European Modernism and American Expressionism


This lesson will discuss the influences of European modernism on New York as artists fled the spread of World War II. This lesson also describes the growth of a new identity throughAbstract Expressionism as American artists reacted to these new ideals and attempt to compete artistically with these established Europeans.

The lesson will demonstrate this shift of the artworld to New York and Abstract Expressionism by tracking the lives of several artists who were highly influential in this progression. The movie Pollock(2000), linked below, demonstrates the atmosphere of the 1940's and 1950's as these artists congregated in bars, displayed their work, and strove to push the boundaries of Modern art supported by critics such as Clement 'Clem' Greenberg and Peggy Guggenheim.

Alexander Calder

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Circus, 1929

Alexander Calder is an American sculptor who showed inventiveness at an early age and was highly influenced by his child-like desire to play. Calder went to college for engineering by soon left that path to study art at the Art Students League in New York from 1923-26 before moving to Paris, still the capitol of the art world at the time. While in Paris, he became good friends with many of the modern artists such as Miro who's whimisical forms are similar in style to that of Calder's abstract work.

Calder's earliest works were about interaction and entertainment, mostly influenced by the circus. The circus grew over his lifetime as he continually added more acts. It wasn't until Calder met Piet Mondriaan that he began to take a more serious attitude toward fine art. When visiting Mondriaan's studio, Calder exclaimed:

It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on. Even the victrola (record Player) which had been some muddy color, was painted red. I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate. And be, with a very serious counterance, said: "No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast."... This one visit gave me a shock that started things. Though I had often heard the word "modern" before, I did not consciously know for feel the term "abstract." So now at thirty-tow, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract (Fineberg 46).

Calder's work quickly became more abstract, as he said, however the themes of engineering and whimsey still resided in his work.


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A Universe, 1934 and Object in Y, 1955

Cosmic imagery, influenced from an earlier trip that he had had through the Panama Canal evolved out of his wire sculpture techniques. Using counterweights and suspending his sculpture from the ceiling, he was able to make his structures move. These planes and forms also moved through space, providing a differing experience for the viewer every time that they came to view the work. It was abstraction in motion. Marcel Duchamp, upon seeing these sculptures, suggested to name these moving sculptures "mobiles." Later, Calder produced more rigid pieces without motion that Jean Arp joked should be named "stabiles," a name that characterized much of Calder's other work:

Flamingo, 1974

Hans Hofmann

Hans HofmannLandscape, 1941

Hans Hofmann retains a European aesthetic to his artwork unlike other artists of the New York School. He was German and from 1904-1914 he painted in Paris and frequented the Café du Dome where he met many of the leading Parisian artists: Picasso, Braque, Pascin, Rouault, Picabia, Matisse, Leger. Although he didn’t have personal relations with German Expressionists, he stored some of Kandinsky’s paintings in his studio. In the Fall of 1931, he moved to New York City and taught at the Art Students League for two years and then opened his own school.

Through his courses, he taught European Modernism and what the French call “belle peinture” (the beautiful handling of paint): nuances of handling paint and color based on firsthand experience with Kandinsky and Fauvism, an analytical approach to pictorial structure (based on cubism and Cezanne) and spirituality (also from Kandinsky’s romantic abstractions). Art had nothing to do with politics or social consciousness. Stressed drawing and lectured on pictorial structure, paint handling and inventive expression through materials.

Theory: Hofmann wrote essays on art theory encompassing the spiritual ideas of Mondrian and Kandinsky. He states, “The artist’s technical problem is how to transform the material with which he works back into the sphere of the spirit (Fineberg 54).” He separated this spirituality from the artists’ social aims, focusing on visual structure and an emotional dimension (“spirituality”). He also describes specific laws of painting emphasizing the notion of the picture plane:

  • essence=picture plane
  • The picture plane must be preserved in its two-dimensionality
  • “Depth, in a pictorial, plastic sense, is not created by the arrangement of objects one after another toward a vanishing point, in the sense of Renaissance perspective, but on the contrary (and in absolute denial of this doctrine), by the creation of forces in the sense of push and pull.”
  • Push and pull= all movement within a painting necessarily implies a reciprocal movement in the opposing direction; movement into pictorial space demands a balanced advance toward the viewer.



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Paul Cezanne Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves, 1902-06 and Wassilly Kandinsky Composition VII, 1913

Hofmann used a Fauvist color and handling of paint as a free expressionism based on spirituality and the influences of Kandinsky. His shallow orderly space derived from Cezanne and cubism. With the added pressure of surrealism in the early forties, Hofmann became more experimental.

Hans Hofmann Fantasia, 1943

From 1942-44, his drip pictures stress spontaneity, atomatitist, and gestural. They are not about expressing his unconscious mind: “My work is not accidental and not planned. The first red spot on a white canvas may at once suggest to me the meaning of ‘morning redness’ and from there on I dream further with my color (Fineberg 57).” He demonstrates here his inner necessity that was psychic rather than psychological, dealing with “the spirit in a work” (Spirituality) which “is synonymous with its quality. The Real in art never dies, because its nature is predominantly spiritual.”

1944: Hofmann has his first one-man show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery at 64. This late show was most likely because his focus had been on teaching and not painting. In 1958 he closes both his schools, then in New York and Provincetown, to paint full time focusing on a unified development.

The Golden Wall, 1961

These later paintings demonstrate the opposition between geometry and painterliness. Hofmann retains his Fauvist palette and structural rationality. There is a noted percision of color relationships and implications. In a late essay, he describes his intentions:

“The Color Problem in Pure Painting – its Creative Origin”
Since every color can be shaded with any other color, an unlimited variation of shading, within every color scale is possible. Although a red can be, in itself, bluish, greenish, yellowish, brownish, etc., its actual color-emanation in the pictorial totality will be the conditioned result of its relationship to all the other colors. Any color shade within one color scale can become, at any moment, the bridge to any other color scale. This leads to an interwoven communion of color scales over the entire picture surface…(Fineberg 57

Forms in the painting advance and recede in space by a subtlety that grew out of the concept of “push and pull.” Hofmann's works and theories later influenced the “color field” painters of the late fifties and sixties.

Hofmann, 1962:

I am often asked how I approach my work. Let me confess: I hold my mind and my work free from any association foreign to the act of painting. I am thoroughly inspired and agitated by the actions themselves which the development of the painting continuously requires.(Fineberg 58)

Hofmann was a master at assimilating stylistic ideas without regard to content.


Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky in his studio

Born 1904 in Turkish Armenia and fled persecution in 1915 during WWI. His mother dies in 1919 of starvation and in 1920 (16 years old) arrives at Ellis Island in NYC with his younger sister Vartoosh. In the mid 1920’s, Gorky started teaching art stressing the idea of getting emotion into drawing. He constructed an artistic image for himself: Changed his name to Arshile (Achilles) Gorky (bitter) probably in reference to his exile and anger and sorrow for his mother’s death. The name is also Russian which carried glamour at the time because of the intellectuals such as Dostoyevsky. Every aspect of his life seemed staged in some artistically dramatic way, even his studio. This construction rises out of the fact that Gorky’s past had been wiped away by war and exile, so he created himself new as if an existential hero. He thus commits his entire existence to the image of art.

The Artist and His Mother, 1926-36

Gorky’s style began with an impressionist style influenced by Cezanne, and then moved to a portrait style much like Picasso, and moved on emulating every modern master he laid his eyes on.

Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia, 1931-32

Progressing in Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia, he demonstrates a Pen and ink composition, mimicking cubism and other artists works. There is also a fusion of “biomorphs” with structured space which sets the tone for his own developed style. It shows how he begins to break down the anatomical figure and space in his own abstract way.

During the Depression, radical politics took over art and Gorky took the opposite view, looking to the history of art for influence.

Organization, 1934-36

In the mid 1930’s Gorky obsessively painted abstractions which seemed derived directly from Picasso’s abstractions from the late 1920’s and Gorky became known as “the Picasso of Washington Square.” Levy saw his works and Gorky responded: “I was with Cezanne for a long time, and now naturally I am with Picasso.” Levy told Gorky that he would give Gorky a show someday when he “was with Gorky (Fineberg 61).”

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Gardin in Sochi Series, 1940-43

Later influence by Miro’s flat, brilliant color and his own biomorphic abstractions lead to a more personal style demonstrated in Gorky's Gardin in Sochi series. The series is titled after his father’s garden becoming the underlying theme for these works where a popular tradition in Armenia was to plant a poplar tree at the birth of a son and later inscribe the birth date and name. Gorky loved his tree and took great pride in carrying for it until he was forced to move to the United States. In an essay explaining these particular paintings he recalls, “The Garden of Wish Fulfillment”:

Often I had seen my mother and other village women opening their bosoms and taking their soft and dependent breasts in their hands to rob them on the rock. Above all this stood an enormous tree all bleached under the sun, the rain, the cold, and deprived of leaves. This was the Holy Tree…people… would tear voluntarily a strip of their clothes and attach this to the tree. Thus through many years of the same act, like a veritable parade of banners under the pressure of wind all these personal inscriptions of gestures, very softly to my innocent ear used to give echo to the sh-h-h-h-h-sh-h of the silver leaves of the poplars (Fineberg 64).

In some of these paintings, much of this imagery is still evident, but becomes more abstract throughout the series.


Late works: In 1942, everything came together. He defined what he wanted to paint and more or less how he had to do it. His style drifted towards a direct contact with nature. Many of these paintings, though seemingly completely abstract, seem to contain images of people in a room or landscape imagery.

The Liver is the Cock's Comb, 1944

Gorky States, “It is as if some ancient Armenian spirit within me moves my hand to create so far from our homeland the shapes of nature we loved in the gardens, wheatfields and orchards of our Adoian family in Khorkom. Our beautiful Armenia which we lost and which I will repossess in my art (Fineberg 65).” The painting seems populated with figures with perhaps a dog lying at the bottom. The painting obviously derives from an abstraction of nature, and Gorky had a deliberate plan which is evident in preliminary drawings for such paintings as this one. The "liver" refers to the center of passion (not the heart) as many Midieval texts refer. Or liver could refer to “one who lives.” The "cock’s comb" refers to an idea of vanity, so he could be referring to vanity and how it rules our lives.

The Calendars, 1946-47

In 1941 Gorky married and by 1945 had two children. His family became repeated imagery for his paintings much like his mother and possibly his sister had before. He referred to these figures as “loveds.” This painting shows a family scene and he continued doing such family scenes for awhile longer, but in the next few years many tragedies came to pursue Gorky, and his painting became darker and more depressive. In 1946, his studio caught fire and he lost a good deal of work. Later that year he underwent a cancer operation and came out of it to be extremely productive the next year (300 drawings and twenty paintings). Then December 1947 his father died and he went into depression and attempted killing himself several times. In 1948, there was a car accident where Gorky broke his neck and temporarily lost the use of his right arm. Three weeks later Gorky hung himself in the woodshed with a note “Goodbye, my loveds.”

More information may be found directly from the Archile Gorky Foundation.

Robert Motherwell

Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive, 1943

Unlike other artists of this time, Motherwell came from a well-off family, attended prep school, toured Europe during the Depression, studied at Stanford and was well into his PhD at Harvard (paid for by his father) when in 1939 he decided to be a painter after transferring to Columbia University to study Art History and meeting Meyer Schapiro. Motherwell had always wanted to be a painter, but his father’s conservative nature pressured him throughout his education to be either a business man or lawyer. Because of his start, he began with the knowledge of what he wanted to do with his art and how to do it in terms of modernist styles and ideas. There was no fut-zing around with failed ideas.

Motherwell developed an affinity with the European Modernists stating that the problem for artists of his generation was “to bring American art up to the level of European modernism without being derivative.” This is why he turned to the idea of automatism because it “offered a creative principle that did not impose a style.” Instead it brought out only what was native to the individual (Fineberg 68). Motherwell, due to his background, most likely knew of these implications long before any other artist in the New York School and played an important role in communicating automatism’s possibilities to other artists. Motherwell stated in 1949, “Every artist’s problem is to invent himself (Fineberg 68).”

In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim asked Pollock and Motherwell to make some collages to enter a show with the European modernists who were also showing a series of collages. Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive is what Motherwell entered. Collage came naturally to Motherwell and allowed him to be expressive and free. And connected him in the dialogue with the European Modernists. Motherwell further claimed his connection to the modernists by stating, “Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head. It is his real subject, of which everything he paints is both an homage and a critique, and everything he says is a gloss (Fineberg 68-69).”

Motherwell always talked about the inspirations of his work. Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive was inspired by a trip to Mexico with Mata where he was fascinated with Anita Brenner’s book of photographs of the Mexican Revolution. She had a shot of Pancho Villa after he was shot, sprawled out in a Model T covered with blood. Most of the themes deal with life, death, violence and revolution. These themes allowed him to investigate intense emotional elements in his painting and controlled structure.

Motherwell felt more at home with the broader European abstract tradition than with surrealism. So when he went to New York to study, he was also seeking out the modernists that had recently moved to the area. Motherwell taught at Blackmountain College in North Carolina where such artists and intellectuals as de Kooning, Albers, Cunningham, Cage, Rauschenberg and others passed through after WWII. He then helped found a school in Greenwich Village called, “Subjects of the Artist” working towards commitment of abstraction with Hare, Baziotes, Rothko and Clyfford Still in 1948. The school later had artists such as Barnett Newman and Tony Smith take over the organization who changed the name to “Studio 35” and then “The Club”. During this time, Motherwell also took to lecturing, writing and editing critical essays.

In 1949, Motherwell’s painting took on a very different quality not unlike Kline. After recalling some drawings he had done in the preceding years, he created larger versions based on one in particular which he had titled, At Five in the Afternoon which was inspired by the work of Lorca, a Spanish poet. Garcia Lorca was executed by the Fascists in the Spanish civil war and became a symbol of injustice. Lorca’s poem concerns a bullfighter who is gored in the ring and three symbolic colors create auras around the key images of the poem, Red blood, Bleaching white light, and blackness of death and shadows.

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A Portion of the Elegy to the Spanish Republic Series, 1953-1991

Motherwell proceeded to do a series of “Elegies” in which the theme is the “instance that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot.” Most of these elegies were done on a large mural scale and persisted for the remaining forty years of his life.

Willem de Kooning

Willem and Elaine de Kooning in the studio, Photograph by Hans Namuth

Willem de Kooning’s inability to “finish” paintings made him legendary. He would talk about his large Woman paintings by saying, “Its not finished, but it’s a good painting.” The fact that his work seems unfinished is what makes it great. De Kooning once said, “There is no plot in painting, it’s an occurrence which I discover by and has no message (Fineberg 74).” His open-ended thought process of approaching a painting allowed him to be coupled with the action painters of the forties as he would constantly create and destroy his images. De Kooning actually admitted that he felt a deep engagement with old masters such as Rembrandt and Titian more than the modernists as he continuously reverted back to the figurative image.

De Kooning studied at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques which stressed craftsmanship in the classical sense. Because of this training, de Kooning had many technical tricks which became useful to other artists trying to emulate styles and effects. He joined the Federal Art Project like many artists during the depression and enjoyed the income gained during this time, though he didn’t show much of his work, he fell into the circle of artists and intellectuals of the time.

Around 1939, the trademarks of de Kooning’s style began to emerge (Slide: de Kooning: Seated Woman), this painting shows the artist’s method of working, which also provides a very unfinished look. This comes from what de Kooning referred to as a “frozen glimpse” where his visible changes of mind or pentimenti become directly evident in the finished work. Unlike previous artists’ work (Picasso and the moderns), de Kooning’s painting is less refined as it refrains from hiding such changes or process.

Pink Angels, 1945

As time progressed, de Kooning’s paintings of women broke apart more and more as his trial and error process gave way to multiple layers of thought. These figurative forms gave way to more chaotic compositions as de Kooning began multiplying figurative shapes, sometimes tracing them from other works creating vast layers of figurative abstraction. De Kooning believed that all abstract shapes had to have a likeness or familiarity and the figure provided that for him.

Excavation, 1950

By 1950, de Kooning’s figurative abstractions had gotten to a point much like Pollock’s expressive drip paintings. It is said that this painting represents a “no environment” where forms change scale throughout the composition as the impressions of New York City had done for de Kooning. Though a large canvas, it engages the viewer with detail as something to be read over time in the fashion that it was painted.

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Women, 1949-1964

After 1950, de Kooning, began working more specifically on his paintings of women. The paintings are highly gestural in structure as they pull from the same, trial and error process. They evoke the qualities of ancient goddesses in their likeness to the Venus of Willendorf and Tel Asmar Figures. The paintings deal with the subjective reality of the artist and his experience of these visions of women. De Kooning mentions that although the paintings look aggressive, there is nothing aggressive about them. They do not represent a distrust or a distaste for women, but quite the opposite.When these paintings were finally shown, they were attacked harshly by critics such as Greenberg who disliked the figurative nature of the work. Greenberg openly attacked de Kooning saying, “It is impossible today to paint a face!” De Kooning came back to say, “That’s right, and it’s impossible not to (Fineberg 79-84).”

de Kooning’s women after 1960 became more loose and sensuous. Each figure felt more individual as they seemed based more on individual experiences. The palette also becomes brighter as they had moved away to the beach to escape the city.

Gotham News, 1955

During the fifties, after the show of his Women, he turned once again to the idea of “no environment” with urban abstractions based on the chaos of the world surrounding him in New York. These paintings bring in the idea of collage as they take off from inspirations from the news. These paintings sold better when shown and de Kooning began having many imitators from which he decided to escape pulling him away from the city more and more.

De Kooning returned to painting women. From these paintings, and later works, de Kooning again slowly broke away his figurative forms to allover abstractions much like excavation and Gotham News. De Kooning painted well into his eighties as he couldn’t escape painting as it was always considered by him to be a major part of his individuality.

Existentialism Comes to the Fore, American Artists


A philosophical term first used in 1941, the definition states that existentialism is "a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad (Merriam-Webster)." The philosophy was spread through such authors as Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Fredrich Nietzsche, and Franz Kafka among others.

This philosophy, coupled with the psychiatry of Carl Jung and Lucian Freud and the work of the surrealists made for an interesting combination of artistic technique and underlying philosophy. In a time of war and a move from the great depression, the concepts of freedom and free-will became important themes for American artists.

Jackson Pollock

Sony Pictures Pollock, 2000
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Hans Namuth Jackson Pollock in his studio,

Willem De Kooning pointed out that “every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cezanne did it, Picasso did it with cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again (Fineberg 86).” Hofmann (who as we mentioned before taught a strict compositional structure taken from nature and European modernism) said of Pollock in 1942, “You don’t work from nature. You work by heart. This is no good. You will repeat yourself.” Pollock responds, “I am nature… Put up or shut up. Your theories don’t interest me (Fineberg 86).” Pollock was a stubborn artist and highly emotional as well as defensive.

In 1930 Pollock headed for New York where he began attending classes with his eldest brother Charles at the Art Students League. There he studied under Thomas Hart Benton until 1933. Benton’s style and subject matter also dominated Pollock’s artwork until 1938. In 1936, Pollock worked in Siqueirous’s (El Duco) Union Square workshop. There he experimented with unorthodox materials and applications of paint such as splattering and dripping.

An essay by John Graham in 1937 called, “Primitive Art and Picasso” also had a profound impact on Pollock’s development. In it Graham demonstrates a belief that the unconscious mind provided essential knowledge and creative power and that primitive art offered a direct access to this material. And most importantly, the Europeans arrived in New York around 1939 which provided further focus on the idea of the unconscious as a source for art.

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Male and Female, 1942 and She Wolf, 1943

Pollock struggled with alcoholism and depression and in 1939 entered into Jungian psychoanalysis to treat his emotional issues. This treatment also affected his art by forcing him to search for totemic images in his mind. Works such as Male and Female relied on automatism and loose graphic brushwork. It also evoked a sense of spirituality or sublime in nature. She Wolf also relies heavily on the totemic figure of primitive art. A Universal truth is created through a search of a mythic symbol.

As Pollock delved into his unconscious and painted, his work became increasingly gestural and a problem of composition arose. In Male and Female, the use of geometry solves this problem, but later, Pollock adapts an “allover” compositional structure to solve this same problem. Unlike the surrealist process of automatism, Pollock worked in more of a psychic way, using automatism as a means of recording spontaneity and thought process instead of standing back to analyze his gestures and understanding what they mean. Pollock in 1950 stated, “My opinion is that new needs need new techniques… the modern painter cannot express his age, the airplan, the atom bomb, the radio in the old forms of the Renaissance… the modern artist is living in a mechanical age… working and expressing an inner world – in other words, expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces (Fineberg 89).” In 1943 Peggy Guggenheim gave him a one man show at the Art of This Century Gallery and put Pollock on a retainer of $300 a month.

Mural, 1943

In 1943, Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to paint a mural for her home on a scale of 8 x 20 feet. In this painting, gesture carries the expressive content and composition expands to an allover design. Though there is reference to the idea that it could have been influenced by the Native American Sand painters, Pollock stands firmly to the idea that they were created completely from his subconscious and the figural imagery comes strictly from this idea. Fineberg makes reference to the possibility that it was painted on the ground, but there is dispute to this fact (90). Mural's Composition organized around Benton’s system of curves and counter-curves. These gestural strokes thus begin to replace the idea of totemic imagery.

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The Key, 1946 and Shimmering Substance, 1946

In 1946, Pollock moves out to Long Island and his paintings continue to switch between the idea of imagery and later again he abandons the imagery in his “Sounds of Grass” series.Shimmering Substance has depth in its sculpted paint and an illusion of shallow space, but the freedom of gesture pushes Pollock back to the idea of the allover composition.

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Cathedral, and Full Fathom Five, 1947

Pollock's "dripped canvases" followed immediately after the “Sounds of Grass” series at the end of 1946. His dripped canvases became a means of expressing his gesture with a more spontaneous movement. He also created larger compositions as he placed his canvases on the floor and walked around and onto the paintings to reach all areas of the canvas. There is an elimination of all symbols or signs. When Pollock told Hoffmann “I am nature” he referred to the fact that painting to him was derived from this direct introspective experience instead of the external world. The paintings also seem to have a sense of time. They exist in the present, or rather the artist’s present. The gestural act and the layers give you the whole story. Because there is no narrative, the viewer is not waiting for more to come, but can delve into this allover composition as if it has no beginning or no end point. Pollock in 1947 states:

On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer; more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from all four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the Indian sand painters of the West. I continue to get further away from the usual painter’s tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives, and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass, and other foreign matter added. When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about… the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through (Fineberg 96).

This profound unrelenting moral commitment to search for the self in his art was an extreme existential take on art, and it influenced all artists of his generation.


Autumn Rhythm, 1950

These paintings take some cues from jazz according to Lee Krasner who said that Pollock thought jazz “was the only other really creative thing happening in this country.” Widely ridiculed throughout his life even though the implications of these drip paintings were recognized within the art world almost immediately.


In 1949 Life Magazine did an article on Pollock, “Is Jackson Pollock the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” and in 1950, Hans Namuth made a short film of Pollock working:

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Blue Poles, 1952

In late 1950, Pollock began drinking heavily again and his work turned toward purely black and white pictures. And again to the idea of figures and totemic images. Pollock then continues to attempt to bring more stability and compositional elements back into his work as he had done in his earlier Mural 1943. In 1954 and 55, Pollock slipped deeper into Alcoholism and depression, and in 1956 he drove his car off the road killing himself and one other passenger.


Barnett Newman

Onement I, 1944

Barnett Newman’s painting has to do with the notion of the sublime and contrasted “the Greek, plastic achievement.” Newman believed that through experience and intuition came spirituality and not the Greek aesthetic of physical beauty of the object. Newman organized an exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1947 called “The Ideographic Picture." An "Ideograph" is a written symbol that communicates an idea directly rather than through language or through the meditation of any symbolic form. Newman wrote about seeking the modern equivalent to “primitive” art in which the abstract shape itself is a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings that he (the Kwakiutl Indian) felt before the terror of the unknowable. The abstract shape was, therefore, real rather than a formal “abstraction” of a visual fact with its overtone of an already known nature. Nor was it a purist illusion with its overload of pseudo-scientific truths. He also believed that the artist is a revolutionary in search of universal truths (Fineberg 99).

Newman was left out of the Federal Art Project that most of the other abstract expressionists were a part due to his income teaching. He did not want to make something that a collector could acquire as an object without engaging its content. So he wrote about art and encouraged his friends until he could figure out his own painting as he developed slowly towards his own technique. During 1939-41, Newman studies science, especially botany and ornithology looking for ideas on the beginnings of life how it emerged and its orders developed, seeking an analog in genisis of though and the evolution of the human mind.

“The Plasmic Image” Newman (1943-45): All artists whether primitive or sophisticated, have been involved in the handling of chaos. The painter of the new movement… is therefore not concerned with geometric forms per se but in creating forms which by their abstract nature carry some abstract intellectual content. There is an attempt being made to assign a Surrealist explanation to the use these painters make of abstract forms… (but) Surrealism is interested in a dream world that will penetrate the human psyche. To that extent it is an mundane expression… The present painter is concerned, not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality, but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into the metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy… the artist tries to wrest truth from the void (Fineberg 100).

In his painting, Onement I, we begin to understand what Newman is alluding to. All of these ideas took a long time to come to fruition in an image that seemed “right”. He found his direction in a this small painting. It was a painting that had sat unfinished in his studio and he could never bring himself to touch it and he couldn’t figure out why until he sat and worked out the imagery of it.

Newman referred to the line straight down the middle as a “zip” The zip creates a symmetry which reduces the problem about composition, and forced the viewer to read into the underlying ideas of the painting rather than viewing it simply as an art object. These zips allude to how Newman ranked knowledge on three levels:

  • Data and rules learned without any reference to the intellect.
  • Things learned by deduction or logic.
  • Immediate knowledge, using reason, but obtained through direct intuition to the essence of things, an insight that went beyond reason, “The Sublime”

Newman was after an epiphany where he tries to relate all the ideas of nature, spirituality, creation into one ideogram.


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Onement IV, 1949 and Onement V, 1952

After Onement II, Newman began painting prolifically using this notion of the zip. Although the zip is not placed in the center every time, it is structured around a mathematical structure premeditated. Though premeditated, these paintings have an affinity with action paintings of the time due to their experience of immediacy. Newman also began painting on a larger scale. As Motherwell said at the time:

The large format, at the one blow, destroyed the century long tendency of the French to domesticize modern painting, to make it intimate. We replaced the nude girl and the French door with a modern Stonehenge, with a sense of the sublime and the tragic… One of the great images should be the house-painter’s brush, in the employ of a grand vision dominated by an ethical sensibility that makes the usual painter’s brush indeed picayune (Fineberg 102).


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Adam, 1951-52 and Eve, 1950

Newman also concerned himself with more religious and spiritual themes that relate to his previous search for the truth. Adam and Eve demonstrate his search for the universal ideograms of the male and female. He further comments on such truths in his later work.

Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1951

Vir Heroicus Sublimis is a monumental piece, roughly 8 ft. x 18 ft. projects a metaphysical absoluteness. It is the antithesis of the precious object. Translated it means, “Man, Heroic and Sublime.” The square in the center represents the perfection of the center around which he orders the zips to relate to life in a vast universe of red (an emotionally charged color). Newman rids the painting of its physicality as an object in order to emphasize meaning. It was an object of such a scale that only those who could appreciate the meaning and house such a piece could buy it.

Many did not understand his paintings or the idea of the zip as viewers related more to the shapes than the idea that the stripes are all that really counted. Many thought Newman to be a phony (again harking back to the Federal Arts Project that he was left out of) and he was shunned by many in the art world pushing him to a lack of motivation from the mid to late fifties.

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Stations of the Cross, 1958-66

Newman painted a series entitled, “Stations of the Cross” beginning in 1958 dealing with the abstract and universial experience of the story of the cross. Being Jewish, he empathized with the idea of the tragedy and philosophy that these stories held and not so much the religious implications. Each station follows a specific passage. In the first station, Lema Sabachthani, the painting follows from this quote: "Lema Sabachthani – Why? Why did you forsake me? Why forsake me? To what purpose? Why? This is the passion, this is the outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer… Lema? To what purpose – is the unanswerable question of human suffering."

Mark Rothko

Hans NamuthMark Rothko in his studio with the Rothko Chapel series,

Most people know of Mark Rothko’s large rectangular clouds of color. Rothko relates his structure to a means of “dealing with human emotion with the human drama as much as I can possibly experience it. His works deal with the complex and turbulent mind, plagued with depression, but also a desire to express profound content in his works. Like Newman, Rothko’s work deals with the simplicity that sets value and ideas in the fore and resembles a primitive force of the absolute epiphany.

Rothko was brought up with a strictly Jewish background, but gave most of his energy to radical politics. And won a full scholarship to Yale, but as money ran out he headed to New York.

Subway, 1938

Rothko studied and emulated many European modernist techniques and styles, flattening space, using expressive marks, focus on compositional structure. In his early paintings, even with the figurative elements still involved, he had already begun his flattening construction of space much like his mature “color field” work.

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Developmental Works, 1939-1949

Because of the politically charged situation throughout WWII, many artists, such as Rothko, found that painting seemed irrelevant, and they sought to address more timeless subjects. Much like Newman, Rothko looked to questions that deal with humanity on a more universal nature. In approaching universality, Rothko and Gottlieb turned to classical themes in 1938:

The known myths of antiquity… are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas… And modern psychology finds them persisting still in our dreams, our vernacular, and our art, for all the changes in the outward conditions of life… The Myth holds us, therefore, not thru the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves (Fineberg 108).

Because of this timelessness of classical myth, Rothko tended to overlap symbolism of various myths of the human condition and various religious iconography representing this constant subliminal reaction towards these ideas.


In a letter to the New York Times Rothko states, “We favor the simple expression of complex thought, we are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth (Fineberg 108-109).” Rothko practiced automatism in much the same way as the European surrealists had been in order to extract such mythic spirit or symbols.

Clyfford Still Untitled, 1957

Rothko met Clyfford Still in 1943 and became good friends. Still referred to the surrealists as “Scribblers” and rejected their link of the particularities of the individual. His method of painting, completely opposite of tradition, influenced Rothko toward defined color forms rather than automatist imagery.

No. 2, 1951

By 1949, Rothko had settled into a mature style with his color field works. His large geometric forms gave way to an allover compositional structure that read instantly and rejected memory. In teaching art to children at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, Rothko found an interest in how children dealt with the ideas of space: The scale conception involves the relationships of objects to their surroundings – the emphasis of things or space. It definitely involves a space emotion. A child may limit space arbitrarily and then heroify his objects. Or he may infinitize space, dwarfing the importance of objects. It becomes evident in his color choices and scales of his color forms that he is making choices similar to these children as he develops a universal idea with wich to contemplate.

Untitled, 1953

Rothko admitted to being reluctant to remove himself from figural representation in any way, but he said that “Shapes have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms. He was attempting, like Newman to remove associations to specific decisions on life and express a more universal truth.


In the late fifties, as Rothko had begun to be appreciated by the public, he was commissioned to paint a monumental mural for the Four Seasons Restaurant. In 1959, he approached this project and painted a total of three sets of paintings to fill the space. However he was not happy with the environment that the paintings would be viewed and later donated them to the Tate Gallery in London instead. Rothko wanted to control the intimate human experience people had with his work. This control led to the notion that his paintings refer more to meditation pieces, something to be experienced and pondered. This was even more the case when Rothko was commissioned to paint his last murals for a Catholic chapel in Houston. In the late 1960’s, after falling into depression and developing physical problems, Rothko’s paintings turned to a darker, more melancholy mood. As his depression grew, his family fell apart and he killed himself in 1970.

David Smith and Sculpture

David Smith Aerial Construction, 1936

In the same way painters shifted from tradition to an existential introspection, many sculptors did the same, most notably David Smith. Smith used a process of welding which allowed for free association of forms and constant change without conviction about the piece of sculpture. Welding also allowed for the artist’s hand to be viewed in the work unlike bronze casting. Smith also saw the material of metal and machine as a heroic, masculine endeavor, characterized by aggressiveness which he linked to the primitive and essential nature of “art”.

Smith moved to New York in 1927 and studied at the Art Students League studying painting and learning the modern trends. Around 1930, Smith saw the welded sculpture by Picasso and Gonzalez and fell in love with the quality of steel. And he bought a welder in 1932 and attempted to work in his Brooklyn apartment, but had to rent a space at the Terminal Iron Works, a name which he called his later studio when he moved to his farm.

By 1937, Smith’s sculpture was characterized as an attempt to incorporate cubism and biomorphic surrealism. His sculpture was much like painting as it was regulated by a particular vantage point and was very flat. At the end of the 1930’s, he had been creating machine-age creations that dealt with these free-associative ideas of automatism. However they were received poorly by critics who believed that the artwork was whimsical and awful and had no relevance.

Medals of Dishonor Series, 1939-40 (From Left to Right: Cooperation of the Clergy, Death by Bacteria, Munition Makers, and Reaction in Medicine)

The idea that his work was not socially relevant irritated Smith and he openly spoke out on behalf of abstract artists and made his “Medals for Dishonor” which were done in a style that blended expressionism with surrealism in an attempt to give evidence to his social views.

Beach Scene, 1949

Fineberg describes a piece entitled, Helmholtzian Landscape, where Smith works on a two dimensional plane and creates a landscape image referring to the German Scientist famous for his treatise on the physiology of perception. There is an illusion of a two dimensional canvas created by three dimensional forms, a sort of visual pun (119). These image sculptures become pictograms of Smith's experience.

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Pittsburgh Landscape, 1954 and Banquet, 1951

After 1950, Smith turned exclusively to welding and created several landscape images keeping a single viewing position in mind and little actual depth. This combines the pictorial illusion of a shallow cubist space within a three dimensional object.

Throughout the early 1950’s, Smith also moved to the existential views of totemic imagery. He freely associated metallic objects to create “tanktotems” referring to the idea of steel (tank) and the totemic (totem) images. During this time he also began embarking on the idea of series which drove him on to the end of his career with three major series, Voltri and Cubi and Zig.

Cubi Series, 1962-64

After seeing some of Giacometti’s forgings which were indicative of anthropromorphic figures and totemic images, he recalls that art is not divorced from life and figural imagery should still be evident in his work. At this time he also attempted to place his sculpture in real space by removing or incorporating the bases of the object as an integral part of the sculpture. They were not objects to be placed on a pedestal, but within the viewer’s space. In 1961, Smith began working on his Cubi series.

The stainless steel made it more difficult for free association as he did not have the tools to cut such steel. He had to work geometrically and often had many of these geometric shapes lying around the studio so that he had the options for free association. Many times he would create these sculptures using cardboard or other box material and then order the steel later. The Cubi series retains a sense of the figural and his flattening of space. The sculptures require a fixed viewing angle as if created two dimensionally.

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Votri Series, 1962

In 1962, Smith was asked to Italy for a summer arts festival and was allowed a space in an abandoned steel factory in Voltri. He created about 27 sculptures in one month as he was allowed to use anything he found. Many evoked the idea of train cars from the nearby tracks and the idea of larger scale pieces. He then returned back to his studio in Bolton Landing to create more of his Cubi series. He focused on large scale and rough finish of his welds to represent the spontinaety of the welding action.


Smith liked the way that the stainless steel reflected the light, but he would rather have had a more spontaneous look as in his Zig series done around this same time. The zigs are all painted steel which relates more to a hand-worked quality. He found it intriguing to “reduce the human form to cubes – exploited by Cambiaso” who had also done the same in his sixteenth century mannerist drawings of figures. The geometric forms are also indicative of Henry Moore’s sculpture where the figure is also reduced classically into these geometric/morphing forms.

Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Print. 2000. 
Merriam-Webster. Existentialism. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 2014. 
Sayer, Henry M. A World of Art. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. Print. 2013.

Further Reading and Viewing

Alexander Calder: Calder’s Universe (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1976-77), The Museum of Modern Art Collectors Series, Video, 1998. (NB 237.C28 A64 1998)

Reccomended Reading

  • 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.
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