Abstract Expressionism

6 June 2016

During the Second World War, a large number of Surrealists ran away from Europe to settle in New York. They influenced young painters who were struggling to find support for American art. The initiated a new movement, called Abstract Expressionism, which was greatly influenced by the thoughts of the European innovators of abstraction. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning played a vital role in this movement. This paper takes into account the works and paintings of many pioneers in this field.

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The most famous and the most influential ones have been discussed in more detail, as they clearly deserve more appraisal and importance. Wilham Seitz and Serge Guilbaut have been discussed thoroughly in this paper. Jimmy Ernst, his life, and his work “Voices of Silence” have also been covered in considerable depth during this research. Moreover, discussion of Brice Marden and his art of drawing with sticks provide an interesting scene to readers.

Picasso and Alfred Maurer have also received significance during the completion of this study. And of course, this paper would have been incomplete if Jackson Pollock had not been mentioned in it: hence, he has also received noteworthy presence in this paper.

Abstract Expressionism

Two developments in particular make this an especially pertinent moment to reconsider the aesthetic merits, ideological contexts, and consequent import of Abstract Expressionism the neo-expressionist tendencies in current European as well as North American art. A further inducement to extend the discourse about Abstract Expressionism is the appearance in published form of three major books about this art-books which share the common heritage of originally being doctoral dissertations.

Serge Guilbaut’s study, finished under T J Clark in 1978 at UCLA1, is characteristic of the social art history produced at what until recently was the leading department of its type in the US Even before its appearance in book form, an event that, as one critic rightly noted, has put the history of Abstract Expressionism back on its feet, Guilbaut’s work was already regarded by some as one of the most well-researched yet provocative assessments of this movement in painting.

Similarly, the late Wilham Seitz’s 1955 Princeton dissertation – the first on this topic at any university has long been cited in the mainstream literature, although available only in microfilmed copies.[1] Unlike Guilbaut’s thesis, Seitz’s dissertation was not indicative of Princeton’s orientation (except for the tradition of classical humanism permeating the work), and was apparently accepted as a worthwhile topic only after the personal intervention of Alfred Barr

The third dissertation, Art-as-Politics, by Annette Cox in 1977 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was done with Donald Kuspit, holder of a PhD  philosophy under Adorno and now a leading art critic, who has written some penetrating critiques of Abstract Expressionism Like some other studies at North Carolina when Kuspit was on the faculty there.

Cox’s dissertation addresses the political dimension of art with some noteworthy results. Not surprisingly, all three texts overlap in some respects, while diverging in many others. These divergences occur not only because of different aims Seitz reduces his study almost exclusively to the issue of artistic intention.

Until recently, it was a rule in the market for 20th-century, American painting that only two areas commanded significant prices: Abstract Expressionism of the 1950’s and 60’s and Andy Warhol, whose silk-screen prints are honorary paintings as far as collectors are concerned. Now, however, other areas are catching up. First, modernism before 1945 is increasingly sought after. Second, and more surprisingly, there has been an upsurge of interest in depictions of America that are neither modern nor expressionist.

The two ‘big hitter’ areas nevertheless continue to grow. Warhol’s Mao last year fetched $17m. Perhaps more notable is the domination of Jean-Michel Basquiat among artists of the 1980’s no doubt thanks to the connection with his bleached-blond mentor. These two provided the brash foil to the greater movement that preceded them.

Abstract Expressionism has been praised for achieving what those two words suggest, and collectors agree–or, at least, find examples easy on the eye. In November last year, Christie’s sold Willem de Kooning’s Unlitled XXV for $27.1m. Rothko’s Homage to Matisse sold for $22.4m in 2005, and this month he may trounce that[2]. In terms of auction records, Jackson Pollock appears to lag behind these others ($11m in 2004), although Anthony Grant of the post war and contemporary department of Sotheby’s, New York, says that, private sales have seen higher prices being achieved.

Enthusiasm for abstraction and pop art has tended to eclipse figurative paintings with explicable or unironic subject matter. But, the recent redressing of the balance here is striking. It centers on Norman Rockwell, who in terms of price has enjoyed an impressive rise. In 2002, Rode the Riveter made $5m, quintupling his previous record. Last May, The Homecoming Marine made $9.2m. Last November, Breaking Home Ties (See Appendix 1), which was estimated at $4-$6m, sold for $15.4m.

There are several reasons for this. Art historians and curators have challenged the customary view of Rockwell as a ‘mere illustrator’: For example, the Guggenheim gave him a monographic show in 2001-2002. Second, according to the Dara Mitchell, head of American painting at Sotheby’s, Rockwell is ‘patriotic’, and provides something ‘missing in today’s political atmosphere’. Other artists who depict America without much regard for modernism are also rising significantly in the market.

Frederic Remington, for example, can now make $5m, partly because of a migration of wealth to the West that he depicts, whose inhabitants want their past on their walls. Eric Widing of Christie’s American painting department explains, ‘I have an unbroken chain of collectors from Arizona to Minnesota.’ Grant Wood–creator of the well known painting American Gothic is another example of it. [3]

Among the best-known ‘non-modernist’ 20th-century American artists is Andrew Wyeth, (See Appendix 2). His prices are difficult to determine because his most celebrated works, the 240 ultra-realist portraits of Helga Testorf, were bought “en bloc” by a Japanese businessman in 1989 and have remained off the market until now–a consortium headed by dealer Warren Adelson has recently acquired some of them. Of Wyeth’s non-Helga pictures, the record set last year is $4.4m, which Widing (1984) says is ‘a pretty fair price given his quality and importance’.

American modernist painting has also been eclipsed by the postwar movements, but, again, this is changing. ‘There were only a handful of collectors in the 80’s says Widing; now, there are many, largely because collectors of the postwar era are looking back at the sources of abstraction. This has been prompted by academic research and museum exhibitions: Widing says that the defining change was the exhibition on Alfred Stieglitz and his circle at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2000[4].

Stieglitz’s wife Georgia O’Keeffe whose works fetch more than his–as they did in their lifetimes is also enjoying a stratospheric rise in the market. That is not immediately obvious, since her auction record, $6m, was set in 2001. However, no major picture of hers has been offered at auction in the boom that began in 2003. Fisk University, Tennessee, is currently attempting to sell the Radiator Building–an iconic image of American progress in which the modern subject is depicted in a pared-down modernist manner–to the O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. It has been said that, such a major painting by O’Keeffe could be worth $25m.

Lesser known, and for that reason more of an acid test of the market, is fellow ‘Stieglitz circle’ artist Marsden Hartley. Widing says of him, ‘Tough, rigorous and imaginative, he is not easy to enjoy, but as collectors immerse themselves more and more, there is a flurry of interest’. His Movement (See Appendix 3) sold at Christie’s last year for $844,800. In the same circle, although propounding a less severe abstraction is John Marin (See Appendix 4), whose auction record is $1.2m.

Explosive market growth characterizes another artist who unites both Americana and modernism: Edward Hopper. Until recently, the auction record for his work was $2.4m for South Truro Church in 1990. Last November, Hotel Window was offered at Sotheby’s with an upper estimate of $15m; it raised almost $27m. However, this painting is one of his best and the price is probably unrepeatable[5].

There are still undervalued pre-1945 areas. Widing says that, abstract art of the 1930’s is overlooked, perhaps because it falls between two stools, namely the modernism of Stieglitz’s circle and Abstract Expressionism, and perhaps also because for collectors that decade evokes the great depression.

Also neglected are American surrealists such as Dorothea Tanning. Dara Mitchell remarks also that, the market are opening out to embrace more than an artist’s obviously, iconic works. For instance, paintings produced by George Bellows before 1913, the year he achieved his mature style, are rising in value.

[1] Benjamin Buchloh W Concrete History of Abstract Expressionism , Art in America, vol. 72, no 3, March 1984, p 19
[2] Fred Orton and Gnselda Pollock, ‘Avant-Gardes and Partisans Reviewed’, Art History, vol. 4, no 3. September 2005
[3] Dore Ashton, The New York School, New York, 2002, pp 99-113 and pp 174-92
[4] Dore Ashton, The New York School, New York, 2002, pp 99-113 and pp 174-92
[5] Widing, ‘Symbolic Pregnance in Mark Rothko and Clyffordstill’, in Tk Cntic Is Artut, Ann Arbor, 1994, p 208

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