I believe that Abstract Expressionism became the dominant artistic form in the 1950’s precisely because of the difficulties coupled with the Cold War and the Depression. The difficulties of the era were a viable stimulator for art, as they provided the emotional intensity and the difficult themes necessary for the creation of real art. Moreover, society as a whole reacting conservatively could only have served as an additional stimulus for the art to be fruitful.
Art is always a manifestation of certain tendencies, and often it forecasts the future – and the future would bear some of the greatest changes in American (and world) history to come. Abstract expressionism, like its predecessors, Bauhaus and Surrealism, showed this tension and anxiety, and make it art.
It is interesting to note that Abstract Expressionism has much in common with the Russian artists of the beginning of the twentieth century – in fact, it was one of those who coined the term which later came to be referential for the 1950’s art. The atmosphere in the Soviet union was of a similar paranoid bent then, and ways this fear of the future and uncertainty, and an attempt to find new forms of art are strikingly similar to Abstract Expressionism, as well.
Art is one of those forms which always shows what lurks below the surface of any stable system – and in both these cases it showed fear and irrationality, and also uncertainty and human vulnerability. Paintings with such titles as “The Flesh Eaters” or “Symphony N.1: The Transcendental” showed that attention was driven away from the flesh, which turned out to be so weak that its concepts did not hold even though society upheld them dutifully, but rather turned to pure form, color and number, in an attempt to find what lay beyond the flesh. It would foreshadow a new era of discovery, a forage from the modern into the postmodern, an attempt to deconstruct reality – and to see whether there is anything to rebuild from afterwards.
Abstract Expressionism is a frightening art, an art which takes the human apart – by psychoanalysis, by form, by substance. And as such I believe it shows society’s supressed attempt to find out what precisely went wrong and how it is to be fixed. Artists, as always, are at the frontier of human though about themselves in this case – and the art they made is as frightening as the circumstances under which they made it.
Paul, Stella. “Abstract Expressionism”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/abex/hd_abex.htm (October 2004) on June 2, 2007.