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    Abstract Expressionism in Cold War America

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    Abstract Expressionism came into being in an era of Cold War politics and social liberalism (Siegal 5) and it is often considered as an advancement in painting; Artists were able to break free from social and customary conventions surrounding the art world and adopt more emotional expression through abstraction. At the time of United States’ entry into World War II, Social Realism and Regionalism were the two predominant painting techniques and yet this is the era when abstract expressionism emerges (Anfam 1). Abstract Expressionists were deeply concerned by the crisis of war and its repercussions.

    They turned to a new form of art to express their feelings about human vulnerability during a time of darkness thus giving rise to abstract expressionism (Arnason 403). Although Abstract Expressionism employs unorthodox ways of creating art that typically lack a “narrative,” its cohesiveness and emotional appeal conveys the vision of the artist. Artists of this genre abandon graphic authenticity and set out to make the universe their own through abstraction. As the United States recovered economically and socially from World War II, the younger generations’ lack of interest for abstraction gave rise to other alternatives such as Pop Art.

    In the 1920s and 1930s, artists were primarily leveraging painting styles of Social Realism and Regionalism (Arnason 406). Status quo and existing social power structure were under attack by social realists of the time. These artists concentrated primarily on human figure and conditions of the time regardless of the art medium they used. Regionalism is another form of realist American art movement which was at its peak in the 1930s (Regionalism Artists 1).

    Artists within this movement rejected the city and its rapid technological progress to focus on scenes of rural life. Regionalist art was widely appreciated for its reassuring images of the American heartland. Regionalists prepared the way for Abstract Expressionists to emerge in America. This is evidenced by the fact that Jackson Pollock, one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, used drip technique that he picked up while he was a student in Thomas Hart Benton’s class, who is a known Regionalist painter and muralist ((Regionalism. Artists 2).

    Abstract Expressionism originated in the 1940s during a crucial moment in world history post World War II when New York City gained prominence as a significant cultural center in the West (Wikipedia 3). A cluster of loosely associated painters participating in the first of a kind, American modernist movement dominated the scene in the 1940 and 1950s came to be known as Abstract Expressionists. These artists discarded traditional art forms and propagated an art form that they believed communicated the artists’ inner state in a universal language. Philosophies such as existentialism that became an inspiration for Abstract Expressionists. Existentialism’s focus on individual experiences made it a perfect tool with which to interpret much post-war abstract art.

    Over the decades, critics have put forward persuasive interpretations of the movement which can be in marked contrast from one another. Clement Greenberg who is known for his rigid formalism focused on discussing details of depicted color, shape, and line of artwork as opposed to hypothetical declarations about its content (Clement Greenberg vs Harold Rosenberg 1). Greenberg firmly believed abstraction to be a distinctive feature of modern painting. In the 1930s, it was common for American paintings to contain symbolic art and other types of circumstantial topics. Greenberg advocated abstraction which pointed back to the painting itself renouncing any reference to outside influences and exclusion of superfluous material from artwork.

    Harold Rosenberg on the other hand, believed that the artists’ expressionistic encounter with the medium was more important than the quality of abstraction. He asserted that painters were capturing an event or an “action” on a medium as opposed to merely painting a picture thereby defining action painting (Clement Greenberg vs Harold Rosenberg 2). Rosenberg highlighted the creative act and was not bothered by formal characteristics of artwork. He was of the opinion that Abstract Expressionists had introduced a radical break from all that had been done previously and provided a means of assimilating art with life. Rosenberg’s position helps reinforce the position of this paper that Abstract Expressionists attempted to portray the world purely from a subjective perspective.

    Abstract Expressionism encountered antagonism well into the 1950s (citation Despite the artists’ passionate belief in their work, many a time they were unable to defend it in the wake of criticism. In their quest for reality, Abstract Expressionists refused to beautify or “finish” up their artwork. In order to evoke moods or ideas, Abstract Expressionists were not afraid to drastically modify the artwork for desired emotional effect. They accepted crudeness and left all scars and blemishes intact to accurately depict an artist’s experience or their interpretation of a situation (citation). Artists were no longer limited to elite French schools in Europe. Working class and lower income middle class people in New York could express themselves if they so choose to do so.

    Abstract Expressionists use unorthodox techniques and styles to develop their artwork. The two most commonly used methods are action painting and color field painting (Anfam 2). Action painting, also known as gestural painting, describes style marked by impulsive brushwork and unhinged composition by the artist. It is a window to the artists’ state of mind during the heat of creation and also provides visibility to adjustments to the artwork made during the process of creation. Color field painting on the other hand, consists of solid prescribed essentials. These essentials are comprised of shape, composition, color, scale and other characteristics. Artists are utilizing color field technique conformed to the norms of formalist critic, Clement Greenberg (citation). With the passage of time, some artists of the younger generation viewed the legacy of Abstract Expressionism as a repressive facade to be lifted (Arnason 472).

    Pop Art emerged as an alternative in 1950s, originally, in England. It provided an eloquent context for the movement’s importance on social media and consumer beliefs in postwar America (Khan Academy 2). American artists of the 1960s realized that there are countless possibilities and ideas to use as subject matter instead of “grand gestures” created by Abstract Expressionists. Those who broke from Abstract Expressionism created a group specifically targeting the youth, Pop Artists used different entities in their paintings and sculptures such as items from Western movies, science fiction, billboards, and machines (Arnason 482).

    They reacted to the exaggerated amounts of commercials and celebrities by showing these trends in their representation. Pop Artists were known for to show little to no emotions when narrating a piece of artwork. One of the main creators of this new era was Andy Warhol, who used commercial products as inspiration such as Campbell’s soup cans, which debuted in 1962, to depict what is going on at that period of time (Art Influences in Design: Pop Art 5). Instead of looking inside himself to find any inspiration like how Jackson Pollok usually did, Warhol would look at everyday items or products to create his masterpiece.

    Pop artists utilized color to create an impression of artificiality unlike Abstract Expressionists where color was used to depict an image of realism. Looks of goods produced in mass were exaggerated using bright colors and synthetic fabrics (Art Influences in Design: Pop Art 5). All types of consumer goods from ready-made dinners and soups to flawless homes and lavish cars were represented via pop art. Not only materialistic goods but even masculinity and femininity ideals of Hollywood were subjects of pop artists. Design in this style focused on making it visually appealing by leveraging saturated colors, bold formatting and heavy outlines. Today, this fine art movement has itself been absorbed into the world of design and commercial aesthetics.

    Although Abstract Expressionism originated during one of the darkest times of human history, post World War II, it provided artists an avenue to express themselves outside of the accepted norms of the time. Despite the criticism it faced, abstract expressionism did have an impact on society. People from the working class and lower middle class, having a desire to express themselves via art, were able to do so. As with everything else, with the passage of time and social and economic progress, popularity of Abstract Expressionism began to recede and other art forms such as Pop Art became prominent.

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    Abstract Expressionism in Cold War America. (2021, May 11). Retrieved from

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