Extra Credit Essay #1, Jordan Dawson – Erika Doss: “Abstract Expressionism” Jan. 26th

Taken in the Cold War context of American Art, Abstract Expressionism was the other side of the Berlin Wall, opposite to Western consumerism and superficiality. In fact, better yet, Abstract Expressionism was the men and women chiseling through the Berlin Wall all those years to connect the two divided sides, using with great force and determination the humble tools at their disposal. When time moves forward, so must art. It is in flux, following the most basic rule of the universe: progression. So, in 1950, the same year Jackson Pollock exhibited “Autumn Rhythm: #30” at Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan, Abstract Expressionism had taken over the Art world, replacing Paris with New York City as its capital. Pollock was one of the many architects who designed the blueprint for Abstract Expressionism, bulldozing stale techniques such as Social Realism and Regionalism along the way. Pollock favored subjective art, focusing on personal expression and social alienation. His style has been linked somewhere between abstract and surrealist styles, although in reality it was something truly unique and autonomous. Nevertheless, he did retain mural sized canvases and bright colors popular at the time with Regionalism. This allowed the style to pierce through boundaries of the mainstream Art scene, but still remain connected with a sort of cultural lifeline.

 The scene took America by storm. It was immediately given attention due to its unconventional and radical approach to visual art. Jackson Pollock in particular gained widespread acclaim, with some magazines hailing him to be the greatest American artist of his time. He was so remarkable because he made painting come alive, both through his process and results. Overwhelmingly gigantic paintings, covered with wild, intersecting lines and deep splashes of vibrant and poignant paints can easily immerse a viewer into a world of absurdly ethereal and transcendent bliss. The visceral approach Pollock utilized created a sort of physicality that’s undeniable when one experiences his work. You can feel his painting’s heart beat, its muscles twitch and its veins pulsate with life. Pollock focused, like most intellectuals at the time, on the unconscious, the primal cry writhing and thrashing within each of us. It is the raging clash of opposing desires wreaking havoc upon our minds and very souls. Pollock’s approach to artwork allowed him to purge all his frustrations and agony. One can see the physical act of Pollock painting within the painting itself, in that his emotions are seamlessly transmitted, although not always perfectly interpreted. Pollock also refrained from common and archetypical symbols of the time, and instead utilized highly personalized material to allow for a broader interpretation. This sort of open-ended meaning equates to a larger audience, and lesser pretense. But there was more than just Pollock. Another critical artist within the Abstract Expressionist movement was Mark Rothko. Rothko led the other half of the movement, that being color fields, zones of intense color that both reflect American landscape and its mentality.

The urge to destroy previous art styles to make way for Abstract Expressionism was a reflection of the demise of the New Deal and the beginnings of the Cold War. It was a transition from vulnerability and hope to power and paranoia. Essentially, America went from having nothing to lose to having everything to less. It was overwhelming disillusionment. America had grown weary of realism because of the war. We wanted something more ambiguous and abstract. Of course, some artists turned to surrealism to cope or convey the horrors they witnessed in WWII. But others realized it was time to blaze a new trail, that old techniques had become effectively obsolete. Opposites became monumentally important. Perhaps it was an attempt at balancing fear and hope. We had won the war, but another was on its way. The fear of totalitarianism was in sync with the free individualized form of Abstract Expressionism. Although it claimed to be totally apolitical, much of it was reflective of the post war prowess and individual unease paradox. The convoluted mixture of American affluence and anxiety was apparent to these artists. They all felt that infinite internal conflict; war/peace, light/dark, life/death. Thus, in a sense, the Abstract Expressionists were the Lone cowboys and frontiersmen of the post-war American landscape, realizing the evil ways of society and leading the blind cattle into open plains beyond toward freedom.

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