‘We are now committed to an unqualified act, not illustrating outworn myths or contemporary alibis. One must accept total responsibility for what he executes.’

Clyfford Still 1952

‘Voyaging into the night, one knows not where, on an unknown vessel, an absolute struggle with the elements of the real.’

Robert Motherwell

‘There is no more forthright a declaration, and no shorter a path to man’s richness, nakedness and poverty than the painting he does. Nothing can be hidden on its surface – the least private as well as the most personal of worlds.’

James Brooks 1956

‘Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure ... I do not think … of art as a situation of comfort.’

Willem de Kooning 1951

‘The need is for felt experience – intense, immoderate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.’

Robert Motherwell 1951

‘Subject is crucial and only that subject matter is crucial which is tragic and timeless.’

Mark Rothko

‘What happens on the canvas is unpredictable and surprising to me ... As I work, or when the painting is finished, the subject reveals itself.’

William Baziotes 1952

‘Usually I am on a work for a long stretch, until a moment arrives when the air of the arbitrary vanishes and the paint falls into positions that feel destined ... To paint is a possessing rather than a picturing.’

Philip Guston 1956

‘The function of the artist is to make actual the spiritual so that it is there to be possessed.’

Robert Motherwell

Of the seventeen painters in this exhibition, none speaks for the others any more than he paints for the others. In principle their individualism is as uncompromising as that of the religion of Kierkegaard whom they honour. For them, John Donne to the contrary, each man is an island.

Though a painter’s words about his art are not always to be taken at face value, the quotations preceding this preface – like the statements printed further on – suggest that these artists share certain strong convictions. Many feel that their painting is a stubborn, difficult, even desperate effort to discover the ‘self’ or ‘reality’, an effort to which the whole personality should be recklessly committed: I paint, therefore I am. Confronting a blank canvas they attempt ‘to grasp authentic being by action, decision, a leap of faith’, to use Karl Jaspers’ Existentialist phrase.

Indeed one often hears Existentialist echoes in their words, but their ‘anxiety’, their ‘commitment’, their ‘dreadful freedom’ concern their work primarily. They defiantly reject the conventional values of the society which surrounds them, but they are not politically engagés even though their paintings have been praised and condemned as symbolic demonstrations of freedom in a world in which freedom connotes a political attitude.

In recent years, some of the painters have been impressed by the Japanese Zen philosophy with its transcendental humour and its exploration of the self through intuition. Yet, though Existentialism and Zen have afforded some encouragement and sanction to the artists, their art itself has been affected only sporadically by these philosophies (by contrast with that of the older painter, Mark Tobey, whose abstract painting has been deeply and directly influenced by Tao and Zen).

Surrealism, both philosophically and technically, had a more direct effect upon the painting of the group. Particularly in the early days of the movement, during the war, several painters were influenced by André Breton’s programme of ‘pure psychic automatism ... in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation’. Automatism was, and still is, widely used as a technique but rarely without some control or subsequent revision. And from the first Breton’s dependence upon Freudian and Marxian sanctions seemed less relevant than Jung’s concern with myth and archaic symbol.

The artists in the exhibition comprise the central core as well as the major marginal talent in the movement now generally called ‘Abstract Expressionism’ or, less commonly, ‘Action Painting’. Both terms were considered as titles for this exhibition.

Abstract Expressionism, a phrase used ephemerally in Berlin in 1919, was re-invented (by the writer) about 1929 to designate Kandinsky’s early abstractions that in certain ways do anticipate the American movement – to which the term was first applied in 1946. However, almost to a man, the painters in this show deny that their work is ‘abstract’, at least in any pure, programmatic sense; and they rightly reject any significant association with German Expressionism, a movement recently much exhibited in America.

Action Painting, a phrase proposed in preference to Abstract Expressionism by the poet-critic, Harold Rosenberg, in an important article published in 1952 [Harold Rosenberg, ‘American Action Painters’, Art News, vol.51, December 1952], now seems to overemphasize the physical act of painting. Anyway, these artists dislike labels and shun the words ‘movement’ and ‘school’.

The briefest glance around the exhibition reveals a striking variety among the paintings. How could canvases differ more in form than do Kline’s broad, slashing blacks from Rothko’s dissonant mists, or Pollock’s Dionysiac perpetuum mobile from Newman’s single, obsessive, vertical line? What then unites these paintings?

First, their size. Painted at arm’s length, with large gestures, they challenge both the painter and the observer. They envelop the eye, they seem immanent. They are often as big as mural paintings, but their scale as well as their lack of illusionistic depth are only coincidentally related to architectural decoration. Their flatness is, rather, a consequence of the artist’s concern with the actual painting process as his prime instrument of expression, a concern which also tends to eliminate imitative suggestion of the forms, textures, colours and spaces of the real world, since these might compete with the primary reality of paint on canvas.

As a consequence, rather than by intent, most of the paintings seem abstract. Yet they are never formalistic or non-objective in spirit. Nor is there (in theory) any preoccupation with the traditional aesthetics of ‘plastic values’, composition, quality of line, beauty of surface, harmony of colour. When these occur in the paintings – and they often do – it is the result of a struggle for order almost as intuitive as the initial chaos with which the paintings begin.

Despite the high degree of abstraction, the painters insist that they are deeply involved with subject matter or content. The content, however, is never explicit or obvious even when recognizable forms emerge, as in certain paintings by de Kooning, Baziotes, and Gottlieb. Rarely do any conscious associations explain the emotions of fear, gaiety, anger, violence, or tranquillity which these paintings transmit or suggest.

In short these painters, as a matter of principle, do nothing deliberately in their work to make ‘communication’ easy. Yet in spite of their intransigence, their following increases, largely because the paintings themselves have a sensuous, emotional, aesthetic and at times almost mystical power which works and can be overwhelming.

The movement began some fifteen years ago in wartime New York. American painting in the early 1940s was bewilderingly varied and without dominant direction. The ‘old masters’ such as John Marin, Edward Hopper, Max Weber, Stuart Davis, were more than holding their own. The bumptious Mid-Western regionalism of the 1930s, though still noisy, was dying along with its political analogue, ‘America First’ isolationism.

Most of the artists who during the decade of the Great Depression had been naively attracted by Communism had grown disillusioned both with the machinations of the party and with Socialist Realism. There were romantic realists who looked back nostalgically to the early nineteenth century, and ‘magic realists’, and painters of the social scene such as the admirable Ben Shahn. The young Boston expressionists Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine had considerable success in New York, while from the Pacific coast came the visionary art of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, reflecting Oriental influence in spirit and technique. There was also a lively interest in modern primitives, but no one discovered an American douanier Rousseau.

Late in the artistically reactionary 1930s, the American Abstract Artists group had stood firm along with their allies, Abstraction-Creation in Paris and Unit One in England. Working principally in rather dry cubist or non-objective styles, they did not seem much affected by the arrival in the United States of Léger, Mondrian and several Bauhaus masters. Quite other young painters, not yet identified as a group, were however strongly influenced by the surrealist refugees from the war, notably Max Ernst, André Masson, Marcel Duchamp (who had been the leader of New York Dadaism during World War I), the poet André Breton, and the young Chilean-Parisian painter Matta Echaurren. Equally important was the influence of the former surrealist associates, Picasso, Miro and Arp, who had stayed in Europe.

Chief among the supporters of the surrealist group in New York was Peggy Guggenheim whose gallery, ‘Art of This Century’, opened in the autumn of 1942 and served as the principal centre of the avant-garde in American painting until the founder returned to Europe in 1947. Her brilliant pioneering was then carried on by the new galleries of Betty Parsons, Charles Egan and Sam Kootz. Art of This Century gave one-man shows to Motherwell, Baziotes, Rothko and Still, and no less than four to Jackson Pollock. Arshile Gorky, the most important early master of the movement, showed at another (and prior) surrealist centre, the Julien Levy Gallery, with the poetic blessing of Breton.

The work of certain older American painters, notably Ryder, Marin and Dove, interested some of the artists, and for a time Rothko, Pollock, Gottlieb and Still were influenced by the symbolic imagery of primitive art, especially of the American north-west coast. All during this early period and afterwards, Hans Hofmann, a Parisian-trained German of Picasso’s generation, taught the young inspiringly and became their doyen colleague, though with little obvious effect on the leaders.

Before 1950 most of the artists in this show had hit their stride. And they had won general, though usually reluctant, recognition as the flourishing vanguard of American painting, thanks to the courageous dealers just mentioned, enthusiastic critics such as Clement Greenberg, a handful of editors, teachers, collectors, and museum officials, and above all to their own extraordinary energy, talent, and fortitude.

Fig.1 ​​​​​​​Barnett Newman, Adam 1951, 1952

Fig.1
Barnett Newman
Adam 1951, 1952
Tate T01091
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

They were not, however, a compact phalanx. Gorky had been a quite well-known but rather derivative painter for fifteen years before he found himself about 1943. Pollock and Baziotes, both born in 1912, worked in obscurity until 1942–3, when they emerged along with the youthful and articulate Motherwell. Pollock exhibited his first highly abstract pictures about 1945 and invented his ‘drip’ technique in 1947. [Exhibitions early in 1959 confirmed that Pollock had painted abstract expressionist paintings as early as I937 and that Hofmann was using a drip technique as early as 1940.] By 1947, Rothko and Still, working some of the time in California, were developing their characteristic styles, Gottlieb was turning away from his ‘pictographic’ forms, and Stamos, twenty years younger than they, had had his first show. In 1948, de Kooning, then forty-four, publicly entered the movement and quickly became a major figure; Tomlin was nearly fifty. Kline, Newman, Brooks and Guston, all mature painters, also transformed their art, Guston after having relinquished a brilliant success in a more realistic style. Since 1950, hundreds upon hundreds of American artists have turned to ‘abstract expressionism’, some of them, like Tworkov, in mid-career, others like Hartigan and Francis while they were still students. Sam Francis is unique as the only expatriate in the show and the only painter whose reputation was made without benefit of New York, having moved directly to Paris from San Francisco where Still and Rothko had been honoured and influential teachers. Sculptors related to, and sometimes closely allied with, the painters’ movement should be mentioned, notably Herbert Ferber, David Hare, Ibram Lassaw, Seymour Lipton, Theodore Roszak and David Smith.

The movement, after several tentative early years, has flourished in its maturity since about 1948, roughly the starting point of this show. Naturally, because of its dominance, it has aroused much resistance in the United States among other artists and the public, but it has excited widespread interest and even influenced the painting of some of its most stubborn adversaries. Others are staunchly resisting what has inevitably become fashionable. There will be reactions and counter-revolutions – and some are already evident. Fortunately, the undogmatic variety and flexibility inherent in the movement permits divergence even among the leaders; a few years ago, for instance, both Pollock and de Kooning painted a number of pictures with recognizable figures, to the dismay of some of their followers who had been inclined to make an orthodoxy of abstraction.

For over a dozen years now, works by some of these artists have been shown abroad, first in Europe, then in Latin America and the Orient. They have met with controversy but also with enthusiasm, thanks in part to artists working along similar lines, and to other champions.

To have written a few words of introduction to this exhibition is an honour for an American who has watched with deep excitement and pride the development of the artists here represented, their long struggle – with themselves even more than with the public – and their present triumph.

March, 1958