The revolution in art that spread in the world at the beginning of the 20th century found its expression in the rapid development of different unusual and not immediately adopted forms and directions of avant-garde art. It was not even a trend but a command of revolutionary time. The movement of abstract expressionism is proclaimed the first ever-American avant-garde movement as their art was called American in spirit, monumental in scope, romantic in mood, and expressing the difficult aspects of social life and personal freedom. The New York School developed new visions of the surrounding reality, introducing to the world a number of excellent artists. The paper discusses American abstract expressionism as a significant and important phenomenon of contemporary art. The paper aims at examining life and work of the brightest representatives of Abstract expressionism in the United States such as Philip Guston, Conrad Marca-Relli, Will Barnet, and Franz Kline. Reviews of biographies and paintings have been used to analyze the artists’ styles and their contribution to American history of art.
Abstract expressionism is a large-scale visual arts movement in American fine arts of the 20th century, mainly during the World War II and the post-war period. In fact, this movement includes many different styles and techniques, unique to one or several artists. However, despite the breadth of the concept, it is possible to distinguish some particular features of abstract expressionism paintings. First, they are a reflection of free, spontaneous, and personal emotional experience that differs in their freedom of technique. Particular attention in the creation of these works is paid to the changing physical properties of paint to emphasize the depicted experience. These paintings are created in the form of mental improvisation with an emphasis on the intuitive use of materials to express the power of the creative unconscious. Another feature that distinguishes works of abstract expressionists is the rejection of a structured composition that is built up of separate elements and replacing them with a single, undifferentiated field. Painful intensity of emotions and protest against the horror of war, ugliness of life, and social injustice are the main themes of abstract expressionists’ works. This movement proclaims that the only reality is the self, and its reflection is the main goal of art. Abstract expressionism should be considered as the most significant phenomenon in the post-war American art because it demonstrates the unconscious and inner spiritual world of the artists trying to express realities of wartime, thus liberating the art from the laws of reason.
Conrad Marca-Relli and his technique of abstract collage
Conrad Marca-Relli is a representative of early abstract expressionism. The artist was born in Boston, in the family of Italian immigrants, but he spent his childhood mostly in Europe. In 1930, Conrad entered The Cooper Union in New York, where he studied art and met prominent American artists working in the style of abstract expressionism. During the World War II, he served in the US army, and after his return, the first personal exhibition in New York was held. Later, works by Marca-Relli appeared at art exhibitions in the United States, then in Rome and Milan, as well as in other cities throughout Europe. He was one of the founders of The New York School of abstract expressionists. Thus, the artist achieved international fame. Being one of the first abstract expressionists, he greatly contributed to the history of American contemporary art as he used the new and revolutionary technique of collage, where expressions prevail over the image, re-portraying the motifs of pain, torment, and suffering.
Furthermore, Marca-Relli was one of the first artists who gave the technique of collage a special status. In collage, as in other works of modern art, the main attention is paid to the drawing and texture of the material. Unrelated materials, images, and forms are suitable for conveying the diversity, tension, and irrationality of modern life, sometimes reaching the point of absurdity. The aesthetics of a collage is the aesthetics of a fragment of reality, included in the context of an artwork and endowed with a new pictorial or symbolic meaning. Abstract collage makes people think and clarify ideas.
Marca-Relli used architectural or landscape motifs as well as images of single or multiple figures in his collages. He experimented with different colors, shapes and materials, including canvas, vinyl sheets, metal and plastics. Carefully structuring the collage elements, Marca-Relli used intense colors, fractured surfaces, and spattering. The artist’s work Trial shows the complexity of his collage technique in the 1950s where he neglected any distinguishable parts of human body. Thereby, only many pushing figures can be seen. Inspired by battle scenes, the artist created a mix of numerous parallel shapes and textures to make a visual sense of movement . The beginning of 1960s is characterized by a new harmony in the artist’s paintings.
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Philip Guston and the Postwar American Art
Philip Guston is considered to be a classic of abstract expressionism because of the type of figures he depicted: rough, similar to pop art and comics, and often autobiographical. At the beginning of his career, Philip Guston followed a direction that was typical for many representatives of abstract expressionism. In the 1930s, the artist became interested in murals and started recreating fantastic motifs in monumental artistic forms. His early style was largely dictated by the artist’s attachment to the art of the Renaissance, as well as Picasso’s style. In the late 1940s, he moved to New York, and his work took a completely different form. It was in New York where Guston discovered abstract expressionism in all its color and light. This period of his work was characterized by the appeal to the unique and interesting phenomena of the world and human nature. Philip Guston was an important figure in the world of American art as he depicted the surrounding world exclusively subjectively, dramatically distorting the reality for a greater emotional effect, thus compelling the viewer to react rather than passively look at the picture.
Guston’s interest in a world of tangible things, images, and themes was combined with his love for history. He believed that painting could be a part of modern history. In 1930s, Guston participated in the Mexican wall paintings where they painted a large mural to protest war and fascism. It strengthened his craving for large formats and left-wing views. Thus, influenced by Mexican muralists, he created artworks that protested racism and fascism. Drawing for Conspirators was the artist’s response to the violence of the Ku Klux Klan . Guston was irresistibly interested in the images who disguised their faces. References to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s never disappeared from his works. He repeatedly painted hooded and concealed faces although the hoods were changing their shape in almost every painting. In his work Bombardment, he depicted anamorphically twisted figures and melodramatic chiaroscuro. As an artist, he tried to deal with the cruelty of the World War II in his work.
Guston was the one who greatly influenced both abstract and figurative American art. In the works of Philip Guston, plastic and graphic figurativeness are combined. His abstract canvases inherit the Picassian type of cubist construction of space, in which the plastic center of the picture reproduces the maximum intensity of color, and the periphery of canvas gradually dissolves in a whitewashed background. His works often contain dense white fogs and massive red shading signs. The evolution from figurative paintings to abstraction can be noticed when looking at the transition from The Porch to The Tormentors paintings. One may notice that the figures lose a sense of independent solidity and become ghost-like. In this evolution, there is a suggestion that the Guston could be influenced by photographs of the survivors of Nazi death camps. In The Tormentors, rather than seeing bodies, just white outlines of the places where the bodies have been standing in The Porch are seen. Thereby, The Tormentors is considered to be a psychological and emotional expression of human death during the war.
Will Barnet and His Abstract Representation of Memory
Will Barnet is a living legend of the history of American painting. His artistic career was one of the longest and most outstanding in the history of American art. His exceptional paintings and his original style are recognized throughout the world. The works of Barnet are presented in almost all major museums in the United States and in private collections. He created works in abstract expressionism and figurative representation that are simultaneously highly abstract. Like Philip Guston, Barnet was more of an abstract artist. Even when he considered himself a figurative, he used abstract techniques and never painted shadows. His abstraction differed from the abstract things of other artists as he always took a figurative image as a basis for ideas . Positions and movements of human bodies are always balanced in his works according to a conventional formula. Barnet made great contribution to the development of modern American art, as he focused on bringing the elements of unconscious through the act of painting, and his unconscious was deeply American in texture and tone. His works are saturated with emotional experiences, deep meaning, and memories.
Some works of Will Barnet are surprising in their logic, harmony, and tranquility. Considering that he was affected by such American thinkers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, the artist developed the ideas of solitude and its power, plasticity and the control of chaos . For the artist, the expression of memory was a common theme of most of his abstract works. In his series of paintings, Barnet presented the question of memory by asking how it is possible to paint something that is no longer there, and why it is so important to understand how people remember the houses of their past . His father’s humble house is the leading character in the series of his paintings. To title the series My Father’s House is to confirm Barnet’s presence in his past, his endless story.
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Franz Kline and His Black and White Paintings
Franz Kline is another famous American artist who is called one of the brightest representatives of abstract expressionism. Eastern calligraphy and printed illustrations had a great influence on his works. From the first one, the artist borrowed the restriction of the color palette as he used mostly white and black; from the second one, textural modulations, sharpening the sense of space were borrowed. Most of his works depict a white space, on which wide black brushstrokes have emerged creating the appearance of floating in free space. Klein tried to attract the attention of the audience not only to black strokes but also to their interaction with the white background. Kline searched for his images in the destroyed buildings or bridges, conveying the expressiveness of the breaking image with unexpected strokes of the brush and the contrast ratio of dense black and white. Consequently, the special inner fullness and tension of Klein’s abstract paintings found their admirers, as the bright and screaming expression of contrasting volatile compositions attracted the audience. His importance to the American history of art refers to the fact that he has taught people to perceive the surrounding world in a new way. His at first glance primitive squiggles and spots on canvas are able to express the mass movement and struggle.
The spotting of black ink on white paper has its stylistic validity in Kline’s artworks. For example, Four Square is an example of the artist’s gestural approach and the experimentation with angular compositions. Furthermore, Kline tried to create a three-dimensional abstract composition while most of the representatives of abstract expressionism preferred the two-dimensional painting. Thus, the artist achieved the visual effect of depth through the combination of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines.
In his later works, Kline enriched the palette beginning to take full advantage of bright colors, but it did not make his paintings less expressive or less lively. The use of several colors allowed Kline to reproduce some tonal gradations that arose with vigorous brush pressing and made the viewer have an illusion of three-dimensionality (Boyd 37). Kline sought to oppose the world filled with standard paintings with the help of the uniqueness of canvases expressing the movement of a human hand.
In the age of anxiety after the World War II, some artists moved away from the adopted conventions and empowered their artworks with new ideas. Their works formed a revolutionary period in the American art called abstract expressionism. It was the visual art movement of people painting with wide strokes and in large formats, spraying paint for the fullest release of emotions. This movement continued the emancipation of art from the laws of logic, setting the impulsive expression of the artist’s spiritual world and subconsciousness as its goal. The automatic application of paint to canvas under the influence of mental and emotional states was the main principle for creating genuine masterpieces. Moreover, the large size of the canvases and the coloristic chaos had to express the inner world irrationally, to show the artist’s freedom from the control of mind. Themes and concepts of abstract expressionism served to a basis for modern American art and created certain standards for the quality of the work of artists.