New York in the 1940's

What is art?

Art is a form of visual thinking by an artist where he/she creates using visual elements a model (style) for organizing experience. Each individual work constitutes a particular application of a style system. The underlying subject matter of modern art is always the personality of the artist in its encounter with the world.

Henry Sayer describes artists as having four major roles:

  • Artists help us to see the world in new or innovative ways
  • Artists make visual record of people, places, and events of their time and place
  • Artists make functional objects and structures (buildings) more pleasurable and elevate them or imbue them with meaning
  • Artists give form to the immaterial - hidden or universal truths, spiritual forces, personal feelings(Sayer 4-11)


"Art for Art’s Sake"

Throughout the history of Western civilization, art and artist were dependant upon patrons and a public that measured quality in relation to well-known standards of subject mater, technique and style. Toward the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century we have to value an artist’s work most of all for its success in changing preconceived standards through its originality. The more original a vision, the more its frame of reference will vary from the way the rest of us think and see. Thus it becomes a much more daunting task to find an understanding of a work of art. The meanings become harder and harder to attain than in earlier eras.

What does it mean to be "Contemporary?"

I would like to begin with a few short films by Nancy Ross to get us started and caught up to this course:

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Avante Guarde

The term "Avante Guarde" originated as a French military term referring to the small group of soldiers that went out ahead of main forces to scout for the enemy. The main notion of this term with regard to art is that art expresses ideas. Those ideas may not only differ from what the rest of society believes, but come closer to “the truth.” Art thus has a bearing on understanding the present and perhaps even an influence on the future.

Gustave Courbet 'The Stone Breakers', 1849 Jacque Louise David 'The Death of Socrates' 1787

The concept began with the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Gustave Courbet rejected with his new style of “realism” as an expression of democratic values however his works along with Eduard Manet’s were many times accepted into shows despite the criticisms of the time. Courbet's rebellion provided a paradigm of the MODERN artist as someone whose aesthetic runs counter to the normalizing force of tradition. Clement Greenberg, a noted modern art critic, describes in deail the importance of this concept:

The most important function of the avant-garde was not to “experiment,” but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point. “Art for art’s sake” and “pure poetry” appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague.” (Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch I” 1939)

Greenberg goes on later in the essay to differ this idea from the idea of “Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc… Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy.” (Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch II” 1939) Kitch thus becomes defined as “the normalizing force of tradition”

What Greenberg had done in his essay is attempt to define modernism and what constitutes “high” and “low” art forms. While most of the recent artistic movements strove to break down those distinctions. Greenberg thus defines “modernism” as a drive towards purification by a separation of “high art” from life and from popular culture. Later critics such as Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson accepted Greenberg’s separation and then defined “postmodernism” as an attack against modernism’s separation of values.

A critical view of the book and of the course (Fineberg, "Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being," 2000):

In the study of “art for art’s sake” we strike a dilemma. In order to understand art and appreciate it in a social or academic discourse, artworks must conform to a certain paradigm or be subjected to one. This is often the greatest enemy of art. Ever since these critics of the first half of the twentieth century, most contemporary critics have shifted to a more critical theory or cultural study of works of art, using them as illustrations of constructs of socio-political forces. With this in mind, the critic will become aware of how artworks parallel contemporary theory and spiritual beliefs such as existentialism and structuralism.

The book approaches the schism of European and American art in an interesting way: European art stemmed on a tradition of breaking away from the old style or thought while American art has always seen itself as starting “from scratch.” The idea of a “pioneer” individualism makes Americans take a broadly ahistorical approach to things. America contributed to art the post-modern culture as it accepts all aspects of popular culture with no canon of style or technique. It does not attack history or aesthetics but disregards their existence or premises in favor of uprootedness and instability (freedom)

The concept of “mainstream” still exists in the narrative of this course. The good of this concept is that art is created through civilized interaction creates a set of agreed-upon norms. the bad is that “mainstream” can become a tyranny of majority values like the salon culture of the nineteenth century. It is important to remember that alternative narratives continually take on importance in the “mainstream” and must be taken into account (avant-garde). The importance in understanding contemporary art is in a “healthier state of ignorance” where as a critic or historian you must always question the visual representations and many times push aside the notion of “history.”

New York Becomes the Center


Max Ernst, 'The Eye of Silence'Yves Tanguy, 'Through Birds, Through Fire, But Not Through Glass,' 1943In 1939, Britian and France enter WWII and many of the contemporary artists and intellectuals begin to flee Paris which was until that point the artistic and intellectual center of the Western world. Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky remained in Paris. Cubists, abstract artists and others from the School of Paris were Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Jaques Lipchitz, and Amedee Ozenfant. Surrealists also dominated the art scene of the time. By 1942 many of these artists had moved to New York: Andre Breton,Salvador Dali, Max Ernst (figure (left): “The Eye of Silence,” 1941-42), Andre Masson, Matta, Kurt Seligmann, Rene Magritte, and Yves Tanguy (Figure (right): “Through Birds, Through Fire, But Not Through Glass”, 1943).



Andre Masson, 'Battle of the Fishes' 1926The movement labeled "Surrealism" evolved from the shock tactics of Dada and was directed by the poet, Andre Breton. It is influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis as the surrealists looked to the unconscious mind as the source of artistic subject matter. Andre Masson (Figure (right), “Battle of the Fishes” 1926) spilled glue on the canvas and then added sand. He then used these random forms as a springboard for an automatic image. The symbolism is supposed to read as if reading a dream. This “psychic automatism” becomes a central practice for artists in the New York School.

Rene Magritte 'The Voice of Space' 1931
Rene Magritte (Slide, “The Voice of Space” 1931)

Magritte takes on a more illusionistic approach to the idea of representing dream imagery. The style still deals with free association of symbolic imagery, but in a classical representational style. This method of free association did not catch on as freely with the American artists of the 40’s as abstract surrealism.

American Pragmatism and Social Revalence

Coming out of the 1930’s Great Depression and moving into a politically charged war-time environment, many artists searched for a social relevance or usefulness. The federal government replied with a program called the Federal Art Project which employed artists to document the times and be “useful” in the 1930’s, and artists responded in different ways either treating political themes or the promotion of “American Values.”

Ben Shahn 'The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti' 1931-32 Thomas Hart Benton 'The Arts of the West' 1932
Ben Shahn 'The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti' 1931-32 and Thomas Hart Benton, "The Arts of the West," 1932

Much like the Rodny King trial, the trial of two Italian-American laborers in Boston for a hold-up and shooting was filled with debate due to their ethnicity and leftist political views. Many believed that the trial wasn’t fair because it was decided on circumstantial evidence and that the jurors’ personal beliefs became a key factor. Benton took the other approach, to promote “American Values,” idolizing American myths and regional culture. This is typically referred to as “Regionalism.” American artists had begun describing realistic themes in a more modern way.

Thomas Hart Benton 'The Arts of the West' 1932 Thomas Hart Benton 'The Arts of the West' 1932
Diego Rivera “Detroit Industry” 1932

Mexico, at the time, had a leftist revolution during the teens and twenties which fuelled a sense of utopian ideals. A “Mexican mural renaissance” developed with artists such as Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Jose Orozco who also gained public commissions in the US. Most of these muralists also set up shop in the US taking on apprentices such as Jackson Pollock (who studied under Siqueiros and Thomas Hart Benton). Siquerios or “Il Duco”, as he became known, introduced Pollock to experimental techniques including paint splattering and the use of industrial “Duco” paints. Rivera’s murals bring together many references including: Renaissance Fresco, classical proportion, pre-Columbian, Cubist space, constructivist compositional impact and the Utopian enthusiasm for the machine age.These painters sought a sense of worth by transforming their ideas into language that could be understood by “everyman.” They sought to pull themselves away from the ideas of European Modernism because they felt it too elitist.

Georgia O’Keeffe 'Jack in the Pulpit number IV'
Georgia O’Keeffe “Jack in the Pulpit number IV”

O’Keeffe also sought this sort of objectivity in her work. She sought a romantic transport in the detail of nature. An abstraction of form created through idolizing the beauty of natural form. The poetry is in the fact and there is no sense of metaphor (as many may lead you to believe). In essence, O'Keeffe's work demonstrates her modernist design sense as she explodes natural compositions into abstract forms on a flattened canvas.

The Depression and the WPA

The stock market crash of 1929 and the great Depression intensified the pressure of social relevance in art. George Biddle wrote to Roosevelt on May 9, 1933:

The Mexican Artists have produced the greatest national school of mural painting since the Italian Renaissance. Diego Rivera tells me that it was only possible because Obregon allowed Mexican artists to work at plumbers’ wages in order to express n the walls of the government buildings the social ideals of the Mexican Revolution. The younger artists of America are conscious as they have never been of the social revolution that our country and civilization are going through, and they would be eager to express theses ideas in a permanent art form… (Fineberg 26-27).

FDR and the Works Progress Administration create the Federal Art Project which employed artists in much the same way as Mexico had. The project produced hundreds of thousands of works of art and by 1936employed around 6,000 artists most of which lived in New York. Most artists we know today (Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, David Smith, Mark Rothko…) worked on and were promoted by the project and came together because of the project, while others such as Barnett Newman felt left out because he never qualified as he made too much money at the time. “I paid a severe price for not being on the Project with the other guys; in their eyes I wasn’t a painter; I didn’t have a label.”

Availability of European Modernism:

Joseph Cornell 'Untitled (The Hotel Eden)' 1945)European Modernism, despite most American artists’ efforts to break away from such associations, was present in the thirties in New York. The Museum of Modern art had opened its doors in 1929 and housed works of art from many of these artists. In 1939 it began housing Picasso’s Guernica 1937 which became known as a very influential piece both because of its social relevance and its expressionist style. The New Art Circle Gallery founded by J.B. Neumann housed works of German Expressionism. Gallatin Collection housed works by the Cubists, Seurat, Cezanne, Mondrian and the Russian Avant-garde. And the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) was opened in 1939 showing Kandinsky’s abstractions. Julien Levy’s Gallery showed surrealist works as well as works by Joseph Cornell (Figure (right): “Untitled (The Hotel Eden)” 1945) and Arshile Gorky.Cornell’s piece shows a sense of the surrealist search in the inner mind, however his work is not constructed out of free association but deliberate remembrance or narrative. They seem like “memory boxes”.

The Europeans in New York:

Jackson Pollock, 'Make and Female' 1942The Europeans lead totally bohemian lifestyles. They lived art and passed that way of living down to the American artists. In Europe the atmosphere is slower and centered in café’s and intellectual discourse that becomes focused on such atmosphere. In New York there is no such atmosphere or tradition and the pace of life is much faster with more people. Several galleries became meeting places, but none like the private gallery of Peggy Guggenheim called “Art of This Century.” Guggenheim showed works by: Arp, Ernst, Miro, Masson, Tanguy, Magritte, Dali, Brauner, Giacometti, Pollock, Hofmann, Rothko, Still, Baziotes, and Motherwell. Much of this atmosphere was illustrated well in the recent film, Pollock which we will be reviewing later in the quarter.

The Sense of a New Movement in New York

Tansey, 'The Triumph of the New York School' 1984

In 1945 Art of This Century Gallery mounted a show titled “A Problem for Critics” with a challenge to the critics to identify the new “movement” in art. Included in the show were: Hans Arp, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, and Americans: Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko. Throughout the 1940’s these artists amongst several others (de Kooning, Motherwell, Newman, Still, and Smith) created a body of work that placed them in the forefront of contemporary art. They were at the time called: Abstract Expressionists or The New York School.


Lee Krasner 'White Squares' 1948
Lee Krasner “White Squares” 1948

Described by critic Robert Coates as tying in with the idea of Expressionism in the tradition of Kandinsky.

“Except for Hofmann… the artists of the New York School faced many of the same formative cultural, philosophical, and aesthetic issues (of European Modernism). These issues included: the imperative of social relevance; existentialism; the surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind leavened by an American matter-of-factness; the Mexican influence; and the formal vocabulary of European modernism – especially Kandinsky’s abstract expressionism of 1910 to 1914, Mondrian, Picasso’s Guernica, interwar cubismand abstract surrealism. From cubism they took the shallow picture space and the concern with the picture plane. The biomorphic forms and automatist elements came from surrealism and Picasso’s work of the thirties. Early Kandinsky inspired some of the freedom of brushwork and painterliness, and his moral tone fuelled the ethical seriousness of purpose. To these American artists of the forties Kandinsky represented romantic emotionalism and spontinaeity, as opposed to Mondrian, who stood for strict planning, the denial of personality, and intellect.” (Fineberg 32-33)

Though most all the artists incorporated these sources, each responded differently as they were all in a fairly developmental stage in the forties. All placed paramount emphasis on content or meaningful subject matter in their art which was predominantly abstract. Though they prized individuality, they still came together in a “movement” though all but Hans Hofmann were disappointed with the critics connection to expressionism as they saw themselves as separate from that.

The New York School stressed automatism and action in art. In the developmental phases of their styles, Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and Gottlieb used automatism to develop their ideas through free association as the abstract surrealists had done. Pollock broke from the idea by using it as a device for objectifying an intense conscious experience as it was unfolding rather than a free association of unconscious material. Others also left such practices, and although they resemble such images of the surrealists, they do so through a different, more conscious search of the personal psyche. Surrealists lived in a theatrical, past, present and future. The New York School artists focused on their paintings as entirely in the present and the painting was a result of intensely felt experience.

The New York School also gained much of its influence from Existentialism. Harold Rosenberg Stated, “No part of the process in an action painting is purely technical; everything is a meaningful gesture inseparable from the artist’s biography.” Existentialists stressed the idea of individuality. Between 1945 and 1946 many “existentialist” writings came into print in English:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre: action was the means of knowing oneself in relation to the world. “In a word, man must create his own essence; it is in throwing himself into the world, in suffering it, in struggling with it, that – little by little – he defines himself.”
  • Kafka: demanded a fundamental rethinking of experience through his dull terror of the absurd.

Artists outside of New York

Clyfford Still 'Untitled' 1957
Clyfford Still, "Untitled" 1957

Clyfford Still was an artist of the Pacific Northwest, shares similarities in poetic compositions with O’Keeffe. A very testy character, he describes his paintings as such: “A great free joy surges through me when I work, and as the blues or reds or blacks leap and quiver in their tenuous ambience or rise in austere thrusts to carry their power infinitely beyond the bounds of the limiting field, I move with them and find a resurrection from the moribund oppressions that held me only hours ago.” Painting thus became therapeutic during a time of great distress for many in the United States at the time.

Franz Kline 'Untitled' 1948 Franz Kline 'Chief' 1950 Franz Klein 'Lehigh V Span' 1959-1960
Franz Kline (from Left to Right) Untitled, 1948; Chief, 1950; Lehigh V Span, 1959-60

Klein's pure action painting developed from a pure expressionist style of figure painting. He grew up in North Eastern Pennsylvania around the rail road lines. He loved the Lehigh Valley. His "Black and Whites" were created in a specific manner. He would first set the gesture with black and then cut back with white until the idea was clarified. The paintings concern weight and movement rather than contours or forms. Characteristically large in scale which provides a direct expression of personality.

Friends of the New York School


  • Thomas Hess: More objective account of the artists.
  • Clement Greenberg: Critic who attempts to lay down the law of artists, categorizing stylistic movements and attempting to change the direction of art.
  • Harold Rosenberg: From more of a literary background, tended to defend intellectual values and had strong sympathies towards the struggling artist.
  • Meyer Schapiro: influenced more as a teacher and critical eye for the artists. He made art seem important and worth you serious thought, often introducing artists to new ideas or directions for their artwork.

Isamu Noguchi 'Kouros' 1944-45

Isamu Noguchi "Kouros" 1944-45

Kouros takes directly from the idea of Greek sculpture and this strive for the essence of art (primitive). His work takes from the biomorphism of surrealists such as Arp, and also incorporates a lot of ideas of Zen culture from his childhood in Japan.Many of these artists move on into the next decades, but their main contribution to contemporary art was the development of a new artistic center in New York and a breaking away from previous modes of thought. We will look more carefully at some of these artists next week and the European modernists as well.

Jacob Lawrence "Migration of the American Negro" 1937 (Phillips Collection and MoMA)

Jacob Lawrence was the first African American artists to receive a one-person show in a prominent New York art gallery. While supported by the WPA, Lawrence was commissioned to produce a series describing the exodus of black labor from the South to the North following the First World War. He produced his work using a collage painting aesthetic influenced by cubisum and folk art and injected with personal experience. The series was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (even numbers) and the Phillips Collection (odd numbers) and published in Fortune magazine. Lawrence perhaps did not receive the recognition he deserved during his time due to his race. This is a similar issue that female artists had in that they were often categorized by these characteristics and not necessarily their artistic abilities.


Louise Bourgeois, "Untitled" 1950

Throughout the 1940's Bourgeois remained private with her art but was familiar with the artists of New York as she married art historian, Robert Goldwater following her artistic training in Paris. Her work demonstrates a modernist materialistic connection as her sculptures demonstrate her physical connection with the media. Her drawings also take on a similar design aesthetic, though her work adapts throughout the decades with infusions of post modern thought.

Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Print. 2000. 
Greenberg, Clement. Avante-Garde and Kitch. 1939. Web. 
Sayer, Henry M. A World of Art. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. Print. 2013. Harris, B. and Zucker, S. eds.SmArtHistory. Khan Academy. Web. 2014.

Further Reading

  • Pollock (2000)
  • Alexander Calder: Good books and some videos in the AiW Library
  • Frascina, Francis, ed. Pollock and After: The Critical Debates. New York, 1985.
  • Frascina, Francis & Harris, Jonathan, eds. Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts. Harper, 1992
  • Geldzahler, Henry. New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970. New York, 1969.
  • Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture. Boston, 1961.
  • Harrison, Charles & Wood, Paul, eds. Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Colchester, Vermont, 1992.
  • Hertz, Richard & Klein, Norman, eds. Twentieth Century Art Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • Hunter, Sam & Jacobus, John. Modern Art. Thrid edition. Prentice Hall, 1992.
  • Johnson, Ellen, ed. American Artists on Art: 1940-1980. New York, 1982.
  • Krauss, Rosalind E. Passages in Modern Sculpture. Cambridge, MA, 1997.
  • Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting. New York, 1970.
    • The New York School. New York, 1978.
  • Schapiro, Meyer. Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York, 1978.
  • Shapiro, David & Cecile, eds. Abstract Expressionism: A Critical Record. Cambridge, MA, 1990.
  • Steinberg, Leo.  Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th Century Art. New York, 1972.
  • Stich, Sidra. Made in the USA: An Americanization in Modern Art. University Art Museum, Berkeley, CA, 1987.
  • Kandinsky, W. On Spiritual in Art
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