Rebel Painters of the 1950s

In the years following the end of World War II, a small group of American painters living in New York seized the spotlight of artistic innovation--which for the past century had focused primarily on Paris--and rose to preeminence in the national and international art world. "Rebel Painters of the 1950s" highlights those artists--among them Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still -- who challenged the aesthetic establishment and created the style of painting known today as Abstract Expressionism. In addition to these individuals and other artists in their circle who comprised the first generation of the New York School, "Rebel Painters of the 1950s" also provides portraits of the critics and writers, notably Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Thomas Hess, who articulated the significance of this artistic movement, and the dealers, such as Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Parsons, Charles Egan, Samuel Kootz, and Sidney Janis, who afforded patronage and public access to the work.

Like any historical phenomenon, Abstract Expressionism defies precise definition. Even the term itself is subject to debate. "Action painting," "American-type painting," and the "New York School" are phrases often used synonymously, although for most scholars and the public, Abstract Expressionism remains the most convenient and instantly recognizable umbrella under which to discuss the collective qualities of advanced American art at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Moreover, while the artists subsequently labeled Abstract Expressionists frequently resisted categorization and often stressed the philosophical and formal distinctions among themselves, there is nevertheless a consensus among scholars that Abstract Expressionism was a cohesive intellectual and artistic experience. It possessed a geographical center--New York; the individuals affiliated with it knew each other and frequently interacted; and, most important, they shared a common approach to making art, even though the appearance of their paintings varied widely, from the intensely gestural to the highly restrained.

Those associated with Abstract Expressionism were linked by their rejection of both social realism and geometric abstraction, two dominant strains in American art in the 1930s, and by their interest in aspects of European-based Cubism and Surrealism. For them, art was no longer about copying forms in nature but was the expression of intangible ideas and experiences. For some artists, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, the subject of art was autobiographical and emerged from the sheer act of making a painting. For others, among them Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, the motivation was a search for the sublime. Yet for all, as Mark Rothko eloquently postulated, "art was not about an experience, but was itself the experience." As with the poets of the period who challenged accepted literary standards to envelop their personal experiences within new formats, the painters of the 1950s created unique and distinctive images by merging their private states of imagination and feeling with innovative compositional structures.

The social milieu in which Abstract Expressionism emerged had its roots in the friendships formed in Depression-era New York. The intricate web of relationships that developed as each artist came to town suggests that New York functioned, for those involved in defining avant-garde American art, more like a small town than America's largest city. For instance, Dutch-born Willem de Kooning, who moved to New York in 1927, befriended Armenian-born Arshile Gorky in 1930-1931; Russian-born but American-raised Mark Rothko in 1934; Philip Guston and Barnett Newman in 1937; and Franz Kline in 1939-1940. The experience of Wyoming-born Jackson Pollock, who arrived in New York in 1930, although slower to coalesce, was not substantially different. His contacts with those who were crucial to the formation of the new American avant-garde accelerated in 1941, when he was introduced to Lee Krasner, whom he married in 1945. In 1942, she introduced him to de Kooning, her teacher Hans Hofmann, and her friend Harold Rosenberg. Pollock became acquainted with Californian-born, Stanford- and Harvard-educated Robert Motherwell through Chilean-born, European-bred Roberto Matta Echaurren (Motherwell and Matta had met on a trip to Mexico in the summer of 1941), while Motherwell, who moved to New York in 1940, met Hofmann and de Kooning through Pollock. Adolph Gottlieb's friendship with Barnett Newman dates to 1922, while that with Mark Rothko began in 1929. Clyfford Still, in New York in 1945, entered the circle through his contact with Rothko, whom he first met in San Francisco in 1943. Philip Guston and Pollock had known each other since high school in the late 1920s in Los Angeles. A pivotal person in this matrix of friendship and ideas was also Russian-’migr’ philosopher and painter John Graham, a charismatic promoter of avant-garde concepts whom Gottlieb knew in the early 1920s, de Kooning met in 1929, and Pollock a decade later. Graham was a prime link between those who became Abstract Expressionists and the European Surrealists, such as Matta, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, and Andre’ Breton, who were living in exile in America during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The friendships and camaraderie among the Abstract Expressionists were reinforced by the proximity of their various studios. In the 1940s, the Hans Hofmann school was at 52 West Eighth Street, while Pollock maintained a studio at 46 East Eighth Street. De Kooning's studio was on West Twenty-second Street, Kline's was on West Fourteenth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and the more peripatetic Mark Rothko was at one time located on Twenty-eighth Street near Fifth Avenue. Philip Guston joined the crowd in 1950, first with a studio on Thirteenth Street (shared with Bradley Walker Tomlin) and then with one at 51 West Tenth Street. Among the exceptions to those with downtown studios were Robert Motherwell, who lived uptown, and Adolph Gottlieb, who had moved to Brooklyn.

In addition, various neighborhood bars and cheap restaurants provided informal gathering places for the artists living downtown. The most notorious of these was the Cedar Street Tavern on University Place near West Eighth Street. The desire to maintain professional contact, as well as to proselytize, led Motherwell, Rothko, and William Baziotes (together with sculptor David Hare) to establish the Subjects of the Artist school in 1948 at 35 East Eighth Street. While short-lived, it nevertheless provided the impetus for Studio 35 (in the same location), where, before it closed in 1950, de Kooning, Gottlieb, Motherwell, Newman, Reinhardt, Rothko, and critic Harold Rosenberg lectured on art. The continuing need among the Abstract Expressionists for a place to talk about art also led in 1949 to the founding of the Club, which met in a rented loft at 39 East Eighth Street. Kline, de Kooning, and Reinhardt were among the initial members, who ultimately included Philip Guston, Elaine de Kooning, and Rosenberg, among others. Not limited to a discussion of painting, the Club also featured presentations by the leading New York poets of the day, such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. The sense of shared interests among the Abstract Expressionists was fortified further when, in May 1950, eighteen artists signed a letter protesting the conservative jury for a forthcoming exhibition of contemporary American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The evolution of Abstract Expressionism is akin to a bell curve. It began with a small cluster of random and seemingly insignificant events during the early 1940s, then grew to a crescendo of more coherent, concerted activities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Its demise was marked by both perceptible and imperceptible incidents, not the least of which was Jackson Pollock's death in 1956. In addition to the friendships formed in New York in the 1930s and 1940s and the interaction with the various European artists and writers living in America--which were crucial to the intellectual and stylistic development of Abstract Expressionism--group solidarity and a degree of public and professional visibility were achieved when several of these artists began to exhibit their work at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery at 30 West Fifty-seventh Street. Pollock first exhibited there in 1943, as did Baziotes and Motherwell; paintings by de Kooning, Kline, Rothko, and Still appeared in subsequent years. A careful reader of the New York Times might have noticed a letter written in June 1943, with the assistance of Newman but signed by Gottlieb and Rothko, championing a new kind of art, or heard an October radio broadcast reiterating this point of view. These bellwethers were reinforced among the intelligentsia with reviews of advanced art by critic Clement Greenberg, first in Partisan Review and then in The Nation.

By the late 1940s, Abstract Expressionism possessed a significant matrix of intellectual ideas, a coherent body of mature work by numerous artists, venues for public display, and meaningful critical reviews. Ironically, however, the peak years of Abstract Expressionism began shortly after Peggy Guggenheim closed her gallery in 1947. But her departure from the American art scene also served to open the way for a new generation of dealers, among them Betty Parsons, Charles Egan, Samuel Kootz, and subsequently Sidney Janis, to lay claim both to her stable of artists and to her reputation for presenting avant-garde art. Tragically, this also coincided with the suicide of Arshile Gorky in July 1948. The termination of Gorky's career led many identified with Abstract Expressionism to see the work in his last exhibition, held at the Julien Levy Gallery in February 1948, as an indication of how far each of them, in his own way, had come toward abstraction as a vehicle for the expression of the self and of intangible ideas.

The public recognition of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s was aided by the growing number of publications that highlighted the work of these artists. The end of this decade saw the emergence of little magazines, such as Possibilities I and The Tiger's Eye, which contained statements by the Abstract Expressionists and illustrations of their work. In 1948 Thomas Hess was appointed editor of Art News, and under his direction, this magazine, widely read by a broad group of art professionals and interested amateurs, featured numerous articles on the Abstract Expressionists. Life magazine's August 8, 1949, article on Pollock spawned the notion that artists of this generation made interesting copy, and throughout the early 1950s, the popular press, including Life, Time, Look, and Vogue, increasingly featured the artists affiliated with Abstract Expressionism. Although by the early 1950s most of the Abstract Expressionists had developed their signature styles, Harold Rosenberg's December 1952 essay "The Action Painters," in Art News, nevertheless dispensed additional credibility, for it provided the artists and their patrons the verbal framework with which to articulate the philosophical underpinnings and significance of this new style.

The acknowledged leaders among the painters identified with Abstract Expressionism were Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. While the two professed friendship, they remained lifelong rivals. Initially Pollock, because of his one-man shows beginning in 1943 at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery, received the greater public and critical attention. Clement Greenberg was an early supporter, and in an April 1945 essay in The Nation, he declared Pollock "the strongest painter of his generation, and perhaps the greatest . . . since Mir¢." In August 1949 Life magazine adapted this phrase for its caption heading its Pollock story. While Life's article was a mixture of adulation and irony, it nevertheless catapulted Pollock into the realm of public awareness, unlike any other artist of his generation. Indeed, Pollock bridged the gap between high art and popular culture, providing the model of stardom that has remained central to the American art world for the past half-century.

De Kooning began participating in group exhibitions as early as 1942, but his first solo show, at Charles Egan's gallery, did not occur until April 1948. Although critic Harold Rosenberg ultimately became de Kooning's great champion, initially it was Greenberg who laid the foundation for de Kooning's critical acceptance and success. Greeting the show at the Egan Gallery with a rave review, he declared in The Nation that "de Kooning was one of the four or five most important painters in the country." De Kooning's important series of paintings of women in the early 1950s enhanced his distinction among his artistic peers and furthered his visibility in the popular press, but it was not until after Pollock's death that his role as the foremost artist of this generation was assured. When de Kooning opened his show at the Sidney Janis Gallery on May 5, 1959, Time confirmed his celebrity status, reporting that a line had formed by 8:15 a.m. and that by noon nineteen of the twenty-two works on view had been sold.

Abstract Expressionism was at its heyday when, in 1956, an automobile accident ended Jackson Pollock's life. While the remaining Abstract Expressionists continued to paint, exhibit frequently, and receive favorable critical attention (not to mention increasing prices for their work), in retrospect it is apparent that by the mid-to-late 1950s, their aesthetic leadership, albeit not their public popularity, was on the wane. By that time, a new generation of artists was beginning to emerge, one that would seek its artistic identity outside the philosophical and stylistic premises of Abstract Expressionism.

But even as the artists of the following generation struggled to create their own history, the Abstract Expressionists continued to play a role in their artistic psyche. Today, as well, nearly half a century after the Abstract Expressionists first rose to prominence, they still capture the imagination of American artists, art historians, and the public. The Abstract Expressionists remain important not only for the art they created, but also for the manner in which they created it. They have become archetypal artists and their lives have taken on mythic status. Thus while advanced art in the latter half of the twentieth century has appeared in numerous guises, much of it antithetical to Abstract Expressionism, it has nevertheless been made by artists who have sought to emulate the adventurousness and aesthetic risk-taking that made the Abstract Expressionists the leaders, in their time, of the international avant-garde.

Carolyn Kinder Carr

Deputy Director, National Portrait Gallery

Curator of the Exhibition

"Rebel Painters of the 1950s" Essay by Carolyn Kinder Carr