Search the whole artnet database
Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button


by Donald Kuspit
Chapter 5: Brave New World of American Abstract Art: The Fifth Decade

Although still persuaded that his was the best of all countries, the American of the mid-20th century was by no means so sure that his was the best of all times, and after he entered the atomic age he could not rid himself of the fear that his world might not end with a whimper but with a bang. His optimism, which persisted, was instinctive rather than rationalized, and he was no longer prepared to insist that the good fortune which he enjoyed, in a war-stricken world, was the reward of virtue rather than of mere geographical isolation. He knew that if there was indeed any such thing as progress it would continue to be illustrated by America, but he was less confident of the validity of the concept than at any previous time in his history.

Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind(1)

Some periods in history become identity vacua caused by the three basic forms of human apprehension: fears aroused by new facts, such as discoveries and inventions (including weapons), which radically expand and change the whole world image; anxieties aroused by symbolic dangers vaguely perceived as a consequence of the decay of existing ideologies; and, in the wake of disintegrating faith, the dread of an existential abyss devoid of spiritual meaning.

Erik H. Erikson, "Identity Crisis in Autobiographic Perspective"(2)

And if something like an identity crisis gradually appeared to be a normative problem in adolescence and youth, there also seemed to be enough of an adolescent in every American to suggest that in this country's history fate had chosen to highlight identity questions together with a strangely adolescent style of adulthood -- that is, one remaining expansively open for new roles and stances -- in what at the time was called (as it had been at the very beginning of the republic) a "national character."  This, incidentally, is not contradicted by the fact that today some young adults are forcefully questioning the nation as to what generations of Americans have, indeed, made of themselves by claiming so irreverently to be self-made; what, indeed, has become of their now old New World identity; and what they have made of their continent, of their technology, and of the world under their influence.

Erik H. Erikson, "Identity Crisis in Autobiographic Perspective"(3)

The admission of chance and accident into the process of painting is their realism, the abstract counterpart of what our earlier realists chose to see in the concrete world of objects. It is from this process that the continuing American qualities of this new art stem: the unmeasured spaces, apparently haphazard composition, the hostile, indifferent surfaces, and the overriding impression they give of being fragments of a vast, continuing process beyond the control of their makers.

John W. McCoubrey, American Tradition in Painting(4)

If there is any one moment of decisive change in American art, it seems the moment when Jackson Pollock, freshly released from the Westchester Division of New York Hospital, where he had been treated for acute alcoholism, "went for the first time abstract," as his older brother Sanford McCoy wrote.(5) "After years of trying to work along lines completely unsympathetic to his nature, he has finally dropped the Benton nonsense and is coming out with an honest creative art." Sanford wrote this in May 1940, two years after Pollock was hospitalized "in serious mental shape," and one year after he began Jungian psychoanalysis, still suffering "from isolation and extreme emotional deprivation in early childhood," as Joseph Henderson, his therapist, thought. It seems ironic that it was schizophrenia that liberated American art from provincial realism -- that the abstract turn was taken by an artist who suffered from "a pathological form of introversion."

It was Henderson who made the diagnosis of schizophrenia, noting Pollock's "paralysis or withdrawal," alternating with "violent agitation" -- deep depression followed by drinking binges, as Sanford's wife Arloie Conway observed -- and who, over a period of 18 months, received 69 "psychoanalytic drawings" and one gouache painting from Pollock. Interpreting the symbols in the first drawing, which depicts a bizarre crucifixion, Henderson stated: "The patient appears to have been in a state similar to the novice in a tribal initiation rite during which he is ritually dismembered at the outset of an ordeal whose goal is to change him from a boy to a man." Did Pollock ever reach the goal? It seems not, considering the fact that he died (1956, aged 44) driving under the influence, indicating that he remained an alcoholic until his death, apart (apparently) from the few years (1947-50) during which he made his "breakthough" all-over paintings. Nor does the fact that dismemberment became the method and theme, not to say substance, of his art -- a dismemberment of the traditional figure, and of the traditional idea of painting, that, I want to suggest, signals Pollock's unending identity crisis, indeed, his perpetual process of disintegration. Like a seismograph, Pollock's painting registers the shattering. Every tremor left a painterly trace, quixotically estheticized into tragic elegance.

Paradoxically, it is their aura of destructiveness and catastrophe -- unrelenting violence -- that makes the paintings innovative and gives them staying power. Ironically, Pollock's art, which gave him a temporary sense of identity -- Arloie noted that after a binge, and after enduring another bout of depression, he was able to paint and draw with remarkable concentration and intensity, at least until the cycle of binge and depression recurred -- demonstrates his otherwise complete lack of identity, or at least his deep insecurity and annihilative anxiety. It was as though Pollock had been dismembered -- or had never come together -- in the remote prehistory of his childhood, and that, however much he attempted to put himself together (create himself, as it were), by the creative act of making art, he could only futilely re-enact and ritualistically repeat, in artistic terms, his dismemberment.

Again and again he relives, in art, the ordeal of his dismemberment -- or rather his inability to "re-member" himself, indeed, to remember ever having been a sturdy, integrated self -- as though to master its trauma. It was not successful, however masterful the art. Henderson hoped that Pollock could and would re-integrate himself, but he never had much of a self to integrate in the first place, nor any family member who could serve as a model self -- certainly not his weak father, a victim of the Great Depression, nor his authoritarian mother. (Around 1934, Pollock painted Woman, generally understood to be his domineering, oppressive, phallic mother -- her harshness is also suggested in The She-Wolf (1943) -- which he paired with a portrait showing himself profoundly depressed.) Whatever his artistic progress and growth, his art was about his inability to get out of the rut of regression. He could outgrow the artistic past -- Allan Kaprow thought that, "after a pathetic apprenticeship to older art," in which he "misused his sources," Pollock "was able to become major by ignoring demonstrable familiarity with existing models"(6) -- but he could not outgrow his personal past, which may be the paradox of his creativity as well as an indication of its limits. The Futurists thought that people would think they were "mad," but they also thought they were "the primitives of a new, completely transformed sensibility."(7) Pollock was in fact (partially) mad and emotionally primitive, however much his paintings extended the primitive sensibility of early modern art to its limits, in effect renewing it while showing its devastating result.  Pollock's hellish primitivism is a long way from Gauguin's primitive paradise.

Henderson thought that the "oval-shaped area in the center" of Drawing 57 "represents the primitive conception of the axis mundi, which stands for the strength of tribal identity," but apart from his identity as a member of the tribe of New York artists, Pollock had little or no identity. While, art historically speaking, dismemberment was inaugurated by Picasso -- it seems Pollock had read John Graham's 1937 article on "Primitive Art and Picasso" and seen his work in New York's Museum of Modern Art -- and continued under the auspices of Surrealism, it was an expression of Pollock's problematic sense of self. From Figures in a Landscape (ca. 1936) -- a desolate landscape of dark poles, some of which are crosses -- through Mural (1943) and Gothic (1944), to the famous all-over paintings of 1947-50, and on to the disturbed faces that appear in many 1951 paintings, and finally to Blue Poles (Number 11) (1952), Pollock represented dismemberment.

He did so by representing dismembered figures and, more crucially, dismembered gestures. The surface of his paintings looks as though it is collapsing in on itself -- it is what gives the paintings their peculiarly imploded, over-condensed look -- and his gestures look like the tattered remnants of a net. The weaving has come undone, and with it the figures who were once pictured on it. (The all-over paintings began with drawings of schematic figures, which were then buried alive in paint -- engulfed and finally dissolved in the rapid flow. In Out of the Web, Number 7 (1949) the half-buried ghost of one shows, suggesting that all of Pollock's figures are Hadean.) If one looks carefully at the all-over paintings, nowhere is there a painterly gesture that is not fragmented, disrupted, or divided against itself -- a self-devouring snake turned into twisted shards -- even when it forms a supposedly rhythmic Arabesque (Number 13) (1948). Pollock remained split and fragmented, as Portrait and a Dream (1953) -- Pollock's own violent nightmare, as he said, flanked by his fractured, crumbling face -- makes explicit. The discontinuity of Pollock's gestures suggest the discontinuity of self -- the break in the sense of self -- he experienced as a child because of his "frustrated longing for the all-giving mother," as Henderson said, that is, the mother who was rarely there for him emotionally. It ruined him, and it made his paintings dramatic ruins.

Energy, forcefulness, chaos, flux, perpetual motion and turgidity are terms that have been repeatedly applied to Pollock's paintings. Writing about a 1949 show, Sam Hunter declared that it "reflects an advanced stage of the disintegration of the modern painting. But it is a disintegration with a possibly liberating and cathartic effect and informed by a highly individual rhythm."(8) He spoke of the "high-tension moments of bravura phrasing (which are visually like agitated coils of barbed wire)," as though amplifying Edward Alden Jewell's 1943 opinion that Pollock was "extravagantly, not to say savagely, romantic."(9) Writing about the same exhibition, Paul Mocsanyi thought Pollock's "combination of the ecstatic and monumental is not without a certain grandeur."(10) In 1943, Robert Coates noted that Pollock's work "zigzags between the intensity of the easel picture and the blandness of the mural,"(11) and in 1947 Pollock himself said that his "pictures. . . function between the easel and the mural."(12) Whether easel or mural, they are packed with irrepressible, violent gestures, which "'fill the borders' in a kind of 'horror vacui'" -- a tendency in schizophrenic art -- suggesting "primary process," which also informs Pollock's "ambiguous. . . configurations."(13) To use Erikson's words, Pollock was expressing "the existential abyss devoid of spiritual meaning" he found in himself -- it makes a climatic appearance in The Deep (1953) -- even as he desperately tried to fill it with artistic meaning.

On a more positive note, Pollock's all-over paintings have been interpreted as renderings of oceanic experience, which gives them mystical, transcendental import, although it may be recalled that Freud thought oceanic experience expressed a yearning to return to the mother's womb. Pollock never felt at home in it, let alone comfortable near his engulfing, threatening mother, as the turbulence of the waves in his particular ocean make clear. Pollock's paintings offer little comfort to those who expect art to console and compensate them for an uneasy life. The greatness of the all-over paintings has in part to do with the fact that they lack a center -- the center that gives most art its power, as Rudolf Arnheim demonstrated -- but for most people the feeling of lacking a center is horrific. Disoriented, they feel lost at sea. Pollock admitted a debt to Ryder's seascapes, but there are no life-saving boats on his sea. Similarly, Pollock's all-over paintings, however much the grand climax of musical painting by reason of their polyphonic complexity -- Greenberg compared them to Arnold Schönberg's innovative twelve-tone music -- belong to what Gustav Réne Hocke called the "tradition of the irregular," but regular people don't like irregularity, especially when it is unrelenting, to the extent of precluding the possibility of harmony.

Pollock is regarded as the premier Abstract Expressionist - "Jackson broke the ice," as Willem de Kooning, Pollock's leading competitor, said -- but his work, however innovative, is not characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, which doesn't mean that the other Abstract Expressionists were less innovative, but rather that they had another kind of innovation -- one which did not abandon the figure, collapsing it into the ground, nor dissolve differentiated space into undifferentiated chaos. The work of William Baziotes and especially de Kooning makes that clear. But the majority of so-called Abstract Expressionists, after going through a figural phase, made primordial patterns -- abstract forms that were mantra and mandala in one. They were sacred emblems, meant for meditation, and were often repetitive, as though chanted like incantations, intensifying their hypnotic effect. Indelibly imprinted on the spectator's mind, they became instant memories of eternity. There was a Jungian dimension to them: They symbolized the self's attempt to unite itself even as they showed it at odds with itself. They also had gnostic import: They conveyed the enlightenment -- the blaze of revelation -- that would follow from integration. The painting became a kind of sacred space and sanctuary in which the self could recover the depth and creativity it had lost to the world. In their different ways, Adolf Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffman, Richard Pousette-Dart, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman painted what might be called expressionistic emblems, which they repeated, with whatever subtle variation, ad infinitum. It was as though they were transcribing the intricate dynamics of the inner world onto the static, flat plane of a map so that people could find their way through it. At the same time they were freeing themselves from gestural clutter, without abandoning gesture altogether. It made a last stand as Newman's "zip": Isolated on the empty stage of his canvas -- it was clearly no longer the arena of action that Harold Rosenberg famously called it -- it made up in integrity for what it lost in force. Nonetheless, what began as an unconscious bang in Pollock seems to have become a self-conscious posture in Newman's zip.

Gottlieb's Division of Darkness (1947) is a kind of schematic rendering of inner life in all its dramatic turbulence, and the tortured grid of Labyrinth #3 (1954) conveys its labyrinthine complexity. Gottlieb's cryptic pictographs, many of which look like menacing omens -- a kind of ghostly handwriting on the pictorial wall -- slowly but surely lose their human form while retaining their emblematic character. The result is the famous abstract emblem of the Burst series, which deals in "polarities," as Gottlieb said, not only of "good and evil, the sick and the well," but the gestural and geometrical, as Blast I (1957) makes clear. The opposites subtly inform each other: The grand gesture, however explosive, is self-contained (it almost neatly fits in a square), while the orb above it is densely painted, with atmospheric edges echoing those of the brushy gesture. They are set in an infinite space which bears the trace of a surrealist horizon. No doubt the abstract forms are signs like the pictographs -- the lower tier of Above and Below I (1964-65) and Conflict (1966) makes that explicit -- but they are unreadable compared to pictographs. They exist more for their emotional impact than their intelligibility, as their expressionistic flair suggests.

The more socially poignant emblem in Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic series -- its alternation between phallic bar and testicular shapes suggests the castration of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, as well as Motherwell's own castration anxiety, as he implied -- is another example of the tendency to emblematic expressionism. Motherwell's Elegies, symbolic portrayals of the tragic, self-destructive hero (artist no doubt included), lack the headlong momentum of Gottlieb's Blasts, but they share a similar grandeur. The paintings of Kline, Still, Rothko and Newman are much more ambitiously sublime -- purely abstract and "elevated." In their work, a wide open planar surface, more desolate than Pollock's "landscape" of gestures but less like quicksand, is marked by grand, increasingly stylized -- mannered -- gestures, sometimes dramatically harsh, as in Kline's paintings, sometimes exquisitely crude, as in Still's paintings, sometimes precious and poignant, as in Rothko's paintings, and sometimes attenuated, even streamlined, as in Newman's paintings. The early works of all four artists were as surreally anthropomorphic as the early works of Gottlieb and Motherwell, but their mature works convey a sense of brooding upon the abstract depths. The contrasts they use are much more emotionally challenging -- it is the difference between the blurry black and meager white in Motherwell's Elegies to the Spanish Republic and the bold, stark constructions of black and white in Kline's paintings and in Newman's Stations of the Cross -- which makes for a more incisive emblem. Pousette-Dart's late paintings, radiant with transcendental icons, are perhaps the clearest statement of the kind of spiritual illumination -- intuitive insight into the absolute within the self -- that emblematic expressionism pursued.

The Abstract Expressionists were in pursuit of "transcendental experiences," as Rothko wrote in 1947.(14) They identified with the "archaic artist" who represented such experiences in the form of such "intermediaries" as "monsters, hybrids, gods and demi-gods." But the Abstract Expressionists realized that modern society was very different from archaic society. Modern society -- and by this they meant American society -- did not believe in transcendental experience let alone understand its "urgency." "The unfriendliness of society" to art didn't help. Rothko's aggressive response was to eliminate every trace of the "familiar world" of society from his paintings, turning them into abstract "dramas" in which "shapes" functioned as "performers." To represent, or at least suggestively evoke the "transcendent realm," "the familiar identity of things had to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly shrouds every aspect of our environment." Rothko conceived his abstract shapes as "organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion. They move with internal freedom, and without need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world." In other words, they were the modern version of the "strange and unfamiliar" beings the archaic artist used to personify the transcendental. They became even more strange and unfamiliar when they became emblematic planes of atmospheric color arranged in layers that seemed to represent different states of consciousness. It is as though the Theosophical program of Kandinsky and Mondrian -- the movement upward from everyday perception to spiritual expression, involving the cleansing of consciousness of social contaminants -- was given new form.

All of this suggests that the Abstract Expressionists thought of themselves, without exactly saying so, as shamans, in that they could "enter alternate states of consciousness" and mediate them artistically.(15) But it is not clear that their art "serve[d] their community by "translat[ing] the 'divine' messages into a language understood by all,"(16) which is what the shaman traditionally did. A society accustomed to the seemingly realistic, commonplace language of social figuration was not open to the seemingly unrealistic, uncommon language of abstraction, however more visually fundamental a language it is, and however more immediate if ineffable its effect. Abstract Expressionism has been socially assimilated and institutionalized since its heyday, but that does not mean that its transcendental ambition has been understood and appreciated. It is doubtful that American society can tolerate the sense of "silence and solitude" -- Rothko's words -- that informs and sustains the best Abstract Expressionist art. Its aura of "human incommunicability," as Rothko called it, had to be intolerable to a busily communicating society. Abstract Expressionism has been dipped in a sea of ordinary language, as though that could purge it of its ineffability, and make us forget its mystery. But until the incommunicability of what it struggles to communicate is recognized, Abstract Expressionism's extraordinary character cannot be truly grasped. 

Until it became appropriated as a symbol of American energy and innovation -- the moment seems to have been when the United States Information Service organized an international touring exhibition of Abstract Expressionist work in the late 1950s -- there was great resistance to it and little or no comprehension of the transcendental values it attempted to embody. It seemed to indulge in obscurity, all the more so because it had "no direct association with any particular visible experience." If, as Rothko suggested, Abstract Expressionist paintings "begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space," then Americans didn't like the unknown. "Pictures must be miraculous," he declared, "a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need," but Americans don't think pictures can be miraculous (unless they are of miraculous people, like saints), and they are less aware of spiritual needs than material ones, which are much more easily satisfied. They certainly don't believe that a mere picture, let alone an abstract one, can be spiritually satisfying.

"Make no mistake, abstract art is a form of mysticism," Motherwell wrote in 1951,(17) almost a decade after Matta painted Disasters of Mysticism (1942). Rothko's declaration of the mystical autonomy of abstract art appeared in the one and only issue of Possibilities. Motherwell was its "art" editor. (Harold Rosenberg, another devotee of Abstract Expressionism, was its "writing" editor. It is worth noting that John Cage, the Dadaist composer, was its "music" editor.) Andrea Caffi's "On Mythology," another magisterial essay that lent support to the mystical strand in Abstract Expressionism, also appeared: "The realm of the myth has rightly been called 'sacred.' Now the sacred is beyond attainment, incomprehensible. . . ineffable. And the whole effect of the myth -- inseparable from active magic or passive mysticism -- is to touch, to make present (by fiat or insinuation), to symbolize (the symbol was a sign of reconciliation or alliance) by means of the word, 'the nonexistent,' by means of the assertion. . . The paradox is that without this "nonexistent," our existence would have no human significance, as without the ineffable, human speech would scarcely differ from the vocal expressions of animals."(18)

In the late 1940s, and throughout the 1950s -- until it faltered in Vietnam -- America was too full of the myth of its own greatness to believe in any other myth, let alone the myth-making powers of art. Abstract Expressionism believed in the "manifest destiny" of abstract art, but the manifest destiny of American society, confirmed by its sweeping victory in the second world war, was much more obvious. It was the most powerful and important country in the world, and it had no need of art, let alone abstract art, to trumpet its dominance.

Nonetheless, however ironically, and indirectly, Abstract Expressionism reflected American hegemony. Despite its apparently un-American character -- all the more unAmerican because it was mystical, obscure and deeply subjective -- it mirrored America's triumphant materialism in its own radical materialism. Abstract Expressionism was as preoccupied with the physical side of painting as America was preoccupied with the physical side of life. Also, its belief in its own heroic, sacred character was supported by America's belief in its own heroic, sacred character.  Both Abstract Expressionism and America had inordinate ambition and pride in themselves. They were powers to be reckoned with. The grandeur and sweep of the Abstract Expressionist mural seemed to reflect the grandeur and sweep of the American landscape, indeed, the expanse of a country that spread across a continent -- a country that thought big. Thus Abstract Expressionism, for all its universal pretensions -- and European roots -- was an American art. But the sense of sacredness it struggled to convey was altogether different in spirit from the sacredness America believed had been conferred upon it by reason of its economic success.

This was the kind of success that Rothko repudiated when he said that the artist had to "abandon his plastic bank-book, just as he has abandoned other forms of security." Abstract Expressionism, then, however physically American, remained spiritually unAmerican. It shared some of its traits, but it was unreconciled to American society. The surface of Abstract Expressionist painting is, after all, not the same as the surface of American life. It is an expression of depth rather than of spiritual vacuum. But, to compound the irony, Abstract Expressionism seems to be a throwback to 19th century American Transcendentalism, something which makes it even more American -- deeply American -- than its physicalism. It also makes it an anachronism -- a nostalgic holdover from an older America, an esthetic reminiscence of the spiritual vitality that once was, American idealism kept alive in the amber of abstract form -- in the popular culture that avant-garde art joined forces with when it became Pop art, and lost its avant-garde identity.

America was not reconciled to its art until Pop art came along (The point is made clearly by the fact that Andy Warhol appeared on a postage stamp in 2002 though Jackson Pollock has yet to make an appearance.) Certainly Warhol's arrogant 1963 self-portrait is more in line with America's view of itself than Pollock's depressed self-portrait. The times certainly have changed. Pop art was much more socially successful than Abstract Expressionism because it pays homage to the media -- indeed, signals their colonization of avant-garde art -- that are the dominant modes of representation and art in America. In Pop art, avant-garde art abandoned the ineffable and sacred for the outspoken and profane. Both active magic and passive mysticism were out, and active exploitation and passive conformity were in.  By definition, the altered state of consciousness necessary for transcendental experience is a socially alienated state of consciousness, just as transcendental experience is critically alienated from everyday experience. But Pop art is not alienated from nor critical of American society: It apotheosizes everyday American life. Indeed, it legitimates the American Weltanschauung by giving it the blessing of art. Surrounded with an aura of art, popular American imagery, derived from movies and advertising, looks "divine." Packaged in art, the already packaged looks more perfect than ever. Thus, the superficial becomes transcendent in Pop art. Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962), an icon of an already iconic figure -- such as Warhol became -- makes the point succinctly. Endorsed by art, that most noble of human endeavors, American values seem immutable, suggesting there is no need to transcend them, let alone alter them for the better. There are no better values than American business values, as Warhol said.

Pollock is supposedly the greatest Abstract Expressionist, and as such the consummately American artist -- after all, he was born in Wyoming and lived in California until he came to New York (he was not a European immigrant Jew like Rothko) -- but the liberated, all-encompassing, uncontrollable energy, simultaneously ecstatic and anguished, visible in his all-over paintings, has nothing to do with the American belief that energy exists to serve some commercial purpose and as such has no spiritual meaning. It must be managed and used, not allowed to run rampant and thus wasted, the way Pollock seems to onanistically exhaust his spiritual energy. His all-over paintings look like oil spills compared to Warhol's neatly packaged social images, which remain organized and coherent even when they are partially obliterated. However flawed, in what looks like a throwaway ironical gesture -- it suggests Warhol's equivocal attitude to them, even to art itself -- they seem more poised, polished, stable, manufactured and socially intact than Pollock's anti-social handmade paintings. Compared to Warhol's mischievously contrived, tongue-in-cheek works, Pollock's look naively passionate. Warhol once said that he wanted to be a star so that he could meet real stars. Seeing them up close, he could see that they don't look like they do in their publicity photographs. They are deceptive illusions -- their skin marred (like his own) rather than smooth. But every one of Warhol's stars, however tortured by the eccentricities of his silkscreen technique, is a version of what William James called the bitch goddess of success, suggesting that the fame and fortune that come with stardom remain central to his art. Warhol loves stars, and his figures continue to be stars, however compromised -- almost blurred into oblivion -- their presence is. They never fade away completely, but remain glorious and charismatic however ghostly, certainly in comparison to the inglorious figures -- repulsive fallen creatures or desperate morbid demons -- in Pollock's uncompromising paintings.

Abstract Expressionism supposedly has its roots in Cubist planarity and Surrealist automatism, but the formalist-art historical argument that it does -- made by Greenberg and William Rubin, who hoped that by giving it European credentials it would be read as the next major avant-garde development -- goes only so far and is in fact misleading. Even the work of Arshile Gorky, who consciously emulated Picasso and Miró, takes a very different course -- and has a very different content -- however technically reminiscent of the European masters. It has been argued that Abstract Expressionism would have been impossible without the emigration to the United States of many major European masters during the second world war. Among those who came were the Surrealists Max Ernst, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, as well as Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian, who shared a debt to Cubism. Duchamp was already in New York, and Breton also arrived, adding to the avant-garde ferment. Peggy Guggenheim opened her Art of This Century gallery, devoted to European avant-garde art and encouraged emerging American artists, among them Pollock. But all this is deceptive, however influential and inspiring the European avant-garde masters undoubtedly were. American Abstract Expressionism was fundamentally different in character and attitude from European avant-garde art, however much it owed to it -- and it is not clear that it owed much more than some general ideas of what it meant to make a modern art. No doubt Abstract Expressionism reconciled what had seemed irreconcilable in European avant-garde art -- self-conscious abstraction and unconscious expression -- but it did so on its own terms. It was not simply an offshoot of what Rosenberg called the "tradition of the new" established in Europe, but psycho-esthetically innovative in its own right. Gorky was not the humble epigone of Picasso and Miró, but rather a sophisticated artist who used Cubism and Surrealism for his own purpose.

It was the trauma of exile from his native Armenia that shaped his art, not his commitment to high European avant-garde art. Gorky was a victim and refugee, fleeing his homeland, at the age of 15 (1920), after the dissolution of his family and the death of his mother, among the more than one million Armenians starved or slaughtered by the Turks in what has come to be regarded as the first ethnic cleansing and genocide in a century of many. Planarity and automatism were the means by which Gorky expressed his suffering -- Gorky was an assumed name, meaning in Russian "bitterness" (this is more relevant than the attempt to make Gorky a quasi-leftist by arguing that he took the name in homage to the Russian Communist writer Maxim Gorky) -- and it was his suffering that led him to make works that were more exquisitely linear than those of Cubism and more color-sensitive than those of Surrealism. With a rare clarity and directness, Gorky's art reveals the underlying issue of Abstract Expressionism: How to represent -- or at least evoke -- seemingly unrepresentable and enduring emotional trauma. It is the most provocative and catastrophic of feelings, for it involves the collapse of the self in panic. No one but Gorky conveys it in such a nuanced, obsessive way, capturing the pain of self-loss -- inseparable from the loss of his mother, who seemed to have abandoned him as he had to abandon his homeland -- as though in discreet slow motion. He could never rid himself of his loss -- never resolve his mourning -- but repeated the trauma endlessly, with an artistic mastery and poignancy that failed to give him lasting emotional mastery and peace.

Nowhere do Picasso and Miró approach the mournful, brooding tone of Gorky's mature works -- a tone of abandonment and loss that sets the standard for Abstract Expressionist melancholy. For underneath the Sturm und Drang of Pollock and de Kooning, and even Hofmann, there is a profound melancholy, having as much to do with world history as personal history. It was world history that killed Gorky's mother, destroyed his family, and forced him to emigrate to America, and world history that creates the atmosphere of such late works as Agony (1937), whatever their personal import. It is destructive world history that appears, in the form of "the light of the atom bomb. . . a truly Christian light," as de Kooning ironically said, in Gottlieb's Blasts, as well as in the violence of de Kooning's own handling. "The eyes that actually saw the light melted out of sheer ecstasy," de Kooning added, compounding the irony, and it is with these mystically melted eyes that Rothko saw the world. The atomic explosion melted all forms, dissolving them into nothingness; Rothko's melted planes of ominous colors are their poignant residue -- nothingness incarnate in ironically seductive color. No doubt Rothko's esthetic treatment of man-made death and destruction is as defensive as Monet's esthetic treatment of the face of his wife who died from natural causes -- he was also fascinated by the colors of loss -- but it is much more radical, for it looks the nothingness of death in the face.  Hofmann's Cataclysm (1945), Elegy (1950) and, with greater finality and poignancy, Memoria in Aeterna (1960), also arouse feelings of death and nothingness. They use presence to articulate absence. Meltingness becomes mournfulness. No doubt they reconcile transcendental geometry (Suprematist form) and dramatic gesture (Expressionist formlessness), articulating them with equal urgency and conviction -- Hofmann was one of the great synthesizers of avant-garde ideas, as his writings show -- but he uses them to convey irreparable and thus eternal loss and trauma.

So does Gorky when he painted his mother and himself in 1926-29. Based on an old photograph -- the only thing he had left of his mother -- this intimate work was supposedly a learning experience. Gorky transforms rounded forms into flat planes, showing his shift from naturalism to abstraction. He is on the way to becoming a modernist. His scholarship is evident in the black eyes and mask-like face he gives his mother and himself. They are derived from Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906). But Gorky has also painted out -- in effect erased, as though they had never existed -- the flower pattern on his mother's apron, and reduced the small bouquet he holds to a barren sketch. He has stripped the photograph of all signs of life, leaving esthetically embalmed corpses where there were once living beings. No doubt he also reveals his fear of creative sterility without the support of his mother and, more broadly, his Armenian homeland, the touchstone of his art. Picasso's and Miro's work may be emotionally exciting, but it lacks the emotional depth -- one might say the capacity for depth born of extreme suffering -- of Gorky's work.  Compared to his art, theirs remains on the surface. I think that Gorky practiced his Picasso and Miró the way a pianist practices finger exercises, sometimes lyrically and humorously, following Miró, sometimes with epic power and incisiveness, following Picasso.

Most of Gorky's works allude to the Armenian landscape of his lost youth -- the fantasy or interior landscapes of Xhorkum or his father's Garden in Sochi (1938-41). Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgi (1934) looks more like a still-life than a landscape, but its abstract forms have the same haunting, oddly organic -- "biomorphic" is the technical word -- character as those we see in Image in Xhorkum (ca. 1936) and even in the obviously geometrical Organization (1933-36). In such beautiful later works as The Plow and the Song (1947), the forms are more diffuse and protean, and sometimes lose their contours -- these tend to become autonomous lines, seductively curved, as though in an eccentric process of endless metamorphosis -- and the surface becomes more atmospheric and soft, but the scene is the same basic "Garden of Wish Fulfillment," as he called it in 1942, he painted from the start. Dreams are wish fulfillments, Freud demonstrated, and the garden of Gorky's father was a dream garden, full of incestuous possibilities and bizarre energy, which made it all the more sacred. And surreal, for like the Surrealists, Gorky believed that pictures were dreams in principle. Like them, he preferred dream pictures to realistic pictures -- the indeterminate to the pre-determined -- as his transformation of his photograph of his mother and himself into an abstract dream indicates. Gorky's abstract forms are mnemonic traces of his father's garden, inseparable from his profound feelings for his mother as well as his father -- she makes a mysterious appearance in the garden -- and his self-doubt, in part the result of their loss and his disorientation. The roots of his art are in the "little garden with a few apple trees which had retired from giving fruit. . . . There was a blue rock with a few patches of moss placed here and there like fallen clouds." It is an apt description of Gorky's own abstract forms, which have the same contained amorphousness as clouds and moss, and seem to have dropped from the sky, however suspended in its atmosphere they remain.

The garden was elusive -- Gorky struggled to remember it the way one struggles to remember a fading dream -- but a number of vivid details stuck in his mind, enough to form a marvelous vision. He recalled his "mother and other village women opening their bosoms and taking their soft and dependent breasts in their hands to rub them on the rock" -- a no doubt arousing if strange sight, but one whose contrast of softness and hardness, organic and inorganic, rubbed together, is basic to Gorky's art. They also suggest his Surrealist talent for visual puns. The rubbing indicates sexual frotteur, and his knowledge of Ernst's frottage technique, which also has a sexual meaning. Stimulated by his fantastic memories, Gorky combined incongruous forms and materials, uniting them in tense sexual congress, as some interpreters think. It was clearly a union of Eros and Thanatos, epitomizing the problematic of creativity -- the longing for fertility, the terror of sterility -- that the "Holy Tree" in the center of the garden symbolized. It was "enormous," but leafless and dead, "bleached [by] the sun, the rain, the cold." It was Gorky's Garden of Wish Fullfillment that first made it clear that Abstract Expressionism was about the wish for everlasting creativity, or at least for the rejuvenation of creative power that seemed to have died. The unconscious threat of the loss of creativity -- fear of failure of creative nerve -- drove the Abstract Expressionists to ever more self-conscious displays of creative power. It was as though they were clinging to -- even exaggerating -- a creativity that was always on the verge of disappearing. Perhaps they were forced back on it because they had nowhere else to turn: They seemed to be using their creativity to defend themselves from a society from which they felt alienated -- and which found artistic creativity alien -- even as they incorporated their feeling of alienation into their creativity. In a sense, Abstract Expressionism condenses the rise and fall of creativity -- indeed, the odd simultaneity of creative potency and impulsiveness with creative impotence and inhibition -- in a singular gestural image.

The tree in Gorky's father's garden was dead but art brought it to life: The primitive peasants in Gorky's village "voluntarily" replaced the leaves with strips of their own colorful clothing. This "parade of banners" - "personal inscriptions of signatures," as Gorky called them -- made the dead tree seem like a young poplar in his imagination. Thus, the tree of life -- the rich life that exists only in memory -- is given new life by art. Gorky wanted the innocent creativity of childhood, like many modern artists searching for innocence of vision in a world burdened by history and saturated with memories, which are like "shadows in constant battle." Gorky's art is the most consummate realization of what the Symbolist Redon called "suggestive art." The mixture of elation and melancholy -- the cycle of creative assertion and depletion that is nature at its most elemental -- in his abstract images set the emotional standard for Emblematic Expressionism or what can also be called Expressionistic Symbolism. It also reminds us of how many Abstract Expressionists, perhaps most notably Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, depended on landscape, however fantasized into what Gerald Manley Hopkins called an "inscape," for their inspiration.

In Gorky's carefully composed and self-contained works, with their carefully manicured if whimsical gestures, we seem to witness a final autumnal efflorescence of creative power. There is an elegiac quality to his works: They long for what they are about to lose, conveying a ghostly rather than full-bodied creativity. In sharp contrast, de Kooning's much more impulsive, dense works vigorously apotheosize the creative act. Every gesture is its visceral representative. De Kooning's surface tends to be opaque and abrupt rather than translucent and massaged, like Gorky's.  De Kooning doesn't insinuate, he proclaims. The male figure, and then more famously the female figure, was his point of departure, but he thought of the female body as a landscape, as the title of one of his paintings suggests, and he eventually painted abstract, erotically charged landscapes.

But for all its libidinous energy it remains a traumatic landscape, as the black and white paintings of the late '40s -- perhaps most notably Night Square (1949) -- and the ironically white Excavation (1950) make clear. The latter is supposedly based on a photograph of naked Jewish bodies found in an open pit in one of the Nazi extermination camps. Bleached skeletal white by black death, their bony bodies lay in decaying disarray. The harshness of the scene -- and of all of de Kooning's early imagery, including his weirdly lurid women, are desperately grim and grotesque -- is disguised by its quasi-Cubist constructed look and panoramic all-overness. Fragmentary, angular planes, often smudged and incomplete, and composed of brisk, idiosyncratic lines, spread across the work with agile abandon. But the planar gestures are the visceral traces of emotional catastrophe. They are oddly elegant esthetic bandages on blatantly open wounds.  Space is built of these misshapen, agitated planes, each a death-deflated body, a human presence that has been abstracted by death -- turned into an anonymous ghost. Excavation is an ironical horror vacui: The vast open grave is completely filled, but it is filled with vacuous forms -- forms emptied of human meaning, ironically transforming them into pure shapes. De Kooning has stared into the abyss and seen the nothingness of human beings in modernity.

It is the decisive moment of avant-garde creativity, an ironical moment endlessly repeated in avant-garde art: Concrete body becomes abstract form because it has been dehumanized. Paradoxically, it is the emptiness -- the feeling of absence that informs de Kooning's planar presences, the blankness that indicates that they have been liquidated by history, their appearance as white shadows emblematic of oblivion -- that makes them esthetically innovative. Excavation forces us to face what we dare not face and can barely stand remembering: The sweeping triumph of death that was World War II, and more broadly, the inhumanity of the 20th century.  Modernity is premised on an abstract attitude toward human beings, reducing them to the disposable instruments of collective causes, thus denying their individuality, even right to exist. De Kooning's paintings eloquently articulate the dehumanizing attitude endemic to modernity, suggesting that avant-garde esthetics -- its skewed syntax and semantic ironies, fragmentary structure and insecure forms -- creatively expresses the destructiveness that inevitably results from this nihilistic attitude. It is a soul murder that is ironically self-defeating, even suicidal, for the collective. There is a strong streak of suicidal ragem, not to say sadomasochistic violence in de Kooning's paintings. Women are gesturally battered in the act of being tenderly embraced by soft paint, as though de Kooning was not sure which would give her subjective presence -- which would turn a socially significant object into an intimate living individual. He must destroy the social female object in order to escape his own fear of being destroyed -- of becoming another slick object in the crowd of the living dead which is mass society. 

One cannot understand de Kooning, or for that matter any of the Abstract Expressionists, without understanding that their expressionism is a subjective rebellion against American mass society, on the grounds that it reifies individuals in slick collective terms, thus stripping them of subjective purpose and depth. Women are the symbol of mass society, as de Kooning's use of Marilyn Monroe and female faces from advertisements suggests. De Kooning's Depression portraits of working men are perhaps his clearest statement of the individual's defiance of the collective.  Standing with classical dignity, holding their own against the world, they have a poise and stability -- indeed, inherent nobility -- that de Kooning's women lack. The latter are almost always floozies, even when they are menacing, as the toothy, intimidating grimace of Woman I (1950-52) indicates. (But she's wearing a seductive red skirt and high heels, and has a huge bosom!) Perhaps this is because, for all his painterly efforts to penetrate and dissect them, their inner life remained a mystery to him. Perhaps he didn't think they had any -- they were all showy glamour, exciting spectacle. De Kooning's Depression working men have a spiritual presence that trumps the physical presence of his women, however much the latter are more obviously expressive -- or is it more exhibitionistic, as though to hide the fact that they have no core self.

In their own way, the Abstract Expressionists engage the perennial philosophical problem of the One and the Many: The problem of becoming the One that stands out from the Many -- the One that is creatively and subjectively alive in the uncreatively objective world the Many inhabit. De Kooning painted many more pictures of women than of men, suggesting that he thought women were a crowd phenomenon rather than individuals. Needing to be reflected in the eyes of strangers, they became the fantasies these strangers wanted them to be. Certainly his remarkable late sculptures of heroic male figures -- Promethean survivors, however marked by the ravages of time -- suggests as much. He has returned to working men, with whom he clearly identifies. Crusty and alert, they remain emotionally impenetrable yet peculiarly intimate, no doubt an effect of their textural richness and protean appearance. They are a long way from Rodin's sturdy allegorical figures -- de Kooning's isolated figures are made of clumps of clay that barely hold together, suggesting that they are about to fall apart, even as they remain intact -- but they radiate a sense of quiet strength that makes them climactic statements of masculine selfhood.

De Kooning's morbid early paintings -- of women as well as landscapes -- are the grand climax of a long line of 20th century apocalyptic imagery, traceable back at least to Louis Meidner's distorted landscapes of human hell. Like many works made at the time, de Kooning's works reflect the unhappy mental state of an outwardly happy America. They have something of America's fabled robustness, but it is robustness in crisis -- vigor unraveling into angry melancholy. Perhaps more than any of the emerging Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning reveals the unpleasant underside -- in part the heritage of World War II, whose human cost unconsciously lingered -- of outwardly prosperous postwar America. They expose the emotions that America hid from itself. De Kooning showed that it could not run from itself even as he showed the power that kept it running. In Gorky, the sense of tragedy is subdued and personal, while in de Kooning, tragedy has become explosive, as though to deny the sense of helplessness that informs it. Both were able to put their finger on the emotional pulse of America because they were outsiders, not only because they were immigrants but because they were artists.

Pollock famously said "the source of my painting is the Unconscious," but there is also something self-conscious about his painting, as there is about Abstract Expressionist work in general. There is an aura of reprise about it -- something stylish, or at least stylized -- about its automatism, indeed, something forced about its impulsiveness. It may have had "plenitude of presence," as Greenberg said, but its sense of physical and emotional presence was heavily indebted to early modern art -- made in Europe. Harold Rosenberg's ambitious attempt to show its independence -- to prove that the Abstract Expressionists were authentic New World artists rather than inauthentic Old World artists (the former were a rare breed of individualist, the latter wore Abstract Expressionism as a stylistic uniform or collective Look) -- deliberately sidestepped the fact that they stood on the shoulders of Old World giants. For all their apparent novelty -- at least on the American art scene -- the American Abstract Expressionists were epigones. They were followers rather than originators. They were secondary elaborators of what were primary innovations in the seminal European masters. They were not as heroic as their press -- including the intellectual press -- made them out to be. Pollock became popular because he was all-American - "Jack the Dripper," as Life Magazine put it, suggesting that, like Jack the Ripper, he was a violent killer, like all true Americans (as D. H. Lawrence suggested in his Studies of American Literature) -- not because Americans understood what his art was about. (Gorky and de Kooning never became popular because they were born in Europe rather than Wyoming. Pollock was a wild Westerner -- people appreciated his art for its ruthless violence, wide open spaces, and rolling surfaces, emblematic of the "let it roll" mentality of the mythical West -- not a fake American like Gorky and de Kooning.)

The Abstract Expressionists expanded the base of European modernism, but they did not change anything fundamental. They performed its ideas, with a certain rhetorical flair and dramatic bravado -- Franz Kline may be the best example of this theatricalization -- but they did not discover them. They assimilated and transformed, but not so much that their sources were obscured. Greenberg's deliberate effort to dismiss post-World War II French art informal as second-rate did nothing to change the fact that ostensibly first-rate American Abstract Expressionism depended heavily on pre-World War I European originality. As Rosenberg said, all the avant-garde cards were on the table in 1914 Europe.

Greenberg's unfairness -- his calculated indifference to Cobra and faint praise for Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, Hans Hartung and Tal Coat (20) -- has obscured the deeper truth that American Abstract Expressionism was not only an extension of European ideas, but a cruder version of them. Pollock had a simple-minded sense of the unconscious compared to Dalí and Ernst. Gorky's dream pictures are nowhere near as intricate as theirs, if more touching -- and not as spiritually moving as Kandinsky's early abstract painting, to which they claim allegiance. A great deal of American Abstract Expressionism dead-ends in Emblematic Expressionism. Gestural expression becomes frozen resonance, as in Helen Frankenthaler's supposedly interior landscapes -- lovely surface with no emotional depth -- and finally cancels itself altogether, as in Ad Reinhardt's black paintings. Gottlieb's late works are exemplary expressionistic emblems -- a sort of expressionistic posturing.

In short, there is an air of manufactured irrationality to many American Abstract Expressionist paintings, in contrast to the "natural" irrationality of Chaim Soutine's paintings. Something changed when irrationality hit the American shores -- it was rationalized and manipulated. It became readable rather than enigmatic. It became an idol to be worshipped rather than an abyss into which one could fall. The uncanny became lost in something typically American: The urge to make a "big statement."  American irrationality tended to be in your face. It didn't wait to get under your skin.  It tended to be hectic rather than insidious. The grand gesture came to matter more than the insinuating mood. Clyfford Still seemed to combine the two in the late '40s, but his gestural "act," as he called it, looks, indeed, like an act. So was Still's aggressive dismissal of European artists and intellectuals in his writings. It was a typically American effort to wipe the cultural slate clean, but Still did not realize that it also meant that the slate was blank. The sense of emptiness that slowly but surely informs Still's paintings as well as those of Newman and Rothko belies their pretensions to a spirituality that can exist apart from and in opposition to culture, all the more so because culture is the only sign of it we have.

Looked at as a whole, it becomes clear that New York self-dramatizing -- dare one say self-promoting? -- angst is only one aspect of Abstract Expressionism. Beyond the New York stage, Abstract Expressionist painting tends to be more introspective than explosive and, it seems, unpretentiously lyric rather than pretentiously epic.  The work of Richard Pousette-Dart, Mark Tobey, Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell suggests as much. Pousette-Dart's cosmic abstraction, with its visionary intensity, Tobey's Bahai-inspired pulsating "white writing," Mitchell's expressionistic epiphanies, grounded in impressions of engulfing nature, and Francis' conflation of the decorative and revelatory, articulate light as a spiritual end in itself as well as the substance of painting. Light and space are virtually indistinguishable in their work.  Their colors are informed by light, and seem like specimens of light. Their paintings seem less driven than those of the New York painters, and made for meditation. It was only when Pousette-Dart and Mitchell left New York that their work became spiritual, in Kandinsky's sense: Far from the maddening crowd, "sensations of color" became "spiritual experiences."

Kandinsky's "Über das Geistige in der Kunst" addresses the final dialectical problem in Hegel's Phänomenologie des Geistes. Hegel describes the voyage of consciousness from sense certainty to pure spirit -- consciousness conscious of itself, as it were.  But the journey ends in a paradox: Pure spirit, at the moment of its revelation -- the moment it becomes absolutely pure, in no need of material and cultural expression to realize itself -- becomes pure sensation. It can be concretely sensed not simply contemplated in consciousness. It is simultaneously real and ideal -- a dialectical triumph. Paradoxically, unconditioned spirit is purest when it is unconditioned sensation. This is the ultimate dialectical mystery. As though reminding us that Kandinsky is respected as the first Abstract Expressionist, the more transcendentally inclined and aspiring -- as distinct from unconsciously motivated and distraught -- American Abstract Expressionists show that pure color can in experiential fact be spiritual self-consciousness. They show that color and spirit co-imply and catalyze each other -- that color is spirit actualized rather than simply signaled -- and that painting is the cultural space in which this perceptually miraculous event is most likely to occur.

To find a new emotional and artistic security in color is the only viable antidote to angst -- the only way the avant-garde painting becomes more than an anxious object, uncertain of its identity, as Rosenberg argues. Indeed, the immediate experience of the spirituality of color is the most exalted way consciousness has of rising above unconscious suffering and creative uncertainty. Abstract Expressionism which has left the demiurge for the light is the consummate realization of Kandinsky's esthetic vision of spiritual color. Consciousness that pure color is the purest self-consciousness is the ultimate esthetic truth.


    (1) Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 411
    (2) Erik H. Erikson, "Identity Crisis in Autobiographic Perspective," Life History and the Historical Moment (New York:  Norton, 1975), p. 21
    (3) Ibid., p. 44
    (4) John W. McCoubrey, American Tradition in Painting (New York: George W. Braziller, 1963), p. 119
    (5) C. L. Wysuph, Jackson Pollock: Psychoanalytic Drawings (New York: Horizon Press, 1970), p. 18. All subsequent quotations about Pollock are from Wysuph unless otherwise noted.
    (6) Quoted in ibid., p. 23
    (7) Quoted in Chipp, p. 293
    (8) Quoted in Francis V. O'Connor, Jackson Pollock (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1967), p. 46
    (9) Ibid., p. 30
    (10) Ibid., p. 46
    (11) Ibid., p. 31
    (12) Ibid., p. 39
    (13) The words are those of the psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris, and applied to Pollock by Wysuph, p. 15
    (14) Mark Rothko, "The Romantics Were Prompted," Possibilities 1 (Winter 1947-48): 84
    (15) Ruth-Inge Heinze, "Foreword" to Mark Levy, Technicians of Ecstasy: Shamanism and the Modern Artist (Norfolk, CT: Bramble Books, 1993), p. ix
    (16) Ibid., p. x
    (17) Robert Motherwell, "What Abstract Art Means to Me," The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, ed. Stephanie Terenzio (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1992), p. 86
    (18) Andrea Caffi, "On Mythology," Possibilities 1 (Winter 1947-48): 87
    (19) Quoted in Chipp, p. 560
    (20) Clement Greenberg, "Contribution to a Symposium," Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1965), p. 125

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here


artnet—The Art World Online. ©2014 Artnet Worldwide Corporation. All rights reserved. artnet® is a registered trademark of Artnet Worldwide Corporation, New York, NY, USA.