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The term ‘Abstract Expressionism’ was first used as early as 1919 in Der Sturm magazine in Germany to describe the work of such European artists’ groups as Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a leading member of the latter being the Russian artist often thought of as the ‘father’ of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky. Indeed, Alfred H. Barr Jr., first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, used the same phrase ten years later when referring to that artist’s work. Since the end of the Second World War, the term has, however, been appropriated by America to encompass the work of a group of artists working largely in New York – hence the alternative cognomen, the New York School – between the 1930s and 1980s. The earlier, European work is now just referred to as ‘Expressionism’ or sometimes ‘German Expressionism’, though much of it is as abstract as anything produced across the Atlantic.
Many of the artists became and remain household names: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, to name only six of more than 25 covered by this volume. Part of Phaidon’s ‘Themes and Movements’ series, it has been compiled by Katy Siegel, Professor of Art History, Hunter College, City University of New York. She has arranged it in two halves; the first, printed on gloss paper, contains most of the colour illustrations, with useful analysis and commentary alongside each one; the second, on matt paper, contains extracts from contemporaneous writings, not just by the artists themselves but by critics and writers such as Clement Greenberg, Alfred H. Barr Jr., Meyer Shapiro, and Harold Rosenberg, and including the ‘Manifestos’ of André Breton, Diego Rivera and Léon Trotsky.
Each of the two halves is divided further into three corresponding sections: 1937–46 Early Experiments; 1947–58 Recognition; and 1959–82 Late Work. This eminently sensible chronological arrangement makes the book very user friendly, since a single bookmark will suffice to indicate what point in the development of this art movement you have reached. You can see the work being produced by Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, or David Smith in the late 1930s, read the accompanying commentary, and then flip to section two and find out what Meyer Shapiro was writing about ‘The Nature of Abstract Art’ in 1937.
In the years between 1914 and 1945, the Western world was in turmoil, either at war, or suffering financial collapse and the Great Depression. The effect of the wars in Europe saw many artists from there flee to the USA, and spread their ideas abroad. Artists would meet together and discuss their work, so that several ‘schools’ developed of which Abstract Expressionism, a term not used and often disliked by the artists themselves, was only one. Social Realism was also in the ascendancy, funded by the WPA Federal Arts Project as was the Regionalist movement, which produced the rural figurative images seen in the works of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and others.
The break-through for New York School artists came in the 1950s, when the city’s galleries started to display their work, and art critics started to review them. In reality the work of the various artists differed considerably, ranging from the action paintings and drip technique of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner through the colour fields of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still to the rich patterning of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. Although this school of art remained dominant in the art market, especially in America, with values continuously rising through the 1950s and ’60s, by 1970 most of the leading proponents were dead, and interest was moving to the more recently arrived Pop art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others. Yet abstract expressionism has remained both popular and influential throughout the past 50 years.
Towards the end of the book is a section of potted biographies of the artists, which is valuable as it is sometimes difficult to retain all those little details in the memory. Katy Siegel’s book concludes with an extensive bibliography, and a valuable overall index. At £45, it is not cheap, but enthusiasts and experts alike will feel it is well worthwhile, and be delighted to add it to their collection. It is suitable too for the general reader, in that it is not weighed down by too much lofty language. Nonetheless, there are less expensive introductory books covering this subject on the market, and those new to the subject may prefer to dip their toes in the water there first, and then make a decision as to whether to move on to this excellent and comprehensive volume.
Abstract Expressionism edited by Katy Siegel is published by Phaidon Press, 2011.304 pp. 240 colour illus. ISBN 978-2-08-030168-0
Media credit: © Estate of Lee Krasner