Date of Award
One of the newest types of painting in the modern tradition is Abstract Expressionism. It began in New York around 1944. All the experience of Americans with modern art had been poured into the melting pot of the city. Present were not only eminent native artists, but also Europeans with established reputations--refugees from Fascist Spain Nazi Germany, and Occupied France. Their meetings with each other brought about interchanges on all levels of thought and practice. Out of this mixture came not an adaptation of a trend formalized abroad but a new style of painting created in America.
It is true that Kandinsky is given credit for having produced the first entirely abstract painting in the early years of this century, but the family tree of abstract expressionism can be traced back to Delacroix and beyond him to the traditions of which French romanticism was a continuation. When one remembers Delacroix's warning that "all precautions have to be taken to make execution swift and decisive (in order not to lose) the extraordinary impression accompanying the conception," one finds him stating a principle that is pushed to its limits by painters today who appear to splash color at random, following spontaneous impulse. Yet their "precautions" must be present behind the apparent impulsiveness just as in the case of Delacroix where they were present to a rigidly imposed degree. And when abstract expressionism seems formless and sloppy, one may remember that Delacroix was accused of painting with "a drunken broom."
In founding abstract expressionism painters broke with many traditional influences. Philosophically some of them were ranging far from the Greco-Semitic tradition of Western civilization. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, Mark Tobey had developed an interest in Oriental art and theology, particularly Zen Buddhism. His work shows the attempt to find unity and truth discoverable through intuition and contemplation. The work of other abstract expressionist painter has been interpreted as a statement of existentialism.
Incessant innovation has been characteristic of twentieth century art, and earlier schools of modern painting had lost their momentum by the forties. There were still numerous variations on Cubism, Surrealism, and the decorative work of Matisse. But many of the younger artists did not want to go on trying changes on these styles. Abstract expressionism placed no limits on the independent form and color signs that could be invented. It offered discovery of the self, discovery of the world, freedom of rules, conventions, and traditions--what a field of action for the artist.
Abstract expressionism, then represents a new approach. Yet it is very much related to the past. It derives directly from the revolution of man's visual experience, which had already been accomplished by earlier twentieth century schools.
Royston, Judee Thompson, "Abstract Expressionism: An American Phenomenon" (1972). Honors Theses. 446.