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Art Movements in Art History - Gestural Abstract Expressionism

Art Movements > Abstract Expressionism > Gestural Abstract Expressionism

Gestural Abstract Expressionism*

In 1948, the key formal concepts of Gestural Painting (of whom Pollock, De Kooning,
Kline and Gottblieb were the main protagonists) was formulated thus by Greenberg :

'The all-over, "decentralized", "polyphonic" picture relies on a surface knit together of
identical or closely similar elements which repeat themselves without marked variation
from one edge of the picture to the other. It is a kind of picture that dispenses,
apparently, with beginning, middle, end.'

and

'The "all-over" painter weaves his work of art into a tight mesh whose scheme of unity
is recapitulated at every meshing point. The fact that the variations upon equivalence
introduced by a painter like Pollock are sometimes so unobtrusive that at first glance
we might see in the result not equivalence, but an hallucinatory uniformity, only
enhances the result.'

According to Sandler, the all-over painting formally broke with European
Modernism in the following respect:

'In contrast to the synthetic Cubist image, whose distinct planes seem deliberately
pieced together, balanced and contained within the picture limits, the mass image,
composed of open and mobile painterly marks, appears to be impulsive and dynamic,
and to expand beyond the framing edges.'

Seeing Gestural Abstract Expressionism only, however, as the next, logical step in the
formal development of Modernism, can lead to a disregard of the vitally important content
of the art."' Almost all the Abstract Expressionists declared, at some stage or another, the
importance of content. Note, for instance, the following statement by De Kooning:

"Painting isn't just the visual thing that reaches your retina --- it's what is behind it and
in it."

Since Abstract Expressionism completely did away with representational imagery,
and because it became a deliberate statement of the artists not to title their works,
the issue of content is not an easy one. The Abstract Expressionists were generally
loath to leave any specific clues about the meaning of their paintings. Probably the most
significant clue, however, lies in the artists' own jocular suggestions regarding possible
names for their art at a conference held in April 1950 at the Manhattan Art School. The
names they came up with were "direct", "concrete" and "self-evident".

The basic theory behind Gestural Abstract Expressionism (taken to somewhat extreme
conclusions by Harold Rosenberg)' is that the artists' current emotional reality is directly
expressed on canvas via free, untrammelled, automatic gesture. According to Motherwell,
content for him was the expression of "reality as felt". The painting
would therefore serve as a metaphor, or sign, of the artists' temperament.

The expressionist philosopy of artmaking was initially expounded by Hofmann, who
conceived of the artwork as a process of interaction with the medium and not as a means to a
predetermined end. For Pollock, and the other gesture painters, the notion of process
became as important as the formal resolution of the final art piece. It was in the process of
interaction with the canvas and the medium that the intensity of the creative act could be
revealed. The gesture painters chose not to preconceive meanings or subjects for their art:
the process itself of painting was regarded as an intense, unpremeditated expression of their
creative experience.

The "in-the-moment" nature of gestural painting did not mean, however, that the artist
completely surrendered himself to an undisciplined, arbitrary slinging of paint. Pollock, in
an interview with William Wright, stated the deliberation of his drip technique as follows:

' With experience it seems to be possible to control the flow of the paint to a great extent
[and] ... I don't use the accident - "cause I deny the accident". '

William Rubin warns against the perception of the gestural painter as a cowboy
orgiastically flinging paint and surrendering decision to mindless kinetic activity. According
to him, Pollock painted with great spontaneity during the actual, physical execution of the
picture, in order to

"... circumvent the operation of ... pictorial inhibitions which derive from habit,
expectation and immersion in tradition, and to reach ... into areas of unconscious
experience. "

Yet Pollock did subsequently apply conscious control to endow the picture with order
and coherence. Rubin points out that Pollock was also at work during the
hours that he stared at the unfinished canvas, and that this meditative phase of his painting
was as important as when he painted "seismographically in response to immediate
inspiration".

Thus Gestural Expressionism combined aesthetic deliberation (required for the formal
resolution of pictorial elements) with the spontaneity and "automatic psychic content" of
free gesture.

 

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* Drawn from notes compiled by L van Robbroeck for the University of South Africa

 




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