Abstract Expressionism by Erika Doss


Abstract Expressionism was a post-World War II movement in art.  It responds to many of the changing social currents in the US: capitalism, consumption, and issues of the human psyche to name just a few.  The many changes that were taking place in this country were reflected in this potent and distinct style of art.  It is best well known in the works of Jackson Pollock, although Erika Doss does explore the roles of others artists who developed this particular style.  Doss concludes her essay with an interesting exploration of the marginalization of females and non-whites in the critical history of Abstract Expressionism.  Regardless of critical response, these artists were focused on their individual and personal responses and feelings, which were valued qualities in this era of confidence.  Abstract Expressionism is largely about personal expression but there are also psychological, social, and political commentaries expressed.

There was a large amount of contradiction taking place in the age of abstract expressionism.  There is a backlash against the masses at the same time that conformity was valued; eventually individualism will be viewed as a threat in the age of McCarthyism.  George Tooker’s Subway is utilized by the author to illustrate the contradictory “dual consciousness of abundance and anxiety” (pg. 130) prevalent in American Art in the mid-20th century.  There was additional contradiction in the uniqueness of a largely personal style being institutionalized and taught through its formal aspects.  Contradiction is inseparable from the social, political, and artistic climate that surrounded Abstract Expressionism.

My personal response to this article is focused on the point Doss makes concerning Jackson Pollock’s use of “impermanent materials” and creating transient art (pg. 135).  The art of abstract expressionism is largely personal and, being dependent on such human emotion, is ephemeral.  Conversely, museums are public institutions, which must concern themselves with permanence and the future.  Although it may have been the artists, in this case Pollock’s, intention; simply letting a piece degrade is not an option for an institution holding these works in trust.  It seems that in this area, we have an impasse.  Pollock is dead and museums will continue to conserve to the best of their ability, but in the end, everything decays.

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