Reactions to the Rise of Abstract Expressionism


“I continue to get further away from the usual painter’s tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass and other foreign matter added.”

Jackson Pollock

The 1940’s, a time period marked by America’s struggle to define its art and politics, saw the development of a great and significant movement.  Abstract Expressionism, born from the circumstances, needs, and desires of the period, came to represent both a political and psychological shift in America’s population.  With predecessors that endorsed realistic representation and meticulous technique, Abstract Expressionism challenged popular notions of art in an effort to bring emotion, the subconscious, and rebellious abstraction to the attention of the public. Legitimizing this movement was a difficult and debated ambition; New York City’s artists met with much criticism and rejection at a point in time when the establishment of an artist’s credibility and success was an uphill battle. Artists were continuously torn between their independent objectives and those pressures of society and war that called for purposeful, political art in America.




“I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me,

the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality.”

Barnett Newman

A historically relevant and insightful look back on Abstract Expressionism will strengthen the extent to which we may appreciate initial praise and critique of this movement. Robert Hobbs, noted contemporary scholar of late modern art, skillfully describes the development of this movement in his essay “Early Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism.”  Indeed, as an artistic movement heavily entwined in notions of subjectivity and ambiguity, Hobbs successfully breaks down some of the finer components that relate these artists to one another. In an effort to introduce some of the basic principles that act to tie Abstract Expressionism together as an artistic movement, I will briefly reiterate some of Hobbs’ finer points.

Taken from the artistic notions of Robert Motherwell himself, Hobbs simplifies the artist’s process into three step: “scribbling or doodling to coax the mind to release its sub-, pre-, or unconscious elements; reflecting on these improvisations to see what kinds of structures they suggest; and ordering all the elements into a composition that takes into consideration these structures and builds on them” (Hobbs, 300).  This explanation marks a particular understanding of how the Abstract Expressionist artist might create his pieces, and gives the reader a clear explanation of underlying psychological themes that the artist may endeavor to represent. These artists were heavily reliant on the medium of their pieces, more so than many of their artistic predecessors; they wished to attain the “spiritual through the material” by “courting ambiguity and creating an aura in their work that would take viewers away from the contemplation of a painting as an object and evoke the mystery of being” (302).  These were the ideas and ambitions that clouded Abstract Expressionism in a haze of criticism, doubt, and praise in the 1940’s and onward; the movement stirred much discussion of artistic freedom and technique, of credibility and accessibility.  A look at some of the journalistic reactions to this movement reveals much in the way of Abstract Expressionism’s reception.


“The function of the artist is to express reality as felt.”

Robert Motherwell


In 1939, Harper’s published an article by E. M. Forster, a distinguished English writer and traveler.  Forster’s article, titled “Art for Art’s Sake,” took on the concepts and debates that were plaguing American art and its purpose in the late 1930’s and into the 40’s.  At the beginning of the decade, as war and politics began to change the tides of public discourse, American art and its artists took on a confusing, tense relationship with government, business, and general politics.  Art, especially in wartime, had the potential to market products, and generally was conceived or received in a variety of ways. Moreover, as industry had been developing rapidly since the turn of the century, the efficiency and distribution of product, as well as the dissemination of ideas, became a focal point of intellectual discussion. Forster, for example, took on the topic of art and finely articulated the pure order of its existence in an effort to assert that yes, art should exists for art’s sake. Forster’s argument relies on this fundamental notion of uniquely artistic order.  Ironically, as scholar David Anfam mentions in his work Abstract Expressionism, order additionally came to represent industrialism and capitalist efficiency. He writes, “Ideas of order dominated one standpoint, reflecting a brave new world where the machine, the city and objects themselves were paramount” (Anfam, 26).  While Anfam goes on to explain that this sort of order was not generally glorified by Abstract Expressionists (as it was by various other American artists), it stands that this notion, that art could possess an internal order, or harmony, was at the forefront of American intellectual discussion.  As Pollock himself states of his painting:

“I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.  I try to let it come through.  It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise, there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

Indeed, Forster’s ideal reveals a similar belief: “A work of art—whatever else it may be—is a self-contained entity, with a life of its own imposed on it by its creator. It has internal order” (Forster, 31). Forster makes his point by associating the visions of art with the realities of everyday life.  He argues that order and vital harmony come from within, are developed internally rather than forced externally. This harmony is found most frequently in artistic works, as most other material objects “have been pressed into shape from outside, and when their mold is removed they collapse,” while a “work of art stands up by itself” (33).  Forster argues against traditionally “stable” representations of order in this world, those things that have sought to claim “possession of Order” (34).  He identifies religion, astronomy, and the mechanisms of society/politics as those categories that do not match up to art’s expression of internal order.  While he recognizes that art is not the only thing that matters, he is insistent that belief in “art for art’s sake” credits the aesthetic category as one of few realms where order exists naturally. These visions of order and art, as they simultaneously related to individual artistic quests and industrialization/materialism, existed at the heart of intellectual debate and criticism.



“All genuine art forms utilize images that can be readily apprehended by anyone acquainted with the global language of art.  That is why we use images that are directly communicable to all who accept art as the language of the spirit,

but which appear as private symbols to those who wish to be provided with information or commentary.”

Adolph Gottlieb



Lincoln Kirstein, an art and dance connoisseur of New York City, established himself as a motivated, intellectual figure in New York by inspiring public enthusiasm for ballet.  Kirstein sought to cultivate an eagerness for ballet that would begin to mirror Europe’s established interest in the high arts.  During the 1940’s, many U.S. intellectuals and artists made similar efforts to bring interest in art up to the caliber of Europe’s thriving artistic mood. For this reason, the earlier stages of the Abstract Expressionist movement were marked by clear European influences.  As Ashton notes of foreign influence, “the circles of artists in New York in the late twenties and early thirties were often generated, or at least stimulated, by the energetic foreign-born” (Ashton, 24). America was both inspired and influenced by these foreigners and the cultures of their homelands. *** (add more from books)

Kirstein, however, struggled with the conceptions and relevance of Abstract Expressionism. In The State of Modern Painting, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1948, Kirstein writes rather scathingly about the demise of modern painting.  He proclaims allegiance to the “new opposition” of modernist painting and details those elements of it that are most problematic.

He argues that the ambiguity and simplicity that surround modern art often remove it from purpose or successful content altogether.  As he describes, “What painting lacks today is what bad painting always lacks: adequate intellectual capacity and manual skill” (Kirstein, 48). He goes on to say, “Experiments are passed off as fully achieved and mature art” (48).  Indeed, given the often simplistic and abstract nature of art during this time period, some critics were frustrated by the repetition of specific shapes and colors; this repetition often marked artists’ own personal styles, and made each artist particularly recognizable. Note Clyfford Still’s noticeably identifiable style, picture below:




“I never wanted color to be color. I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes.

I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.”

– Clifford Still



In his critique, Kirstein writes that he is additionally frustrated by the culture of modern art and abstract expressionists painting.  He explains that the modern painter is extremely invested in his own personal statement and style, to the extent that his (the artist’s) body of work becomes repetitive and uninteresting.  Put bluntly, Kirstein describes, “This personalism, which is rarely even comparatively original, is just as rarely interesting for long.  Usually it gets attention simply because it is easy to recognize its provenance or because it differs stylistically (somewhat) from the work of other similarly ‘original’ personalities” (48).  Indeed, much of the movement relied on the notion of subjective interpretation or expression, thus contributing to this development of an artist’s personal and identifiable style.

Kirstein finally comments on modern art’s connection to the public. He preoccupies himself with the paintings’ ambiguity, which, he states, makes them easily accessible. Ultimately this accessibility generates eager and easy public reception.  This relationship, he explains, is problematic, in the sense that the public is simply excited by an ability to recognize style; the public is not additionally capable of recognizing successful content. The ambiguity of more subjective renderings allows the public to piece together the art as they see fit.  Kirstein notes, “They [the public] can fill out the fragmentary or unrealized portions of the picture by their individual fancy and to their haphazard satisfaction” (49).  This also stands as a critique of the art as unfinished or inconclusive, as pieces representative of individual style rather than of significant ideas.

Kirstein represents one of many who responded negatively to the development of Abstract Expressionism.  The movement struggled for recognition and attention, as Ashton describes:

“The artists’ cause was rarely pleaded on a mass scale.  Newspapers throughout the country carried few accounts of modern art, and those few were usually hostile… Chauvinism, patriotism, and a basic belief that modern art was somehow fraudulent, continued to plague newspaper criticism” (Ashton, 147)

Indeed, Kirstein’s articles represent this very skepticism.




“The whole of man’s experience becomes his model, and in that sense it can be said that all of art is a portrait of an idea.”

Mark Rothko

“What about Modern Art and Democracy?” by Stuart Davis, addresses modern art in terms of growing capitalist structures, current notions of democratic ideals, and the general potential of the movement. Davis describes recent developments within the context of art production and distribution, and notes that art for the masses was now possible, though not without repercussions.  Artists were not, he argues, free from censorship or control. His essay maintains that for this reason, it is important that we consider “who controls it [art] and to what ends?” (Davis, 16).

Davis writes in direct response to an article previously published by artist/writer George Biddle.  He criticizes Biddle’s claim that Modern Art represents Ivory Towerism– that it represents intellectual endeavors removed from the practical concerns of everyday life. In fact, Davis argues, this movement “has had repercussions in all parts of the civilized world on aesthetic perception and industrial design” (17). Indeed, he goes on to argue that Modern Art is creating a common language that the public will hopefully be able to access. He hesitates, however, to suggest that a fair amount of censorship and artistic manipulation does not exist within America’s democratic structure.

Davis argues specifically that the artist is a target, even under democratic rule:

“Between the artist and the public there are the agencies of sponsorship and distribution, in whose policies the artist has little or no voice.  These policies, which both reflect and create public opinion, react directly on the economic status of the artist and on his aesthetic orientation” (17).

He goes on to detail instances of artistic oppression and constraint specifically within the U.S.  The war efforts of the decade created tensions between the artist, his work, and their significance in society. Erika Doss explores these dynamics in her chapter, “The Art of Cultural Politics: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism.”  She writes: “Abstract expressionism became… a weapon in the cold war, as its abstracted anxiety was translated, ironically, into a symbol of uniquely American freedom” (Doss, 216).  Doss specifically draws on Pollock’s history to make her point, as over time Pollock struggled with his popularity and the tension it brought to the individualist themes of his pieces. Doss and Davis both point toward the overwhelming pressure put on artists to support democratic and capitalist ideals.  The irony does indeed lie in the fact that many of the Abstract Expressionists sought to establish themselves outside this set of American ideals.

These tensions relate to a broader point Davis makes, one that discusses the reception of Modern Art in this decade. He asserts that the public does not necessarily respond specifically to visions of abstraction; rather, he argues, it is swayed by the popular tides of consumerist culture– advertising and big business.  Davis points out that the public’s response to art is represented in things like Lucky Strike ads or the International Business Machines’ art collection. In this sense, the U.S. art world did not function within a free, unfettered system.  Rather, there were many overt, as well as subtle, influences at work.

Indeed, others similarly expressed concern for artists and the pressures that were being exerted upon them.  Davis seemed to be right in concluding that democracy did not equal a free artistic environment. Much came to be expected of the emerging modernist artist, and in a capitalist society, what better way to capitalize on the ebb and flow of popular culture.  Evocative of the big-business exploits Davis describes, Ashton explains:

“The perils of mass acceptance, or rather mass exploitation by cultural cartels, were keenly sensed by many of the vanguard painters in New York, who struggled in various ways to avoid being trapped” (Ashton, 150).

The atmosphere generated by these exploitative attempts created tension for artists who were struggling both to establish and support themselves. In the early years of the 1940’s, government and industry alike turned to artists in an effort to inspire patriotic, nationalist, sentiment: “In general, even art magazines took a sentimental view of the joys of wartime art and indulged in embarrassing excesses of flag-waving” (Ashton, 148).  However, “despite their cheerleaders, few artists seemed willing to convert themselves into visual propagandists or journalists” (148).  The difficulty of the situation represents a specifically American stress on economic success, and the artists’ personal struggles with consumerist and capitalist pressures.




“An artist is forced by others to paint out of his own free will.”

William de Kooning