Abstract Expressionism was a seminal force in Modernism, shifting the focus of the art-world from Europe to New York. Art students are taught a particular history of this period, filled with rhetoric about American self-reliance and individualism.

Critics like Harold Rosenberg stressed the existential dilemma of identity and living in the moment of creation while Clement Greenberg disseminated ideas on objectivity and new American-type individualist painting. The artists drew media attention with an open letter decrying the prevailing conservatism, garnering the “Irascibles” title. MOMA began hesitantly to collect the new abstract work so that by 1958 the ‘New American Painting’ exhibition toured eight major cities bordering the Iron Curtain.

The current Abstract Expressionist exhibition is entirely drawn from MOMA’s collection and is a reprise of these hugely influential ideas. There is even a nod to the fact that Abstract Expressionism was used as a weapon in the Cold War.

The narrative begins with surreal/abstract expressionist works by Arshile Gorky, then leads to Willem de Kooning, very under-represented by one Woman I painting and three later abstracts. Clyfford Still, the first to embody the abstract aesthetic, continues to court obscurity with two paintings. He leveled accusations of scheming and marketeering at Newman and Rothko, rejecting the art scene and MOMA as ‘gutter vermin’, before leaving New York for good. Access to his oeuvre is still prohibited.

Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner evoke nature with paintings like Ladybug and Gaea. Second tier female figures were never fully acknowledged during the AbEx era. Franz Kline is there with some powerful works. His signature style came from projecting out-of-focus drawings on telephone-book paper then painting the canvas.

Then one enters Jackson Pollock’s lair, with many paintings marking key moments in the narrative. His works epitomize the all-over rhythmic proposition that distinguished new painting from paintings with a focal point. This is particularly true of the drip paintings, which evidence his full body movements and engendered the term ‘action painting’. Some figurative works painted after these contradict the narrative.

Rothko’s story leads from surreal works like Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea (1944) to his iconic floating, misty rectangles displayed in subdued light. His work is cathartic and always evokes unabashed emotion in devotees. Unfortunately he used fugitive colours so that’s the real reason the works are shaded.

Mark Rothko, No. 5/No. 22, 1950, Oil on canvas, 297 x 272 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the artist © 1998 Kate Rothko, Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo credit: The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Imaging Services, SODRAC

Barnett Newman is the most existentialist; represented by Onement I and III, Abraham and The Wild. He is painting “The self, terrible and constant…”. We relate to his work via spatial relations of size and positioning.

Robert Motherwell paints Elegies to the Spanish Civil War. It’s arresting because AbEx work is usually devoid of politics. Then there is Philip Guston whose work moves from AbEx to his trademark KKK figures referencing racism in the US. In an era marked by civil rights issues, lynchings, covert wars and presidential assassination, Guston feels ostracized for reintroducing the figure.

Secretly, the CIA funded and manipulated AbEx success. Reacting to sophisticated Cominform propaganda after the war, US intellectuals fought back. Thus the CIA was formed (1949) already using intellectuals to represent democratic freedom, promoting the ‘Non Communist Left’. Ironically, reactionary McCarthyism threatened this initiative, which became covert, as the US lapsed into intellectual repression reminiscent of Stalinism.

The CIA program was called ‘The Long Leash’ and engaged artists and writers through intermediaries. Totalitarian excesses had disillusioned erstwhile communists like Arthur Koestler and Clement Greenberg. The CIA funded many publications like Partisan Review, which Greenberg edited. He sat on the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and frequented the inner circle of fanatically pro-American intellectuals. He would write disparaging reviews about the émigré Surrealist contingent in New York, then, extol Americans like Jackson Pollock. The goal was to assert American cultural preeminence and various financial figures like Nelson Rockefeller, linked to MOMA, joined the effort. He referred to Ab Ex as ‘capitalist art’. Elite patrons would be funded to buy works, later donated to museums.

This insidious invasion of culture damaged the organic nature of avant-garde art. Greenbergian theory created the enduring perception that aesthetic excellence necessitated the exclusion of politics. Guston’s renunciation of Abstract Expressionism is all the more remarkable in this light.

AGO Art Gallery of Ontario
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