“What about the reality of the everyday world and the realityof painting? They are not the same realities. What is thiscreative thing that you have struggled to get and where did itcome from? What reference or value does it have, outside of thepainting itself?” Ad Reinhardt, in a group discussion at Studio35, in 1950. My essay starts with the origin and the birth of this greatexpression in the twentieth century. This movement not onlytouched painting, it had an affect on various aspects of art-poetry, architecture, theater, film, photography. Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian areconsidered to be the pioneer artists to have achieved a trulyabstract visual language in painting. Although they workedindependently, these artists were united by a belief thatabstract painting was capable of evoking a spiritual experience.A central figure of German Expressionism, Kandinsky, in 1911,began to paint densely layered composition of free-floating linesand areas of color, with the intention to reveal his desire toinstill visual form with the properties of music. By 1915,Malevich had invented a new, abstract visual set of paintingsconsisting of one or more colored geometric shapes on a whitefield. He visualized a state of feeling, and a sense of blissand wonder. Mondrian took a different approach with tightergeometric orientation and stricter compositional order. He wasalso inspired by landscape but he interpreted it as a series ofinterlocking vertical and horizontal lines. It would be hard to advance any definition of abstractexpressionism without taking into account the vast and variedcultural and historical happenings that led to its birth. Thisartistic movement evolved over a long time. As we look closelyat any of the members of the generation identified with abstractexpressionism, their biographies reveal the whole experience ofthis artistic adventure. It was an odd reaction of the newAmerica from the old Europe. For more than half a century, thegeneral European public had been bombarded of a variety of artexercises. But new wave of artists in Europe and United Statessaw in change in its future. Abstract was a natural evolution.It would finally liberate artists from the claims of traditionand lift art to the next level of heights. When the economic andideological interests began to fade away, a fresh form ofthinking evolved. It was not just people’s mental habits thatchanged the way of life, it was also the ways of life thatchanged people’s mental habits. The developments in science and technology over thetwentieth century have been accompanied by an unprecedented newforms and means of communications. Born at the beginning of thetwentieth century, the artists whom we link together under thename Abstract Expressionists were also the product of the sametension that produced the forms, formations and deformations oftheir history. It was then, the tension became an art. Willemde Kooning was born in 1904, Arshile Gorky again in 1904, AdolfGottlieb in 1903, Hans Hoffman in 1880, Barnett Newman in 1905,Mark Rothko in 1903, Clifford Still in 1904, Jackson Pollock in1912, Ad Reinhardt in 1913 and Robert Motherwell in 1915. Theseartists’ initial biographies were programmed around the peoplewho were still living according to the principles set down in thenineteenth century. What artists like Pollock, de Kooning,Kline, Motherwell and others were able to realize in the lateforties and early fifties went far beyond the possibilities thatwere opened up by recent influences. The artists ranged fromthirty to forty-two years old then and were coming into themature periods of their lives and were expressing the maturity ofthe art. The economic and cultural circumstances in the UnitedStates conditioned and defined their art- the crash of 1929, theelection of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, the American stance ofneutrality towards World War II until December 1940. The term “Abstract Expressionism” is misleading. On itsfirst appearance, it seemed like any genuine innovative style,breaking away with the past in a radical manner. By a clearerunderstanding it revealed that Abstract Expressionism flourisheddue to some reliable understanding of the painters’ formal andtechnical concerns and their relationship to previous art.Unlike European tradition, American art had no classical roots.In the mainstream America art has not been monumental anddecorative, but basically popular and realistic. After givingprimary debt of the Abstract Expressionism to the European art,the artists managed to preserve some unique and compellingqualities of American expression. These included boldness ofimagery, directness of technique, stress on the materialphysicality of medium and surface, and sincerity of statement.
Abstraction embodied the intellectual achievement andadventurous outlook of the twentieth century, along with othertechnological breakthroughs. Evolving after photography hadproven its ability to capture appearances, abstract expressionismin every walk of art conveyed that could not be captured througha set of lens. It gave complete freedom from conventionalconcerns and restrains, which led to unobstructed expressivenessand individual exhalation. Even though the work may seemspontaneous, abstract artists employed highly calculated methods. The relationship between abstract art and modernarchitecture was particularly strong. Many painters paid homageto architectural principles in their compositions. KazimirMalevich, in architectonics, experimented with three-dimensionalexploration of ideas. A number of artistic groups and movementsevolved which taught the integration of art, architecture anddesign. German architect, Walter Gropius, developed a series ofinterlocking geometric forms around a central matrix, whichembodied the transformation of abstract planar composition into afunctioning three-dimensional form. Gropius Bauhaus buildingscelebrated the industrial materials and construction techniquesand banished ornament and hand-crafted elements in favor of sleekform. A number of abstract artists found photography as the mostprogressive means of expression. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarianartist produced photograms-photographs created without a cameraby arranging objects directly on light sensitive paper, which isthen exposed to light in bursts or for sustained periods. Hecreated the impression of three-dimensional form by changing thedensity of lights and darks across the major surface. As the convention of figurative painting was radicallytransformed by abstraction, so was the fundamental forms ofmusic. In 1920s Arnold Schoenberg developed the twelve-tonesystem- a method of composition with twelve tones related onlyto one another in a way that all the melodic and harmonicelements of a composition are derived from a basic arrangement asordered by the composer. A composition can be made by inverting,reversing the rows or doing both at once. All tones must be usedbefore any is repeated. This method provided composers with asurprising degree of freedom within its orderly framework. In early abstraction, the relationship between poets andvisual artists was so close that many of them worked in bothforms of communication. Among better known was Italian FuturistFilippo Tommaso Marinate, as he created a poetic form calledparole. Marionette poems were of dissonant compositions withnonsense words in various typefaces and sizes roaming freely onthe page, producing a chaotic pattern of forms. He distorted,stretched and fragmented words, so that they lost all connectionto their original meaning. He hoped that the pure force of thewords given visual expression would result in a more primitiveand original form of communication. The theater had offered painters, writers and musicians aunique forum for concentrating on a single piece of art. But noneis more famous which fully embodied abstraction is the RussianOpera, Victory over the Sun, first performed in St. Petersburg in1913. The plot symbolized the human conquest of natural forcesand the conquering of the old by the new, revolved around a groupof dictators, who capture the Sun and enclose it in a squarecontainer. Dissonant music sound effects accompanied the actors’movements and speech. The sets and costumes consisted of blackand white cloth sheets painted with geometric forms. Thelibretto was written in a transitional language which relied onpuns and free association of sounds and images. It was thoughtto communicate the inner state of the speaker more directly. Film, just like photography depends not only on mechanicaldevices, but also is able to stimulate motion. An earliestadventure into abstract film-making was made by Hans Richter whocreated animated works which consisted of geometric formsarranged according to the laws of chance. He derived from aseries of experiments called scroll pictures with variations onformal themes drawn in pencil on long rolls of paper. Hisinterest in painting and drawing led to his investigation of filmmaking. Abstract expressionism was the combination of idealism andspirituality- two graeat schools of thought. I would sum up thisessay by quoting from Willem de Kooning describing what abstractart means to him in 1951. He saw it as a an art of spiritualharmony in which all the main characters flew away from thepainful realities of life. He said, ” Their own sentiment of forminstead was one of comfort. The beauty of comfort. The greatcurve of a bridge was beautiful because people could go acrossthe river in comfort. To compose in curves like that, and angles,and make works of art with them could only make people happy,they maintained, for the only association was one of comfort.That millions of people have died in war since then, because ofthat idea of comfort, is something else.”