Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Ben P. Watkins
Although a non-figurative, non-realistic art had been invented and developed in Europe during the early part of the Twentieth century, it was inevitable, due to innumerable circumstances, that abstract art should culminate in its absolute expression in America, in the form of Abstract Expressionism, during the 1940's.
The combination of these events - large scale works being executed, the awareness of the innovational developement of European art, the changing attitudes from Americans who had experienced other cultures - put American artists at the point where they were ready to invent their own new style of painting. The large abstract paintings they executed gave substance to the need for an indigenous form of painting.
Abstract painting resulted from putting everything in art that was already existent, all the traditional concepts, at risk. It was a new style that was not an imitation of anything else, but something pure within itself. It was an adventure into the unknown.
Leanings toward abstract imagery were already prevalent long before the turn of the century, when a Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, produced his first abstract watercolour. Other European artists soon arrived at abstract expression too, but Kandinsky holds the position of the first true exponent of abstract art.
In America, academic, figurative work prevailed as the major form of expression during the early part of the Twentieth century. Art was not considered a serious occupation until the setting up of the Federal Art Project, in 1935, which employed artists and gave them a true identity.
The influx of many European artists during the 1930's, was the key that turned America from being merely an imitator of European painting. Their presence enabled American artists to synthesise the traditions of European painting, and then move beyond it, to create their own new style.
Abstract Expressionism emerged in the 1940s. The painter Robert Motherwell expressed this idea in 1942;
"The need is for felt experience - intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic."
There were two main aspects of Abstract Expressionism - action painting and colour-field painting.
The action painters, who included Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann, created paintings that were a field of free gestures painted with equal intensity, resulting in a mass image that expanded across the whole canvas.
The colour-field painters, who included Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, created intense fields of colour, each part of the canvas having an equal chromatic intensity. Linear imagery was removed, and the isolated, simple elements of their works contained none of the frenzy of the action painters' works. Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb were aligned to this mode too.
By the 1950s, New York had replaced Paris as the leading world art centre. French abstract painting was tame compared to that of New York. Abstract Expressionism grew out of American culture. It was inevitable that it happened in America, a country much more suited to this expression than any other. It was exclamatory, large; dominant, powerful and public. Young artists felt the need to express a wholly American form of painting, something expressive of the country's pre-eminence.
Hawtin, Brenda, "The Inevitability of Abstract Expressionism in America" (1977). Masters Theses. 3259.
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