Art Movements in Art History - Introduction to Abstract Expressionism
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Introduction to Abstract Expressionism*
When the future Abstract Expressionists first started their painting careers in the 1930s,
American art could roughly be divided into two politically opposed mainstreams:
Regionalism and Social Realism. In response to the major economic and political upheavals
in the 1930s, prewar American artists tended to ally themselves either with Marxist ideology
(Social Realism) or with patriotic, capitalist values (Regionalism). The irony is that,
stylistically, the two opposing mainstreams show remarkable similarities. Contrary to the
modernist developments in Europe which dispensed with naturalism, both the American
styles were illustrative, formally conservative, and tended towards the romantic and
sentimental oversimplification of political and national issues.
The sharp political divisionism reflected in prewar American art was fueled by the
1 - The collapse of the American Stock Market in 1929 led to the Great Depression and
widespread unemployment and dispossession. The general loss of faith in capitalism
which resulted from this collapse fueled the expansion of Marxist revolutionary thought.
2 - Hitler's rapid rise to power introduced a sinister note in world politics and sharpened
the tension between conservative and revolutionary forces.
3 - The Spanish Civil War caused dismay and disappointment in revolutionaries every-
4 - The Moscow trials shocked Marxists worldwide and caused widespread disillusionment
among the Left. Hopes for a just Communist social order waned as Stalin's atrocities
5 - The Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact further served to compound the shock and
disillusionment of the Left.
6 - 1939 saw the outbreak of World War II, with a consequent loss of faith in the powers of
The development of Abstract Expressionism should be considered against this
background of (a) disillusionment with the utopian ideals of communism, and (b) the
collapse ofthe American Dream.
During the Depression years, the future Abstract Expressionists gravitated to New York in
search of work. Dismayed by the few opportunities for artists in New York, a group of' young
artists (amongst them some future Abstract Expressionists) initiated the Unemployed
Artists' Group which pressured the government for subsidies. In reply, the Roosevelt
administration started the Public Works of Art Project, which, though short-lived, created an
artistic community that facilitated the exchange of ideas on art.
The sponsoring role of The Public Works of Art Project was taken over by the Federal
Arts Project which fell under the government-funded Works Project Administration. Among
the younger artists employed by the WPA were Gorky, Pollock, De Kooning, Baziotes, Rothko
and Gottlieb. Although not much art of lasting value emerged from this project, most of the
commissions being of a public nature, the WPA served to throw artists together. Although, as
Cox pointed out, most of the Abstract Expressionists emphatically denied any
common categorisation of their art, these shared circumstances and early exchanges of ideas
were instrumental in generating a sense of common purpose and thus contributed towards
the formulation of an indigenous American art.
In the 1930s most of the future Abstract Expressionists expressed leftist sympathies
and quite a number of them joined communist organisations. These Marxist sympathies
eventually came into conflict with the young artists' burgeoning interest in modernism and
abstraction, which the Social Realists and Marxist school rejected as ivory tower escapism
and bourgeois decadence. The pressure from the Social Realists to "paint proletarian", and
a general loss of faith in the practical viability of communism arising from the Moscow trials
and related events, led to the Abstract Expressionists' eventual rejection of overt political
involvement. (But, as Cockroft , Kozloff  and Guilbaut  point out, this
did not exempt them from political manipulation by MOMA and the CIA.) With their leftist
ideals betrayed, and the American Dream collapsed, the Abstract Expressionists chose to
embrace the alleged "universality" of modernist ideas and turn to the realities of sensual
and psychological experience.
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* Drawn from notes compiled by L van Robbroeck for the University of South Africa