Author: Rachele Paradiso
The School of New York
July 1941: Peggy Guggenheim lands in New York in a seaplane fleeing from a Europe devastated by war and from a France seized by Nazi troops. The rich heiress and patron escaping the old Europe, finds in 40s’ America an artistically fertile, yet still unexplored, territory. She would then, a few years later, give life to the group that actually consecrated American art and inaugurated one of the most interesting seasons from a cultural, historical, and artistic perspective. Those between 1943 and 1959 are war and conflict years yet, at the same time, they are the years when the group of artists from New York appears on the international artistic scene. Post-war American art has various definitions, but it reached the apex of its fame and fortune in the 50s.
Action Painting and Pollock
“Action Painting” is the famous expression used to describe the group of the School of New York given in 1952 by the critic Harold Rosemberg in the essay “American Action Painters”, published on the American magazine “Art News”. The canvas, historically interpreted as the basis for the transposition of an image, becomes now the “support of an event”. The article does not include any explicit reference to specific artists, but Rosemberg very likely was referring to Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956). Pollock, destined to become the most celebrated of the group of New York, reached success thanks to the support that the Guggenheim offered him with the exhibition of his works at the historic gallery Art of this Century, opened in 1942 in New York. Following the first exhibition of 1942 were two more at the same gallery in 1945 and 1946. When Peggy Guggenheim went back to Europe, Pollock committed to the Betty Parsons gallery, where he presented some of his artworks realized with the dripping paint technique. The technique used by Pollock is rooted not only in the European Surrealism of Masson and Matta, but also in the rituals of American natives. “My painting does not come to life on the easel. I have never stretched the canvas before painting it. I would rather fix it unstretched on the wall or on the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I feel more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the artwork, because in this way I can walk around it. This method is similar to that of the Western Native Americans who work on sand.” With these words, Pollock explains the peculiarities of his art for the single edition of “Possibilities 1”, the magazine directed by Rosemberg.
The name “Abstract Expressionism” was invented by Alfred Barr and coined by Robert Coates, who used it to describe the artworks at the exhibition “A problem for critics” in 1946. With this expression, Coates referred to two European avant-garde movements, which consolidated in the collective tradition and customs. On one hand, European Expressionism, capable of creating emotions only through the energy of color; on the other hand, Abstractionism, which did not mean to emulate reality, but rather to express concepts and ideas through a synthesis of forms, colors and lines. The fusion of these two artistic conceptions, though antithetical, led to the definition of a new movement developing in New York between the 40s and the 50s.
The Irascibles was the appellation that the group of New York earned for the protest that its supporters staged because they had not been invited to expose at an exhibition in 1952 organized by the MoMA in New York about American contemporary art. The picture of the group, taken by Nina Leen, appeared on the magazine “Life”. Among them, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, William Baziotes, Clifford Still, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.
The School of the Pacific and the Color-Field Painting
The Color-Field Painting is a pictorial genre favoring the coloring of large surfaces. The term was coined at a later time in 1970, when it appeared in the title of a chapter in a volume by Irving Sandler dedicated to Abstract Expressionism. The art movement, epitomized by Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and by Clyfford Still (1904-1980), originated by Abstract Expressionism. The purpose of this kind of paintings is to evoke emotions and ideas through the exclusive use of color that, in its large color fields, connects with the surrounding environment and becomes the only real subject represented on the canvas. “The paintings by Rothko and Still”, writes the critic Steven Greenberg in 1951, “create types of flat surfaces, which breathe and pulsate, produced by a warm and darkish color, which softens the hues. Their surfaces exhale color with an embracing effect that is increased by their very own dimensions”. In opposition to Action Painting, yet tied indissolubly to the poetics of Abstract Expressionism, the artwork realized by Mark Tobey (1890-1976) belongs to the “School of the Pacific”. Tobey’s artworks open to suggestions from Eastern philosophy: the gesture is meditated and controlled, like in Japanese calligraphies, and a hectic rhythm of small marks occupies the whole surface, alluding to nature’s movements.