Gallery 4: Gesture

The starting point for Gesture begins twenty years after the developments analysed in the previous room. It highlights the vital connections between St Ives and New York, as expressionist painting and sculpture began to dominate the Western art scene.

Following the Second World War, St Ives was the leading centre for British abstract art. Many Modernist artists continued to draw influence from Europe, although their earlier universal, utopian ideals, evolved in the interwar period, had developed into a more internalised, personal response to the world.

As North America emerged as a leading political power, its growing cultural influence was fed by numerous immigrant European artists who had escaped persecution during the 1930s. The New York ‘Abstract Expressionists’ became known for their large-scale works and intuitive use of materials; Jackson Pollock, for example, dripped paint from sticks and brushes onto canvases on the floor. Others like Mark Rothko explored the emotive effects of colour. By the late 1950s the New York ‘School’, championed by American art critic Clement Greenberg, were challenging the legacy of European painting.

Artists in St Ives and New York shared many formal and philosophical concerns, although Greenberg’s relentless insistence on the superiority of the Americans’ work eventually led to conflict. But painters such as Peter Lanyon managed to transpose something of the size, energy and daring of the new American painting onto a rural, British tradition.