the “drips” were powerfully expressive, rather than being merely random accumulations of paint. Indeed, they were self-expressive. The ambivalence in Pollock’s attitude was shared by many Abstract Expressionists’, whose embrace of chaos was balanced by an impulse towards control. This paradox explains much of the energetic tumult one finds in the work of many of the so-called “action painters”, including de Kooning, Kline and Motherwell. In part it led to the so-called “all-over” effect which one sees in Pollock’s mature work, and in de Kooning’s abstract paintings of the late 1940s, in which forms seem to be dispersed evenly across the canvas; when chaos threatened, everything in the image could shatter into pieces.

 Existentialism and Rosenberg

 Another impetus for the Abstract Expressionists to retool Surrealism was a feeling that certain aspects of the style were no longer suited to the post-war world. The reigning philosophy of the period, Existentialism, would never be an important influence on the Abstract Expressionists, but it contributed to the rhetoric of anxiety and alienation which pervaded discussion. It was also a key influence on one of the movement’s critics, Harold Rosenberg, who delved into it for this influential formulation which appeared in an 1952 article for Art News entitled “The American Action Painters”: “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” It was this notion that birthed the idea of “action painting”: it didn’t quite accommodate the work of artists like Rothko and Newman, but it was an insightful realization of what painters like Pollock, Kline and de Kooning all had in common.

 Formalism and Greenberg

 The other critic who proved crucial in promoting the movement – and the one whose influence has far out-lasted it – was Clement Greenberg. He was uncomfortable with any discussion of content and ideas in art, and argued instead that modern art had evolved along formal lines.

Greenberg saw in Pollock the next important step in this process, and championed his work vigorously. Indeed, he championed all of the Abstract Expressionists as a triumphant American answer to the shortcomings of the European avant-garde. He also encouraged the idea of ‘color field’ painting. Some would later argue that color field painting represented a new manifestation of a long tradition of sublime landscape. But Greenberg viewed the work of Rothko, Still and Newman as part of a tendency in modern painting to apply color in extended areas, or ‘fields’. He would later return to this notion in championing a second generation of painters, which included Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Morris Louis.

The Legacy of Abstract Expressionism

Like any group of artists whose work achieves widespread recognition, Abstract Expressionism was eventually imperilled by its success. An extensive network of dealers, museums and galleries reached out to support it; even the government covertly embraced it and promoted it vigorously overseas as a testament to free-expression in America, in contrast to the repressions of the Stalinist Eastern Bloc. Inevitably, by the mid 1950s, the style had attracted a multitude of young followers, and what began as an impulse to expression, threatened to become stale and academic.

By the mid 1950s the style had also run its course in other ways. The movement’s greatest achievements were often built on a conflict between chaos and control which could only be played out in so many ways. Some artists, such as Newman and Rothko, had evolved a style so reductive that there was little room for development – and to change course would have shrunk the grandeur of their bold trademark solutions. Younger artists following the development of this generation were less and less persuaded by artists who were said to put forth one sublime expression after another, often in series; and they grew tired of their postures of heroism. Homosexual artists, such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Ellsworth Kelly, also felt little affinity with the macho styles and rhetoric of the New York School. Some, like Johns, would learn much from the Abstract Expressionists, and carry their interest in the autographic gesture in fresh directions, introducing qualities of irony, ambiguity and reticence which the older generation could never have countenanced. Others, like Warhol, were too enthralled by the pop culture of the streets to have much in common with the lofty ambitions of hard-drinking womanizers such as Pollock and de Kooning.

By the late 1950s, Abstract Expressionism had entirely lost its place at the center of critical debate and a new generation was on the cusp of success. Yet the legacy of the movement was to be considerable. Allan Kaprow sensed this as early as 1958 when he wrote an article for Art News entitled “What is the legacy of Jackson Pollock?” His answer pointed beyond painting, and Pollock’s influence was certainly felt in areas where performance had a role: he was to be important to the Japanese Gutai movement as well as the Viennese Actionists. But the influence of the movement as a whole would continue to be felt by painters maturing in subsequent decades. It was important for the likes of Dorothea Rockburne, Pat Steir, Susan Rothenberg and Jack Whitten in the 1970s. Its rhetoric – if not its direct example – would be important for many Neo-Expressionists in the 1980s such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquait (He was a brilliant artist who tragically died of a drug overdose at 27).

And in the 1990s it again provided an example to painters such as Cecily Brown. The themes and concepts which informed Abstract Expressionism may have lost the power to compel young artists, but the movement’s achievements continue to supply them with standards against which to be measured.


Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism by Irving Sandler

Abstract Expressionism by A. Everitt

Abstract Expressionism (World of Art) by David Anfam

Abstract expressionism, the formative years by Robert Carleton Hobbs

Modern Art: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries by Meyer Schapiro

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