ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM IN AMERICA
'The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world--in other words--expressing the energy, the motion and other inner forces. The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating' (Jackson Pollock as quoted in F.V. O'Connor, Jackson Pollock, New York 1967, p. 80).
As the present group of works makes clear, the multifarious nature of Abstract Expressionism defies any attempts at an all-inclusive definition. Its protagonists worked in styles ranging from the pure monochrome aesthetic of Ad Reinhardt to the brash, gestural paintings of Willem de Kooning, but the one unifying element, according to Pollock, is the primary role of the unconscious. Indeed, the influx of émigré Surrealists during World War II was the decisive event that spurred the maturity of Abstract Expressionism. The Surrealist devices of automatism, free association and chance were utilized by the Abstract Expressionists in the service of depicting their emotions, disparate philosophies and abstracted epic narratives.
American artists had long created abstract works, including Max Weber's cubism, Arthur Dove's lyrical abstract landscapes and the Kandinsky/Mondrian-influenced American Abstract Artists group, but until the 1940's they were clearly taking cues from their European counterparts. Abstract Expressionism was the first American movement that contributed to avant-garde painting, creating works of unprecedented scale and ambition that broke free of the shallow cubist space, creating completely abstract works inspired by the unconscious.
This group of paintings and drawings provides an abbreviated survey of the movement, including works from its genesis in the early 1940's, breakthrough examples from 1945-1955 and powerful, later works by first generation painters. Close-knit and occasionally fractious, the Abstract Expressionists fed off each others' innovations-Ossorio's The Tantalized and Krasner's Composition are influenced by Pollock's overall compositions and dripping and pouring techniques, while the fleshy pallette and slashing painting methods of de Kooning are echoed in the work of Joan Mitchell. Each work contains the artist's highly personal visual signature and are painted with an authority that is exclusive to their generation.
The 1950's were the breakthrough years for Joan Mitchell, when she developed the signature style that made her one of the premier Abstract Expressionists. As a young artist, Mitchell, like so many other young American painters, looked to European modernism, particularly the automatism of Surrealism.
An uncompromising abstractionist, Mitchell's work in the 1950's was characterized by dense webs of color intuitively applied horizontally and vertically, dripping freely on a white background. Often, her work has a centrifugal force where the mass of brushstrokes are kept within the center of the canvas. The present work exemplifies this technique; alternating bands of saturated color and stark white magnify the forceful gestures, the broad swaths of paint that reveal the artist's hand. The contrast of stormy reds, blues, and yellows and orderly white creates a dynamic composition within the solids and voids, collapsing the picture plane to emphasize the subjectivity of the action of painting.
Mitchell often looked to her physical surroundings for inspiration and her paintings evoke a sense of landscape. Mitchell strove to translate her life's experience into her art. She said, "I am very much influenced by nature as you define it. However, I do not necessarily distinguish it from 'man-made' nature -a city is as strange as a tree...I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me -and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certianly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leave me with. All art is subjective, is it not? I like to look out a window or first walk in it -nature- and then I paint, which is making something -an 'object' and a rather 'objective' activity" (Joan Mitchell as quoted in J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 31).