Ronald Alley, ‘Recent American Art’, 1969

As Keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery from 1965 until his retirement in 1986, Ronald Alley proved a vocal advocate for expanding the gallery’s holdings of modern American art. His enthusiasm for the paintings of the New York School in particular is evident in his essay in Recent American Art, the first title in Tate’s ‘Little Book’ series to be dedicated to a non-British subject. The volume celebrated Tate’s growing collection of American art, which at the time comprised around fifty works, and Alley’s text was accompanied by reproductions of thirty-one of these. Director Norman Reid, however, noted in the foreword that Tate badly needed to acquire additional works in order to achieve its aim ‘eventually to have the best representation of American painting outside the United States’. Alley’s book was published to coincide with the exhibition An Aspect of American Painting and Sculpture 1948–1968, organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and comprising fifty-four works, the vast majority of which were lent by US public collections. Although held at the Tate Gallery, the exhibition highlighted the modesty of the British national collection of American art as no Tate-owned works were included.


The rapid increase in the representation of American painting and sculpture at the Tate Gallery during the past ten years is due to two factors: the Gallery’s own purchasing policy and the generosity of American artists and collectors. From a modest beginning in 1959 with the purchase of paintings by Rothko, Guston and Brooks the post-war American collection has grown until it now numbers more than fifty works.

Great benefit has been derived from the ruling that American citizens who present works by American artists to the Tate are entitled to the same tax advantages as when they give to public collections in America. Major examples of the work of Pollock, Louis and Rothko, to name only three artists, have been acquired in this way. There are still some notable omissions which we hope one day to make good: the Tate badly needs, among other things, works by Gorky, Still, Reinhardt, Gottlieb, Motherwell, Rauschenberg and Oldenburg.

We hope eventually to have the best representation of American painting outside the United States.

Norman Reid

Recent American Art

That it has been possible to draw all but four of the illustrations to this book from the Tate Gallery’s own collection is indicative of the enormous international interest in recent American art. British artists were among the first outside the Unites States to recognise the importance of the new American painting and to be influenced by it; and since about 1950 New York has tended to supersede Paris as the principal creative centre for painting.

How was it that American art, which had usually been rather provincial, suddenly became of such vital significance. One of the factors responsible for this was undoubtedly the formation in the United States of a number of superb public and private collections of 20th century art which meant that many of the greatest 20th century paintings and sculptures found a home there and were available for the artists to study. This was followed by the arrival as refugees just before and during the last war of a number of leading European abstract and surrealist artists including Mondrian, Matta, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and André Masson as well as the founder of Surrealism, the poet André Breton. Thus American artists were provided within a few years in the late 1930s and early 1940s with exceptional opportunities to familiarise themselves with modern art at an extremely high level. Out of this situation there emerged a new synthesis, a new beginning, fostered both by America’s detachment from Europe and by the Americans’ exceptional readiness to make radical breaks with tradition and to experiment.

Fig.1 Arshile Gorky, The Waterfall 1943

Arshile Gorky
The Waterfall 1943
Tate T01319
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The founders of the first new art movement, known as Abstract Expressionism, had mostly begun by painting in much more orthodox styles. Jackson Pollock, for instance, had originally been influenced by his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, one of the foremost painters of the Midwestern regional scene, and by the Mexican mural painters Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. Arshile Gorky had made many extremely skilful pastiches of Picasso before striking out on his own. His painting ‘The Waterfall’ [fig.1], executed about 1943, still owes something to the biomorphic imagery of Miró but is treated in a much more fluid and open way, the paint even being allowed to trickle down the picture surface.

The complete breakthrough into Abstract Expressionism was however first achieved by Jackson Pollock in the mid 1940s. At this period Pollock’s work, which had mostly consisted of violently expressionistic figure compositions, gradually became completely abstract though without losing any of its original intensity and drama. The drama came to be expressed in purely formal terms through restless dynamic clashes of movement and through the expressive character of the paint marks themselves. Instead of having a central image given particular emphasis, the web of lines and paint marks usually spreads more or less uniformly across the entire picture area. Pollock not only painted many of these pictures on the floor so that he could walk around them and work on them from all four sides but he frequently applied the paint by dripping it from a can or a stick, the paint marks thereby echoing the rhythmical movements of his arm. In this way his paintings and those of artists like him were to an unusual degree the record of the artist’s activity on the canvas, and for this reason are sometimes known as ‘Action Paintings’. This method of painting, which depends to a great extent on improvisation and on a close relationship between the artist and his canvas, has much in common with the automatic writing and painting practised by the Surrealists.

‘No.23’ 1948 is a particularly serene example of his later, more classical drip paintings in which an interweaving network of lines creates a tracery of great delicacy. The eye is carried along by the dancing movement of the lines and there is not point of rest. But in ‘Painting’ 1952 [now known as Yellow Islands, Tate T00436] the initial composition produced by dripping paint on to the horizontal canvas is counteracted by the addition of several patches applied with the brush and finally by standing the canvas upright and pouring paint on to it which is allowed to run. This conveys a quite different feeling of conflict and violence.

One of the most original features of Abstract Expressionist paintings like these is their very shallow spatial structure, the paint marks appearing to lie on or close to the picture plane; sideways extension tending to replace composition in depth. Many artists began to work on a very large scale related to mural painting or to the scale of the human figure. (Although Mark Tobey, who was a generation older than Pollock, made many all-over compositions similar to his, he usually worked on a miniaturist’s, Klee-like scale, painting close up with a brush.)

The element of struggle is particularly evident in the work of Willem de Kooning, in which there is an unmistakable conflict between sweetness and violence, and in which the artist seems to have battled his way through the paint to reach the final image, scraping out and overpainting until the picture becomes an accretion of successive layers. Colours of great beauty exist side by side with areas of deliberate roughness and astringency, and the brushstrokes are sometimes delicate, sometimes aggressive and dynamic. Some of his works are completely abstract, others are inspired by landscape or (like the Tate’s picture ‘The Visit’ of 1967 [Tate T01108]) by the female figure, which is treated with an evident sensuality. Startling distortions of the human form enhance the dramatic impact.

The gestural type of Abstract Expressionism is clearly exemplified by James Brook’s ‘Boon’ [Tate T00253] which is entirely composed of broad sweeping brushstrokes and conveys an impression of restless overall movement. Similarly Franz Kline’s monumental black-and-white pictures look at first sight simply like enormous black brushmarks on a white ground, though the blacks have a thrust and momentum which give their bold designs a powerful tension, and the whites themselves are positive and active areas and not just a neutral ground.The towering forms of such a picture as ‘Meryon’ evoke a city landscape of girders and bridges.

Other leading Abstract Expressionists include Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb. Sam Francis is represented at the Tate by one of his finest large pictures ‘Around the Blues’, which is typical of his work in the freshness and lyricism of its colours. The mottled patches jostle one another and seem to be slowly drifting, rising and falling, in clusters and skeins of colour and the very liquid paint trickles freely down the surface (just as in his watercolours). Guston’s paintings are executed in thicker, juicier paint, with the irregular colour shapes which constitute their main accents massed in the centre. The shapes are as it were enmeshed in the brushstrokes, the colours often opalescent and atmospheric. Each picture was arrived at as a result of a long process of painting and repainting, the forms being scraped out and shifted from place to place until the artist was satisfied.

Usually grouped with the Abstract Expressionists but standing rather apart from the type of painting just discussed is the work of artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman who are concerned with colour rather than gesture. In Rothko’s pictures soft-edged colour patches of varying densities seem to be hovering in front of a coloured ground; the power and richness of the colours convey an impression of grandeur and drama. Some parts of the pictures glow with light, while others are dark and brooding and mysterious. Their solemnity is enhanced by their extreme frontality and symmetry. Barnett Newman usually has a uniform field of colour stretching right across the canvas which is interrupted only by two or three narrow vertical bands of a contrasting colour. The spacing of these bands, their density, tautness, luminosity and so on, make them activating elements in the composition.

When the younger painters began to turn against Abstract Expressionism on the grounds that it was too rhetorical and undisciplined, Newman was one of the artists they particularly admired and treated as a precursor. (Ellsworth Kelly, who had spent some years in Paris, was also influenced by European painting such as the late gouaches découpées of Matisse, with their flat, clean-cut areas of pure colour.) Instead of the conspicuous brush or paint marks used by the preceding artists they tended to apply the paint uniformly, with a completely impersonal finish, and in place of the loose improvisatory treatment which had become so widespread in the later 1950s they constructed their paintings very deliberately and precisely, very often dividing up the canvas by means of straight lines or circles and filling in each area with a positive colour.

Morris Louis, born in the same year as Pollock but slower to develop – all his mature paintings were executed in the years between Pollock’s death in 1956 and his own death in 1962 – illustrates the development from Abstract Expressionism into something quite different. ‘VAV’ 1960 [Tate T01057], a relatively late work, is one of his so-called ‘veil’ paintings executed by staining the canvas with layers of very liquid acrylic paint to create a soft veil-like expanse of radiant colour. In pictures of the following year, such as ‘Alpha-Phi’ [Tate T01058], the centre of the canvas was left completely blank and was dramatically offset by a number of irregular diagonal rivulets of vivid colours across the bottom corners. In his last works, executed in 1961–2, the colour bands became completely regular in the form of parallel stripes. Thus a loose, improvisatory way of painting gave place within two years to a style that was very disciplined and formalised.

One of the older artists whose influence played an important role in fostering this tendency was Josef Albers, who had been at one time on the teaching staff of the Bauhaus in Germany and who had inherited from this period an interest in combining geometrical abstraction with research into colour and colour theory. In an extensive series of paintings known as ‘Homage to the Square’, of which ‘Departing in Yellow’ is a typical example, a composition of squares one inside another is used as the basis for a systematic exploration of various types of colour relationship, the standardised composition allowing the artist to concentrate on colour and tone. His pupils in the United States included a close friend of Morris Louis’s, Kenneth Noland, who developed this idea further in a series of pictures with concentric circles like a target; the rings being painted in contrasting colours of extraordinary saturation and concentration. Despite their schematic, geometrical structure these pictures were not at all austere but were extremely lyrical and sensuous. Noland has since painted further series of colour pictures incorporating a chevron design or with rows of narrow horizontal stripes.

Frank Stella took the format of his pictures as his starting-point and divided them up absolutely consistently. For instance, ‘Hyena Stomp’ [Tate T00730] is a square picture with stripes of uniform width parallel to the four sides, starting at the top left-hand corner and spiralling in towards the centre; and this spiral structure is enhanced by a sequence in spectral order of eleven colours from red to violet four times repeated. Some of his series consist of a systematic exploration of all the possibilities inherent in a theme.

Among the other young painters involved in this tendency are Larry Zox and Larry Poons, although Poons has recently moved away from the tightly structured paintings with which he made his name. The Tate’s picture ‘Out’ of 1967 [Tate T01053] is much softer and more atmospheric, with loosely painted lozenges of sometimes positive and sometimes barely perceptible colour floating in a luminous orange ground.

But in addition to this ‘hard edge’ abstraction or Post-Painterly Abstraction, as it is sometimes called, the reaction against Abstract Expressionism also led to a partial return to figuration which culminated in the other outstanding movement of the 1960s, Pop Art. The development towards this had been pioneered from about 1954 by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, working in close association though each in a very distinctive style. Rauschenberg, whose manner of painting owed a good deal to Abstract Expressionism, began to introduce not only collage materials but real objects such as chairs and Coca-Cola bottles into his works (his so-called ‘combine paintings’) as well as images in the form of picture postcards etc.; and he followed this by silk-screening photographs on to his pictures. ‘Almanac’ 1962 [Tate T01135] is typical of his silk-screen pictures in the way it incorporates a number of associated images placed at different angles and at different intervals in depth which seem to open out the space and which are integrated by means of passages of painterly brushwork. Jasper Johns usually takes commonplace images which are already flat and bold as his starting-point, such as flags, targets, numbers and maps, and in his early pictures these are sometimes rendered with so little modification as to create an ambiguous relationship between the object and the painting, though the colours, textures and brushmarks are always subtly varied and of great refinement and beauty. In his later works the treatment tends to become freer and more complex, as in ‘Zero through Nine’ in which the figures from 0 to 9 are superimposed.

The artists on the fringe of Pop Art also include Jim Dine and Richard Lindner. Dine comes close to Johns in the painterly elegance of his work, his concern with texture and placing, though he has strong links with Dada and Surrealism in such a picture as ‘Walking Dream with a Four Foot Clamp’. Richard Lindner’s ‘Stranger No.2’ of 1958 [Tate T00877] was partly inspired by the cardboard cut-out toys on breakfast cereal packets and the like. His subsequent work has become even bolder in its patterning and has often been inspired by the most garish and erotic aspects of modern city life.

What distinguishes the true Pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg is their use of ‘pop’ media, the specifically commercial non-fine-art media of advertising, films, comics, pin-ups, pictures magazines and so on. For instance, Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’ [Tate T00897] is based on images from strip cartoons which are subtly altered to yield strong formal qualities and are presented on a vastly enlarged scale, so that they have an altogether new monumental quality like a Renaissance fresco. The application of regular dots of colour stencilled on to the canvas resembles the Ben Day dots used by commercial artists. There is a deliberate, somewhat ironical contrast between the highly charged emotional subject-matter and the very impersonal, coolly controlled technique used by the artist. Andy Warhol, on the other hand, uses his source material with comparatively little alteration, silk-screening photographs on to his canvases; the same image is frequently repeated over and over again in rows with only very slight variations. His series of pictures of Marilyn Monroe was made after her death and reflects her dual significance as a much-publicised sex-goddess whose personal life was permeated by tragedy.

Although New York remains the chief creative centre for painting in the United States, much interesting work is now being produced in the Los Angeles area. Ron Davis’s ‘Vector’ [Tate T01068] is typical of this in its synthetic colour and glossy surface; the design creating an ambiguous effect of perspective and foreshortening.

The first American sculptor to achieve full international recognition and to make a fundamental new contribution to the development of sculpture was Alexander Calder, who began experimenting in the 1930s with mobile metal sculptures which could be set in motion by the air currents. Their cut-out metal shapes suspended from slender rods float and move with extraordinary grace, constantly changing in their relationships.

Isamu Noguchi, who was born in the USA of a Japanese father and an American mother but partly brought up in Japan, worked at one time as an assistant to Brancusi with whom he shares an exceptional sensitivity to shape and surface. Some of his works have a distinctly Japanese character: for instance, ‘The Self’ was one of several pieces modelled specifically to be cast by the traditional rough and vital Japanese method of casting iron pots.

Louise Nevelson achieved fame in the late 1950s with her walls of wooden boxes each painted a uniform colour, black, white or gold. The Tate owns her first black wall as well as an even larger wall in gold and they show how she is able to transmute her assembled wooden forms – part ‘found objects’ such as rolling-pins and banisters, part rubbish material and part forms specially shaped – into mysterious structures akin both to baroque altar-pieces and to old-fashioned kitchen dressers.

The most influential of the American sculptors was however David Smith, with his welded metal sculptures. Smith had been influenced to some extent by Surrealism but his late sculptures are as abstract as the works by the painters. ‘Cubi XIX’ 1964 [Tate T00891] belongs to his series of nearly thirty large ‘Cubi’ sculptures in welded stainless steel made in 1961–5 which are perhaps his crowning achievement: the simple geometrical elements are piled up on one another in a state of precarious balance. His works have a forthright power and energy which is by no means devoid of elegance.

David Smith’s influence has been partly responsible for the emergence of a group of so-called ‘minimal’ sculptors such as Robert Morris, Don Judd and Tony Smith who concentrate on abstract sculptures in metal or fibreglass with very basic geometrical forms. Robert Morris’s hanging sculpture in fibreglass is a particularly poetic example of this tendency. In contrast, his felt sculptures belong to the category of ‘soft sculptures’ in malleable materials, like the foam rubber sculptures by John Chamberlain and the ‘Soft Typewriters’ by Claes Oldenburg, which constitute another of the most surprising new developments in American art.

Ronald Alley