National Gallery of Victoria Education Resource
Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now
Postwar Abstraction in the United States
- Postwar Abstraction in the United States shows how some artists aimed to work directly from their instincts and emotions.
- Artists featured within this theme are Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
In the 1940s artists around the world tried to deal with the impact of World War II. The Surrealist art movement, born in pre-war Europe, had great influence in postwar America largely due to the wartime migration of significant European artists. In New York, Surrealism continued to be a major influence on the free association method of working, called ‘automatism’. Through this method, artists sought to unlock images from the depths of their unconscious.
Many artists took an interest in Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and sought to explore symbols that had powerful shared meanings across different cultures and throughout history. This theory often provoked the desire to study tribal art and symbols as seen in the early work of Mark Rothko and his close friend Adolph Gottlieb.
The notion of a ‘return to origins’ of our deep humanity informed a renewed interest in the spontaneity of children’s art and what was then known as ‘the art of the insane’.
Philosophies such as existentialism, which stressed personal responsibility for creating meaning in one’s life, contributed to artists working with personal imagery. These ideas were incorporated in the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock. His distinctive style incorporated signature linear gestures and a layered surface made up of energetic drips and splatters.
Colour Field painters such as Morris Louis and Mark Rothko created colour saturated and stained canvases to emphasize the flatness of the painting’s surface and express spiritual states of awareness.
Jackson Pollock Untitled (Green Silver) c.1949
Untitled (Green Silver) c. 1949
enamel and aluminium paint on paper, mounted on canvas
57.8 x 78.1 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gift, Sylvia and Joseph Slifka
© Jackson Pollock/ARS, New York. Licensed by VISCOPY Australia
"The modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique."
Jackson Pollock, born America 1912
Many Australians were introduced to Jackson Pollock’s work by the controversy surrounding the Australian Government’s purchase of his work, Blue Poles, Number 11, 1952. Blue Poles exemplified his signature drip-painting style. The picture shown here, Untitled (Green Silver) c. 1949 is one of his smaller works, produced partly because they attracted sales more readily than his large-scale canvases.
1949 was a big year for Pollock’s celebrity status as an artist. In 1949, Time Magazine asked of Jackson Pollock ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ What started out as a slightly contemptuous investigation, referring to his technique as ‘drools’ and ‘doodling’, was soon taken seriously in the art world and beyond.
Untitled (Green Silver) c. 1949 is made from enamel and aluminium paint on paper fused to canvas. Pollock often tacked his canvases onto the floor in an approach he likened to that of the Navajo sand painters. Pollock explained that:
"On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting".
Materials and Techniques
Pollock did not produce preparatory drawings, colour sketches or other plans for his work. After long deliberation before the empty canvas, he used his entire body in the picture-making process, as he dripped, poured and splattered commercial paint – including Duco (automotive paint) acrylic and aluminium – across its surface with the aid of sticks, hardened brushes and garden trowels. In Pollock’s classic poured paintings, line no longer serves to describe shape or enclose form, but exists as an autonomous event, charting the movements of the artist’s body. As the line thins and thickens, it speeds and slows. Its appearance is modified by chance behaviour of the medium such as bleeding, pooling or blistering. In short, Pollock broke free from the conventions and tools of traditional easel painting.
Susan Davidson has written about the intense period between 1947 and 1950 when Pollock made Untitled (Green Silver).
"Here, not only did Pollock move away from a reliance on traditional figuration and subject matter, but he broke free from the standard use of drawing and painting implements, usually abandoning their direct contact with the surface. Instead he worked from distances above the picture plane, using dripping, pouring, and splattering techniques – methods that were not necessarily Pollock’s invention alone but that he pushed to new extremes."
Mark Rothko Untitled 1947
oil on canvas
121.0 x 90.1 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Gift, The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.
© Mark Rothko/ARS, New York. Licensed by VISCOPY Australia
"I'm only interested in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom…and if you…are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point."
Mark Rothko, born Russia 1903
Untitled, 1947, an oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, is indicative of Rothko’s move away from Surrealist influences.
Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), Rothko moved with his family to Portland, Oregon, USA at the age of ten, in 1913. He left Yale University before his final year was complete, moving to New York where he eventually studied at the Art Students League, where many famous Abstract Expressionists took classes. In the decades that followed, Rothko befriended influential abstract artists such as Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb.
Like Pollock, by the late 1940s Rothko departed from his earlier figurative style. Untitled 1947 shows his mature idiom: a formalist approach comprised of stacked, luminous fields of almost opposing colours. The large, flat fields rendered in intense hues are surprisingly serene, and are an abstraction of earlier Surrealist forms.
Throughout his career, Rothko maintained that his art was a form through which to communicate his meditations on the human condition.
In abstract art the elements of art (such as colour, shape, line and tone) are used to create an image or form that is not realistic/naturalistic. There are varying degrees of abstraction in art. Some abstract art reflects clear references to recognisable forms. Other abstract art makes limited or no reference to recognisable forms.
A style of painting generally associated with a group of artists who worked in New York in the late 1950s. These artists used colour and paint expressively in their work to convey feelings and moods. Their paintings are characterised by shallow pictorial space and all over composition. Abstract Expressionist paintings are generally non-representational, but some include figurative elements.
The term Art Brut was first used by the painter Jean Dubuffet to refer to a range of art forms outside the conventional dictates of the art world. He amassed a large collection of graffiti art made by the mentally ill, prisoners, children , and other naïve (untrained) artists, whose raw or innocent vision and directness of technique he admired. In turn, he sought to emulate these qualities in his own work and in 1948 he established a society to encourage the study of At Brut. This kind of art has also been referred to as ‘outsider art’; that designation has been applied to Dubuffet’s own work.
In 1952, the French writer Michael Tapie authored the book Un Art autre ( Art of another kind) and organised an exhibition of the same name, which included paintings by Karel Appel, Jean Dubuffett, Willem de Kooning, and others. Tapie was trying to define a tendency in postwar Europe painting that he saw as a radical break with all traditional notions of order and composition – including those of Modernism – in a movement toward something wholly "other". He used the term Art Informel ( from the French informe, meaning unformed or formless) to refer to the anti-geometric, anti-naturalistic, and non figurative formal preoccupations of these artists, stressing their pursuit of spontaneity, looseness of form, and the irrational.
Writing or drawing that is produced by unconscious free–association, and spontaneous action, rather than by rational, controlled thought and planning.
John Milton Cage Jr., born September 5, 1912 was an American composer. He is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4'33", whose three movements are performed without playing a single note. He was a pioneer of chance music, non-standard use of musical instruments, and electronic music. Though he remains a controversial figure, he is generally regarded as one of the most important composers of his era. In addition, Cage was also a philosopher, writer, printmaker, and avid amateur mycologist and mushroom collector. He died on August 12 1992.
Group formed in 1948 by artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam and taking its name from the first letters of those cities. However, these artists also welcomed the coincidental reference to the snake, since animal imagery was common in Cobra painting. They were also interested in the art of children. Leading members of Cobra were Karel Appel, Asger Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys (known simply as Constant). In style their painting was highly Expressionist. As a group they had active social and political concerns. Cobra held a major exhibition in 1949 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam under the title International Experimental Art, but the group dissolved in the early 1950s.
Colour Field Painting
Term originally used to describe the work from about 1950 of the Abstract Expressionist painters Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, which was characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour. Around 1960 a more purely abstract form of Colour Field painting emerged in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and others. It differed from Abstract Expressionism in that these artists eliminated both the emotional, mythic or religious content of the earlier movement, and the highly personal and painterly or gestural application associated with it. In 1964 an exhibition of thirty-one artists associated with this development was organised by the critic Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He titled it Post-Painterly Abstraction, a term often also used to describe the work of the 1960 generation and their successors. In Britain there was a major development of Colour Field painting in the 1960s in the work of Robyn Denny, John Hoyland, Richard Smith and others.
Georges Braque and Pablo Picaso originated the style known as Cubism, one of the most internationally influential innovations of 20th century art. Other practictioners of Cubism in its varied forms include the painters Albert Gliezes, Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, Jean Metzinger, and (in his early work) Piet Mondrian, and sculptors, Alexander Archipenko, Henri Laurens, and Jacques Lipchitz. The Cubists fragmented objects and pictorial space into semitransparent, overlapping, faceted planes of pigment, thought by some to show a spatial shift from different perspectives within the same time and space and to emphasize the canvas’s real two-dimensional flatness instead of conveying the illusory appearance of depth.
Influential international intellectual movement, which was founded in Zurich in 1916 by a group of artists and writers. The Dadaists rejected and ridiculed the values, ideas and culture of society.
Marcel Duchamp, born July 28, 1887, was a French artist (he became an American citizen in 1955) whose work and ideas had considerable influence on the development of post-World War II Western art, and whose advice to modern art collectors helped shape the tastes of the Western art world.
While he is most often associated with the Dada and Surrealism movements, his participation in Surrealism was largely behind the scenes.
Duchamp prodded thought about artistic processes and art marketing, not so much with words, but with actions such as dubbing a urinal "art" and naming it Fountain, and by "giving up" art to play chess. He produced relatively few artworks as he quickly moved through the avant-garde rhythms of his time. Duchamp died on October 2, 1968.
Philosophical movement stressing personal experience and responsibility of the individual, who is seen as a free agent.
A technique used by Surrealist artists to produce texts or images incorporating random ideas and chance. Based on a traditional parlour game, creating the exquisite corpse involves several participants who each, in turn, contribute words or images to a text or image, without seeing what previous participants have contributed.
Feminism / Feminist Movement
A social and political movement that advocates equality and rights for women. Feminist art has taken many different forms but often gives emphasis to subjects, materials and techniques associated with women’s lives.
Art in which there is some form of likeness to real objects, people or places.
Gestalt psychology is a theory of mind and brain that proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies; or, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The classic Gestalt example is a soap bubble, whose spherical shape (its Gestalt) is not defined by a rigid template, or a mathematical formula, but rather it emerges spontaneously by the parallel action of surface tension acting at all points in the surface simultaneously. This is in contrast to the "atomistic" principle of operation of the digital computer, where every computation is broken down into a sequence of simple steps, each of which is computed independently of the problem as a whole. The Gestalt effect refers to the form-forming capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves. In some scholarly communities (eg. computational neuroscience), Gestalt theories of perception are criticized for being descriptive rather than explanatory in nature. For this reason, Gestalt principles are viewed by some as redundant or uninformative. In other fields (eg. perceptual psychology and visual display design), Gestalt principles continue to be used and discussed today.
American art collector Marguerite Guggenheim known as Peggy was born on August 26, 1898. Peggy Guggenheim was instrumental in the promotion of modern art in the twentieth century. Independently wealthy, she lived most of her life in Europe; she had a particular affection for Venice and her longtime home there is now a renowned museum for art dating from the first half of the twentieth century. Today, her name remains associated with the avant-garde, Cubist, Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist movements in art.
Hard Edge Painting
First used in the late 1950s in reference to the non-representational paintings of a group of American artists. These artworks were characterised by precisely defined areas or geometric shapes of flat smooth colour. In these paintings there is no distinction between foreground, and background space, making the picture surface look absolutely flat.
High art is often associated with art forms such as opera, classical music, ballet, literature and fine art. It is widely perceived as the work of professional artists, serious in intent, valuable and aimed mainly at an exclusive and educated audience. The terms ‘high art’ and ‘popular culture’ reflect the hierarchical division that is sometimes perceived between different forms of cultural production.
From a German word ‘verkitschen’ which means to make cheap.It is often used as a dimissive term to describe objects and works of art that are considered to be bad taste and worthless.
Media forms, such as television, radio, newspapers and magazines, which communicate to large numbers of people.
Art associated with the major movements in Western art between c.1860–1970. According to some commentators on art history, during this time art ‘progressed’ from naturalistic representation (ie. Impressionism) to the abstract and non–representational art forms of the high modernist styles of the 1950s and 1960s (ie. Minimalism) that were seen as a form of ‘pure’ art. Many aspects of modern art, including the idea that art ‘progresses’ from one style to another were challenged by postmodernism.
Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, was a Golden Globe Award-winning American actress, singer, model and pop icon. She was known for her comedic skills and screen presence, going on to become one of the most popular movie stars of the 1950s and early 1960s. At the later stages of her career, she worked towards serious roles with a measure of success. However, she faced disappointments in her career and personal life during her later years. Her death on August 5, 1962 has been subject to speculation and conspiracy theories.
Op art (short for optical art) is a style of non–representational painting in which precise arrangements of colour, line or shape are used to create the illusion of movement, light or space. Op art became popular in the mid 1960s and influenced fashion and interior design.
Born Pablo Ruiz y Picasso on October 25, 1881, in Málaga, Spain. Picasso is considered to be one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. While he showed great artistic promise growing up, Picasso really began to thrive creatively once he moved to Paris in the early 1900s. There he was exposed to works of other artists and developed friendships with some of them, including Georges Braque.
With a career that spanned more than seven decades, Picasso's work is often categorized into different periods and associated with a number of artistic movements. His early days in Paris coincide with his Blue period, named for the predominant use of that colour in his work and his general mood at that time. This was followed by his Rose period and a brief dabbling in work inspired by primitive art. It was Cubism–the style in which the artist breaks down his or her subjects into geometric shapes–that put Picasso in the spotlight. One of his paintings in this style Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) shocked critics and friends alike when it was exhibited.
Later Picasso sought a different type of reaction from his painting Guernica (1937), which is thought to be one of Picasso's greatest works. Created during his Surrealist period, Picasso captures the horror of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, which killed many innocent civilians during the Spanish Civil War.
By the end of World War II, Picasso had become an internationally known artist and celebrity. A highly productive artist, he created a large number of works during his lifetime. Besides painting, he made sculptures, etchings, and many different types of prints. Picasso died on April 8, 1973, in Antibes, France.
Pop art developed in England in the 1950s and then came to prominence in America in the 1960s. It is a style that takes its subject matter, and some of its ideas and techniques, from the everyday world, in particular industrialised popular culture.
Popular culture includes popular forms of entertainment, fashion, consumer goods and advertising. It is also often linked to commercial or mass production, and is perceived as having little or no serious aesthetic, intellectual or economic value. The artificial boundaries between high art and popular culture have been blurred by many artists since the development of Pop art in the 1950s and 60s (see Pop art).
Popism was a landmark exhibition, curated by Paul Taylor, held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1982. The exhibition highlighted the use of images, forms or text drawn from popular culture or other sources.
A general term used to describe a wide range of cultural and critical movements and ideas that have influenced contemporary society since the 1970s. Postmodernism challenged many widely accepted ideas and values in art, culture and society. Postmodern visual art often addresses issues related to modernism in art, including the emphasis on innovation, originality, and progress that is associated with modern art. Many postmodern artworks include images or forms appropriated from earlier art styles or popular culture. Fragmentation, fabrication, layering, parody and humour are also common characteristics of postmodern art.
A sub–culture that originated in the United Kingdom and United States in the 1970s. Punk was closely associated with anti–establishment values and ideas that were evident in extreme and rebellious forms of fashion and music. Influential bands associated with Punk music include The Sex Pistols
, The Clash
and The Ramones
Ad Rienhardt was born Friedrich Reinhardt on December 24, 1913, in Buffalo, New York. He studied art history under Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, New York, from 1931 to 1935 and studied painting with Carl Holty and Francis Criss at the American Artists School from 1936 to 1937. He also studied at the National Academy of Design with Karl Anderson in 1936. Between 1936 and 1939, Reinhardt worked for the WPA Federal Art Project. From 1937 to 1947, he was a member of the American Abstract Artists group. Reinhardt continued his studies from 1946 to 1951 at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.
Reinhardt was given his first solo exhibition at Columbia Teachers College in 1943, and by 1946 was showing regularly with the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York. Reinhardt was a pioneer of Hard-edge painting at this time. In the 1950s, he began to limit his palette to a single colour, moving from red to blue and then to his final stage of black paintings. In 1966, the Jewish Museum, New York, organized an exhibition of Reinhardt’s paintings, which was accompanied by a catalogue with texts by Lucy Lippard and the artist. Reinhardt died August 30, 1967, in New York
French word meaning rebirth, now used in English to describe the great revival of art that took place in Italy from about 1400 under the influence of the rediscovery of classical art and culture. In Italian, Rinascimento. Renaissance reached its peak (High Renaissance) in short period from about 1500-1530 in the work of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. The work of Raphael may be seen as representing the purest form of the Renaissance style and he was held up as prime model in the art academies until the mid nineteenth century. Up to then the Renaissance style underwent myriad successive transformations as in Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism, and the Romantic movement.
Leni ( Berta Helene Amalie) Riefenstahl was born in Berlin, 22 August, 1902. Her career included work as a dancer, actress, film producer, director, and also a photographer, but the rest of Leni Riefenstahl's career was shadowed by her history as a documentary maker for Germany's Third Reich in the 1930s. Often called Hitler's propagandist, she disclaimed knowledge of or any responsibility for the Holocaust, saying in 1997 to the New York Times, "I did not know what was going on. I did not know anything about those things."
Leni Riefenstahl later told the story of happening upon a Nazi party rally where Adolf Hitler was speaking. His effect on her, as she reported it, was electrifying. She contacted him, and soon he had asked her to make a film of a major Nazi rally. This film, produced in 1933 and titled Sieg des Glaubens ("Victory of the Faith"), was later destroyed, and in her later years Riefenstahl denied that it had much artistic value.
Leni Riefenstahl’s next film was the one that made her reputation internationally: Triumph des Willens ("Triumph of the Will"). This documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party convention in Nuremburg (Nürnberg) has been termed the best propaganda film ever made. Leni Riefenstahl always denied that it was propaganda – preferring the term documentary – and she has also been called the "mother of the documentary." Reifenstahl died 8 September, 2003 aged 101.
Romantic art refers to a period of art where artists concentrated on emotional content to communicate ideas. Romantic artists often depicted landscapes as lyrical, awe inspiring scenes that attempted to acknowledge the grandeur of nature as well as God's supreme command of nature. Nature becomes a natural force, dramatic and dangerous.
Surrealism began in the early 1920s as a literary movement under the leadership of the French writer André Breton. Surrealist artists sought to fuse everyday reality with the experience of dreams and the subconscious to create a ‘super’ reality. Surrealist images often combine logically unconnected objects using a meticulous, almost photographic technique, sometimes evoking a dream–like quality. Other artists explored the unconscious mind by using techniques of ‘automatism’. The ‘reality’ of the subconscious mind and the world of dreams were preferred over the matter–of–fact reality and logic of everyday life. Major exponents were Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Jean Arp and Joan Miro.
Tachisme derived from the French word tache
– stain, was a French style of abstract painting in the 1940s and 1950s. It is often considered to be the European equivalent to Abstract Expressionsim. Other names for this movement are l’art informel (similar to Action painting) and abstraction lyrique (lyrical abstraction). Tachisme was a reaction to Cubism and is characterised by spontaneous brushwork, drips, and blobs of paint straight from the tube, and sometimes scribblings reminiscent of calligraphy.