Abstract Expressionism (AbEx)

Abstract Expressionism (AbEx)

The recent AbEx exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) provided an impressive range of early and late works of the major artists in this genre. The show, a slightly smaller version of the original staged at the NYC Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) featured works by three of my favourite artists: Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

It is hard to believe that I wrote my first essay for my Art 101 class on Pollock back in the 1960s. I wonder what in God’s name I wrote about as it has taken me the better part of 40 years to put his work and the AbEx period into perspective.

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948

To put a context to AbEx we need to remember that this style first began to appear in the mid-1940s and was practiced exclusively in the United States. For the most part the artists were male (but don’t forget Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell among others) and were in their early twenties by 1930. They were the first to admit being heavily influenced by world events – the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, the Spanish Civil War and the outbreak of World War II. The challenge, as they saw it, was to find an artistic approach to reflect the economic and social uncertainty of the times since they considered existing styles/approaches to be inadequate and superficial.

In the work they did prior to the mid-1940s, you do see the influence of impressionists, cubists, expressionists, surrealists, Native American art and the social revolution-themed works of the Mexican muralists. Pollock has often remarked on the influence of Pablo Picasso’s 1937 mural, Guernica, and many have noted that Picasso’s images from that painting appear in a number of Pollock’s early paintings.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica 1937

Jackson Pollock, Untitled (4), 1944-45

Pollock’s The She-Wolf, 1943, is also a good example of the influence of primitive art, Picasso, the Mexican muralists and Native American symbols on his work at the time.

Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, 1943

Given my interest in the Mexican muralists I was surprised to come across a reference to the suggestion that Pollock’s exploration of accidental effects in his work was a direct result of his exposure in 1936 to experiments by David Alfaro Siqueiros and his students with the use of spray guns and air brushes on large panels placed on the floor – ah, the inter-connectedness of the artistic process!

While Pollock, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning made their abstract expressionist breakthrough in 1947 it wasn’t until more than 10 years later that international recognition followed. In 1958, MOMA organized a major survey of “New American Painting” that travelled to eight European countries and, as they say, the rest is history.

Willem de Kooning, Gotham News, 1955

Two of the treasures for me at the AGO exhibition were Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944 and his 1948 No. 1 (Untitled). The first demonstrates the influences of myth and the biomorphic designs in his work and the latter his evolution to pure colour painting.

Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl 1944

Mark Rothko, No. 1 (Untitled) 1948

The Rothkos that I am most familiar with date from the early 50s and what amazes me about his work was best described by the artist Ellsworth Kelly “… it’s color first, the exuberance, the luminosity, and the radiance of color … His paintings seems to absorb color and to glow.”

Mark Rothko, No. 10, 1950

A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of several pieces by Philip Guston. Quite frankly, I keep forgetting that he was identified in the late 40s and 50s as an AbEx painter. So seeing examples of this period of his work was fascinating.

Philip Guston, Painting, 1954

Philip Guston, The Clock, 1956-57

What originally drew me to Guston’s work was an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 2000. The focus of the show was on pieces first shown in 1970 which were described at the time as “…strange figurative paintings showing lumpy humanoids in what was judged to be a comic style.”

Philip Guston, The Edge of Town, 1969

I’m in good company with my interest in the work of Philip Guston as two popular Canadian artists, Luanne Martineau and Etienne Zack, are fans as well.

Let me know who your favourites are among the AbEx and why.

Great reads:
– The Colour of My Dreams, The Surrealist Revolution in Art, Vancouver Art Gallery
– Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: a Re-evaluation, Irving Sandler

Art travel plans for November:
– the Venice Biennale
– the Muntadas retrospective Entre/Between at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid


About George

My long-time interest in Canadian and international contemporary art has led me to write and reflect on the artists I've met, the exhibitions that I've seen and the catalogues that I've read (I've been told I'm the only person that actually reads exhibition catalogues cover to cover). My interest began in the mid-1960's when I was searching for easy credits and I stumbled upon "Art Appreciation 101", and the rest, as they say, is history...
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5 Responses to Abstract Expressionism (AbEx)

  1. Kass says:

    Very interesting! Enjoy your travels in November!

  2. Marie lannoo says:

    Hi George,
    I am a painter who lives and works in Saskatoon. My sister-in-law, Rasa Lannoo passed your blog coordinates to me. I am a good friend of Daina’s. I was so intrigued by a photograph in an earlier posting of you with your siblings, Mother and uncle walking down a Saskatoon street. Why were you in Saskatoon? I have many more comments about your postings – you happen to love some of my favorite art places – Marfa, Dia Beacon, New Mexico to name a few. Do you have an email address where I can contact you? I have a solo show, Interference, up at Lausberg Contemporary in Toronto, right across the street from the AGO until Dec20. I hope you have a chance to see the show. I am very interested in how light interacts with matter to produce color and each work (paintings and works on paper) is a synthesis of different ways that color is produced. Living in the heart of the prairies, light, color and depth of field are in abundance. Thanks for your postings. I will continue to read them with much interest. Hellos from Saskatoon, ML

    • George says:

      Thanks for your comments ML – we were out of town for your opening BUT your show is on our “Must See List”. Regarding the Saskatoon connection, I was born and raised there. A friend has pointed out that the photo of mom was incorrectly referenced as it was taken on 21st St E (note the Bess in the background) and not on 2nd Ave. – a fact that my family missed!! I have to revise that text.
      I’ll send you my e-mail separately. G

  3. brian ballingall says:

    Dear George,
    You mention how much the world events of the 30’s influenced AbEx. Is there a similar movement beginning in these troubled economic times?

    • George says:

      Hi Brian – interesting question – maybe someone can help us out.
      On the subject of “economics” – just started reading Don Thompson’s book “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark:The Curious Economics
      of Contemporary Art” – there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of money in the art market!!

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